Yosemite Backpacking

Vernal Falls RainbowHeaven is on Earth and needs no magic to be a miracle.

At the end of our week in the first place ever set aside for preservation of beauty we had seen bears, pheasants and our lives flash before our eyes. Animals, danger, peace, vertical miles, food and digital images. What else could one ask for?
Eli, Russ and Heather waiting on the bus.

Eli, Russ and Heather waiting for the free hybrid shuttle bus, anticipating a long day of hiking.

Vernal Falls wideVernal Falls. While climbing down to this view, I slipped on a moss covered rock and landed right on my ass. Any closer to the Merced River and I may have been a goner. Two weeks to the day before this shot was taken, a woman fell into this river and has not been found since. Signs asking the public for help could be seen all over the park.

Vernal Falls with hikers

The Mist Trail is the most popular trail in the park and the one that turned Heather and I into hikers. The weather on this day left much to be desired and the trail was packed. The light for photography was very low, but we had a great time taking it all in.


Close up of the torrent. Hard to believe this fall barley runs in Autumn.
Heather, Russ and Eli on the Mist Trail

Russ, Heather and Eli in front of Vernal Falls.

he brink of Vernal Falls.

The brink of Vernal Falls. This place can get crowded on weekends. Slabs of granite fall away from here periodically. Ice falls have killed people in the winter.


This pan was taken from the brink of Nevada Falls. Russ and Eli are at right.

Nevada Falls

Further up the Mist Trail is Nevada Falls which is in California. Nevada actually means ‘snow.’ You’re looking 594 feet straight down.


Russ won some cash from a poker game. We took pictures of him with his winnings so that we could show the former owner of the cash how much fun spending his money was.


Russ at the brink. Look ma, no railing.
CrewTriumphant crew at the top of the Mist Trail.
A lovely cascade literally right on the John Muir Trail.
This panorama was taken from the John Muir Trail. In it you can see Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap and Half Dome from right to left. This part of the trail features a very broad low-flow waterfall that we ran through to avoid getting soaked.
Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls from right to left.
Another view of Nevada Falls.
This place was teeming with plants growing straight out of the rocks.
This place was teeming with plants growing straight out of the rocks.
On the way to the falls we passed Bridalveil Creek. The low light enabled me to capture a little more motion in the stream than direct sun would have. I still need a neutral density filter.
Context view of Vernal and Nevada Falls from Washburn Point. From here, the Mist Trail looks as hard as it is.
Yosemite Valley panorama in HDR from Glacier Point overlook. This took a lot of post-processing and I still didn’t do it right.
Moving west to Glacier Point, the view of Half Dome gives up its profile and shows us a little of the north face (which happens to be the logo and inspiration behind The North Face clothing).
Vernal Falls from Washburn Point. When Heather and I first saw these falls from here and the associated trail with binoculars, we decided we must climb this trail, no matter the difficulty.
Nevada Falls from Washburn Point. Its impossible to take an original image from here, but that didn’t stop me.
We’re headed for the top of that thing. The hike looks much more impressive from here. The ledge at the top is called “the Diving Board.”
Half Dome looming over the valley. A ranger once said,”let’s face it, it’s charisma that we’re really talking about here. Some rocks have it and some don’t.” All I know is, I can’t get this thing out of my head. Two days before I took this image, a woman fell from the cables at half dome and slid a few hundred feet breaking her legs and wrists, most people who fall from the cables die.
Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point. A On May 26th, 2006, Evan Anderson dropped his camera over this ledge which landed on a small sandy outcrop. He leaned over the railing (or climbed over) to retrieve it and fell 1600 feet.
Lost Arrow Spire. Some crazy climbers out there will actually walk a tightrope from the spire to the cliff behind. Not me, I think they should change the name to Lost Marbles Spire.
Ferns were once the most populous species on the planet.
Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America and the sixth highest in the world (2,420 ft). The Ahwahneechee, the original inhabitants of the valley, called the waterfall “Cholock” and believed that the pool at the base was home to territorial spirits called the Poloti.
Close up of Lower Yosemite Falls.
Lower Yosemite Falls (320 ft).
I very rarely take B&W images, but the overcast day had no color to begin with.
Life will find a way. I always get inspired to see trees growing from solid rock.
Russ climbing with his winnings toward the Karate Kid Tree.
The crew waiting for the bus after a good solid day of hiking.
The dance of light, clouds and rock that happened on this evening was incredible to behold. The movement of the Sun is impossible to ignore. Never have I seen such a concert of stone and atmosphere so dynamic.
From solid and stoic to wispy and ethereal, I sat and watched the rocks convince the clouds to go to bed for the night.
The sky was cream cheese and the promontories were bagels.
Mmmmm. Bagels.
All geared up and ready to go, we gathered at the Wilderness Office to weigh our packs.
Eli : 35 pounds
Tom : 35 pounds
Heather : 27+
Russ : 47 (damn!)
Heather was carrying the largest percentage of body weight.
Just before we left for our journey, while we were packing our food in a bear resistant container, a woman on a bike road by and told us there was a bear about 100 yards from us. We overheard someone say that he must be less than a year old.
People began to crowd around the bear which sent him towards us for a few photo-ops. When a few loud hikers spooked him, for a moment, the bear ran towards me when I was probably 20 yards away. He simply turned back to the foliage he was grazing on as if I wasn’t even there. My heart was sure there, I felt it.
Heeding the signs and requests, we alerted a ranger about the siting. She told us that this particular bear hasn’t become interested in human food yet. These guys will peel back the doors of an SUV like it was a banana if they even see something in your car that looks like food. They have been known to go after backpacks just because they’d found food in them in the past.
Four backpackers finally dry at the trailhead, ready to rock. Eli, yours truly, Heather and Russ from left to right. Half Dome, our ultimate destination looms behind us.

