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 2012,10

In which we climb very high
The Tuolumne consolation prize was the Thursday day hike. After sizing up the several trips Em had targeted had we stayed there, we chose hiking to Cathedral Lakes along a portion of the John Muir Trail. This was a little closer than some of the others, and if we finished in time, it left the option of a short meadow hike to the Soda Spring to wrap up the day.

Last trip, I estimated the distance from Housekeeping Camp to Tuolumne at 60 miles, working from the map, after the fact. Pretty close: it was 57 miles to the John Muir trailhead. By California standards that isn't much of a trip, until you consider that the two points are about a dozen miles apart in a direct line. It's also an altitude gain of 4500 feet to the trailhead. People can and do follow the Muir Trail from Yosemite to Tuolumne, a trek of 20 miles or so, usually done in two days. Traveling on a Thursday, we had little traffic, except getting stuck behind a slow tour bus whose driver seemed unnerved by the climb into Tuolumne. We  expected little trailhead activity, but we were wrong. Between the cars of people already in the high country, day hikers, and people going to the high country, parking was already at a premium by 10:30.

Orientation to altitude starts at 4000 feet or so. Altitude sickness begins about 8000 feet. Anyone, and especially those of us with dubious hearts, has to be cautious above that altitude. Three or four days above 4000 feet does make one used to the experience. It does feel different: you can taste the air. But tasting is one thing, and hiking in thinner air is another.

The Muir Trail rises from the Meadows in stages, and the first shows no mercy. Nearly the first mile is vigourously steep. Like the first piece of the Pohono, it's very much like an Eastern trail: steep and rocky.  More of the damn dirty dust and the switchbacks give it away as a Sierra trail: so do the thin air and the mule dung.

Just at the point when effete Easterners are about ready to lie down and die, the trail flattens out and begins to meander across the landscape. This wooded trail, however, lies under the shoulder of Cathedral Peak, the 11,000-ish foot mountain that gives its name to the range we're climbing, and to the lakes we're aiming for.

A glance at the topo map was enough to dispel any thought that this middle stretch was as bad as it would get. After its woodland meanderings, the trail begins a longer and more challenging series of switchbacks. One of course dodges horse and mule scats. Presumably that was only a sign of normal equine behaviour, and not a hint that the animals were scared shitless by the climb. Nevertheless, there were a few sections that were quite enough to manage on two feet, and must present uncommon challenges on four.

Trees grow at quite a high altitude in the Sierras, at least certain parts of them. Although we were surrounded by peaks clearly above the treeline, we never parted company with woods great and small. There's also a culture shock in the Sierra for those of us whose idea of high-altitude landscapes is formed by places like the White Mountains. In the latter, altitudes over 5000 feet (and 3000 feet above the base) are often home to arctic microclimates carpeted with flowers and dwarfed, but fully mature trees. Here, it's rock and desert-like landscape. When the switchbacks ended and the trees at last grew small, we walked out into just such a thing, an arid, dusty landscape sloping slowly to our new record high: 9560 feet, according to the topo map.

What goes up must come down, and down one must go to visit Lower Cathedral Lake, which sits at 9288 feet.  The descent drops the trail back into the high-country woods, and the trail resumes its east-coast characteristics of boulder and ledge.

 The lake is so pretty that anyone who hasn't been there may be forgiven for thinking that views of it have been Photoshopped. It amused me to note that the lake surface is exactly 3000 feet higher than the summit of Mount Washington.

The lake is in a glacial cirque, and once one leaves the woods, 200-300 metres from the shore, it is almost all ledge. The steep slopes typical of cirques, which resemble amphitheatre seating, surround it South and West. The warm months are hot, even at these altitudes. On our September visit it must have been over 80 when we reached the lake. Even though the water is seldom much above freezing (says Em, who has tried it) there were a few intrepid backcountry hikers trying a dip. Of course, such folk may have been several days away from anything to wash in, and willing to take a swim in anything. Mount Washington, lower but poised at the confluence of most North American weather systems, has a rocky summit. But you can count its sunny days in the 80s on your fingers and toes, and it can experience blizzard conditions any month of the year. In the Sierra, hikers usually have a pretty good idea when snow is coming. While snow in the second week of September isn't unheard of here, most backpackers would expect something like fair warning.


