August 31, 2014
Traveled: Lower Cathedral Lake to Lyell Forks
“Along the river a series of beautiful glacier-meadows extend with but little interruption, from the lower end of the Valley to its head, a distance of about twelve miles, forming charming sauntering-grounds from which the glorious mountains may be enjoyed as they look down in divine serenity over the dark forests that clothe their bases. Narrow strips of pine woods cross the meadow-carpet from side to side, and it is somewhat roughened here and there by moraine boulders and dead trees brought down from the heights by snow avalanches; but for miles and miles it is so smooth and level that a hundred horsemen may ride abreast over it.”
– John Muir, The Yosemite
The night had been relentlessly cold and windy, but by the time the sun started to creep toward the horizon, the wind started to calm. I had a 16-mile day in front of me, so I had to get out of camp decently early.
Sitting on a granite boulder, eating my oatmeal and waiting for the sun to rise and warm me a bit, I watched another backpacker emerge along the lake on the shore across from us, and we waved from our granite stoop. We were surprised that we had had a neighbor that night, as we didn’t see any sign of anyone else camped on Lower Cathedral Lake.
After he passed by, I contemplated solo backpacking over the last few bites of my oatmeal. Despite the fact that I have always backpacked and hiked almost entirely solo, I had never really put much thought into it. I had never really contemplated how great it was that some people feel so inspired to walk into the wilderness alone. Some people can’t even go to dinner alone, or a movie alone, or hell – the bathroom alone. And solo backpackers still head to the mountains to escape and breathe and walk for days, and weeks, and sometimes months – no need of companionship, no concern for conversation, just wilderness. It never seems remarkable or out of the ordinary when I embark out to wander somewhere alone for a few days – yet, something about watching this fellow backpacker quietly leaving camp at sunrise and sauntering off into the day toward who-knows-where struck me, and little did I know we’d be meeting again.
I had decided before I left that every morning before leaving camp I would make the effort to do some yoga – 5 sun salutations was my goal. Caitlin gladly joined me for this little morning practice. As the sun made it’s first appearance on the peaks of the Cathedral Range, we found a nearby spot that had beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and we did some morning sun salutations. Afterwards we were ready to walk.
It was a mile back to the John Muir Trail from Lower Cathedral Lake –a climb, but once we were back on the JMT, it was an easy 2 mile downhill to Tuolumne Meadows. When we reached the junction with the road, we decided to just hop on the shuttle to get back to Caitlin’s car at the Wilderness Permit office instead of walking. On the shuttle with us was another woman backpacker. We talked to her a bit, and it turned out she had worked for Yosemite National Park for years and was in the process of finishing hiking every mile of trail in the park. She’s been hiking the trails in the park for 10 years, and she expected to be finished with all of them by next year. Totally inspiring – I can’t imagine what an intimate connection you would have with a place after exploring it so deeply. Outside of her inspiring journey, I was totally taken aback by the fact that she was wearing jeans! She was backpacking in jeans. Someone with so much backpacking and hiking experience should know better – but obviously she’s been making it work.
Once we got to the car we grabbed our stuff out of the bear boxes, and then hustled over to the store and grill to grab some fresh food. Being a vegan with a newly diagnosed with a wheat allergy (amidst a myraid of other mild random food allergies – such as peaches and string beans), I didn’t expect to find anything at the grill for breakfast, but in the store I was happy to find that they had kombucha and a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. I gladly devoured an orange, banana, ProBar and washed it down with a cold coconut water – knowing it would probably be a while before I enjoyed juicy fresh fruit and cold beverages. We then headed toward the lodge where I snuck in my last shower for the next 3 days., and I had cell service so I called Michael. Not knowing when I would have service again on the trail (there are a few random spots), it was tough to say goodbye.
I sorted my gear – trading out some dirty clothes for some clean ones, and my smaller BV450 bear canister for my larger BV500. I also left Caitlin with my lightweight North Face Thermoball jacket, and swapped it for my heavier Columbia Omni-Heat synthetic puffy jacket. My 30-degree Enlightened Equipment synthetic quilt was also swapped for my 15 degree Mountain Hardware Ultra Lamina bag. There were colder days and nights ahead, with the potential for nighttime temps to drop down to 15 at night, and there’s a potential for snow any month of the year in the Sierras – and I tend to run cold anyway. Unfortunately, all of this meant piling on some insulation weight in my pack.
