Posts Tagged With: Backpacking

Sleeping Bags

Your sleeping bag is a very important piece of equipment on a trail crew. It can mean the difference between a good night’s sleep, and adding to the exhaustion that you are already going to experience working harder than you ever have before. It might even mean the difference between frostbite or not.

I had a North Face Bigfoot. When I was buying gear for my summer in Yosemite, the Bigfoot was all the rage. Not everybody had one, but it seemed like everybody raved over how awesome they were. I bought mine at The North Face Outlet in Berkeley. It was a ‘second’, which meant that it had some sort of cosmetic factory defect that prevented North Face from selling it at full value. I received a good discount on the price, and it was a fully functional bag. It was rated to -5°F, which meant that it was ‘guaranteed’ to preserve your body heat at temperatures down to five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This was a limited ‘guarantee’ (in quotes) because everybody sleeps differently. What might keep one person warm at zero degrees might not keep a ‘cold sleeper’ warm at thirty degrees.

My bag was also a ‘long’. It was designed longer for tall people. I’m not tall, so according to conventional sleeping bag wisdom, the extra length would be extra space for my body heat to keep warm and therefore not very efficient. I figured the extra foot space would be helpful for stuffing clothes down into to keep them warm for the next day. It worked. I really loved my sleeping bag.

My Bigfoot’s design limits were not tested in Yosemite. Apart from that one Arctic front that came through at the end of July, we had pretty mild weather all summer in Yosemite. My bag got tested the next year, 1988, on a regular CCC trails spike on Orleans Mountain in the Klamath Mountains. Our spike was the first week of June, and one morning we woke to find ourselves buried under about eighteen inches of snow. We were snowed in for four days before the four wheel drive vehicles could get in to bring us out. I stayed snug in my two-person backpacking tent and my Bigfoot. It worked like a champ.

My bag’s biggest test came the next year, 1989, in Kings Canyon National Park. We had a spike camp on Glenn Pass late in September. Now that was cold. We didn’t have a thermometer, so I have no idea how cold it actually got. I do know that water was frozen solid every morning. I also know that my trusty, dependable -5° bag did not keep me warm. In fairness to the Bigfoot, it was two years old and likely had lost some loft…the ‘fluffiness’ of the insulation that helps retain heat…but I have never been so cold as on those nights at Glenn Pass sleeping in the cook tent, trying to pile boxes and produce around my bag to improve the insulation.

These lessons learned handed down to another generation of trail workers. When I was a C-1 at Delta Center in Stockton, I took the Corpsmembers who had been selected for the Backcountry program on a supply buying trip to Berkeley. The salespeople kept trying to push ‘summer’ bags on the Corpies. Summer bags are only rated to about 40°. They are not even close to being adequate for serious trail crew equipment. A couple of the Corpsmembers seemed on the verge of the summer bags because of cost and weight. I asked them, “Do you know where you’re going to be in September?”

Their only possible reply was, “No.”

“It gets pretty cold at ten thousand feet in September. If you buy the summer bag, you are gambling on where you are going to be when it turns cold.”

They all bought the better bags. After the season, I heard back from some of them “Thank you for pushing the better bag!”

I still have my Bigfoot, twenty-seven years later. It doesn’t go on the trail anymore. The zipper blew out about ten years ago. The outer shell is torn in a couple of places. It mainly gets rolled out when the kids have friends sleeping over, or if I am going somewhere overnight and I’m not sure of the lodging accommodations. One thing is for sure…it’s not being tossed out into the trash.

Trail dust is thicker than blood.

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

Reymann Lake

The cold front had finally passed by August 1. Spirits lifted. I had spent the last couple of weekends being a camp slug. I couldn’t do that three weeks in a row, so I planned an overnight trip to Reymann Lake with Dewey and Derrick.

I enjoyed spending time with Dewey. There was nothing complicated about Dewey. He always saw the positive side of everything. He had quite the imagination, too. He had an imaginary Martian friend he would talk to. His Martian friend’s name was Moshkylogy (MOSH-kĭ-LOG-ee). Dewey made crew journal entries for Moshky. Dewey even demonstrated for us how the Martian language sounds. Moose even learned some Martian. She had some lively Martian conversations with Dewey! I know…it sounds weird. But Dewey had such an innocent naïveté about him that it wasn’t weird at all. It was kinda fun and added character to the crew.

Derek was an alternate who joined the crew just before we left Wawona. When he was off duty, Derek always wore his black beret and gray camo pants. Most weekends, Derek didn’t want to leave camp. He just wanted to hang out and read military history.

During the week I had been talking with Derek about being a camp slug. I was falling into a rut that I didn’t really want to be in. Derek realized that summer was passing us by and he hadn’t been out to see anything yet. I talked him into going with me to Reymann Lake, the place where I had tried to catch up with Anne and Wayne on the July 4th weekend. Dewey thought it would be a good hike and offered to join us. Since we needed three anyway for a cross country hike, it was a perfect plan. We talked about the hike for the rest of the week.

