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- This way is not the way
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- This way is definitely not the way
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Category Archives: Hiking
On a brilliant, sunny autumn afternoon Mark and I left the Tennessee Valley parking lot. Past the horse barns we climbed the Old Springs Trail to the Miwok Trail. We followed the Miwok Trail to the Wolf Ridge Trail, and then headed for the heights facing the ocean as the sun set into a fog bank. Two minutes later we were surrounded by fog as well. We made our way back down the trail in a thick fog and gathering dusk. The fog opened once for a few seconds in the twilight to give this view of Mount Tamalpais across Tennessee Valley.
[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens at 31mm (46.5mm in 35mm terms), four exposures combined in Photoshop (1/3 of a second, 1 second, 2 seconds, and 4 seconds) at f/5.6 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]
[Note: this is a reposting of a story originally published in July 2005.]
© Harold Davis – Thousand Islands Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, July 2, 2005
About a week ago I organized a solo hiking trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The Ansel Adams Wilderness is administratively part of Inyo National Forest, and lies just south of Yosemite National Park in the high Sierra. It’s accessible to hikers from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains off Route 395, which runs past Mono Lake and through Owens Valley. Here’s the general area in question shown as a Google Satellite image. My goal was to go camp beside Thousand Islands Lake, where I’d spent some time thirty years or so ago in my backpacking glory years. The lake is nestled under Banner Peak and Mount Ritter. I thought it would make good photographic material for the digital equipment I’ve been playing with lately. It’s spectacular country, and there are many islands in Thousand Islands Lake, although probably not one thousand of them. (You’d hardly know there were any from the picture above with the lake mostly under snow.)
I had about a day to make my preparations. I finished up Chapter 9 of the book about Google I am working on, and swung into gear. It had been a while since I had been backpacking, so I needed to remember what stuff to bring, to shop for food, load a backpack and make sure I could carry it, and get a wilderness permit.
The wilderness permit part of it was easy. I called the reservation number at Inyo National Forest, and for $5.00 on my Visa card got a wilderness permit which would be left for me in the night drop box at the Mono Lake Visitors Center in Lee Vining. Lee Vining is on the eastern side of Tioga Pass. The pass had opened a few days before following one of the heaviest snow years in recorded history in the Sierras.
As I chatted with the reservations ranger, he told me that there was lots of snow (I knew that already), and that I probably wouldn’t see too many people or mosquitos on my trip. I said both of these were good things. He also told me I needed to carry my food in an approved bear-resistant container. These bear canisters are made of molded plastic and use screws that you turn with a coin (or back of a spoon) to make it difficult for a bear to get inside. Personally, I kind of think that if a bear can get into a car trunk, a bear can probably get into one of these things. But regulations are regulations, so I added a bear food storage thing to my list of supplies to buy at REI (Recreational Equipment).
I also wanted to figure out a way to store my digital images in the field without having to use a whole mess of memory cards, so I bought a 40 Gigabyte battery operated photo storage gadget. I’ll be writing more about digital photo field storage options in a subsequent blog entry.
After my day shopping, organizing, and preparing I loaded my food in the bear canister, and the canister, sleeping bag, tent, cameras, and so on, into my backpack, and shouldered the backpack. With my backpack, probably about forty-five pounds, and in my hiking boots, I walked to the top of Marin Ave, a pretty straight up road that goes up about 1200 feet here to the top of the Berkeley hills. I was sweating, but I could do it! I felt good. I though to myself, “I may be fifty-something, but I’m fit – and you’d never know it!”
Wednesday morning early I left the three boys and Phyllis, drove out through the Bay area sprawl, across the central valley via Oakdale and Manteca, and onto the North Yosemite highway at China Camp. From there, after passing the park entrance station at Crane Flat, I turned onto the spectacular road that goes up to Tulomne Meadows and Tioga Pass.
On the other side of the mountains, in Lee Vining I picked up my wilderness permit – once I signed it my permission to hike was official! – had some dinner in a restaurant, and headed for a campground near my trailhead.
The trailhead I was going to use, Rush Creek, starts from Silver Lake at an altitude of about 7,200 feet on the June Lake loop. Grant, Silver, and June Lakes are a kind of messy resort (with a ski lift and many trailer parks) the first stop south of Lee Vining and the Tioga pass road. So I drove south for about ten miles, and then turned right towards the mountains. As I passed Grant Lake, the high rolling sage brush turned to mountain forest, rock and snowy vista.
