Friday, January 13, 2017

Day 1: The Day One Slackpack

Amanda and I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, so we could get on the road by 6:00 with the expectation of reaching the Happy Isles trailhead by 7:00 where I would begin my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.

This display at the parking lot suggests why you shouldn't leave food, trash and ice chests in your car while hiking. Put them in bear boxes by the trailhead!

I didn't actually get started with the hiking until closer to 8:00, though, delayed by a stop to get gas for the car, finding a parking spot in the already crowded lot, and a quick trip to the bathrooms to, er, lighten my load, as it were.

You might have a couple of questions about my first day on the trail. For instance.... didn't I say that my permit was only good from Tuolumne Meadows? Why am I starting at the Happy Isles trailhead? And what happened to Karolina?! Wasn't she supposed to be doing this trail as well? Well, yes.... and yes....

The distance from the Happy Isles trailhead to Tuolumne Meadows was 21.3 miles. It climbs from about 4,000 feet above sea level to a peak about 10,000 feet above sea level before dropping back down to 8,600 feet above sea level. But here's the thing: I can do it. I was certain I could do it. It would be a long haul, but I could hike the distance in a single day. Especially with a small day pack rather than my usual heavy pack. A week earlier I had pulled off 30-miles of hiking in a single day on the Great Allegheny Passage at an admittedly much lower altitude, but I was in good shape.

And although I didn't have any permits to camp along this stretch of the trail, no permits are needed to day-hike this section of trail. Almost nobody ever does it because it's such a lengthy section, but I could and was going to give it a go.

Karolina, however, would probably struggle to do such a distance in a single day, and this hike would involve altitudes higher than she'd ever been in her entire life. I asked her in an email what was the highest elevation she'd ever hiked at, and it was on the Tour Mont Blanc a couple of years earlier which I knew topped out somewhere just above 8,000 feet above sea level. This, keep in mind, for a girl living in the Netherlands at a location below sea level.

This bridge basically marks the beginning of the John Muir Trail at the Happy Isles trailhead.

It wasn't realistic or safe to throw her out for a 20+ mile hike at elevations she'd never experienced and with no time to acclimatize to the altitude. No, I'd be doing this stretch of trail on my own before she arrived.

Amanda would pick me up at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows later in the evening. Neither of our cell phones worked much outside of Yosemite Valley, so we both worked on the assumption that we wouldn't be able to rely on them to keep in touch. We'd have to wing it like in the old days before I had a cell phone.

Amanda joined me for the first part of the trail since it led to Vernal Falls which is well worth a visit in its own right. It's undoubtedly one of the most popular day-hikes in the park, and for good reason! The John Muir Trail veered off, however, and we soon parted ways. Amanda could spend the whole day exploring Yosemite Valley. She hadn't decided yet what all she would do, but she could do it at her own pace.

I knew the JMT veered off at the junction with the Mist Trail, but was immensely disappointed when I realized that Vernal Falls wouldn't be visible at all from the official JMT. How could it miss such a spectacular view?! I've been here a couple of times before, and I knew exactly what I was missing. Presumably, the official JMT veered off because horses can't navigate the Mist Trail and the JMT is largely a horse trail. That's the only reason I can think of for skipping Vernal Falls completely.

It didn't sit well with me, and I already started thinking about "tweaking" the route for Walking 4 Fun. I could have it go up the Mist Trail in front of Vernal Falls, then take a side path to Clark Point where I'd rejoin the JMT and continue along the trail towards Nevada Falls. That makes a much more scenic and interesting hike.

The wildlife is watching. The wildlife is always watching....

But I still had over 20 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. I didn't really have time to backtrack to do the Mist Trail right now. That's okay, though. When Karolina arrived, she wanted to see Yosemite Valley, and we could do a day hike to Vernal Falls and I could get the photos I needed along that section then. Perfect!

Despite the early start, I saw plenty of people on the trail already heading in both directions. I met a small group of people who were just finishing their JMT thru-hike having started at Mount Whitney and would finish today. I didn't bother to mention that I was just starting my own JMT thru-hike. With my small day pack, they probably wouldn't have taken me seriously. I congratulated them on their success, though, and we continued on our separate ways.