DSC08920_resizeRuss with his pack and his winnings, calling it like Babe Ruth.

The sign marking the start of the Panorama Trail, aptly named. We came to find that the sign’s mileage did not agree with our GPS when we rolled into Little Yosemite Valley on the first night.DSC08934_resizeDSC08937_resize

My lovely wife and a fine backpacker, Heather, waiting patiently for my image-snapping ass to catch up. Somebody’s got to do it. This pan was taken at the beginning of our backpack just after leaving Glacier Point – Half Dome here we come. It was fantastic being able to see our entire route laid out before us, our work cut out for us in stone.

6.7.09.PanoramaTrailPan01_resizeDSC08961_2_3_4_5_resizeIllilouette Falls and Panorama Point from the one of the first switchbacks. You may be able to see the trail just above the falls, hugging the rim of the canyon.

Perfect weather had finally come on the first day of our backpacking trip.

Heather hauling in the big guns. Soon after I took this, we sat down for a nifty break. We try to rest 10 minutes of every hour for stamina. As we snacked, I zipped of the bottoms of my nifty convertible hiking pants, attempting to cool off. We continued down to Illilouette Falls about 1.4. miles down the trail. There was a nifty bridge, so we decided to lunch early. This is when I realized I had left my pant legs on the trail more than a mile away. Nifty. Add 2+ miles roundtrip to my odometer.DSC08968_resize
DSC08961_2_3_4_5_resizeIllilouette Falls (379ft). Yet another of the countless nameless cascades and waterfalls we saw on the trip. This one ran directly over the trail. DSC08986_4_5_resize6.7.09.PanoramaTrailPan02_resizeDSC08987_8_9_resizeLetharia Vulpina or Wolf Lichen grows over many pines in Southern California at high elevations. The Vulpinic Acid inside gives the lichen its color and is also poisonous to most mammals except for mice or rabbits. It gets its name from its historic use: poisoning wolves. Eli and I looking over Panorama Point. Photo by HeatherIMG_6990Eli peering over the edge at Panorama Point. This was scary and served to raise our heart rate far higher than the exercise. A blast of cool air hit your face the moment you passed the rim. Exhilarating, to say the least.DSC09027_resize
DSC09052_3_4_5_resizeTwo trees taking in the view of Yosemite Falls, miles away. More Wolf Lichen. DSC09082_0_1_resize
DSC09105_6_7_resizeAfter a fire. Deer sitings became a commonplace occurrence. We would simply stop talking and observe, trying not to inconvenience them. We felt like guests. DSC09121_resize
DSC09122_4_resizeOur camp in Little Yosemite Valley. It was very comfortable sparsely populated and it had bear boxes, nearby water and composting toilets (no digging). There were many logs for tables and seating space for taking a load off. Great campsite. We were thrilled to be here.
From here, we would make a bid for Half Dome the next morning – some call it the most dangerous hike in America. This was the short path to our water source, Sunrise Creek. Remind me to write a strongly worded letter to the makers of my water purifier that worked 10% of the time. At least it was a beautiful setting in which to attempt to sterilize water. DSC09283_4_resize
DSC09125_resizeAfter a breakfast of oatmeal and generic Tang, we were primed for our ascent. Believe it or not, warm Tang/Orange Drink is amazing, I’m a believer. You may be able to make out the cable route with 20 tiny hikers in this image. There is a stripe of white granite descending from left to right worn smooth by decades of hikers. This is really the only accurate portrayal of the angle of this climb. When you’re in front of it, it looks daunting but do-able. From here, the route looks insane.
