Monthly Archives: July 2014

Boots on the Ground

Backcountry Corpsmembers take great pride in our boots.

(This piece is based upon 1987 Backcountry boots. I hear they’ve changed.)

For one thing, our boots set us apart from everybody else in the CCC. Just like jump boots identified elite paratroopers on World War 2, Red Wing Irish Setters identified Backcountry Corpsmembers to everybody else in the CCC.

Regular issue CCC boots are made by Prison Industries (PI). Yes. Inmates in the California penitentiary system make the boots worn by the CCC. They are black steel-toe safety boots with a high ‘logger heel’. The high heel is supposed to give the wearer’s foot a better grip on wet, uneven surfaces like logs. The heel and sole are supposed to collapse in upon each other a little, acting like a big clamp. It actually works that way on logs.

The quality of PI boots is uneven. Most of the time they are pretty good. Sometimes there can be tacks sticking up through the boot’s sole. It is always a good idea to feel around inside the boots with your hand before you put a pair on for the first time.

Trail work requires a different type of boot. Steel toes do not work in hiking boots. The steel toe caps intended to protect the toes actually become a hazard to the toe when hiking long distances. An inflexible toe on the boot leads to more injuries than are prevented from falling rocks. The logger heel creates poor posture for hiking.

Red Wing Irish Setters became the official CCC Backcountry trails boot. They are all leather construction with high tops, a low heel, and a Vibram sole. It’s a big day in the life of a Backcountry Corpie when the Red Wing representative, George the Boot Fairy, comes by your center to fit you for your boots. Your brand spanking new Red Wings are delivered to your center shortly afterward. The Red Wings are expected to be broken in by the time a Corpie reports to Backcountry, so the Red Wings become a matter of pride as a new Backcountry Corpie struts around in his/her brand new Red Wings. And they are the color of an Irish setter! The make the new Backcountry Corpies stand out in a crowd.

There is an initial bonding moment among trail crews at Orientation as all of the new Backcountry Corpies meet for the first time. Everybody shows up at Delta Center in ones and twos from the bus station or dropped off by family or friends. We all sport our brand new Red Wings. The second moment of bonding is when everybody gets chewed out by Delta staff for wearing our boots inside their center. The audacity we had, to wear our CCC-issued boots inside a CCC facility! It turned out to be Delta Center policy that work boots were forbidden inside because their floors were maintained with a high polish. Boots scuffed the polished finish. This little note had not been included in any of our ‘report to Delta Center’ instructions. In hindsight, getting chewed out by Delta staff over our boots was just one more thing that set us apart from the ‘regular’ Corpsmembers at Delta. Maybe that was Peter’s plan all along!

The beautiful new Irish setter-colored boots would be unrecognizable by the end of the season. We had seen the pictures in the Backcountry recruiting slide show. The leather would be dried out if you did not keep your boots oiled throughout the season, or a buffed to a deep, rich brown if you had oiled them. Seams had probably started to come apart, and glued back together with the Backcountry Corpies best friend…Shoo Goo! The Vibram tread would be pretty thin by the time you hiked out of the Backcountry, too. Most boots could survive to the end of the season, but probably not much longer. I think I got an extra six months out of my first pair. And I did get an honest extra six months out of them…I never went back to PI boots! When I had to replace my original pair of Backcountry Red Wings, I bought another pair of Irish Setters. (Well…I traded a pair of PI boots for a pair of Red Wings…but that’s another story!)

The pride in our Backcountry boots is what led to Wayne’s injury. He wanted to ‘save’ his Red Wings, so he wore his PI boots whenever he thought he could. Wayne found out how necessary that low heel is. He was wearing his PI boots when he pulled up lame on that weekend hike. A few days after Wayne was evacuated, after he had been to a doctor and prescribed treatment, we received word on his condition. He has developed stress fractures in his foot. The most likely cause of the stress fractures was hiking in the logger heels. The elevated heel shifts more of the body weight forward onto the metatarsals. The metatarsals are not designed to take that much pressure. After so much time and pressure, they start to crack. This causes pain. The only treatment is to stay off the stressed metatarsals for six to eight weeks.

