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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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!

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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.

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Ready for rain with the tarp in place.

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

Categories: Backcountry, Camping, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Critter Watch

Bears can be a problem in the Backcountry. They’re always hungry. Yogi Bear is pretty accurate there. The National Parks post bear warnings all over the place. Everywhere you look, you can see instructions for keeping bears out of your food and other supplies. Backpackers have special instructions. I think these instructions evolve. ‘Always hang your food’ has given way to ‘use bear proof canisters’.

On trail crews, keeping your supplies safe is like laying in for a siege. All food and scented personal hygiene items are kept in one central, easily defended position…the cook tent. A sentry is always posted at the cook tent. During the day, there are always at least two people around the cook tent, the cook and the corpsmember assigned to KP. The sentry through the night is always the corpsmember assigned to KP the following day, since he/she has to be up early to start breakfast, anyway. This sentry always has a supply of rocks laid in for the inevitable ursoid assault. And they will come. We don’t know when. We don’t know the direction. We just know that they will come.

Most normal people worry about being attacked by bears in the woods. We didn’t worry about that. We were the ones doing the attacking. Well…when they wandered into our camp, anyway. Think of it as an aggressive defense. When a bear shows up at a trail crew camp, the first thing anybody does is holler and wave your arms at it. Make loud noises. Look aggressive. Many times this is enough to scare the bear away. Also, by being loud, others in the area can hear about the bear and come running to assist for a back-up. If the loud noises don’t work, the next step is to start throwing rocks at it. I know this sounds crazy, but even 300 pound black bears are rather timid by nature and can be encouraged to leave by a hail of good sized rocks.

They have an entirely different approach to bears in Yellowstone, where they have grizzlies…but that’s a different story.

Yo2 had another critter problem in 1987. Our cook tent had a little hole in the back. The bear watch would be sleeping inside the cook tent with the food, but his/her attention was on bears trying to get in the front of the tent. The marmots started getting in through the hole in the back and eating the bread. Moose decided to combat this problem by sticking a cot behind the cook tent right in front of the hole. After your KP duty and sleeping inside the cook tent the night before, you were now assigned ‘marmot watch’ behind the tent the night after your KP.

Anne spelled it out the best for us in the crew journal:

Diane said the person in back chases the marmot and the person in the tent chases the bear. That’s the way it should be. But if the bear goes to the back and the marmot goes in the tent, then the person in the tent goes to the back and the one in back goes into the tent…and the story continues. Soon everyone will be so dizzy with the bear watch in the tent and the marmot watch in the tent and, and, and the Timex watch in the pocket.

I told y’all that Anne had a great sense of humor!

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Fired. Or Not?

Even before we had our camp fully set up and operational, we lost one of my best friends from the crew.

Before we left Wawona, Moose had managed to get some of the tobacco-chewers to at least try to give up chew when we hit the Backcountry.

In some ways, our move to Vogelsang was more stressful than the move to Tuolumne Meadows. It was the first time we had worked with pack mules. It’s harder to load a mule than it is to load a truck. And unlike the move to Tuolumne Meadows, it was going to take three days to get all of our gear up there. Somehow, some important gear that we needed on Day #1 didn’t make it up to Vogelsang on Day #1. Or Day #2. Some of our Day #1 gear didn’t make it in until Day #3.

I’m sure this contributed to the general stress on the crew. Stress causes anxiety. Only one thing is going to calm down an anxious chewer—chew! Dave started jonesing for a chew. Moose mildly reminded him of the goal to at least try to quit. Dave had a pretty expressive, animated personality. Kinda common for Portuguese, from what I hear. Dave had provided positive crew morale by overacting and exaggerating situations. Well, this evening Dave started begging and pleading Moose for a chew. Moose mirrored his drama. There was a lot of laughter around the campfire.


“No. You made a deal.”

“I gotta have a che-e-e-ew!!”

“You gave your word that you would at least try to quit.”

“I can’t do it! I need a che-e-e-e-ew!!”

“Sure you can do it.”

