Yosemite: July 2011 – Trip Report

Monday, 11 July 2011

Gotta love flying west. Jeff and I left XNA around 1pm, flew to Sacramento via Denver and arrived around 5pm that afternoon. Just in time to get in a rental car and head for the hills. Our goal was to get to the park before dark, so we might find our way around. The plan ALMOST worked.

We drove and drove and drove and drove, and finally started seeing signs for Yosemite. The closer we got, the cuter the towns. We drove through several little tourist towns — signs everywhere for tours, rentals, bed & breakfasts. And we were steadily gaining elevation. At one point, our printed Yahoo Maps directions had us take a slight shortcut off the main highway. As we turned, we saw a sign warning us to turn off the AC in the car. Now THAT’S an incline. I watched the GPS as we climbed about 1500 feet in 4 minutes!

Just outside the park, I just had to stop and snap a picture of the sunset. We weren’t going to make it to our lodge by sundown, but how can you pass this up?

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We drove the rest of the way in darkness. And boy does it get dark! Not many street lights in the park — and not a whole heck of a lot of navigation… It seemed that everything was named something pretty similar, and we felt like we were going in circles.

Finally! We saw signs for Curry Village, where we had reservations for one night and where (we hoped!) we would be close to our meeting spot for the next morning. We checked in at the lodge and went – in the dark – in search of our tent cabin. After some wandering we finally found someone to point us in the right direction.

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#978! Home sweet home! Complete with bear locker!

We were STARVING so I quit taking pictures in the dark and we headed out in search of food. It was approaching 10:00 so our options were limited. We ordered a few hot dogs and shared a bottle of water, and ate quickly – anxious to get back to the tent and hopefully get some sleep. While we ate though, it was pretty amusing to take in the atmosphere at the “snack bar”. It was just like every backpacker hostel I’d been to in Europe — young people, social scene. We were the only people I saw that looked anxious to get some sleep. Everyone else looked like they were just getting started for the night.

We ate our hot dogs and eventually found our way back to the tent amongst grumblings to one another about our advice to anyone visiting the park — do what you have to do to get there in the daylight!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

What a difference a day makes! Coming in the night before afforded us an easy morning of sleeping in a bit and finding some breakfast before heading out for the hike. We stumbled upon a breakfast buffet and made a valiant effort to eat $12 worth of eggs, sausage and waffles. On our way back from breakfast we noticed a small group of people had gathered on the sidewalk ahead.

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Hey, he needs breakfast, too!

It’s true that things always look better in the morning. Daylight made it much easier to get our bearings and we found our way around the camp in no time. A quick shower, gear sorting – and we were off to find the rest of our group.

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Unfortunately, the daylight can’t improve upon everything in the valley being named the same thing… We stopped a ranger and asked directions to the Yosemite Valley Store and he hesitated to tell us that there is more than one… But we finally found the right place and met the rest of our group: Chris & Tina (from San Francisco), Henry (from Philadelphia), and Scott (our guide, from Flagstaff, Arizona). Scott guides for a company called Four Season Guides – out of Flagstaff. They guide tours all over the Southwest, California and Colorado. After introductions and group gear distribution – we were ready to roll.

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Our packs were around 40 pounds and we both hiked in shorts and hiking shoes that first day. The weather was great – sunny and clear.

Starting on the valley floor meant we had some uphill climbing to do. The valley is around 2000 ft in elevation and we camped in Little Yosemite Valley at 6100 ft. So it was UP. All day.

We started walking at Happy Isles Trailhead — a densely populated area of the valley. Most visitors to the park camp in the valley and take day hikes up into the park, so the foot traffic down low was unreal. The first few times we saw a kiddo about the age of Colt, we pointed him out and smiled. Oh look, there’s a little guy! We soon lost count. There were families, babies, couples, kids – you name it. All shapes, sizes and ages. I overheard conversations in multiple languages as we made our way through the crowds and up the trail — it seems people from all over the world recognize the majesty of this place.

