Trip 1999, Yosemite National Park

Return of the Backpacking Home

Trip-99 is a thing of the past, it is complete, done, over, finished. Well, not exactly complete. Let me explain.

This year our group was just a little different from past years. Jesus Briseno joined us again after a one-year sabbatical. There were Big Rich Voss, Little Rich Paragas, Little Dave Cataldo(the NewGuy once again) and myself to help round out the group. To the disappointment of all of us Big Mike King, the self proclaimed King of the Hill, could not make the trip this year. Mike’s witticisms and incessant complaining were a missed feature from passed trips.

Trip-99 had a very aggressive itinerary and pace. It all started with a pleasant 10 hour drive from San Diego to El Portal near the west entrance to Yosemite National Park where we stayed at the Cedar Lodge, site of some gruesome events recently. Thanks to these recent events the hotel was relatively un-crowded and quiet. We enjoyed a nice dinner, a rough night of sleep thanks to Jesus and his melodious sinuses, and then a filling breakfast before departing for points east.

We were to leave the Whitewolf trailhead off of Tioga pass road and commence a descent into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, 10.4 miles away and 4000 feet below. Just how long this type of hike can take varies greatly, as it did with our group. This trail meanders through the forest for several miles before beginning the actual descent. So in actuality one drops the 4000 feet to the river in more like six miles.

I’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and can say from experience that this hike was fast becoming a first class bitch. Jesus, the resident GoatBoy, as Mike likes to call him, was quite happy bouncing his way down the steep switchbacks with his 60-pound load. The rest of us were scattered up the mountain at various intervals, Little Rich and I together and Big Rich and Dave together. Luckily we decided to bring Motorola Talkabout Radios and these little devices worked wonders to keep us all in touch with each other. Being able to keep tabs on each other we felt comfortable spreading out on the trail this way.

Several miles and several thousand feet began to wear on our poor knees; even Jesus was starting to slow down. Big Rich and Dave were having trouble, especially with the heat, since as we descended the temperature went up into the 90’s. We stopped at a creek to refill our water bottles and Platypus bags and waited for Dave and Big Rich to catch up. Once they rested up we were off again.

Most of this trail consists of RipRap; uneven irregular steps made from the granite that has fallen from the cliff above. RipRap makes for some tiresome walking because your ankles are constantly under stress from the uneven surface and the added weight of your backpack. As we neared the river I began to “cheer” every one up by telling them the last mile was flat and should be easy once we got off these monotonous switchbacks. Well, flat is a relative term in the Sierras and of course what looks flat on a 7.5 Degree topo can vary in height by as much as 40 feet on the trail, which of course this trail did, repeatedly. I found a flat spot next to the river that was barely large enough for five tents, we don’t like to share, was barely off the trail and proclaimed this to be our first campsite. The others made it into camp in due time and we enjoyed an invigorating wade into the Tuolumne River before we cooked a late dinner as the sun was setting.

We were notified and lectured several times about the active bears in this area of Yosemite. We decided to hang the food above Jesus’ tent, since his nocturnal rumblings can wake the dead we figured the bears wouldn’t go anywhere near him... We would try to follow this logic several times throughout the trip.

The next morning we wanted to be up and on the trail early but since we like to eat big elaborate breakfasts this didn’t happen. We were at the lowest point on the trail at around 4500 feet. To help with a possibly ebbing morale I like to pep everyone up with “well, today should be an easy day…” Knowing full well that this was a flat out lie.

The trail follows the Tuolumne River up it’s canyon generally staying near the river where it can. But this river gorge gets very steep in sections and forces the trail to go around and sometimes over areas where there is no room for a trail near the water. As we traveled up river the river gains altitude and presents some beautiful rapids and even some small waterfalls. This hike is pleasant even if hot and overgrown. This section of trail apparently sees very little travel because the trail is very overgrown, almost non-existent in some places. We learned quickly not to follow the person in front of you too closely lest you get thwacked in the face by a springy branch. The trail stayed comfortable for several miles but as we neared Muir Gorge and the intersection with a tributary river it begins to gain altitude.

Muir Gorge is too steep for a trail through it so the trail goes around and over it. This means we have to make a 2000 foot climb and a 1000 foot descent to regain the river. The river gains 1000 feet itself in the rugged Muir Gorge. The climb up is once again paved with RipRap most of the way. The trail switchbacks up an almost shear face. The trail tops out right above Muir Gorge and a short scramble brings one to its edge and an interesting view into its depths. From this 6800-foot vantage we can see up the canyon we’ve just walked through. Unfortunately the smoke from the dozens of fires burning above Hetch Hetchy obscured our view. The view is spectacular none-the-less and I spent several minutes here enjoying it.

Once we were all together again we began the 1000-foot descent back to the river. This brought back wonderful memories of the descent from the day before, which our knees were not letting us forget. The trip down was uneventful and we found a nice campsite just a few yards away from, and several feet above, the river. Just below our camp there were large flat blank slabs of granite that led into the water. This was a great place for bathing, swimming, and cleaning. We discovered something however. When algae grow on rocks under water it gets very slippery. When you try to stand on these slick rocks you will not be standing for very long, which we weren’t. We had great fun watching the next person try to walk into or out of the water, flailing about with appendages askew…

Up and out fairly early the next morning I announced the coming of an easy day because it was short. We knew we had some climbing to do on this day so we took our time and paced ourselves. This was the day we were supposed to climb past some of the waterfalls that this canyon is known for. After several difficult hours and miles later we saw the first of several waterfalls. We took breaks near the waterfalls and had a pleasant time. Just before our camp was a strenuous climb to get above Waterwheel falls.