Cathedral Peak with photographer
The permanent ground resident of the Cathedral Lakes region is the marmot, the western relation of the eastern woodchuck (groundhog). On Em's last visit, she said, they were colossal pests, trying to cadge handouts of trail mix from unsuspecting hikers. They in hiding during our visit, perhaps because there were a few too many people about (the hardest thing to find in Yosemite can be solitude), but they left plenty of scat as calling cards.


As I mentioned before, I'd been nursing my camper's sniffles for a couple of days, and evidently was starting to share them with the family. Whether from that or altitude sickness, Em and I were not doing famously on the trip down. Any headache that gets into the temporal branch of my left trigeminal nerve is likely to invite a TN breakthrough, so I was on the alert. Past experience has shown me that climbing is a really really bad place to try taking my stronger meds. At the best of times they induce vertigo and disorientation. At the worst, they reduce one's sense of caution to the vanishing point. Climbing down steep switchbacks is not the place to experiment with human-powered flight. It's much better to suck it up until the ground is relatively flat.

Probably due to descending backpackers, the trip down was a good deal busier than the one up. Although solitude is a scarce commodity, we had bits of it going up, and less of it coming down.

When we got back to the trailhead, we found we were an hour or more ahead of schedule. This permitted us to throw on another 1.5 mile round trip, out into the Meadows to the Soda Spring site, whose trailhead was a mile or so up the road. This was sightseeing, and an excuse to crank up the daily total to nine-ish miles.

By the time we started this hike, I had taken a Klonopin to contain the neuro trouble. I can be an entertaining companion at such times. With trekking poles, it was easy to overcome the vertigo, and there was nothing special in the way of danger on the one-mile trek. However, I got it into my head that this was some kind of Sierra analog to European religious shrines, and kept asking questions to that effect. Eventually Em rewarded me with a look of "shut up, dad," and I did shut up.

Although the Meadows are as flat as anything gets in this part of the world, they are surrounded entirely by Sierra views. This was Muir's favourite campsite, and it's easy to see why.

Even Em was unfamiliar with the springs' companion on this trip, Parsons Lodge. This began life as headquarters of the Sierra Club. Now owned by the park, it's an activity centre. Along with its remarkable architecture, it has numerous resources for the curious, including a vast contour map of the region, the sort of thing guaranteed to attract the attention of map geeks like me. In a region with many stone buildings, Parsons Lodge stands out for its simple dignity.

After visiting the Lodge wee went over to the Soda Springs. While we didn't have to approach on our knees, one did have to kneel or crouch to try the water. Um, better to look at than to drink: think of rust-flavoured seltzer and you've pretty much got it. It wasn't the worst natural soda water I've ever tasted (that was in Saratoga, NY, and really nasty), but by tasting it I completed my Yosemite baptismal rites.

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California, 2012, 8

 In which we dodge deer and follow the road not taken

We designated Tuesday as a chill day, remaining mostly in Yosemite Valley and doing this and that.

Doing this, we bridged a gap that exists in most mountain camping areas, where there are two types of occupant. Hikers (as we'll call them generically) are there to pursue their particular activity, whether it is hiking, bouldering or rock climbing. The campground is a place to eat, sleep and shower. Campers are there primarily to chillax, commune with nature (or fellow campers), cook, eat, etc.

We did get up early for a low-speed Valley hike, heading generally for Yosemite Falls and perhaps El Capitan Meadow. This was the first noticeably cool morning, and I awoke with sniffles. No, nothing like hanta. All my life camping, save only the last Yosemite trip, I've either caught a cold or found that the conditions awakened one. In this case, having inhaled a few pounds of trail dust probably contributed. The family also informed me for the second night that I had snored. Great start.


Apart from the squirrels, ravens, and the Steller's jays (lovely to look at, with raucous calls), the first wildlife we saw was a fly fisherman in the Merced River. Again, there was no sign of bears, but before we had reached Yosemite Village the first deer popped up, almost underfoot.

Last time, Em said the deer around Yosemite Village must be on the park payroll, because they showed up when visitors did and had absolutely no fear of them. The NPS playbook enjoins visitors to stay 50 metres away from deer and other large animals, and 100 away from bears. The payroll deer haven't read the playbook. For the most part, they aren't mooching. They're just grazing, often mere feet away from people, and it can be they who close the distance. The bucks we saw were younger ones, but they had all of them scraped the fuzzy "velvet" off their antlers and looked ready for the rut. The onus was on us to try to open some distance between us and them, to achieve the official distance, and without actually running it was a full-time preocccupation. We watched one family group closely for a time. The buck and doe were small ("teenage parents," said Em), and they had a pair of fawns who looked a bit small for the time of year.