The next morning I grabbed a massive breakfast at the Silver Lake Resort. For the record, I ate “Miner’s hash – everything but the kitchen sink.” I can’t vouch for the kitchen sink, but it certainly had eggs, ham, bacon, and potatoes. They are big on gold and silver mining and hearty eating in the tourist enclaves of the eastern Sierra.
Next, I stuffed my tent back into its sack, parked by the trailhead, and started up. Here’s a map of the area (you can click it for a larger size):
It’s amazing how easy it is to leave our everyday world and enter a completely different universe. This other universe is one where issues are simple: survival, not falling down a cliff or into a hole in the snow, being warm and dry, having enough to eat, and (if you are fifty-ish with kids) not having a stroke or heart attack alone in the wild. The wilderness is grand and majestic and magnificent – but it is utterly alien to us, and does not care in the least about us and our concerns, our well-being, or whether we live or die. Depending upon how you look at things, this is either comforting or terrifying (or both). Hikers do vanish each year in the Sierran wilderness; for example, probably no one will ever know what happened to Fred Claasen or Michael Ficery other than that they died.
Perhaps it is a good time to start making clear the mistakes I made on my journey through one of these cracks into the alternate universe that is the wilderness. First, I wasn’t really paying attention when people (such as the reservation ranger) told me about all the snow, and how empty the Sierra wilderness was this year. I also wasn’t taking the time to get adjusted to the change in altitude. I drove from sea level to above 7,000 feet in one day, and then started hiking up. No wonder I didn’t feel so good. My head was pounding, and my breathing labored. Stay tuned for one big whopper of a mistake to come (though obviously I am here to write about it).
The Rush Creek Trail goes up on a long diagonal above Silver Lake. You can look down at the normal world of people fishing on the lake:
Around the bend, Rush Creek pours out of Agnew Lake – this year, a great deal of water (which might have made me stop to think):
The trail on its way up to Agnew Lake somewhat bizarrely crosses a cog railway twice. This railway is used by Southern California Edison, who uses the area for power generation in a modest way. Also on this first bench up, I crossed a snow field (not very hard, but a slip could have been bad news – in fact I later heard someone had been badly injured crossing this patch), and a creek crossing where the bridge had been washed out, both within two miles of the start of my hike. Obviously, I wasn’t paying very good attention. My attitude was simply “Gosh darn I can do this!” Here’s the railway:
Right about at the second crossing of the tracks I met a hiker, my first on this trip. He was an old codger dodger – well, no older than me, but you know what I mean – carrying a day pack and his name was Billy. Billy’s hobbies were leading boy scouts from his home near Ventura into this area and helping with search and rescue operations. He knew this part of the mountains pretty well.
I told him what I was planning: to head up the cliff on the little-used trail on the south side of Agnew Lake, continue past Spooky Meadow, Clark Lake, and Summit Lake, and find the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails near Thousand Island Lakes, camp there a few days, and then head out the same way.
Billy suggested gently that I might want to reconsider. He said that in thie year of extraordinary snow the trail I was planning to take would almost certainly be under snow and probably impassable and dangerous. I should at least scout it, he said, from the other side of the lake before heading up it. Billy also suggested several longer (but less steep and dangerous) ways to get into the high country.
I can say with absolute certainty that I paid no attention to anything Billy the search and rescue codger-dodger said to me. When I got to the junction with the side trail I’d been planning to take – my trail led off to the left on the far side of the lake – I took it without looking ahead. I did notice that there was no sign marking my trail. I later learned that they didn’t post “my” trail because they wanted to discourage people from using it.
For the first part of the trip up the steep side of the lake, things seemed OK, and well steep. Here’s a picture with the trail outlined in red so you can see it:
I took the photo from the other side of the lake on my way out a few days later because I wanted to get a good look at where I had started my walk on the wild side. The first part up along the side of a steep scree field was no particular problem, although I did have to pause to take a breath frequently. When I got to the trees shown in the photo I had to start pulling myself up hand over hand, backpack and all. As I continued up the snow crossings started to get more and more difficult and scary. Some were undercut with fast running water, and I knew a collapse was possible at almost any time in these conditions of brutally hot sun and massive snow. As I’ve said, I drew the trail into the photo above. The part I drew in towards the top was the last I saw of the trail for many miles – it vanished under a snow field, and didn’t reappear. I began to wonder why I hadn’t brought proper gear for traversing snow – an ice ax, or at least crampons. Gators would have been nice, too, although more a matter of comfort than safety.
At some point when I was fairly shortly above the area shown in the photo I realized that I had lost the trail in a terrain of infinite snow and steep cliffs, and that it was probably too dangerous to go back down the way I had come.
