After our glorious first full day in the Sierra, I can say with full confidence that I am whole heartedly in love with this place. I’ve been reading John Muir’s The Mountains of California for some time now. I had always struggled to read it at home as it is meant to be read outdoors. I’ve been in many a beautiful place while reading it, and have thus guffawed at Mr. Muir multiple times while he boldly proclaimed the Sierra the finest mountain range in all the land. But after finally arriving here, it felt as though being here was what our whole adventure has been leading up to. Muir’s thoughts and observations echo through my head as I stare in wonder at the glacially carved peaks; or ponder the beauty of the pines, firs, cedars, and hemlocks.
Our first hike, a five-nighter, started at Cathedral Lakes and eventually met up with the Merced where we followed Little Yosemite Valley, doubling back along the John Muir trail. The first night we camped at Cathedral Lakes. Cathedral Peak, divine and profound, turned out to be the perfect Sierra jewel to greet us upon entering the range.
Atop long slabs of granite, surrounded by lodgepole pines, we watched the sun set behind the peaks flanking Upper Cathedral Lake. Cathedral Peak watched over us as we enjoyed our dinner. The night was cold and we awoke to frost covering our tent.
That day, we hiked across Long Meadow, surrounded by many more splendid peaks. It was on this day, while following Echo Creek, that I saw for myself the meaning of Muir’s description of the Sierra’s as “the range of light.” I was stopped in my tracks many times to wonder at the illuminated mountains.
“…The mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city… Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or the Snowy Range, but the Range of Light” – John Muir
On the third day, we followed the cascades of the Merced River, which curved their way along beautifully sculpted granite. It was here that I was introduced to my first Sugar Pine, easily identified by the giant 12-18 inch cones on the ground around it, and hanging from the outstretching branches. We stopped for lunch on a high rock overlooking a small canyon from which the Merced fell in a series of cascades. The rest of the hike through Little Yosemite Valley was a burn site; the blackened dead trees created a ghostly alpine image.
At the end of Little Yosemite Valley, we headed north away from the river. We camped on Sunrise Creek, near Half Dome which we intended to climb the following day. Stephanie had been looking forward to climbing Half Dome for as long as this journey was conceived of. I, on the other hand, hadn’t been particularly keen on summiting Half Dome, simply because I’d seen the photos of hundreds of people passing over the cables. I feared that someone ahead of me might fall down, which would in turn cause a domino effect of disaster. We awoke early the next day, and headed to the Half Dome spur trail, filled with both joy and dread.
I probably wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t been granted backcountry Half Dome permits. With these permits, we could start our hike from a mere three miles away from the top, while most people had to hike in eight miles. This meant that the cables were relatively empty when we reached them. The climb was intense, but manageable, the views were amazing, and I made it down with nothing worse than sore arms and worn boots.
We camped again on Sunrise Creek that night. The following day we moved camp, then day hiked up to Cloud’s Rest. We both agreed the views from Cloud’s Rest, albeit smoky from a nearby wildfire, were even more rewarding than those from Half Dome. We could see not only Yosemite Valley to the southwest, but also Tenaya Lake to the north and countless other peaks to the east.
This completed our first journey into the heart of the High Sierra. We hiked out the next morning filled with a new energy and excitement: we wanted to bag a peak! At this point, I felt adamant that I did not want to leave the Sierra as quickly as we had intended. After pondering the thought, we decided that we would skip Colorado altogether in order to take our time in the mountains of California. There was just one problem: after our hike, the main buckle to my pack got slammed in the FunBus door and broke. There was no way I could hike without it. We therefore headed to the town of Lee Vining in search of a new buckle.
We ended up finding much more than camp gear in Lee Vining. A chat with a ranger at the Mono Lake Visitor Center ended up sidetracking us on an entirely unplanned journey. We had asked her about good beginner peaks to summit, and she warned that the Sierras had recently received some early snowfall which made most summits impossible without ice axes and crampons. However, she explained, White Mountain to the southeast of Yosemite was southern enough that it had not received snowfall. It also conveniently had an old road leading right up to the summit, which is now used only by hikers and mountain bikers. We thanked her for her insight, and she added that we should also visit the Bristlecone Pine Forest, which was located along our route. Without further ado, we ventured to White Mountain Wilderness. We found a free campsite along the way where we camped amongst pinyon pines and junipers.