Nearby, other deer decided to cross the road. I haven't seen a bear do this, but Em has seen plenty of deer in the road at Yosemite. Their fearlessness, unfortunately, extends to motor vehicles. Most, she said, don't spring across cautiously, as road-wary deer often do in the Northeast. No, Yosemite deer saunter, stroll, amble across the road. At this hour, with a bit of valley fog, and a lot of delivery traffic, this seemed little short of suicidal.

The one disappointment in Yosemite in September is that most of the legendary waterfalls typically have shut down for the year. Last time, Bridalveil Falls, Nevada and Mist Falls were still photogenic, but Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls were reduced to trickles. This year, after a winter nearly as open as New England's, the Yosemite Falls were just gone. The attraction had been renamed Yosemite Walls by the locals. "You shoulda been here last year," they all said. Em had been. In the high country, the winter of 2010-2011 didn't end until July, and all the Valley falls, which are entirely snow-fed, kept going through the entire year.  We consoled ourselves with another breakfast at the Yosemite Inn.

By this time my game leg was a bit gamer, stiff and bleeding again, so we split up. I took the bus back to the camp, thinking a dip in the river would be therapeutic. The remaining family units took off for El Cap Meadow to look for rock climbing activity (to which we'll return shortly). Em said she'd have a look at the wound when they came back.

Therapeutic was just the term for a very quick dip in the Merced, which was approaching winter temperature. It did some good for the stiff muscles, and I went back to the camp to rest and repair my broken pants with tent tape. When the troops returned, Em had a look at the injury, which had become somewhat infected: no surprise considering the dust. She washed it, applied more antibiotic, and bandaged it.

Between the treatment and the freezing river, I felt ready for anything. Up to this point, we had all resorted to the usual hiker's shower: you walk in in whatever you've been wearing, and carrying a change of clothes. Then, shower and hand wash the clothes simultaneously, and change into clean stuff. All our gear is quick-dry, especially so in the Valley's dry heat; but all of it was somewhat short of clean. This was bothering Christine, who decided  to stay in camp and  run an actual load of laundry. She also remained stiff from yesterday's fall. Em and I launched ourselves up CA41 to set about finding the Old Wawona Road.

Driver Sam's story, confirmed elsewhere, was that improvements to the Wawona Road (CA41) in the early 1930s had left this stretch of the old road abandoned in the woods. He claimed that one could find remains of Model Ts etc. that had gone off the road still rusting away beside it. There was also the assertion of a number of photographers that Ansel Adams could not have taken his signature views of Yosemite Valley from today's Tunnel View. He had to have been somewhere else, and that somewhere was along the old road. There's all that, and the appeal of exploring an unofficial trail that few visitors know about.

It's 2.6-ish miles from the Tunnel View trailhead to Inspiration Point, the first well-known viewpoint going eastbound on the Pohono Trail. The Pohono crosses the Old Wawona Road about halfway up, with very little fanfare.

Nobody even pretends that this stretch of the Pohono is flat, or easy, or moderate. It is difficult. The measured climb all the way to Inspiration Point is over 2000 feet in those 2.6-ish miles. Bostonians might imagine the stairs up from the Red Line's Porter Square Station (some 200 steps) going on for over a mile and a quarter. It's tight switchbacks all the way, and it has something most Yosemite trails don't have: a lot of ledge and large boulders. Eastern climbers should feel right at home here, with climbs that come very close to scrambling.

Because we didn't know exactly what we were looking for, we timed our climb carefully. Just when impatience was getting the better of us, there it was. One rusty sign gave the mileage to Bridalveil Falls, but there was nothing indicating that a trail existed. Having a choice between up or down, we tried down. Somewhere is the vicinity was a rumoured view called Artist Point. Whether that was on the Old Road or not, and whether it was uphill or down, were matters for conjecture.

This is not a maintained Yosemite trail. It is paved, but the paving is authentic. The Wawona Road was among the first paved roads in California. As a hiking trail, it's practically an avenue, but the idea of actually driving anything on it is a bit scary.

