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|
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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