Backpacking

Solo!

I went ahead and made dinner for the few people we had left in camp. We washed dishes. After I burned the garbage, Moose took me off to the side.

“Do you know the route Anne and the others were going to take?”

“Yep. They were going to go over the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peak to Nelson Lake tonight.”

“Do you think you could catch up to them before dark?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. CCC policy was that we needed a minimum of two Corpsmembers in a party to leave camp on a trail, and at least three in a party for any cross country hiking. Peter Lewis had been most emphatic about this at orientation. Moose noticed my hesitation.

“I wouldn’t offer this to just anybody. I think you kinda got hosed on your KP, and I trust you enough not to do anything stupid. Do you think you could get to Nelson Lake before dark?”

“Maybe. I could sure try!”

“What would you do if you can’t find them?”

“I think the most likely reason not to catch them would be if I couldn’t get over the ridge before dark. If that happened, I’d spend the night on the ridge and come back to camp in the morning.”

“OK, go ahead and try it. Be careful!”

It didn’t take long to throw together the gear I’d need and hit the trail. I hiked fast past the High Sierra camp and back down Rafferty. When I got toward the north end of Rafferty Peak, I got out the topo map to look at my options for getting around the mountain. If I kept hiking down the canyon to a creek and went up the drainage, the ground leveled out on the top of the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peaks. It looked like it might be a fairly easy route. Following a creek uphill can be tricky, though. You don’t know how thick the riparian vegetation will be. You don’t know if you will run into any cataracts that you would have to climb over. Sundown was going to be here sooner than later. I looked up the draw I was in front of and decided that my best shot of getting over by sundown was to go up right here.

When I used to think of mountains, I used to think they were humungous slabs of solid rock. Yosemite taught me different. Sure, there are big slabs of solid rock like El Capitan and Half Dome. But most of the other majestic peaks you are seeing from far away are actually jumbled piles of smaller granite blocks. Remember, though—‘smaller’ is a relative term. Some of them are as big as a bus, or a house. A lot of them are as big as cars. Millions of them are as big as you. So most of the time you are climbing in the Sierras, you are actually scrambling up and over and around boulders.

That’s what my attempt to find a route around the right side of Rafferty Peak was—a boulder scramble. You stand at the bottom and look up at the jumble of boulders. You can’t see the top, so you have to guess which route might be the most likely to get you where you need to go. You start crawling over and walking around the boulders as you make your way up. You aren’t hiking anymore like you were on the trail below. You aren’t really climbing, either. You keep working your way up, up, up. Before long, you look back and are amazed at how much height you’ve gained over the canyon floor. Every once in a while, you run into a dead end, either a wall you can’t get around or a chasm you can’t get across. Then you have to back track. You hate having to give up any elevation that you’ve sweated so much to gain, but you have no choice. Eventually you make your way around and up.

I spent about an hour bouldering up the lee side of Rafferty Peak. Every time I would top a bench or a large boulder, there would be more up ahead. The sky was still light, but shadows grew darker on the east side of the ridge where I climbed. Finally I topped a bench and did not see another one above. I saw nothing but sky up ahead. My heart thumped as I dared to believe I was at the top of the ridge by now. As I worked my way across the last few boulders I thought, “It’s only gonna be downhill from here!”

As I crested the ridge, the setting sun’s rays blazed with glory. I paused and soaked in the beauty and contemplated the sheer drop off at my feet.

Crap.

The granite sure looked pretty bathed in the setting sun’s rays. The sun was almost down to the next range to the west. The west side of the ridge on this spot was one of those big slabs of rock, about three hundred feet straight down. (I know it was about three hundred feet because it crossed about eight contour lines on the topo with 40 foot contours. At least I think it crossed eight lines. It was kinda hard to tell because they were all running together.) There was no way anybody was getting down here without ropes. I took my pack off and laid it down as I broke out the topo map again. I compared what I could see of the ridge to the north with the map. I had definitely crested too far south. There is an inherent hazard in the bouldering type of climbing that I had been doing. Your visibility is usually limited to the rocks right around yourself. Following the easiest way up might take you significantly off course…like it had just done to me!

