Wy-Oh-ming

With a population of just under 590,000 (equal to many counties in California), we were taken a back somewhat by the vast rolling unpopulated countryside. More Pronghorn (American antelope) live here than actual humans, and it was more than obvious. We have traveled to south eastern Wyoming in search of deer for our annual deer hunt to replenish the freezer with venison. Our normal “go-to” area in Utah was inundated by the Brian Head Fire this past summer, so southeast Wyoming it is. We have not visited nor hunted this area, which is on BLM land with pockets of private land, but they boast of trophy deer and elk. We were joined by our normal crew who actually hunted this area 2 years ago with great success. Our concern this year however is the significant die off of the deer population due to last year’s “unusually” harsh winter. We had on good “authority” however that the deer population in the area we had been drawn for were like “fleas on a dog”. Based on what we saw, I’m pretty sure this dog had a flea collar on. Talking with several other regular “local” hunters for this area and the wildlife biologist that stopped by our camp, “counts are a little low this year”, and by “counts” they mean the harvest of deer. That does not mean that the sparse sighting of deer affected our hunting trip in any way, but we sure had to work hard for what we encountered. This is big wide open country and the deer have plenty a space to roam. The trick is running into them. This trip would truly be a test of our skills. We got up to Wyoming three days ahead of the opener to ensure that the campsite we wanted was available. Unfortunately several other people had the same idea. The people that were there said we were welcome to join them, but our “Spidey senses” told us otherwise. The best and flattest place was a pasture across the “narrow” valley, inhabited by free range cattle. Once the cows were evicted, we set up. This would mean, however, that we would be hunting the other “island” mountain range, of which we were not really prepared, but we’re unconcerned as one of our friends had harvested a big buck from this area two years prior, as well. Prior to leaving home we had printed off Google Earth maps of the mountain range we thought we would be hunting, so we now had some serious exploring to do…on foot…uphill. For those of you who deer hunt, you will understand when we say that this area was extremely “deery”, with plenty of bitter brush and sage. Deer and elk poop (along with the free range cattle poop) was everywhere. Maybe this unexpected turn of events would prove successful. One problem with our campsite was that we were not really protected from the near constant “breeze”, that we back home call serious wind. Not to worry, we brought our heavy duty canopy and erected it so as to block the wind and provide some outside cover from the predicted rain and snow set for the opener of deer season. The place was crawling with hunters all currently trying to fill their elk tags in one of the best elk hunting areas in the state (we were told). ATVS and Side-by-sides zoomed by us each morning and evening heading into the mountains, as we watched and shook our heads with distain…”road hunters”. By the end of this trip however, we would be seriously coveting their motorized mounts, or “deer Uber”, as we came to call them, and would be devising a way in which to aquire one or two for ourselves for next year’s hunt. The evening of opener the wind blew fiercely and the temperature dropped to 21°! The wind buffeted our camper and it shuddered and rocked it violently from side to side. The inside of our camper was not much warmer (27°). This was perplexing as our tent, while on our many hiking adventures, has kept us at least 10° warmer than the outside, and our Alaskan camper is insulated. Ah, but wind is devilish and finds, or rather pushes, it’s way into cracks and crevices, of which we now have discovered are many. We stuffed every available unused clothing item into every space the wind was forcing it’s way in. Often times the gusts were so great that it would spit out the tightly stuffed socks that had been jammed into crevices. If we didn’t know better, we’d have thought we were on a boat in rough seas. There was nothing left to do but laugh. But wait, there’s more! We had staked down the 10’x 20′ heavy duty canopy sufficiently, but considering the unrelenting wind, Paul thought it best to check on the canopy and fasten it down with a few more stakes. Once outside, he examined the canopy. It was holding fast, so there was time to pee. No sooner did he step aside and out from underneath the canopy to pee, it lofted itself into the air, flipped over and slammed into our friend Kenny’s pop-up tent trailer. (Had Paul not stepped out and away to pee, he surely would have been hit in the head, and considering our luck, most likely would have been knocked out). Hearing the crash, I quickly dressed with additional warmth clothes and footwear and dashed out of our slightly warmer camper. The canopy had now flipped once more, having shed most of its “legs”, and rested in the clearing next to “campsite”. Paul was frantically undoing the bungie fasteners that held the canopy’s roof to the frame in hopes of “grounding” the darn thing before it attempted to take “flight” once more. Stoves and portable tables had flipped over on their sides. Chairs were scattered about and scooting slowly along the ground. Even with all the comosion, not another soul (of which there were 5 more) awoke to this comedy of wind that reminded us of a Three Stooges episode. We successfully removed the canvas roof without taking flight ourselves and stowed it away. It’s frame was twisted and bent, but that would wait till later. Chairs were collected, tables were folded and everything that could conceivably take “flight” was “grounded”. It was then that we heard, “Hey, is everything all right? Do you need some help?”. “No we got it, go back to sleep”, was our reply, wondering how the hell one sleeps through that, and secretly wishing we could sleep that soundly too. Once back inside our “igloo” we drifted in and out of sleep till the morning’s alarm announced it was time to don our Scentlock camo, load our rifles and begin our trek into the ridiculously cold (for us) and “breezey” morning in search of harvestable venison. It was 23°. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our Under Armour and Cabela’s polar wear worked as advertised, keeping us warm while we generated a bit of sweat as we picked our way up and through a “deery” canyon. Deer sign was everywhere , however none of it was “fresh”. Elk sign however, was fresh, which was not helpful considering we didn’t have an elk tag. We searched all day for fresh sign and heavily traveled game trails. We set up in perfect perches, out of the wind, watching draws and edges of meadows. We even took turns “napping” in hopes of being “caught off guard”. It was not until we “gave up” and started to head back to camp that we saw six large does on the hillside I had watched for the first 3 hours of the morning, before I had to get moving or risk my feet becoming frozen even with 1200gram Thinsulated boots (with disposable to warmers that I had mistakenly inserted and wore upsidedown for the first 2 hours).  Bear in mind, it is important to learn something new each day. We watched in earnest doing our best to will antlers on each big bodied doe, and glassed the edges of the hillside for their boyfriend(s). We eventually wandered back to camp. Back at camp we all discussed what we saw. They day’s count was 9 does (turns out Brian and us saw the same 6 does), 4 Chipmunks and a squirrel…the wandering cattle don’t count. Good thing we have a week to figure this place out. The next day (Monday) started with an amazing sunrise, however the day’s hunt was more of the same, for everyone but Paul and I. In the morning we saw a total of 23 does, having borrowed our friend Kenny’s ATV, which allowed us to get higher and deeper into the wooded “island”, but not a single “bro” (spike or forky) amoungst them. On our way back to camp, as we motored down the dirt road, a large herd of Roosevelt Elk (we counted over 60, to include at least 12 “Royal” bull elk) had crossed a bit in front of us and were methodically weaving their way through the trees and up the hillside dusted with snow. With our binoculars glued to our foreheads, we poked and prodded each other (“Did you see that one?…OMG, Look at that one!…Oh, wait, check that out!…Did you see?…) We were completely mesmerized, as we watched in awe until they all finally disappeared into the trees, on the other side of the ridgeline.  Lunch back at camp found our 10 lb, 13 year old Chihuahua/terrier take on a cheeky red and white hefer who apparently had been selected by her herd to see about reclaiming their pasture. Our fiesty dog, who believes he is a Doberman, was having none of that. Having fully marked his “territory”, he was intent on defending it and “protecting” his people. As we watched this cow walk purposely toward camp, our dog took it upon himself to fend off her advance. Before we knew it, our dog took off like a rocket, barking “ferociously” at the cow. The cow, who had most likely never been “attacked” by such a small thing dressed in a silver “puffy” jacket was so startled that she took off running in a serpentine manner, with our dog hot on her hooves. I now joined in the “chase”…to corral our dog. Suddenly the cow stopped in her tracks, probably thinking “This is ridiculous. What the hell am I running from?”, and lowered her enormous head to the ground. Our dog stopped as well, and to our surprise met the cow nose to nose. As they were sniffing each other and apparently getting acquainted, I caught up and swiftly scooped up our dog before the cow decided to stop him to death. We wish we would have captured this event on video, but it happened so quickly, there was no time. We didn’t know whether to punish or reward him, so we laughed. Turns out, the rest of the week, the cows never returned.