The life lesson for today is simple: never hike in high heels!

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Our Vogelsang Camp

Yo2 had a really beautiful camp at Vogelsang in ’87.

We were about ¼ mile south of the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. We were right below Vogelsang Peak, as majestic a peak as I have ever seen. We were close to Fletcher Creek. However, the septic problem we were there to fix involved effluent from the HSC getting into Fletcher Creek, so we could not use that for a water supply. In fact, the stuff we called ‘blue goo’ could still be seen oozing out of the ground in a few places.

We had to work a little harder and a little smarter to get our water supply into that camp. We laid out dozens of yards of ¾” ABS pipe and run that up to Vogelsang Creek before it joined with Fletcher Creek. The good part of this set-up was that we had to go up high enough to draw from Vogelsang Creek that the ABS line had enough pressure for us to cap it with a spigot. We had one running water line in a Backcountry camp! Woo-HOO!

Most of the raw water from this spigot was put into the two thirty-gallon jungle cans to be boiled. This was water used for washing and cooking. Any other water to be consumed had to first be hand-pumped through the ceramic filter. We had heard plenty of giardia stories. This was one safety item that everybody took seriously. Nobody wanted to risk giardia. It was the KP’s job to keep five or ten gallons of filtered water on hand at all times, but sometimes others would volunteer to run five gallons through the filter.

We had a never ending supply of wood for that camp. A wood supply for the campfire can be a problem at or above tree line. Erin had scouted this camp location well, though. Across the creek, at the base of Vogelsang Peak, was more down timber than we could possibly use in one season. The trees had all been knocked over by an avalanche a few years prior. The wood was down and seasoned!

One of my favorite views from this camp was the canyon rim on the west side. There was a line of peculiarly shaped rocks along the rim. The day I hiked in, I thought to myself “Wow. Those rocks look like a train!” When we all got to the camp and we had a minute of downtime, I asked Erin, “Does that ridge up there have a name?”

“Yeah. That’s Choo-Choo Ridge.”

“No way!”

“Yeah. It’s not named on any maps that I’ve seen, but it’s called Choo-Choo Ridge because it looks like a train.”

The most glorious alpenglow that I’ve ever seen was from this camp. Alpenglow is not a normal picturesque sunset in the mountains. Alpenglow is caused by sunlight that is refracted, or bent, by moisture in the atmosphere after the sun has dropped below the horizon. After the sun disappears, if the atmospheric conditions are right, the peaks will brighten back up as the refracted light reaches the peaks. On this particular evening, Fletcher Peak grew dark as the sun set, and then brightened up to an incredible gold color! This has to be where the legends of El Dorado, the Cities of Gold, originated.

Alpenglow on Fletcher Peak photo FletcherAlpenglow.jpg
Alpenglow on Fletcher Peak

One camp rule that was established by Tim Ludington in Wawona and carried on by Erin at Vogelsang was the ‘no Walkman’ rule in camp. The main parts of camp—the cook tent, the campfire, and anyplace around those areas people might be eating or congregating—were considered public areas for ‘community’. Being in these areas plugged into your own personal music was considered to be anti-social and poor trail crew camp etiquette. You could have your headphones on for your personal music in your tent or outside of camp. This was a rule that seemed unfairly arbitrary at first, but by the end of the season it was obvious to us the importance of people engaging one another instead of tuning people out and focusing on your own thing.

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Losing Another

The great weekend that I’d had with Moose and Anne on Amelia Earhart Peak received an ugly jolt on Sunday afternoon. Wayne, Mark, Glenn and Chris had been hiking and Wayne pulled up lame. He couldn’t put any weight on one of his feet and couldn’t hike at all. Mark and Glenn left Chris with Wayne out on the trail while they hiked to camp for help. Fortunately there were some packers nearby. They took horses out to bring Wayne in. They came riding into camp right around dinner time. Wayne’s face was longer than his horse’s. He sat slumped in the saddle and had his hands crossed on the saddle horn. He looked totally worn out and dejected. He looked like an old west outlaw headed to Federal prison. Wayne and the packers got something to eat and then headed down the trail.