The sun was getting lower as each minute passed. Whatever I was going to do, I had better do it fast. I swung my pack back on and headed back down. I needed to find a way to crest about 200 yards further north. That doesn’t sound very far, does it? Two football fields. About two city blocks. However, 200 yards on a mountainside are not nearly the same thing as a level and smooth football field. I had to pick a route down without spraining an ankle. Then I had to find a route through the boulders in roughly the direction that I needed to go. Then I was going to have to climb back up to the crest. And then climb down the west side of the ridge and make it to Reymann Lake!

The light got dimmer and dimmer. Shadows in the boulders got darker and darker. The stars started coming out. I still hadn’t found a way back up the ridge. I came across a relatively flat spot big enough for a sleeping bag. The cool thing about this spot was the large, thin, knifelike piece of granite sticking vertically out of the ground right on the edge of the flat spot. It would prevent someone from falling off the edge if they happened to roll over in the night. It sure did not look like a natural rock formation to me. It looked like it had been placed there by somebody who had been caught there before.

Camp Out On Rafferty photo 34-2.jpg

“Well, I guess this is as far as I go tonight.”

By now I needed the headlamp to see into my pack. I rolled out my closed cell foam pad and laid my sleeping bag over the top of that. I drank some water and ate a granola bar. Then I leaned back and looked up, enjoying my own private star show on a mountaintop in Yosemite.

Life was good.

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Categories: Backcountry, Backpacking, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Rafferty

Our second camp move was to be our final camp move. Measles shots and SAR had cut into our trails time out of Tuolumne Meadows, but the project at Vogelsang was ready for us now in the High Country.

Several of us started out hiking in a group up Lyell Canyon. We turned right at the junction to the Vogelsang trail and started the climb out of the canyon. At the first switchback, I saw two interesting hikers. An Asian guy was sprawled across the rock wall at the corner. He still had his daypack on, but he was panting heavily and had unbuttoned his shirt all the way. His partner was taking his pulse. Yup. They hadn’t even finished the first switchback yet.

It was a steep climb out of Tuolumne Meadows, but it wasn’t very long. Once we climbed to the top, the next ten six miles were a relatively gentle stroll. Seven of those ten three of those six miles were over the unbroken causeway of Rafferty Meadows.

Rafferty Meadows Causeway photo 44.jpg

Rafferty Meadows was legendary. A popular high country route, the trail through the meadow had been one of the most spectacular examples of trail rutting of all time. Being a meadow, Rafferty collected the water runoff from all around. This made the trail wet and marshy. Well, nobody likes to walk through ankle deep mud, so people started hiking to the sides of the official trail, up on the grass that was still above the mud. Over the years, new trails were beaten down alongside the original…and then these trails were worn down into the mud. So what would people do then? Move over onto the higher grass and make new trails.

This process went on for decades. Eventually there were up to fifteen side by side ruts through the meadow. Some of these ruts were a full three feet deep. The meadow turned into a nasty quagmire. The entire meadow ecosystem was impacted. NPS realized something needed to be done to correct the problem.

The first solution was to reroute the trail up the hillside to drier terrain. The reroute went the full seven three miles. The only problem with this was that the new higher trail stayed buried in snow until well into the hiking season. Early season hikers really had no choice but to hike through the muddy ruts in the meadow.

The second solution worked but it was labor intensive and took three full seasons to complete. Trail crews built causeway trail for the full seven three mile stretch through Rafferty. In a causeway, the sides of the trail are lined with a single tier rock wall, and the space in the middle is filled with crushed granite. Then dirt is piled on top of the fill to provide a smooth trail tread. This raises the trail bed around a foot, but water can still pass through the rock wall and crushed fill. The meadow ecosystem was restored, and hikers stayed on the trail with dry feet. Win-win!