Guess who is “Large and in Charge!”

For the evening hunt we returned to the same area we had seen all the does in hopes a buck or two might wander across our path.  We had no such luck.  But were treated to a sky full of color.

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Tuesday morning found us with the morning free of color, and bitter cold (27 ). We motored back to the previous area where we had seen the does the day before.  We thought we might get lucky and have no bitter cold gusting wind to challenge us in our constant attempt(s) to stay “up wind” of our “prey”, but were sorely disappointed.  We spied a few does and stalked them in hopes of  catching their “boyfriend(s)” attempting to make a “booty call”.  They “winded” us pretty quickly as the winds at the top of the plateau constantly changed direction on us, making it near impossible to be “sneaky”.  We did however get pretty good at locating white butted boulders and tangles of tree limbs that mimicked antlers, and orange clad hunters set up in the distance at the edges of our binocular’s strength.  Mid-day found us back at camp with no one else having any success as well.  We all found it odd how very few shots we had heard over the past few days, and wondered aloud, “What happened to all the deer that are supposed to be here?”  The evening hunt found us on foot, so we decided to “road hunt”, pedestrian style.  We walked along the dirt road that we had driven the ATV over the last two days glassing the hillsides on either side of us as we walked.  A little over an hour before sunset, we decided we had walked “far enough”.

Paul pulled out his sit pad, and I set up my Big Agnes Helinox chair, and plopped ourselves on the side of the road and began to watch the hillsides before us, and “range” the distance of possible shots.  IMG_20171017_172637561Once again the only mammals we saw were hunters…in ATVs, that actually didn’t see us until they were almost upon us, as they too were so intent on scanning the hillsides.  As the sun set and the evening chill began to increase, we walked ourselves warm back to camp…deerless.  We had decided that we were going to take the next morning off, as we were going to break camp and move across the way to our originally planned hunting area.  Half the group had to leave after that morning’s hunt anyways, so sleeping in and a hearty breakfast sounded pretty good.

After our farewells, we moved with our friends Brian and Jody (of Mt. Whitney Magnificent 7 fame) to the “other side”.

IMG_20171020_130043253We were pleased to find that the incessant wind was “miniscule” compared to what we had endured the previous days.  Not necessarily confident we would see anything but new scenery, we took off on an exploratory evening hunt.  We walked an ATV trail into a marvelous canyon, absent any wind.  The canyons were narrow but huntable.  What a treat!  Surely we would see some deer.  Maybe even a buck!  And low and behold, as we were making our way back toward camp, a buck we did see.  His massive white butt literally glowed as he made his way up a steep incline, initially a mere 150 yards away.  With the plain eye you could see he was at minimum a 4×4 with 2 inch beams and thick tines.  The buck was obviously aware of our presence, and was intently moving up and away from us at a brisk pace.  He obviously had seen this movie before.  Paul scurried forward of me to improve his angle and then quickly dropped to one knee.  I marveled at the buck through my binoculars, realizing that this was the biggest buck I have seen, save Saturday morning hunting shows.  But before Paul could get a “proper” shot off, this monster buck of a lifetime calmly walk over the top of the ridge’s rocky saddle and out of view.   Had we bagged this bad boy, we surely would have packed up and gone home, as this guy would have provided more than an enough meat for the freezer and most definitely  knocked my current mule deer “trophy mount” off the wall in our living room.  The walk back to camp and a good portion of the evening was cased in silence.

The next morning Brian and Jody had to get on the road, and as Jody had been graciously keeping an eye on our dog whilst we hunted, we didn’t feel comfortable leaving our tender morsel of a dog alone at camp to whine during our absence, thus, we divided the remaining morning and evening hunts between us.  Paul took the mornings, and I took the evenings.  Just after Brian and Jody had left, I heard two shots separated by 10-15 seconds. I wondered if Paul had found his mark.  Our ability to communicate was challenging to say the least.  Our radios did not cover in the deep canyons to camp, but oddly enough we had 4G cell service once we left camp.  The plan was: if a shot was heard; it was “check-in time”; or you hadn’t arrived back at camp within an hour of stated ETA back to camp, we would walk out to the road (200 yards) and first attempt with the radio, then make a phone call, and then text a message to the Delorme InReach SE we carried while hunting.  I walked out to the road and stood in the freezer blast wind.  Paul was able to reply via radio that he had indeed shot (twice), but it was a long shot with a nasty cross-wind atop a rocky ridge.  He had set up “perfectly” and was in “comfortable” shooting range, with the buck still unaware of his presence.  In his quest to get the full “sneak” of the buck, he had “spooked” some does who were still “bedded down” for the morning.  The stupid does then proceeded to fast walk down the face of the hill he was setting up on, into the ravine, and then marched up the face of the hill and toward where the buck was calmly feeding.  This alerted the buck that something was “a-foot”.   With no time to spare, and a near gale force wind in his face, Paul fired off the first shot.  Boom! Miss.  Readjust.  Boom! And just like that, the buck annoyed by the approaching doe (having no clue that he had been shot at…twice) calmly walked up and over the ridge he had been feeding on, completely out of sight.  Thusly, no deer for the freezer.  Time for lunch.  My evening hunt was uneventful, with the exception of 5 doe and an awesome view.

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Friday morning found it bitter cold and windier that it had ever been.  It was gusting upwards to 30+mph, but just like you miss every shot you don’t take, you can’t see deer from inside the camper.  Out into the ridiculously windy and cold morning Paul trudged while I and our dog burrowed deeper into our down sleeping bag.  It was a short hunt, as Paul returned fairly quickly having crawled up and over just about every ridgeline there was, seeking out that monster buck we had seen two days prior.  When evening hunt time came, I almost decided not to go, as a storm was obviously blowing in, and the realization that even if I saw a buck, the wind would make any shot near impossible.  But again, you can’t see deer from inside the camper, and having eaten more than a “healthy” share of mini candy bars (out of boredom), I figured I should at least walk off those useless calories.  I wandered through the ATV canyon, and to the border of where BLM land met private land.  The wind was blowing so fiercely through the canyon that I had to lean sharply into the wind to even be able to make forward progress.

