This recap is a synopsis of a backpacking trip that took place from Sunday, September 11th 2016 through Friday September 16th, 2016. I wanted to document it for a variety of reasons, one being BETA for those who may have an interest in doing this loop. We experienced some fabulous Yosemite back country at the onset of fall in near perfect conditions. Finally, as a cautionary tale because we made some judgement errors along the way that can serve as a good lesson from which to learn. The participants included myself (Will E Cronan) and my good hiking buddy Jeff H. In the course of planning this trip, Jeff invited his brother Kevin H. from Ohio and I invited my cousin John H. from Houston, TX.
The planned route was ambitious for us older guys who do larger treks maybe twice a year. That’s not to say we don’t have experience as both Jeff and I are avid hikers and do our share of overnight trips in our local coastal mountains and Los Padres National Forest. But this is the Sierra and preparation is key. Knowing your limits is as important as wilderness experience. Kevin has some experience backpacking in Glacier National Park but would admit to not being a regular backpacker. For John, this was his first backpacking trip in the Sierra but came in trained-up and ready. Fitness-wise we had all prepared months prior to be in shape for the physical challenge ahead.
In the planning of this trek, we were interested in the High Sierra loop and looked at ways to incorporate parts of that trail into our plan. First, we wanted to arrive a day early so we could acclimate to the altitude. We opted to stay at Tuolumne backpackers camp ground on Saturday evening before our Sunday start (Sept 11, 2016). Next, we decided to at the Sunrise Trailhead at Tenaya Lake because both Jeff and I wanted to “bag” Clouds Rest (CR) and experience the view down onto half dome and the surrounding terrain. Once over CR, we would make our way down to Sunrise Creek situated at the CR/JMT junction. The following day would be a day-hike up to the dramatic views on top of Half Dome, then return to Sunrise Creek camp, where we would then break down camp, pack-up, and head out through Little Yosemite Valley to camp at Merced Falls. Day three would incorporate a hike from Merced Falls through both Echo Valley and Lost Valley. We would be following the Merced River through gaps and canyons up to beautiful Merced Lake where we would camp for the third evening. Day four would be our most strenuous of the hike. We would leave Merced Lake, elevate quickly up along Lewis Creek trail traversing over 8 miles to another impressive climb over Vogelsang pass. We would then descend into the Vogelsang Lake area to camp. Rising early on Day five, our wanderings would take us on to Vogelsang High Sierra camp, catching a junction that would take us past Evelyn lake toward Ireland lake. Our intent was to stop at the Ireland Lake Junction and day-hike the out and back to Ireland Lake. We would then finish the day by trekking southeast down the trail to Lyell Canyon and a forecasted camping spot at the JMT junction. To wrap up the trip, Day 6 would be a long but relatively easy slight downhill on the JMT into Tuolumne Meadows, effectively cinching the loop. All told the proposed route was nearly 50 miles. Included in the route were major climbs at Clouds Rest, Half Dome, the climb out of Merced Lake toward Vogelsang pass and Vogelsang pass itself. As you will see we had to alter this route on the fly due to some unforeseen circumstances. I hope you enjoy this write up which I have broken up into six parts, each focusing on one day’s events.
Saturday, September 10th: Today was the culmination of a copious amount of planning and coordination heralded by our arrival at Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. After securing our requisite permit and rules lecture from the Ranger we drove over to Glen Aulin Road and parked the car. We unloaded our gear and headed over to Tuolumne Grill for a tasty burger, knowing that the next six days would consist of snacks and dehydrated mountain house meals. Spirits were high among the group and if truth be told we were anxious to get rolling down the trail. But that would have to wait until the next morning. To be honest, I always prefer a day to acclimate to the altitude especially since we drove up from coastal sea level. After eating, we walked the short distance to Tuolumne backpackers campground to secure a campsite and set up our tents. Sites appeared to be filling up fast. Luckily, we found a great site right off the main trail. Some yellow hazard tape across the bear box must have scared off other potential campers as it appeared to have a broken lock. Jeff put his mechanical skills to work and soon had the temperamental bear box key working fine. Once camp was set up, we had some time to kill so we made fire in the fire ring, talking and getting to know each other in more detail. A few nips of our favorite spirit soon loosened the lips and good conversation and jokes were flying around. Kevin had come in from Ohio, taking some time off from his business and family. John came in from the flat lands of Houston Texas. He had prepared and trained hiking trails around his hometown. To mimic the climbs, he loaded up his backpack, hiking up and down the stairs of the 33 story office building where he worked. Jeff and I are long time friends and had started hiking together as a way to “get back into shape”. We both have experience hiking in the Sierra and teamed up to planned this trip. A big day and an early start lay ahead of us so with great anticipation we retired to our tents.
