Lemonade out of Lemons.

So after Mexican food and margaritas at Roberto’s in Mammoth Lakes, and a fitful night’s sleep at the Quality Inn…we were actually too warm, we headed with our son and his girlfriend to Yosemite Valley to pick up his truck. I’m not going to lie, we were a little bummed to have cut this adventure short, and we’re wondering if we were being pussies and/or a little too cautious. Considering that one of the girl’s newly purchased mircospikes was defective and required an on-trail “McGyver” repair, and that their sleeping bags were NOT living up to their temperature rating, as well as the fact that one of the girls was sporting nasty and painful heal blisters, we WERE, working on a recipe for disaster.

Still, it wasn’t until rain hit our windshield, and the outside temperature gauge read 34° as we drove through the East entrance of Yosemite that we began to feel even more justified with our decision. The mountains to our left (that included Donahue Pass) were engulfed in a giant dark cloud. If it was 34° here, what un-godly temperature was it at Donahue Pass, and what would it have been trompsing through to Cathedral Pass and then down to Yosemite Valley? I suspect we would have been working on a good case of trench foot by then.

As we continued on Tioga Rd toward Yosemite Valley, and Half Dome Village, all of the Tuoloumne area was swallowed up in a dense fog. As we passed the lookout at Olmsted point, the visibility was near zero. The canyon to the right of the road toward Yosemite Valley, carved by the Merced river, was nowhere to be seen. By the time we got to the Valley floor, El Capitan, Half Dome and upper Yosemite Falls were “missing”. By the time we got to our son’s truck we felt seriously vindicated, in that even if we had continued we wouldn’t have been able to see “jack crap”…and therefore would have frozen our butts off for no good reason! To top it off, we read that on that Monday afternoon (while we were first dropping off the truck) a man had slipped off the cables while climbing Half Dome, and had fallen to his death. Moisture, cold and climbing, are always a bad combination. So, it seems that our adventure ended appropriately and in a timely fashion for all involved. And the beer we stashed in the creek at the Cathedral Lake trail head was still there. We each cracked one open. Although it was icy cold, it wasn’t as refreshing as it would have been having hiked up to it. On the way out of the park near the Wilderness permit office we found two PCT hikers (who had passed us as we were headed back to Agnew Meadows) and offered them beers. We asked how Donahue Pass was and how far the snow crept into the Lyle Creek meadow. “Oh, we postholed a bit up and over the Pass”, they replied with a sigh and wagging of their heads. They also told us that there was snow all the way to the meadow. So, it looks like we chose the best and safest option for our group. In reading a few of this year’s PCT blogs, many are still holding back from entering the Sierras, which in this case, and considering our recent experience, might be a pretty good idea.

With nothing much better to do, and considering it was Memorial Day Weekend, it seemed only prudent to head to Mule Days in Bishop, and check out the festivities! We have driven through Bishop for decades on our way to Mammoth and elsewhere, and have always seen the sign advertising “Mule Days” for Memorial Day weekend, but had never taken the time to go. This time, it seemed like the planets had alined and it was time to check this off the “bucket list”.

Mule Days, here we come!

Posted in Backpacking, Half Dome, Mini Adventures, PCT, Uncategorized, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Retreat! Retreat!

