Backpacking Yosemite High Country

I feel like a cliché, I’m sitting on a composting toilet at 10,000 feet after a 15 mile hike reading Emerson. I have thought about, read snippets and been told to read Emerson for no less than 15 years, yet it isn’t until now, high up in the back country of Yosemite that I am reading him and all I can think of is how I have never delved into Emerson before. What the hell, every single one of his essays was written for me, I’m reading Self Reliance and the thing is literally talking about me, how could it have taken so long.

Later on I am lying in my little shelter, looking up at the stars, gazing beyond the tent walls to the mountains that are literally right outside my tent and thinking about Emerson, I guess it’s kind of like Jazz, when I discovered jazz for the first time, I was sitting at a friends house and he was listening to Coltranes Giant Steps and I was blown away, I had never even considered listening to Jazz before that – yet here I was completely blown away by how everything came together – yet made no sense at all. That’s how I try to explain Jazz, it’s like throwing a bunch of beats and instruments together that make no sense, yet for some reason work. It’s not for the faint of heart and although I dabbled in trying to appreciate Jazz for years, the closest I could get was Big Band – kind of like Emerson I guess, sure I read Milton, Locke and Tocqueville – but usually school related and never to the degree of complete agreement.

Cliché or not, I was down with Emerson and as I read on with my headlamp right outside my tent, I thought about how epic my first big solo hike in the west had been so far. The west is an interesting place, I have hiked and camped all over the place, from Montana to Alaska, but rarely alone, and rarely without this nagging fear of a sudden death due to an avalanche, rock-fall or bear attack. The west is vast and scary, completely different than the rounded and inviting hills of the east, only the White Mountains of New Hampshire bode a little scariness, but nothing like that compared to the mountain of Idaho or California, until now.

I think living close to something takes away the freakishness of it a little bit, It’s like that with everything, not just wilderness. It’s like that with scary neighborhoods and terrorists too, we look at those settlers as a bunch of nuts who live next to people who want to kill them day and night, yet to them it’s everyday life, same is happening to me with big mountains and vast expanses of wilderness, it’s becoming normal to go into the woods alone for days on end and I’m slowly becoming one with the wilds.

Yosemite is the closest high country area to my house, in regular traffic, the entrance is 3 hours drive to the east, this means overcrowding of course. Yosemite is a zoo, millions of visitors a year and it’s pretty close to San Francisco and Los Angeles which means those people also hit it up pretty frequently. Luckily most people who visit Yosemite are lazy tourists who don’t even bother to leave their massive SUV’s to take a picture and just lean out the window, most of them never bother to leave Yosemite Valley either which is good for the folks who want to do more than take pictures next to signs that say Welcome to Yosemite.

If you want to spend any time in the backcountry you need a permit, trailheads have quotas and the popular one’s fill up 6 months in advance, few hearty folks will show up at the permit granting stations on the day before or of their hike and try to get a limited amount of first come first serve permits, this is what I did recently. I showed up on a Thursday morning at 7:15am at the Toulumne Meadows station to find a crowd of half asleep folks dressed in their fleece and brown socks waiting for permits. I was the only solo hiker, but I hoped they would have openings for my trailhead. My hope vanished when I overheard a group of 4 guys in front of me say they wanted the same trailhead.

Then when my turn came up, I overheard the ranger say that there was one opening for my trailhead, I felt like a hero and I was one of the few people that actually got a permit for their chosen trailhead, mine being the Lyell Canyon – John Muir Trailhead.

I got my pack together, it was heavier than I wanted, weighing over 25 pounds due to the law that bear canisters to keep your food from bears must be carried in Yosemite. Hanging your food just doesn’t work in Yosemite due to the active bear population which is known to climb into cars to get at food. Literally 10 minutes into my hike I come into this stream running through a lush meadow encircled by snow capped peaks, I’m in the zone and I’m instantly high – even though my cup of coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.

Lyell Canyon is basically a wide river valley surrounded my rocky ridges, the 20 foot wide river is perfectly clear and runs through this lush green grass on both sides, the sandy trail snakes for miles – 5.6 to be exact and it’s totally flat, which doesn’t really prepare you for the pass you must climb over if you are going to towards Vogelsang high camp. I stopped to put on tefillin and was totally grooving in davening due to the incredible scenery.

There were dozens of people on the trail, when I’m alone I tend to hike fairly fast, although I stop frequently for photos and marveling. Once I left the Lyell Canyon trail there was nobody, most of the folks who backpack at Yosemite do it with children and they don’t go too far, they camp in low spots near rivers or lakes and spend time roaming the general area, the trail I chose was the long way around to Vogelsang High Camp, which as far as I was concerned had toilets and great views, I didn’t know it was a whole complex of semi permanent tents and wealthy outdoors folks who reserve a year in advance.