My Del Norte C-1, Kristen, had worked on the Rafferty causeway. It was about five years old when I hiked over it in 1987, and it was still in great shape.

(Edit: When I first posted this, I was wrong on the distances. Oops.)

Categories: Backcountry, Backpacking, CCC, Hiking, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunrise on the Sentinel

If we thought the sun came up early before, it really comes up early when you’re sleeping on a dome-top across from El Capitan. And when the sun comes up and the sun’s rays flood your sleeping bag, your bag gets hot pretty quickly. There’s really no such thing as sleeping in on a trail crew.

Waking up on Sentinel Dome? Some of you old Yosemite hands might be thinking “The top of the dome is less than four miles from a road. Nobody is supposed to be camping up there!” And you would be right…technically. Moose pointed out that, technically, we weren’t camping. We had no campsite set up. There were no tents. No food had been prepared. No trash had to be hauled away. Therefore…we weren’t camping. Trail workers can kinda get an attitude about whatever park they happen to be working at. I would say it’s a special sense of ownership. We build the trails. We maintain the trails. Nobody, but nobody, experiences these places like we do. The trails are ours, man! 😉

As we rolled out of our sleeping bags and started stuffing them back into their stuff sacks, voices started drifting up from the trail to the parking lot. I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying…but Xem could! The first group of tourists to summit Sentinel Dome that morning were Vietnamese. Xem hollered down to them. They hollered back. They were all having a great time!

A morning mist wafted through the Valley and canyons. Everything looked so different than what it had the night before. Light, shadows, and mist changed so much that I don’t think you could look at the same Valley twice.

Yosemite Falls photo 19.jpg

Moose let us enjoy the sunrise for a little while. Then she started herding us back down to the van. Phase Two of Moose’s mission was underway. We continued on up to Glacier Point. We had been here before, but never at sunrise on a Saturday. We were not expecting to see the line of hang gliders queued up clear to the parking lot!

In 1987, hang gliders could still legally launch from Glacier Point. There were a few simple rules to follow. I believe they could only launch on weekend mornings at dawn. There was a dedicated Hang Glider NPS ranger. This ranger inspected each hang glider pilot’s equipment and satisfied himself that each pilot throwing himself/herself off the 3000 foot cliff actually possessed the skill to safely reach the valley floor. As each person checked through the ranger, he/she would and their hang glider to the queue.

The launching commenced at 8:00. The ranger let each glider take off one by one at carefully timed intervals to prevent the airspace from becoming too crowded. The ranger stood face to face with the next glider pilot, looking back over his shoulder to monitor how far away each just-launched glider was. When the interval was good enough, the ranger stepped aside. The pilot of the next glider to launch grabbed the hang glider’s frame, sprinted down the rock faster and faster and finally flung himself off the cliff. The person then pulled their feet up and tucked them into a sleeping bag-like pouch. I imagine this made it easier for the person to stay horizontal under the glider through the flight. It probably made everything more aerodynamic, too. After launch, each glider pilot chose an individual course. It seemed like most of them headed for Half Dome. We could see several hang gliders at any given moment banking, turning, and floating across the face of Ansel Adams’ Monolith. Others turned left after take-off and headed for El Capitan or other parts of the Valley. Silent. Soaring. All eventually heading for soft landing in the meadow below.

Once all of the hang gliders had launched, the Hang Glider Ranger slid under his hang glider and launched himself off of the cliff. His seemed one of those NPS jobs where the person who has it spends a lot of time thinking “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”

Categories: Backcountry, Backpacking, CCC, Yosemite | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Waiting for Jen

The rest of the story…

Yosemite 2 began its 1987 season working in the south part of Yosemite, at Wawona. Our front country camp was on the banks of the South Fork of the Merced River at an NPS house usually used to house seasonal fire crews. It was called Comfort House. We didn’t sleep in the house. The NPS workers did. We were outside in tents. For the first few weeks of our season, we would commute to the worksites in our crew van and pick up trucks, whether that was a trailhead for a maintenance run or the Wawona Grove of sequoias.