By this point words like Epic, Toughest, Best Views and SOB were all being used to describe this trail and we had yet to find out just what we had camped next to. We all wanted to clean up and headed down to the river for a quick bath. We could hear the falls on the other side of the rocks so I headed over to check it out. Since the water flow in late August is relatively low we were able to stand almost in the middle of a cliff that in early spring is a raging torrent of water. Looking down the valley we could see almost all the way down to Pate Valley where we’d started several days before. We could stand as close to the water as we dared and not another soul was around. We spent some time enjoying the scene and taking pictures of each other near the water. This was just an awesome view well worth the price of getting there.

The next leg of our trip passed several more waterfalls, climbed over more steep terrain and passed through the high country camp at Glen Aulin, which we’d heard had a small store. We spent the morning listening to Big Rich tell us how he was going lunch on a big cheeseburger. Myself, I was looking forward to picking up a 6-pack of beer and availing myself of whatever facilities they may have. Everyone else was looking forward to partaking in a shopping spree of epic proportions. Needless to say we were all left a little high and dry when the best the store could offer was some lifesavers, Franks and Beans, and a small can of peaches. These were still a treat after four days of Mac-n-Cheese and eaten with gusto.

Our next, and ultimately our last, camp was next to McGee Lake, which the Ranger had told us would be the most challenging place to protect our food. True to form we had seen several LARGE piles of bear scat full of candy wrappers and foil on the trail to McGee Lake. Also on the approach to the lake it began to rain.

We found a nice, big campsite at the south end of the lake and set up in preparation of some serious wet dumping. Since the bears were supposed to be very aggressive here we waited for Jesus to set up his tent then decided to hang the food in the tree he put his tent next to… Once camp was established I crawled into my tent and took a nap to wait out the rain. The rain never stopped and I got hungry so I got up and joined the others around our wet, burning, however smoky, fire and cooked my dinner in the rain. It wasn’t cold and my jacket kept me perfectly dry so it was fairly comfortable. After dinner I made a cheesecake and set it aside as is our after dinner habit. Then the rain decided to really come down so everyone called it a night and turned in. With the threat of bears I couldn’t leave the cheesecake out so I tried to eat some of it. When it got too soggy I dumped it into the smoldering fire and cleaned the pan. I stirred up the fire, got it mostly out and hit the sack myself.

Several times in the night I thought I heard our cooking gear being disturbed and thought a bear might be around. I poked my head out once or twice and never saw anything but got a face full of water for my efforts. About two hours before sunrise the rain stopped and I was able to sleep a little easier without the noise. By the next morning I came to the conclusion that there are NO BEARS IN THE SIERRAS! I don’t care what the brochures say, what the rangers say, or what your cousin Jimmy Joe says happened to him in the woods, THERE ARE NO BEARS IN THE SIERRAS! NONE! (These sentiments are strictly the opinion of the author and have little bearing as to the actual bear population in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.) BUT THERE AINT NONE!

We were up early and I was preparing myself for what was supposed to be our hardest day, a 3000-foot climb up to Tuolumne peak ridge, the highest point on this trip. I’d just come back from washing my breakfast dishes when Big Rich says to me “Ray, I’m not being a puss or anything but I’ve got to walk out today.” As luck would have it McGee lake was our closest camp to a trailhead, in this case Tuolumne meadows. It turns out that the week before we’d left Rich had cut the bottom of his foot and had been taking pain and anti-inflammatory medicine until he’d run out the day before. The pounding on his foot had become too much. Several others had been struggling to this point and quickly jumped on the bandwagon headed toward Tuolumne meadows. Not wanting to finish the trip alone I too agreed to head to Tuolumne meadows.

The closer we got to the meadows the more people we came across; this was probably the most entertaining portion of our trip. This hike was pleasant in its own right and reasonably short at six miles. Our problem lay in the fact that our cars were parked at Whitewolf 25 miles away. Once we got to Tuolumne meadows we headed to the visitor center and found that a shuttle bus was headed to Whitewolf leaving in 45 minutes. Due to the logistics of getting everyone and their gear to the bus stop we decided that Big Rich and I would take the bus, get the car, and return to pick up everyone else. This is what we did, after getting some beer, a couple of cokes, some chips, (Pigskins for Rich, blech) and a paper. We got everyone back to WhiteWolf showered up and hit the road. Of course this was after Ranger Biff Anderson of the Mounted Ranger Police decided to see if at 6 foot and 200 pounds I could handle one whole beer without being impaired. I blew a 0.00.

Around 5:00 the next morning I pulled up to my house exhausted and went to bed. A good, if shortened, trip that I wouldn’t mind repeating and completing someday. It has some good hard hiking and some breathtaking views, as well as climbs.