As we lay in our sleeping bags replaying the events of the day and lamenting the fact we had only made it four arduous miles, of the 10 we had planned, we began to strategize for the following morning and frankly for the remainder of the trip. With our finish time constraint, we knew, considering our pace, we were not going to make Yosemite Valley via foot by Saturday. Tuoloumne Meadows, or the Cathedral Lake trailhead (where we had stashed a twelve pack of beer in the icy flowing creek), and a hitch into the valley for our truck became the plan. We we’re settled with that plan until we woke that morning. Paul just by chance took his phone off airplane mode and discovered we had “4G”… literally in the middle of nowhere. So rather than using our Delorme to check the “local” weather, he pulled it up on his phone. This was an unexpected blessing. What we discovered was that another storm front was moving in two days sooner than we originally had seen, so our window of “survivable” (for this group) weather had shrunk considerably. We figured if we were sleeping a little cold at night, the others had to surely be cold as well. The chance of becoming wetter and colder, on top of having to get to, and ascend and descend an 11,000 ft pass into the valley at Lyle Creek, that last we saw had a considerable amount of snow was for our group (half of which were novices) just plain stupid. While we carry a Delorme for emergencies, we would rather not have to use it, and/or create an opportunity to use it…if ya get my drift. Consistent and regular postholing is exhausting and often dangerous. Twice whilst postholing, I had gotten my foot “stuck” under a limb, but was able to react appropriately to dislodge it without injury. The depth and volume of snow for this area, should not have been such a problem for us, even with a bit of sun. The problem was the fact that most of this snow accumulated in March/April (doubling what had fallen this far) and did not have all “winter” to compact properly, thereby allowing us to walk on it without sinking so deep and often. Thus being only 10 miles from Agnew Meadows, and 16 miles from Tuoloumne (that included Donahue pass), we tucked our tail between our legs and opted for a retreat to Agnew Meadows. When the early morning alarms went off, and everyone was packed up, we unveiled our new plan. Surprisingly our new plan was met with a sigh of relief. Turns out, everyone was colder and more tired than they had let on, as well as a little anxious about going over Donahue Pass (11,056 ft) in these snowy conditions, but they trusted our judgement and experience implicitly enough to continue had we not decided to adjust our plan. Thus with a hearty ,”Hi! Ho!”, and without breakfast or coffee, we made a tactical retreat, and advanced to the rear, from whence we came, two days prior.

Just as we left, we ran into a group of PCT’rs who were continuing northbound. We had met Randy, and a South African gentleman (trail name – Saint Bernard) earlier in the week at the Mammoth Brewing Company. Joyous greetings were shared. We explained our predicament, and they all nodded with understanding. We wished each other safe travels, and were on our respective ways before the snow threatened to soften.

For our group, once we sounded “retreat”, it was like horses to the barn. Collectively we had never moved so fast.

Our plan was to get as far as we could, and hike out to the 4 miles to the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge the next morning, before it began to rain too hard.

Holy Crap! We were on fire. We went 6 miles before we stopped for a break, and that only took us a little over 4 hours…snow and all! The “gravity” of downhill is wonderful.

Energized and hydrated we saddled up again.

One more (long) uphill, a few more”snow fields”, and a final sketchy hillside snow traverse and it was onto the switchbacks down to Agnew Meadows.

Our asses were dragging, and so we’re our feet, but we were all highly motivated. Not even a face plant or two into the snow and/or the dusty trail, nor a slip and fall during a minor creek crossing (resulting in near full soakage) could stop us… thankfully.

Soon the patches of snow began to “thin”. As we stomped through them, we left a trail of “snow donuts”.

Miraculously, we marched the 10 miles to Agnew Meadows in 8.5 hours! Paul and I had every intention of spending the night at Agnew Meadows, but the rest of the crew had been talking about Mexican food and margaritas, so they wanted to “charge” up the road and get our cars. They were done! So in Agnew Meadows as we lay atop the bear lockers, it was decided that the youngest and strongest legs would start up the road to the retrieve cars. The rest of us would move to the picnic table strategically placed next to the road (Postpile Rd) and rest for at least another hour and/or hope a car or truck (from the workers at Red’s Meadow area) would come by and we could “Yogi” a ride for at least one of us and our packs. We had decided that Kimberly would be the one to go up with our gear, as she had taken the hardest fall of the trip and had bruises and scratches to prove it. Not more than 5 minutes after our son and his girlfriend headed up the road, a truck coming from Red’s Meadow area approached. I leapt (at least it felt like I had) from the picnic table we were now lounging upon and flagged the truck down. I motioned towards Kimberly saying that one of our group was injured, and asked if it was at all possible to give her (and maybe our gear) a ride to the Mammoth Lodge. Meanwhile, Kimberly was doing a great job looking miserable and in pain. The driver asked, “Well, what about the rest of you? Don’t you want a ride too?” Could this really be happening? Stunned that we would be so lucky, I stuttered that if they were offering, we would gladly take a ride up the hill. The driver responded that they had some work to finish up, but could take us all in about 20 minutes, if that was “okay” with us. ‘Take all the time you need, we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon’, I told them. With that, we hailed our son and his girlfriend back, and then promptly laid on the side of the road, soaking up the warmth of the asphault and intermittent sun.

