Sep 6, 2014

Day 3: Tuolumne backpacker's camp

It's nearly six. I never sleep this late. I'm a little sore, but rested. Best of all I don't feel any effects from the altitude.

I slip on the clammy clothes and climb out. The morning is brisk and bright. There are tranquil reflections in the lake. Time has shifted. The work-a-day obligations forgotten. The day of the week extraneous.

Sunrise Lake at Sunrise

Duane is stirring over in his tarp tent. Time to boil breakfast, stuff the ditty bags, compress the sleeping bag, deflate the NeoAir and restuff the Mariposa. But there's no hurry. No big climbs today. Just an easy 11 JMT miles over a well traveled part of Yosemite to Tuolumne Meadows. Tonight I eat at the Grill. I can almost taste the burgers and fries.

Our day begins with a modest ascent over the northern shoulder of Sunset Mountain. The tread is decomposed granite. It is like trudging up hill through beach sand. I rapidly work up the day's first sweat.

We descend eastward down a set of trenched switch backs and land in the Sunrise Backpacker's Camp. A dozen hikers are breaking camp. Sunrise has deluxe accommodations: a tap that delivers potable water and a statuesque pit toilette sitting atop a pinth of local rock. I pull in for a pit stop. In the days ahead, we will only be able to imagine such luxury.

We scamper down onto Long Meadow where we rejoin the JMT. The dought has reduced the meadow to bare sand and parched grasses. Just ahead, the Sunrise High Sierra Camp sits atop a ganite ledge 20 feet above the Meadow. Cozy clouds of blue smoke rise from the wood stoves in the tent cabins. The smells of sizzling bacon and maple syrup waft from the dinning room. I am salivating. What must the bears think? How strong the temptation must be. Imagine if they were protected by the second amendment. What extremes might they use?

Parched Long Meadow
We pass below a couple of Starbucks-sipping, grey beards who are perched on boulder with their legs are dangling like a pair of teenagers.

"Never seen it like this," says one.

"Another dry winter and the park will be a tenderbox," says the other.

On the bright side, the weather is great.

Columbia Finger. Tresidder Peak in distance

Long Meadow seems to stretch on endlessly. We are no longer alone. There's a group a few hundred yards up ahead, a group a few hundred yards behind and another group a few hundred yards behind them. It's like a migration without the Conestogas. No doubt all JMTers.

Eventually we approach the north end of the Long Meadow and the ascent to Cathedral Pass. Columbia Finger comes into view. Then Echo Peaks.

Echo Peaks

I hear a soft clucking. Not 5 feet off the trail, a pair of Blue Grouse are pecking for beetles among the rocks. We stop. One give us an irritated look and then just keep pecking. One by one, other hikers stop and admire. If these Blue Grouse were wit smarter, would put out a busker's hat and collect trail mix.

Blue Grouse
As we push up to Cathedral Pass, the traffic increases. Within a matter of minutes, three solos blast past. Their ears are stuffed with ear buds; their heads down. I cannot fathom their purpose. They could be listening to the wind or the rattle of the leaves or try to gaze on the immense exposed granite as a sign of earth's time and space. I want to take away their ear buds. I want to tell them there's more to life than miles per day.

Duane meets Kiwi
Up ahead Duane is stopped by four lady hikers from Cleveland. They are old friends and new to the Sierras. It's an exuberant group on their first leg of a High Sierra Camp Loop. They want to know the name of Echo and Tresidder peaks. They want to know where than can go swimming. They plan a side trip to Cloud's Rest on the way to May Lake.

"Ya'll seem so energized," I say.

"We've got a secret. Dried kiwis," says one of the ladies. "Have one." She gives each of us a dried kiwi. "All natural," she says.

I take a couple bites. It's slightly sour, but within minutes I'm ready to jump out of my shoes. The rest of the trip over Catheral Pass was so easy, I wanted to do it again.

View from Cathedral Pass.  Cathedral Peak in foreground. Mount Conness in distance

We decide to take a lunch at Upper Cathedral lake. We cross a meadow to the shore over one of the many trampled footpaths that crisscross the fragile terrain. We find a nice soft spot in the dirt by the lake. I indulge in the usual menu of Justin almond butter extruded on a tortilla, trail mix and beef jerky. It all seems tasteless. Lunch is sort; we both feel the pull of Tuolumne.

Upper Cathedral Lake

The switchbacks that descend from the Pass are dusty and beat to hell. We pass a group of hikers every of every few minutes. Families with infants, little kids, teenagers and grand parents. Octogenarians going slow. Young couples in difficult conversations. Brown skinned. Black skinned. Women wearing hijabs, Asians in groups of 20. We pass one solo on crutches. People stop us. They want to know if are hiking the JMT. It is annoying. I will never again pester PCT hiker in the San Gabriels.

Tuolumne Meadows
We reach Tuolumne in the mid afternoon. We skip the loop around the Meadow and work our way up the feeder trail to the campground. Since I have stayed here many times, I take point for the first time. We enter the campground from the west, and I promptly have us marching over the same stretch of road past the horse camp to the group camp. Duane masterfully conceals his impatience and redeems the situation with his iPhone. In less time than it takes to boil water with an alcohol stove at this elevation, we've claim a primo spot along the back perimeter of the backpackers camp.

We dump our packs and walk over to the Lambert Dome bear vaults to claim our first resupply bucket. To my immense satisfaction. It's just as I left it. Back at camp we wash clothes in Duane's Bearikade then hang them out as decoration to dry on the surrounding branches. Duane decides to take a nap. I walk over to the store and purchase a new spork. Everything is falling in place.

The day cools. The shadows lengthen. We walk over to the Grill for dinner. There's a line of smelly hikers. I eagerly order a double burger, fries and Diet Coke. We carry our food out to the picnic tables by the gas station. We take the last available seats at one one end of a table. At the other end, a very tanned fellow with a scruffy beard wearing a faded-red T with the sleeves cut off is perched on an adjoining table. He has the undivided of attention of a half-dozen hikers. He speaks with sweeping gestures and points with a long neck beer for emphasis.

"Sure it was supposed to snow, but we do snow. Besides hiking that col is easier on snow than humping the talus. Anyway how bad can it snow? It's May, right?!"

Several nod in understanding.

"We got a late start. We don't reach Ediza Lake till mid afternoon. We had crossed the Snow Bowl and were up on Owen's Chute when, just like that, it was a total frickin' whiteout. We couldn't see 2 feet. No way we can make it back down. We were going to spend the night right there on Owen's Chute. We set the tent on some icy ground and crawled in our bags. Then the motherfucking wind came up. It was unbelievably 'frickin' cold. I've never been so cold. I thought for sure we were going to freeze to death. Man, it was a blast."

Most take his story as good cheer. I have an instant dislike. It unsettles me. I can't connect the pieces. Why do they do it? Is life so empty that you must cheat death to really live? I don't like the reminder. I want wave it away, but what about the climbers; thru hikers or endurance athletes who live by the same standards. Is this guy warped or fuller person? I am not sure.

After dinner, I hike atop Lambert Dome to watch the sun disappear in the west and think about hiking my hike because that's the one I can.

Campsite: Toulumne Backpacker's Camp: 8,640 feet
Elevation: +1,420, -2,050
Today: 11.5 mi
Total trip: 29.4