Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chapter 3 - A Fresh Start and Into the Wild

Greetings everyone.....I will start this Chapter with a brief backtrack into Chapter 2 - many of my family and friends were concerned about how the fires in Yosemite affected us - the answer is that they did not affect us, thankfully - but on Day 10, as we climbed up the ridge to Chief Lake, we could see an enormous cloud of smoke billowing up out of the north/northwest.  The guides estimated that it was in southern Yosemite or just south of Yosemite, but we were 25 or so trail miles out of the park.  We could see the cloud growing in height and length, so we were pretty sure it was calamitous.  But the main point is that we were not threatened by it nor did we get smoked on.  This is what we saw:

So, on to Chapter 3.  I will try to hit the highlights and be a little less verbose.  As we saw in the last chapter, VVR is an inflection point in the trip.  It's the second and last chance to easily excuse yourself from the journey.  After VVR, there are no more campgrounds, roads, showers, toilets, etc.  If you want to quit, you have to walk out - or of course, if you are injured, SYMG can call a forest service helicopter - but that's reserved for serious injury, not just having a belly ache or sore feet.  The remainder of the trip divides nicely into 3 5-day sub-journeys, with the food re-supplies being the dividing events.  The contents of our bear canisters became a defining feature of each day.  The first day after a re-supply, the cans were at their heaviest - about 15 pounds.  Each day, as we consumed food, they got lighter, all the way down to 3-5 pounds on the 5th day.

So, with 7 hikers and 2 guides, we set out from VVR on Day 12 and were able to get a BOAT RIDE back across Lake Edison!  That was a good start.  Once we got off the little john-boats, we had full bear cans and a 2200 foot ridge to climb - aptly named Bear Ridge. It was tough going, but we all made it and camped by Bear Creek.  Mike had by this time watched me fish enough that he was able to spot fish in the streams and lakes - on this evening, he directed me to a group of trout that were feeding in very shallow water - I landed 3 total, and 2 of them were California Golden Trout - a species that is native to and only found in the High Sierra - a coveted prize.  This is what they look like:

As we settled in for the night, I took this picture of one of my companion's tents and the darkening sky:

Well, let me speed along a bit - every day is a climbing or descending (or both) day, and we made our way on Day 13 south past the south fork of the San Joaquin river and up into the Evolution Valley drainage - then on Day 14 a gorgeous hike (is "gorgeous" related to "gorge"?) up Evolution Creek and into what Alex calls the best campsite in the Sierra - pictured here:

I was fishing just about every day by now, and catching lots of fish - in Evolution creek on the right in the photo above, I caught 20 fish in about an hour and a half.  This meadow (MacLure Meadow) sits at about 9500 feet.  The next day, Day 15, we only hiked 4 miles and were treated to a half day of rest at Evolution Lake, another high altitude stunner:

From there, on our final day of this 5-day re-supply, Day 16, we headed up to Muir Pass - near 12,000 feet.  The wind was raging but we were able to get a little shelter from the storm in the Muir Hut:

As we started down the other side, I was stunned and amazed by the scenery.  I think I realized then what the difference is between the mountains of Yosemite and the southern high Sierra - the latter is much higher, the mountains are packed tightly together, they have much more color variation and they seem more jagged - I don't know if this picture conveys that, but here it is:

After our 2,000 foot climb to the pass, we descended another 3,000 feet into the LeConte Canyon.  As we were going from the moonscape at the pass lower and lower, there was  more and more vegetation until we had descended into the forest near the bottom of the drainage:

We had a very sheltered campsite in the trees that evening, and Carlos and Alex busied themselves with unpacking and organizing the the re-supply, which was brought in by a mule team led by a couple of cowboys on horses.  I busied myself in the nearby creek, where the fishing was excellent:

Nice example of a California Golden Trout - I think I landed 10 in about 45 minutes this evening.

LeConte Canyon Deer

So as Chapter 3 here draws to a close, there are 10 more days left in the wilderness, and we are keenly aware of the day count.  I was enjoying every day, but missing my family more and more, especially  Renee.  In the coming days, we have a lot of climbing and descending to do, a lot of fish to catch, and a lot of God's glory to behold.  More soon.

Friday, September 20, 2013

JMT Chapter 2 - Days 6 through 11

Back again?  Good, glad to know I have piqued your interest!  A few words about my fellow hikers.  Ron, as you know, started out with me from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley because he, like me, wanted to complete the full, official John Muir Trail.  On the evening of Day 5, we met up with the rest of the SYMG (Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides) hikers - Russ and Karen from Washington St., Midge, also from Washington State, Sarah from Georgia, David from Vancouver, Dave from Sonoma, Bill from Illinois, Younga from NYC, and Steve from Houston.  With Mike Nix, Ron, and me - that made 12 hikers and 2 guides.  Quick story about Steve from Houston - he's a corporate attorney there and married to a very successful doctor who is a department head at the University of Texas Medical as we were chatting, I told him that I had been a patient at MD Anderson (which is part of the UT medical system)...he asked who my doctor there was and I said "Michael Keating".....he chuckled and looked down - then said to me "you're kidding.....Michael Keating is one of my best friends".  Some say "small world"....I say "God's world".

