Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tualumne Meadows

Getting There
Hitch hiking up to Tualumne Meadows was pretty fun. I started out at 9:00 this time with no complications. I met a guy at my apartment complex who was going to the Valley so I hitched a ride with him. I got off at the 120/140 junction and waited at the beginning of 120 for someone to pick me up. Pretty much anyone heading up 120 would be going somewhere around Tualumne.

After about 5 minutes of waiting, an extremely nice couple from Denmark picked me up. Their names were Nana and Ulrik. It was really nice talking to them and getting to know the culture of their country. Ulrik was a biology major and Nana was an actress. We got so caught up in talking that we missed our turn by 9 miles! I got their email so that if I ever travel to Denmark I can meet up with them, which I'd love to do after all they told me. They fed me very well and gave me plenty of hydration while we were in the car. Even though I'd already eaten a breakfast of 2 pieces of toast, 2 eggs, 4 pieces of bacon, a bowl of cereal, and 1 banana; I ate everything I could because I knew I would be hungry later. They dropped me off at May Lake where their destination was. This was about 30 minutes outside of Tualumne Meadows where I wanted to go. In talking with them I had informed them about my lost wallet (which is a story that will be in another blog post shortly). When we said our goodbyes they tried giving me $40 for food. I was amazed at such a courteous gesture. It was very tempting, given I had been saving my only money of 1 dollar and 7 cents for 3 days. However, mom and dad raised me better than to take such money. I sincerely thanked them for the ride and headed on my way.

A 26 year old named Matt picked me up 20 minutes later. He was a history teacher for a school in Tahoe. I was in the car with him when I got my first glimpse of Tualumne Meadows. I knew right away it was Tualumne because of how beautiful it was. Matt dropped me off at the Wilderness Center and we wished one another the best in life. While I was getting my wilderness permit I saw a Western Tanager, a rare and tropical looking bird in the Sierra's. I suppose such a spotting could only bring me good luck before my trip, ey?

The Trail
The first day brought me 7 miles and 1,500 feet high into Tualumne. The path ran along the Rafferty Creek for 3 miles and intersected the most amazing meadows I have ever seen. Due to my late start I only saw a few people in the 3-4 hours that I hiked. I liked this. It connected me with the same thoughts and understandings any hiker appreciates on their seemingly timeless journeys. People don't walk these miles for nothin.

I snapped out of this quickly when my, “beautiful woman sensor,” set off. She passed on the trail that winded through the meadow I was playing in. I found myself putting my pack back on, only because I hadn't talked to anyone in a few hours. The 200 yard gap was closed within minutes and I met Carry. She was an attractive girl in her mid-twenties from Ohio. She worked at the Vogelsang High Sierra camp with 10 other DNC employees. We hiked the remaining 2 miles together until we arrived. By now she had a black mosquito net over her head that made her look funny. It wasn't long before I realized why.

I have never seen mosquito's like the ones there at Vogelsang. If you had any desire to survive it was beyond necessary to cover yourself (including clothes) with bug spray. Even with such precautions, the lil bitchez still swarmed and terrorized innocent humans. My arms had so much bug spray on them that they died immediately after touching my skin. I'm sure it wasn't good for me but it was better than being their dinner for the night.

I set up camp next to a father and his son named Jason. Jason was just entering his first year of college and seemed to be just as excited as I was back then. Even though I had already eaten dinner and part of my next day's food, I was still hungry. I regretted bringing the 3 beers instead of food. Luckily Jason and his father cooked enough for 3 and were happy to trade. The beverages and food were split amongst our friendly utopia and we shared our stories with the sun set. I hung out with Carry and her friends afterwards and experienced the DNC high country life. I fell asleep before 8:00.

It was an amazing slumber. Without the fly on the tent, my intermittent wakings were accompanied by the most incredible view of the stars I've ever seen. It made me wonder how anyone could make out any constellations with such a view of cosmos. Within the few minutes I was awake all night, I saw two shooting stars.