I found a lone boulder behind which to “hide” before deeming my outing, ridiculousness.  I called Paul at our appointed time and relayed where I was sitting and that I was going to start walking back  into camp no later than 5 pm as it was too windy.  At 5 pm, I stepped out from my wind-blocking boulder and began to push my way back toward camp, still scanning the hillsides of course.  And what to my wandering eyes does appear, but a decent bodied young buck with a narrow 3×4, if not a 4×4 basket, feeding broadside on the hillside of another steep canyon.  I range him at 356 yards.  Way too far in this wind.  I consider just continuing my walk back to camp and telling Paul I saw a buck.  But then I figured, he’ll ask why I didn’t attempt to take a shot.  Not wanting to have that conversation,  I picked my way around the opposite hillside and climbed up the steep, loose rock incline on all fours nearly 75 yards before poking my head around a stocky juniper bush to hopefully relocate him.  Miraculously he was still there.  I ranged him again.  He was still standing broadside and was now at 239 yards with a cross-wind.  Do-able, I thought.  Not probable, but then nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Just as I am “dialing him in” and readying for my shot, the bastard decides to turn around and walk down behind a short stand of pine trees.  From here, he pokes his head out through a stand of dead branches, and now seemingly stares directly at me.  I return the stare and I consider taking a head shot, but then that defeats the purpose of shooting a “trophy” buck.  This was turning into a stand-off, of which he would surely win by waining light default.  Time to move again.  Back behind the hillside and another session of crawling on all fours up the steep incline (quietly)  I have closed the distance and have him at an “easy” 151 yards regardless of the wind, but he’s still behind the dead branches and I’m losing daylight fast. With nothing left to lose I stand up, shoulder my rifle and yell, Hey!  He breaks from his “cover” and attempts to escape by running up the narrow hollow of the canyon, and to his left over a saddle.  The wind is blowing left to right at a steady 15 mph.  With my rifle shouldered, I follow his path and as he makes that turn to the left, I pull the trigger and follow through to my left as if I were shooting a duck or pheasant on the fly.  I see that he “skips” a bit, but continues to climb quickly up and through the saddle.  Not even sure that I even nicked him, I range the shot at 215 yards.  Considering his little “skip”, I am now curious and excited that I may have hit the darn thing.  However, I would prefer to have completely missed than to merely wound the tastey animal.  In the growing darkness I work my way up to the saddle, figuring that at least it is in the general direction of camp.  I am amazed that I am not winded and attribute it to a recent healthy dose of adrenaline.  I notice two things.  (1.)  It is NOT windy,  but dead calm.  And (2.) BLOOD! Lot’s of it!  He must of stopped here to figure out what had happened to him, and to go through his options.IMG_20171020_183618765

While here, I try to get Paul on the radio.  No answer.  I call his phone.  No answer.  I text on the Delorme to make sure I’ve covered all the bases.  It is here, or more appropriately where I had shot from, that I should have sat down and ate a Snickers bar and let the buck lie down and bleed out somewhere down the blood trail.  Alas, that was not possible.  For as soon as I finished making my notification attempts, rain began to fall softly and intermittently. “NO!  NO! This can’t be happening!”, I yell out loud, and immediately take to following the blood trail.  At first it is easy to follow, thinking, surely he will be fallen over dead soon, as I meticulously mark each significant stain of blood with reflective orange tape on nearby bushes or branches.  In the midst of tracking this animal, Paul finally reaches me on the radio.  I tell him I shot a buck and am in the process of tracking him.  Paul is excited and asks where I am.  I tell him that I think I’m heading toward “Cross Hill”.  “You know or you think?”, is Paul’s terse reply.  “I think.  Does it matter?  I’m tracking the blood trail.  It’s starting to rain on me.”  Having not been able to reach me past my appointed ETA back to camp, Paul had obviously become more than a little concerned, seeing as earlier in the week I had taken a hard fall Tuesday evening as we bushwacked our way back to camp, which required me to re-sight my rifle and assess the operability of my left knee. Paul having the cooler head, not consumed with “buck fever”, realized that if I weren’t hurt, I could quickly become lost (and possibly injured), if we (I) don’t figure out where exactly I am.  The sky is inky black and ravenously gobbles up the light of my headlamp as I waive it back and forth atop a ridge I think I’m on, for Paul to see.  He mistakes another hunter’s headlamp moving away from the area he, and I, think I’m in.  Mine, nor Paul’s light is visible to either of us.  Absent my headlamp, there is no glimmer of light, on the horizon or even above me.  At this point, I’m actually pissed that I have to take the time to figure out exactly where I am instead of following this deer.  Up to this point I have marked the trail with orange reflective tape, and am confident I can retrace my path to camp from the original pool of blood.  I neglect to convey that to Paul.  I am conflicted and frankly annoyed.  Rain is falling softly again.  And it’s suddenly gotten very cold. Shit!  It seems that the darkness has become even “thicker”…if that’s even possible.  Cold reality, and reason finally takes over.  Paul’s insistence breaks through and I remember that Brian had lent me his portable GPS mapping device, and I had it in my pocket.  From the tracking arrow, it showed I was not even near “Cross Hill”, but traversing a hill parallel to the ATV trail.  I relay to Paul where I am.  I follow a bit more of the blood trail and then lose it.  I retrace my steps back to where I last saw it, and realize that if we’re going to find this deer before this fully storm sets in, I need another set of eyes.  I mark the last blood spot located with a bright green glow stick (whose color turns out to be a bad idea) and bust my way down a finger ravine that runs into the ATV trail.  The GPS unit now indicates “low battery”.  What?!  No!  Paul meets me on the ATV trail and we go about retracing my track back to the glow stick.  Sadly, I don’t have my glasses, so it is hard to read and orient to the track on the small screen.(It truly sucks getting older!)  I touch the screen repeatedly trying to keep the screen lit and enlarge my view.  I can’t help but notice that the rain has now turned to snow, as it lands on the screen and obscures my view.  NO!  I wipe the snow off the screen, and have now managed to completely restart my track, thus wiping out any chance of accurately finding our way back up the hill in the absolute suffocating darkness, to my “last seen” marker.  Could it get any worse?!  By the grace of God, Paul locates a fresh blood track, which is actually consistent with the route this deer was taking…downhill.  We follow the track.  It leads to, and down the ATV trail, which also leads to water (a usual route for “wounded” animals).  It is fresh, but sparse which does not make sense. Giant flakes of snow are now falling with vigor, and soon masks any and all traces of blood.  We can smell the distinctive smell of deer, but it’s way too dark, there is a stiff “breeze” and the underbrush is too thick to pinpoint where the smell is actually generating from.  With the ground fully blanketed in snow, we tie orange reflective ribbon at our last seen “fresh” blood, and head back to camp with hopes of finding him in the morning, for surely he has bled out by now.  Considering the current temperature, he’ll keep through the night, we surmise.

We arise early the next morning, so as to beat any ATV’ers down the trail, in the event there is any blood trail to follow.  We get to our “last seen” marker and search in vain for more blood.  We are in luck, as the snow did not “stick” and has mostly melted.