On Day 6 we set out very early - the SYMG guys put out effort to come and get us at our posh accommodations at the lodge and picked us up at 5:30 am....we were driven down to the campsite and had breakfast before setting out at about 7:30 am.  The above photo of our motley crew was taken that morning as we hiked up Lyell Canyon towards Donahue Pass, which is on the border of Yosemite National Park.  Most of the day was pleasant enough but the weather turned nasty late in the afternoon. By the time we got to our campsite at about 9,500 feet, there was some rain and a lot of wind.  We got our tents secured and in the evening the wind abated enough for me to get some fishing done in the glacial tarn that was near our camp - pictured below:

I took 5 or 6 fish out of that little pond - my best session to that point.  It was cool because I had a little audience - 3 or 4 fellow backpackers, who appreciated the beauty of fly fishing.  The next day (Day 7) we crossed over Donahue pass and out of Yosemite, into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  One close friend told me after my trip was over that she thought that we were in Yosemite the whole time - we actually passed through the heart of Yosemite, then the aforementioned wilderness, the Sierra National Forest, the Inyo National Forest, the Devil's Postpile National Monument, the John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and finally the Golden Trout Wilderness.  But - back to Day 7 - here I am on the pass:

The JMT is all about mountain passes - there are at least 10 major passes on the trail, from a low of about 10,800 feet to a high of 13,200 feet.  And they tend to get higher as you go from north to south.  Each pass involves crossing from one 'drainage' into another - so when you crest the pass, you see a new landscape unfold before you - it's very dramatic - and since you have to work so hard to climb up there, it's very rewarding.  I think this photo captures it well.

Day 7 turned out to be a very, very difficult day.  We passed by one of the most beautiful peaks along the trail - Banner Peak, which sits above the gorgeous Thousand Island Lake - as the weather deteriorated.  No rain just yet, but black clouds were gathering towards the south, our direction of travel.  This is something like what we were seeing:

It would get much worse.  Compounding the weather problem, we had a hiker in the group who could not keep up, so we had to stop repeatedly and wait for this individual to catch up - sometimes it would take 10 minutes, and at times it took 30.  This slowed us down so much that we were not able to make our intended campsite - the thunderstorm broke upon us 2 miles short of our destination, so we had to find an emergency camp.  We got into our tents at around 4:30 PM as a 5-hour thunderstorm boomed and flashed overhead.  Our guides prepared a hearty soup somehow during this storm and brought a hot bowl to each of our tents around 6:30 pm.  I cannot tell you how much that soup was appreciated!  It stopped storming around 10 pm and by morning the skies were clear - but instead of a 13 mile hike the next day, we had 15....which was going to be a challenge.

Day 8  - on the way to Red's Meadow

Our destination on Day 8 was a place called Red's Meadow, which is a campground that is accessible by car from interstate 395 (plus some backroads).  After a long, 15 mile day of hiking, we arrived at around 4:00 pm.  We were able to get showers ($9 with soap and towel!), an adult beverage, and SYMG put on a great dinner, as one of their staff drove in to meet us.  While the group was less than thrilled to have a 15 mile "death march", as someone dubbed it, the creature comforts eased the agitation.  Unfortunately, Steve, Dr. Keating's pal, had to hang it up because of the trouble his knee was giving him (no, he was not that one who could not keep up).  So our group went from 12 to 11.  I "bought" Steve's tent from him - as it was a couple of cuts above the one I had borrowed from SYMG.

The morning of Day 9 was cloudy and drippy - after the storms of Day 7, my mood was about as low as it got.  One of the reasons I always come back to the Sierra Nevada and to Yosemite is that the weather is almost always perfect.  I was having trouble dealing with this wet stuff - I figure if I want wet weather, I can get it in my own state of North Carolina.  So I went off on the trail that day grumbling and trying to talk myself into a better mood.  This is a great picture of that - low, heavy clouds but with a rainbow.