Hiking Back
I woke before the sun at 5am. I felt completely at peace with my surroundings and ready for the day ahead. By 6:00 I was on the trails and experiencing a sun set that remains vivid in my head. Watching the world come alive, minute by minute, is a perfect way to start any day.

The trail I planned on taking did not exist once I got to the trail intersection. I didn't want to hike the same trail again, so I did my first back country topo-mapping. I never thought reading topographic maps in High School Earth Science would be useful. At this point in my life, it became very useful. Relying on the sun, it looked like the trail I wanted to reach was right over the mountain I currently faced. Three quarters of a mile later I found I was correct. My first topo-mapping experience went well. I took out my notebook and on the list of things I needed I wrote, “Compass.”

The path took me a few hundred yards before I reached the most memorable point of the trip. A scene so beautiful it made me truly laugh, wondering if what I was experiencing really existed. I yelled as loud as I could and stood there in the middle of the Sierra Mountains.

A few miles later I rounded a corner and a hiker was crouched down with his pack on. We greeted each other with a scream of fright, for we both didn't expect to see another human. He was building a snowman in the permafrost as a sacrifice to the gods (he had just gotten a cold before his week long backpacking trip he had planned for months). After we finished the sacrifice we headed our opposite ways. I didn't see another human soul for 6 miles.

The John Muir Trail is a very popular trail here. It stretches 211 miles through Yosemite, providing a taste of everything I imagine. The last 7 miles of my trip were all spent on this trail. The section I hiked on was in the Lyell Canyon and always close to the Lyell Creek (although it looked more like a river).

My overall path looked like a D. I went approximately 7 miles down into Vogelsang the first day. The second day I made the half circle around and hit the John Muir trail, covering 13 miles (20-21 miles in total). When I reached the wilderness center again I wandered around our society like I always do when I come back from a hike: astonished at how strange our species and culture is. I started to pity the people around me who never experience even one night like mine in the wilderness. It's so intriguing, I already wanted to wander back into my natural origins.

I hitch hiked back to El Portal. I waited 30 minutes with my thumb out. The time was all worth it once my ride finally picked me up. It turned out they lived right next door to me. They squished me into their station wagon that already had 4 people in it. Good for both me and them, I sat in the front seat. I think I smelt bad.

See the pictures (in order from start to finish) here

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Half Dome

The Mist Trail
I started off on the Mist Trail. With an incline of 1,200 feet in 2.5 miles, there is undoubtedly no part of the trail which declines. The entire trail goes alongside the Merced river, passing 2 separate waterfalls. I took the pictures I could with my phone's camera; however, none of them compare to the beauty the landscape truly possesses.

Keep in mind, as I was lugging my 25 (maybe 30?) pound bag up this incline, I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing that night. I hiked, I climbed up big rocks, I got wet, and I stood for moments taking in the beauty of Yosemite. The Valley is something spectacular, don't get me wrong, but the trails outside are something else to see. One of the Top 5 climbing areas in the world, containing the 5th largest waterfall in the world, and a vast variety of wildlife and vegetation. It is no wonder 3.5 million people come here to Yosemite every year.

On the top of the first waterfall, Vernal Fall, I talked with a couple from Germany. They informed me of a backpackers camp about 4 miles up from my position, called Little Yosemite. I really wanted, for the first time in my entire life, to sleep outside with my comforts carried solely on my back. I had spent time packing, cooking, and routing my hike (maybe not so much routing). I wanted to freakin backpack.

Yosemite National Park requires all backpackers to have a backpacking permit and carry a bear box for food (hanging food in trees is forbidden, they're too smart here). I didn't have either. I've heard stories of Ranger's telling people without permit's and bearbox's to leave no matter what time they arrived (10am, 5 pm, 10pm they don't give a shit). My chances of getting into Little Yosemite were slim to none. I went anyway.

