On Day 2, we were on the move for the most challenging hike of the whole trip.
We left the backpackers’ camp and drove about 40 minutes to Ten Lakes Trailhead. This trailhead was at a lower elevation — 7600 feet — than where we’d spent the night at Tuolomne Meadows. (I would have been grateful if I could have told the difference.) I dumped a few more things in the car that I wouldn’t need over the next couple of days, excluding my snacks, of course. Ounces add up.
Our guides gave a quick demonstration on how to use trekking poles. (I didn’t have any.) One of them, Tyler, adjusted my backpack since this would be my first foray with it fully loaded. They told us the trail would gradually climb, and the last two miles would be the most difficult. So with that bit of dread nestled at the forefront of my mind, I saddled up my 40 pounds and stepped out with the rest of the crew.
Photo credit: Paul Tetreault
It didn’t take me long to feel the burn. I was sucking water through the tube of my water bladder like crazy. We took our first break at a point where the climb seemed to have plateaued (if you could call it that). Since I was in the group bringing up the rear, the others were chilling on boulders waiting for us, backpacks off and snacking. We couldn’t rest as long as the pacesetters, but I was still happy to get that pack off my back.
This was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life! The trail was a little rocky and uneven so I was usually looking down so I wouldn’t stumble. But, the beauty of the backcountry could not be denied and I fell further behind to take photos…and, of course, catch my breath. My thighs were burning, too.
Once, when I stopped to catch my breath, Tyler, the guide at the rear, blew his cheeks out and said “Whew!” like he was winded, too. He claimed he was out of shape because he’d been leading hikes in the Southwest and wasn’t used to Yosemite’s altitude. I told him I’d thought I was better conditioned than I turned out to be. Tyler said that if it took me only 40 seconds or less to catch my breath then the problem might be the altitude, not my conditioning. That made me feel a little better. Yes, let’s blame it on the altitude (or the bad night’s sleep).
We stopped for lunch in a pretty grove. By then, I was referring to the backpack as “The Hellbeast.” (My technique for ridding my back of it was to find a boulder of the right height, leverage it, and shrug it off. Relief!) We ate the lunches we’d packed early that morning. That seemed ages ago. I wolfed down the sandwich and slugged more water.
I don’t think it was the altitude that caused my leg to cramp, though. Tyler gave me an electrolyte pill to put in my water bottle. A trail mate gave me his set of trekking poles. Thankfully, we earned another rest and snacks. After the next stage of the hike, we emerged in this meadow. I was wowed at first sight.
I’d heard about alpine meadows, but it was just a phrase I knew with no mental image to associate with it. This was Half Moon Meadow. There, I saw purple and yellow wildflowers in a field of grasses at over 8,000 feet elevation. The trail through the meadow was narrow. Our guides told us to stay on the trail so we wouldn’t trample the fragile wildflowers.
Tyler and the other guide, Izzy, switched places. She came to the rear and he went to the front. Then I saw what kind of pace Tyler could really set. Ha! When I caught up with him later, I told him he’d been sandbagging me and that, evidently, I’d held him back. He said: “No, I was walking with you.” That was a brilliant response!
If I’d thought the first part of the trip was tough, the part I’d dreaded had arrived. I knew it when the trail became rockier and steeper. My butt now joined my thighs in feeling the burn. I stopped about every 10 steps to catch my breath. I’d exhort myself with, “C’mon, Kim. C’mon girl.” I gamely moved on, only to have to stop a few steps later. Fluid was flying off my face and out my nose. I don’t know if this was normal for this level of exertion, but I let go of all grace and desperately swiped my face — nose and all — with my sleeve. Whatever…I was in the backcountry and I hadn’t packed Kleenex.
As the switchbacks began, I asked Izzy, “Where is the top?” It probably came out as a whine. She said, “See that blue up there? That’s where we’re heading.” The blue was far distant and about the size of a pennant flag. The switchbacks were narrow, steep, and rocky. I was stopping to catch my breath, especially when I found shade. I hefted one leg up at a time onto the large rocks, and was thankful for having great balance. At least that physical attribute didn’t fail me.
I had started the hike with three liters of water. But, with fluid flying out and off my body, I sure didn’t need to pee. From time to time, I’d lift my head to check progress. The pennant flag became sky, and there was more and more of it. Thank God.
We reached the top — more or less — and it was certainly the end of switchback hell. We had a respite of somewhat flat terrain. Our last leg was about 20 minutes downhill to our campsite.
For the rest of the weekend, I couldn’t believe what I’d done. This was the toughest day of the whole trip. Seven miles going uphill! And I made it! We all made it!
After we set up our base camp, our guides felt we had not had enough. They led us on a short hike to Lower Grant Lake — elevation about 9300 feet — for swimming and chilling. More wow….
Stay tuned for Part 4 and the hike to the Ten Lakes…and what it means to “leave no trace.”