Day 9 turned out to be uneventful - no bad weather, no major issues.  We camped at Duck Creek.  The next morning, Day 10, however, there were some issues - "Terri" got us up at 4 am so that we would get to our camp, Chief Lake, before afternoon storms had a chance to build.  Fine - so we were on the trail at something like 6 am - and we arrived at Chief Lake at about 1:30 - fine again - but the winds were going at 30 mph strong, gusting to 40.  It was extremely difficult to set up tents in that wind.  Also, our campsite was very high on the ridge and very exposed, so some of us were thinking - "we have hours of daylight and we could get lower on the mountain and get out of this wind"....but we submitted to the wisdom of the leaders.  I fished in the wind and landed 8 or so nice trout.  I would wait for a pause in the gusts and then fire a cast into the lake - and the fishing was good - 8 fish in an hour!

Chief Lake was our last night before coming to the second and last campground, which is called the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR).  Very unfortunately, that evening, after dinner at Chief Lake, 3 or 4 of our company got very ill, sick to their stomachs.  When we set out for VVR on the morning of Day 11, Bill and Sarah were devastated with digestive issues, and Russ was also in trouble.  We had a 9 mile hike to what we were led to believe was going to be a boat ride (across Lake Edison - 6 miles long) the rest of the way to VVR.  When we reached the 9 mile mark - the boat landing - there was no boat.  "Terri" calmly announced that we would have another 6.2 miles to walk to the campground.  This did not go over well!  Many questions were asked about how the boats were scheduled, who had committed that we would have a boat, what actually happened, etc. etc., to no avail.  We marched along Lake Edison, on a trail that was very poorly constructed, going up and down the mountain, for 3 more hot hours, arriving at VVR around 4 pm.

VVR is a great facility, very rustic but with laundry and showers, a restaurant, camping shop and a lot of nice folks.  However, there was a lot of grumbling in our company.  To Carlos' credit, he stopped us along the trail before we arrived and made an impassioned apology for the incoherence and inconvenience of the boat issue and the awful 6.2 mile trail along the lake....while "Terri" stood with her head down, 50 yards behind the group, which clearly indicated to me that something was very wrong.  Well, I am going on here, but.....I'll try to get to the point.  We had a great evening at VVR including a steak dinner.  The next morning at about 6 am, "Terri" approached several of us individually and said she was leaving the trip and leaving SYMG, effective immediately, and that Alex Steiner would be taking over leadership of the trip, also effective immediately.  In addition to that dramatic news, 4 members of our group decided that VVR would be their exit point (Bill and Sarah due to stomach issues, David due to general misery, and Younga due to her inability to carry the required weight).  So we lost another 4 hikers and a lead guide!!

Early morning on Day 11,  enroute to VVR - just over Silver Pass

There was good news, however - I knew Alex from many conversations I had with him prior to the hike (he mans the SYMG office in Oakhurst, CA and guides 1-2 trips per year).  As a son of the great state of Wisconsin I had grudging respect for Alex ;-), and I actually felt great that SYMG was bringing an all-star off the bench to lead our trip.  In addition to this strong staffing decision that was made, the president of the company, Ian Elman, and his #2 man, Colby Brokvist, made the 3 hour drive out to VVR from Oakhurst at 4 am to apologize to us, to affirm their commitment that the trip would continue and exceed our expectations, and to explain what would happen next.  As they say, every company messes up;  what distinguishes one company from another is how they handle their mess-ups.  I was very impressed  with how Ian handled this situation.

As for "Terri" - she came to a place where she did not feel like she was where she should be - that she did not want to be guiding trips in the Sierra Nevada.  She took abrupt action and fortunately Ian and SYMG were able to recover, and strongly.  She is a young lady with many talents and I wish her all the best in whatever she decides to do.  Her whole life lies ahead, and my prayers are with her and she seeks the path God wants for her.

Too many words, not enough pictures - but this was the "GREAT DRAMA" of our trip.  So, on Day 12, 7 hikers and 2 guides - Alex and Carlos - set off from VVR to take on the final, very rugged, no way out, extremely remote, final 15 days of the JMT.  Don't miss the next chapter!

This was taken at Chief Lake - early morning on Day 11, Orion rising before dawn....

Saturday, September 14, 2013

John Muir Trail, Chapter 1

Donate Here

Hello everyone, I am back at home after completing the JMT!!  I arrived home on Monday, the 10th of September and returned to work on the 12th.  I have 703 pictures to sort through....I've been thinking about how to document the trip and of course I'll "blog" everything, but I've decided to do it in "chapters" of approximately 5 days each.  So, here goes on Chapter 1.

I love to fly over the Sierra Nevada and try to recognize features - lakes, peaks, etc - it's unusual when I do and this time, I didn't recognize anything as we descended into Fresno on August 12th.  The mountains, forests, and lakes seem to go on forever - I was thinking, "tomorrow, I'll be down there, starting the big WALK".