Weather is critical on this hike. Rangers will tell you to turn back if there are clouds in the sky. So far so good. Nothing but fear in our way now.DSC09129_30_31CropThis pan was taken at the beginning of our backpack just after leaving Glacier Point – Half Dome here we come. It was fantastic being able to see our entire route laid out before us, our work cut out for us in stone.
DSC09156_7_8_resizeApproaching “The Shoulder” or “Sub-Dome,” we could see people on top of Half Dome and the Diving Board. You might be able to see an intrepid hiker on the far right, peering over the edge.
Clouds were beginning to gather.
Cloud’s Rest on the left with clouds galore on the right. Damn it. At this point, I told the group that I was going to keep heading up the trail, but I’d be ready turn around at the first sign of rain or lightning. I’m not sure if there was agreement, but we all continued on.
The clear sky pitcher was losing his touch. The opposing team’s manager, sensing my apprehension, sent in a closer, dark and looming. Adrenaline was on deck and ready to bat. I told Heather and the guys that this was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I was stepping up to the plate, even though there are signs that instruct you to turn back if there are storms ANYWHERE on the horizon.
The pitcher’s mound was about 3 miles away.DSC09199_200_201_resize
DSC09214_5_6_resizeThe cables from Sub-Dome. Crowded. These steel cables and 2×4’s allow you to go a a place that California’s leading geologist Josiah Whitney pronounced “perfectly inaccessible” and described it as “the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been and never will be trodden by the human foot.”

This path can be like rush-hour traffic at times with over an hour wait to even get on the cables. This can cause fatigue and fear in the climbers and some say adds greatly to the danger. Three people died here in three separate incidents in 2007, onlookers helpless and frightened. The cables and granite here were wet each time.
Thunder. Damn it. Every moment that passes, I become more stupid and stupider. I kept telling myself I’d just turn around at the first sign of rain or lightning. More thunder. I am so stupid now. Heather has decided to sit the cables out. I press on. Stupid. Thunder cracks.
At the base of the cables a gentleman was nice enough to advise me to use his rubber palmed gloves, stating that anything else wasn’t going to cut it. A traditional pile of gloves lie at the base of the cables.
Amongst more thunder, I reached out and grabbed the cables in both hands.DSC09208_09_10_resize
DSC09221_resizeThis is the only image I took from the cables that’s suitable. This is a testament to my state of mind at the time. I told myself I was going to take a ton of shots, but my hands were too busy saving my life.
On, I went.
Exhausted, nervous and thrilled beyond belief, we reached the top of the cables. I turned to Eli and told him the safest bet was to call this the summit and rest our legs and arms sufficiently before our descent.
We were just a few relatively flat yards from the true summit.DSC09234_resize
DSC09231_2_3_resizeAt that moment, we saw a lightning bolt strike the ground. Counting the seconds, we heard an amazing thunder crack and figured the bolt struck about 3 miles away where the rain in this image is (later I found out that your supposed to divide by five to get distance in miles).