It took me two hours to get to the top of the second waterfall, Nevada Falls. At this point the sun was setting and it was a beautiful place to set my bag down and rest. I pulled out my aluminum foil dinner and the cooking stove. I heated it up. I realized I had forgotten my eating utensils. And I said ****. First trip mistake, take note. The next mistake was a big one, potentially one of survival. I used my awesome Gerber knife to eat my meal. Half way through I realize I had been slicing through the foil the entire time. I lifted my dinner up and go figure: sausage, carrot, green pepper, and onion juice was all over my pants. This was a pretty big mistake because Yosemite has around 300 bears within the park, all of which LOVE food. I had one pair of clothes so I poured water on my pants to wash the juice off (as if this would do anything to disguise the smell from a BEAR).

From the top of Navada Fall to Little Yosemite the ground was completely level, a very nice change of pace. I met a man on the trail who noted there was a bear just around the bend. Just my luck, seriously. I have never seen a bear outside of a cadge before. This time of my life simply just wasn't the point I wanted to change that. I hiked on with my trail mix in my hand. I was thinking I would throw it at the bear if I saw it. Iiiii really don't know where I got that idea from. Luckily I never saw this bear, although I was terrified and keen-eyed every step of the way.

Around 6:30 I found Little Yosemite. Conveniently the Ranger Station was 100 yards from the campsite. I was informed by one of the guests that they had not come around to check permits yet. I decided to try meeting one of the rangers and sweet talking him into letting me stay. If that didn't work I suppose I'd either pitch a tent somewhere far back from the trail or walk to the valley and sleep in a meadow.

Good luck followed me. Robbert was an extremely nice ranger. I told him up front I didn't have a bearbox nor a backpackers permit. He told me to just find an empty spot in the campsite and camp there for the night. Robbert also told me that Half Dome was only 3 miles from Little Yosemite. Because there was a full moon, there would probably be a good amount of people up there during the night.

I put my things down in the campsite, pitched my tent, and ate some trail mix. I used my neighbors water filter to filter some stream water close by. It tasted better than store bought bottled water. I repacked my bag with the few things I would need for the top of Half Dome and headed off around 8:00, just as it was getting dark. The forest around me started to look like a new planet.

My First Encounter

When you're in the wild, it seems like your body turns on a sixth sense. I was about a mile outside of camp, walking by myself, when it first occurred to me that I was unaware of everything around me. A bear could have been following me for all I knew. I have never been so thankful of this sixth sense as I was when I checked my back for the first time that day. It so happened that at that moment a brown bear crept over a rock and made eye contact with me. Now, you have to understand, I've never seen a bear outside of a cadge before. When this full grown bear, maybe 430 pounds, crept over that rock and looked at me, I wasn't sure if I had shit or pissed myself.

I want to quote the book I am reading by Bill Bryson called A Walk in the Woods:

'The typical [brown] bear-inflicted injury,' he writes blandly, 'is minor and usually involves only a few scratches or light bites.' Pardon me, but what exactly is a light bite? Are we talking a playful wrestly and gummy nips? I think not. And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number considering how few people go into the American Woods? And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear as killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years? That's not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know. There's nothing to say they won't start a modest rampage tomorrow...

To ward off an aggressive black bear, Herrero [author of Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance] suggests making a lot of noise, banging pots and pans together, throwing sticks and rocks, and 'running at the bear.' (Yeah, right. You first, Professor.) On the other hand, he then adds judiciously, these tactics could 'merely provoke the bear.' Well, thanks. Elsewhere he suggests that hikers should consider making noises from time to time to alert bears of their presence, since a startled bear is more likely to be an angry bear, but then a few pages later he cautions that 'there may be danger in making noise,' since that can attract a hungry bear that might otherwise overlook you.

The fact is, no one can tell you what to do. Bears are unpredictable, and what works in one circumstance may not work in another.”

The next thing I know I am running the fastest I've ever ran before through a very, very, dim forest. In the processes I came about three feet away from tackling a deer on the trail (I didn't see it until it franticly leaped out of the way). I did not check my back one time. After a quarter mile of running I came across a couple who was hiking down from Half Dome. I'm sure the expression on my face at that point was a humorous sight to see. I was fucking terrified. They seemed fairly surprised to see a primate with a backpack and bandanna running for it's life I suppose. I was so happy to see another of my own species. I talked with them for a few minutes while I calmed down. They said there were 3 or 4 people on Half Dome still. I composed myself, thanked them for their presence, and continued on my hike.

