I spent Sunday through Thursday hiking in Yosemite National Park’s high country and the Eastern Sierra (well, and driving to and from, which takes 6-7 hours). Just like in 2015, I made a motel in Lee Vining my home base, and headed out for day hikes from there. The Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite National Park is only 12 miles from Lee Vining – very convenient to be on the trails early enough after sleeping in a warm bed, and even more coming back in the evening, going home to a hot shower and then a warm hearty meal at one of the nearby restaurants. :-)
Thanks to completely non-existent cellphone coverage (you can find the T-Mobile users in Lee Vining easily: they’re having social interactions with other humans;-) and what must be the shoddiest WiFi network on the planet at the motel, it was also four days without news, and mostly without social media (near the motel’s office the WiFi was best, but it meant sitting outside, and the desire to actually spend time reading my Twitter timeline was greatly reduced by the chill wind in the evening; I did manage to tweet a few cellphone photos – the ones included below).
I began my “mountain retreat” soon after arriving on Sunday, with a short hike to Parker Lake in order to get used to physical activity at this elevation. Monday morning I explored Black Point and the Black Point Fissures at Mono Lake first, then hiked to Mount Watkins from Olmsted Point (“Mount” is a bit misleading, as it is one of the granite dome/faces/ridges above Yosemite Valley, similar to North Dome and Basket Dome). Tuesday I was out early and hiked Cathedral Lakes and Mariuolumne Dome. Wednesday I attempted Mount Dana, second highest peak in Yosemite, but had to gave up 3/4 of the way up due to the weather – to rid myself of the frustration, I hiked a loop including Dog Lake, Lembert Dome, and Lyell Fork of Tuolumne Meadows, which was splendid. For my farewell on Thursday I was treated to the first snow, drove around a little bit to take in the different views, and then begun my way home.
So those are the hikes and places I’ll be writing about here in the next couple of days or weeks (or months…). For now, here’s a little primer with some cellphone photos, and one or the other odd thought and observation that I had put down as notes while there. It was just four days away from the daily life and its duties – but since I filled each day with activity, it felt much longer. Maybe I’m ready for a long distance trail…
Home. Hiking on the trail to Cathedral Lakes on Tuesday morning in the crisp and cold air (32°F/0°C at the trailhead) felt like being “home” in the Alps – especially on the first part of the trail, that goes uphill over rocks and roots in the woods and passes boggy clearings while the impossible needle of Cathedral Peak appears and disappears between the treetops. Or maybe it just means that forest trails and mountains are home. And I missed it.
Freedom. When I hiked to Cathedral Lakes I just wanted to get a better view of Upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak, so I left the trail and made my way higher up on the north-east facing shoulder of Tressider Peak. From there, I saw a granite dome that started as a ridge from Lower Cathedral Lake. It looked quite approachable, with a gentle slope. I wanted to go there and see what it’s like – and so I went. It was great to do that simply because I could, since I had everything that I needed: my backpack with clothing, water, snacks; my own will, strength, stamina, and most of all, the desire to hike, see and explore.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt freer than this. It may sound cliche, but to stand at the peak of Mariuolumne Dome as a result of this was a spiritual experience, there’s no other way to put it. I had no plan to do this, just followed an impulse, went and did it – because I could. And then I was there, just like that. Amazing.
Curiosity. I hiked to Mount Watkins from Olmsted Point on Monday afternoon. For most people Olmsted Point seems to be only a drive-by location now – some don’t even stop the car! They use the turnout, slow down and as they roll past the parked cars, take whatever glimpse of Half Dome they get and then speed off, and they’re probably thinking “meh, what’s the big deal?” Fools.
Most of those who do stop don’t bother to walk 3 minutes for the better (unobscured) vista. You can see Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Tenaya Lake with the domes to its east, and so much more from there. Everyone has a camera and makes pictures, but no one seems to look at the comfortable granite stairs that lead down from the turnout and would say “hmmm, I wonder where those go…” – they go to a sign that says “Scenic Vista 100 Yards” and the total distance to cover is probably a shocking 200 yards. 200 yards! And people don’t go there. They need to snap a selfie in front of Half Dome but don’t want to get further than 20 steps away from the car.