Wayne was one of the most upbeat, motivating people on the crew. He was a crewleader from Placer Energy Center and had technical skills that were needed on the septic system project. He really set an awesome example for the rest of us. His last crew journal entry says it best:

I’m so glad that we’re doing this class with Cheryl. It really is helping this crew be a ‘crew’. I feel we all really care about each other a lot and that we are closer now than ever before. I hope this really lasts the rest of the season. I think it will. Just remember, don’t sweat the petty shit, just let it pass. So far all the conflicts have been petty. Let’s be a family & really enjoy what times we have left. (Mount) Lyell on Labor Day!

Four days after Wayne wrote that, he was being packed out on a horse. We were going to miss him.

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July 12, 1987: Moon Glow

Last night on the peak was incredible. We turned in early, but when I woke up at about 10:45-11:00 the clouds had cleared up and all the mountains in sight were aglow in the moonlight.

Today when we hiked down we stopped at Ireland Lake and Anne swam around in it, then we stopped at Evelyn Lake while Anne swam across it.
I forgot to bring a cup on this expedition, so I had to improvise. I ate my can of Dinty Moore, then wiped it as clean as I could with bread. There was some burned crud on the bottom, so I poured a little water in it and scrapped it out with my fork. Instant cup/bowl. I had a lemon aid snow cone in it last night and a cup of tea in it this morning.

I was thinking today about all of my buddies from Illinois. When Doug gets married next month, every one of them will be tied down to a family and a respectable job. I’m the only one left. The song ‘Freebird’ keeps coming to mind. (“‘Cause I’m as free as a bird, now. And this bird you cannot change. Lord knows it can’t change.”) Kind of a bittersweet feeling. My horizons are wide open and anything can happen. But it probably won’t happen with any of them. Also, I’d like a wife and a family and a nice stable life, too. But not yet. The time isn’t right.

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Amelia and Ireland

Sunrise on Amelia Earhart Peak was cold and clear. Instant oatmeal and hot tea really hit the spot. I had forgotten to bring a cup, so the empty can from my Dinty Moore Beef Stew dinner worked as a handy substitute. The Whisperlite backpacking stove seemed like the most wonderful invention of all time that morning. The Whisperlite is a one-burner stove that folds down into a very compact package to fit into a backpack. It runs on white gasoline, the same fuel that your typical Coleman camping stove uses. The Whisperlite burns hot and can boil water very quickly.

I think we were ‘peaked out’ by now and ready to head for home. Climbing down never seems to be as fulfilling as climbing up. We retraced our steps down the ridge and then through the talus of the lower slopes.

We reached the basin at the bottom of the mountain and headed up to Ireland Lake. Anne had a splendid goal for her Backcountry season. She wanted to swim across every lake that she encountered. This was going to be her last chance at Ireland Lake on this trip.

As we hiked along the base of Amelia Earhart Peak we hiked up to the snowfield that was still present near the lake. Yes…there was still snow on the ground in July at that altitude! Pink stains marred this particular patch of snow in several places. I had read about pink snow, but this was the first time I had seen it. It was caused by an algae that lived in the snow and grew in the springtime before the snow melted. Most people have heard the warning not to eat yellow snow. One should not eat pink snow, either. Pink snow could cause problems with your digestion.

Anne had anticipated a swim today, so she already wore her swimsuit under her shorts and tank top. She dove in and swam out to the middle of the lake. I dropped my pack to the ground and used it as a lounger as I just took in the incredible day in the mountains.

Waiting For Anne to Swin a Lake photo 31-1.jpg
Photo courtesy of Diane C. Brown

Sunday dinner back at camp is always good after a weekend like that.

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July 11, 1987: First Peak

Amelia Earhart Peak. Killer view before the fog rolled in. Well, for us it’s fog. Back at camp it’s probably just overcast.

I signed the register here “My first peak. We ain’t got nothin’ like this in Illinois.”

I’m here with Anne and Moose, the surviving Del Nortians.

