The Highs and Lows of Backpacking: Yosemite

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My wife, a bunch of my closest friends, and I had gone to Yosemite four years ago and had the time of our lives.  We wanted to create a reunion trip but unfortunately plans fell through except for four of us who got the time off. We decided to make the most of it and try our collective hands at backpacking. We decided to plan a backpacking trip.

I had tried a short solo backpacking trip to Palomar Mountain earlier this year and I survived, so I figured we could survive Yosemite. We spent two weeks packing and gathering the gear we thought we would need. With no reservations (campsite, permit, or otherwise) and only a rough idea of what we were doing, we took off for Yosemite.

Cast of characters:

Petunia: (me) my trail name comes from the fact that I do not have much body odor.

Melon: (my wife) named because her bag is green and as the medic we constantly had to access her upper bag or “melon” for supplies (sunscreen, bug spray, chap stick).

Gooch: (best friend & neighbor) named because he payed special attention to lubing his gooch.

Sticky Buns: (long-time friend) named because he had sticky buns (swamp ass), frequently on the trip.

Day 1:

As we (me, Melon, and Sticky Buns) could not sleep, we stayed up late and ate taco bell. We ended up leaving at 2 a.m. We originally planned for 1 a.m. but we made many last minute preparations and triple checked the apartment before leaving.  We took Sticky buns’ car as his car was the newest and most reliable.

Sticky Buns was worried about not getting the wilderness permit if we arrived too late so he decided to drive very fast to make up time. We were actually making exceptional time until we hit Valencia and got a ticket at 3 a.m. going just under 100 mph (the cop reduced the speed luckily because we were definitely going over 100). I took over driving responsibilities because Sticky Buns definitely needed a nap after his ticket. They did not miss much as Bakersfield and Fresno have almost nothing going on in them. I was doing well until I started nodding off just passing Fresno. We had breakfast at a starbucks and got coffee for the rest of the drive. Melon took over driving and I tried to stay up but passed out around 8 a.m.

Tunnel

We got to Yosemite at around 9 a.m. We found parking and made our way to the Wilderness Center so we could get a pass. Fortunately for us, there was no one in line for wilderness permits. We got a permit for what seemed like a fairly easy hike north of the Yosemite Valley called “North Rim.” The ranger said it should be an easy hike and jokingly called our trip a “nature walk.” We got a bear canister for Sticky Buns and decided to make him Trip Leader in spite of the fact he had not backpacked before. This amused and worried the Ranger. She quized us to make sure we knew how to survive and how to not mess up nature for everyone else. We thanked her and left to find backpackers camp. This was a campsite reserved just for backpackers that you can use the day before your trip and the day when you return. It is a nice place that they provide as it is impossible to find a campsite in Yosemite without a reservation. We also felt special because you cannot find backpackers camp on normal maps of Yosemite. 

We finally found backpackers camp at the north end of North Pine campground. This was after some wandering around and getting lost (we were really tired). We set up camp and went for a quick swim in the river just outside of camp. We set up Gooch’s tent for him because he was coming in later that night. We did the touristy stuff and walked to the visitors center and the market and saw Lower Yosemite Falls.

Valley floor

The Falls were amazing and were significantly larger than when we went 4 years earlier. I ended up eating two au jus sandwiches (they were 50% off) and we closed up camp for the night.

Day 2:

I woke up to the sound of Melon and Gooch talking excitedly about the backpacking trip and breakfast. Gooch arrived just past 1 in the morning and Sticky Buns had to guide him to the campground because he was the only one with cell phone reception. He apparently found the campground with no problem.

We made our way to Half Dome Village which Gooch appropriately dubbed the camp formerly known as Curry as the park was forced to change the names of the beloved attractions because Delaware North is a bunch of assholes. 

We had our last breakfast in civilization before turning to the wilderness. We made a pit stop on the way towards the trailhead. Gooch developed some sort of pain and a rash on his hip on the car ride up and wanted to get it checked out. The medic did not really know what to do with it and gave him some cream and said to keep an eye on it. We went to the trailhead and after a quick “attitude adjustment” for some of us, we made it to the trail. It was a little pit stop off of the 120, on big oak flat road. There was a bear locker and a tiny dirt parking lot next to a beautiful meadow with burnt trees. There were remnants from a fire that occurred there the year earlier. We made a last pack check and loaded the extras we did not need in the bear locker. We headed across the road and started climbing some beautiful rolling green hills dotted with burned black trees.