Alamere Falls tumbles down a cliff to the Pacific Ocean in Point Reyes National Seashore. This awesome waterfall lies north of the Bolinas plateau and south of Arch Rock. From the Bolinas side, it’s about four miles on good trails, then a half a mile scramble down to the falls and beach, so a total round-trip hike of about nine miles. The Point Reyes southern district trail map shows the route pretty well (look towards the bottom of the map).
Julian, my oldest son, and I started in mid-afternoon with a good lunch at Robata. For the record, Julian inhaled 18 gyoza (Japanese potstickers). Then we stopped in Mill Valley and picked up a slab of bread and some gourmet chocolate to take along for dinner, and headed for the trailhead. Our plan was to get to the falls an hour or so before sunset when the photography would be good, and hike most of the way back in the dark.
It was a pleasure hiking with Julian, who enjoyed the sights and sounds of birds, flowers, and bullfrogs. The only real disappointment was when the trail passed Bass Lake, a possible swimming spot. But poison oak made the approach to the lake too tricky to attempt.
When we got to the turn-off from the Coastal Trail down to Alamere Falls, Julian particularly took pleasure in the Park Service’s “Dangerous and Unmaintained” trail sign. This path does tunnel through poison oak in places. You reach the top of the falls by jumping across the creek as it approaches the falls, and are then standing 150 feet or so above a sheer cliff to the beach. It’s very dramatic and a bit vertigo inducing (photo from the top of Alamere Falls to follow).
From the top of the falls, we made our way down a crack in the cliff to the beach. This is a reasonably steep climb, and I decided I didn’t want to go back up it in the dark.
On the beach, the sun was heading down and a rainbow played in Alamere Falls (above). I let Julian take off his clothes for a dip in the creek (below) while I photographed.
On the trail home, as it got dark, we switched on our head lamps and talked about a wide range of topics. Julian said, “When I’m grown up, I’ll take my oldest son here.” Back in the parking lot, Julian was asleep almost as soon as I cranked the engine. There was no traffic, and we were home to a sleeping house by midnight.
View this image larger.
This is a photograph taken at the Wave, a beautiful geologic wonder of the world. Chambers, striations, passages: it’s hard to describe the wonders of this place. So I’ll be posting photos to show, not tell.
The Wave is in a special administration area, which is rather well run by the Kanab district office of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior). BLM regulations cap the number of people per day at 20, 10 selected by advance lottery, and ten first come first served. BLM regulations also specify that everything packed in must be packed out, including human waste.
When you get your permit, the BLM gives you a kit with a series of maps and photos. There’s no trail as such, and a lot of the hike is across slick rock. But the BLM treasure-hunt kit is great, it shows you photos correlated with a strip topographic map of what you should be seeing each step along the way.
People, particularly photographers, flock to the Wave from around the world. May and October are the most popular months (the summer is just too danged hot and dangerous), but April and November are also good times to visit.
When I got to the Wave, the central area was occupied by three German photographers who were very loud, smoking heavily, and whose gear was all over the place. This was offensive to me. A place like the Wave is the closest thing I have to a church. How would these visitors from Germany have felt about someone behaving in a similar fashion in the middle of a Gothic church in the ancient downtown of a medieval German city?
The photo above shows a side corridor or chamber (you can walk through it) lit by the setting sun. I used a polarizer filter to maximize the color saturation, and an exposure of two seconds at f/22 to get the most depth of field I could.
In Perspectives, I wrote “I have found my center, and know what I am. I can hike the canyon rims, photograph sunset, and come down by starlight.” It’s dangerous to take wilderness casually, and to be over confident. You know what pride cometh before as well as I do.
I stayed at the Wave long after everyone else had left to photograph by the light of sunset, and then to make a thirty minute exposure by starlight of the Wave. Sunset comes early this time of year, and the jumbled country around the Wave would be very dark at night. Still, I figured I’d have no problem reversing the order of the BLM checkpoints using my headlamp.
In the event, I had the light of the crescent moon for the first twenty minutes or so of my hike. Then the moon set, and I lost my way. The route was marked by cairns, which are rock piles, marking the way across the slick rock. I saw one cairn, but not the next. Foolish me, I figured I knew the direction I was headed.
From then on, it was like a bad dream. I was up and over mounds and around dry basins. The land seemed to be driving me to steeper and steeper ground, and it was hard to tell in the light of my beam whether a drop-off was three feet, thirty feet, or three hundred feet. In the best of times, this is confusing maze-like terrain, let alone on a dark night. Pretty soon, I’d forgotten how to get back to my starting point. The shapes of mountains and canyons loomed larger and larger, and I didn’t seem to remember anything like this from the fairly brief hike in.