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We weren’t in any big hurry, making our way up. The scenery is gorgeous, and – especially from the valley floor – everything is larger than life as you look up and take it in. After about 4 miles on the John Muir Trail, we made it to Nevada Fall.

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The Sierras had incredible snowfall this winter and we reaped the benefits by way of some extraordinarily high water levels in the river and the waterfalls. Not that it’s ever down to a trickle, but the water levels are typically much lower than this in July. Lucky us!

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Unfortunately, the water levels make the falls beautiful – and dangerous. Most injuries and deaths in Yosemite are related to the water – people underestimate the power and speed of the rushing river.

When we took our packs off to walk around the falls a bit, I couldn’t help but snap this picture. The pack on the left is Scott’s, our guide. The blue one on the right is mine. Mine felt really big and heavy until I saw them side-by-side like this. He was carrying close to 100 pounds!

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I’m not a big fan of bridges, so I made Jeff take my picture on this bridge as proof that I walked on it! And this was just one of the first we encountered during the week — there were MANY water crossings throughout the park. Some had bridges – some didn’t.

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Packs back on. About a mile after Nevada Fall, we set up camp for the night in Little Yosemite Valley. We camped near the river so while Scott got supper started we headed to the water in hopes of a nice, relaxing foot soak. We knew the water would be cold, but we weren’t prepared for just HOW cold. I dipped my toes, but didn’t go much further. The water was FREEZING.

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After a quick dip, it was time for supper. Here’s the dining room:

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Eating and drinking is really important on a trip like this because you burn so much energy during the day. Guides will typically encourage snacking and water throughout the day via breaks, but Scott really went all out for our meals. We had an appetizer (usually nuts or crackers), main course (pasta with meat and vegetables) and dessert (M&Ms, Rice Krispy Treats, etc.) for every meal all week! And as cool as that is – cooking and preparing full meals in the wilderness and all – it gets better.

All food and toiletries – anything with a scent – has to be stored in a bear canister. And the bear canister goes in your pack. We knew this when we planned the trip, but we underestimated just how big and inconvenient these things really are. (I did a lot of internal whining when it was determined my big camera would be staying in the car to make room for this beast.)

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Every day we would line up our bear canisters at camp so Scott could go diving for supper ingredients, cups & bowls, etc. Everything he cooked fit into these things. Along with all of our toiletries and anything else with a scent — even Chapstick! At night, we would leave them in the middle of camp, away from our tents, to protect us from any curious bears.

So. Supper.

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Then we organized our stuff for the night and hit the sack.

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Day 1 – 6.5 miles. (Approximation. My GPS had trouble locking on a satellite lower in the valley.)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Usually, it’s tough to sleep too late when you’re camping, but we were in a grove of trees that blocked out the sunlight for a bit and we got a few extra minutes in the morning. After some coffee and breakfast – and a handful of deer sightings, it was back on the trail.

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We followed the Merced River most of the day, winding through the backcountry. Back at camp we had been able to see pieces of Half Dome through the trees, but as we walked that second day we got a little better angle of it.

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MUCH more about Half Dome later.

Scott had a knack for finding beautiful, SHADY spots for us to take breaks and eat lunch on the trail.

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We were still hiking uphill most of the second day, enjoying many waterfalls and rapids along the river. The crowds from the valley floor were nowhere to be seen and we only came across a few other hikers that day. One such friendly hiker insisted on taking some pictures of our group.

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And after a bit, it was time for a lunch break.

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Not long after lunch, we hit our campsite for the night. We set up camp and put everything in bear canisters then set out with daypacks for the afternoon. Without full packs, we could move faster and it was a nice break for our backs. We camped along the Merced River again, further upstream.

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We spent the afternoon following the Merced River upstream to Merced Lake – the only still water we’d seen all week. The lake was beautiful with the mountains reflected in the water and wildlife scurrying all around us. Camping nearer the still water of the lake would have meant some pretty crazy mosquitoes, so we were happy to see it for the afternoon then head back to our campsite along the rapids of the river.