Looking down on Ireland Lake,, you can see all the tracks from the glacier that moseyed on through; the scratches, glacial polish, assorted debris.

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My First Peak

The weekend after my solo adventure I went on a legal cross-country overnighter. Moose wanted to climb Amelia Earhart Peak. Anne and I volunteered to go with her.

We left camp after brunch and camp chores on Saturday. We hiked past the High Sierra Camp and then turned east off the trail. We had to climb over one ridge (more boulders) and cross the Ireland Lake basin to get to Amelia Earhart Peak.

Amelia Earhart Peak photo 33.jpg
Amelia Earhart Peak. We were headed to the low spot on the left.

The Ireland Lake basin is a perfect example of glacier action in Yosemite. Millennia ago, there was so much snow and ice packed down into this little valley that weight and gravity did their job. As the ice slowly slid downhill, it carved out the u-shaped valley that now existed. The ridge that we had to cross to get into this basin is what geologists call a ‘lateral moraine’. As glaciers carve their way downhill, they push rock and dirt debris, or til, out of the way. This debris gets pushed either off to the side (a lateral moraine) or in front (a terminal moraine) of the glacier. As we hiked across the floor of the basin, we could see and feel the granite slickrock that had been polished smooth by the abrasives carried along by the ice. The polished granite in the Yosemite wilderness could be as smooth as a cut countertop. If you got close enough, you could see the individual quartz crystals in the granite. What a world this was!

Moose and Anne were such great company. They are both happy, upbeat and positive people with great senses of humor. Anne is also a very punny person!

Climbing Ameila Earhart Peak photo 37.jpg
Can you see Moose?

Moose led the way up Amelia Earhart. We went up the left side of the mountain to hit the ridge where it was relatively low. The plan was that if we got up on the ridge, we could walk easier up the ridge to the peak than we could by bouldering all the way to the top.
We worked our way slowly but steadily up. Most of the climbing was similar to what I had done a week before on Rafferty, with only two differences. For one thing, this one went a lot higher. More importantly, we weren’t trying to beat sundown, so we had plenty of time to pick our route. That made all the difference. Eventually, we made it to the top of the ridge. Making it to the peak was now a simple matter of walking up the incline.

Yeah. Simple.

Almost nothing in the mountains is as smooth and simple as it looks on a topo map or in a long distance panoramic photo. Some sections of the ridge were open enough to simply hike up. These sections always had steep cliffs dropping off both sides of the trail. Sometimes it felt as though we were literally walking up the razor’s edge. These are the sections that an acrophobic would not make it through.
Other sections of the ridge get wider and steeper, so that you are once again heading up a near vertical surface. Sometimes there is only one way up through the rocks. There can be a well-defined trail going up these sections. We got to use some of our newly acquired climbing skills to get through some of these sections. In fact, there were a couple places where we had to ask ourselves “Are we going to be able to get back down here without ropes?”

By mid-afternoon we were at the summit—11,982 feet.

Obviously, we were not the first ones in history to summit Amelia Earhart Peak. However, it was surprising to find signs that someone had been there in just the last few days. A pair of very small, brand new flags…maybe six inches high…had been planted at the summit. One was an American flag. The other had a star field and said ‘The 96ers’. We had no idea what that meant. I later learned that they were a climbing group focusing on peaks higher than 9,600 feet.

Almost the first thing that Moose and Anne did upon reaching the summit was search for the peak register. Most named peaks have some way for people who make it to the top to leave a record of their ascent. We found an ammo can under a little shrine-like structure built out of…of course…rocks! This helped protect the can somewhat from the elements.

Inside the ammo can was a small spiral notepad and some short stubby pencils. People had been recording their names, where they were from, the date they summited, and sometimes even their thoughts on top of the mountain. I signed it “My first peak. We ain’t got nothin’ like this in Illinois!”

Now, peak baggers might have stayed there to eat lunch before racing back down and moving on to the next peak. We moved in to stay! Moose gave Anne and me a tour of every peak in sight. She seemed to know something about the history, geography, and geology of every peak around. Moose knew a lot of those things because she had run Backcountry crews right across the border in Inyo National Forest, around Mount Dana, Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, and Kuna Peak. What an afternoon that was!