In this picture, to the left is nothing but a rocky drop-off. To the right is ledge. There were no rusty wrecks visible.

We went on for about a half-mile. The trees began to open up and, presently, we were pretty confident we had found Artist Point. It would be hard to imagine anything better. Well, there's Inspiration Point, but everybody does that.

There were recent footprints showing that we weren't the first recent visitors. The attraction was obvious:

Here, the road looked even scarier, taken as a road. The real estate around Artist Point resembles that in a period photograph of a stagecoach descending into Yosemite by the Wawona Road.


Those were the days when tourists had hair on their chests and probably lost ten pounds through sheer fear on the descent.

It was tempting to explore more of the road, either down to Bridalveil or up to where it peters out near the southern end of the Wawona Tunnel. But time pressed again. We had tickets for an evening presentation,  Yosemite Search and Rescue, and were working against a culinary obstacle.

Soon after we arrived, Em discovered a serious equipment malfunction. She hadn't packed the tube that connects the propane tank to the two-burner stove. She thought, and realised it wasn't even in Berkeley, but probably still stored in Bakersfield. After three unsuccessful attempts to get a replacement, we accepted that our cooking would be done on a one-burner backpacking stove and the open fire. This wasn't impossible, but required both time and planning to get a proper bed of coals to supplement the noble efforts of the backpacker stove. If we meant to eat before the presentation, it was time to head back.

After years in an organisation devoted to boating safety, I love it when safety shows like this begin with "how not to do it" clips. The most dangerous element in Yosemite is water, so it was natural that the opening clips began with people in danger in white water. We saw video of three incidents, one fatal.

The presenter, John Dill, an experienced SAR person with NPS, introduced basic rescue techniques, then moved to the most sophisticated rescues, those involving rock climbers. These make the media noise and get lots of attention, but it became clear that they are often enhanced by the skill of those being rescued. Most, though not all,  high-altitude Yosemite rock climbers have national or international skill levels. They know what they do is extremely dangerous. The best of them are active participants in their rescue so far as their situation permits. On one extreme is a party stranded by broken equipment, who need only fresh gear to get themselves off the mountain. On the other would be one example he presented, of an international climber who sustained multiple fractures, including a skull fracture, in a fall halfway up El Capitan. One audience member asked why NPS doesn't regulate rock climbers. The answer is much the same as everywhere in wild country. Doing so creates a subtle shift in liability. The park does require permits to climb Half Dome, expressly to limit traffic over the scary "cables" section. How they do that and stay on the safe side of the liability question I don't know. In any case, the example at hand showed that bad things can happen to the best-prepared people.

People who climb El Capitan don't make the trip in one day, as we knew. They spend their nights hanging in cocoon-like shelters that are (hopefully) well-secured to the cliff face. The video and slides showed us why we'd never seen climbers with the naked eye on El Cap. The eye doesn't comprehend the scale of so enormous a piece of granite. One needs powerful binoculars just to detect motion. To see in detail demands a 20x or greater telescope on a tripod. If you're well-equipped for amateur astronomy, you can probably see climbers on El Capitan.

Back to our injured climber. Members of the party had gotten pictures of what was going on at the injury scene, included in the show. The injured climber bled through the night. Em said it was a wonder the man hadn't simply bled out and died during the course of a rescue effort that lasted over 24 hours. He did survive and recover, airlifted off by a chopper hovering only feet from the face of El Cap. Other, less prepared and less skilful parties have not been so lucky.

SAR efforts in the National Parks are at taxpayer expense. By contrast some states, New Hampshire for example, can and do fine or bill hikers in need of rescue who are found to have been reckless or negligent. However, the National Parks' free ride ends at the door of the ambulance, medflight helicopter or even the Valley clinic. It is about 70 miles to the nearest acute care facility from Yosemite Valley, and your medflight helicopter ride, Dill said, currently costs around $50,000. Better be sure of your health insurance before trying your climbing skills.

Of course, Em and I were fascinated by the rescues and clinical details. Christine may have closed her eyes for the nastier parts, since she doesn't do well with the sight of blood, and there was plenty.

We hopped the bus back to Housekeeping Camp, remembering our former bear adventure. Considering the crowd on the bus (packed, young and rowdy), I think we would have done better with the bears.

