Monday, July 17, 2006

A Great Time at "the Y"

This is the fourth time in seven years (2000, 2002, 2004, 2006) that we have camped with family friends for a week in Yosemite at Housekeeping Camp in the valley along the Merced River. Housekeeping is a group of canvas cabins with only a few amenities such as electricity and beds. It's a step up from tent-camping without the unnecessary expenses of staying in a park hotel. IMHO, the rustic lifestyle of Housekeeping Camp (complete with campfires, easy access to the river, and close proximity to camping friends) is the best way for a family to fully experience Yosemite.

This year was our largest group yet: 9 families comprised of 16 adults, 6 teenagers, and 18 younger children. There’s never a dull moment with this group of campers. The workload is much easier also because we divide up the evening meals so that each family is responsible to cook for the entire group for only one night. That frees up our time so we don’t spend all our time cooking and cleaning every afternoon and evening.

As our kids have gotten older through the years, we’ve been able to do more and more activities. When they were 3, 2, and 1 in ages, we basically drove around, took small short walks, and hiked/biked them in kiddie carriers. They could do some easy things like throw stones in the river, cook/burn marshmallows, and swim in Mirror Lake. Now that they’re 9, 8, and 7, they’re big enough to do some more serious activities.

Here’s some highlights of this year’s trip.

We drove 350 miles from Riverside to Yosemite via Pasadena, Bakersfield, and Fresno and then set up camp.

All five of us hiked 1½ miles up the “Mist Trail” to the top of Vernal Falls. This is a great hike because it has great views of the falls and you have an extended section through the mist in which you emerge soaking wet. At the top, you are looking down over 300’ to where the water crashes below.

At this point, the girls wanted to head back to camp so Mary Ann took them on back. But Andrew (7yo) was eager to go 2 miles further up the trail to the top of Nevada Falls. I was more than happy to go with him since I’ve been waiting for the day when he was big enough to ask me to go hiking with him. Andrew and I were joined with Dan and Nathanael (age 6) on the hike to the top.

Nevada Falls was gushing with full power from the melting mountain snow. Nevada Falls is the next falls upstream on the Merced River and nearly twice the height (594’) of Vernal Falls. We made it to the top and played safely in the water at the edge of quiet pool. Someone upstream rather unfortunately knocked a backpack into the river and it quickly went over the falls. We found out later it was carrying everything this poor hiker had, including money, credit cards, camera, and car keys. But the pack was in dangerous waters and it would have been foolish to try to get it.

On the way home, the four of us decided to take the scenic route down the John Muir Trail, making it a 7-mile loop that we completed. The John Muir Trail below Nevada Falls has wonderful sweeping views of the upper Merced River valley.

Thirteen of us met at 6:00am to attempt to summit Half Dome. Half Dome is one of the great classic hikes of all the National Parks. Even though the elevation is not terribly high (8,843’) compared to other peaks in this and other parks, the 4000’ drop-off from the top (including a 2000’ vertical face) is breathtaking. This 16-mile roundtrip hike is a strenuous hike and requires carrying a good bit of water and food.

As we headed up the trail to Vernal Falls, we soon divided up into three groups of 5, 3, and 5 based on our pace. Our group of five was ahead as we proceeded on up to Nevada Falls, on through Little Yosemite Valley, and up to the “staircase” which leads to the infamous cables.

The cables on Half Dome are a nerve-racking experience, but unless you’re a technical climber, every person who has ever summitted Half Dome has gone up them. Essentially, the cables are a set of 1” steel cables about a yard apart that are secured with metal poles into the side of Half Dome for the final 500’ of the ascent. Basically, the cables turn a class-5 climb into a class-3 scramble up the side of the dome.

The cables are my least favorite part of this hike because there is nothing to secure you into place other than your hands on the cables and your feet on the boards between the poles as you ascend this 45-50° slope. The rock beneath your feet is worn slick from the thousands of hikers who have climbed this route over the years. The cables are also tricky because on busy days there are lines of people ascending and descending on the same cables and at different speeds. It’s a serious workout for both the upper and lower body and a big relief to finally get up on top.

The five of us made it up to the top together. We peeked over the edge to look at the valley 4000’ below. It’s amazing how large the top of Half Dome is. Five or six football fields could easily fit on top of it. I had brought a kite along hoping to fly it on top for my kids to see from the valley below. Unfortunately, the chaotic and sporadic winds thwarted all my attempts to get it in the air.

We all relaxed, took pictures, and ate our lunches basking in the warm sunshine in the cool mountain air. The quote of the day was from Ryan, one of the teenagers in our group: “All this work, for only half a peak. Next time I want to climb a whole peak!”

As we started to descend the cables, we were thrilled to pass two more from our camp who were near the top of the cables. Unfortunately, since we were all on the cables together, we didn’t get a chance for much conversation, other than Ryan announcing loudly to his dad, “You owe me a hundred bucks” (since he had bet him he wouldn’t make it to the top). Everyone on the cables got a good laugh from that.

