Tuesday, August 28, 2012

John Muir Trail I. Yosemite Valley to Toulumne. Drought, a bubbly group, and detours.

Yosemite Valley in August is a seething mass of humanity. Baking in the sun, we hike with our backpacks to the campground, dodging unsteady bicyclists, overfed squirrels, and people with towels. Everyone is heading toward water, whatever precious little there is. The Valley is a cauldron, an overcooked pot, something to leave quickly. Despite the sun-washed views of El Capitan, I can't get out of here fast enough.

We spend the night in a dustbowl optimistically named the Backpacker Campground. All evening long people on bikes ignore the posted route and rocket through between our tents. Other groups sort gear. We go through our packs and decide to send extra stuff home: too much first aid, clothing, an extra trowel, and a bag of chocolate pretzels that has congealed in the heat. Our packs still seem heavy. I have serious pack envy of two other group members, who are carrying ultra lights. This envy will soon fade.

In the morning we load up and get a ride to the trailhead. Even at seven, we are adrift in a sea of day hikers bound for Mist and Vernal Falls. The trail is even paved, a steep climb without relief. Day hikers pass us as we toil uphill. Strangely we come upon a flush toilet and a water fountain at one junction. Eventually the day hikers fall off and we are left mostly on our own to marvel at the views. We are really doing this, a couple of miles into a 230 mile adventure.

Because the lottery prevented us from a pass-through, this first day is a wash. We must hike off the John Muir Trail and rejoin it the next day. Some of the group argues for a short detour and a dry camp near the top of the Illihouette Basin, thus preventing a long slog the next day, but others prevail, stating firmly that they do not want to dry camp and will not do it. In the throes of Group Dynamics, we trudge through a drought stricken landscape. The trails are the consistency of flour and the seasonal streams are gone, air like cotton in my mouth. The quest for water becomes a little desperate, and we query passing hikers. It becomes clear that people are poor at judging distance. "One mile," someone says. "Three or four," a cute backpacker tells us. Finally we stumble on a creek and a questionable campsite that we dub "Furnace Camp." Blackened by a former fire, it is close to a hundred degrees here. After a foot soak, we determine that the bigger river is just a half mile away and we head there.

The river is delightful and we spend hours swimming in the pools. The next day is not quite so delightful as we face a fourteen mile day complete with a climb from about 6000 feet to nearly ten. We regain the JMT and the crowds. A day hiker spies us as we pass by the Vernal Falls trail junction. "Who is this bubbly group?" he wants to know. And we are: we feel strong.

We hike through a parched forest, filling up at every water source we can find. Some are only trickles. The ultralight packs begin to fail, victims of poor engineering. We encounter a couple who warn us that we have to head up a "mighty big hill", and it is, a drone up dusty switchbacks, a gain of 800 feet in less than a mile. This type of climb will seem like nothing later on, but on Day 2 it is a challenge, and we head down into Sunrise with a sigh of relief.

We have heard that the Sunrise High Sierra Camp is dry, the pack trains bringing in water for their guests, and so we must filter water out of a sluggish trickle a half mile away. An exhausted group comes the other way, one of the women exclaiming that she can't believe she has blisters, because she "hiked the AT in these boots." We exchange glances--how could those boots have held up after the entire Appalachian Trail? Then the truth comes out--she only hiked four days of the AT. We find this funny and it becomes a saying the whole trip once we gain our own blisters. How could we possibly have blisters when we have hiked the PCT in these very same boots?

Being lowly backpackers, we do not stay in the tent cabins of the High Sierra Camp, but we do have a site among granite rocks and a priceless view of the meadow and peaks surrounding it. We hear the dinner and cocktail hour bells ring for the guests as we eat our freeze-dried meals and drink our warm water. But we don't care. It is only day two, and we have time on our side--days and days in the wilderness.

The water scarcity continues as we leave Sunrise and head towards Toulumne. We head over Cathedral Pass, barely a pass at all, and find our first lakes, the sweet Cathedrals. Day hikers are on the move again, slogging up the steep trail as we scamper down. It feels like too short a time to re-enter some form of civilization, only three days, but we have a rendezvous at Toulumne, so we head in to roads and busy campgrounds. Once again we are shunted into a Backpacker Campground, full of noise and people. In the night a bear comes and people over-react, firing off air horns and treeing it. Regular campers march by our tents and state that we are sleeping in coffins. We start seeing other JMTers, people who have opted to bypass the climb out of Yosemite Valley.