Our front country work projects at this time started with maintenance runs all over the south end of the park. The hiking helped to acclimate us to the higher elevation in the mountains. However, the main project in Wawona was building a long section of causeway trail through the Wawona Grove of giant sequoias. We spent more time rolling rocks than hiking for a weeks. By the beginning of June, since we were getting closer to our camp move date to Tuolumne Meadows, our bosses decided that we needed to get some more hiking in to start toughening up for the move to higher country. Instead of loading into the van at the sequoia grove at the end of the day, we hiked from the grove over a ridge to a trailhead where the van would pick us up.

Trail crews never hike in one huge heard. NPS has a minimum speed of three miles an hour, but as long as a crewmember met that criteria, he/she could hike however they wanted. Some people would hike in groups of two to four people. Some people would hike solo. People usually didn’t get spread out too far, and with everyone going down the same trial, there really was no hazard of getting separated and lost from the rest of the crew.

The first day we hiked out of the Wawona Grove was great. There was a little climb up the ridge. Then the trail followed the ridge for a bit before dropping back down to the main road through the south end of Yosemite. The trail followed the road for a few hundred yards before getting to the trailhead. There were several ‘unofficial’ paths connecting the trail to the road before the trail actually got to the trailhead. Since we had hiked a lot of maintenance runs for the first two weeks and had seen a lot of trail, it was fairly easy to tell that these spurs were not the main trail. Well…for most of us, anyway…

Glen Meyer had driven the van from Wawona to the trailhead. One by one we came down out of the woods and threw off our daypacks, wiped off the sweat, and sucked down some water. Before long, the entire crew was assembled, except for one. Jen.

Jen had begun the season with a cheerful upbeat attitude. She spoke with a Valley Girl accent, and always put a cheerful Valley spin on things as they happened. She had a willowy, thin build. She had been having a hard time keeping up with the hiking and rock work. Everybody was pulling for her to get into shape and have a successful season, but at this point, that was in doubt. We waited for almost thirty minutes for her to come down out of the woods. Finally, Moose had Glen take the crew back to camp. She was going to wait for Jen. After Glen had dropped the crew off, he was to come back up pick up Moose…hopefully, with Jen.

There was a general store and the Wawona post office right on the corner of the main road and the road to Comfort House. Glen dropped several of us off at the store to pick up some snacks and then hike the half mile or so up to Comfort house. Then he drove the rest of the crew back to camp.

I remember buying ice cream at the store. Ice cream seems to be the most popular snack food for trail workers right off the trail. I was eating my ice cream with Tammi and Cory outside the store when we saw Glen, with Mark Guthrie in the van, drive by on his way back to pick up Moose and Jen. No sooner had Glen and Mark driven out of sight, then Jen came walking around the side of the store.

“Sooooo…you went off and left me, huh?” Jen teased.

“Where did you come from? We waited for you at the trailhead and never saw you!”

“I got to the road and never saw the van. I thought you guys had ditched me, so I hitched a ride.”

Jen had obviously taken one of those side spurs off the main trail down to the road. She thought she had reached the trailhead, but she had still been a few hundred yards short.

Moose and Glen and Mark were still waiting for Jen to come down out of the woods.

The solution was obvious, but nobody was eager to get it done. Somebody had to let them know Jen was back. And since we had no vehicle, the only way to do that was to hike back down to the trailhead. We really had no idea how far that was. One mile driving down a highway feels really different from hiking one mile. The trailhead could have been one mile up the highway; it could have been three.

Finally, Tammi, Cory, and I started hiking back up the road to the trailhead. This was no tranquil meander through the woods. I thought I had hiked hard to get to the van. I really kicked it into gear now.