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With that, we find a faint trail that appears to continue down the ATV trail, but we can not be sure it is blood until we find rocks in the trail with distinctive blood spatter.  It won’t be long, we giddily exclaim to each other.   And then as if by magic the trail evaporates and stops.  We scour the game trails to the left and right of this last small splash of blood.  Nothing!  We find evidence of other blood spatter nearby, but it’s too old (dry and crusty) to be my deer.  The sun is fully risen, and still no deer to be found.  Paul who has literally beaten the surrounding bushes, heads back to camp to check on our dog as I decide to head to the point of where I shot this buck and start from the “beginning”.  IMG_20171021_121045312Once at the original pool of blood, I find it still “fresh” and highly visible.  My orange reflective tape markers are still in place and I follow his track easily, happily noticing that the blood is still visible after the previous night’s mini blizzard.  I follow the track to a spot where it appears the buck just charged down the face of the hill over the bitter brush, but can find no obvious blood trail to the bottom, as the rain and snow must have “washed” it away.  However, my green glow stick is nowhere to be found…in all the green growey stuff. (Note to self…ditch all the green glow sticks and restock with orange, red, even blue).  I circle pattern search at this point and down below once more.  I have taken to calling this deer, Houdini, as he has done a remarkable disappearing act.  After a total of nearly 11 hours, over two days, searching for Houdini, I call it.  The only possible explanation is that Houdini called for an Uber, and was picked up on the ATV trail the night prior.  (There was a side-by-side that exited the ATV canyon just before Paul had left camp that evening…just saying) Highly frustrated and dejected I stomp back to camp, as it’s Paul’s turn to hunt.

The wind continues to intensify, and is relentless.  Conditions for hunting couldn’t be any worse.  We fight the urge to pack up and head for home, but we are optimists and still believe (just a little) that we may still bag a deer before we leave.  IMG_20171022_072446624_HDRWe awake our final morning to another colorful sky.  The wind is near 30 mph and constant.  It has “warmed up” to 37 degrees, but with the wind chill factor, (as with everyday so far), is more like a “balmy” 5 degrees.  What a treat!  Paul returns quite early, having become too chilled to effectively hunt.

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I head out in the evening, if only for a walk in the woods.  Remarkably my route finds me “mostly” out of the wind for a time.  As I climb another hill to glass for our “monster  buck”, (heck, any buck) I am rewarded with a plethora of white butted rocks, antler shaped branches, and a subsiding wind.  I have successfully snuck a small herd of does and if I wished, could throw a rock and hit them.  As usual, I peer and wait in earnest for a “boyfriend” to appear, if not here, somewhere on the near distant hillsides.

IMG_20171022_181609702_HDRIMG_20171022_181618483_HDRI have a commanding view of the entire area we have been hunting.  This is truly an island in the middle of a harsh and arid prairie.  While we may not have secured venison for the freezer, we have been satiated with remarkable views, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, the company of good friends, and the exploration of new and unmistakably beautiful territory, that is but a small portion of southeast Wyoming.  This is what hunting is all about.  Communing with nature, connecting with the wonderment and perfection of God’s creations, and harvesting a tastey morsel or two…if you are lucky.  And of course, like clockwork, and the irony of Mother Nature (who is a bitch, btw), the morning after the season ends, is beautiful, sunny yet cold, and more importantly absent any wind.  ANY WIND!  Absolute perfect deer hunting conditions.  We smile and shake our heads.  And just to add salt to the “wound”, I spy a couple of does making their way through the edge of our camp, as if to say, ‘Neener, Neener, Neener’.  And with that we finish packing,  and head home to what would be a near 100 degree temperature change.

Oh, Wy-Oh-ming, we’ll be back.  That, is for sure.

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Yosemite Wrap-Up

If we thought a successful climb of Half Dome was the end of adventure, we were sorely mistaken.  Once we reached the Valley floor, we had the issue of getting back to our cars in Tuolumne Meadows.

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The walk to Yosemite Valley was a pleasant downhill walk.  The closer we got to the Valley, the more people we began to see.  Some, in our opinion, seemed woefully under-prepared for their one-day, round trip, climb to Half Dome.  Namely, they were not carrying enough water, or appeared to NOT have any way in which to filter once they reached Little Yosemite Valley where they could fill up at the Merced River.  Maybe they think the water is parasite free because it is clear and cold.  Having suffered a lengthy bout of giardia during our 2014 PCT thru-hike, I/We will never be without a filter again, nor trust “icy cold” “clear” water.

By the time we made it to Nevada Falls (which is a 591 ft/191 m tall water fall), we had seen at least 10 times as many people as we had seen over the past 3 days!  Nevada Falls, for those heading up from Half Dome Village is the last “drinking fountain” and opportunity to fill up water bottles or water bladders without the need to filter.  Even though there is a restroom facility, there was evidence a-plenty of people failing to follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. So sad.

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My Ansel Adams impersonation and the “back-side” of Half Dome (the “white rock” in the background).  We could see climbers working their way up (from left to right)

We took a short break to check out Nevada Falls and gaze at the “back-side” of Half Dome and the apparent climbing route, before we continued our trek back to “civilization”.

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A “frontal” view of Nevada Falls, as we look back from whence we came.

As we continued down the “wide” trail of engineering amazement, you could see evidence that this route at one time had been almost fully paved with asphalt, all the way to Little Yosemite Valley.

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We wondered whether at one time vehicles or wagons traveled this route.  Highly improbable now, as it is fairly rugged in parts.  The morning was warm, and we did not envy the people headed up the trail.  We pass a Ranger heading up to check permits for people climbing Half Dome.  Having told him we hiked it the day before, he asks if we “mind” if he checks our permit.  Paul of course replies with a smile, “Yes I do mind, cause I’ll have to take my pack off to retrieve it”.

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The Ranger then insists that he get it out, even after we tell him that we were checked the day before. Soon we reached Vernal Falls, and masses of people from all walks of life, most out-fitted with “selfie sticks”.  They looked at us oddly.  Did we really look and/or smell that bad.  We took a “bath” the day before I wanted to say.

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The crowds became so thick we literally had to weave our way through the throngs of people who were slowly making the .5 mile, fairly steep, yet paved “climb” to Vernal Falls.  Paul and I, to the utter amazement of some people, actually trotted (just short of running) down the trail all the way to the valley floor.  We found it much easier on our knees, as opposed to the jarring thud of step by step.  Once we all made it to the Valley floor, our first stop was BEER, (and pizza), and to figure out if there was indeed a 5pm YART bus running from Yosemite Village to Tuolumne Meadows.  The resounding answer was probably NO, or at least as far as the Ranger at the Wilderness Permit office could figure.  Even HE couldn’t get a concrete answer.  No worries.  We’d find a way back, but again, first BEER…and pizza.

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Sandy and I rustled up some “home town brew” at the Yosemite Valley Store, while the boys secured pizza.  Who’d a thunk that they would have Left Coast Beer, specifically Una Mas.