The following day, we started the 14 mile there-and-back trek up to White Mountain Peak. Though the trail was not difficult, the air was freezing, and the harsh winds hurt our faces. We sported all the winter gear we had brought, but it wasn’t enough. Furthermore, as we climbed higher, the air became harder and harder to breathe. I got slightly light-headed a few times and had to take frequent breaks. By the time we reached the top, we were both slightly miserable, but the view was amazing, and at 14,252 feet, we were proud to have summited the third highest peak in the state. We didn’t return to the trailhead until near sunset, and enjoyed the cloudy sky over the desert landscape and distant Sierra Mountains.
After camping again amongst the junipers, we visited the Bristlecone Pine forest in the morning. If the accomplishment of climbing White Mountain wasn’t enough, this visit certainly made our drive worthwhile. The Bristlecones are the oldest trees on the planet, some over 4,000 years old. Growing near the edge of the tree line, they can withstand harsh conditions such as bitter cold, strong winds and little water. One of their secrets to success is slow growth, which provides them with dense wood resistant to disease and decay. Even when these ancient trees do die, their wood decays but little, meaning that many of the dead trees still stand eerily along the slopes.
After visiting the ancients, we stopped in the town of Mammoth Lakes to camp in the nearby forest. Here, at Mammoth Lakes Brewing, we found our favorite beer of the trip: IPA 395. The next day, we headed back north, eager to get back to Yosemite. On the drive, I read the Inyo National Forest Newspaper and learned about a gold-mining ghost town called Bodie, located north of Mono Lake. It sounded too interesting to pass up, so we drove directly there. We arrived at 5pm, not realizing that it closed at 6. This was unfortunate, as Bodie turned out to be even better than we had imagined. It was established in 1876 and was once the home of 10,000 residents.
Many buildings remain: countless old homes and shops are still filled with left-behind treasures. We entered the old church and peaked into the windows of the school house. I could have spent a full day there, but the mountains were calling.
“The mountains are calling, and I must go” – John Muir
After our amazing diversions in the east, we returned to Yosemite on the weekend. Not wanting to start a long hike on a busy weekend, we camped for two nights at Porcupine Flat. On Saturday, we hiked to Yosemite Point, which offered amazing views of the valley. We also hiked to the brink of Yosemite falls, which I must say was anticlimactic.
On Sunday morning, we arose in the dark to watch the sun rise over Tenaya Lake, after which we explored the sequoias in Merced Grove. On Monday, we would start an exploration into Lyell Canyon.
Due to the abundance of time we had in the mountains, I was able to journal frequently on our last hike. I would prefer to describe this, my favorite hike of our journey, in a series of journal entries:
October 9, 2017
We were told by many before coming to Yosemite to avoid the valley. We have been in the Yosemite area for ten days now, and have yet to step foot on the valley floor—though we have viewed it from Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest and Yosemite Point. From afar, the valley is majestic, but upon closer inspection from high up above it, it is an absolute mad house. It is sad to me that such a sacred a place is so fully developed and trampled upon. We are now starting a six night hike heading into Lyell Canyon, toward the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced, following John Muir’s footsteps in a way. And yet, the wide rocky path we walk upon is certainly not the path that wild John took. I’m sure he hopped across every highest rock and along the waters; chasing the path of the glacier, as he’d say. Our path is so rigid and beaten; I doubt the man would approve of the trail named for him. Yet, Yosemite is developed now. Paved roadways give easy access to some of the park’s major highlights. Despite all the development, the mountains, streams and forests remain. That, I can appreciate.
“Standing here in the deep, brooding silence all the wilderness seems motionless, as if the work of creation were done. But in the midst of this outer steadfastness we know there is incessant motion and change. Ever and anon, avalanches are falling from yonder peaks. These cliff-bound glaciers, seemingly wedged and immovable, are flowing like water and grinding the rocks beneath them. The lakes are lapping their granite shores and wearing them away, and every one of these rills and young rivers is fretting the air into music, and carrying the mountains to the plains. Here are the roots of all the life of the valleys, and here more simply than elsewhere is the eternal flux of nature manifested. Ice changing to water, lakes to meadows, and mountains to plains. And while we thus contemplate Nature’s methods of landscape creation, and, reading the records she has carved on the rocks, reconstruct, however imperfectly, the landscapes of the past, we also learn that as these we now behold have succeeded those of the pre-glacial age, so they in turn are withering and vanishing to be succeeded by others yet unborn” – John Muir
October 10, 2017
As we are hiking on the John Muir Trail, we’ve seen mostly through hikers (as well as the occasional fly fisherman). This business of through hiking is yet another idea that I don’t believe Mr. Muir would approve of. The man didn’t hike, he explored! And indeed, from what I’ve seen, the through-hikers are focused solely on the trail: on getting from point A to point B as quickly as humanly possible. Certainly, I am guilty of this as well. Typically, we plan a hike by factoring how many days it will take to get from point A to point B, or from point A to point A in a loop hike, and we camp for that many nights. In Muir country, I’m trying things a little differently. I’m being more mindful of the places I come upon, of the birds, the trees, the rocks, the water, the douglas squirrels, etc.
On this second hike in Yosemite, we are out for six nights, (the maximum we could be as Tioga Pass closes on the 15th), and have little to no agenda. We are following the headwaters of the Tuolumne toward the remaining glaciers. Today, while day hiking, we reached a view of Mount Lyell and Lyell glacier, with the widening of the headwaters into a lakelet as a foreground. Though we had planned to push further, I made the conscious decision to remain in this beautiful place. In fact, we’re going to head back to camp, and then move camp to this very place tomorrow. Tonight, we build a fire of resiny fir branches.
From here, we will have ample opportunity to explore the peaks, the headwaters, and the glacier. I am full of excitement and glad for this revelation. Slowing down is the best way to experience Mother Nature. My friends will be glad to hear this too, as I often take charge of planning our boundary waters adventures. The first trip I took with them was like boot camp. Sorry Amigos.
October 11, 2017
Today, after moving camp to our well-chosen home, we continued southeast along the John Muir trail, passing Lyell Glacier and Lyell peak along the way. Here, we found a second lakelet like the one we are camped on. The water is a pale auburn color, except along the middle where a brilliant strip of turquoise runs across the long center of the body. The water must be much deeper in the middle for it to show such contrasting colors. As we hiked up the pass, brilliant views revealed themselves. To the south we saw Lyell Canyon and to the west, the higher we climbed, the more stunning peaks became visible to us. Lyell is connected to a strip of peaks, but not all can be seen from below. Only Lyell can be seen from our camp, due not only to its height but also the saddle in front of it. The western peaks hide behind talus slopes, but the saddle along these slopes creates a window of relief, where Lyell peaks his head up as if to greet all who enter Lyell Canyon.
Soon before reaching the pass, we came upon yet another lakelet, this one very small and situated in a bowl which gave us temporary shelter from the strong winds at around 11,000 feet above the sea. Past the lake, we headed uphill again, where we reached the pass and a sign that informed us we were entering the Ansel Adams wilderness. The top of the pass granted us a sweeping view of the wilderness made up of many more peaks. I humored myself by snapping a black and white photo. By the time we returned to the lakelet at the base of Lyell, we were too tired to explore the glacier. We will return there tomorrow.
October 12, 2017
Today we finally made the climb up to Lyell Glacier. Leaving the trail behind was a tremendously freeing experience that I hope to repeat often. The glaciers we approached feed the headwaters of the Tuolomne and Merced rivers: the grandest rivers in Yosemite. For the mile leading up to it, there is a long ravine full of rocks under which flows the glacial melt. This water eventually comes together and forms a stream which then enters the lakelet which we had explored yesterday. On both sides of the ravine, the talus slope gradually rises, eventually becoming steep and forming the start of the series of peaks that make up Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. This ravine, carved by the glacier, continues north until it drops off suddenly down another talus slope, which leads down to the lakelet upon which we are camped. It is in this way that the saddle is created, which gives us glimpses of Mount Lyell throughout Lyell Canyon, including from our site.
We chose to make the ascent to the base of Mount Lyell along the edge of the western slope as there were much larger rocks on this side. The east side was all talus. The ascent was fun, and when we got close to the glacier, it suddenly looked much larger than it had from afar. At first, we thought we would be able to get right up to the glacier at the base of the peak, but once we reached it, we realized that more scrambling was certainly in order.
The glacier reached lower on the west side, but the slope up to it was steep talus. We decided instead to ascend the eastern slope, where the glacier was higher but the slope was more gradual. At first, the huge slabs of granite were easy to ascend. It reminded me of climbing half dome except for the lack of people, cables, and wear and tear on the rock. My boots held fast onto the hard rock. About halfway up to the glacier, the rock transitioned from large, smooth surfaces to many smaller rocks and large boulders stacked on top of one another. Passing this transition was the most difficult part, and we had to use a few climbing moves to get on top of the boulders. After a few tricky moves, the slope again became gradual, eventually flattening completely. At this point, I walked to the edge of the rock and was suddenly looking down upon the glacier! We climbed up the edge of the rock to a point where we could reach out and touch the glacier with our feet. Under the few inches of fresh snow, the ice seemed as hard as the rock. We each took turns stepping onto the glacier for a photo.
We descended the mountain slowly, making sure to choose the best route we could find. Once we reached the base of the mountain, the rest of the hike down the ravine was easy, though our feet and knees ached. When we reached the first lakelet, we stopped for lunch. I went to where the stream flowed into the lakelet and collected water. At this point, I felt as though I had come full circle. I explored the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, stood upon the glacier from which they were born, and drank from their headwaters.
October 14, 2017
Yesterday we hiked to Ireland Lake. We again took a small detour off trail; this time to experience the river. The river was stunning: deep, full of trout, and iced over in some places. The deep blue-green color running down the middle with paler colors on the edges resembled the lakelet below Mount Lyell. After doubling back north along Lyell Canyon, we veered west, uphill toward Ireland Lake. The day was long, and we tired fast; hiking uphill with packs on is always a tremendous challenge. Finally, before reaching the lake, Amelia Earhart Peak greeted us. We continued uphill for another mile, and then at last topped the hill over which we could see the huge, glistening lake. Where not surrounded by peaks, the shore around Ireland Lake was barren, providing no trees or boulders near which we could find shelter from the wind. Instead we camped atop the hill amongst white-barked pines. I stayed up later into the night than usual, attempting to photograph the wide-open night sky.
Today’s hike was one of the best backpacking days yet: full of gorgeous white peaks flecked with gold, orange, and black. Perhaps I only enjoyed the landscape so much today in particular because I know we’ll be leaving Yosemite soon. The open forests flaunted with gorgeous boulders of all shapes and sizes, the majestic peaks, the brilliant lakes; I could live here forever, though I’d miss pizza. Tomorrow we head to the valley for the first time. I am excited and fearful.
Despite initially sitting in traffic for over an hour to find a place to park at the Visitor Center, our two days in Yosemite Valley were not as bad as we expected. The experience of standing in the valley surrounded by granite walls stretching thousands of feet into the air around you is one like no other. Furthermore, as we were visiting off-season, most of the visitors seemed to be locals, such as the community of climbers camped in clusters at Camp 4. It was an interesting culture to witness. In the end, I wished we had spent more time in Yosemite Valley, but alas, it was time to move on.
I strongly recommend finding a place you love in the wilderness, staying there, and exploring the area for as long as you can. Our journey to Mount Lyell was the most rewarding journeys I’ve ever experienced, and it has taught me heaps about how best to experience the wilderness. That being said, wandering off trail comes with responsibility. At Yosemite, the masses are here, and have been her for some time now. For this reason, it makes sense to me for trails to be developed, (which they are, quite thoroughly), and for the park to encourage people to stay on the trail. If everyone just wandered around wherever they wanted, they would certainly trample many a beautiful shrub, flower, and tree. I justify my own off-trail wanderings as follows: 1. Though the trail system is extensive, there are not many trails that lead to the summit of peaks, for obvious reasons. I appreciate this, because it preserves for the mountaineer the challenge that he or she seeks. Bagging peaks is a hobby for some, and they are certainly allowed off trail to reach their destination. 2. I never step off trail in areas specifically signed as restoration area (“Give plants a chance!”). 3. I go off trail with purpose, and I tread carefully. I would not wander off trail over plants if there is a trail that will bring me to the same place. I will, however, climb a rock that grants me a commanding view and then return to the trail, because the rock is a durable surface and can surely bear my weight on top of soft rubber shoes. When I do find it necessary to walk atop vegetated areas, it is always with a purpose. To reach a mountain, river or tree, for example. When I do so, I tread lightly, avoiding saplings and shrubs. Stephanie and I take different routes in such situations to minimize impact. I am certainly mindful about where I tread, and encourage others to do the same when wandering. Happy (off) trails!