This photo was taken by Jeff Williams, the 4th member of our initial party, just after we hit the trail on Day 1.  Ron Maier is on the left and that's Mike Nix on the right.  Mike, Ron, and I were all in for the full JMT, while Jeff was able to join us for the first 3 days, including a major summit of Half Dome.  We all started from Happy Isles, which is the official beginning of the trail.  The guiding company, Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, starts their JMT trip from Tuolumne Meadows, which is 23 miles up the trail.  They do this for 2 reasons - one, it's very difficult to get permits for large groups coming out of Happy Isles, which is the most popular trailhead in Yosemite and probably the entire Sierra, and two, from Happy Isles you have to climb over 4,500 feet in 3 days - a brutal opening stretch, even if you could get the permits.  But - we were sure we were up for it!  So, back to the photo - the last item on the list on the sign is "Mt. Whitney via the John Muir Trail - 211 miles"!!

This is a precious picture of Jeff and I on top of Half Dome on day 2.  We camped at "Little Yosemite Valley" on our first night after climbing about 1700 feet from Yosemite Valley's floor.  This day, we had to gain another 2700 feet to the top of Half Dome - with the help of the cables you see below.  The slope gets as high as 48 degrees on the final pitch to the top - it's dizzyingly steep, and hard to capture that sense of the slope on film.  Anyway, when I was in the throes of chemotherapy and getting ready for the transplant, Jeff said "Dan, you will get through this, and you and I will stand together on top of Half Dome again".  (Jeff and I had climbed Half Dome once before, in 2000).  I was game but unsure.  What a great moment with a great friend.  I can't tell you how encouraging and supportive Jeff was throughout my ordeal.  That's what friends are for!  

The 4 of us out on Half Dome's "diving board", with the valley 4,000 feet below.

 This is Mike, descending Half Dome with the assistance of the cables.  I thought this photo gave the best perspective on what a 48 degree slope looks like.  Yes, it's THAT STEEP.  On day 3, the next day, we had to say goodbye to Jeff, and he headed back down the trail and to pressing matters at work.  We were now the 3 musketeers (or something) until we connected with the guiding company a few more days up the trail.

Below you will see a sunset photo taken at our next camping spot, the Sunrise High Sierra Camp.  The hike that day was a "butt-kicker", 9 miles and 3200 feet of elevation gain with the last 1500 feet coming over just 2 miles of trail.  The camp is at 9400 feet, and features a dining room, very small store, about 25 'tent cabins', and a backpacker camp.  We stayed in the backpacker camp (natch), but we were able to invite ourselves to dinner for a mere $30 bucks a head.  The dining room luckily had a few extra seats so we dined on roast pork with cherries, polenta and mixed vegetables, plus salad, soup and a lovely pineapple upside-down cake for dessert.  A fantastic feast compared to the "trail gorp" we brought with us.

 Mike and I the next day (day 4) on our way to Cathedral Lakes.  Cathedral is one of the most picturesque areas in Yosemite so we wanted to give ourselves some time there.  Our hike that day was only about 4 miles, so we arrived at our campsite at around noon, giving us plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings.  This photo was taken on the trail enroute to Cathedral Lakes.  The peak on the left side of the photo is Cathedral Peak.  John Muir was the first person to summit.  I have not and will not - it's way steeper than Half Dome!

Here Mike is setting up his prayer flags.  Mike is a Buddhist and also brought along the elements needed to set up a small altar.  Not my cup of tea, but it did add a spiritual dimension to our spectacular surroundings.

I spent a good part of the afternoon fly fishing.  I brought the hand-made fly rod that my brother-in-law's brother, Keith McElrath, made for me, and many of the hand-tied flies that Dan Lofaro made for me.  Unfortunately the fish did not cooperate on this afternoon - but what a setting, with Cathedral Peak as a backdrop!!

The next day, day 5, we hiked into Tuolumne meadows to meet up with our guiding company and new fellow backpackers.  We had about 7 miles to go so we took our time.  We arrived at the Tuolumne lodge, which resembles a High Sierra Camp, at about 2 pm and checked in (Ron had secured us a reservation just a week prior to our trip, so we were going to sleep in beds that night), and had a cold beer.  After sorting through our gear and deciding what we could live without, we headed down to the meeting place.  Not too much to report, except we met our guides, "Terri" (not her real name), the lead guide, and Carlos, the number two.  Carlos was full of personality and jocularity, while "Terri" was more serious, but she seemed competent.  I had asked about how many times they had guided the full JMT and the answer was that "Terri" had guided it once for SYMG and this would be Carlos' first time guiding the full trail, but he had done many shorter trips on and around the JMT.   Hmm.....did they have enough experience??  We shall see.....I will continue with Day 6 soon....stay tuned......