Monday, September 17, 2012

The BIG 50th Birthday Adventure: Part 1, the High Sierra

For those of you who want to know all about my big adventure, read on. If you'd rather skim the photos, my feelings won't be hurt. If you couldn't care less, move on to another post.

So in case you don't follow me on Facebook, I have been planning this 50th birthday adventure most of this year. Actually, since I turned 40, but it became a reality this year. I was born in Yosemite National Park in 1962. My dad was district ranger for Yosemite Valley back then, and there was a hospital there where I was born. We moved away when I was two years old, and I've never been back. So I decided to make this my personal pilgrimage to the place of my birth and a celebration of my life.

Because part of the adventure I planned included three days of backpacking in the back country, I trained all year, doing longer and more frequent hikes in order to get ready for this physical challenge. So, here begins the adventure.

Our first day, last Sunday, Sept. 9, we left Boise and camped along the shore of Lake Tahoe. We arrived at around 10 p.m. and could hardly see what we were doing, but morning rewarded us with a beautiful view of the lake. Then we proceeded to spend two hours in a local coffee shop while David did some work. This is typical of our travels with David, which is partly the reason I chose to go to the back country--no internet.

Finally, we left Tahoe and drove to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. Where, as you can see, the elevation is close to 10,000 feet.

So we spent our first night at Tuolomne  Meadows, the sort of base camp for all the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We had fun sorting our stuff into the bear boxes, where you have to keep everything that might attract a bear, even toothpaste or shampoo, not to mention food, dish washing soap, etc. Then we got our packs ready for the hike, beginning the next day. We took a short hike on a portion of the John Muir trail, which is not the trail we would be hiking on, but which David wanted to be able to say he had been on. That's me on the rocks in the Tuolomne River.

Day One: Tuolomne Meadows to Glen Aulin

So, on day one, we started out fresh: First day's hike was 5.5 miles along mostly flat-ish trail. Lots of peaks and granite in sight. We lunched along the Tuolomne River.
A huge sheet of granite demonstrated the mighty power of former glaciers, leaving a few huge boulders in its wake.

We had to scramble over so much granite that I literally began to hope for a soft dirt trail. More on that later. We had to climb up over piles of this stuff. I commented that I had not been told I needed to be part mountain goat to do this hike. Here was the top:
After this point, the trail went steadily down for about two miles. Because this is where the river started falling down the canyon, creating one fabulous waterfall after another:

So, while I was thrilled with all this waterfalling--I LOVE waterfalls--I was so tired of climbing down, down, down, usually over large rocks, trying to stay upright and balanced, and my knees getting pounded on each step. Ouch. And then, we finally arrived at camp, and saw the lovely Glen Aulin Falls.

I loved this spot. We took off our socks and boots and soaked our feet. Some more adventurous hikers got in the water all the way. Then we ate dinner with the other 26 campers. We shared our tent that night with a nice couple from Prior Lake, MN. You meet a lot of people on "the loop," the big network of trails connecting the High Sierra Camps. You can compare notes on the trails, the tough spots, and share complaints about how much your knees hurt.

Day Two: Glen Aulin to May Lake

I had heard the hike on this day was a tough one. For starters it was 8.1 miles and it gained 1,500 feet in elevation from start to finish. As we started out, I tried to be positive. Going up was at least easier on the knees, for sure. So there was that. And much of the trail meandered through forests, with soft dirt and pine needle paths. Oh, dirt, I love you. That became my refrain. Nice, smooth, flat dirt, which didn't require too much effort--just one foot in front of the other. Trees roots and large rocky paths make a trail so much more difficult to navigate. Lots.

Then, it got hard. The ground turned mostly to sheets of granite interrupted by trails of rocks, climbing in constant switchbacks up the side of the mountain. I described it as a cliff. David claimed it was not a cliff. You decide:

Here's another portion:

I have to give David credit for keeping my spirits up during this really hard part of the hike. He cracked jokes. He lied about how we were almost there. He'd say things like, "You just have to get up to that ridge. Then the lake should be there."

Well, we got to the ridge, and then had to go down. Talk about depressing! I didn't want to go down after I'd done all that work to get up! But we had a brief reprieve at this sweet, small lake before our final ascent.

I said I wanted to just stay there. Of course, at night, in the cold, with no hot food or drink didn't sound very enticing. But we rested and I got myself psyched up for the final climb. I was so exhausted at this point I felt like I was on a survivor show. I didn't care that everything ached or that I didn't think I could make it. I didn't care that at 9,400 feet I had to stop about every 20 feet and catch my breath. I just wanted to get there. So after another two hours of shuffling along climbing higher and higher, we finally arrived at May Lake, just in time to eat dinner. I didn't care how long it had taken, we made it.

May Lake was beautiful. The lake was calm and quiet. The stars were brilliant. That night we shared a tent with some folks we ate dinner with the night before at Glen Aulin. They were from the San Diego area. Here's what the camp tents look like:
Here's what they look like on the inside. There are four beds like this:
The view of the lake from our tent was awesome. We were practically on the water.

Day Three: May Lake to Tioga Road, 2.7 miles

So on my birthday, Thursday, September 13, we woke bright and early to see the sunrise on the lake. I am not an early riser by nature, so this is a rare occurrence for me. I couldn't ask for a better way to start my birthday.
That's Mt. Hoffman on the other side of the lake, at above 10,000 feet. It's the geographical center of Yosemite National Park. I chose not to hike up there.

From the May Lake Camp, you could see down to Yosemite  Valley. I wished for a nice balloon to carry me down. I was not thrilled about hiking more after the previous day's agony.

But, hike I must. This day was so easy compared to the first two days. We had to go down the whole way, which is indeed hard on the knees, but breathing at this elevation is so much easier when you are going downhill. Our pace was faster than the first two days. I almost wished I didn't have to return to civilization, and as we neared the highway, I felt the bittersweet ache of having achieved my goal and it being over.

From here we caught the shuttle back to our car and prepared for our trip down to Yosemite Valley. That's part 2.

Let me just add here that the food prepared for us by the High Sierra Camps was so wonderful. We had huge breakfasts and dinners, freshly made and delicious as anything you could ever want. At Glen Aulin we had homemade ravioli, salad, soup, bread, and even dessert. They have "hot drinks" for half and hour before the meal so you can get warmed up and have time to chat with other campers. At May Lake, we hate tomato basil soup, fresh ocean salmon, salad, bread, rice, roasted vegetables, and spice cake. The breakfasts we equally lovely with hot cereal and condiments, eggs, sausages, pancakes, and lots of hot drinks. We got a sack lunch the first day, but it was almost too much food. We had prepared plenty of our own trail food, including Cave Bread from our Jewel Cave days, so we didn't request lunches for the other two days. They certainly make sure you don't suffer from lack of fuel!

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