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Between the four of us we sucked down a 12 pack, and could have done more, but we figured it would be a good bet that no one would pick up a pack of obviously drunk, and smelly backpackers.  The remains of our pizza box lid was transformed into a “Tuolumne Meadows…please” sign to hold while another puts their thumb out.  The Ranger suggested that we get as far as the Valley bus would take us, which was to the road adjacent to the El Capitan parking lot, thus we did.  (We were long gone and home from Yosemite, before the recent tragedy of rock fall at El Capitan.  As it was a one-way street, and people would most likely now be headed out of the Valley, our chances of getting a hitch fairly quickly had increased, especially with Sandy and I on the curb and the boys hiding in the bushes.  Nearly 10 minutes later, a car pulled over.  That was easy we thought.  The driver, who happened to be the out-going Park Superintendent (she was literally out-going having secured a transfer) and was in the process of moving, only had room for 2 people and could only go as far as Crane Flat (the gas station).  Considering Sandy and Scout were fairly new at this backpacker hitch-hiking thing, we had them take this ride figuring that we wouldn’t be that far behind.  Also, the likely-hood of getting a ride the rest of the way to Tuolumne Meadows would be much easier for them from there.  Worst case scenario, if we didn’t get a ride, they could get to their car and come back and pick us up.  Now left to our own devices, we stood in the hot sun, ride-less for quite some time.  People stared, waived, took pictures, and a few pulled a “dick” maneuver slowing down slightly, appearing to pull over, then speeding off.   A nice couple from the UK finally pulled over and offered us a ride, unfortunately we had them drop us off way too early from our turn-off to Tuolumne Meadows, and ended up in an even worse position than before with no cell service in order to communicate with Scout and Sandy.  In short order however, we were able to Yogi a ride with some young men from the Netherlands, in a rented motorhome, who were unsure on their directions.  As a “reward” for helping them, they offered to give us a ride to our turn-off.  We got in, happy to be on our way, but to our dismay the driver had gotten turned around, and was now heading in the complete opposite direction we needed to be going.  As they did not want to turn around, again, they had decided to now continue to Bodega Bay.  We were welcome to join them.  If we didn’t have people to meet and a car to get back to we might have joined them and figured out later how to get home, but as it was, out onto the side of the road we clamored once more.  Now we were at least 5 miles further (in the wrong direction) from where we had first hitched, had completely NO idea where we were (except next to the Merced River and what appeared to be a very nice swimming hole), and absolutely NO cell reception.  Better yet, the sun was starting to set.  With sign in hand, we tried our luck at hitching once more.  At a minimum, we had to get back to the fork in the road that at least led to the next fork in the road, that headed to Tuolumne Meadows.  This was going to be hard.  Even if Scout and Sandy had gotten a ride to their car and were headed to pick us up, they would never think to look or find us here.  We were now glad that we had two dinners and a breakfast left in our bear canisters, and had decided that if we didn’t get a ride within the next hour, we would climb over the cement barricade, go for a swim, set up camp, and try the next morning.  In no time, a car load of people actually pulled over… to ask us directions.  Really?!  Stuff like that happens to us all the time (being asked directions).  No matter where we are in the World!  We either must be really approachable, look like we know what we are doing, or blend in like “locals”.  It constantly amazes us.  Being the nice people we are, we gave them directions and sent them on their way.  At least we now knew where we are at and how to get where we needed to go.  Another car pulled over to ask for directions. This was starting to get silly.  Maybe it was the sign?  Not quite sure.  We were, for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere, considering the lack of cell coverage.  This time we truly asserted ourselves and got the people to allow us to squeeze in with them.  The ride they gave us was a little further than they would have liked, but it got us past the tunnels and closer to our turn- off to Crane Flat.  From here we started our hitch once more. At least here, we could be found, even if we needed to camp there for the night.  More vehicles passed, some occupants waiving, some staring straight ahead pretending we didn’t exist, others frowning at us making the “money” sign, like we were “homeless” or “Travelers” (people traveling…on the extreme “cheap” with no particular destination in mind).  Having faith in God and humanity, we knew we would find a way back to our car…eventually.  Soon a white truck with a homemade shell passed us.  Ten minutes later, we see the same truck headed in the opposite direction now making a U-turn right in front of us.  Great, we think.  More directions.  Turns out, this fine young man is on a “walk-about” (but driving to the places he wants to hike of course), having recently graduated from Washington State college (Go Cougars!).  He saw our sign, was headed in the direction we needed to go (Tuolumne Meadows), and thought, “if I were hitching, I’d want to be picked up too”, so he turned around and came back to pick us up.  Travis, it turned out was heading to Tuolumne Meadows to hike to Cathedral Lake and spend a day or two there.  Well he certainly picked up the right people!  Directions and knowledge we were glad to impart.  He also had planned to hike Mt. Whitney as well, but was not sure on how to go about it.  Right people, again.  We talked and shared travel stories, and by the time he dropped us at our car, we had invited him to our house to learn to surf, which as of last week, he called us and took us up on our offer. He had since hiked to Cathedral Lake; Climbed Mt. Whitney (in a day); Completed Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon; and was now spending a week with his parents in San Diego.  Once back at our car, we happily found Scout and Sandy waiting patiently in theirs.  Their story back to their car was interesting as well.  Once dropped off at Crane Flat, they got a ride in a white van from a “unique guy”, (who didn’t say a word the whole ride) and his girlfriend, and later learn were only going as far as Tenaya Lake…because that’s where they stopped and parked.  Oddly from there, they got a ride from a YARTS shuttle bus that only goes back and forth from Tuolumne Meadows campground to Tenaya Lake.  Strange indeed.  Not even on the bus schedule.  They had been at their car for about 40 minutes and were beginning to wonder where we were.  Wonder no more!  We told them of our adventure in hitching, and had a hearty laugh.  Rather than camp another night in Yosemite, we headed to Scout and Sandy’s Mammoth house for a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep in an actual bed before heading home the next morning.

Another memorable trip in the books.  So glad to share it with our friends.  Hope they will join us again, on another adventure.  In the meantime we are preparing for yet another trip, as it is time to restock our freezer with venison.  Considering we did not get drawn for our usual spot in southern Utah, Wyoming here we come!  Stay tuned for those adventures as things assuredly will not go as planned.

Why would they?

Posted in Backpacking, Half Dome, JMT, Mini Adventures, Uncategorized, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Half Dome or bust

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The carved wrought iron sign posted at the edge of the trail read, 2.5 miles, to the top of Half Dome. Today is the day, and the skies at the moment are blue and free of smoke.  We will walk a half mile to the side trail to Half Dome, set up our tent and ditch our packs inside, and start our 1 mile climb to the base of the sub dome before we actually begin to climb Half Dome, proper.

IMG_20170907_094327203_HDRIt is after 9 am as we head up the wide dirt trail.  People are heading down, most with giddy smiles on their faces.  We ask, “How was it?”.  “Really cool”, “Scary as shit”, or “I just couldn’t do it” were the common responses.  I had already planned for the “scary as shit” scenario, as I really truly am not a fan of heights, or more accurately the possibility of falling to my disfigurement, as I am certain that with my luck, I would not die….immediately.  Knowing that I fret over heights, my son who is the opposite of afraid of heights, dug out his climbing harness, and adjusted it to fit me before we left on our trip.  Such a good boy!  I carried this harness with me (or did Paul?) this entire trip specifically for the final ascent between the cables.