We climbed higher and higher and found ourselves getting above the tree line of the far off mountains. The wildflowers were vibrant and soul uplifting. This is where we all began to realize how hard backpacking was and just how out of shape we all were. We took breaks every hour to make sure that we did not get burned out.

We eventually made it to our planned stop but were a little taken back with how many mosquitoes there were. Bugs were everywhere and I am already a wimp when it comes to flying insects. I was trying to remain positive but I was personally in hell. We started setting up camp and covered ourselves in bug spray.

As we were trying to find camp we saw a happy hiker coming down the trail. He stopped and talked to us for a while. He mentioned that we were only a couple miles from the top of El Capitan and that once we hit the top there were still patches of snow. Being from Southern California I was ecstatic when I heard this news. The happy hiker seemed nice but at the same time there was something off about him. He had no pack, only had a stick as far as we could see, and was in the middle of a ten mile hike. He seemed blissfully unprepared. He took off. As we continued to prepare camp some more hikers came by and seemed to be in a hurry. We talked to them and they said they saw a guy trying to start a fire. The arsonist took off and they stayed to put out whatever fire he was trying to set. They said it looked like a pile of sticks and leaves with something smoldering underneath it and some sort of fuse. The good samaritans tried to put it out but decided to run back to the trail head and see if they could get reception to be able to call the ranger’s station. As soon as the samaritans left we realized that the first guy we talked to must have been the happy arsonist. We were uneasy because of the encounter but we decided to stay anyway.

We made dinner and the bugs began to disperse. My new little stove I got on amazon worked surprisingly well. Melon and I had dehydrated spaghetti and meatballs, Gooch had dehydrated lasagna, and Sticky Buns had pasta primavera. It was italian night. Melon read Gulliver’s travels from the Kindle that I brought (they made fun of me initially) and we fell asleep looking at the stars.

Day 3:

I woke up to the sound of Melon finishing up packing her tent and Gooch rolling up his sleeping bag. Melon and Gooch are morning people, Sticky Buns and I are not. This tradition would continue throughout the rest of vacation. We had breakfast, packed up camp, and walked back up half a mile to a river to refill on water for the day.

This was the moment that I learned my first big backpacking lesson, Backpacking Rule #1: Always bring more toilet paper than you think you need. As we were headed to get more water I felt the urge and to be honest I was excited, I had never pooped in the woods before. I grabbed two handfuls of t.p. and walked off the path to find my restroom. I kept my shorts around my ankles which I learned was a bad idea because your butt ends up right above them and then your trying not to crap your pants from above like a nervous air bomber. When I finally found a comfortable position I tried to relax and let it out. Unfortunately this is when the bugs woke up and like I was King Ramses and had refused to “let the Hebrews go,” bugs descended on me from all directions. I finished as quickly as I could while furiously swatting in all directions. I would give anything to have a video of how ridiculous I must have looked. I used all of the T.P. and buried my shame the recommended foot deep. As I was returning to my group my stomach had other ideas. It was round 2 and this time it was personal but unfortunately I was out of t.p. and in my panic I decided to jog back to camp. I went the half mile back to camp, got lost, found camp and t.p. with not a moment to spare, sprayed bug spray everywhere (first good idea), and finished off my morning constitution. I tried to jog the other half a mile back to the water source because at this point I figured they would be worried why my rest stop was taking so long but I was already exhausted. When I caught up with the group I learned that Melon had brought t.p. just in case, I walked to camp and back for nothing and this was the start of the big climb day too. It was not going to go well.

We had to do 1700 ft. of elevation gain over 3 miles with most of it being in the first mile. It was rough. We took our time but with our 35lbs. packs it was exhausting. We mostly kept our spirits up but I could tell each one of us was struggling.