“Oh-h-h-h-h-h!!! I gotta have a che-e-e-e-ew!!”

“Hang in there!”

“Somebody give me a che-e-e-e-ew!”

All of this played out with laughter all around, including from Dave. He was certainly playing to the crowd in fine form. Dave finally got a dip of chew from some merciful soul.

“Aw, Dave. You said you wouldn’t.”

“But I had to.”

“But you promised.”

“I couldn’t do it.”

“OK. You’re fired.”

“But I couldn’t help it.”

So went our campfire entertainment that night. Everybody left the campfire laughing and happy, including Dave, as far as I could tell.

The next morning before breakfast, Dave shook me awake. We were still pretty much sleeping outside. However, Dave was already dressed with his full backpack on. That was odd. We wore daypacks to work, not our full backpacks. Dave said, ”I just want to say goodbye, buddy.”


“Yep. I’m gone.”

“Why?!” I sat up in my sleeping bag, still rubbing sleep out of my eyes.

“Moose fired me.”

“Whaddaya mean Moose fired you?”

“Yep. Last night.”

“You mean by the campfire?”


“Dude, she was kidding.”

“No, she wasn’t. She meant it.”

“Dave, everybody was cutting up around the fire last night. She was not serious.”

“No, she was serious about that. Look, I gotta go. I just wanted to say goodbye.” Dave stood up and walked out of camp.

“Dave! Wait! Let’s talk about this!”

Dave was long gone before I could get my pants and boots on.

Everyone else in camp was just as mystified as I was. Nobody else thought Moose had really fired Dave. Especially Moose! She had never even talked to him after the campfire. What would have made him think he was fired? I have a couple of theories.

Upon re-reading the crew journal, I think Dave might have been more sensitive than he let on. And I’m not sure he was going to do well with the isolation of the Backcountry. I think he saw that coming, so he took what he considered an honorable way out that was handed to him by somebody else. Where is the honor in getting fired, you ask? Well, he wouldn’t have to look at himself in the mirror and admit “I quit.” I think it was easier for him to say “Moose fired me…unfairly…because I wouldn’t stop chewing.”

I also think that a girl he met in Wawona he hoped to meet up with had something to do with it…at least in his mind.

These are, of course, just my theories. I have never seen Dave since, so I haven’t been able to discuss any of this with him. Dave…if you’re reading this, look me up! I’d love to talk!

Anyway, Dave’s departure from Yo2 was the first one that rattled me. We had already lost six people from the original crew by then, plus Xem, who had been an alternate. Losing Dave was different to me. Most of the others who had left had never really gelled with the rest of the crew. They tended to be loners who stayed apart from most of the camp life. I think Xem just got homesick. We kept running into groups of Vietnamese people from San Jose, and Xem just decided to go home from Tuolumne Meadows with one of the groups. I thought Dave was one of the core crewmembers who would have made it through for sure. He seemed positive, motivated, and excited about heading to the Backcountry. He really seemed to have all of the traits I’ve described that successful Backcountry corpsmembers possess. He was always a part of the team. He was a regular dishwasher. He participated in camp life. He had been a CCC fire fighter before the Backcountry, so I think the physical challenge was probably the least of his concerns. This just goes to show that it can be hard to predict who will successfully make it through a season.

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

Sick Turkey

When we got back from our vaccinations in Yosemite Valley, and after I found myself committed to a street-fighting duel after debriefing, and still sick as a dog, there was still time to hit the trail and get some nearby work in. Except for me. I had KP. And the cook was gone. And the menu called for turkey. I had never cooked a turkey in my life. And I was still sick as a dog.

Fortunately for me, Victor Perez had stayed back in camp, too. I found out that Vic had spent some time as a cook at a club. He could cook a turkey! I tried to focus on what he was telling me. I was worried that a turkey would take way too long to cook before the crew came back. He told me that it doesn’t take that long if you don’t stuff it. He told me how to season the bird and place butter in strategic places on it to keep it moist. And then it happened. I couldn’t keep it down any more. I had to disappear behind some bushes. When I came back wiping my mouth out, Vic said, “Dude, just go get some sleep. I got this.”

