A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 4)

I learned four things while on my adventure: 1) I loved it!; 2) hygiene is sort of overrated;  3)  how to “leave no trace”; and 4)how to sleep in the wilderness.

First (and most important):  This was a great experience! I want to do it again. I want to learn orienteering and how to cook in the wilderness. Yosemite park rangers say that only about 10% of the park’s visitors ever go up into the wilderness. Most visitors drive through, use the park shuttles, or take a  bus tour. I realized how lucky I was to see the back country, hard as it was to get there.

One day, we hiked to Ten Lakes (for which our trail was named). Fortunately, we used our daypacks instead of the backpacks. We only had to carry a portion of the camp lunch, our water, and personal snacks. Along the way, I’d forgotten that the last (and easiest) 20 minutes of our first day’s hike was downhill into the base camp. To leave base camp, we had to hike uphill. Those first 20 minutes kicked my ass, even with the lighter daypack. But, this experience was worth it!

We emerged in this alpine meadow.

10-lakes-hike-meadow-yosemite

The trail is very narrow for the least human impact as possible. Staying on the trail was essential to avoid damaging very fragile wildflowers.

mountains-meadow-lukens-yosemitealpine-lily

From far above, you can see one of the Ten Lakes  — the bit of blue in the distance.  The Ten Lakes are named by number, and I don’t know which one this was. Our guide, Tyler, told us we were headed “down there.” That far down meant a steep climb back up.

lake-below-yosemite

On the way, we found moments to look over the treeline at the mountains on the other side, in awe and meditation.

dont-jump-tyler-copy-yosemite

When the glaciers pushed through they left landscape elements like this.

boulder-perched-on-rock-yosemite

One huge rock surface was incredibly smooth like a granite kitchen counter. Izzy led us in yoga.

rei-yoga-by-the-ten-lakes-yosemiteyoga-on-the-rock-yosemite

We also rested on that rock.

spreadeagled-on-the-rock-yosemite

We made our way down the mountain to the lakes. We passed Boy Scouts and families with very young children. Wow, they sure started young (not in their 50s, like me).  As the saying goes: ‘There’s no time like the present.’

coming-down-the-trail-to-the-lake-yosemitecoming-down-to-ten-lakes-yosemite

Another well-earned rest stop and hydration break.

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We followed the trail across a little stream.

stream-crossing-yosemite

Our guides, Tyler and Izzy, gave us a wonderful lunch — a variety of meats, cheeses, gluten-free crackers, dried fruits, and guacamole made on-the-spot when we reached one of the lakes. We hung out there for awhile. I took in the peace of the scene. Others swam in the lake.

thoughtful-kimten-lakes-1-yosemite

And we took a group photo.

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Climbing back to the top wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Tyler set a slower, meditative pace.

Second:  Norovirus could be a problem for campers who don’t apply a basic level of hygiene when using the “facili-trees.” And norovirus spreads very easily. For me, hand sanitizer plus wet wipes provided that minimal level of hygiene. Hand sanitizer alone would just wet up and move dirt around on my hands. But, otherwise, I became indifferent about dirt.

“Washing dishes” after the meal was a minimally effective effort undertaken like an assembly line. We used a common scrubber to remove food remnants from dishes; then wiped off our dishes in cold water, in which bits of food had come off other plates; and then moved on to another vessel to dunk dishes in a sanitizing solution — bleach, maybe? — and, finally, hung them in a net bag to dry. The plates passed the wilderness standard of being clean enough. As long as I was eating from my own plate, I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was more focused on filling my plate with the good meals our guides prepared.

Third:  Our backpacking guides taught us the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace.” There are no garbage barrels with bear locks in the wilderness. There are no flushing toilets. You set up camp at minimally-prepared designated sites. You don’t pee (No. 1)  or move bowels (No. 2)  just anywhere. “Leave no trace” requires thoughtfulness and technique. It’s how we help minimize human impact and keep parkland pristine, even as we enjoy it.

Because friends asked me about this quite a bit, this is how you do No. 2 in the wilderness:

  1. Find your “spot.” You will need some privacy cover. While boulders may work for No. 1, they don’t for No. 2 because you’ll probably hit rock when you try to dig a hole. A wide enough tree located away from the trail and a water source will provide the best cover.
  2. Use a trowel to dig a 6×6-inch hole and scoop the dirt out. (Our camp trowel was usually on a stump by the campfire, along with hand sanitizer.)
  3. Squat and aim for the hole.
  4. Wipe yourself. I had a roll of camper toilet paper. The used paper went into a sealable black plastic baggie. I used a wet wipe for extra hygiene. Into the baggie it also went, until I could dump it all in a garbage bin at the end of our adventure. Leave no trace!
  5. Take a stick — not the trowel! — and scoot the waste that missed the hole into the hole. Bury it with the scooped-out dirt.
  6. Plant the stick vertically in the hole to mark the spot so no one else thinks they’ve found their spot. Ew.