Thank You Gavin and BK

At this time it was dark enough that you had to use your headlamp on the trail. The next two people I met were Gavin and BK. They told me that when they came down from Half Dome there was no one else up there. They thought I was nuts to try climbing the 350 foot high rock in the dark. It had never really occurred to me it was such a crazy idea. “Its a 70 degree angle of sheer granite. I slipped on the way down, there's sand here and there that you can't even see. I'd take ourselves for dead if it were any darker on our way down. You're out of your fucking mind.” I stood there and considered their advice. Then I stood there and imagined standing on the top of Half Dome at midnight underneath a full moon. The picture in my head was too intriguing. I thanked them for their advice and continued on my way, about 1.5 miles to the summit.

When someone tells you something like that and you're walking by yourself the voice will replay over and over again in your head. For 10 minutes I walked uphill staring at this massive rock ahead of me. From the valley, 4,000 feet below, it doesn't look so big. It grows exponentially as you get closer. I stopped for a water break where there was a perfect view of Half Dome in the near distance. It was there that I came to my senses. I had just been stalked by a bear, I had my sausage dinner on my pants, and I was alone for my first time in Yosemite National Park. I didn't want to walk alone anymore.

The next thing I know I'm running just like I was 30 minutes earlier, except now I was running downhill and nothing was chasing me besides fear. It's not a good idea to be sprinting on rocky trails, and especially not rocky trails in the pitch dark. Trees and rocks absorbed millisecond spurts of photons from my headlamp, and the once beautiful scenery now flew by me faster than I could comprehend. It was like that Light Speed thing in Star Wars. I was surprised how much distance BK Gavin and I had separated in just 10 minutes. When I ran by the scene where the bear was earlier, I wasn't sure if I shit or pissed myself again.

Finally I met again with BK and Gavin, thanking them for their advice. At that moment I was convinced that if I had continued on my way to Half Dome I would (a) fall off the side of it (b) be eaten by a bear, or (c) die from fear. BK and Gavin commented a similar viewpoint. I set my alarm for 4:20 in the morning so I could see the sun rise on the top of Half Dome, that seemed like a cool trade off.

Half Dome

I woke up at 4:20. It felt like it was negative 50 degrees outside. My sleeping bag felt warm, and it cuddled me back to sleep. At 9:30 I woke up again after 12 hours of sleep. I ate some trail mix, packed my tent, and headed off once again on the 3 mile hike to Half Dome.

I kept a pace of about a mile every 22 minutes. I passed everyone I saw on the trail but one hiker. I wanted to catch up with him, it felt like a race for some reason. My 30 pound bag had other plans and I didn't see him until later that day on the summit.

When I got to the part of Half Dome where it starts ascending at a 70 degree incline I started picturing what things would have been like if I had climbed it the night before. It wasn't as scary as Gavin and BK made it seem. People stood at Half Dome's base in fear, probably as scared as I was when I saw that bear. They weren't even moving, they just stood on this rock between two cables and contemplated God knows what. I was too impatient, so I put my gloves on and went along the right side of the cable holding it with one hand and climbing. It was exhausting.

The feeling of standing on top was incredible. You could see so many different mountain peaks, many of which still had snow on top.

I met a man named Ben on the top of Half Dome. He was an electrical engineer from Virginia. We hiked down together and talked about various things. Ben had done a few marathons before. As he talked about them it made me realize that I have always wanted to do one. He told me about a half marathon (13.1 miles) that they have in Virginia Beach on Labor Day weekend. Since I would only have 2 months, and because I have never done a full marathon before, the Virginia Beach Rock and Roll Half Marathon would be a perfect introduction. When we got to the fork of the Mist Trail and the John Muir trail we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. Ben went down the Mist Trail, and I followed the John Muir Trail.

