Monday, February 9, 2015

Yosemite Bound - Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley

August 2, 2014

There are three shuttles that run to Yosemite every day; however only one of them go all the way to Yosemite Valley. The remaining two terminate at Tuolumne Meadows. So in reality we could have slept at least an hour longer but since we decided to stop at Tuolumne first, we were up at 6:20 a.m. and ready to check out just before 7:00 a.m. We grabbed coffee and chai latte and some pumpkin bread at the Latte da Coffee Cafe, which was adjacent to the El Moo Motel and headed to the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) shuttle stop about a block away.

Shuttle to Yosemite Valley

The shuttle ride was pleasant, offering great views of the mountainous terrain. After 40 minutes we arrived at Tuolumne Meadows. We had just enough time to visit the Grill and walk a mile to the visitor center to buy and mail some postcards before we had to return to the shuttle stop.

The air was not too hazy but we could smell smoke in the air. Normally I would associate this scent with a pleasant bonfire and roasted sausages. This bonfire however was burning on 3400 acres and 1400 firefighters were tending to it. We were saddened by the loss of such a vast area of beautiful forest but we were also happy that the fire did not mean any change in our plan as it was burning in an area not directly affecting the JMT.

Half Dome

The next YARTS bus was supposed to arrive at 10:15 a.m. When there was no sign of it at 10:25 we started to worry that we might have missed it somehow. Luckily for us it was just running late. Once again the ride was smooth and the views were getting even better. Behind us was a couple returning to their vehicle parked in the Valley. They got stuck in a stormy weather and after several days of heavy rain they gave up and left the trail about 70 miles short of Whitney. It was sunny and close to 100 degrees. It was hard to imagine any prolonged period of rain.

Once we got our permits, which was an easy task involving a fifteen minute chat with a friendly ranger at the Yosemite Valley Ranger Station, we hurried to secure our spot at the backpackers camp. There was plenty of space when we arrived. There is no potable water at the backpacker camp but nearest source is only about 5 minutes away at the Pines Campground.

Backpackers Campground

Yosemite Valley has a great shuttle system. Not only you can take YARTS to the Valley, you can then take the smaller shuttle buses to get around the Valley. These shuttles run a one hour loop, hop on and off at your leisure, and they are completely free. When our headquarters was set up for the night, we took advantage of this shuttle system and returned to the village for lunch and sight seeing.

Then we took the shuttle all around the Valley and then yet continued back to stop # 6 which was perfect for sunset photos. A view of Half Dome across an open meadow that lured us for a pre-dusk stroll. We made a few step on a bridge over a peacefully flowing Merced River when Dave pointed across the water.


Finally a bear. Yosemite Valley is known for its bears and I was looking to catch a sight of one ever since we arrived. The bear made it to the bridge but when he saw us, he continued further downstream where he crossed over. I'm positive he would have used the bridge if it wasn't for us standing on it.

Our first Yosemite bear sighting

Washington has a healthy population of black bears but most of times you see them stationed in a berry field far away from the trail. This one we saw from up close and it was active, walking around and swimming. It was a neat experience.

The evening brought pinking color to the sky as the sun set behind the curtain of smoke. The air quality in the Valley was good, I hardly could detect any smoke in the air. I was happy about it. Even though the fire did not directly threatened the trail, the smoke could easily make our hike unpleasant.

Smoky Sunset

Speaking of a hike, we were so excited, we found it hard to fall asleep that night. I'm sure the hot humid evening did not help either. We were ready for some fresh mountain air.

Tomorrow we set out for our journey and I will face one of my biggest fears.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yosemite Bound - Seattle to Lee Vining

AUGUST 1, 2014

The thought of another thru hike was lingering on our minds for quite a while. Ever since we completed the 93 miles Wonderland Loop in August of 2012 we had our hearts set on a longer, bigger adventure. We just loved being out there exploring places where your usual weekend warrior does not have the time to set foot on and experiencing the nature in more solitude then hikes closer to civilization can offer.

John Muir Trail seemed to have what we were looking for. Amazing scenery, plenty of sunshine, and its length of 211 miles (+ few extra miles to walk back to civilization from the sumit of Mt. Whitney) was a nice step up from the 9 day thru hike of Wonderland yet it was not a completely overwhelming number.

Seattle Light Rail Station

Dave was in charge of transportation. We briefly considered driving to Yosemite or Lone Pine and use local transportation to shuttle ourselves between the trailheads. The advantage would be that we could stop at interesting places along the way but after quick reality check we realized that we didn't have enough vacation time for any extra stops and quite frankly a 17-hours drive home after completing a three-week walking trip was not that alluring either. In the end we decided to take a flight from Seattle where we live to Reno, and from there hop on a bus operated by East Sierra Transit (ESTA) to Lee Vining, small town along Hwy 395 with a connection shuttle to the Yosemite Valley. Taking this way we arrived to Lee Vining in mid afternoon and since the Yosemite shuttle YARTS run only in the morning, we spent the night in this quite interesting little town.