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The water levels were a little higher than usual…

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And we did some messing around at the lake before heading back to camp for supper, a nice warm campfire, and bedtime. We fell asleep with the roar of the river just a few feet away.

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Day 2 – 12 miles.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

By this time, we were starting to stink. You know – back o’ my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty. Seriously. Each night it was a little more difficult to zip the flap on our tent and trap ourselves in there – with ourselves. Romantic, huh?

Also by this time, I’d developed pretty painful foot issues. Tired feet from running combined with tired, sore feet from hiking meant I spent each morning having Scott help me doctor my feet so my poor, blistered pinky toes didn’t fall off.

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We packed up camp and starting walking. Our plan for Day 3 was to set up camp near the base of Half Dome so we’d be ready for an early summit the next morning. 

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One of the things I found incredible about Yosemite is the variety of terrain. We hiked through woods. We hiked over granite. We hiked along marshy riverbanks. All in the same day. This day we saw a lot of granite. Larger granite slabs that meant not a lot of shade. 

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But we also crossed through some forest and saw a few more water crossings.

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We reached camp fairly early – around lunch time – with the same plan as the day before. Drop the packs, set up camp, and take daypacks for our afternoon hike. We camped at the base of Clouds Rest – a peak rising 9930 ft in elevation with a beautiful view of the park, including Half Dome. The trail to Clouds Rest was our goal for the afternoon. After lunch we headed up.

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The trail was the steepest we’d seen all week. Long stretches of uphill trail, lots of switchbacks. And we could see clouds rolling in. Worried mostly about what the clouds might mean for our Half Dome hike, we were also getting less confident in our chances to get to the peak of Clouds Rest and back to camp before dark. We got about 2/3 of the way up – or about 3 miles from camp – before we decided to head back down. But not before we stopped and enjoyed the view.

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After trying to steal a few photos of a not so cooperative deer on the trail, it was back to camp and time for supper.

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Everybody was ready for an early night as our wake up call would be at 4:15 for our Half Dome hike the next morning.

Day 3 – 11 miles.

Friday, 15 July 2011

I had worried about this day since Christmas. Jeff and I sat at my parents’ house on Christmas day and decided to take this trip and make this hike. And after almost seven months of worrying and more than a few nightmares about everything that could/might/probably-not-going-to happen, I woke up in a tent in the middle of the Sierras at 4am — ready or not.

I’d spent most of the night before getting myself worked up about it. And I kept trying to remind myself that I’d felt that way before. I distinctly remember the night before we summited Mt. Whitney in 2010 — I felt the same way. Doubtful and scared. It’s a mental game as much as it is a physical game, and I was losing. But I did it then, and I was determined to do it again.

We found out just how hard it is to force-feed yourself oatmeal at 4 in the morning, then we set off. There was a full moon, which we couldn’t see for the cloud cover, so we hiked with head lamps until the sun came up.

Camping so close to the base of Half Dome meant we could beat the crowds – and the weather – and be down from the top before lunch. Day hikers coming up from the valley floor have a 16-mile roundtrip hike ahead of them in order to summit Half Dome, and it’s recommended they start before 6am in order to get back before sundown. That’s a LONG day of hiking, my friends.

Not us. We were on the trail by 5am and we were only a few miles away.

If you’re not familiar with Half Dome – and thus confused by my freak out – watch this:

 

See? Scary. I’d spent 6+ months reading every website and watching every YouTube video I could find. At first, I did it to ease my fears. And I found myself pointing out people in the videos — if SHE can do it, then *I* can do it. But it didn’t matter how many people told me it’s only a 45-50 degree angle. Those cables look like a ladder. Straight. Up.

But there we were. On the trail toward Half Dome. That’s the thing — the cables are the most famous part of the trail, but they are actually only the last 400 feet. It takes a few miles of steep granite steps and switchbacks just to get to the base of the cables. And I’m forever grateful to the other folks in our group for taking photos during the upper section of the hike as I was much too focused on one foot in front of the other to even think about snapping photos.