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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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Monday, October 15, 2012

California, 2012, 6

In which we meet Joe Btlspflk, a fool, and a very large bear

Hiking gives one appetite and thirst. Energy bars and trail mix, when chosen wisely, deal with the hunger. Water at close to body heat satisfies the inner engine's requirements, but it does build up a psychological desire for something really cold. As usual with us, there were no bears, no deer for a change, but we had the company of a very stubborn raven at lunch.

I'm convinced that Dewey Point isn't named for an individual, but from the universal question among hikers there. "Do we go on from here, or turn around and head back?" Motivation initially overruled legs and we set off for the next promontory west, Crocker Point. This added two mile round trip would give us a first day's hike of ten-ish miles and bragging rights pertaining thereto.

The motivation didn't last more than halfway. Realism said we needed some energy for the next several day's hikes. Em looked like she wanted to send for his and hers walkers for us.

We had not gone long on the return trip before we began talking about the next stages of our plans. At this point, I thought I'd prevailed, at least with Em, and that evidence-based decision making would rule. At this point Em piped up to say, "Oh, I thought you understood. The latest hantavirus case was at Tuolumne Meadows." Tuolumne Meadows was where we meant to spend the second half of the trip.

People who know my wife well call her determined when she is on their side of an issue, and stubborn otherwise. At this moment she became stubborn. Just how stubborn? Try to envision a person simultaneously hiking forward and digging her heels in. I had pledged at the start of this trip to observe majority rule and to avoid being a grouch as much as possible. It took only a few minutes of conversation to show me I was in the minority. I acquired two concessions. First, that the majority would do all it could to get facts from someone in authority before writing off Tuolumne, rather than relying solely upon news stories meant to gin up numbers.* Second, that if we did stay with the squirrels at Housekeeping Camps, we'd leave a day early to have a little time for San Francisco.

I was still grouchy, and felt I'd been had. So that my ill temper wouldn't show too much, instead of swapping positions as we had done coming up, I took permanent last place, where the dust cloud would obscure the Joe Btlspflk** cloud over my head. I felt then, and still do, that my last chance at staying in the high country had come and gone because of panic over a half-million to one risk.

By the time we reached the car, hunger, thirst and an urgent need for a privy helped to distract attention from my mood. We drove down to the nearest john, then headed for the camp, when something happened that distracted all of us.

Em came around a slight curve and jammed on the brakes. In front of us were stacked up half a dozen cars, all over the road, with doors open and people outside. "Accident?" I said aloud. Em pointed into the woods across the road: "No, a bear. And look!"

I have seen few live bears, only one in the wild on the last trip, but I have seen several dead, and I can't recall seeing a bigger black bear than this one. It was very lean, or I would have put it above 350 pounds. As it was, call it 275-300 pounds: cocoa coloured. And there was also a man; presumably the driver of one of the cars ahead. He was stepping through the brush directly toward the bear with a camera to his face.

I was always told this about bears: when they stand up and roar, they don't want to fight you. They want you to be scared and get lost. It usually works. When they don't stand up is when they mean business, and you want to act like Bigfoot whilst backing slowly away, and things end up with both you and the bear backing away.

This bear did not stand up (bad sign #1), and this bear was not backing away (bad sign #2). He (I say he from the size) was trying to move off to the man's side, shaking his head (bad sign #3). Even from some distance off, I could see his shoulder muscles flexing (bad sign #4). This was no Yogi Bear: this was a high country bear in a very bad mood.

So then, here's Camera-Boy, already no more than 30 feet away from a very uncooperative bear. What does he do? He goes closer, still with a face full of camera. When the bear started sidling around him, giving (to me) a convincing demonstration of a very pissed-off bear, the idiot cut the bear off. They were now about 20 feet apart. Had the bear turned on the fool then, nothing short of a high-power rifle already aimed could have spared the man from a severe mauling, at least: a bear can leap 20 feet in a second.

We then had one of those "time slows down" moments: I don't know for sure how long the standoff lasted. At the end, I guess, the blowdowns and the underbrush made the man pause, pause just long enough for the bear to break away. He still didn't run; just kept up his sidling until he was able to disappear. The motorists, with the surly reluctance of a crowd breaking up after a car wreck, began to get back in their cars, and enough of them moved out to break up the bear jam. When we got going, I think Camera-Boy was still in the woods, looking for the bear.