Once the truck returned, Kimberly hobbled to the cab of the truck, and the rest of us piled into the bed. As luck would have it, 2 miles before we reached the Lodge, it began to rain.

We started to laugh and couldn’t help but admire the irony, in that it was only fitting that just as we started this adventure…in the rain, so should we end it…in the rain.

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Postholers Paradise

Well last night was far from warm and dry. No sooner than we ducked into our tents, a steady patter of rain began to fall that lasted most of the night. By morning light it had stopped, and a good portion of the snow that originally surrounded us had retreated. We put on our still damp clothes, slipped into our cold wet shoes, packed up our wet tents, had a hot coffee and breakfast and we were on our way…uphill of course.

As we started out, a PCT hiker passed us moving quickly (I miss those days…of moving quickly). It is the first person we’ve seen so far on the trail, and considering the conditions, we aren’t suprised. He did however lay down a nice track for us to follow in the snow, of which we confirmed via the blazes carved into the trees periodically.

We, however, are paying for our seemingly late start this morning, as the snow was already “soft” much earlier than expected. Even yesterday it “held” till at least noon. By 10am, the snow melt had created a river in the well worn trough of a trail, and where snow had accumulated, we were often falling through the snow unexpectedly in areas (of shade) that still should have been pretty solid.

But for all its trouble, the views and the experience with friends and family is more than worth it.

I have to say, the girls are remarkable troopers for being “novices”. Not a complaint, not a whimper. Smiles on their faces, even when hip deep in snow…not by “choice”. Our poor son, who is tall, thick and “strong like bull”, spent a good portion of his time pulling one leg or both out the snow. His girlfriend has given him the trail name, “Sink”.

When we got to Thousand Island lake (9840 ft, PCT mile 922.92), we stopped for lunch and a “yard sale” in order to dry out our sopping wet gear. As we sit, we ponder the trail ahead, our goal now is to get up and over Island Pass and immediately find a place to camp…at a little lower elevation before attempting the climb up and over Donahue pass and down to Toulomne Meadows.

Dry, warm and “energized”, we set off into the frosted paradise.

At 3pm, a tenth of a mile from Island Pass (10205 ft), we are regularly waist deep and literally swimming in snow.

At this point I cannot feel my feet. They are frozen and I’m sure I’m working on a case of frost nip, if not frostbite if we continue much further. The brightly shining sun is a blessing and a curse, as it has softened the snow too much for us to safely continue.

Even with a nearly clear path (as in where to go) we only made 4 miles today before we called it quits and retreated to a relatively “dry” island in a sea of snow, to thaw and dry out before trying it again the next morning, at a seriously EARLY hour. I can say with absolute conviction, that I will NOT gain a single pound on this trip eating all the crap I have in my bear canister as I am sure I burnt more than a couple thousand calories walking through, swimming, and digging my legs out of the equivalent of wet cement.

Part of our reason for calling it for the day, beside being practically exhausted was that we could not be confident that there would even be a patch of dry Terra firma in which to set up our “3-season” tents, if/when we descend from Island Pass. At this point we had viable options. Had we more energy (and at least two more hours of guaranteed daylight), as well as hearty “4-season” tents, snowshoes and shovels we would have continued. (Snowshoes would be worth their weight in gold at this point. We would be at the base of Donahue by now. The microspikes give you traction, but snowshoes would have given us loft…and traction.). Thus common sense gave way to ego and that other little voice that always says to us, “Let’s just go 2 more miles.”