Around late afternoon or early evening, clouds started rolling in. The sunset light through the clouds, which quickly became fog for us, became an ever-changing kaleidoscope of pinks and purples. I had never seen a show like it, and the admission price had simply been a good workout and some sweat. Well before sundown the clouds had socked the peak in so much that the three of us could barely see past each other. Everybody decided to turn in early and see what the morning brought. I took my sleeping bag and pad down from the peak a few steps onto the west side. Sleep came quickly.

Bunking on Amelia Earhart Peak photo 32.jpg
Bunking on Amelia Earhart Peak

I woke up in the middle of the night. I looked up and the skies were clear. I put my glasses on and laid back to enjoy the sky show. I had never seen the sky so clear. Even with the full moon, I could see more stars than I ever had before in my life. If you stare at a clear sky like that long enough, vertigo can sneak up on you. I suddenly saw such depth of field to all those stars, I felt like I was going to fall upwards into them. I looked down over the edge of the rocks to shake off the vertigo…and saw the entire Ireland Lake basin sparkling in the moonlight! I had never seen anything like this, either! It took me a minute to figure out just what I was seeing. The glacial polished granite on the basin floor was smooth enough to reflect moonlight! I never even tried to go for my camera. There was no way this was going to come out on 400 speed film with my point and shoot. All I could do was sit there and stare at the beauty below.

How many people have had the opportunity to sit on top of a 12,000 foot mountain looking down at such a light show in the beautiful remnant of a glacier track? I could not believe how much I had been blessed to witness these works of God’s art that so few people had ever seen.

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A Mentor’s Charge

Peter Lewis will always be a special person in the hearts of every Backcountry Corpsmember and staff who ever had the honor of knowing him. After David Muraki, who established the program, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that our friend Peter shaped Backcountry Trails more than anybody else in the history of the program. Yo2 loved the week that he and Cheryl took to spend with us. Before they left, Peter took the time to write in our crew journal. I would imagine that he wrote in every crew’s journal. This is how he ended his entry with Yo2, 1987:

This is special land to me. When I first came out west 17 years ago, I got a job on a trail crew that was stationed near Merced Lake. This was my first taste of the mountains. It changed my life, and taught me what was really important. That same magic is working on all of you. You are the ones who haven’t quit when it got tough. Help each other learn from the mountains. You will get so much more out of the weeks ahead. You are the lucky ones. Stay healthy & enjoy the Backcountry!

Your friend, Peter

It had been 17 years since Peter had come to the mountains. It has been 27 years since he wrote that. That’s enough to make a guy feel old!

And I also note that he signed off with ‘your friend’. That’s how he closed every letter he sent to me. I imagine that’s how he closed most letters to any of his Backcountry Corpies. And in each and every case, he meant it.

We miss you, Peter.

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My Spot

I spent three months at our Vogelsang camp sleeping in a hole in the ground.

It all started at the Backcountry recruiting slide show way back in January. One of the slides showed Peter Lewis with a sleeping bag rolled out in a cave. Roxanne, the Backcountry recruiter at Del Norte and the current Yosemite 1 C1, said Peter had found a cave near camp one season and had used the cave as his quarters. I decided right then that if I could find one, I was going to live in a cave, too.

Our campsite at Vogelsang was about a quarter of a mile south of the High Sierra Camp. On the first day we arrived, Erin assigned the places for all of the parts of our camp. Cook tent will be here. Camp fire and jungle cans will be here. Dish pit will be here. Canvas wall tents will be here. Latrine will be over there. (Except nobody on a trail crew ever calls it a ‘latrine’. It’s always a ‘shitter’.)

While we were setting up camp, in my moving around from here to there, I found a big crack in the granite slick rock. It was between the main camp and the shitter. The crack was just over shoulder width wide, about two feet deep, and about seven feet long. I jumped down into it and felt like I was at home! I kneeled down in it, then laid down. It was a perfect fit! When I laid down in it, I could only be seen by someone standing right on the edge. When I sat up a little bit, I could peer over the edge to see what was going on around me. The bottom had a gentle slope, so I could lay with my head just a little higher than my feet…just how I like it! Small lodgepole saplings grew out of the crack above my head and below my feet.

