Sunday, June 19, 2011

John Muir Trail

Photography and hiking have always gone hand in hand with me. It was very exciting when I got my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 2000. It meant that I didn't have to deal with carrying, loading, and developing the film, or deal with archiving the pictures and negatives. I've lost a lot of photos, simply because I did not keep well enough track of them. The Nikon was a decent enough camera, during a time when 35mm film still reigned supreme in quality. Truth is, I've sold photos from every camera I've owned, so the adage 'It's not the camera it's the photographer' rings true. Kristi and I have caught some what of a 'epic hiking bug' between the Na Pali Coast, Havasupai, and Paria Canyon trips. Since we had so much experience under our belts, we thought we could handle the logistics of the John Muir trail. My good friend from college, Rich Hoffman, is quite a bit older than me. He returned to college in his forties, graduated and moved to Klammath Falls, OR. He got a teaching job there in Theatre at the high school. He was an adamant backpacker from way back, which is why we got along so well. We missed our trips to West Fork of the Oak Creek Canyon together, and frequently talked about rendezvousing somewhere in the middle ground in California. Yosemite was a natural selection, mainly because I had not been there, and he was excited to return there. Kristi and I had devised a plan to do somewhat of a shuttle-rendezvous with Rich. We were to start from Mammouth Lakes and hike to Yosemite, meet, ascend Half Dome, and he would drive us around back to Mammouth Lakes when we were done. We were ready to go, made reservations for the trail at the Inyo National Forest ranger station, and set up a time and exit point on the trail to meet Rich. Since we were going to be in the wilderness, there would be no way to contact us. We were continuing on faith that we would have a ride at the end. The first day of the journey was driving from Flagstaff to Bishop, in our little Ford Escort sedan. I remember how hot it was crossing the desert, the A/C barely keeping up, even with the car's tinted windows. We arrived at a campground between Bishop and Mammouth Lakes. It had a creek along side of it that was just rushing with water. It was early July and the Sierras had a record winter for snowfall. We had heard that the trail was still snow-packed, and as a precaution brought our snowshoes, with hopes that we wouldn't have to carry them. We still had some loose ends to tie up, as we didn't have bear canisters, which were required to hike anywhere in the Sierras. The plan was to go into Mammouth Lakes buy some canisters, and ask around at the sports stores what the trail conditions were. Finding the canisters was no problem, finding trail conditions proved to be more difficult. The owner of the store knew that there was a whole lot of snow up there, but couldn't tell us how deep, or how hard the snow would be. He hadn't known anybody that had hiked it that year, mainly because of the heavy snow that still lingered. He warned us about the sun-cups, and not to eat or drink the red snow. Evidently the sun melts the snow at different speeds, making fields of parabolic cups. There would be some red dust that blows from the desert and lands on the snow, which supposedly carries a bacteria that could be harmful. It also causes early snow-melt, not able to reflect the sun's rays, which wasn't an issue this year. Our reservation for the trail was to start the next day, so we hung around town looking at maps, and asking more questions. Originally we wanted to start the hike from Agnew Meadows trail head, but were concerned that if we started there we would need to cover more ground so we could meet Rich at the rendezvous point. Since the trail conditions were still unknown we decided to modify our starting point to Reds Meadow, five miles closer to our destination. It was fairly easy to make the decision, since we discovered that there was a shuttle from Mammouth Ski Resort to a number of trail heads along the John Muir Trail. We spent the night close to town, ready to get to the Ranger Station when they opened at 8. We hardly got any sleep due to the excitement, and were ready to go by 6 the next morning. Since we were so early, we went to a local diner for breakfast, then lined up at the Ranger Station waiting for them to open so we could get our hiking permits. The Ranger wasn't too keen on changing our starting point, since they gauge the permits by how many people enter each specific trail head each day. He changed it for us (since there were hardly anybody daft enough to hike the trail with such snowy conditions) with a bit of bureaucratic finger wagging. Anyway we got our permit to start from Red's Meadow, drove up to the Mammouth ski resort, parked the car, got our shuttle passes to the trail head. The old school bus filled with people, and we loaded our packs in the back third of the