I’d see a stone ramp, go up, meet an obstacle to go around, find another way, and even my recent history was lost.
I realized that this couldn’t go on. It was very hard to see where I was going. I was getting very tired after a long day on little food, with lots of exertion photographing. My water was low. To continue in the circumstances was to risk breaking my neck.
So the next time I found myself on a platform facing what looked like a precipice opening at my feet, I stopped. I had a down jacket, and knew I wouldn’t die of hypothermia in one night.
But it was so, so cold. I paced all night in a small circle, like Gandalf on top of Orthanc. I used the last of my camera batteries to photograph star trails. I enjoyed the cosmic light show in the sky and tried to ignore chattering teeth. I meditated on being lost in the desert and on whether my life insurance was adequate for Phyllis and the kids. (I spent another cold night vigil on top of Half Dome not so long ago, so I’m actually experienced at this!)
As the pale light of dawn began to illuminate things, I was glad I had stopped. Between impassable crags, a gorge and network of crevasses opened at my feet. I turned around, and began to make my way back down, coming shortly to the cairn-marked route, which I had crossed without recognizing it in the night.
A couple of hundred feet closer to the trailhead, I met one of the BLM people coming in. He said he was running late. I said I was running even later, and told him my story, admitting to feel a bit embarrassed. He told me I wasn’t the first, it happens lots of times (if that’s a consolation). We talked about contacting my wife so she wouldn’t call out search and rescue. He said heck, when he’s in the office, he ignores calls for search and rescue for two or three days because “they usually show up”, and, heck, where are you going to start looking for someone in this crazy, convoluted terrain, anyway?
When all is said and done, I’m thrilled with my time at the Wave (thought not my cold and sleepless night). I’ve many interesting photos to look through and post-process. But in the future I’ll try to be less prideful about my relationship with the wilderness.
I wandered and slogged up the Virgin River towards the narrows. Boots and jeans soaked, walking up the river like some amphibious creature, camera and tripod high on my back.
About a mile beyond the end of the trail, I came upon this waterfall tumbling down the slick rock into the Virgin.
I exposed for two seconds to soften the water, and used a polarizing filter to bring out the red colors in the rock.
[300mm in 35mm terms, circular polarizer, 2 seconds at f/25 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]
Back down from Glacier Point in the early predawn hours, I caught a few hours sleep and then started up the trail for Half Dome. I knew I wanted to photograph the night view from the top of Half Dome. But my plans were not quite clear. I thought I might come down after photographing and catch Nevada and Vernal Falls by star light.
On the other hand, once darkness fell I might be stuck on Half Dome for the night. So I brought some warm clothes, some power bars, and my head lamp in my camera backpack.
A funny feeling: all the abstract, advance planning for this moment of starting out. The hordes of tourists diminish as I head upstream, up the Merced River. They’re thick to the Vernal Falls bridge, and pretty thick up the Mist Trail. Muggles with cell phones and iPods in the wilderness. What’s the point of being in the wilderness if you can’t break the electronic umbilicus?
There are fewer people above Vernal Falls and on up to Nevada Falls. Above Nevada Falls the human flood dimishes to a trickle along the Merced in Little Yosemite. This is a tough trail, tough enough to discourage anyone out of shape or not really motivated.
By the banks of the Merced, I strip off my hiking boots and shirt, and cool off in the river. I drain my water bottle, and pump a new bottle for the treck up to Half Dome, and maybe so I can have water overnight.
I just finish pumping when I look around and see a few feet from me, slithering over my hat, and between me and my camera bag, a rattlesnake. The snake is about three feet long, handsome, with viper head, beady eye, and rattles. We look at each other. Then he waves his tail and slowly coils into the underbrush.
Partially fueled with adrenaline from my snake encounter, I head up the dusty switchbacks. This is a long, steady climb. At last I reach the top of the ridge. Turning back east on the ridge, a combination of stone staircase and glaciated granite shelves head up the dome that leads along to Half Dome. At last I reach the bottom of the notorious cable ladder up Half Dome.
This ladder goes up roughly five hundred feet. It’s constructed using metal poles stuck into the rock every twenty feet or so apart. A wood cross piece goes at the bottom at each set of poles, and metal cables go through holes in the top of each pole, roughly at armpit height if one were perpendicular to the rock face of Half Dome. The trick to climbing the thing is to use your upper body strength to wedge yourself as far out from the cliff as possible, so that you can more or less walk up if you’ve balanced it right. Worth noting: the climb isn’t made any easier if you are carrying twenty-odd pounds of camera and tripod gear.