5am! “Rise and shine, the birds are singing and the sun is shining and it’s a brand new day in the world,” as my father used to say. We needed to be the Tuolumne Grill shuttle stop for our ride over to Tenaya Lake and Sunrise Trailhead. It was still dark when we awoke. By the time we made our way to the grill, the yet-to-rise sun was beginning to lightened the Yosemite sky. Like clockwork, the shuttle arrived and grabbing our gear from the nearby table, we boarded. We were the only people on the shuttle and the driver clairvoyantly asked, “Sunrise Trailhead”? We confirmed her premonition and were soon driving west down Tioga road for the 30 minute trip to Sunrise. Everybody was quiet, surely going over their personal checklists in their mind, double-checking they had not forgotten anything. Placid Tenaya lake showed up on our left. Driving past I glance up at Tenaya peak looming over the lake. I’ve driven by this spot over the years and often wondered to myself “what’s on the other side of that peak”. Today I would start to find out and with the shuttle pulling over to the side of the road my thoughts returned to getting on the trail.
We quickly disembarked from the shuttle, wiggled into our backpacks and scrambled across Tioga road to the Sunrise Trailhead. Taking some quick pictures at the trailhead, we secured our trek poles and took our first steps down the Sunrise Lakes trail. We made our way past the western end of Tenaya Lake. The first mile of the trail was wide, straight and flat. Invariably, whenever starting a long trek, I habitually do a quick physical assessment. My left knee usually shouts at me with sharp arthritic pains, letting me know it’s not to happy to be carrying the 40 lbs of weight. My shoulders are usually pulling back, feeling the load and my hip belt is asking for constant tightening to secure the pack and carry the load over my hips. The first mile of any hike is always a settling in process. My breathing is usually labored as my body works to adjust to the load, exertion and altitude. Constant adjustments continue until you fall into rhythm and pace that your body agrees with. So it was during the first mile on the forested trail and presently we ascended slightly into a vigorous climb up the rocky, root straddled trail. Periodically, we caught glimpses through the trees of the granite landscape toward Olmstead point. These sneak peaks afforded an opportunity to catch our breath and to look back toward Tenaya Lake and our point of origin. The climb steepened and we push on up a series of switchbacks eventually cresting a ridge line at the Sunrise Lakes trail junction. At one point during our early planning, Jeff and I had entertained the idea trying to secure a walk-in permit and hiking to the lakes for our first night, but time and logistics worked against us, so we stayed at Toulomne campground to acclimate instead.
Clouds Rest was still four miles away and from the Sunrise Lakes junction the trail descended down into a wide canyon with sunrise mountain south of us. Our southerly progression now turned slightly westward through an undulating series of ups and downs that wound through trees, tiny open spaces, an occasional small vernal pond and bushy meadows. Clouds Rest imposing prominence could be seen ahead and announcing the climb that was sure to come.