Last trip, and this one, I've seen people pull potentially dangerous stunts with deer (more on this later). On farms, they can be similarly stupid around livestock. This was an act of the most incredible, willful stupidity, the most brazen I've ever seen. In those slow-mo moments of the standoff, one felt as if one chance thing, or one still more stupid act, would set the whole tragedy in motion, a tragedy in which the bystanders could have done almost nothing for the victim. One chance, one second, one tick of the clock: life, death, or mutilation. The bear looked unhealthy, and I'm glad it got away. But I'd consider mauling Camera-Boy, or any of the other jackasses who left their cars to be spectators.

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* Late news. My skepticism was justified, as I would have found had we brought a laptop. An NPS bulletin that went online a couple of days later said that the latest case was tied only to one of four High Sierras Camps, including Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. And it wasn't a fatality. It was a case so mild that the patient didn't realise he had it until the media hype led him to his physician, by which time it was about over.  But we're all panicking about fungal meningitis now, so who cares?

**You'll have to click the link to see Joe. The Al Capp people are very anal about their intellectual property rights, although that seems like an odd term to apply to L'il Abner.

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California, 2012, 5

In which we march around in the hot damn dirty dust at 7000 feet (line courtesy of  Michael Shaara's novel Gettysburg, which has a apt accompanying line. "It's them first few thousand miles. After that, a man gets limber to his feet.")

To begin the hike programme, we went to the original hiking day 2 plan, skipping the acclimatizing valley hike. This was to take the Glacier Point Road about 2/3 of the way up, hike to McGurk Meadow, then to Dewey Point, and there review our next move.

The ostensible appeal of the route is that it offered what the hiking guidebooks called a "flat" hike at moderately high altitude (in the 7000 foot range). They got the high altitude part right. However, let's
refer back to the chief discovery of the last trip, about the truthiness of flattiness. Once off the valley floors, there is no such thing as "flat."

We began down the trail to McGurk, down as in downhill. Em turned to me and said "have you noticed how we're going?" I replied, "Yes. We're going into a fool's paradise."

This was my first visit to McGurk Meadow. Unfortunately, in September most of its renowned wild alpine flowers had gone by, though there remained a few smaller specimens visible in the grass.

 It was also my first look at Mr McGurk's famous mountain shelter. Low it was, and looked exceptionally breezy, although I suppose in its time the cabin had the chinks between the logs filled with mud and vegetation. There is an urban legend that the McGurk cabin had inspired Tolkien's vision of hobbit houses. Pity there's no evidence that Tolkien was ever in California before the publication of either The Hobbit or the Ring trilogy. Nor does it match any of the narrative descriptions of hobbit architecture.It looks like what it was: a sheepherder's shelter.

As one leaves the Meadow, the true nature of the trail reveals itself. It goes up, then down; up a little more, then down a little. It throws in a lot of up and a lot of down for variety. And, this month, everything past the Meadow was the hot damn dirty dust. During our visit, this part of Yosemite had not had appreciable rainfall in two months. In dry conditions, as we knew, the dust here is incredibly tenacious. Even three people hiking in line churn up an awful lot of it. One coughs, one wheezes, one sips water constantly from dust-covered water bladders and bottles. But still, one begins to experience the dread companion of Sierra hikers: black boogers.

One lesson I've picked up from the various hiking guides I've been reading when I haven't been able to hike is that everybody who hikes, complains. Most hikers would no more think of hiking without bitching than they would of hiking without boots. The dust was inevitable in September, so there was nothing for it but to sneeze black, swear, and keep on hiking.

For me, the last trip was darkened by poorly-fitting boots (last time I buy boots online.)  This trip was to be the final test of my professionally fitted boots, lined with an additional arsenal of foot orthotics.
One of the gadgets was clearly not working out, so I stopped, removed it, and went on. There were no foot problems for the rest of the trip.

Last time in Yosemite, we'd discovered that the most important unit of measurement on Yosemite trails is the ish (aka the appx.). The official round trip to Dewey Point from the McGurk trailhead is, for example, eight-ish miles. For a variety of reasons, disclosed shortly, we covered more like nine-ish miles. One could find trail estimates varying a mile either way of the official distance. It all depends on what you wanted for bragging rights, I guess.