Waiting for ESTA bus at Reno Airport

ESTA bus to Lee Vining

We chose the El Mono motel mainly because the good price and positive reviews. It was a simple accommodation but the room was cozy and clean and for a thru hiker really a luxury. We were little groggy after the hours of traveling but we summoned our energy and set out to check the town out.

Room at El Mono Motel

Lee Vining is located close to Mono Lake, large shallow saline soda lake formed more then 760,000 years ago that is known for its beautiful tufa towers. Tufa is a variety of limestone and the tufa columns are usually associated with saline lakes. The main tufa viewing area was at the other side of the lake, 8 miles out of town but the marina, which was about 2 miles away provided just as spectacular views.

Dave walking towards Mono Lake

Sunset at Mono Lake

Sunset at Mono Lake
Tomorrow we will arrive at Yosemite Valley and have our first California bear encounter.

Continue to

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eldorado, WA 6/21/14 - 6/22/14

With yet another sunny weekend we cannot not pass the temptation of Eldorado. It means getting up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be at Marblemount Ranger Station before the permits run out. It turns out our worry is unjustified, there is only one party of 2 ahead of us, plenty of permits left. Other areas like Boston Basin, or Hidden Lake Peak are quite open too. Where is everybody? Enjoying the naked bicyclists in Seattle?

 The initial creek crossing is easily accomplished on a wide log which is wet but not slippery.
From there we used several smaller logs to cross marshy areas and another smaller stream. Then, finally, we are on the unmaintained climbers route as the trailhead sign referred to it.

At first there are some blowdowns to deal with but the path gets relatively clear within the first ¼ mile or so and after that there is only an occasional tree to climb over or under.

 It is nice not to deal with snow on the boulder field but we are  not lucky to enjoy the same conditions all the way up. The snow starts at the upper reaches of the second boulder field, and it is soft and weak, and collapsing under our feet. It does not feel the best not to know if our next step is landing on solid rock or a snow bridge. It is a relatively short section though, and if the warmer
temperatures persist for few more days, it might be melted out before next weekend comes.

The glacier is in a great shape all the way to the camp, no visible crevasses along the route or nearby. We camp at the bivi site where we find a water source (decently trinkling snow melt water), it is going well in the afternoon, not so much in the morning, so filling up in the evening is advisable. The toilet is melted out and in working condition, always a good thing.

 We start towards the summit in the morning, not particularly early since we only have about 1500
feet left. We chose to use crampons but the snow is already softening on the east facing slope. Not much route finding needed, it’s quite a straightforward climb. At one spot our rope leader notices a crack which the previous kick steps crossed. We decide to avoid the area by climbing to the left.

 The top still has a cornice hanging towards us, and though there is a slight detour. Instead of
heading straight up towards the knife edge, the route leads us behind it where we found ourselves on a wide ledge, and few steps up a snow bank got us to the base of the final ridge.

The knife edge is not as melted as we were hoping for, and the upper part is much steeper than it usually is later in the season. There is a boot track all the way to the top which we follow but we do not like the approximately 60% slope and the snow condition which are not in favor of successful self arrest should we slip. We make it part way up but in the end we decided to play it safe and turn before reaching the high point.

Ruth Mountain, WA 6/7/2014 - 6/8/2014

The forecast seems promising, and I’m craving some North Cascades views. Ideas are flowing. In the end we decide for Ruth Mountain. Neither of us climbed it before, it will be good to explore new territory.

 We make a plan to camp at the summit to enjoy sunset and sunrise. We leave Seattle optimistic despite the fact the forecast downgraded from mostly sunny to partly sunny but the closer we are to the mountains, the more obvious it becomes that the partial sunshine will be hard to find. Clouds roll across the sky, cutting off the mountain tops. Summit of Ruth might not be the best place to camp after all. We stop at Glacier Ranger station and pick up the permit anyway, just in case it clears later during the day.

The approach is on an easy trail through valley where spring desperately tries to start. First flowers are appearing along the trail, snowmelt creates beautiful waterfalls. Yet the remainders of winter are still present. Large fields of avalanche debris we have to cross, weakening snow bridges that slow our progress. Overall the trail is in better shape that it was last year when we dealt with at least 15 bad snow bridges on our way to Hannegan Peak. This time the number is down to 4.