One of the basic tenets of backpacking is to expect the unexpected. We were about at the 3.5 mile mark of the days hike when we experienced the unexpected. As John stepped over a tree root that crossed the trail, his left foot landed on the edge of trail concavity. The awkward placement of his foot, the shifting of his body, coupled with a glance at the view, all conspired so that the load-bearing weight on that foot caused him to rolled his ankle and fall. We rushed to his aid and as John collected himself, he muttered “It’s my ankle, I rolled it pretty good”. Jeff encouraged John to take his time as we all helped him unbuckle his pack and to get if off him. It was at this point where our collective thoughts started to process our predicament. Three and a half miles into a week long trek and we had a injury and a lot of uncertainty as to our next course of action. John took off his shoe and looked at his ankle – no swelling…yet. First indications were that the sprain may not be serious. John stood on it and took a few steps. He walked a few yards up and back on the trail to see how it felt. He winced but said he thought it would be okay. At some point I asked if he felt he could continue. He responded that he could. It was decision time and a choice had to be made. Either turn around and hike back and regroup at Sunrise trail head or continue on up and over Clouds Rest to our eventual camp at Sunrise Creek. At this point, I’m sure John was thinking that he did not want to be the guy who had to bomb-out on this trek. He was toughing it out. After taking a couple over-the-counter pain medications and with his positive affirmation we continued on. We were working under the assumption that John had dodge a severe sprain. We helped him get his gear back on and resumed our hike.
In the meantime, I was watching the eastern sky closely. In the distance I could see clouds building up toward Tuolumne. At this point, I could not tell if a storm was in the offing, but it warranted watching. Back on the trail, John was struggling and his pace slowing. We were into the meat of the Clouds Rest climb, so around mile five we stopped to reassess. It was becoming obvious that John’s sprain was worse than hoped and he was struggling to push-off with any strength. At some point a good Samaritan saw John languishing and offered him an ice pack for his ankle which he gladly took, stuffing it into his sock. Even more frustrating, though we all had fairly extensive first aid kits, none of us had brought an ankle-wrap bandage. We did have duct tape and suggested to John that we could wrap his ankle using his sock as a buffer to the skin but John said he wanted to continue without. To speed up the pace we decided to try to lighten John’s load. I took the loaded top cover which coverts to a hip belt off his Osprey backpack and attached it to my pack. Jeff volunteered to carried John’s fully loaded bear canister weighing at least ten pounds in his arms and in doing so used no trek poles for the climb up to CR. Kevin carried John’s tent and some other weighty items in his already heavy pack.
With a lighter load, John’s speed improved and he was pushing through the pain. But the additional weight was taking a toll on us and the group stopped frequently to rest. We arrived at sign that indicated that we were 1.2 miles from the summit of CR and we decided to rest and eat some lunch. We could see on our topo maps that the climb was about to get steeper. We had lost time and had fallen behind schedule and it became clear that the gathering storm was coming our way. The once distant rumbles of thunder were getting louder and sheets of rain could be seen falling over the mountains to the southeast on its approach toward us. Eating quickly, we pushed on trying to beat the storm to the summit. As we closed in on the summit of Clouds Rest, day-hikers were scurrying down. It was getting windy and sprinkles were starting to fall even though we remained in bright sunlight. John and I had gotten ahead of Jeff and Kevin arriving at the summit together. The last 100 yards to the top of the summit of Clouds Rest is a bit of a boulder scramble. Exhausted, John and I crested the east side of Clouds Rest. The summit of Clouds rest resembles stacked granite slabs that taper to a narrow ridge which extends about 600′ from east to west. As we moved across the summit, the path across the ridge narrowed to a thin strip of uneven granite, with precipitous granite walls dropping off on either side. With the wind gusting and sprinkles turning to drops, we made our way gingerly across this narrow stretch. Without taking my eyes off the trail, I could see in my peripheral vision to the right the 3000′ drop into Tenaya Canyon. Looking left I could see the 2000′ foot drop where the unseen the John Muir trail paralleled our position below. I whispered a quick prayer for protection from lightning or any other worrisome danger and made my way across this narrow isthmus to the point where the path widened to a safer flat section. My enthusiasm at making it to the top of Clouds Rest was short-lived and tempered by the storm that was upon us. It had been a hard climb, and a cardinal rule in Yosemite is to never be on top of a high granite place during a thunderstorms. Yet here we were, doing something I have criticized others for doing. Jeff and Kevin had just crested the top about 200′ away from us. The view of the oncoming storm from the direction of Sunrise lakes was incredible. The clouds were low in the sky and the falling rain faded out the background mountains. Looking west, we could peek into Yosemite Valley and directly adjacent loomed mighty Half dome, at a slightly lower position. On Half Dome, we could clearly see the sub dome and just beyond the polished granite path where the cables guide hikers to her summit. To the north we viewed the deep drop into Tenaya canyon and in the distance Olmsted point. To the south the back country surrounding Little Yosemite valley and in the far distance the Ansel Adams wilderness. It was simply spectacular!