At the first opportunity, I took my foam pad and sleeping bag and claimed my spot. I unrolled the pad laid it down. Perfect! I tossed my sleeping bag, a dark blue North Face Bigfoot, on the pad and sized everything up. Perfect! The crack became my home for the next three months. Unless I was out of camp for some reason, this was where I slept for the rest of the summer. It was the closest thing I could find to a cave!

Home Sweet Home photo 28.jpg
Home sweet home!

I kept a small pile of rocks in the hole above my head, in handy reach in case of bears. I never brought food here. Just my sleeping bag, a paperback book, a headlamp to read by, and my Walkman with some cassettes. I kept the rest of my stuff in the available canvas wall tent space under what would have been my cot if I had stayed in the tent like everyone else. This was just clothes and my 6400 cubic inch backpack.

I even had a plan in case of rain. I commandeered a green tarp from the supply area. If it rained, I planned to stretch the tarp over the hole and weight the edges down with the biggest rocks I could find. I got lucky in that I only had to do this once all season, and it worked great. The one time it rained the winds were pretty mild and the rocks worked just fine. And as a bonus…I discovered that not only did the ground at the bottom of the hole slope down, but the high point was at the lodgepole at my head. On the other side of the lodgepole, the ground sloped the other way. Any rain coming down around the lodgepole drained away from me! The one time it rained, it rained hard enough to get camp pretty muddy…except for my ‘cave’! I still had dust under my sleeping bag, the driest place in camp.

Dryest Place in Camp photo 29.jpg
Ready for rain with the tarp in place.

I miss those nights of drifting off to sleep, looking up at the stars.

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Two Special Guests

This week we had a couple of special visitors to camp…Peter Lewis and Cheryl!

Peter brought his usual charm and inspiration. He joined us out on the sewer to see the project. He shared stories with us of his early days on trail crews. He did PT with us…but I do not remember any of his famous Chicken Push-ups!

Cheryl brought something new to trail crews. She was a licensed therapist, and the new idea was a professionally conducted group rap without any staff around. Every crew that Peter and Cheryl visited had this time with Cheryl. It was private and confidential. Nothing that was said in this meeting was reported back to Moose, Peter, or any other staff or sponsors.

After the season, I heard from friends on other crews that it was not always well received. A good friend of mine on the Kings Canyon crew told me the crew was firing on all cylinders and actually resented the intrusion by an outsider. Our crew, however…

The petty nitpicking and bickering that had been plaguing the crew had not stopped when we hit the Backcountry. The same behavior that had caused the flare up between myself and Rollie, and had made Erin go off on us in Tuolumne Meadows was still there. It was exhausting, and at times it made the great experiences we were having just a little sour. I know that the impending Camp Mather duel with Rollie was never far from my mind. It certainly impacted my relationships with him, and with those on the crew that Rollie was closest to.

We really needed that professionally conducted group discussion. I will not/cannot go into all of the details of that discussion, but I will say that Rollie and I were able to work out what had happened in that van on the trip back from Yosemite Valley that day. It was the first time I’d told anybody how sick I had been (Vic knew, but he didn’t talk about it). Rollie shared what had been going through his mind. That part of the discussion ended with my saying “So we can forget about Mather?”

Rollie chuckled and said, “It’s forgotten, man,” and we shook hands.

So while other crews might not have needed this sort of help, we definitely did. In fact, Wayne mentioned it in the crew journal that week:

I’m so glad that we’re doing this class with Cheryl. It really is helping this crew be a ‘crew’. I feel we all really care about each other a lot and that we are closer now than ever before. I hope this really lasts the rest of the season. I think it will. Just remember, don’t sweat the petty shit, just let it pass. So far all the conflicts have been petty. Let’s be a family & really enjoy what times we have left. Lyell (Peak) on Labor Day!

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