 Solid snow coverage starts just below the switchbacks to Hannegan Pass. The conditions are
good, both crampons and snowshoes remain strapped to my backpack. Heading up the steep snow covered scramble slope I opt to reach for my ice axe.

With several groups ahead of us a path is set on the traverse to Ruth arm. Once we get there we face a decision. Should we proceed to the top as planned? Or should we perhaps camp here. We’re not the only ones who try to make our mind. A group of three skiers are contemplating as well. In the end they decide to push on. With dark clouds rolling towards us, the summit does not look inviting for an overnight stay.  Thinking we might even head back to the car if weather worsens, we drop our overnight gear and head to bag the summit.

 The views are excellent. We don’t see much of Shuksan or Baker but there are many other peaks that are below the clouds, including neighboring Icy.

In the end we decide to camp on the arm. The clouds are coming and going but otherwise it’s a pleasant evening, warm and calm. We don’t regret the decision. The sky clears just before sunset. Moon rises above Ruth. We have a chance to enjoy some incredible colors.

 The morning brings more clouds. Where there was Ruth yesterday, we stare into a white void. We pack and head down. The clouds are much lower today, the rain is imminent but we make it out dry. Couple hours later we raise our glasses. Cheers to another great trip!

Rim-Tim-Rim, Grand Canyon 5/1/14 - 5/3/14

Arriving at the South Rim Backcountry office, we hope for a 3 night permit in the Grand Canyon corridor. Permits for the day are already gone. We are told to come back first thing the next morning. We won’t be able to get 3 nights but if we are there just as they open, we are guaranteed 2 nights. We can undoubtedly complete Rim to Rim in 3 days. Rim to Rim to Rim... well we will find out.

Securing our permits the next day, we prepare for our trip. The backpacks are back to being loaded with gear and food, and plenty of water as the South Kaibab trail on which we choose to descent is dry.

 Our adventure starts early in the morning of May 1st when the bus drops us off at the South Kaibab trailhead. Everybody gets off here but not everybody embarks on the same journey we have in mind for ourselves. Judging from the size of peoples packs, most of the crowd are day hikers.

The canyon appeared desolate and barren from up above but now while we are descending deep into its gut, the experience differs from the initial perspective. The flora consists of blooming cacti plants, fauna is represented by lizards. There are many of them everywhere along the trail. Green and brown, large and small, and all of them are quickly rushing out of our way.

We come across the first peek-a-boo view of Colorado River. It still seems so far below us. The trail relentlessly descends towards it on a series of switchbacks. Not a paradise for those with creaky knees.

 It’s a small celebration to get to the river. The sun is now beating on us, and the idea of chilling on
the beach brings smile to our faces. But before we can do that  we have to endure the first uphill of the day to get to the Bright Angel Creek Camp. The trail ascends on a very gentle grade which in the heat feels much steeper. Some campsites are already taken. We find one we like at the very end of the camp. There is a beautiful tree on our site full of elongated red blooms. Later we learn it is pomegranate tree. I have never seen one before, and even though somebody likely planted it here, seeing one growing freely in nature feels special.

After the camp is set, we finally have a chance to enjoy the waterfront. Swimming is prohibited in Colorado River due to strong currents but wading along the shore is fine. Afterwards we explore surrounding areas including Phantom Range where we have a drink, and later in the evening we join a ranger talk on the topics of the first explorers of Grand Canyon. When the dark falls, the ranger takes us on a scorpion hunt. We find at least three of them nearby to where we were sitting for the talk.

 The challenge that lies ahead of us the next day is a 28 mile round trip to the North Rim and back. The heat took a toll on me yesterday, I’m not feeling the strongest, and we opt for additional hour of sleep. Still I do not feel too well so we decide to take it easy and stroll only as far as we can make it. Cottonwood campground 7 miles from here on an easier terrain would make a good destination
and a decent RT of 14 miles.

We make a good time on the flatter trail and after a water stop at Cottonwood I feel strong enough to push it further. And then further, and further yet. There are waterfalls, and blooming trees in the proximity of the water source. And signs showing the layers of rock and our location. We’ve made it long ways but there are still many layers above us, and the trail starts steepening up.

Pushing through a couple miles traverse on a ledge with a sizeable drop off much closer that I care for raises my heart beat. I really do not care for this section much despite the fact the rock around us is my favorite red color and the canyon we’re ascending is truly beautiful. Soon we should get to the last water source en route and that is good because we’re running out.