After we exited the cables, we descended the trail rather rapidly. Halfway down the Mist Trail, we met up with four others from our group who had made it to within 2.5 miles of the top before they turned back realizing they wouldn’t have enough daylight to complete the hike. All in all, 7 out of our initial 13 made it to the top and another 4 made it over two-thirds the way.

It was another great hike to the top, despite my dread of the cables. This was the peak that got me hooked on hiking four years ago (2002). I must admit I had forgotten how much I hate those cables until I got there. I was never more glad to get that part of the hike behind me.

When we got back to camp, I found that Mary Ann and the kids had spent much of the day at the base of Yosemite Falls. They along with a large group from camp had a blast playing for hours on the boulders and in the water.

This was the day for our group picture at Glacier Point (7,200’) overlooking the valley 3000’ below. Everyone drove to the top… except for me. Why drive when you can hike? I was eager to see if I could better my time on Four-Mile Trail to the top from two years ago. “Four-mile” Trail is actually a misnomer because the distance is variously posted as 4.0, 4.3, 4.6, and 4.8 miles on different maps and signs. All I know is that it’s one steep hike up 3,000+’ and 59 switchbacks (I counted them).

I biked over to the trailhead and started my charge up the trail at 10:10am. I knew I would have to push it to beat the others who were driving to the top. I had no backpack to slow me down since I was carrying only a single water bottle on the way up. I was pushing the pace on the lower parts as I would alternate running a switchback and then power-hiking the next one.

I could easily gauge my progress by looking across the valley at Yosemite Falls and see how high up I was in relation to it. I was trying hard to see if I could conquer this trail in under an hour. I pushed the pace and passed quite a few people on the way up. I hit the pavement at the top in 1:06:09. I wasn’t able to get under an hour, but I was very satisfied with a big PWR (personal world record) for me on this trail.

I ended up having to wait 40 minutes for the first of the cars from camp to arrive. It was kind of nice though because it gave me a chance to cool off in the shade and then warm back up in the sun. The others soon arrived and we had our collective group picture there, the fourth time we’ve done that through the years. It was pretty funny trying to get 40 of us together for a picture, especially since everyone wanted a shot with their own camera (which is really unnecessary since they were all digital).

After eating lunch, Mary Ann headed 8 miles down the Panorama View Trail with four other friends to the valley below. Now that’s a trail I’ve yet to hike. She got some great views of Illilouette Falls, which I’ve only seen from far in the distance. I was happy to drive the kids back to camp so she could stretch her legs on one of these great Yosemite trails.

Since I had done a considerable amount of hiking over the past three days, I was happy to take it easy for a day. All five of us went rafting on the Merced River. That was a relaxing float. We beached on one of the sandy bends in the river so we could get out, play in the water, and skip some rocks.

Later that afternoon, we all five went for a bike ride up to the Happy Isles Visitor Center. The girls wanted to head back to camp so I went with them. Mary Ann and Andrew then continued on biking for quite a few more miles.

This past Spring, there was a large rock slide on Hwy 140 about 5 miles below the town of El Portal just outside the western gate to the park. The rock slide was so massive that the road has been closed indefinitely. The reports I have heard said that the mound of rubble is 300’ high and 600’ long. Basically, the pile is so huge that you would expect there to be a tunnel if you came upon it unknowingly. The only solution for opening access again is to build a bridge across the Merced River and allow traffic to use a service road on the other side. Eventually, a second bridge will be built so that Hwy 140 will cross the river twice in a short distance to bypass the unstable pile of rock.

On Wednesday, I talked with a cyclist who had biked down to see the rock slide the day before. He said it was a great ride because there was virtually no traffic on the road in that direction (surprise, surprise). I was very interested in biking down there to see this rock pile for myself. Mary Ann was taking the kids over to the base of Bridal Veil Falls that day with a large group from our camp.

I started about 9:40am. I figured it would take me about 2½ hours to do this 45-mile bike ride. As I was leaving the valley and descending towards El Portal, I quickly realized it might take longer to get back to camp. The road was a steep descent (three sections were posted with signs warning of 8% grades) and I went flying down the smooth pavement hitting speeds between 35-38mph with little effort at all. It was a fun descent because I had the road all to myself.

After biking 20 miles, I came to a sign that closed the road to vehicles. I went a couple of miles further to Indian Flats where I encountered another sign at the Merced River bridge that closed the road to all pedestrians and cyclists. I was disappointed to find this sign because I knew the rock slide was probably just a ¼ mile around the next bend. No one was around and I thought about going just a tad further to see the huge slide for myself, after all I had biked quite a long ways to see it. But I decided to turn around and head back. It is an active rock slide and I’m sure the road crews would not appreciate someone disobeying their clear instructions.

Disappointedly, I turned around and headed back up Hwy 140. Funny how I wasn’t flying across the pavement as effortlessly as I was a few minutes ago! I biked back into El Portal and topped off my water bottles for the long ascent back to Yosemite Valley. My bike computer indicated it would be a 2500’ ascent, not a 1400’ ascent as I had anticipated. My legs responded better than I expected on the long climbs up the road. Few cars passed me on the way back up, but that was due to the lack of traffic, not my scorching speed. The only thing scorching about my ride at that point was my tires rolling over the hot pavement in the 90ยบ heat!