Twenty minutes later I was at the trailhead. It had turned out to only be one mile! Good news!

As I struggled to catch my breath, I got out the word that Jen was back at camp.

Jen didn’t last on the crew much longer after that. Her boyfriend came up to visit one weekend, and she just went home with him. Jen’s memory lived on, though. “Sooooo…you went off and left me, huh?” and “I thought you guys ditched me, so I hitched a ride” said in a Valley accent became regular fixtures in Yo2’s lexicon.

Categories: Backcountry, Backpacking, CCC, Hiking, Yosemite | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

June 1, 1987: Call Off the Search!

Today occurred one of those ‘Backcountry stories’ you hear all the time from Backcountry vets.

We hiked home from Wawona today. No problem. Jen was bringing up the rear, and after everyone else got to the van we waited around for a little while. Then Moose told Glen to take everyone else home, she would wait for Jen, and Glen would drive back and pick them up.

Glen dropped us off at the store, then continued on his appointed rounds. We saw him driving the other way a little later, to pick up Moose and Jen. Literally two minutes later, Jen comes walking up from out of nowhere, greeting us with a cheery, “So, you drove off and left me, huh?”

She told us that when she hiked out she didn’t see anyone, not even Moose, and she hitched a ride to Wawona.

We waited around at the store for about ten minutes more, then I decided that I should go tell the others to call off the search. Twenty minutes later I walk, panting, up to the van. The news absolutely thrilled them.

Categories: Backcountry, Backpacking, CCC, Hiking, Yosemite | 1 Comment

May 27, 1987: Lake Vernon, Part 2

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I misread the topo map for the hike from Lake Vernon to Tiltil Valley. I saw the trail went over a couple of contour lines, then followed the contour around the mountain and down into the valley. Figuring they were 80 foot contours, I figured it would be a piece of cake.

We set out and started climbing. And climbing. Climbing, climbing, climbing! I thought we’d never stop going up. I know we climbed more than 160-180 feet, which is what I expected. Getting to Tiltil Valley, I checked the map and found out that the contour interval was 200 feet, not 80!

Tiltil Valley was a dream. It’s a lush meadow bisected by a creek with trees all along its banks. It’s just how I pictured the terrain around Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings. It was a clear night, but in the morning the fog rolled in from Hetch Hetchy, advancing up the valley like a cautious invader.

The hike from Tiltil back to Hetch Hetchy was indescribable. I just couldn’t hike fast—there was just too much that screamed out to stop and be examined. There was one plant that at first looked like it had bunches of purple balls for flowers, but when I looked closer it was some sort of violet (I guess) that hadn’t quite bloomed yet. I stood there for some time just watching it—it was so beautiful.

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May 26, 1987: Lake Vernon, Part 1

This last weekend was probably the best Memorial Day I’ve ever had. Anne (Tam), Dewey (Tromblee), Raulie (?), Jose (?), and I went hiking and camping for three days up at Hetch Hetchy.
We got a late start on Saturday—we didn’t get out of here until after noon. On our way up we ran into some people from Yosemite 1 who had gotten kicked out of the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival. We gave them a life back to their camp, which is right by the dam, anyway.
After crossing the dam, the trail goes through a tunnel and then starts up switchbacks. The way Andy Ramirez had described them I half expected to die on those switchbacks, but it turned out that the Chilnualna switchbacks are harder.
Dewey learned the hard way about what not to backpack—like half your wardrobe.
Our first night was spent at Lake Vernon. It was kind of cold, but the night was so clear it was like having our own personal observatory. We saw some falling stars, and I saw a satellite.
Sunday morning we woke up to find everything frosted. Sleeping bags, tents, clothes, everything. I got a picture.

 

Frost on the Sleeping Bag
Sunday’s hike went over Mt. Gibson to Tiltil Valley. I read the topo map…

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