bus. It lumbered slowly down the road into the canyon to the trail head, where we disembarked, and immediately became swarmed with mosquitoes. We hastily applied our 100% Deet and picked up the pace as if we could get away from the bugs. Red's Meadow was a little less than a meadow, and a little more a soggy marsh, a beautiful marsh, though. Wild flowers, reeds, and cattails adorned the field, back-dropped with the snow capped peaks. The trail soon began to gain elevation, and we began high-stepping up giant granite steps leaving the first of many lakes behind. A couple of does froze at the sight of us, just a few hundred feet away. Without a lot of time to stop, we kept heading toward Garnet lake, our first camping spot for the trip. So far there was very little snow, and we were wondering if we should have packed our snow shoes or not. The more we ascended the more snow we came across. The trail was still pretty clear cut, and only once did we loose the trail and our bearings. Just as we were approaching the pass we were left with a choice to go left or right. Since there were no footprints to follow we made a calculated guess to go left, and we were right. So far we were headed up the south-side of a large basin, the side facing the sun. Once we made it to the top of the hill we could see the beautiful Garnet lake with Ritter and Banner peaks towering above the water. It took our breath away. Once we regained consciousness we looked down, and kept looking down- for the trail. It was completely obscured by a field of snow and ice. We had to proceed to the far side of the lake to camp on a little patch of grass. The snow and ice was still 3 feet thick- but the coolest part was that portions were hollow, where running water had carved caves, crevasses, and under ice creeks. Occasionally we post-holed through, but over-all the ice was solid, and we didn't bother with the snow shoes. We skipped over some boulders at the headwaters to Rush creek, and made it to the other side of the lake, where the snow had melted revealing some flat patches of grass to camp on. The lake was so crystal clear you could see dozens of feet right to the bottom. The water looked so inviting we threw off our boots and poked our tired dogs into the water, brrrr. There will be no bathing in that water. We made dinner, and discussed the trail conditions. We both drifted off to sleep wondering how much snow covered the rest of the trail, and how long it would take us to stay the course. We awoke the next morning to flat water on the lake, perfect photographic conditions. At the time I had not studied the works of master photographers Ansel Adams, or Galen Rowell. I was vaguely familiar with their work, but did not have the chance to really study them. I knew that this was their terra cognita, but was not consciously trying to emulate them. It wasn't until years later that I realized I had photographed the same subjects with the same fresh eyes and wonder that they had. To this I feel a sort of bond with those pioneers of photography, knowing the value and magnitude of trying to capture the wonders of nature. I'm not saying that my work can compare to theirs in anyway. I just realized that we were all drawn to the beautiful and picturesque High Sierras, at different times, with different reasons, eyes, and lenses. We packed up and headed to Thousand Island lake, without any real issue with snow. We took some more photos, and could see some people fishing, the first people we've seen so far. The trail continued up and down some valleys, and we camped the night next to a creek. The next morning we made the push for Donahue pass, continued up the mountain, through some run-off water falls and toward the pass. The trail here is just beautiful, green grass, large boulders, marmots, and the Minarets as the backdrop. There were a couple of groups camped here, and if I had known the area better I would have loved to have camped there. The views were far and wide. We continued up toward the pass. The trail was spotty, but the goal firmly in sight. We had lunch at the top, sitting on a giant granite boulder surrounded by wild flowers. We could see the trail appear below the ice cap, and the sun-cupped snow field. Until this point we hadn't actually needed the snow shoes we brought, but thought they might be useful spanning the snow cups on the way down. So we strapped them on and down. The snowshoes were helpful in that it made the sun cups like steps, gently easing us down the ice field. We picked up the trail and continued down. The melting snow gained momentum and flowed over the trail in many spots. Eventually the trail was starting to cross bigger and bigger creeks. One such creek had stepping stones crossing it. Kristi made it across, but - SPLASH- I was facing down in freezing water, backpack on. Kristi became a little alarmed seeing me face down in water, thinking that the backpack was keeping me under, but I quickly gained composure and lumbered to