The John Muir Trail is 1.2 miles longer than the Mist Trail, however it is a much more gradual decent. They fork back into each other and continue as one merged trail for about a mile until the end. It just so happened that Ben and I met exactly (and I mean exactly) at the fork where the John Muir and Mist Trail merge again. We just stood there laughing for a bit and continued walking and talking for the remainder of the hike. Once we reached the end he bought me an ice cream at the trail kiosk. I sat in marvel at how detached one can become from just one day in the wilderness. Everything was perfect.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Preparation for the 1st Backpacking Trip

Welcome to my blog.
Before you read on, let me mention a few things about my blog:
(a) I am not like my mom and dad (I won't perfect my blog post for 2 weeks b4 I post it), I am writing this straight from my head and I will post it immediately after.
(b) I will not proof read any of this; you will find msispeilngs, grammar errors! and sl4ng.
(c) Read on at your own risk ;)

Pack'er Up!
I have done lots of camping and hiking before but I have never actually backpacked. For my first trip ever I packed my bag like I knew exactly what I was doing. The only thing I knew for sure was that I'd have a delicious dinner once I got to wherever I was going. Inside aluminum foil I put in 1 1/2 chopped up sausages, union, green pepper, carrots, some all purpose seasoning, and a little bit of butter.

I packed trail mix, water, my sleeping bag, a mini-stove, and some other small things.

Time To Head-Out!
At 4:20 in the morning I woke up. My plan was to take my online test, hike down to the NPS headquarters (right down the street), and at 6am and bum a ride into the Valley.

Go figure, my plans totally fall apart at 5:30 when I realize my computer has a virus called Vundo. It totally prevents me from completing my online test. For 6 hours I wrestle with my computer. By the time I'm about to punch a hole through my screen, I get things going well enough to at least complete the test in Safe Mode. I leave the virus to deal with when I get home.

At 12:15pm I have my bag packed and I head out the door with my reliable hiking stick (which I found behind the house) and, what I guessed to be about, a 25-30 pound bag. Thumbin' it.

For an hour I walk through the mid-day heat with my thumb up. I've never hitch hiked before. I stood for one hour, one mile and a half from my place, and watch 200 cars pass. I start to wonder if I simply SUCK at hitch-hiking. I conclude that maybe I should read a tutorial online, "How to hitch-hike," I'm sure there's one out there. I decided that's what I'll do, save my hiking trip for the next weekend, and just relax another night at my apartment.

After 1 hour and 15 minutes of standing out sweating my face off, I walk back with my thumb up. I'm sure it was a pitiful sight, given I was now walking the opposite way with my thumb up.

Before I had walked 10 feet, a man named Keith turned the corner in a blue pickup truck. I knew right away he was going to pick me up, he looked like a local. I've heard local's will always help you ou. Keith used to work at the park, 14 years with the DNC (Delaware North Company). He had since moved to the Bay area to work construction. He was out this way visiting some of his old buds from work. We talked the whole way down. I quickely saw that hitch-hiking is an amazing thing. For 30 minutes you attempt to explain your life story to someone that you will most likely never see again. Hence, you get to listen and tell the best of the best. It's fun.

At this point I had no idea where I wanted to hike. With my late start I was even more lost as to where I should go. I had heard the high-country was great (Tuwalame, White Wolf, Hetch Hetchy, etc.). I was planning on taking a bus up there, 10,000 feet above sealevel. Keith informed me that I had already missed the only bus that goes up there, it leaves around 7 in the morning. Knowing it would be impossible to find a camping spot in the valley,we sought out two options: (a) sleeping in the medow and hopefully not getting caught, or (b) hiking and getting a ride back to the apartment that night. He suggested the Mist Trail would be a good hike to do, given my late start and current situation. Knowing he was an experienced Yosemitier, I took his advice.

I had a backpack with enough to get me by for one night.
Honestly, at this point, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. It'd be safe to say, I never knew. But this is kinda how I am. I just go.