At 1.9-ish miles from the trailhead, the Meadows trail meets the Pohono Trail, the main drag along the top of the south escarpment, running from Glacier Point to Tunnel View, a round trip of 16-ish miles. This is somewhat less than halfway to Dewey Point, and we turned west toward Dewey.

The signs below illustrate what ish means. The one on the left is at the trail junction, and says 2.0-ish miles to Dewey Point. The one on the right is about 200 steps down that trail, but it's still  2.0 miles. Welcome to the twilight zone.

Considering that we were in Yosemite, with its 4 million annual visitors, and the temperature was pushing 90 F, there was very light traffic. That was one reason we'd chosen September, of course, but one couldn't help thinking that hantaphobia was also keeping the numbers down. By the way, although descriptions of the route to Dewey Point via McGurk said "flat," there was no such unanimity about the Pohono Trail. Some sources consider it flat, others moderate. Note that the last three letters of its name spell "o no."

I'm with the moderates on this one, because this is where the steep ups and downs become a bit wearing. The topography made me glad we'd favoured greater Boston's Blue Hills Reservation for our local training. This stretch resembles that reservation's Skyline Trail, minus two-thirds of the rocks. The Blue Hills haven't been as dusty in recorded history, and they are of course over a mile closer to sea level. Both these things make a difference, especially when you're an easterner on your first day hike of the trip. But that training kept us from saying "are we there yet?" except in jest.

As on most Yosemite outlooks, there are no guardrails or nannies at Dewey Point. It's a reasonable assumption that anyone who has completed four or more miles of "flat" hiking, or rock-climbed 3500 vertical feet, to reach these places will have enough brains to stay away from the drop back down those 3500 feet. So it proved the day we were there. Nevertheless, the transition is sudden. Before you come close to the edge, the dusty trail gives way to ledge, making the last 200-300 metres quite toasty at 90, with no apparent humidity. Then, the drop is there. Having now tried Sentinel, Taft and Dewey Points, I incline to the last. It's near the mid-point of the valley, and it's panoramas...well I hate to use that would, cliched as it's become, but this visual experience is what panorama means.

Anywhere along the south summit you have, in addition to Yosemite itself, the jumble of the Sierra Nevada rolling off into the distance, to peaks you can't name high and indistinct at the horizon.
I'd suppose there's more traffic at the height of the season, but I don't see Dewey Point becoming Bridalveil Falls. They can't drive buses there.

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California, 2012, 4

 In which we climb a long way in a hurry, and meet the rodents

When you approach Yosemite via CA 140, as we did last time, the transition from plain to mountain is gradual, lasting many miles. Not so on 120. At Oakdale, the highway takes the first of a couple of incomprehensible right angle turns, lining itself up with the approaches, seemingly. A few miles on comes the second turn, and suddenly the land starts to climb. You cross a narrow arm of a large reservoir, Lake San Pedro, with its odd flotilla of houseboats, and then....

The road climbs over 2000 feet in five miles over a series of the hairiest switchbacks to grace anything called a state highway anywhere. It is two slim lanes, without guardrails, save in a couple of spectacularly suicidal spots. The other side is almost all ledge, save one bay ominously occupied by an auto junkyard.

Before the climb began, we'd passed through the curiously-named hamlet of Chinese Camp. That
name is the first sign you're passing through the worm hole. You reach the top of the switchbacks at Priest, an even more unimpressive wide spot in the road. Here the road that mirrored 120 across the gulch connects: it's called Old Priest Grade. It is even clearer here that some time shift has occurred, and no historic sign even commemorated the Old Priest.

A short way along 120 come the first signs of something called Big Oak Flat, which in theory is a place of consequence. (Anything of consequence in these parts has the word "Flat" in its name, which gives an idea of the topography.) Here the built environment elides quickly from 1940s roadside ruins to stone and frame buildings showing signs of much older origins,

A mile or two down the highway is Groveland, which turns out to be civically united with Big Oak Flat. Here the highway narrows to a slender street lined with false front buildings both frame and stone. Groveland is the metropolis of Big Oak Flat, whose chief claim to fame is the Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be California's oldest. The place began in the 1849 gold rush as Savage's Diggings. It became known as Garrotte after that, in honour of its many hangings. Later in the 19th century more sensitive residents renamed the place Groveland, evidently hoping to appear civilised in the eyes of the world. (Apparently they forgot to rename another hamlet in the township, which is still on the map as Second Garrotte.)