IMG_20170907_095006698_HDRWithout the weight of our packs our pace was quickened.  Dirt tread and trees were replaced by naked granite, and bulky block steps, as we reached the base of the sub dome where the NPS Ranger checked our permits.  Paul being the consummate joker, kidded the Ranger, asking about a tram.

Step by step we climbed ever higher, occasionally stepping aside for those who were on their way back down to the valley.  This thankfully, allowed us to catch our breath and enabling the “burning” of our thighs and glutes to dissipate.  If I had continued CrossFit, those “box jumps” would finally have been helpful.

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Paul and I surmised as we trudged upward and onward ahead of Scout and Sandy, that if my longer legs were being challenged (namely my knee), then Sandy’s shorter and more recently injured knee and ankle were certainly being taxed to the max.  In order to stave off vertigo, I made a conscious effort to look directly in front of me with each step as the “trail” marched its way up the sub dome, often via stone hewn and stacked steps.

IMG_20170907_103217104I stopped for a moment .  My breathing at that point had become short and quickened.  I  made the mistake of looking down and around and was now trying to figure out if  I was winded from the climb or beginning to hyperventilate.   Upon further analysis, it was clear that I was beginning to hyperventilate and freak myself out even before getting to the actual base of Half Dome.  After reigning in my focus and bitching myself out with an “inside voice”, I wrangled my psyche and shifted from growing panic to rejuvenating awe.  No way was I going to come this far and wimp out.  With a renewed attitude toward altitude, the climb became easier and the views even more breathtaking (pun intended).  When Paul and I reached the top of the sub dome, I suited up with the harness my son had provided.  Being the only one donning such a thing, I felt like a dork.  But a safe dork!  We waited for Scout and Sandy, and after a while they soon appeared.

As we peered towards the top of Half Dome, the people going up and coming down looked like ants between thin lines that were in fact 1 inch thick cables.

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A pile of discarded but useful gloves, reminiscent of the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’s Island of Misfit Toys, lay at the foot of the cables.  A man with a thick Slavic accent lamented in awkward English, as he dug through the pile, “How is it only one hand?”, meaning that finding a left and right hand matching glove was nearly impossible.  Did people take one for a souvenir and leave the other? We, however came prepared with our own $7 rubber coated gloves.  Paul briefed me on what to expect, and how to “rest” on the intermittent 2×4 pieces of wood that span the narrow width of the cabled trail.

GOPR0372-half dome 10-1 (2)I tentatively “clipped in” and began my ascent of the granite façade that sometimes had a greater than 45 degree incline.  The “zip” of the aluminum carabineer against the stiff cable was awkward yet comforting, as I was confident I now would not fall to my disfigurement.  As I continued to climb, it became more apparent that a slip and fall from here would assuredly result in certain death…if not immediately, eventually.  My breathing started to drift again into panic mode.

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Reigning it in once more, and with encouragement from Paul and those coming down between the cables above me, I regained my composure and resumed the rhythmic, ‘Zip, click, click, sigh. Zip, click , click, sigh’.  I pressed my Salomon X Ultra MID 2 GTX  soles against the worn smoothing surface of the massive granite boulder, and pulled myself forward and upward with my grip enhancing rubber work gloves, section by section. Oddly, it did not take much time to make it to the top.

IMG_20170907_113433815What an exhilarating experience!  The top was much larger, in fact even more enormous, than I had expected.  Behind us is the piled rocks that make up the “diving board” that one sees from the valley floor when gazing upon Half Dome.  The top of this mammoth boulder stretched the width and length of more than several football fields…and was fairly flat. (Photos below: Looking left and then right from the top of the cables.  Can you find/see all the people?)

We spent nearly an hour exploring the top, as we had read that at one time in the life of this boulder it was sparsely populated by actual trees.   Based upon the small trees that we saw growing out of the crevasses in this granite monstrosity on our way up, I can see where this was highly probably. Soon the distinctive brims of Sandy and Scout’s hats crested between the hearty cables.  Woo! Hoo!, we cheered.

After a snack, rest, a bit more exploring and obligatory photos, it was time to descend, especially considering the growing presence of ominous clouds and the continual creep of smoke into valley clouding the views below.  Now climbing down rocks, smooth or otherwise is usually harder than climbing up, and heading down this rock required a firm grip and hearty resolve.

IMG_20170907_123529082For me it also required wearing a harness, clipping in and descending as if I were rappelling, but painfully slow.  On our way up, it appears that we beat the “rush hour”.  However, on our way down we were at the height of traffic on the cables.  Pausing to let wide-eyed, edge of panic, people climbing up was frequent, for as with all hiking, uphill has the right-of-way.  Everything was going swimmingly until I heard a collective “startle”, which signaled that someone had dropped something, slipped or fallen.  I looked above me and saw it was Sandy that had generated the reaction.  While edging her way down (like walking down stairs and holding the rails), her feet had slipped out from underneath her.  As she was falling, she was able to grasp the left side cable with both hands, and further arrest her fall by straddling one of the metal stanchions that each side cable threads through.  As usual she was smiling brightly.  While color returned to everyone’s face, Sandy was asked if she was okay.  “Absolutely!”, was her ready reply.  She of course was not scared one bit.  She said it was like “dropping into a 15 foot wave”, “I was aiming for the pole”.  The rest of us however, were terrified, especially Scout who was powerless to help or arrest his wife’s fall.  I’m sure the thought of, “what will I tell the kids?” passed through his mind in an instant.

We made it back to the pile of gloves and regrouped atop the sub dome before our descent back to terra firma (with actual dirt).

IMG_20170907_110110374Smiles all around, we practically skipped back to our packs that were resting in our tent.  While back at our tent, we retrieved our bear containers that we had failed to ensure would still be in the shade.  Thus we unintentionally had “hot” lunches.  We were tired and could have stayed right where we were, but water was scarce and our calves and thighs were starting to cramp up, so we mounted up once more and headed down the John Muir trail to the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker campground, where we would collect water, bathe and camp for the night.  A splendid day was certainly had by all.  Especially considering the “unfazed one”, didn’t fall to her death.

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Posted in Backpacking, Half Dome, JMT, John Muir Trail, Mini Adventures, Uncategorized, Wilderness Permits, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

What a difference a Day makes

When we set up our tent the evening before we purposely set it to face the sunrise in the event the clouds had cleared.  As light began to fill the confines of our tent, I checked my watch.  5:30 AM?  WTF?!  So much for “sleeping in”.  I did have to pee anyways, so I flipped open our soaking wet rain fly to staggering bright sunshine.  Eureka!  The skies had cleared!  But it was bitter cold, for a SoCal gal, that is.  A quick pee and I wormed back into the warmth of my sleeping bag.  We weren’t going anywhere, anytime soon, until all our stuff dried out.

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As the sun rose, so did we all.  Normally our system is to dress and pack up the interior of our tent (sleeping bag, air mattress , head lamp, etc.), and then break down/pack our tent and lay everything on our Tyvek , ready to refill our packs.  Once that is done, we eat breakfast.  Again, not today.  We had only 7 miles to traverse for the day in order to set up for the next morning’s ascent of Half Dome.  Unless it looked like it was going to rain on us, we were in no hurry.  This of course is practically foreign to us as we are usually trying to crush miles, which means an early start usually prompted by the damn alarm on Paul’s watch (I prefer analog watches).   This trip, as with the Chilkoot Trail was devoid of alarms and tight agendas, and yet I awoke early…grrr!