The sun is setting. Looking up the cable ladder, it’s darn clear to me that once on top, and after the sun had gone down, I’ll be on top as long as night lasts. No way am I coming down that thing in the dark. Taking a deep breath, I head up (stay tuned for my adventures on the top).
The photo that illustrates this story shows the east face of Half Dome and the ladder lit by the rising sun. I had just safely come down the ladder. Standing looking back, I met the first hikers of the day coming up from the valley (you can make it up shortly after sunrise if you leave the valley about midnight).
They told me about Hirofumi Nohara, who had slipped off the Half Dome ladder a few days before, and bounced down about 300 feet and over the side towards Yosemite Valley. Nohara is one of three people who died on the Half Dome ladder in the last year.
I feel really bad about Nohara’s accident, although I’m glad I didn’t learn about it until I was off Half Dome.
It’s easy to see how the accident could have happened. Although I had Half Dome to myself, on summer weekends the cable ladders are solid lines of people. It’s an easy guess that many people going up Half Dome don’t have proper gear, particularly good boots.
You also have to figure that part of the point of wilderness travel is that it is inherently somewhat dangerous. For example, see this story about hiker Hyundo Ahn, missing in the Sierras a few years back. No one knows what happened to him.
At its best, a good hike is part exercise and part mystical experience. And the mystical experience cannot be, as C.S. Lewis put it, a “tame lion” or it becomes inauthentic.
I really don’t know how the Park Service is going to resolve this one, although I’d imagine they aren’t going to allow such a dangerous situation to persist indefinitely. Still, if we lose the ability to climb Half Dome on our own terms, we’ve lost something important. Hazards such as the Half Dome cable ladder, and even venomous snakes, are part of the reason we visit the wilderness.
OK, so this is the Golden Gate Bridge peeking, not a Peking Duck. A cheap shot, I know, but I have a weakness for puns. Also, I’ve been losing weight lately, which tends to make me think of everything in the context of food.
The Marin Headlands is amazing as a wilderness so close to San Francisco. As I’ve commented before, I feel more alone (and more at risk) in a wilderness where you can view civilization than a wilderness where, well, there is only wilderness surrounding.
Of course, it’s also nice to come home to a warm fire. I photographed our family together on a low kids-height sofa using my self-timer and a low kids-height tripod. I used the ambient light from the room and fireplace, and a fairly long exposure (1/6 of a second). From left to right: Nicky (age 5), Phyllis, Mathew (he’s two), Harold, Julian (9). Perhaps it is but a reflection of reality that the kids look relaxed in front of the fire, and Phyllis and I look crazed and tired.
If you climb the ridge to the west of the High Sierra camp at Glen Aulin, there’s a great view down the Tuolomne River. On the topo maps, this area is called the Grand Canyon of the Tulomne.
At sunset, we saw a wilderness campfire in the trees between Wildcat Point and the Tulomne River. How wonderful and solemn to camp in such a grand place!
By the way, this photo is looking west towards Hetchy-Hetchy and the central California valley. You can see the haze of pollution in the distance at the horizon.
I spent the first couple of nights of my road trip in Yosemite Valley.
I stayed at Curry Village for $29.00 per night in a canvas tent. Delaware North Corporation (DNC) runs the place along with all the concessions in the Valley. It’s a wonder that DNC can’t even keep the place moderately clean. The food is so awful that David and Jennie Curry, who founded the place as a way to let working people enjoy nature, would turn over in their graves — the early Camp Curry was known for its fine food!. (More on Camp Curry…)
DNC and the Park Service must have a cozy relationship made up one part cronyism, one part shared ideology, and one part kick-backs. My own experience of nature was marred by a loud exhaust fan that ran all night. Although this subject is worth some serious investigative reporting, enough ranting! I had a great time anyhow.
At this time of year (mid-October) the Valley floor only gets sunshine in the middle of the day, say about 10 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon.
I woke to a beautiful day! My plan was to photograph late afternoon and sunset from Sentinal Dome and Glacier Point, but I thought I’d start out by stretching my legs and walking up to the first bridge on the Vernal-Nevada Falls trail.
Oh, I should mention that the big Valley waterfalls were mostly dry. Yosemite Falls was not flowing. One ranger told me that tourists regularly requested that he “turn the waterfalls” back on.