You’ve never seen two guys descending cables so fast in your life. We must’ve looked like firemen. Tired and afraid of resting, we hauled our asses down the cables with as much haste as we could balance with safety.
Then….about halfway down….
It began to rain. Shit. Fuck. Damn it. I could see little darkening spots of water on the 2X4’s and granite or granodiorite to be precise, I thought (why am I thinking about that when I’m going to grano-die-alright). My rubber gloves began to lose traction.
My entire life meant nothing and this moment was all that mattered. I have to admit, I stood for a moment on that rock in silence and made a choice to live. There was a point where I had to talk myself down those cables. My brand new hiking shoes were now slipping on the 45+ degree slope. My hands were now slipping on the steel cables. “My perfect gloves, my perfect shoes and my death grip on the cables might not be enough to keep me on this rock,” I thought. Fuck this. I’m getting down from here.
Eli was ahead of me and began to give me progress reports which helped a lot. “Shit”, some asshole in basketball shoes slips into me. The next thing I remember is throwing those gloves hard down into the rotting pile, scanning the sub-dome for my wife. And the rest of my life.
This little guy was hovering over the cables the whole time, watching all of us and our silly steel life-lines, chuckling to himself.DSC09236_7_8_resize
DSC09239_resizeI’m alive, I’m alive. I’m alive. Heather and Russ were waiting at a place they affectionately nicknamed “the Crying Tree.” I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive. We came down those switchbacks like the Brady Bunch kids on Thanksgiving Dinner. Finally, there were trees and mountain above us and we ceased to be fleshy lightning rods who like to climb mountains in thunderstorms and call themselves human.

Four days later, while descending the cables in the rain, a man slid and fell from the cables, hit a ledge 200 feet down where he died and fell another 1800 feet.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/outposts/2009/06/in-wake-of-half-dome-tragedy-should-cables-come-down-.html Further down the spiral, we stopped for another break. Here you can see how afraid deer in these parts are of hikers. DSC09241_resize
DSC09267_resize I’m surprised this guy stuck around with the sound of heart still beating through my chest. I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive. Look, deer. I was inextricably drawn to this stump. DSC09281_0_resize
DSC09291_resizeThe next morning, it was time to get out of there and get to that Dinner Buffet in the valley. The Merced River waved goodbye and spared us the mosquitoes today, almost as if to say,” you got sooo lucky up there.” DSC09293_4_5_resizeDSC09298_resizeA neat formation.
I have no idea what these are.DSC09299_300_301_resize
DSC09345_6_7_8_9_resizeVernal Falls. We hiked out of our way to get to this spot that Heather and I found on our honeymoon. This is definitely one of my favorite views ever.
6.9.09.HeatherVernalFallJMTPan01_resizeHeather taking shots of Vernal Falls from above Clark Point. Vernal Falls with hikers for scale.DSC09366_67_68_69_70_71_resize
DSC09415_6_7_8_9_resize Triumphant, we returned to the valley floor, richer for the experience and glad to be alive. Man, that buffet was amazing.Russ said he just wanted to eat something that he hadn’t carried for 3 days. Heather later noted that none of us made eye contact for 10 minutes. Mmmmm. I’m alive.

Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls from Tunnelview. This is usually the first view that people see when coming into the South entrance of the park. Tired and ready for our own beds, this was the last view we had of the park before the drive home.
There were a few photographers there. Miles of focal length. Outgunned, we slipped away and ended what was the best outdoor experience I’ve ever had.


2 thoughts on “Yosemite Backpacking

  1. A great aray of pictures! That was a good trip, even if the weather was not the best all the time. Several years ago,Liam and I left the parking lot at 2:00 PM and walked to the bottom of the cables, did not have time to go up the cables and headed back to the pickup, arrving back at the pickup at 10:20 PM. Quite a hike! I want to go back and do it again! Only over a 2 day time frame instead of an afternoon! Ha!

    Thank you for the pictures and narative!

    Bill McGregor

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