Standing amidst this madness after having hiked 10 miles from the very same spot, into lovely dark forest to stunning vistas and vertigo inducing drops of sheer granite into Tenaya Canyon and Yosemite Valley, I felt truly alienated by these people and their behavior. You can’t experience Yosemite without hiking. And there are plenty of easy hikes to get this experience, it doesn’t have to be 10 miles. But I wonder: what happened to people’s curiosity? Where’s the desire to explore? I guess I shouldn’t complain. Yosemite had over 5 million visitors in 2016, up from 4.1 million in 2015. Maybe it’s better that they stay in their cars and don’t begin exploring trails, probably wearing sneakers and flip flops…
Maps. The more I hike with apps like GaiaGPS, the more I find printed maps superfluous (or maybe, a good backup). Downloaded offline maps on the phone are way more detailed – 1:3000 for the OpenHikingHD Map for example, compared to the typical Tom Harrison or NatGeo map at 1:63360 (where 1 inch equals 1 mile). The USGS topo map in GaiaGPS is available at 1:12000 – still a lot more detailed, and unrivaled with regards to topographical accuracy.
The best part though is of course that the phone knows where you are, thanks to GPS, and puts you on the map, quite literally. For some of my cross country hikes I simply put a waypoint onto a nearby feature that I saw (or sometimes multiple ones, for orientation), and then just made my way there, using the visible terrain that I saw, and the map data (“I better stay a little more east here to avoid losing too much elevation” – that sort of thing). It’s like a modern version of hiking with a compass, and way, way easier.
Yes, the phone needs to be charged, but even after a day of hiking with using the map on the phone and logging a GPS track, my iPhone 7 Plus’s battery was still at 40%. For day hiking, it’s just not an issue. Okay, I don’t make a lot of photos with the phone like other people, but I guess I could carry a battery pack then – still considerably lighter than my DSLR camera with lens. ;-)
Trekking Poles. I can certainly see more people using poles nowadays than a couple of years ago, but it still amazes me to see people who do not use them, or just one, or a wooden stick. While hiking back from Mount Watkins to Olmsted Point (Snow Creek Trail) I met an incredibly tall guy hauling a huge and heavy backpack (ie. he was not a day hiker) – and he didn’t use or have poles! The strain he puts on his knees and back without poles is so much higher. I can’t imagine doing longer uphill or downhill sections without poles. My super not-fancy shock absorbing aluminum poles costed $50. So worth it. Use trekking poles, people! You can also call them hiking sticks, but do your knees the favor, get some, and use them. :-)
Trail Markers. The Snow Creek Trail from Olmsted Point soon leads over some bare granite slabs and it can be a bit confusing to follow the trail. In the Alps in Germany, Austria and Italy, trails are marked with a bit of paint on rocks or trees, very often red/white/red stripes. Sometimes they also contain the trail number. This makes it very easy to follow the official trail, and not get mislead by some use-trail or shortcuts. I wonder why something similar isn’t done in Yosemite (and other places). The trails are well maintained and if fallen trees are removed from trails with chainsaws, getting out there with a paint bucket can’t be the problem. :-)
Trail Signs. The trail signage in Yosemite is really good (compared to many local San Diego trails). Rustic metal signs indicate where a trail is leading to, and how far it is. Interestingly, the distance is given in miles – well, what else? In Europe, the trail signs give an approximate duration instead. Think about it – it’s easy enough to know that on level ground, one will usually hike ~3 miles per hour (at least people without a camera – those photographers, man, they are so slow) but “<n> miles from point A to B” in the mountains doesn’t mean that much without knowing something about the terrain as well – and yes, one should have a map and know the terrain of course. I think adding an average time would give people a better idea of what to expect. “Mount Hoffmann 3 miles” (4.8km) sounds like a piece of cake – except that it includes about 700m/2300ft of ascend. You get the idea.
That’s it with my ramblings for now… stay tuned! :-)