Anyhow, I walked took the shuttle bus to the trailhead and walked the mile to the first bridge. I was alone in the early morning shade. I looked up. Sunlight was hitting the top of the falls. It was time to take out my camera and tripod!
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This year there are many visitors from Europe and Asia in the national parks. It’s amazing how chic these people look, even in an environment as inhospitable to chic as Camp Curry – particularly the French and Italian women.
Camp Curry is run by the park concessionaire that runs all the businesses in Yosemite Park, Delaware North Corporation. This company has nothing to do with either the State of Delaware or the direction North. It is named after a street intersection in Buffalo, New York, and manages to both be incredibly smarmy (running advertorials lauding its environmental practices in front of “campfire” presentations), to serve food that is memorably awful, have zilch in the way of customer service, and be unable to keep its restrooms from becoming filthy – hence my surprise at the aptitude European women have at staying chic.
But Julian loves the place. He gets to run around, explore, and climb all the rocks that are between the tents. He likes sleeping in the canvas tents (actually, a rather filthy cross between a tent and a cabin). Oh, to be eight again and have a brave new world to explore!
We checked in pretty late Sunday night, and spent Monday hiking (up the Yosemite Falls trail), in the swimming pool, and swimming in the Merced River (the Valley temperatures were in the 90s). In the late afternoon, we got in the car and toodled up to Glacier Point (it is about an hour drive).
First, we stopped along the way, and fixed a Mountain House dinner on my camp stove. Thus fortified, we found a spot a few feet from the three thousand foot drop-off to the valley. Julian was cool as a cucumber, but it made me a little nervous to see him sitting so calmly close to the brink.
I set my camera on the tripod, and read “Half Magic” by Edgar Eager to Julian as we waited for the sunset.
The thing that really surprised me about the photo above and the one below is that I took them after dark. These photos are probably only really possible with digital technology.
By the time I took both pictures, everything was pretty completely dark. I had the Nikon D70 set on Aperture preferred metering with the lens stopped way down – f/25. Exposures were long, two seconds in one case, four in the other.
Now here’s where it gets weird. Basically, when you open the camera RAW files of these photos in Photoshop, the default settings in the CS2 conversion dialog makes them look like washed-out daylight shots. I had to fiddle with the conversion settings quite a bit to get them to look like sunset, let alone the almost-darkest-night which was the way it really looked.
We didn’t leave Glacier Point until about 10PM. Julian fell asleep during thr ride back down to the Valley. When we got back to Camp Curry, I got him up and he walked to our tent. In the morning, he didn’t remember waking up – just watching the sunset at Glacier Point.
In the stillness of the early morning at the beginning of July of this year I stood by my campsite high on a ridge admiring the snowy view of the high Sierras. Later that same day, by a snow-covered Thousand Islands Lake, I photographed these wild flowers in a rock outcropping that was emerging from the snow.
You can read the story of this adventure of mine in three parts:
I was reminded of my difficult, but beautiful, trip yesterday when I got a call from a National Park Service ranger asking whether I’d seen missing hiker Hyundo Ahn. Ahn would have been coming south along the John Muir Trail; according to his wilderness permit and mine we would have been in roughly the same place at the same time (the upper Rush Creek basin). The ranger tracked me down on the basis of the dates and locations shown in my wilderness permit.
I didn’t see Hyundo Ahn, a lingusitics student at U.C. Davis, when I was in the Ansel Adams Wilderness back country. Considering the snow conditions, I doubt he made it out over Donahue Pass from Yosemite National Park. I am deeply sorry for his family and friends, and offer this photo of mountain flowers as a testament to the beauty and purety that hides amid the remoteness of the wild – and why it is worth sometimes putting aside the safety net of civilization and exploring these difficult places.
Update (8/19/05): Hyundo Ahn’s body has been found in Tenaya Canyon. The exact cause of death is unknown. He never even made it as far as Tuolomne Meadows, and was not in the area I hiked. Condolences to his friends and family.
There’s an amazing wilderness less than a mile from me consisting of Tilden Park, Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, some other East Bay parks, and municipal water supply land. True, the water supply land (“EBMUD”) has its own private police force, and you need a special permit to hike in it.
But the rest of the area is accessed by beautiful trails. Once this was grazing and ranch lands, and you still find cows along with wild turkeys, the occassional mountain lion, and a wonderful variety of animals. It’s amazing that this is so close to San Francisco.
As folk singer and song writer Kate Wolf wrote in memorable lyrics:
Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines
There’s no gold I thought I’d warn you
And the hills turn brown in the summertime
The hills are indeed golden brown, and Julian and I went for a wonderful and strenuous hike in these golden hills in the wilderness in our back yard!