The trail climbed above Nevada Falls, which could be seen from quite a distance. Even from a distance, it looked spectacular with its 594-foot (181 m) drop, making it the 576th tallest waterfall in the world.

Nevada Falls is where most day hikers without any permits generally stop to turn around, but it wasn't quite the end of day hikers. No, because some day hikers climb up the world-famous Half Dome, and this is the same route to Half Dome. I've been up Half Dome twice in years past, and it would have made a nice side-trip for Walking 4 Fun, but I already had over 20 miles of hiking to knock out today. Not to mention that the first two times I hiked up Half Dome, permits weren't required. Now they are, and I didn't have one. Based on my previous experiences on Half Dome, I'm glad there is a permit system in place. That trail was severely overcrowded the times I did it before! Even if it meant I could no longer climb it myself....

The JMT comes within 2 miles of Half Dome's summit--close enough that I could see a line of people marching up the infamous cables like a line of ants.

Nearing the junction to Half Dome, a park ranger was sitting alongside the trail and said to me, "So you must be going up Half Dome!"

I knew why she would have guessed that. I was clearly a day hiker with my small pack, and what other reason would a day hiker be going beyond Nevada Falls except to summit Half Dome? And surely they would have rangers on this busy trail to check permits and help hikers that bit off more than they could chew.

"Actually, no," I told her. "I'm hiking to Tuolumne Meadows."

"Ooohh... that's a long way!"

"Yeah, I know!"

We chatted for a few minutes. She asked about the route I was taking, and I told her I was planning to stick to the JMT. I didn't mention that I was actually planning to thru-hike the JMT. If she assumed that Tuolumne Meadows was my final destination, I didn't see any reason to correct her. The JMT, she told me, had suffered from fire damage recently and I might consider an alternate path by Clouds Rest. I'd heard a lot of good things about Clouds Rest--a place I'd never visited before--but I didn't mind burn areas so much. They can be dark and ugly, but there's a lot of beauty that can be found in them. It opens up views, and wildflowers grow like weeds. Fire is an important and necessary element in these forests, not an accident that should be avoided. Of course, after years of suppression, many wildfires now burn much hotter and cause much more damage than wildfires of the past. The drought conditions California is suffering from didn't help matters.

So I continued on my original path towards the fire-burned areas.

The hump on the left is the backside of Half Dome. The middle hump is Mt. Broderick while the right hump is Liberty Cap.

As I expected, the views were wide open and wildflowers abounded in the area. I might be missing a great view at Clouds Rest, but I'd be missing the great views here if I had taken the alternate path. Someday, I'd have to return and hike up to Clouds Rest. Not today, though. Not this trip, in fact.

Once I passed the junction for Half Dome, I was in backpacker country. I'd see no more day hikers again until Cathedral Lakes, shortly before the Cathedral Lakes trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows. A few of the backpackers I met walking in the opposite direction were so certain that they were in "backpacker only country," they assumed I must have been a backpacker and were astonished at my tiny little day pack. "How did you get a tent and a sleeping bag in that?!" they'd exclaim.

"Well.... I didn't." They'd look at me with confusion, trying to figure out what I was using to sleep in during the night, still not realizing that I was merely day-hiking this section.

Once I passed into the 'backpacker zone,' the crowds had swiftly evaporated. The trail wasn't empty of people by any stretch, and I'd usually see someone every 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day.

There's not much to report about most of the day's hike, though. I passed through beautiful meadows and jaw-dropping views. The air was thin and dry, and the dryness was causing chapped lips and a constant state of thirstiness no amount of water seemed to help.

Liberty Cap with Nevada Falls

In the last hour of hiking, day hikers picked up again having hiked in from Tuolumne Meadows. When I pulled out my camera to film a spring bubbling out of the ground, I accidentally dropped my camera in the shallow water.

I grabbed the camera and pulled it out, cursing. The camera was still brand freaking new! Amanda had bought it for me while I was on the Great Allegheny Passage a week or two before. It had less than a hundred miles under its belt, and I just dropped it in a pool of water. Argh!

The water was so shallow, the camera had only submerged about half way--less than an inch. And even then, it was only in the water for a half second before I was able to grab it and fish it out. That half-inch, half-second dunk was all that was required to damage the camera, though.