 Several people confirmed at the ranger’s talk yesterday that water is running at the tunnel station but
today it’s dry. Not even a drop. It’s not good. We’re only 2.5 miles away from the North Rim, so close on a scale of the trip, yet without water 2.5 miles can stretch very far. It’s all uphill, the description talks about relentless switchbacks the last mile or so. We save our last few sips and start heading to the rim.

In the end the trail is less steep than I expected and we make good time. The water is running. There are several other trail runners atop, all of them passed us on the way up, even though some of them we kept pretty close to. They are doing the whole rim-rim-rim in one day. I consider that crazy, and not all of them look in a good shape to run another 22 miles with significant elevation gain, but everybody to their own.

 After a quick visit and few of photos, we start heading down. The North Rim is officially still closed
for the season. With none of the buildings open, there is no reason to linger. The views are along the trail, not here by the treed trailhead, and quite frankly I’m also anxious to be past the traverse.

Descending the traverse turns much easier that the image that formed in my mind. There is a section or two where I am extra careful but otherwise we zoom right through. I have particularly good energy and even jog the flatter sections.

Backpacking boots are not for jogging I learn when my feet start burning at about milepost 21. They go from all happy to all achy within minutes and upon inspection I find couple blisters formed in between my toes. The rest of the way I hobble.

 It feels extremely good to dip my feet in the cold creek rushing by our campsite but even after the
cold bath my feet remain tired and sore. Tomorrow we have to walk out. It means hiking over 9 miles, gaining more than 4000 ft of elevation. Right now I hardly can manage the few flat steps to Phantom Range where we get celebratory drinks. Yet when tomorrow comes, our feet feel rejuvenated. They do not object slipping back into the boots. We start early to beat the heat, the temperature is forecasted to reach 98 degrees. We  are among the first people on trail. The sun already basks
the upper portion of the canyon walls but for now we are hiking in the shade.

The shade does not last long. The canyon betrays us to the heat just when we start up the first series of switchbacks. Our pace slows considerably but we still pass some people. And then others pass us.

 The first of the three water station cannot come fast enough. We drink, we rest, and off we are
towards water station #2. That’s how I break the trail into smaller, more manageable pieces - water station #1, #2, #3 and then the final push towards the rim. The trail itself is not difficult. Well established path, steeper at spots but nothing I haven’t done before. It’s the heat that’s getting to me. I have never done well in heat.

At water station #3 I feel really exhausted. It’s only about 1.5 miles to the top, and some of it shaded according to the ranger we meet, but I have no desire to move from the comfort of the shaded shelter where we rest. I can imagine closing my eyes and taking a nap. It’s a tempting desire. But I fight it. I dunk my shirt into the water. It’s cold, raising goosebumps on my overheated skin. It does the trick, cooling me down instantly. I wish I used the trick earlier. Afterwards the last stretch is a breeze.

We made it happen. Rim-Rim-Rim in three days. Feeling good about that accomplishment!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Beaver Falls, Arizona 4/28/2014

We have a relatively late start, crawling from out tents around 8:00 a.m., but with less than 6 miles to cover today, that is not an issue.

Mile one is the most adventurous one. We leave camp and tread the now familiar path to Mooney Fall. From there we are on a new turf. The exploration begins as we lower ourselves into a narrow cave and descent some 20 meters enclosed by its wall. It leads us to an opening from which we can see the canyon ahead of us. It’s feels like a piece of Amazon was dropped in between the barren canyon walls, a thriving forest of jungle like trees and plants.

The next stage of our descent is aided by chains. Downclimbing is the easiest way down. The cliff is steep, vertical, but foot placements are surprisingly good and we progress much faster than expected.

When we reach the last 15 meters, the chains are replaced by ladders. The waterfall touches the bottom just few feet away, sending a large cloud of misty sprays in our direction. Its powerful roar is overwhelming.

It’s easy to follow the well trodden trail at the bottom of the canyon. It’s equally easy to get distracted by the multiple side trails leading to variety of viewpoints. The canyon is just as breathtaking as it appeared from above. The greenery is met with the saphyre flow of the river. Unique plants line the trail, many of them showcasing their blooms. There are hundreds of lizards running for their life as soon as they feel the soft vibration of our steps. Luckily we don’t come across any snakes.

2.5 miles, 3 river crossings, and several shorter scrambles later the view of Beaver Falls opens in front of us. The waterfall consists of several terraces. The pools in between them are small but deep enough for a swim. Like many others we wade through the bottom pool and scramble the canyon wall up to the higher ones. From this vantage point we see the water topple over the ledges until it becomes a river again, smoother and calmer.

Worthwhile side trip if you have the time to take it. And if you do, come early. Once the sun sets behind the canyon wall, the temperature drops significantly. It’s great for photography as then the reds really stand out but no so much for swimming.