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Making sure we took advantage of the glorious sun, we laid out all of our still wet hiking clothes, socks, shoes and the rain flies atop every nearby sun facing boulder.  It looked like a yard sale was going on.  I have to say that I truly love my new Big Agnes Helinox camp chair.  It is one pound I will always make room for now.  It saves me from being hunched over whilst seated and possibly throwing out my back…and it’s so darn comfortable!  Paul thinks it’s stupid, but you wait, he’ll use it eventually, just like when he said he’d never pet the dog we inherited from our daughter. (The dog sits in his lap usually during morning coffee). Prior to our packing up for this trip our garage was invaded by ants and got into the food we had put aside for our bear canisters.  As everything was sealed, we brushed them off and finished packing.  This morning during our leisurely breakfast I opened my Hostess Apple Pie (that I only get to eat on backpacking trips) and discovered what at first looked like poppy seeds, but upon closer examination was a sprinkling of now dead ants.  Aw man, I was so looking forward to this apple pie.  But wait, we are on a backpacking trip and we pick up food from the ground and brush it off, no matter how long it has been there.  So, I did the only thing I could do, brush them off and eat said pie.  Besides, an extra minuscule dose of protein won’t hurt me.  It took some time, but our clothes, tents and even shoes dried out enough to finally be on our way.  Today’s trek would mostly be a descent to the trail junction for Cloud’s Rest/ Quarter Dome and Half Dome.

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We rejoined the trail which wove through the tree line and then opened up to an expansive meadow.

 

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The trail was now deeply carved into the meadow’s soil, from well over a hundred years of purposeful tread by hundreds of thousands of people and animals alike.

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Thankfully, the air was absent the acrid smell of smoke.  Although the skies behind us continued to posture for rain, the likelihood of being rained upon seemed fairly dim.

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The meadow led to a descent of switchbacks ,and lunch, after which the trail then opened up into a forest stripped naked by fire.  It is here that we caught our first glimpse of Half Dome.

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A pile of handle-less picks and shovels begged to tell a story of this devastating fire.

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It was like walking through a cemetery.  It felt eerie and yet strangely calming as you witnessed the resiliency of nature and its innate beauty.

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Slowly we descended atop sandy soil.

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A final creek crossing and we were at our destination.  IMG_20170906_155320422

We had plenty of time to possibly ascend to Cloud’s Rest, but the smoke had returned and we figured it most likely would mar any view we may obtain by making that climb.  We camped atop a knoll, which on a clear day would have been a “million dollar” view, yet again smoke coated the skies with a powdery haze.  Because we thought we had escaped further rain, Mother Nature decided to remind us that she was “large and in-charge”.  The skies opened up and thunder roared as we dispersed to the “safety” of our tents and “hid” till the storm thankfully passed.

Once passed, it was story-time, as Scout had brought his John Muir book of adventures, which couldn’t have been more appropriate.  We all decided that he (John Muir, not Scout) definitely had a screw loose, or the concept of “that’s F-ing dangerous” totally escaped him.

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Tonight, because we could, we lit a fire and sat around it recapping our adventure thus far.  Scout, thinking back to last summer’s climb of Mt. Whitney and the unexpected 1800 ft. glissade, seemed to think that we were the common denominator when it comes to hair raising situations, as all his other previous backpacking trips were “never this exciting”.  I’m not sure if that is a compliment, but we’ll take it.  Besides, it could just be that Scout is the common denominator.  We’ll test that theory on the next adventure we all go on.  But this one is not yet over, as we have yet to summit Half Dome, upon which this adventure is predicated.

 

Posted in Backpacking, Half Dome, JMT, John Muir Trail, Mini Adventures, Uncategorized, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Day of Firsts…continued

Even before we reconnected with the JMT, smoke drifted back in making for hazy skies that soon obscured the brilliance of Cathedral Peak whose shape seemingly changed as we circumnavigated its base. Small creeks ran adjacent or crossed our path as we slowly wound our way through the changing tread and terrain.  This “late” in the season, abundant water is usually not the case.  Most of the creeks and snow fed rivers are mostly dry as a bone. Usually one needs to be mindful of sustainable water sources when doing the JMT or any portion of it, this time of year.  As evidenced by this year’s snow fall, which hopefully is back to the new “normal”, finding water was not a concern.  As we walked, rocks of every shape and size littered the trail. Pulverized pine needles and discarded tree limbs now ground into “powder”, mixed with decomposed granite, creating a fine dust that often puffed out under our feet and into the air with each step. We had forgotten how dusty and dirty we got going through the areas of the Sierras that weren’t covered in snow, when we did the PCT in 2014.

We made our way toward Cathedral Pass (9700 ft.), stopping just short of the crest, as it was just over half way to our destination and Sandy needed a break. Fortuitously we stopped amidst a wider portion of the rock stacked staircase trail that was bordered with perfect “sit rocks” (boulders you can either sit comfortably with your pack on, and/or off for that matter).  To our right (going N/B) tall thick trees stood as sentries.  To our left was a steep slope into a dry ravine.  As this was going to be a “long” break (20-30 minutes), we took off our packs (rain covers still attached) and took our seats. The sky overhead was still quite hazy and smelled of smoke that you could almost taste. Without warning the temperature dropped. Uh-Oh, that means rain…again! We all initially ducked under a rock overhang to get out of the lightly falling rain. The rain softly continued followed by the distinctive sounds of thunder in the distance. When it began to rain with greater urgency, rain jackets went on once more. In order to more “comfortably” sit out this passing cloud of rain, Paul and I climbed up the side of the hill caked with pine needles, decaying tree limbs and bark bits, to hide from the now steady rain under a giant fallen log suspended between two trees. While seated there we notice the scorched scar of a lightning strike, which explains how this log we are hiding under came to rest. Shit! The rain soon evolved into hail the size of airsoft pellets. So much for a quickly passing Sierra summer rain.  We laughed at the irony, especially since the storm was not “scheduled” till the next day. Scout and Paul started yelling back and forth, “What the hail is going on?”, as the hail added another layer to the percussion section of nature’s symphony.  The hail stopped and light rain returned. It looked like the storm cell had passed. Ha! Not so fast Grasshopper. The rain suddenly increased like someone had turned up it’s volume. We take cover once more, until we hear “Flash Flood!”, from Sandy and Scout, who had just remarked to each other, “Doesn’t that sound like a train is coming?”. A mad scramble ensued to move our packs to even higher ground as a two foot tall torrent of water rushed down the stone stepped trail, nearly washing Scout down with it.

With our packs safely “high and dry” we watched with wonder and awe having witnessed our first ever, flash flood. A flash of lightning and a near immediate clap of thunder jolted us into, “Oh Shit” mode. We had already ditched our packs and poles, but there was really no “safer” place to retreat to but the cover of the once struck fallen tree, hoping that lightning truly never strikes in the same place twice. The four of us huddled together (which of course we know is against all lighting safety protocol) atop our stretched out Z-pads in hopes of slowing the creep of eventual moisture from the bed of once dry pine needles. Paul had also grabbed our ground sheet of Tyvek. We pulled it over our legs in a failed attempt to stay dry, or at least a bit warmer. The air wais bitter cold and electric. Lightning and thunder were now synced, with little to no time elapsing with each event. A new and definitely larger storm cell was directly overhead, and we being just 200 feet shy of the top of the pass were trapped in the thick of it.