It felt great when I had made it back to the valley. Soon I was zipping along hitting speeds of 25-27mph on the gentle roads on the valley floor. I was very pleased to have completed the round trip in only 2:43 (16.7 mph) since it ended up being a much steeper ascent than I anticipated.

When I got back to camp, I found that Mary Ann and the kids were still playing over at the base of Bridal Veil Falls. I wish I had known that because I had just biked past there a few minutes earlier. I didn't stop at that time because I assumed they were already back at camp and probably waiting on me. They arrived shortly after me so we might not have hooked up over there anyway.

That afternoon we all played in the Merced River again, swimming in the cold water and skipping rocks. The water felt great on my tired legs.

For Saturday, Mary Ann had made reservations for her and the girls to go horseback riding. Andrew wasn’t really interested and I’m too allergic to horses to even get near the stables. Andrew was eager to do one more hike so he and I along with 5 others from our camp met at 7:30am to tackle the Yosemite Falls trail. This is another one of the quintessential Yosemite hikes. This 3.4-mile trail ascends 2600’ to the top of the tallest waterfall in North America (2,425’; 5th tallest in the world).

Before coming to Yosemite on this trip, I wouldn’t have thought Andrew would be up for this hike, but after seeing him hike past Vernal Falls and on to Nevada Falls on Monday, I had little doubt that he would finish this one.

We missed the trailhead at the beginning of the hike and started up the wrong trail. This actually turned out well for us because we got to see a big black bear about 20-30 yards up the mountain ahead of us. It was no threat to us, but it was fascinating to watch as it crashed through the woods.

We then started up the correct trail which was easy to locate. This is a steep, relentless climb up an innumerable set of short switchbacks. The bottom half of the hike is shaded with tree cover. About halfway up, the trail emerges through a steep sandy section to a great scenic lookout at Columbia Rock. Then the trail descends a couple hundred feet in elevation for about a half mile under the face of a steep rock wall. At that point we emerged in full view of our first look at Upper Yosemite Falls. The size and sound of this falls is enormous. It was great to see the falls at full force because the only other time I hiked this trail (Aug 2004), the falls were bone dry. Up ahead, we could easily spot the route the trail would take us up the rocky staircase through a notch in the rock wall.

By this point, Andrew had become our pace-maker. When we stopped to rest a bit, he would be the first to hop up and start back up the trail. It was kind of funny because he was wearing a yellow shirt so we joked about him being in the “yellow jersey” (since the Tour de France was going on at this time). He was so eager to get to the top that some of the teenagers wanted to grab him and slow him down. He thought it was pretty funny.

Five of us made it to the top of the falls in 3 hours, a very good pace for a 7-year-old boy... of course, unlike the rest of us, he only has a 45-pound carcass to haul up the trail! The five of us took plenty of pictures, ate some lunch, and played for 1½ hours in Yosemite Creek at the top of the falls.

Quite a ways up from the falls itself, we actually dove into a large pool of water and walked back to the other side across a fallen tree that served as a make-shift bridge. There was no danger of being too near the falls themselves since we were so far upstream. Needless to say, the water was ice cold... cold enough to take your breath away.

As we were packing up to head back down the trail, we were thrilled to see Dan and his son Nathanael make it to the top. Nathanael is only 6 years old and he was very proud to be on top… and so was his dad.

Instead of driving home the way we came, we decided to take the scenic route across the park to the eastern entrance at Tioga Pass. We had not been across that route in 12 years. It was a gorgeous day for the drive. We made our way past Crane Flat, Porcupine Flat, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, and Tioga Pass (9,948’). It was an incredible sight to see the dark blue mountain lakes, snow in July on the side of the road, and lush green high-altitude meadows.

We then made the steep descent down Hwy 120 to Lee Vining to get gas and eat lunch. We had a blast eating lunch at a local hamburger stand with the Falsettis who were traveling with us.

From Lee Vining, we made our way down the eastern side of the Sierra on Hwy 395. That has to be one of the most scenic highways in the country. You drive for 120 miles within the vicinity of all but one of California’s fifteen 14ers (only Mt Shasta in northern CA is not in this region). When we got to Lone Pine, I could easily spot Mt Whitney and its neighboring needles towering high over us. Whitney is set so far back that it doesn’t look like the highest peak at first glance, even though at 14,497’ it’s the highest peak in the 48-contiguous states. Seeing it made me want to hike it again like I did in 2003 and 2004. Come to think of it, this is the only time I’ve ever seen it when I didn’t get to hike it.

All in all, this was by far our best Yosemite trip yet. We stayed a full 7 nights. The weather was perfect (60s at night; low 80s in the day). We had a large and fun group of campers. I hadn’t anticipated hiking 35 miles and biking another 45, but it sure was fun doing it. By far, the best 14 miles were the ones with Andrew at my side. At the end of the week, he was very proud of the fact that he had reached the top of three great waterfalls and that he had hiked twice as many miles as he is old. I was very proud of him too.