Three years ago we stood atop Half Dome, enjoying the grandiose views of the Yosemite Valley, arms still shaking from pulling ourselves up the cables (okay, mine were shaking because I was scared to death). It was a guys weekend and I was there with my buddies from college, Kyle McGuire and Ryan Simko. Ryan made an offhanded comment, “Maybe we should hike the Appalachian Trail…” Wouldn’t we have to quit our jobs? Yes, but heck, Kyle had already done that and was currently unemployed, and Ryan and I were both ready to ditch life in a cubical for life on the trail.
Fast forward three years. Ryan “Meat” Simko and I are now 2,000 Mile Thru-Hikers of the Appalachian Trail and Kyle is…well…Kyle. (We’re still not sure why he didn’t join us on the AT, I mean, heck, he didn’t even have a job that he had to quit!)
Last month Meat called me from Chicago and said “What are you doing in a few weeks, want to go to Yosemite again?” Ummmm, is that even a question!? Of course I do! Wait…what kind of crazy ideas are we going to come up with this time….
I drove north Wednesday after work and slept in my car/home in a gas station just south of Merced, CA. Thursday I headed downtown Merced and worked from the Starbucks until rendezvousing with Meat and his friends Ryan Jean and Brian Wagner. We loaded up on calories from In-N-Out Burger, stopped by Wal-Mart to stock up on food, and headed into the park before sunset.
Before entering the park Meat said he warned the other guys about my stupid jokes and told them that they didn’t have to laugh if they didn’t want to. Right then we rounded a corner and I swerved to miss a few fallen rocks in the road, I quipped “Watch out for the mountain turds!” Ryan shook his head and said, “Let the stupid jokes begin…It’s going to be the Appalachian Trail all over again.”
It was like the Appalachian Trail in more ways than just my silly jokes. My pack was heavier than Meat’s pack, just like on the AT. I obsessed about reducing my pack weight. I ditched extra layers of clothing, left out full meals, and tried everything to cut weight, but Meat’s pack was still lighter, and he and the other guys enjoyed making sure that I didn’t forget it. Actually, everyone’s pack was lighter than mine, what the heck!?
We picked up our backcountry permits and rented bear canisters. The ranger behind the counter said “It’s bear gorging season, so you’ll see bears looking for food in camp, keep it all in the containers.” We checked into our campsite in North Pines and made our way to Curry Village to get pizza. After chowing down on some half priced pies we hobbled back to camp, stuffed full of bread and cheese, and poured over the Yosemite backcountry maps illuminated by our headlamps.
Before retreating to our tents Meat eyed the stars and said “Look, it’s so dark you can see the band of the Milky Way!” I joked “There is a band called the Milky Way? What is their hit song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?” I chuckled, Meat shook his head, and no one else seemed to get the humor. Oh well, I laughed because I thought it was hilarious.
During the night I woke up from a dream, worried that the rain was moving in. There was a low rumble in the valley and I thought it was thunder. Then, it didn’t stop. It wasn’t thunder, it was a rock slide, and it sounded big and close. I lay alert, half planning to jump in my driver seat if it got any closer, as if that might help. Eventually the slide slowed to silence, one last rock bouncing down the side of a mountain. Then nothing but stillness in the valley. I made a mental note to not camp at the base of rock cliffs the next few nights.
Friday morning the two Ryan’s and I headed into the backcountry for a few nights while Brian stayed to explore the valley. The plan was to have Brian shuttle us to Tuoloumne Meadows, hike into Cathedral Lakes, and camp there for the night. The next day we’d pull a long day from Cathedral Lakes, over the top of Clouds Rest to Little Yosemite Valley for another camp night. The third day we’d hike a few short miles back into Yosemite Valley and head home (actually, I’d already be home, my car/house would be there waiting for me in the parking lot).
Brian picked up a single campsite in Yosemite’s iconic Camp 4 and drove us to Tuoloumne Meadows. We parked the car and hiked a few miles to Cathedral Lakes for a short lunch break and photo opportunities. Meat had been talking with a yoga girl in Chicago, and I’d been talking with a yoga girl in Indiana, so we took pictures of each other doing yoga poses in Yosemite for brownie points.
After some yoga photo ops and a lunch break Brian headed back to the car and we hiked down the trail. We passed under Cathedral Peak and south toward Sunrise High Sierra Camp until we approached a warning sign on the trail concerning the Meadow Fire which had been burning since July 19th. It was contained now, but was still smoldering, so the John Muir Trail was closed and the surrounding trails were open for hiking, but closed for camping. The park ranger told us something about Sunrise Camp, but we couldn’t remember if he said we were allowed to camp or not (we need to work on our listening skills, especially concerning safety issues). To play it safe we decided to turn around and head back to Upper Cathedral Lake for the night.
We set up camp near the west side of the lake, stashed our bear canisters in the rocks, and climbed off on an exploratory mission to see what was on the other side of the peaks behind us. We ascended quickly to more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Once on the top the horizon opened up to sprawling peaks, deep valleys, and high sierra lakes in every direction. We could see Cathedral Lakes, Tenaya Lake, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and the Yosemite Valley. The views were grand to say the least, and no pictures can do it justice. For more brownie points Meat and I did yoga poses silhouetted by the setting sun. Ryan Jean was taking our pictures and I joked that this was the weirdest hiking trip I’d ever been on. He fully agreed, but was a good sport about taking our photos.