Posted in Backpacking, Hikes in Mammoth area, JMT, John Muir Trail, Mini Adventures, PCT, Snow Camping, Uncategorized, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Here goes nothin’

Up early enough, but day one of trips are always a little disorganized, no matter how much planning you do. Our goal this morning is 11 miles, which may be a bit overzealous, considering we had 2 extra miles of road walking tacked onto the start of this trip.

Like clockwork, the moment we stepped out of the cars to be dropped off, it began to rain. Now per the weather man this was not supposed to happen till between 3 and 5 pm. Oh to have a job where I get paid even if I’m wrong. All assembled we post for a team photo, ready for the weather. Paul has decided to call our team “2 by 4” (2 guys and 4 gals…get it?)

At least it wasn’t a hard rain.

Soon we we’re to the PCT northbound trailhead at Agnew Meadows, and so began the climb with fully loaded packs for five nights in the Sierras, with a finish in Yosemite valley.

Eventually the rain stopped and the sun shined brightly, allowing us to burn off the chill, but it did no good for our sopping wet feet. At some point early on there was no use trying to keep our feet “dry”, as last night’s torrential downpour, which we are told was a record rainfall for the area, seemed to want to use the trail as it’s canal.

Squish, plod, squish went the day, accented by patches and outright fields of postholio snow. WTF!? It is only now that I remember how much work trompsing through the snow was. I swear it was easier 4 years ago. But then, by this time we were in fabulous PCT thru-hiker shape.

Amazingly we made it a mile short of our goal, which was okay, cause we were all gassed, and needed to get a fire going so that we could thaw out before night fall, and another predicted bout of rain/hail… possibly snow. We did our best to dry out our stuff, knowing full well we would be putting perfectly warm and dry feet/socks into damp and practically frozen shoes the next morning. Handfuls of Advil for all and off to our respective beds for the night in the hope that it wouldn’t rain too hard, and that we would reach the set up for Donahue pass for the next morning.

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A little snow will do ya

A steady and heavy rainfall all last night kept me tossing and turning, wondering if Tioga road would actually be opened today. Nothing left but to try it out. The skies were dark and moisture continued to fall from the sky. As we approached the hwy 120 turn off (that is Tioga rd.), a sign blinked, “Tioga road is open”. Phew! As we made our left turn, we could not help but notice all the snow. The road was wet with no chance of drying anytime soon. We watched as the outside temperature gauge dropped from 55° to 37°, and then began the sleet. The temperature then dropped to 34° and large flakes of snow began to fall. This is near end of May right? We of course know better than to pigeonhole weather into months these days as everything is so topsy turvy and predictably unpredictable. Mother Nature you have seemingly out done yourself for this adventure, and it hasn’t officially started yet. Excited, I have Paul pull over so I can get out and take a picture of the still ice covered lake, but more importantly, to catch a few flakes on my tongue.

Had we not had a timeline to stick to, I would have lingered a bit more collecting snow on my tongue. Back into the car I hop. Snow flurries continue for a few miles and make way for crisp clear air, with snow topped mountains in the distance (of which we’ll be traversing over tomorrow) and vast green Meadows with lingering patches of snow. We drive by the Toulomne Meadows campground and store. Both are shuttered up, and far from opening. As we pass the Cathedral lake trail head, the skies clear a bit. The park is sparsely populated, but we know that will change once we get to the valley floor. As we reach Olmsted pass the clouds have dipped low, creating a dense fog that practically obscures the road, reminding me of my travels for work, up the I-5 in the suffocating tule fog. 45 minutes later we are nearing the valley floor. Cars and people everywhere. Half dome peaks out of the clouds and upper and lower Yosemite falls are roaring. We park our son’s truck in the Half Dome Village (formerly, Curry Village) and walk to the Yosemite Village area where Sandy and Steve have parked to take a short walk to lower Yosemite falls while we get everything situated. Rain begins to fall softly. People continue about their business. Thunder roars and the skies open up. As we have no way to avoid it, we walk briskly through the rain, playing “Marco Polo” with Sandy and Steve via texts, until we are reunited for yet another beer and the drive back to the house for final preparations.