© Harold Davis – Rush Creek crossing, early morning, July 3, 2005
This is the third (and final) installment of a story about my recent short — but particularly poorly planned — backpacking trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the high Sierra in this year of extraordinarily heavy snowpack. You can read about how I got into this in first place in A Walk on the Wild Side, and how I dug myself further in: Does the Wilderness Care about Me? Here’s also a topographic trail map of the area if you really want to follow my travails on (and off) the trail.
The walk down the trail from my campsite at Summit Ridge to the Pacific Crest Trail junction and then up to the John Muir Trail junction at the inlet to Thousand Island Lakes was not particularly dangerous. However, my assessment that I had made it through to the end of the snow fields was, of course, premature. As soon as the trail wandered down below timberline into the forest, it vanished under snow that hadn’t melted. Starting up to Thousand Island Lakes, I passed once more in a territory of snow, rock, water, and raging hot sunshine. My 40 SPF all-day sun stuff worked pretty well, but my lips were blistering and the inside of my nose was getting sunburnt.
Here’s a picture of Thousand Islands Lake (as I’ve said, you’ll just have to believe that there are really islands under that snow!):
I sat down, got my bear canister out of my back, and took out some jerky and nuts to have for a late lunch. I also pulled off my socks to dry (the constant snow got in my boots, and I was walking with ice-water wet feet).
Finally, I had a look at the map to see what to do next. I didn’t really want to camp at the lake in the snow, although I could have been comfortable. It was more an emotional thing than anything else. I felt that I wanted to be sure that I could make it out of there.
It seemed from the map that my best bet was to cross Island Pass, which is a relatively low pass at 10, 205 feet, head down into the Rush Creek valley, turn east and follow the trail beside the creek down past Waugh Lake, Billy Lake, Gem Lake, and finally to Agnew Lake — which was where I had come up beside the cog railway. From Agnew Lake it was a short couple of miles down the cliffside to the trailhead at Silver Lake — and, yes, my car!
Although I noted a couple of creek crossings, this looked reasonably unproblematic, although far longer than my route into the wilderness. I was about to get my boots back on and saddle up when a couple of hikers came up along the trail from the south. They were “Batchelor Bob” and “Beer-Keg Ben”. I don’t know where these nicknames came from, but it’s how they introduced themselves. Batchelor and Beer-Keg were in their early twenties and “through-trekkers” — heading on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Batchelor carried an ice ax and wore gators. He said, “These gators don’t do any good, my feet still get wet. I’ll die happy if I never see another one of these four feet high snowcups from Hell!”
Snow cups are formed when the snow fields melt in the afternoon. The process of slogging through a snow field in the afternoon is repeatedly climbing up and down over these formations, which as Batchelor rightly said can only been devised by the devil in an inventive mood. Every so often when you are crossing these things in the late afternoon when they are getting melty you go through up to your waist. You can only hope that you are not crashing through to an under-snow pit or raging snow-melt river. It just takes a great deal of energy to get across a field filled with these crusty snow cells.
Beer-Keg Ben was carrying, of all things, a beach umbrella. He said, “I don’t see how anyone crosses 600 miles of desert [along the Pacific Crest Trail near the Mexican border] without carrying one of these things. It’s good on snowfields too.”
We talked about how the snow had slowed them down. Bob and Ben needed to average close to thirty miles a day to reach the Canadian border before October. They said they couldn’t wait for Oregon: “It’s always summer there, we can hike in tank tops and leave the winter gear behind, and rally make tracks.” Well, I don’t think so, but I wish these guys luck.
Bob and Ben headed up in the direction they thought was towards Island Pass. However, they were mistaken about which way to go (they were headed east over a cliff!) and I had to set them straight. We said good bye a second time, and pretty soon I was on the trail behind them, and not too much later the trail vanished under the snow and Bob and Ben’s tracks were gone for good.
To call Island Pass a pass is a little peculiar. Actually, it’s a high, mostly above-timberline plateau complete with a number of small lakes and a bunch of mini-summits. Without a trail, in the snow, navigation was confusing. Here’s a picture of conditions:
Once I figured out that the trail probably headed round the shoulder coming down from Mount Davis, I didn’t have much problem with picking a general route. But steep slopes, afternoon sun cups, ice water traps and rocky ridges made progress treacherous and slow. I could see Donahue Pass, the Yosemite Park border, at over 11,000 feet a good bit higher than Island Pass, under snow in the distance.