The next day we will head up Lyell Canyon and it finally feels like we are really getting into the wilderness. My friend Kim shows up and will hike with us for three days. Ahead we have more climbs, a series of lakes, and our first pass. The weather is warm and sunny. What could possibly go wrong?

I am about to find out.

Coming down to the first Cathedral Lake.

........To be continued...............

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In the Box

I sit in a trailer, watching helicopters fly. Grounded like this, it is easy to forget that I just spent 19 days in the wilderness. A young helitack crewmember bounces in, looking for scissors. Driven by boredom, the men on her crew are cutting their hair into mohawks.

"Greetings, Box People!" she says. "I'm so glad I'm not in here."

Still, I'd rather sit in a box and coordinate helicopters with Air Attack than do what they are doing, which is trying to fill the hours by hunting up shade and sculpting hair into mohawks. We have seven helicopters working this fire, and at any given time they are either landing, leaving, or being sent someplace with buckets of water. We have eight radios to monitor, which means we always know what is going on with this fire, which is currently racing across the grasslands of Hells Canyon.

I used to be out on the ground like the crews I hear on the radio, but after my epic hike I am nursing a sore tendon and it is good for me to sit for awhile. I drive to the gym at five in the morning to get some exercise. My companion in the Box is Sebastian, who was four years old when I went on my first wildfire. He remembers watching media coverage of the Yellowstone fires when he was five. It should make me feel old, but it doesn't. I am finding it hard to care about things I used to think were important.

I am still figuring out things from my hike. They involve the future and the present. While I do this I direct helicopters. I torture Sebastian with reading from a Glamour magazine. It is mindless and good.

The fire will do what it wants to do. I cringe when I hear about dozer lines three blades wide. I don't know when we will learn that fire is a necessary force. There are no houses threatened here, only deep wrinkles and folds in the landscape, gulches and ridges and drainages that have burned before and will burn again. We learn nothing, it seems.

 The radios erupt in a torrent of sound and fury. The helicopters lift off again, starring the sky.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I wish real life was like trail life

Hello out there! I am back from my John Muir Trail thru-hike, and I will be posting about it soon. I am still adjusting to not waking up in the wilderness, packing up and hiking for eight hours, up 2000 feet, down 2000 feet and back up again. Nineteen days in the wilderness changed me in many ways, not all of which I can articulate right now. This hike was one of the hardest but also one of the most wonderful things I have ever done. Though it is all on a trail, just the elevation changes alone make it very challenging. The unofficial statistics say that the total elevation change is about 84,000 feet, and with the mileage we were throwing down, we often stumbled into camp only to fall asleep at 9 pm (hiker midnight).

I still have a lot to think about, but I am really missing trail life. I can see why people hike long trails like the PCT. Life on the trail is simpler, easier, more pure somehow. Here are some examples:

  • People were their best selves. We leapfrogged the same people for weeks, passing them at creeks, campsites, on passes. They offered encouragement, advice, bandages, and even, once, a camp stove. Then they would fall behind, or cross a pass before we did, and disappear from our lives. We worried about them and missed them; we were a trail family.
  • It didn't matter what you did in the "real world." We didn't know what professions people had or even their last names. We made up trail names for them but mostly didn't share them (Tweaker, Chatty McChatterson, Eye Candy, The Gang of Four, Floppy Hat, Hot Smoker Guy, Black Dress). Our group trail name was the Blue Crew, bestowed on us by the Two Bears.
  • Water, snacks, shelter, getting over the passes before a thunderstorm: life was boiled down to simplicity. There was time to think and to breathe. This became the only world there was, and it was a world that made sense; climbing from the valleys into the sub-alpine zone, predicting weather from the early morning clouds, finding a flat spot for the tent.
  • No buildings. No roads. No cars. No sounds except for the rivers, the crunch of my feet on granite, my breath. Two hundred and thirty miles, all on foot.
We saw several people who were "fast packing", getting through the country as fast as they could. While I can appreciate the challenge, that isn't for me. I wanted to immerse myself into the place, dive deep into the canyons and forests and ridges. Why hurry? What is so important to get back to? Nineteen days was not nearly enough.