Going into Yosemite to the south, via CA 140, you pass through Mariposa, which also tries on the mining camp thing, but Mariposa is larger, more self-conscious and more self-referential. Perhaps because it's been the epicentre of several booms, from gold mining to tourism, Oak Flat-Groveland looks and feels more like the real thing.

After Groveland, the road passes through a succession of ponderosa forests and pastures, a landscape that looks lifted from the vintage TV series Bonanza. There were miles of this, the pasture gradually disappearing and the ponderosas closing in, and the altitude climbing.  Then we were at the Yosemite entrance gate. Em and I had prearranged that we'd use her season pass instead of my lifetime pass, but mine was ready in case she had mislaid hers: not needed. Before we pulled away, the ranger handed us our information packet: including the one on hantavirus.

How much better it would have been if NPS had led with this matter-of-fact material, and stayed with it. Instead, somewhere along the line, they lost control of the story, and any PR grunt can tell you it's all over then. As we soon confirmed, things had already reached the point where few NPS employees, and fewer employees of the services contractor, Delaware North, had any idea what was really going on. This was to cast a long shadow very soon. My spouse, as panic-mistress in chief, glanced at the sheet (her motion sickness precluded close reading). She pulled out the latex gloves, the bleach-based cleaners and the surgical masks with which she had provided us, and began to plan her assault on our shelter.

At Crane Flat, CA 120 turns east toward Tuolumne Meadows, Tioga Pass and the eastern slope of the Sierras. Oak Flat Road continues toward Yosemite Valley. We were now all on familiar ground.

One reason films and photos don't convey the reality of Yosemite is they must show only a small slice of time. Much of the park's wonder is that it's changing all the time. Slopes that were forested during our last visit were burnt over now, and others that had been barren two years ago were covered in new growth. The Valley has scores of rockslides a year (one happened later in the week we were there), leaving fresh scars and altering trails.


Still, the big stuff stays in place. Approaching by the Oak Flat Road, one is descending into the valley, which gives a different perspective than CA 140, which ascends the Merced River valley into Yosemite. It's a different flavour of oohs and ahhs.

Big state, California. What looks on the map like
a little trot over from the Bay to Yosemite is close to 300 miles. As a result, dusk was slipping over the ridges by the time we pulled up to the entrance to Housekeeping Camp, again our home away from home. It was decorated with a sight rare in Yosemite: a "Vacancy" sign.

The funky Housekeeping Camp is one of the few Yosemite venues not implicated in the hantavirus media panic: and why? First, we were told, the critical interaction between the carrier deer mice and humans requires enclosed spaces, usually living spaces. Housekeeping Camp shelters aren't exactly enclosed. Second, there need to be circumstances in which unusually large numbers of deer mice can thrive. The Sierra's  mild winter allowed the large numbers of deer mice to thrive, but other small mammals throve too.

Like the California ground squirrel. We in the east are used to squirrels living in trees, but the California ground squirrel is more likely to live under them. They are very similar in appearance to Eastern grey squirrels, and like them are very adaptable. With critters their own size and smaller, it seems they can be very aggressive, driving competitors out of the niche: competitors like deer mice.

Housekeeping Camp is crawling with ground squirrels. Local opinion had it that Housekeeping Camp had had no hantavirus problems because the squirrels had driven off the mice, or had slaughtered them before they could move in.

Our shelter was close to the Merced River, as planned. The kid population of the camp (speaking of pests) was greatly reduced, thanks to school being open, And it soon appeared that a large community of squirrels was living underneath our shelter slab.

When we unpacked, out came the gloves, the masks, the bleach pads, the bleach spray and the strong lights. Nothing would do except that we examine every nook and cranny. Having grown up in the company of meeces, I was the resident authority on the question of "is this mouse poop?" I answered, repeatedly, "no. Mouse poop looks exactly like a black grain of rice." At last I found some piece of dust or whatever that remotely resembled a mouse poop, and let the cleaning crew have at it. (One may read that the best policy where hanta is concerned is to leave well enough alone. You're welcome to try to convince my wife of that.) By the time she declared the shelter and bear box disinfected and safe to receive food, the last fragments of daylight were disappearing. Em drove down to the HQ and returned with pillows, bed linens and firewood. We were at last able to cook, eat supper and sit by the fire ring for a few minutes before an unwontedly late bedtime, as camping things go.

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