Once we got to the top, the forest opened up to some amazing vistas of nearby mountains and valleys. It was just the refreshment we needed. The path got more level and we made our way. We even saw the remnants of snow dotting the path of what must have been a very white winter earlier this year. We decided to skip lunch and try to find a nearby stream so we could refill water and have lunch there. The stream turned out to be farther than we thought and when we got there we were tired, hungry, and tense. One of us was going to crack and unfortunately it was me.

Sticky Buns and I had each brought a sawyer water filter on the trip but we each assumed the other would bring the pump to clear it out, so neither of us had one. When this was brought to light we each blamed one another and I had reached a boiling point and stormed off. This brought up some emotions from when my step brothers would make fun of me for screwing things up and my mood went from bad to worse. I came back and hardly said a word while filling up my water bottles and bag. Melon came over and knew something was wrong, we talked and eventually I got over it once lunch settled and we put some miles behind us.

It turns out that the stream was not very far from the top of El Capitan. Suddenly, we found ourselves on top of the world. It was the most breathtaking experiences I have had in recent memory. You emerge from a little hillside and suddenly you can see mountains in all directions going off for miles around you. There is an epic view of half dome and in the far off distance you can see Cathedral peak.

el capitan 2el capitan

We explored the mountain top and found the world’s most panoramic engrossing smoke spot. We had reliable cell phone reception for the first time so we called our families to fill them in on how we were doing and how beautiful it was. There were a couple hikers that came by, but except for one other group, we had the mountaintop to ourselves. We had found a very nice established campsite with a stone fire ring and throne with which to sit on and contemplate life. It may have been against the rules to stay at that campsite but we could not pass an opportunity to sleep on top of the world. We set up camp and made dinner. Melon read Gulliver’s Travels to us again. Gooch made a bed for himself under the stars which I was kind of jealous of until we found a scorpion chilling between Melon and my tent. This didn’t seem to bother Gooch. Sticky Buns found his own sleeping spot farther down that would have an amazing view of the Half Dome in the morning as the sun was rising. I found myself having trouble going to sleep. This was due to reading reports of fast changing winds and people getting struck by lightning on Half Dome some years ago. The scorpion did not help either. Also, the other group that was on the mountain kept flashing these weird light bars around. It looked like they were trying to guide the mother ship down from space. I finally realized that they had friends on another mountain across the valley that they were signaling them. It was pretty cool. I kept Melon awake telling her about all of this until she got annoyed and told me to shut up. I fell asleep staring at innumerable stars.

Day 4:

I awoke to the sound of birds and the sun illuminating the gorgeous mountains all around us. I had a feeling of profound happiness I had never felt and I will not soon forget. We had a jovial breakfast and packed up camp. As we were getting everything ready and Gooch was applying his gooch cream the group that was shining those strange lights the night before passed us and said “good morning” to us. I really wanted to ask them about their weird lights but did not want to seem like the weirdo camper that was watching them at night. We did some stretches and took off for the day.

This was the first day that we did not really have any sort of concrete plan on what we wanted to do. We decided to head to water and to refill our supply. Backpacking Rule #2: when in doubt, get water!

We headed up the trail toward Eagle’s Peak which the park ranger that gave us the wilderness pass said was well worth viewing. We ended up passing by our El Capitan neighbors who turned out to be a bunch of dicks, for the most part. They clogged up the path and refused to move. There were two germans in the group that were nice but for the most part they were not friendly. Gooch and Sticky Buns joked about saving the pretty blonde in the group from the douchebags she was surrounded by.

We moved on and came across Eagle’s Peak which was surprisingly not that far away from where we started. We dropped our packs off at the bottom of the hill and climbed to the top. We came over a ridge and around some rocks and suddenly we had an overwhelming view of YosemiteValley, Half Dome, and up to Cathedral Pass. It was the most beautiful sight and the second image from this trip that will stay with me forever.

Eagle Peak

Gooch described it as a dominant vista on the north side of Yosemite Valley that almost mirrors its counterpoint Half Dome (thanks Gooch). We spent some time taking pictures and way too many panoramas and hiked back down. Gooch is a bit of a billy goat and was jumping on some rocks (as billy goats do) with his heavy pack but unfortunately he landed funny on a rock and hurt his knee. Backpacking Rule #3: Don’t risk injury. This was a sign of things to come.

