Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

California, 2012, 7

In which we ride up to Glacier Point, take a different way down, and meet the dark side of Yosemite hiking

The fringe benefit of taking the hiker's bus to Glacier Point is getting up early to walk over for a hiker's breakfast in the Yosemite Inn food court. Recalling the parlous state of the privies at the point, we took more than usual care to visit the necessaries here, and caught our bus with minimal waiting.

Sam, our driver, filled in several blanks in our knowledge and pointed out a trail seldom taken (more on that later). Two years ago CA 41, which is the route south from the Valley, was under heavy construction. Yesterday we'd noticed that the job looked about finished. Actually, Sam said, they were doing it again. Seems they had made a hash of the surfacing and had to do most of it over. Once again, these things don't just happen in Massachusetts.

We seemed to get stuck at odd places and times on this trip. This time, Christine actually had a souvenir shopping mission, and that had to include the shop at Glacier Point. Then there were the essential tourist photos, looking to make sure Half Dome was still there, and joining the queue at the privies. By the time we got going it was nearly noon.

Last visit, I commented on the brilliance of the NPS decision to locate water closet toilet facilities at Glacier Point, nearly 2000 feet above the water table. They didn't work, of course, and they're still not working. This kind of spoils my argument that NPS is good at fixing self-inflicted injuries.

This time we were going down the Four Mile Trail. Once--say 130 years ago--it really was four miles long. Over the years since, voluntary routing changes for hiker safety and involuntary ones caused by rockslides have made it 4.8 miles long: ish. Some sources, including trusty driver Sam, say five miles or more. Whatever: it's longer than it used to be.

It's a trail with an oddly bad reputation, even with people who like it. One online reviewer, speaking just of the trip up, called the trail "three hours on a Stairmaster." That is excessive: your gym never had such scenery.

The more vigourous sort, like Em, hike it up and down in a day. It's wiser, past a certain age, to choose one half and depend on the bus for going down or up.  One can buy a ticket down at the summit, assuming there's room on the bus, usually the case off-season. In summer, forget it: you'd best reserve your seat and then hike up against the deadline, or ride up to hike down, knowing you'll have to get down on your own feet.

No hiking trail is really easier going down, and rescuers will tell you there are twice as many accidents among people going downhill as up. Down is a little easier from an oxygenation point of view, but is has its own demands. There is a pernicious idea that "anyone can do" the downhill haul, usually spread by uber-fit hikers.

Stone's Day Hikes in Yosemite National Park doesn't join the disparaging chorus. It notes, correctly,that there are two distinct personalities to the Four Mile Trail. From the top to Union Point, about halfway down, it's a relatively easy descent (barring the dust) through Jeffrey pine, then into the Ponderosas, with a succession of Valley views not possible from anywhere else. Most people can do the trail this far, assuming they have enough water and decent footwear.

We noticed, as we had last trip, that random sections of the trail were blacktopped. Two days later we got the story. I had supposed this paving was some WPA relic, and I was startled to learn that the paving had been done in the early 1970s, for reasons which everyone was happy to forget. It had to have been a brutally difficult job in the first place, laying asphalt in Yosemite's bake-oven summers, and flattening it out with (presumably) small power rollers. But the blacktop went down directly on top of boulders and ledge, no subsurface preparation. The pavements had begun to fail in the first season. Soon after, NPS philosophy had changed from armour-plating nature in order to coddle visitors, to limiting visitors to what nature permitted. The blacktop surfaces were allowed to decay naturally (or as naturally as a petrochemical can) and that has created a new problem.

I've mentioned Yosemite's fine and persistent dust. On trails like this, it lies on top of the old asphalt, making a walking surface something like a bowling alley. When the dust slides over the blacktop, whatever is atop the dust slides with it. Hold that thought for a bit.

Blacktop and dust notwithstanding, we had a very pleasant hike down to the first set of switchbacks, which are just above Union Point. We weren't out to set any sort of time standard but between the easy grade, the shade, and the relatively light traffic, we made very good time. The switchbacks, like all such things in the Western mountains, were originally designed for horses and mules. They aren't remarkably steep, but there are an awful lot of them.

We hadn't gone far past Union Point, and were well into the switchbacks, when we came upon two older men who had been climbing up. I say "older," but they were probably no more than 70. At a glance, they looked like a pair who had been sucked into the "anyone can do it" propaganda. Both wore ordinary running-type shoes and street clothes. They had no day packs, and each had a pint bottle of water. (We carried 10 litres among the three of us and felt that was a bit sketchy.) One man was leaning over the other with a look of concern. As we came up, this man asked if we had anything sweet with us. We did, and produced some trail mix liberally dosed with M and Ms and a chocolate energy bar from our day packs.