Tomorrow we begin, and as luck would have it, the weather forecast show a day full of rain. Go figure. I am hoping that the rain will fall elsewhere.

Stay tuned…it may be a day or two for another post as we head into the Sierras.

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Ironing things out

So Wrinkle #4 is taken care of , and it appears that Wrinkle #2 – our son’s sleeping bag issue has worked it’s way out. He was able to actually pick one up, and the size he needed at REI. Previously it was not available, nor would it be available till after we left, but as it turns out, the Tustin store restock shipment arrived early. Yeah! A nice and timely surprise. That leaves us with Wrinkles #3 (snow and weather) and #1 (opening of Tioga Road). Neither of which we could do anything about…today, so a walk about the town of Mammoth, to include picking up our Wilderness Permit was in order. Of course we couldn’t help but drop into Mammoth Moutaineering Supply on our way to the permit office, to check on microspike availability for purchase or rental in the event the girl’s spike didn’t arrive in time. Once there, we couldn’t help but take advantage of the sale on our Hoka Challenger ATR’s. Anytime we can find these shoes on-sale, we grab them to have for quick and easy replacement. Sandy was even “converted” to Hoka’s. We continue on our merry way, and pick up our permit without incident, or modifications to our starting location. Whilst there I am roped into a photo op with the Easter Sierra – Sierra Nevada Conservancy who needed a marketing photo of their aide showing/discussing, map/route options with a hiker. I am told, I may be on a gondola!

Determined to circumnavigate the town of Mammoth, we of course have to stop in at the Mammoth Brewing Co. for some tasty brews and a few rounds of Cornhole.

Sandy kicked my ass the first round , and I had a miraculous comeback with a double Cornhole (equivalent of a hole in one…twice) for the win against Rob, a semi-local who shared his local fishing secrets (thankfully before I beat him). There we ran into a few PCT hikers who were more than a little tired of walking in snow. I shouted a burger for “Amanita” (a red topped mushroom with white spots) also known as Randy from Missouri, who is a Nutritionist, and who did the AT (Appalachian Trail) last year. He looked like he needed to put a few pounds on. Rob shouted the beers. Eventually it was time to walk off our libations, and head for home.

Tomorrow we see if Tioga Pass is really going to open, and iron out Wrinkle #1 once and for all!

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Thanks to our good friends Sandy and Steve (aka. Scout ), we were able to head up to Mammoth and scout out the on-site logistics for this week’s upcoming adventure, without having to stealth camp on USFS land. It just so happens that it was their week in their partnership house in Mammoth, so a warm bed and excellent company was a welcomed bonus in the days preceding this adventure. We now had four days to iron out the wrinkles in our plan. If any one of the wrinkles could not be straightened out, we would have to shift into Plan B, C or D.

Wrinkle #1: In order to make this work, and for our son, and the girls to get back to work in time, we have to be done by Saturday, which means for optimal efficiency we have to have a “get-a-way” car parked in Yosemite Valley. This requires that Hwy 120 (Tioga rd.) be open for vehicular travel. Currently it is NOT! But it is supposed to open the morning before we start our trip…as long as no weather event or boulders decide to migrate and park themselves on the road.

Wrinkle #2: Our son’s “two-day” FedEx shipping of his new Big Agnes – Lost Ranger 15 sleeping bag most likely will NOT arrive in time, as apparently “two-day shipping” means two business days (M-F), and per FedEx they’re “sorry’ (not sorry) that we didn’t read the “fine print”.