The day was wearing on and I still had 12 miles to go. Eventually I shared my emotional goodbye with Caitlin as she headed back to Santa Barbara and I headed on my way. Admittedly, while saying goodbye to her it truly hit me what I was undertaking alone. I wasn’t scared or nervous – but I knew it would be hard, and I knew it would be an adventure. I had no idea what would be in store for me, and it was both exciting and daunting. She watched me walk down the trail toward Mt. Whitney, we waved one last goodbye and I was off and alone in the wilderness (well, kinda alone – I was still in Yosemite…where it’s tough to find total solitude).
And guess what? It was disgustingly hot again. So, so, hot. It wasn’t long before my umbrella was up again.
The walk through Lyell Canyon was pleasantly flat and I was able to keep a pretty quick pace. The trail here follows the Tuolumne River for 9 miles through meadows of tall grass that had gone golden as the summer has passed. The river here is quiet and glassy, and I convinced myself a few times to stop in the shade just to admire it and have a drink.
The farther down the canyon, the less people I saw. I did run into 2 other JMT hikers early on – Sarge and Pete. They were super friendly and funny, and we leap-frogged each other for the first half of the day. Sarge got a huge kick out of my umbrella and kept trying to come up with a good trail name for me inspired by my umbrella – thankfully, he never came up with one that stuck – “Umbrelica” was the best he could come up with.
The day rolled on, the meadows rolled on, and the river rolled serenely on as well. The sun fell behind the mountains hours before the sun officially set, which cooled things off quickly.
I had planned on staying at Lyell Forks Basecamp, but I ran into a guy coming down that said there were some nice spots over the bridge at Lyell Forks, so I decided to keep going. About 9 miles into the canyon, just beyond Lyell Forks Basecamp, the trail started to climb up away from the meadow, and it was a steep, steep, climb. The sun was setting fast, so I just had to keep pushing ahead as quickly as I could. The views back on the valley were incredible in the fading light.
Eventually the trail met up again with the river and I found the bridge. It had been a long, long, day. Camp was a welcome sight.
It was getting late, and I was hoping to get out of camp as quick as possible at sunrise, so I wasn’t really searching for any particularly good views. I found a nice spot just off the trail, and with easy access to the river. The pack heavy with my fresh re-supply happily came off my back, and I had my tent set up and was boiling water for dinner by the time the last light of the day was fading.
A couple was camped up a bit further along the river and came to say hi while I made dinner. This was their first backpacking trip and they were not only doing the entire JMT – but they weren’t planning on re-supplying at Reds Meadow and were carrying all of their food all the way to Muir Trail Ranch. Carrying 10 days of food on the climb out of the valley I can imagine was a miserable experience to say the least. They were traveling at a slower pace, so I figured I probably wouldn’t be seeing them much of them after that night.
As soon as I was done eating I nestled into my tent, and sent messages through my DeLorme inReach to Michael and Caitlin, letting them know I survived my first big day. 37 miles of trail behind me, 184 more to go. Tomorrow morning I would immediately start the climb up to Donohue Pass – my first big pass of the hike. The river’s soundtrack quickly put me to sleep.
That night, however, I had two interesting things happen that I’m still not quite sure what to make of….
At some point in the middle of the night I woke up out of a dead sleep to what felt like something pulling the end of my sleeping bag. It wasn’t a tug – but more like a strong, steady, pull – just as if a human was trying to pull my bag out from under me. It freaked me out a bit, and in my half-asleep foggy head all I could figure at the time was that it was an animal of some sort (though I would realize in the morning it really wasn’t possible for it to have been an animal, unless they were in the tent with me). I was so tired I quickly fell back asleep without giving it much thought. Then, at some point after I fell heavily back into sleep, something jerked my whole tent and it woke me up. – as if something tripped over one of the guylines for my tent. There were no footsteps or any noises of anything walking around my tent though (and, honestly, I did not have the guts to look out and check). Again I fell back asleep.
In the morning, and several other times on the trip, I would ponder this event. I still don’t know what to make of either things. They definitely weren’t imagined, though. The tripping on the guylines I could potentially explain away with perhaps a deer or another animal walking around my tent and actually tripping on one of the lines – though I didn’t hear any other sound of this animal (and trust me, I was wide awake and at full-alert for any noise). The sleeping bag being pulled, I’m having a tough time explaining, though. Even if I was all the way up against the wall of my tent, even an animal wouldn’t have been able to pull my bag in that way (but I wasn’t actually against the side of my tent because I could feel the bag being dragged for a small distance on the floor of the tent). I don’t know. Ghost? Maybe. Though that probably makes me sound totally crazy, so I’ll stick with “I just can’t say”.