Saturday morning rolled around. I had lost almost all of my motivation for a cross country hike. Derek didn’t seem very motivated, either. Dewey, now…Dewey was motivated! He chattered all morning about going on a cross country hike with his good buddies George and Derek. I couldn’t let Dewey down. I decided to suck it up and go. Derek still wasn’t sure he wanted to go, until I pointed out that we needed three people for a cross country hike. If Derek didn’t go, Dewey and I couldn’t go, either. The guilt trip worked! We left camp right after brunch.

I already knew from my failed solo attempt over Rafferty that I had tried to cross the ridge too far south. We continued north on the Rafferty trail past the creek we saw marked on the map before we headed up the ridge. We spent the afternoon picking our way around and up our friends, the boulders. We crested the ridge in the perfect spot. We had a pretty easy decent to Reymann Lake. We found a good camping spot far enough away from the lake among some erratic boulders. Erratics are big boulders dropped in unusual places by retreating glaciers. These boulders were eight or ten feet tall. A lodgepole forest had grown up around them. We had a great time finding different routes for climbing them. One thing they all had in common…marmot scat proved they had all been used as marmot lookouts!

We spent the rest of the day lounging around the lake. Dewey took a nap under a tree. Derek read his book. I took a long time to write a short journal entry. I spent the afternoon simply slow watching.

We had a quiet dinner, talking about who we were, where we were from, and where we wanted to go. The quiet conversation continued as the sun set. Wilderness rules said that we could not have an open fire here, so when the sun went down for the night, so did we.

I was awake at sunrise the next morning, as usual. The first one awake, as usual. Sunrise has always been my favorite time of day. Darkness goes away. New light promises that anything can happen. Reymann Lake’s surface was perfectly still. Birds were starting their day. It was a beautiful time to breathe deeply of the crisp alpine air and slow watch.

Life was good.

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

August 1, 1987: Glad I Came

Here I sit on the bank of Reyman Lake with Dewey and Derek. It was just a short hike, but we’re all pretty tired just the same. Dewey is crashed out under a tree. Derek is kicking back against a rock reading a book.

Like I said, it was just a short hike around Rafferty Peak, but to be honest Derek and I didn’t really want to come in the fir t place. Derek and Dewey don’t know it, but I’ve been so tired from work that I haven’t felt like doing anything for the last couple of weekends. I just don’t want to be a proverbial camp slug. The only reason I came today was because I’ve been telling Dewey and Derek I was going to.

Now that I’m here, I’m glad I came. With everyone so quiet the animals and birds are resuming their normal activities around us. A couple mountain chickadees were feeding in the trees above us; a squirrel is playing in the tree in front of me.

I guess I’m not like most backcountry types who are into hiking marathons and peak bagging. I like to go someplace and stick around a while. Sure Jose and Rolando did Amelia Earhart Peak. But do they know about the rock rabbits and marmots that live up there? Jose insisted that marmots wouldn’t live up there, but I saw one right at the peak. Do they know how beautiful the moonlight is reflecting off the glacial polish down by Ireland Lake?

I agree with Tom Brown’s philosophy that we have to slow down and become a participant with nature, not just rush right through it. To me it is more desirable to sit quietly in one place for an hour or two just to get a glimpse of nature as it accepts my presence and resumes its normal activities, than it is to hike for an hour or two just to see how far I can get. When you’re hiking, all you see are rocks and trees and glimpses of animals and birds as they hurry to get away from you. And the only reason the rocks and trees don’t run is because they can’t.

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

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.

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

July 4, 1987: Finally, Backcountry!

Happy Fourth of July!

Well, we finally made it to the Backcountry. We’re here at Vogelsang, and I’m actually kind of glad we won’t be changing camps again. It’s such a pain. Especially when your first priority gear doesn’t get here until the third day.

Vogelsang Peak photo 30.jpg

Our camp is at the base of Vogelsang Peak, just down the trail from the High Sierra camp. I think this is the best camp we’ve had yet. It took a long time to get camp set up 100%. We worked until 6 or 7 o’clock all last week, except Thursday, when we got off a little early.

Lucky me had KP yesterday, so I missed out on the three day hikes this weekend. When I got off last night I tried to catch up with Wayne, Anne, and Dewey over at Nelson Lake, but I didn’t make it. I had a killer time anyway. I left camp about 20:00, but still hadn’t made it over the ridge by dark, so I settled in on a ledge on the hillside for the night. I woke up at about 05:30 and at 06:00 started trying to find my way over the ridge. At about 08:00 I decided that I probably wouldn’t catch them at Nelson Lake, so I started for home. I happened to hit upon an old trail not marked on the map which led to the main trail up here and was home in time for breakfast.

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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.


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.

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

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