Wrinkle #3: SNOW, and more snow possibly on the way.

Wrinkle #4: Our plan has us starting from Agnew Meadows, however, the road (Postpile Rd.) from the Minaret Vista entrance station down to Agnew Meadows (as well as Red’s Meadow) is still closed for the winter. During planning, we had already factored that in and added (you guessed it) 2 more miles to our first day, as we planned on parking our car along side the 203, or more preferably being dropped off at the entrance kiosk at Minaret Vista Pass and walking down the road for the 2 miles to the trail head at Agnew Meadows. Here in lies the problem. When we arrived in Mammoth we decided to drive up to Minaret Vista, before heading to the house, in order to at least check on the snow level at the pass. The problem we discovered was that you can’t get there by vehicle. The road is closed…not fully plowed.

We then dropped into the Forest Service office in Mammoth, and learned that it’s only a mile uphill to the kiosk from the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge, and actually 3 miles from there to Agnew Meadows, not two. But wait there’s more! The road from Minaret Vista (Postpile Rd.) is closed! Not just due to winter conditions but due to road damage that they are in the process of repairing, of which they have no time-line for when it will be done, or when the road will be opened. Grrr. While there, we were able to talk to the area Ranger, who told us based on the pictures she’s seen, she wouldn’t advise us walking the road…but she never said we couldn’t. So, the next day we decide to see it for ourselves, before we make any adjustments to our starting location, or trip as a whole.

Bright and “early” we are up and out of the house, with a slight detour to Mammoth Mountaineering Supply (my favorite all-season gear shop in Mammoth) for a new day pack for me, and to check on options to possible solutions to Wrinkle #2. Turns out they have a comparable sleeping bag to buy or even rent, and we can do it as late as Monday by 7pm. With my new Black Diamond – Dawn Patrol 25 pack (will A-frame carry my skis and helmet too for snow excursions), we are off to do a road survey…with a chance of thunder showers. We are pleased to report that the hullabaloo about the road condition/damage, at least from the pass to the turn-off to Agnew Meadows, was perfectly safe and mostly intact.

It was a pleasant walk, especially without having to worry about any traffic. It was, as my friend Sandy said, “Our own private Idaho “. Half-way down the road, a truck approached from behind. It was the Ranger. We held our breath and tried to look invisible, fully expecting to be turned around. A nod and a wave, and down the road the Ranger continued. “So I guess that’s tacit approval”, Paul announced triumphantly.

We continued to the trailhead as in the distance the clouds began to build and darken, ever so slightly. Soon two hikers with heavily laden packs appeared trudging up the road in our direction. I asked them if they were coming off the JMT or the PCT. They looked at each other befuddled, and replied, “No, we just came from Thousand Island lake”. We asked them about the conditions and specifically about the snow. They said they post-holed quite a bit, did not have micro-spikes, and wished they had snow shoes. We told them of our plans, to which they replied, “Good Luck”, in a less than encouraging manner. We took their information under consideration, and continued to the trailhead.

A quick survey of the trailhead found it in an alarmingly fallow, untrampled state. Last we hiked this trail in 2014 the tread was clear of debris and obvious signs of significant use were clearly visible. Hmmm, might this, and the “snow report” be another wrinkle? I guess we will find out, as one man’s mountain is another man’s mole hill (and visa-versa, of course).

As we make our way back up the road and to our car, it begins to rain.

The rain turns to hail. Thunder rolls, and streaks of lightning flash almost too close for comfort. Soon, blue sky is above us, and we give a shout out to Mother Nature for keeping it “real”. Wrinkle #4, all ironed out. Three more wrinkles and two more days to straighten things out.

Posted in Backpacking, Hikes in Mammoth area, JMT, John Muir Trail, Mammoth Mountain, Mini Adventures, Uncategorized, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments