Lost Creek Wilderness {November 2011}

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Day 4}

Day Four, Monday June 20th: Half Dome

Standing on the summit of Half Dome subsequent to an unconventional climb felt remarkably absurd. In true Kat & Justin style, nothing about our experience was ordinary ~ enveloped by tranquility and a sense of accomplishment unlike anything I have ever felt, being here was the best moment of my life.

We had originally planned to climb Half Dome on June 21st as a day hike if we couldn’t secure a last-minute wilderness permit for Little Yosemite Valley. What happened next turned our frustration at rude and incompetent park rangers into awe at a chain reaction of favorable incidents. Upon extensive research, I discovered that we had the option to camp anywhere we wanted as long as we were beyond the designated campground and below a certain elevation. Although I explained this via telephone to Mark, an extremely unhelpful and bad-mannered park ranger, he denied any such camping existed and continued to berate me on my apparent lack of permit etiquette. Then, a few weeks before the trip, I finally managed to speak to a ranger who not only knew about the dispersed camping situation, but understood our dilemma and fixed it by issuing a wilderness permit then and there. He even rearranged the dates and changed our previously-confirmed Rancheria Falls permit to reflect the new schedule. Consequently, we were guaranteed camping solitude as well as the opportunity of summiting Half Dome on June 20th. One potential issue remained … the cables weren’t scheduled to be put in place for the season until Wednesday June 22nd, two days later.

--- The braided steel cables are always on the mountain, it’s just a matter of whether they’re “up” or not. During the offseason, they simply lie on the rock and there are no wooden boards in place to use as footholds. When the snow situation has worked itself out, the cables are raised onto a series of metal poles at regular intervals so people can hold onto them at waist-level on both sides. Some claim that, when the cables are down, the Half Dome ascent becomes the province of climbers rather than hikers; this is entirely true.  ---

Just like the snowplows on Going-to-the-Sun Road and Tioga Pass, we continuously checked the status of the cables. Once we found out that they would not be in place for the day of our hike, we packed climbing gear and hoped for the best. This then explains my ominous thoughts the evening prior; photos of Half Dome without cables look downright petrifying. Moreover, the views from Olmstead Point and the Valley had made the climb appear nearly impossible. Even as we hiked the last few steps of the steep sub-dome and stood in plain sight of the dome itself, I said “There’s just no way” out loud, over and over.

I maintained this mindset even as we watched a few (literally, a few - it may as well have been deserted up there) people go up and come back down again. Though I love to climb mountains, I truly am wary of routes that combine height with significant exposure. After 30 minutes of analyzing, mentally preparing, and continuing to utter unsure statements (“You can go, and I’ll just wait right here on this rock for you”) something in me snapped. I fastened my harness, put my gloves on, and told Justin that we’d better go before I changed my mind.

A mere 400 vertical feet separated us from the summit of Half Dome ... it should take the average person about 15 minutes when the cables are in place and the crowd factor is a non-issue. For us, this section of the climb was quite labor-intensive requiring a strong grip and, primarily, upper body strength to pick the steel cables up and haul ourselves along while pausing every so often to clip in and out or switch cables altogether. Of course, I was shaking throughout the ascent … but I actually enjoyed myself! Climbing involves strategy and precision, both of which require attention and focus (making it more difficult to think about or look at how far down we could potentially fall). I did have a minor freak-out moment halfway up when I couldn’t find anywhere to put my feet while un-clipping and was saved, as always, by Justin’s calm attitude. Words fail me as I attempt to relay my feelings on the summit or describe the stunning views of Yosemite and its granite landscape from the best possible perspective in the park.

Each person we chatted with either on the summit or en route told us that going down was easier than going up. Not at all! I hated every second of the descent, and my lower back was painfully sore from tenseness for the next few days. The problem with going down is that you have to look where you’re going … down. It also took a while to figure out the best method (cable between your legs vs. cable off to the side). Justin had no trouble, as usual. Upon returning to the safety of the sub-dome, I almost started crying out of joy. We each opened a beer and toasted to a most unforgettable experience while gazing at the route we’d just taken up and back again; it still looked insane to me, maybe even more so.

The hike back to our campsite and the car was uneventful. We decided to take the John Muir Trail to avoid an inevitable soaking on the Mist Trail and to spare our knees unnecessary strain on those killer steps. On the way, we were rewarded with perfect views of our recent conquest as well as Nevada and Vernal Falls pouring into the Merced River below. We even met a man who could have been a modern John Muir himself: older, passionate about the wildness of Yosemite, and slightly crazed. I could imagine him speaking Muir’s words as if they were his own: ‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves’.

Half Dome (left) & Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail
And so concludes one of the most memorable days . . . 

PS: This is what the route looks like on a typical summer day when the cables are in place (the NPS does issue up to 400 permits per day). Thank God we were able to climb it under MUCH better circumstances!

Distance: approximately 16 miles round-trip from the Valley (and quite steep)
Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,842 feet
Time: 10-12 hours on average . . . I really can't be sure how 'long' it took us
Insanity Factor: 10 out of 10, easily (the way we did it)
Hazardous/Fatal? Mmmhmm!
Worth it? Totally

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Day 3}

Day Three, Sunday June 19th: Across Tioga Pass, into Yosemite & up the Mist Trail

Last June, due to substantial snowpack that I imagine was even worse this year, Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road failed to open in accordance with our plans. Not only does it present a huge challenge for plows in the spring, but it is the only road that bisects the park and allows for convenient east-west travel. As our trip neared, we obsessive-compulsively checked the plowing status every hour and were eventually forced to rearrange our initial schedule. On day seven, after having spent the past two nights on the boundary between Canada and the United States, we left Waterton and prayed the road would open so we could access the remote western side of Glacier. Minutes (literally) subsequent to its official opening, we were already on Going-to-the Sun driving west. While preparation certainly pays off, so does flexibility and the willingness to change your plans (which usually results in better circumstances anyway --- in this case, an improved schedule, hardly any traffic and the satisfaction of being among the first people atop Logan Pass for the season).

This year, the opening of Tioga Pass became an unexpected issue. The day before we left Denver, the NPS announced that the road would be passable beginning Saturday June 18th ... the day before we would be entering the park. Though it cannot compare to Glacier's 50-mile 'highway', Tioga Road does offer pretty spectacular views of Yosemite's granite peaks (including an introductory glimpse of Half Dome, the next day's challenge).

Half Dome from Olmstead Point
Yosemite in the summertime is an absolute zoo. I thought we would be off-season enough to avoid significant crowds in the Valley (and we were, it does get worse) … but still! If you have any sense at all, find your way into that backcountry as soon as possible! Unfortunately, we had to drive into Yosemite Valley to pick up our Half Dome wilderness permit; the entire ordeal cost us nearly two and a half hours, not counting the time necessary to locate the trailhead, pack our backpacks, and bear-proof our car. I was hoping we could reach our campsite with enough daylight to enjoy the Mist Trail and avoid unnecessary leg soreness. It felt strange to be hiking without proper park orientation … usually we spend the first night car-camping at an actual campground to get a better sense of our surroundings.

Yosemite Falls from the Valley
The Mist Trail is STEEP … prepare yourself for an intense workout, particularly if you intend to backpack. From the Happy Isles trailhead to our chosen campsite beyond Little Yosemite Valley, we hiked approximately 6.5 miles with close to 2,500 feet of elevation gain. The Mist Trail is also WET … prepare to get a good soaking from Vernal Falls, especially during spring and early summer (the snowpack as of April 1st this year was 178% of expected!!) But the rainbows, the views and the workout itself are absolutely worth every steep step. 

Vernal Falls (& Nevada Falls below)

Justin and I were both surprised at how quickly we reached Little Yosemite Valley, the designated backcountry campground for this area. However, our permit allowed us to create our own campsite at least a mile beyond as long as there was an existing fire ring and signs of previous impact. We found one about 100 feet off-trail and quickly changed into dry clothes before the mosquitoes descended upon our sweaty skin. I can’t even remember what we cooked for dinner; I was preoccupied with ominous thoughts that made me feel terrified and exhilarated, equally … we were going to climb Half Dome without the cables in the morning … 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Days 1 & 2}

The Sierra Nevada, less commonly referred to in its translated form (the Snowy Range) or as the Range of Light (John Muir)

My favorite photo of Yosemite Valley: Half Dome, Vernal & Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

June 17th-26th: Ten days across Utah, Nevada and California. This trip arose as the answer to a semi-serious question Justin and I asked ourselves upon returning home from the Grand Canyon in January: "Where should we go next?" By mid-February, we had most of the details worked out and by early March, we had secured permits for all of our backcountry outings as well as a day-hike permit allowing us to ascend Half Dome (Half Dome Cables). Additionally, we had reservations to stay overnight at Oak Flat fire lookout tower in the Sequoia National Forest on Friday June 24th. Early preparation truly does reward in an organized and stress-free trip, especially as the demand for permits in Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks is rather high, comparatively. Of course, we still left ample room for flexibility as we know that plans are often subject to the uncontrollable forces of chance and change (choosing a last-minute backcountry site in Yellowstone, Humboldt Peak route-finding, Going-to-the-Sun's delayed opening in Glacier, etc).

Day One, Friday June 17th: Denver to Great Basin, Nevada

Summer is undoubtedly the best season for road trips, namely because the sun does not set until well after 8 pm. Therefore, achieving a crack-of-dawn departure was not at all a high priority for us. Following a Starbucks and Einstein's stop, we left Denver around 7:30 am and arrived in Great Basin (near Baker, Nevada) a bit before 5 pm with plenty of light to spare. We chose a perfect primitive campsite along the Snake Creek, which was flowing high, and cracked a beer.

Before darkness set in, we played several games of horseshoes, photographed beautiful wildflowers, cooked salmon and asparagus for dinner, and chatted with a guy (the only one around) for a few minutes about his bird research -- actually, it probably ended up being nearly 45 minutes as he and Justin seemed to have many things in common. By nightfall, the calming sound of the creek made us tired and we fell asleep within minutes.

Day Two, Saturday June 18th: Great Basin to the Eastern Sierra

The Great Basin includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, California and Oregon and is named as such because water drains internally - all precipitation either evaporates, sinks underground, or flows into saline lakes; there is no outlet to the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. Great Basin National Park preserves only a small piece of this entire 200,000 square mile region. On our drive towards the Eastern Sierra, where we'd spend the night, we passed through multiple basin-range alternating combinations ... this part of Nevada is quite pretty.

Black Rock Lava Flow

By late afternoon, we crossed into California and soon arrived, via scribbled-down directions, at a remote natural hot spring off Benton Crossing Road. Naked late-night hippies and Yosemite locals made this experience all the more interesting ... on the whole, a wonderful and unique way to celebrate two years of traveling, exploring and happiness together :)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Photo Link}

Because it will take some time to write an entry detailing this entire trip I will, at the very least, attach a link to an extensive photo album I've posted to my Facebook account. Enjoy :)

La Plata Peak {14,336'}

La Plata Peak {The Silver Peak}; Sawatch Range
Elevation: 14,336’
Route: Southwest Ridge
RT distance & time: 7 miles; 6.5 hours (including photo & rest breaks, plus summit time)

Monument Plant (green gentian): flowers only once in it's 80-year lifespan
Located in the Sawatch Range between the towns of Leadville and Buena Vista, La Plata Peak is the 5th highest mountain in Colorado at 14,336 feet in elevation. Its name means ‘silver’ in Spanish, which is likely due to the silver deposits found in the area as well as the nearby silver mining ghost towns of Winfield and Hamilton. I have to say, besides sunrise on top of Mount Belford, this was my favorite fourteener hike to date. I am also happy to report that we did not encounter any navigational issues which, after Humboldt last month, made for a relaxing and stress-free climb. La Plata was #17 for me, #14 for Justin, and #2 for Kona, who just turned one year.

Since it was Fourth of July weekend, one of the busiest in the high-country, we decided to climb La Plata via the slightly less popular Southwest Ridge route. We also opted not to camp the night prior to our hike, which is unusual for us. The dirt road to the trailhead requires a high-clearance vehicle and attentive driving to avoid significant potholes, ruts, and rocks … and to arrive at the trailhead without making any wrong turns. The trail is somewhat steep at the outset as it follows a stream but, quite quickly, we reached an expansive meadow above treeline with a view of the ridge. Here, we encountered willows, snow fields, water, and a muddy mess; Kona loved it. Upon reaching the ridge ascent, we decided to follow an alternate path upwards. Though steep, our route was quick and did indeed connect us to the ridge at a point closer to our next uphill goal.

Justin in the muddy willow basin; SW ridge view
Kona in the stream that parallels the trail

As we began switchbacking and boulder hopping up the north/northeast slope, several people were heading down; one guy informed us that storms were building on the east side of the peak, and that we were still an hour and a half from the unseen summit. Justin and I looked at each other with an unspoken agreement that we would continue unless conditions became sketchy (this turned out to be an excellent judgment call). From here, it probably took us an hour to reach the summit, and skies were clear and blue above us. I could see darker clouds surrounding Huron to the south, but we were in a perfect pocket of sunshine complete with superb 360 degree views and summit solitude. 

We cheers’d (can you make that into a verb?) to cooperative weather and the serenity atop Colorado’s 5th highest peak with a Samurai rice ale compliments of Great Divide. I’m not sure anything can top the views from La Plata – we could see Elbert and Massive directly to the north; Huron, Missouri, Belford, and Oxford directly to the south (as well as Yale, Columbia, and Harvard in the distance); and even the Elks to the west. 

Just as we were preparing to depart, two guys arrived from the Northwest Ridge route. They were very friendly, and it was nice to chat with them for a few minutes; they’d begun hiking at 5:30 that morning and finally made it to the summit around 2:00pm - talk about a long day! Fortunately, the route down was uneventful for us; Justin fell on his ass twice descending the “normal” trail back into the basin, and I slid once into a dense collection of willows. Perhaps this section of trail is in need of some maintenance … Kona was excited to play in the mud once again, and the car was right where we left it when we returned. Most likely a result of climbing Half Dome two weeks ago, as well as backpacking a decent number of miles throughout Yosemite, I felt in great physical condition and my legs still have not succumbed to post-climb soreness. All in all, one of the more pleasant hikes … and undoubtedly the best views!

Alpine flowers along the ridge (Sayres Benchmark is the prominent peak)

On a more serious note: I am sincerely sad to hear about the recent deaths of Makana and Michael Von Gortler on Missouri Mountain (a 14er within a few miles of La Plata). This news is truly heartbreaking, but it’s also terrifyingly relevant to me and all other backcountry hikers. Something like this can happen to anyone at any given time on these peaks regardless of experience level … simply put, nature always wins … especially above 14,000’. Not only must we respect our own limits, but we must respect the mountain and understand that we are temporary and greatly inferior visitors. Four deaths within a week on our peaks …Rough start to the season before it’s even officially begun. Prayers and prayers.

… Hopefully I can now find motivation to write about ten days in the Sierra Nevada …