shore. My first concern was my camera. Tucked away in my non-water proof camera bag, it was only slightly damp. I quickly removed the batteries and memory card and dried it off, as well as rung out my socks. We sat there for a half an hour in the sunlight, reassembled the camera, turned it on, and BAM. We were back in business. We arrived at a pretty glacial pool, another prime camping spot. The plan was to continue to a bridge lower in elevation, so we bid adeu and turned back to the trail. We were faced with another crossing. This time it was about waist deep. We took off our packs and carried them overhead to the other side. We did make it down to the wooden bridge a bit lower, but were a little dis-enchanted with the spot. It was pretty by normal standards, but another mile and half back the spot we passed up was just too georgeous to ignore. We made the decision to return, since it was early enough in the day. We spent the night there, not complaining at all that we had to make the river crossing two more times, Brr. The next morning was the day we were to meet Rich. Since we went back a little way, it was now by far the farthest we had to hike in one day. It amounted to a twelve mile day, but fortunately it was all down hill meandering along the small river through a lush green valley. At lunch we took a dip, and headed to Tuolumne Meadows. It was getting to be around four o'clock and we were about a mile away from the trailhead in Yosemite when "Bork!" It was the cry of the Farquar hiking society, an elite society of hikers known only to Rich. I returned the hail "Bork!" And he responded "I have beer!" He held up some canned Guiness, as if it were the holy grail. We knelt down and gave thanks, then consumed the beverages. Our next stop was to secure a campsite at the campground at Tuolumne Meadows. We then walked down to the commissary and got a couple of chicken sandwiches, just before they closed. The rest of the evening we sat down and surveyed the trail system in Yosemite, and devised a loop going up Clouds Rest and on to Half Dome, then back to the car. There was a bit of excitement when some rangers came barreling through the camp in four wheel drive golf carts chasing and shouting "Go on Bear, go on Bear." Evidently a bear was in the site next door, and had grabbed a bag of candy from thier picnic table. It was thier job to shag the bear back to the forest. Sorry, Yogi. The next day we started up the back side of Clouds Rest, and made it to the top, pitched camp and celebrated with another round of Guiness. Some other hikers passed by, and marveled at the sight of backpackers drinking beer. Soon other hikers came by to witness the event. The word had spread, and we became the talk of the park, attracting campers like flies to honey. Alas, we only had enough beer for our immediate party, and had to turn away the thirsty masses. (They really did ask if we had extras.) The next day was to be gruelling. We had to travel down the front of Cloud's Rest, then on to Half Dome. The down was a killer, and steeper than any trail to date. By the time we got to the camp spot at the bottom our shins were burnt. We still had two miles to go before we got to the base of Half Dome, and Rich bowed out. He decided to stay at camp. Kristi and I weren't about to pass up the once in a lifetime opportunity. Standing at the base of half dome looking up at the wire ladder was a bit overwhelming. We were already exhausted from the hike, but anxious to get to the top. The park kindly leaves a pile of gloves at the base, which you have to pick through. We slowly climbed the cable rungs of the ladder, mindful that any mis-step could be the last one. We got to the top to find we were the only ones there, possibly because there was a storm brewing not to far away. There was a sign at the bottom explaining that lightning has struck the top of Half Dome every month out of the year, and that even storms miles away can produce lightning there. Needless to say we took our photos gave each other hugs, and lingered no longer. After climbing down, we returned to camp, made dinner and slept like babies. The next morning we bathed in a nearby creek, hardly awknowledging the small tame deer meandering through camp. This was our last day with Rich, and once we returned to the car we hung out for the last of the Guiness left inside the cooler. He drove us back to Mammouth Ski resort, and handed us the entrance pass for Yosemite, so we could return the next day and visit Yosemite Valley. Once we drove through the valley, took the obligatory tourist shots, we headed back home, stopping at a Mammouth Motel 6 for the last night. Hiking the JMT was definately an epic trip. If I get a chance to do it again, I might start at Mount Whitney and end at Donahue pass or Tuolumne Meadows. Although Yosemite is beautiful, nothing beats the lakes and peaks of the High Sierras. Oh, and a perfectly timed Guiness.

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