I began my uphill and marveled at the views, the biggest problems with east coast hiking are the lack of switchbacks, the trails go straight up the mountains and the lack of views unless you are at the top of a mountain. Here in the west, the views are almost always present because the views are longer and the trails switchback up hills giving you longer trails but easier up hills. I have not been sweating much until now and I start dripping sweat and taking long swigs from my hydration pack that is in my backpack, I hope I don’t have to stop and filter water out of a stream because it’s a royal pain. I tend to drink a lot in general, probably 3-5 liters of water a day – which makes me pee a lot and then I get to say asher yatzar in random places which is kind of cool.

It’s still relatively early so I decide to take a detour to see Ireland Lake – a 1.5 mile jaunt each way. I only decided on this because I figured if I got into my camping area I may be bored. Unlike many backpackers, I don’t like hanging around camp sites, I like to be alone as much as possible and if need be I camp near people, luckily Yosemite has thousands of off trail hiking that makes getting a nice camp site easy. Ireland Lake isn’t as impressive as I would have liked, it’s a small snow fed lake surrounded by rock and snow, it’s very cool views make it worthwhile, but it’s cold and desolate which makes me turn around and decide to cook lunch down a bit lower and out of the wind, though into the mosquitoes which have been eating me all morning.

After a quick lunch I head into some scenery that can only be described as epic. I climb over this pass and am greeted by miles of open range, this huge lush meadow wuith two lakes which is surrounded by all types of mountains, sandy one’s, granite domes and rocky crags, spotted with snow and stunted trees. I can see the trail snaking for miles, there is one hiker off in the distance and that’s it, it may be the coolest hiking trail I’ve been on – though I say that every time I hike.

I really cannot describe all of the beauty, you have to go check out my facebook album, but I still say it was epic.

I show up Vogelsang High Camp to find this permanent complex with running water and all the luxuries you don’t want in the back country and there are kids running around in sweat pants and sandals. They have meals and food for sale and I’m kind of mad actually. I have two views, one of them being of the Edward Abbey type – the roads should all be razed and the only way to get into the woods should be under your own power, but camps like these allow folks who can’t just carry everything into the woods on their back – to experience the majesty of the high country, so I’m torn.

I do grab a cup or two of tea and a cup of coffee in the morning, but I am uncomfortable doing it and feel like a poser, even using their composting toilet bothers me. Thank God no one tried to get a cell phone signal, I may have lost it. Like most hikers I’m very anti phones, Ipods or computers in the back country. The whole point of being there is to get away from the annoyances of modern life where your attention is constantly on everything else besides yourself and those around you.

I find a camp site far away from everyone camping there and read Emerson and then wander around the area during sunset until it’s time to bed down. I was feeling very grateful to God for hooking me up with such a beautiful spot that I said tehilim for the first time in my life, I couldn’t figure what else to do, I didn’t have any seforim to learn from so I just rocked the tehilim until I got tired and went to sleep.

The next day I ended up on a day hike up Vogelsang Peak so I could see Half Dome from a different angle than from the top of Sentinel Dome and the valley view with is classic. The views were great from up there, but a bit scary getting up as the rock is nearly vertical. I davened up there and that rocked, I tried to get some good kiruv style tefilin pictures with the views, but I guess God didn’t want that because they came out crappy.

On the hike back to my car, I came to the realization that I had blisters, which meant that my boots had come to the end of their lives and I started thinking about boot style and what I should go for. I hiked with a couple of Jewish folks for a while, I only found this out by telling them that even if I was old and frail I wouldn’t spend $160 to stay at one of the high camps because I couldn’t eat anything. They said they were friendly towards dietary restrictions, but not kosher I responded. In turn they told me that they didn’t eat pork, besides for the night before when they compromised, because they were hungry. I felt bad for them, not because their Judaism wasn’t much, but because they moved from San Francisco to Gary Indiana, the only move I could think of that would be worse, would be to New Jersey, but at least New Jersey has mountains.

I got back to my car and stayed high from the hike for a long time, like days, not just a few moments of joy and ever since then I have been completely hooked on the concept of going further and further. I’m kind of set on a hike of the John Muir Trail next year, depending on where I’m living of course, though I don’t expect to ever move away from the west, I couldn’t bear the thought of moving back east ever, I can’t even bring myself to visit.