Right around the tree line, you find this friendly little warning in the middle of the trail.

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Low clouds, but no sign of rain or storms. So we kept moving. I knew every step I made toward the top meant a step back down. Afterall, the summit is only halfway. And, honestly, I was more worried about coming back down than I was about making it to the top. But I focused on my feet and I tried to turn around once in a while and enjoy the sunrise, and before I knew it we were at the cables.

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It isn’t until you get right down to the bottom of the cables that the thing looks doable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s steep. But it truly took looking at it from that first step to convince me this was actually going to happen.

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Gloves on. Zippers and bags and glasses and hats secured. And we started up.

The clouds were actually a huge help. I couldn’t see the top of the rock so I had no real concept of how high I was climbing. I just focused on the distance between my feet and the next 2×4. Over and over – all the way up. Unfortunately, my leg strength didn’t help me much on the cables and I had to summon every ounce of power in my puny little arms to pull myself up. But hand over hand, step by step we made it to the top.

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And we were sitting in a cloud. The views I had read about and the pictures I had seen of the summit — were nowhere to be seen. It was one big foggy cloud. Another blessing as I couldn’t “look down” and realize how high we were on top of a big granite rock in the middle of the mountains.

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We rested, had a snack and took some photos. Then it was time for the part of the trip I’d been dreading even more than going up the cables — going DOWN the cables. By now, there were a few other groups on top and several more making their way up the trail, so I knew we’d have to pass several hikers on the way down. (There’s only one set of cables. Up AND down.) But again, the clouds saved me. What we sacrificed in a beautiful view from the top, I was gaining in confidence on the cables. Focusing again on only the distance between my feet and the next 2×4, I inched my way down, pulling over to let hikers go by on their way to the top.

One foot in front of the other. All the way down.

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It had only taken us 25 minutes each way on the cables — this was considered excellent time — and we were again thankful for our early start as we passed MANY hikers on the lower part of the trail. I can only imagine what the traffic on the cables was like even just an hour after we were down. It was a pretty strange feeling as I watched the steady stream of people passing us on the trail — I knew what they were about to face and I knew that most of them had a very long day of hiking ahead of them.

On the way back down the trail we bumped into a guy and his little boy – headed up. We couldn’t help but say hi and share a few encouraging words as they were headed for the cables. The boy told us he was 8 years old and had every intention of getting to the top of that rock. (We saw them later on the lower portion of the trail – he made the summit!)

Steep steps, lots of switchbacks, and we eventually made it back down below the tree line. Time to head back, break camp, and hike back down to the valley.

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The trail took us back by Nevada Fall (we hiked by it on Day 1), and we stopped for a rest and a few more pictures.

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Down, down, down. Around Nevada Fall, we caught back up with the crowds of people from Day 1. It was strange hiking through all those people after a few days of near solitude in the backcountry. Before we knew it, we were back at the car.

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Day 4 – 12.5 miles. (Approximation again. GPS died around mile 10.)

And it was time to say goodbye. We exchanged email addresses and promised to share photos, and we all went our separate ways. Chris and Tina headed back to their three kiddos in San Francisco, Henry stuck around in the valley another day or two to see a bit more of the park, Scott headed back to Flagstaff, and Jeff and I got in the car bound for Sacramento International Airport. (But not before heading back to Curry Village for a shower. Remember the stink I mentioned? Yeah – it hadn’t done any improving by the end of Day 4.)

After all the talk of bears, Jeff was sorely disappointed that we didn’t see any. The last morning during breakfast, Scott told us there had been a bear in camp the night before. He showed us the bathroom kit (toilet paper and a small garden spade…) which he’d found shredded and thrown 20 feet down a hill. He said he had heard the bear that night, sniffing around for food, probably disappointed that the only thing available was toilet paper! So no real bear sightings. Which is FINE with me. Maybe next time.

Farewell Yosemite!

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