What a guy!

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Second Round

Round Two of our Yosemite fire experience saw us return to Crane Flat Fire Lookout. We saw our old pals Hal and crew again. There was one big difference this time, though. The first time we were here, the helicopters were a JetRanger and a BullCow. (Well…we thought they said BullCow. Years later I realized they were saying ‘Bölkow’.

This time there was a BullCow and a Huey!

Ever since I was a little boy in Illinois, my favorite sound in the world had been Huey helicopters. Not just any helicopters…just the Huey! The rotor blades were designed in such a way that they made an incredibly bass chopping sound as they cut through the air. The sound is distinctive.

The only other helicopter a Huey’s sound can be mistaken for is a Chinook, which has twin rotors and engines and rotors that are the same as a Huey’s. (A Chinook just sounds like two Hueys!) I was stoked just to be on the same helipad as one. Dave Amaral’s dad had flown Hueys in Viet Nam. He might have been more stoked than I was!

This time around the fires we were being assigned to were different, too. No silly smolders this time! WE were going to be relieving a Hot Shot crew. They had a 100% line around this fire on the top of a mountain just a five minute flight away from Crane Flat. We were going to continue to mop it up, freeing the Hot Shots to go attack another fire. As before, Yo 2 was split into two teams. I was in the team with Glen as crew leader, Mark, Dave, and Chris. We were assigned to a Yosemite fire boss, ‘Stretch’ Stephenson, and two Yosemite fire fighters. We were going to the high side fire line. Moose took the test of the crew with a Yosemite fire boss to the low side fire line.

The first group to shuttle out to the fire flew in the BullCow. The Huey sat silently on the helipad. The word was that we were all going to go in on the BullCow. What a let down that was, with the beautiful Huey sitting right there.

Then the BullCow had a mechanical problem. It limped on back to Crane Flat and then had to be sent down to Fresno for repairs. Everybody else was going to go in on the Huey! Woo-HOO!

I loaded into the Huey with Glen and Dave. The doors closed. The rotors spun up with that ol’ Huey ‘whup-whup-whup’. As we lifted off, Glen, Dave and I simultaneously howled out “Fucki-i-i-i-ing Bueno-o-o-o-o!”

The flight was over in no time. We left the Huey and some Hot Shots got on. Stretch was already there, coordinating the turn over with the Hot Shot boss. It wasn’t long before our whole team was in place and all of the Hot Shots were gone. Stretch’s first order of business for us was to set up a camp. He picked a place just over the ridge from the helispot. There was no level ground anywhere on that mountain. We wound up digging out sleeping pits on the uphill sides of trees. We made them as level as we could, and made room for two sleeping bags in each pit. I was going to be partnered up with Glen.

(Note: It seems obvious to me, but this nagging in the back of my head says that I need to point out none of the helicopter videos in this post are of Yo 2. I found them all on YouTube simply to illustrate the post, so readers can see and hear the things that I am talking about. Thanks.)

Categories: Backcountry, Camping, CCC, Helicopters, WildlandFire Fighting, Yosemite | 1 Comment

June 7, 1987: Botched Burgers

What a screwed up day. I don’t even want to talk about it, but I’ve got to write something in here.

Friday night we went and helped Burl move some hay around in his barn. It was a lot of fun. The old wagons are neat.

OK…this one takes a little explaining. The only reason I know today what I was talking about then is because I went back later and made a margin note in my journal: (K.P.–the attempted bbqued burgers)

Back in 1987, I really did not know how to cook. I could follow a simple recipe, but that was it. On this day, I remember making the hamburger patties and putting them on the grill… only to watch the meat slowly slide through the grill and into the fire! I think I was able to salvage something for dinner, but I was so traumatized over this that ever time I had to grill meat for K.P. after this, I told the crew “Everybody just grab your own piece of meat and cook it however you want it.” And I was such a bad cook that everybody thought that was a splendid idea!

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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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