We ran into the El Capitan group that we now called “the Germans” and they were much nicer this time. We picked up our packs and made our way farther down until we came upon a stream. We filled up our water and took a quick snack break.

A little while later we had reached the top of Yosemite Falls. We were tired and dirty and we decided to call an end to the backpacking adventure. I was disappointed at first but I accepted this finality once I realized that meant I could have a shower, pizza, and beer.

We walked around the top of Yosemite Falls and took more pictures for facebook. We also met a lot of people including two ladies that were flirting with Gooch and Sticky Buns named Candace and Sabrina (I think). We got really close to the falls and had a great view of the water as it slowly floated down toward the valley floor, becoming mist. It was a very impressive sight. (picture is looking straight down)

yosemite falls down

yosemite falls

What I did not recognize at the time was that as far as that water was falling into the valley, that is how far down we would have to hike with 30 lbs. packs. Thus begun what I now call the descent into madness.

The trail started easily enough with pleasant switchbacks and nice wide paths. Soon it became steeper and filled with jagged rocky steps that were covered in just enough sand to make it very slippery. This is also when I realized just how worn out my shoes were. The path got harder and harder and it seemed that everyone became more determined to get down the trail quicker. I started falling behind. My knees were getting shaky but I was determined to catch up so I started booking it. I made it for about ten minutes until my knee gave out going around a turn and I slid on my right knee across rock steps for about five feet. I did not fall over and one guy said “if it helps any, you looked really graceful.” I said thanks and started back up while embarrassed and tried to walk again but I knew I was in trouble. A couple minutes later I had to stop because my knee and ankle were going to give out. A guy stopped and told me that he saw me fall and my ankle rolled really badly. He offered an ace bandage which was nice but I already had one so I thanked him and began taking off my shoe. Melon had turned around and caught up to me and I told her what had happened. She helped me get straight and the bandage helped a lot but I knew I was in for a long walk. It took the better part of 3 hours to walk down to the valley. We took a long rest at a watering hole type place where a rogue stream was running down the path and people were using it to refill their bottles. It was nice to talk to fellow hikers and cool to see the different perspectives people had. There were a couple backpackers, one of which just finished a 30 mile hike coming from the other side of the valley. Most people were tourists just trying to get a good picture from the top of the falls. It amazed me the different levels of preparedness with some teenagers running up the path with nothing more than sneakers and a water bottle. Gooch and Melon were pointing out the blissfully unprepared hikers to one another, no doubt making themselves feel better. It turns out Sticky Buns also twisted his ankle slipping on some rocks but was being  much more stoic than I was. I had no problem telling people that I was in pain and needed to go slowly.

We eventually made it to the bottom and found the shuttle to take us back to civilization. It was honestly a little weird going from the solitude of nature and the occasional sighting of others to being squeezed on a bus full of tourists. I wore my stench and filth like a badge of courage. We each found a seat except for poor Gooch, who also had a knee injury. We got off at the camp formerly known as Curry and decided the first thing we had to do now that we were back in civilization was pizza and beer.

We ordered the largest pizza with extra toppings and each got a beer. We could only find a table in the sun because it was so damn crowded but it didn’t really matter. The beer was exceptionally cold and refreshing. We had made it back and had an unforgettable time and no one died! We were feeling good and enjoyed our beverages until Gooch hit his breaking point.

Gooch and the rest of us were feeling pretty good and relieved to be back but when a table that was covered in shade opened up, that is when it all changed. We had to hurry because the restaurant was so busy the table could be grabbed at any moment. We grabbed our things and began practically running for the table and in all of the confusion Gooch knocked over his beer and broke the glass. The light faded from his eyes. He was toast and the mood suddenly lowered in the group. We offered to get him another beer but it was too late. The damage to his psyche was irreparable. It was made even worse when he went to tell an apathetic food worker that there was glass on the ground and he said something that sent Gooch over the edge. He came back different and darker. He was pretty quiet but did accept to share the remaining beers. We got the pizza after what felt like a very long time and devoured it with no regard to humanity. We were wild beasts devouring our prey. It was glorious and I do not know if i have had a more satisfying meal.