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Honestly, this beat the hell out of a stinking port-a-potty. (After the adventure, I found this 3rd edition book on this subject. Didn’t I just sum it up in six easy steps?)

Fourth:  I finally mastered how to get a good night’s sleep by my last night at Yosemite. Each night, I zipped myself inside the tent and sleeping bag, with no intention of getting up and out before daybreak. But, one night I had a stomach ache. I really needed to get the trowel and find a tree, but it was dark, cold, and scary. I didn’t budge … to my great discomfort.

I suffered.

I started hearing sounds, like a nest of rodents were burrowing a trench all around my tent. I heard them first on one side of the tent and then the other. I was surrounded! I heard sounds like something — a bear! — rooting about in my backpack (which was outside my tent and propped against a boulder). Why, I wondered, would the bear bother since my food was in a bear can? The only things with a scent were the plastic baggies of used toilet paper. And so my mind worked overtime … all night long.

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Early riser at the base camp

At first light, I jumped up and ran for the trowel. As I walked back to my tent, I listened. The “bear” sound was the restless sleeping of another backpacker in a neighboring tent. The “rodent” sound was another restless backpacker, whose sleeping bag was on a sheet of plastic. Those were the movements I’d heard … all night long.

By our last night, I got it right. I knew how to stay warm while sleeping after the temperature dropped from 75 to 40 degrees. I ignored noises. And, finally, I slept like a baby … all night long.

On our last day at Yosemite, the final hike down to our cars went faster. We were motivated. We were mostly going downhill. Our packs were lighter, thank God. (We had eaten most of the food we had carried up and brought back down a minimal amount of garbage. Leave no trace!)

When we reached the parking lot, Izzy and Tyler treated us to steaming hot washcloths to wipe our faces. I couldn’t believe the amount of dirt and grime that was on my face. While I was on the adventure, I also didn’t care. At the end, though, a hot shower urgently beckoned; my body had surpassed its tolerance for minimal hygiene.

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Thank you, Tyler and Izzy, for being great REI Adventure guides and giving us a gotta-do-it-again experience! Thanks to fellow backpackers, Santiago and Paul, whose wonderful photos contributed to this series!


A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 2)

I’ve asked myself:  Would I have done this trip if I’d had all the facts beforehand?

Before leaving my cousins’ for Yosemite, I did a five mile practice hike on hilly terrain with 15 pounds in my backpack. A friend of theirs suggested I hike nearby Mount Tam to prepare for the altitude. He told me I’d be climbing for the first three miles from the start at Yosemite.  He considered altitude to be a significant factor. Crap…I hadn’t trained for it…and this was no time to start.

Everyone had advice. Cousin Doreen suggested I swap my brother’s sleeping bag for hers because of size and weight. So I did. Brother David suggested I leave the heavier legging and shirt base layers of clothing behind because of the weight, plus I wouldn’t need them. So I did. After those adjustments, my backpack weighed 22 pounds.

Sleeping bag comparison

Sleeping bag comparison

The first part of my adventure was getting to Yosemite. The drive wasn’t complicated, though I lost the highway around Oakdale, California. When I stopped at a store for course correction, the shopowner gave me a package of nuts. That was very nice of her, and I accepted. But, it would be more weight in my backpack, and I knew I couldn’t leave the nuts in the car.

I’m a snacker, and didn’t snack in the car for the entire road trip. Why? I’d read that no food, crumbs, packaged food, or coolers should be left in the car. Any food left in the car had to go in a bear can or a food locker. Otherwise, bears can sniff out the food. They’ve been known to bust in and rip out back seats for food stashed in the trunk. Now that’s a powerful sense of smell. This snacker was not going to put the rental car at risk.

wind farm - en route to Yosemite-01 copy

Wind farm

Foothills en route to Yosemite

Foothills en route to Yosemite

The drive to Yosemite was beautiful.  The topography changed from gentle hills with wind farms around Livermore, then orchards around Oakdale. I was in the agricultural Central Valley and passed produce stands.  I started seeing foothills, as the road gently started to climb. The Sierra Nevada mountain range began to reveal itself.

Mariposa lily?

Mariposa lily (?)

Beginning of alpine country - Yosemite

Beginning of alpine country

The first elevation sign I saw was at 2,000 ft. Groveland is the last major town before Yosemite. The elevation there is 3,136 ft. (I was getting a little oh-shit concerned because, even if I could have prepared, I live at 341 ft elevation. En route to Yosemite, I was still climbing upward.) At that point, the temperature was hot-as-hell 90+ degrees.