Jeff and Kevin cresting the east side of Clouds Rest. Note the rain fading out the background.
With clouds directly over us now, the concentrated center of the storm was still to the east but its proximity to Clouds Rest still presented a danger. John and I took in the view and snapped some pictures. Knowing we had pushed our luck, I said to John, “we need to get off this rock” and proceeded make our way to the western side of the summit. We found the trail descending down the west side of Clouds Rest. John gingerly started down the 3 mile descending trail toward the JMT junction. The immediate descent from the summit on the westside is scary steep and John, with a his hurting ankle, made slow but careful progress down. In the meantime, as I gestured to Jeff & Kevin to come over, a loud rumble of thunder echoed up the nearby canyons and a little to close comfort. I signaled to them I was going down. Doing my best NOT to rush, I carefully stepped my way through the steep decline and soon joined up with John. Not long after, I could see Kevin and Jeff descending through the steep descent. Knowing they were moving our direction, John and I went ahead of them toward Sunrise camp. The hike down from CR to the JMT/Sunrise is a series of long switchbacks that look south over the Yosemite back-country. Rain was soon falling with enough volume to warrant putting on our rain shells and applying our backpack rain covers. Looking south into the Yosemite back country from this vantage point brings into view a vast expanse of domes, distant peaks, valleys, and canyons. I could clearly see Moraine dome and an unnamed dome near our future camp site at Merced Falls. Looking south-west, Mt. Starr King could be seen in the distance past Little Yosemite valley.
The long, switch-backing trail from CR to Sunrise was well-traveled and in good shape and during this descent, I ran through various scenarios regarding John’s situation. First my goal was to get to sunrise camp and access our situation and regroup. With that goal in mind I moved ahead of John and was first to the JMT/ Sunrise camp Junction. Arriving a sunrise camp I sat down on a rock, contemplated the predicament. I was pretty sure John’s hike was done. There simply appeared no way John would finish the remaining 5 day trek with the distance and climbs that were planned. My mind raced with thoughts. Was this the short finish to our long-planned trip? Would Kevin & Jeff have to continue alone? Or, could we formulate an extraction plan to safely get John out and possibly salvage the trip? As I sat there, worn out from the days events, I check my cell phone and surprisingly discovered I had cell service. It was at that point a plan started to formulate in my mind. Day two would prove to be interesting as you will read in the next section.
Post script: So at this point and speaking for myself, I will sheepishly admit to some iffy decision-making on our part. We let the excitement and anticipation of a long-planned trip potentially get in the way of safety. First, when John injured himself we were only 3.5 miles from our start, Sunrise trailhead. We could have simply hiked out and regrouped at Sunrise. No one wants to be “that guy” who is responsible for throwing a wrench into long-made plans. As our scenario unfolded, that factor edged us toward decisions stay on trail. Secondly, the decision to go back should have been a no-brainer with the approaching storm, yet we went on. Third, not having a ankle wrap (ace bandage) in our first aid kit was a big miss – inexcusable really. In retrospect, I think we all agree that it was a series of questionable decisions, one leading to the next, that led us to keep pushing to keep this trek alive. We took some risks, got lucky, and made it through. We walk away a little smarter and better prepared for next time.