At this moment Em stopped being a hiker for a couple of minutes and became a clinician. She determined that the badly-off man was diabetic and feared that his blood sugar was falling. She asked a couple of further questions about his ability to go on and whether he needed some help. They said they were OK to go on with the added sweets.  We started off again, but I could see from Em's face that she was far from satisfied with the situation. Although we were getting into the hairier parts of the switchbacks, we stepped up the pace as much as was safe, and every conversation turned around to wondering how the two men were doing.

Every state and national park shares a common problem. The mere fact of being on holiday turns even intelligent people into simpletons. Visitors to such places expect to be taken care of.  Men in particular think they can act out their macho fantasies, regardless of their age and conditioning. And if something goes wrong, someone will rescue them. In addition, people with far more hiking experience and in much better condition are quick to go on the Internet and say this trail or that is so easy that your great-grandma can do it. And then your great-grandma tries it.

Consider the numbers. The Four Mile Trail is, as I said above, something like five miles long. Its vertical gain is a whopping 3200 feet over that distance. The lower half of the trail is rated between moderate and strenuous: say moderate down, strenuous up. The Valley trailhead is 4000 feet above sea level. Anyone can do it, provided they are in at least average condition, have some experience hiking, three or four litres of water each, food, a first aid kit, a compass and a map. These two gentlemen had none of the above.

Rockslide path.
For a while, though, we had our own preoccupations. After Union Point, the trail map turns into a series of squiggles, and so does the trail. It is here that the combination of blacktop ruins underneath and dust on top becomes rather tricksy. The more so in that these switchbacks traverse ledges which are steep and none too stable. You're thoughtfully reminded of this here and there by rockslide warning signs.

Dust and blacktop...nice.

The switchbacks also advanced from challenging to just plain ridiculous, like this:

Christine, who is usually found surging out in front, began to flag as we hopped down these things. She was also the first to fall: nothing dramatic, just an old-fashioned sitz. We had a pause to make sure everything was still working. It was, although she admitted that various leg muscles weren't following orders.

After that, we descended into the woods, a relief after the sun and dust. Some of the references warn of mosquitoes down here, but that wasn't going to happen in these toasty dry conditions. The trail surface was still dust and blacktop, though, and I was the next one to fall. Em said it was almost graceful: I sank to one knee between my trekking poles, sliding down the pavement in a sort of dry-land Telemark.

The first thing I noticed was that my pants were ripped: my favourite hiking pants. Em saw the rip and said "better have a look under that." I rolled up my pant leg and, sure enough, there was a matching rip on my leg. There was no good place to do first aid, so we went on, leaky leg and all.

But the fun wasn't over. At the bottom of the next switchback we met two women about our age, puffing a little and trying to hurry up the trail. They stopped for a minute and asked if we had seen two men whose description matched the pair we had seen earlier. These were the spouses, hurrying up with more sweet stuff. We asked about water. "Oh, we have plenty of water," one said, and they held up a pint bottle each before hurrying on.

With four ill-prepared people up the trail, Em had had enough. She reached for her phone and found she'd left it behind. Incredibly, it was Dad who had a phone, but there was no signal where we were. Em took my phone and went ahead to find some place with a signal (Yosemite cell phone reception is sketchy at best). "Went ahead" is an understatement. We knew we were hiking well below the offspring's capacity; this was confirmed when she trotted down the trail.

The old folks soldiered on, and after a few minutes Em came trotting back. She'd managed to call the Delaware North office at Housekeeping Camp, which connected her to the Rangers, who were looking into it. That was about all us civilians could do. Having heard nothing to the contrary, we suppose there was a happy ending.

All the hurrying brought us to the bottom in under three hours. Em and Mom opted to walk another mile or so back to Housekeeping Camp. Since I was bleeding with every step, I opted to wait for the bus. That turned out to be about even, time-wise. The Four Mile trailhead is on the secondary El Capitan bus loop, running twice an hour. Comparing notes with a couple of other people at the trailhead, it appeared we had arrived just after the last bus left, so we had to wait the full half-hour for the bus. I used the time to wash out the leg wound with drinking water and a little hand sanitizer. After getting off the bus (one connection necessary), I caught up with the family units just outside our shelter.

Last time, we found out that there are two staples at Housekeeping Camp: ice and firewood. Em and I went off to the Yosemite Village store (more of a supermarket) to get those essentials, some other supplies, large bandages, and we continued Mom's search for souvenirs by proxy. My wife, while uninjured by her fall, admitted to uncommonly sore leg muscles, and begged off to spend time in the campground shower.

Naturally, there were deer near the village. In the morning, driver Sam commented that Yosemite has more injuries from encounters with deer than from any other animal contact. Most of these are self-inflicted, by the rafts of visitors who get visions of Bambi whenever they see a deer. Sam noted that the rut was just beginning in the Valley, and the hazards would be greater than usual.

For those unfamiliar with the lives of deer, the rut is the mating season. The bucks sharpen their antlers on brush and saplings. They strut around the woods and meadows, dripping with testosterone, ready to fight anything that moves and then make sexual conquests.

At least the deer do this for just a few weeks a year.

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