I really can’t convey how weird and disorienting it was to navigate around this area. A number of times I went a fairly good distance before climbing to a vantage point and realizing that I had gone off course. You can imagine that a loud exclamation preceded each course correction! But, of course, course correcting was better than heading straight ahead down some snowy cliffs.
After going on the diagonal around a particualrly steep slope, I reached a little rocky summit that I really thought was the further edge of the pass. I was morally certain — which means about 95% — that I had done a good job in coming out where the trail did. What concerned me as I looked out over the valley below was the positively ferocious noise of falling water. Water crashing, roaring, water formed of afternoon ice and snow melt, making a positively cruel noise down below. I hadn’t really thought much before about river crossings, and now I began hoping that there were bridges!
I shambled down the slope with my ice-water feet, and felt positively in awe of myself when I emerged from the snow about fifty feet from the Muir Trail. Holy cow I said to myself, I’m good.
The terrain at the bottom of the valley was a kind of weird stone labyrinth with piers of stone surrounded by twisting water courses that had overrun their banks. When I got to the first crossing, there was a rough plank bridge made of logs that had been cut so they were flat and then chained together (there’s a picture in this blog entry of mine).
After crossing, the trail followed the further bank of the creek, although mostly the trail was either flooded or covered with snow. I picked my way wearily down to the junction with the trail that crossed Rush Creek and would take me home, only to find the creek so high that it could not be safely crossed (the picture is at the top of this story installment).
By now I was so tired that I figured I ought to make camp and deal with it in the morning. I slept soundly, but anxiously, with dreams of falling and pounding water.
In the morning, the water was down several feet, and I thought I had a chance to make it across. (I really couldn’t think of any decent alternatives). I reloaded my pack so that the cameras and other digital gear were as high up as possible. I put my hiking boots on without socks, and slowly started out into the icy, tumultuous creek.
Stepping into the cold, rushing water was frightening, and I couldn’t really see how deep it was. At each step I tried to plant my feet so that I wouldn’t be buffeted down stream, or slip. I often couldn’t tell through the foam where I could step next, or whether there were slippery rocks. I didn’t know whether the water at some point in the crossing would be over my neck.
In fact, the water was no higher than my waist, but you can hardly imagine the force of the snow-melt fed torrent against me even this high. I’m fairly certain that I could only have made it across in the early morning, and that by late afternoon it would have been impassable for a single hiker.
I can report, as you’d expect since I am writing this, that I made it across. More surprisingly, the cameras made it dry. I put my socks back on, and began the long slog down to the trail head. There was one more difficult and wet crossing (the inlet to Waugh Lake), and after that it was a sunny walk beside placid lakes (the trail was still going through mud holes and snow banks, but nothing too difficult compared to what I’d already passed through). Here’s a picture of reflections of snow back in the high country in Waugh Lake:
I had a good, hard look from across Agnew Lake at the cliff I started out by climbing, noticing particualarly the waterfall pouring out from beneath a snow field I had crossed, and called myself an idiot. (See the first part of this story.)
It was late afternoon before I reached my car (I entertained and motivated myself along the way with meditations on food and sex).
In the fews days since I had started on my hike, a volunteer ranger (meaning this was some kind of part time retirement job), his wife, and poodle had moved into a trailer behind a little booth by the trail parking lot. The ranger’s RV had a BBQ in back, surrounded in a neat triangle with astro turf.
Before I drove away, I knocked on the door of the volunteer ranger’s trailer, told him about back country conditions, and suggested he might want to discourage people from following my route (at least without proper snow and ice equipment).
Next stop was the Bad Man from Bodie BBQ Restaurant in Lee Vining for a whole rack of ribs (I did mention that they have a thing about naming food and food establishments after miners in the eastern Sierra – good for tourism, or something).
It was now about 8PM and the sun was a beautiful, setting orange ball. I headed up the magnificant road above Vining Canyon towards Tioga Pass:
As evening turned to night along the Tioga Road I passed Lembert Dome:
And then I saw Half Dome from Olmsted Point:
Finally there was the long drive home through the night, first the dark North Yosemite Highway, then the towns and bustling two-lane roads of California’s central valley, and eventually the freeways of the Bay area megalopolis.
I got home at about 3AM and parked in the garage. I crept upstairs quietly. The house was dark. Phyllis and the boys were sleeping. I showered, and crawled into bed. Phyllis turned over, and touched me. “Oh,” she said, “You’re back.”
I felt like Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are. Max is naughty, and sent to bed without supper, where he travels
in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are
Eventually, he grows bored with being the king of all wild things:
and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.
In the night air of the sleeping house my family was still there and I was happy!