We pulled the Tyvek over the top of our heads, providing some measure of warmth as we all collectively began to shiver with hail now the size of corn bouncing violently off our buried heads. By now we realized there is no use trying to stay dry as the Tyvek had managed to funnel the now hard pounding rain down our backs and onto the Z-pads, where upon our pants shamefully soaked it up. The underside of our Tyvek lit up with each flash of lightning.   Painfully aware that a tree above us could be struck and land on or near us, we hoped our position would provide us some measure of protection if that happened.  An explosion of thunder followed immediately, such that the ground reverberated beneath us. We imagined that this (on some level) is what it must feel like to be a “civilian” in an active “war zone”, as we are trapped, have no idea if we will be struck by lightning, and are helpless to defend ourselves. The waiting and wondering finds you more than anxious as you constantly rework contingencies in your head to improve upon your current situation.  The thunder and lightning were now coming so quick that you can’t tell which one is attached to the other. Nervous laughter filled the underside of our Tyvek cocoon. Throughout this storm we were surprised and grateful that we, or a nearby tree had not been struck thus far and would continue to be the case. We were genuinely scared.  An hour and forty minutes later, we emerged unscathed and sopping wet.  We’d take it though.

The trail was still a river, so we had to wait just a bit longer before we can get going.  IMG_20170905_164355741Once the water “slowed” to allow us fairly safe passage we hurriedly reunite with our packs and pick our way across the tops of the stones not fully submerged in the trail, eventually making our way to “drier” trail and over the crest of Cathedral Pass.  A solo hiker that was behind us passed laughing nervously, “Was that fun, or what?”.  It is now, considering that no one got hurt.  Just as we crested the pass, we ran into a couple headed S/B on the JMT.  It is their second day, and they were wide-eyed and looking a little grey.  “Were you guys at the top?”, they ask.  “About 200 ft below”, we reply.  “Us too”, they confirm.  They tell us how lightning flashed over their heads and how they ditched their poles, dropped their packs and ran in opposite directions each cowering in crouched positions as cover was sparse and the trees were nearly as tall as them.  We tell them our story as they look at us in amazement.  Yes, we defied all lightning protocols, but we had no real “safer” options.  If the sky had not been so smoky and grey, we would have mostly likely been able to see the approaching storm cell(s) and stayed at the edge of the previous meadow or high tailed it up and over the pass…and then took our break.  As such, that was not the case.  We parted ways and continued our descent toward the Sunrise HSC, resolved to walk ourselves dry…and warm.

We descended into another meadow with a creek running to our right.  We can see that the skies are still grey and foreboding and make the decision to find a place to camp in order to set up in the event the skies decide to open up once more.  Our collective GPS devices told us we had put in a total of 9 miles.  IMG_20170905_182340588More than enough for this Day of Firsts.  As we were at an elevation that would allow campfires, we considered building one to warm ourselves, then opted not to as we were too tired and a hot meal and a warm sleeping bag were far more alluring.  As we dined, we watched as clouds formed menacingly and then dissipate.   The hovering smoke clears, yet creates a fiery orange sunset.  Day one and nine interesting miles is Not how we pictured “introducing” Sandy to our hiking adventures.

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A Day of Firsts

This morning began slowly, but soon enough we were at our trail head to begin our 25-ish mile assault of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. We would get just shy (.5 miles) of Sunrise High Sierra camp (HSC) of the John Muir Trail. We’re taking a “longer” route to Half Dome, as opposed to the “traditional” route. The thought of climbing straight up nearly 8 miles only to go back down, for a 16 mile one day mega knee and quad workout sounded boring and unnecessarily laborious. Our friends Sandy (my college swim and water polo teammate) and her husband Steve ( aka “Scout”, a member of the Mt Whitney Magnificent Seven crew) joined us. IMG_20170905_092404408This would be Sandy’s first backpacking trip in a LONG time. ACL surgery, a recent car accident that left her with hardware in her ankle and assorted other boo-boos have the potential to add an extra degree of difficulty. Doing this section will also complete the John Muir Trail for me. In order to make it more “fun” we are breaking this adventure up into 3 days, with an average of 7-8 miles/day. We want this to be a good experience for Sandy and for both her and Scout to join us again. Both Paul and I have known her for several decades, Paul through lifeguarding, and me from college. Needless to say, she is a hoot. After storing our “smellable” car stuff in a bear locker by the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead, and parking our cars by the roadside, we headed up the trail. Unfortunately for Sandy, this would be a 3 mile Stairmaster climb to the turn off to Cathedral Lake, with another half mile to the lake. Our plan was to lunch at Cathedral Lake, of which Sandy was on board with…originally.  Her knee was somewhat sore, and the thought of going down a narrow rock/boulder strewn trail (for lunch) only to climb back up again didn’t seem that appealing when we reached the trail junction to the lake.  But being the trooper she is, Sandy soldiered on even in spite of a slow-mo fall halfway down the trail.  I promised that I would not post the photo I took, before Scout helped “re-right” her, so I won’t.  I will say however, that her fall was thankfully in slow-motion.  One of her trekking poles “shrunk” unexpectantly as she was working her way down between two large boulders.  The end result found her stuck on her back, like a turtle, unable to upright herself gracefully.   Being her friend, I couldn’t help but laugh…and take a photo (after of course, she assured us she was “fine”…just stuck).

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Soon the trail leveled out and opened up in to a vast meadow flanked by the grey face of a steep and scoured bowl shaped granite wall.

IMG_20170905_120837790_HDRIt wasn’t until we traversed the soggy meadow and shuffled over a massive hump of granite that Cathedral Lake came into view. IMG_20170905_120842132_HDR It felt like we had unwrapped an unexpected present. You know that moment when you have dutifully removed all the ribbon and tightly wrapped paper from the present’s box, and you ease the lid open and revealing the most amazing gift that you never expected.  It was like that, but with heavy smoke in the air. Ironically, this is one of the most picturesque lakes and not one of us managed to snap a picture of the lake.  This means we will have to come back…next year!  No sooner did we unpack our lunches (and my new Big Agnes Helinox Chair Zero camp chair ) and get comfortable, our 30% chance of showers became 100%. Rain jackets and pack covers were broken out in a hurry. We thought it would pass, but when it didn’t we retreated to the cover of the tree line to eat. No sooner did we AGAIN break out our lunch, but the water logged skies cleared and became bright blue for the next half hour.

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The good thing about the rain, was that it washed away the smoke…for a short time. The boys took a nap, while Sandy and I walked back down to the meadow with our chairs, and basked in the surrounding beauty and the sun. By 2pm we mounted back up to climb the half mile back to the JMT, which of course now felt shorter than the descent.

IMG_20170905_131459565_HDRCathedral Peak was in its jagged glory.  We had planned to end the day somewhere ahead of or just after Sunrise HSC.  We ended up a half mile before Sunrise, but not without some excitement in-between.

…to be continued.

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