After Groveland, I reached the “Priest Grade” part of California State Route 120. It climbs. It has dropoffs with no guard rails. (My mother would have lost her mind if she’d been with me.) The road went up, up, up and the signage showed higher and higher elevations. As I began to get drowsy, I knew my problem was the altitude.

Priest Grade portion of CA Route 120 - Yosemite

I entered Yosemite National Park at Big Oak Flat Entrance. This did not mean the trip was over. I had 1-1/2 hours more to go inside the Park to reach Tuolumne Meadows and the backpackers’ camp.

A few facts about Yosemite National Park:

  • The Park is 1,169 square miles, 94% of which is wilderness
  • The Park’s 10 highest peaks are between 12,446 – 13,144 feet
  • There are 800 miles of trails
  • Yosemite has five of the world’s highest waterfalls
  • The Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list
  • It is the U.S.’s oldest wilderness park
  • The 9th Cavalry regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers became Park Rangers in 1905 for Yosemite and other state and federal lands. (I did quick research to see if my grandfather had a link to Yosemite. He was a Buffalo Soldier between 1905 – 1910, but he was in the 10th Cavalry.)

I parked at turnouts to photograph the scenery. One of my ‘wow’ moments was when I saw Tenaya Lake, adjacent to Route 120.  The lake is at 8,150 feet elevation. I was only going up in elevation and not down. It is what it is, I thought.

Tenaya Lake - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake 2 - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

I reached Tuolumne Meadows — elevation 8,600 feet.  The temperature was now mid-70 degrees outside. I unloaded my gear and looked for the REI group. On the way, I met a young woman who was backpacking alone. She was from Texas and at Yosemite to hike the John Muir trail. Now that’s intrepid. It was heartening to see. I hadn’t been exposed to this world at all and, even in its most basic form during scouting, I managed to avoid it.

Breathing hard and totally winded, I lugged my backpack up a little hill to find the group. My physical reaction to this little tiny trek of 300 yards did not bode well. I hoped my body would acclimate overnight to the rarefied air. I knew the next day would be the most challenging of the whole trip.

I met my fellow backpackers. Ages ranged from 18-57+. We came from Mexico City, California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Maryland. Some were novice backpackers (like me), and some were experienced. Four of us were lawyers, which is a weirdly high number among a group of 12 backpackers.

Our guides cooked dinner, which is a big bonus.  As we sat around the campfire in REI’s camp chairs, they told us what to expect the next morning. We were instructed on how to use the “facili-trees” when it was time. Doing “No. 2” required special instruction, having to do with the use of a shared trowel.

1st Night BP Camp - Tuolumne Meadows - YosemiteBackpackers camp - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

The temperature started dropping in early evening. I was glad I’d brought layers of down outerwear.

KAH at Backpackers Camp 2 - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

It was a long night. I was in a tent by myself, as I’d initially feared. I kept my pack outside the tent, my boots inside the tent, along with my head lamp. My next day’s hiking clothes were folded inside the sleeping bag with me so they’d stay warm.

I tried to get comfortable, but I’m a sprawler.  A sleeping bag is confining. I followed David’s advice to sleep in underwear because he said I wouldn’t need more. It got colder and colder…down to 42 degrees. I regretted letting Doreen talk me out of David’s “Mars grade” sleeping bag — suitable for extreme cold. (Doreen’s was suitable to 40 degrees.) And David had talked me out of bringing heavier base layer leggings and shirt.

I was cold. You can’t sleep when you’re cold. I don’t like to be cold. Somehow, my head finally found its way into the sleeping bag hood because it’s a mummy bag. That was my “Aha” moment. That’s what I needed so I could get warm. I went with it, zipped all the way up, stayed still, and warmed up. I may have even finally slept a little. Other than our guides, I was up at first light and dashing to the toilet (while I still could).

First morning 2 - backpackers camp - Yosemite

We stayed at Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ camp only one night. We had the luxury of flushing toilets and cold running water (but no soap) in nearby bathrooms. We used REI’s cups, plates, and utensils. We had camp chairs. We had an actual water cooler and a bear locker. We had a picnic table and bench, and commercially-purchased wood for the campfire. We were spoiled and didn’t know it. We were “glamping” that first night, in comparison to what was coming.

First Morning - Backpackers Camp - Yosemite

When everyone was up, we ate breakfast and made our lunches. We had to re-pack our backpacks to include a bear can, a portion of camp equipment, and our tents. Each bear can had a share of the group’s food in it. We put our personal snacks and toiletries in the leftover space. Why put toiletries in a bear can? Because bears can still pick up a scent. It is part of bear-proofing the campsite. With the extra supplies, my backpack weighed closer to 40 pounds.

Re-packing the backpack - First morning - Yosemite

Re-packing the backpack – Bear can labeled “Tioga”

And so it went as we prepared to hike higher into Yosemite’s wilderness….

(Check out Part 3 of this series! )