After food, Melon brought up the fact that they had showers at the camp formerly known as Curry. We made our way to the showers and got in just before they were about to close. It was about the most orgasmic shower I have ever had. I rinsed off three times just to make sure I got the most out of the experience. I even rinsed my clothes so I would have something clean when I got out. Melon was the amazing wife that she is and got us CLEAN souvenir shirts, the most important part of that was that they were clean. I now looked like a tourist but I did not care, I was clean and well fed.

I am not sure if it was the injury, the unhealthy food and drink, or the restless sleep but I suddenly felt tired and nauseous. We made our way back to backpackers camp and as soon as I set up my tent I was asleep.

Day 5:

We woke up in backpackers camp and it seemed like everyone was on edge. We were cracking jokes same as always but the comebacks came a little harder and with more bite. Gooch was admiring the Ass of a backpacker in the next camp that he affectionately named “Butts McCoy.” Gooch talked to her and found out she is a serious backpacker and was just about to start a  mile hike up to Clouds Rest which has an elevation gain of 2000 feet. She came over and gave our group some leftover raspberries that she had and took off. God Bless you Butts McCoy.

We decided to go back one last time to the camp formerly known as Curry and have a huge breakfast. This unfortunately did not seem to improve our mood. I felt like I was at odds with everything that Gooch said and Melon said she was getting tired of Sticky Buns negativity. I decided that the best course of action was to ride with the person we were sick of and get over it. Most specifically because Gooch and I were the only ones that smoke and an “attitude adjustment” was exactly what we needed. We put on some My Morning Jacket and rolled down the windows. We talked about life, goals, music, and just listened to the world around us. It was a great feeling and moment that really turned the whole trip around for me. We stopped by Olmstead point and officially said goodbye to Yosemite Valley and said hello to Tuolumne Meadows, which we all admitted was our favorite part of the park.

We pulled up to Tuolumne Meadows campground at noon and immediately found a campsite. The ranger said it was right next to the river that passes by the campground and is one of his favorites. Everything was going right and we were all in a great mood which was a sharp contrast to how we started the day in the valley.

We decided that we deserved to have a rest day. We needed to recover from the descent into madness the day before. We got a bottle of whiskey and headed to the river and went swimming.

The we came back to camp and played games. We played m&m poker which Sticky Buns absolutely destroyed before giving away his winnings and going to bed. We hit the hay soon after.

Day 6:

I actually woke up first for the only time the entire trip. I did not want to ruin tradition, so I lazily stared at the trees and read a little from the Kindle. When I heard some stirring in the other tents I decided to finally get out of bed. I had to take a piss so I put on my clothes and decided to hike a little ways down the John Muir Trail which was bright and vibrant with the cool sounds of water rushing by. I found a nice little tree to duck behind and was amazed at the lack of bugs which had plagued this entire trip. Just as my stream started flowing I was suddenly surrounded by mosquitoes. I panicked and started flailing about. I looked like Mac from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia showcasing his karate moves. Piss was flying everywhere. I finally finished and immediately started power walking back to camp to get my bug spray and bug net on when not two minutes later I ran into 5 hikers headed down the trail. If they had left two minutes earlier they would have seen me doing my helicopter impression and I would have ended up with a misdemeanor. Thank God that did not happen.

I got back to camp and everyone was up. We were sick of oatmeal and decided to go get breakfast at the cafe next to the general store. The group of us were a little groggy but once we had breakfast and headed to the trail we were fine. We started that day on the Pothole Dome trail and took a detour across the Tuolumne River and over to the Glen Aulin trail. It was a beautiful day with only one cloud in the sky and a warm breeze at our backs. The Tuolumne River seemed twice its size since we were there 2 years earlier. It was really fun taking off our shoes and socks and putting everything we didn’t want wet over our heads. We didn’t bring our big heavy multi-day packs but just some day packs we had in the car just in case. Melon and Gooch were smart enough to bring water socks with them which would have been awesome because my ankle was still messed up but I didn’t care, it was GORGEOUS!