The camera lens was fogged up, and I was scared to turn on the camera in fear of shorting out some circuits or something. I popped out the batteries and the SD card and reinstalled them on my backup camera. Good thing I always carried a backup camera--even on a day hike!

I continued down the trail, and about 15 minutes later saw a guy on the trail ahead of me who quickly motioned for me to stop and hush. "There's a bear!" he whispered urgently, pointing into the woods on my left. Really? Cool!

I looked in the trees to the left, and heard a heavy scratching sound but didn't see anything. I stepped ahead, slowly, and there it was. A bear! Sweet! It was pawing at a log, then lifted the entire log up like it was a play toy and threw it to the side. Crash! Sweet!

Nevada Falls

I tried taking a few photos with my camera, but the camera was severely inadequate for the task. It was already near dusk and the lighting was low. The bear was maybe 30 or 40 steps away--not far by any stretch, but it still looked like a small dot in my camera. I zoomed in as far as my camera could go which helped increase the size of the bear, but it also made the bear appear blurrier. There was no way I'd get a good photo of the bear without getting closer to it.

And there was no way in hell I planned to get off the trail and approach closer to the bear.

The other guy on the trail whispered if I could see the bear, and I nodded yes. He wasn't able to see it from his location, and quietly walked over to my viewpoint and snapped a few photos with this DSLR camera. Every time he clicked the shutter button, it sounded like a gun going off. It seemed so loud, but the bear paid it no mind. I didn't see how his photos turned out, but I had a hunch they'd be better than mine.

He whispered to me that there was a cub nearby too, although neither of us were able to see any cubs at the moment. I really wanted to see the cub! He'd seen the cub a few minutes before I arrived when they were closer to the trail. We kept watching the bear, who I had to imagine knew we were there. We weren't exactly loud, but we weren't exactly far away either and we figured the bear had to have heard our whisperings. He seemed content just to ignore us, though, which was an agreeable situation for both the bear and myself. He leaves me alone, and I'll leave him alone. =)

The bear must have decided that there was no other interesting grub under the log and soon headed deeper into the woods and out of view, and the other hiker and I headed off in opposite directions on our way.

I arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead about right on time. Being such a long distance, I didn't give Amanda an exact time of arrival, but rather a one-hour window when I thought I'd arrive and I arrived within that window. I arrived absolutely exhausted. No pain to speak of, but just immensely tired. I was so ready to be done for the day!

Amanda showed up about 10 minutes later and whisked me back to the campsite. My first day on the trail was officially done. Amanda told me about her adventures in Yosemite Valley and I had to laugh when she said how much she hated it. The crowds, and the traffic, and... "Now I know why you never wanted to take me here!" she said before, breathless. "But I'm still glad I finally got to see it. We never have to come back again, though. Been there, done that!"

Well, except that we would be going back in a couple of days because Karolina wanted that experience too. Women. *rolling eyes* Anyhow, I still wanted to go back to the Happy Isles trailhead myself to hike to Vernal Falls and tweak the route for Walking 4 Fun. We wouldn't be done with Yosemite Valley just yet.... We would return!

This would be the closest I'd get to Half Dome.
You can even see the line of "ants" marching up the infamous cables to the top of Half Dome.
Entering the fire-burned area
The charred trees might look ugly, but it opens up the ground to lots of wildflowers!
And it opens up views that would otherwise be completely obscured by trees!

Cathedral Peak is gorgeous!

This was the spring I was trying to film when I accidentally dropped my camera in the water.

It's a bear! It's a bear! This is the best my camera could do. *sigh*
I digitally zoomed into the photo so the bear is bigger, but it's also a lot blurrier!
The Cathedral Lakes trailhead marked the end of today's hike. And boy am I tired!


Lou Catozzi (PI Joe) said...

"and I already started thinking about "tweaking" the route for Walking 4 Fun."

It is, after all "walking" for fun, not horse back riding for fun!

Anonymous said...

Never say never go back! The secret to visiting Yosemite is the season. Go in Fall or Winter when the place is nearly deserted! We've had many wonderful trips then without the crowds! And SOOO beautiful!

- Yosemite MJD