As the light faded we bombed down the slopes, dodging fresh bear scat and working to make it back to camp before sunset. On the way down Meat pointed out the colors of a rock and said “Look at the bands on that rock.” Really Meat? That’s too easy. I chimed in, “There is a rock band all the way out here?! I don’t hear any music!?” Crickets. Oh well, I still laughed.
The valley was dark and the final rays of sunlight illuminated Cathedral Peak against the still lake below. We grabbed our bear canisters and huddled around a small campfire to stay warm while eating dinner. The Ryan’s brewed pine needle tea and I boiled water for my Yogi tea which had an incredible message from the universe, “Live light, travel light, spread the light, be the light”. With great effort, we all stayed awake past 8:00 PM, but by 8:04 PM we were zipped into our tents and wrapped in sleeping bags. I checked my thermometer, 35 degrees.
I was using my sleeping pad from the Appalachian Trail and 2,000 miles had taken a toll. It was still comfortable and warm, but it had a slow leak. I woke up every 2 hours laying on the cold dirt and rolled over to re-inflate the pad. We were up and moving at sunrise the next morning with the brisk temperature still hovering around 35 degrees.
We started hiking south on the John Muir Trail and eventually entered Long Meadow, which is just that, a very long meadow. Near the end we rounded a corner to find Sunrise High Sierra Camp. It was closed for the season, but we explored the camp before pressing ahead on the trail to Clouds Rest.
Another carryover from the Appalachian Trail was Meat’s bad luck with water filtration systems. During our AT hike Meat tried various filters and ended up on the phone with several vendors working out replacement parts and refunds. On this trip Meat was trying a new inline filter and he was having problems connecting to his water bottle. I kept it simple and tossed a few iodine tablets in the water and waited 30 minutes until it was ready to drink. I snapped a quick photo of Meat fiddling with his system and said “Meat, if your filter takes you much longer my 30 minute Iodine water will be ready to drink first!” He glared at me and said “You’re always the funniest when I’m pissed…it makes me want to push you in the water.” Whoa, this was just like the AT! I wisely took a few steps back and let him finish filtering his water. Once complete we were friends again.
The trail to Clouds Rest was busy on a Saturday morning. Day hikers streamed in and for some reason the three of us felt the pang of competition, trying to beat them to the top while lugging our fully loaded backpacks. One group of four guys kept leapfrogging with us. Ryan Jean was pushing our pace when we rounded a corner and saw the four guys taking a break. Jean looked back, gave us the “got them in my sights” hand signal and forged ahead. As he passed them the group stood up and started walking with him. “Oh, it’s on…” I said to Meat under my breath. Jean’s legs pumped and he started pulling away. Around a corner he turned back to see the distance he had put on the other group and he ran smack dab into a tree! With a crack Mother Nature reminded us to enjoy the hike and not make it a competition. Jean was okay and we continued climbing, ultimately beating the other group to the top (but hey, who’s counting…).
The weather on Clouds Rest was perfect. We could see Half Dome and straight into the Yosemite Valley below. We took off our packs, relaxed, and of course, posed for more yoga themed pictures. Eventually dark clouds started moving in from the west and we descended to cover the 5.5 miles to Little Yosemite Valley Camp.
Little Yosemite Valley Camp offered real campsites and a large fire pit. Several other groups were setting up for the night and a couple from the Bay Area had already started the fire. We headed off in the woods to gather more kindling and when we came back two guys hiked in with heavily loaded packs. They walked past our tents and stopped to check out our small one person tents. They proceeded to construct a car camping tent that was large enough to park my Honda Element inside of. Wow…that looked heavy.
The guys joined us at the campfire. We were using our ultralight camp stoves to cook freeze-dried food while they pulled out 4 packages of hot dogs, 2 packs of bratwursts, fruit, vegetables, a half-gallon of milk, and more. Wow…that looked even heavier than their tent!
The guys were from Europe and made friends quickly as they shared their Tennessee “Iced Tea” with parched campers. They talked about touring around America and commented that one of the best things about the United States is the National Park system. Meat taught them a new English term, “Crank It Up”. Pretty soon they were cranking everything up. One of the guys pulled a Takeru Kobayashi and devoured 6 hot dogs and 2 huge brats, potentially setting the Little Yosemite Valley Campsite Hot Dog Eating Record. The other guy polished off the “iced tea” and went to scavenge pine cones. Once back he poured a bag full of them on the fire and “cranked it up”, the flames flaring 6 feet into the air and heat blasting out like a furnace. It was way past hiker midnight and I leaned over and told Meat that I was heading to my tent, but asked him to let me know if the fire started heading my way.
The next morning the fire pit was still smoldering with the remnants of a few logs and lots of pine cones scattered around. Meat needed to be at the San Francisco airport that afternoon so we quickly broke camp and hiked out. Within a half a mile Brian met us on the trail, having left the valley floor before sunrise up to find us. We passed Nevada and Vernal Falls and hiked down the Mist Trail. By mid-morning we popped out into Happy Isles and on to Curry Village for wet-wipe showers and hot coffee.
The weekend had been a quick trip and an awesome adventure. Meat commented “That’s exactly the vacation I needed.” I thought it was another amazing weekend in my life of adventure. Ryan and Brian both enjoyed their first experience of the magic of Yosemite.
So, the looming question…did we come up with any life changing plans like we did 3 years ago? I’m not sure. I would say no, but thene again, we did talk a lot about some pretty epic adventures. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? Climbing El Capitan? Sailing to China? Right now they all sound kinda silly, but so did the Appalachian Trail idea until the plans started taking shape. So…I guess we’ll have to see what happens.
Besides, I already had my sights set on another type of adventure that was going to get started the very next weekend…