Tuolumne meadows

Across the river we ran into a family taking a break. We said hi and talked to them for a bit. We also saw a caravan of mules coming from Glen Aulin which was pretty cool to see. We speculated over what they could be carrying.

The waterfalls from Tuolumne River cascaded down the mountains and were amazing.

Tuolumne falls

They only got bigger and more intense the farther down we went. We ran into some trail maintenance workers who honestly seemed to loathe their job and could have passed for work release inmates. It was a weird juxtaposition of beautiful scenery and forced hard manual labor. We continued down some rocky steps that brought flashbacks of when I twisted my ankle two days earlier. We made it to a bridge that we had been at 4 years earlier and took the requisite facebook photos. We continued down until we hit another bridge that lead to Glen Aulin.

Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp is an established campsite with tent cabins that you can reserve. They also have a general store, running water, and an ecologically friendly toilet. It turns out that those mules we saw earlier that day were carrying out the compost from the toilet (kinda gross and cool). Glen Aulin is part of 5 high sierra camps that you can reserve and they are only a day hike apart. The only hard part is that it books quickly and each nights stay costs upward of $150.

The camp was very interesting and could not have been in a better setting right under a huge waterfall that had a big pool at the bottom of it. I tried to convince everyone to go swimming with me. I could only convince Melon to get her feet wet. We had joked earlier about being baptized the day before in the river. We decided to do it in a more official capacity. Melon grabbed me from the side and I crossed my arms. She dunked me into the cold, fresh water and I came up reinvigorated. I decided then and there that the old me went into the water and a new fresh me had emerged. I was going to be a new me, a more authentic me, a more relaxed me not afraid to be myself. I swam around a bit and climbed onto a nearby rock to dry out. Some people from the camp came out and were sitting at a bench just in sight of me. I was in heaven.

Things abruptly changed when Sticky Buns pointed out the dark clouds coming in from the East. It looked like they might miss our camp but it scared us enough that we packed up and booked it. Backpacking Rule #4: be prepared for any kind of weather. We passed the workers and made our way up to the bridge. This is when we noticed that the clouds were starting to dump water in the distance because of the dark trails coming from them. We were pretty sure that we were screwed. We did not put up our rain covers because there was only one small cloud in the sky when we left in the morning.

I have never hiked as fast as I did that day. We covered almost 5 miles in about two hours, including fording the river again (which I had to make the obligatory “Oregon Trail” joke). Just as we had crossed Tuolumne River it started to rain. Now we were sure that camp was ruined.  We hurried to the car as we got slowly drenched with light rain. It was a bittersweet moment because the light rain made Tuolumne Valley absolutely stunning but we knew that this was the end of the trip.

rainy tuolumne

We got to camp and the tents had good puddles in all of them, except Melon’s. The wonderful people in the campsite next to us saw my rain cover next to my tent and put it on Melon’s tent. We packed everything up and threw all the wet equipment in a pile in the trunk of Gooch’s car. Sticky Buns wanted some time to himself so Melon and I went with Gooch. He had Sunny Rollins playing, whose soft beautiful melodies perfectly fit the bittersweet feeling that we all had as we left Tuolumne and said goodbye to Yosemite National  Park.

We met up at the Denny’s in Bishop. We were pretty quiet and mostly stared at our cell phones and caught back up with civilization and all that we had missed. Gooch found out that his Orioles were on a winning streak, Melon learned about the massive fire that occurred south of where we were, Sticky Buns received over one thousand emails from work, and I had one text from someone wanting me to cover their shift. Sticky Buns decided to drive through the night while Gooch, Melon, and I decided to share a hotel room in Bishop (mostly to get Schatt’s Bakkery in the morning).

We had an amazing trip and made it out of the wilderness alive. Although almost nothing went as planned I would not have had it any other way . . .  maybe except the ankle part.

~James Wilder

*If you have made it this far thank you so much. I put a couple days into this post and I appreciate you reading it. I would love it if you like, share, and follow this post and if you really want how about coffee? Thanks again.

 

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