Yosemite 2011 ~ Four Day Solo Ultralight Trip

While reading one night last winter I heard Candy ask a familiar question, "Are you on that backpacking website again". I was reading another article on Backpackinglight and dreaming about hiking the John Muir Trail. The stories and photographs of the strenuous trails and amazing lakes, mountains and valleys had me mesmerized. . . and the ultralight gear. I had become a gearhead. I spent the six months since then getting my permits and planning this trip as just one of three along the JMT for the summer. This trip was to be a practice run, a shakedown of my gear and ability to hike 15 miles a day consecutively for several days in a row. There would be physical limits to test, including gaining over a mile of elevation in the first day and a half. In the final week before the trip I finished making a lightweight down quilt, a bivy and a windshirt. All of the lightest fabrics had been ordered online and finally used to make a bivy out of 0.51 ozsyd cuben fiber and Momentum 55, a quilt using 900 fill proof down and Momentum 50 and a windshirt with hood out of Momentum 90. All the good stuff. But none of it really mattered if my hours of corrective excercise didn't pay off and I had to bail early due to knee problems. Memories of limping down the last two miles from the top of Mt. San Gorgonio were fresh in my head.

The plan was to do a four day 60 mile solo loop hike in Yosemite starting at the Happy Isles trailhead. The first day my permit limited travel to the campsite at Little Yosemite Valley. It's only a five mile hike from the long term parking lot the the LYV camp, so I used most of the day to drive from Laguna Beach to Yosemite. The second day I would hike to Cathedral Lakes. Day three I would follow the JMT down to Tuolumne Meadows and then up Rafferty Creek to Vogelsang. Day four I would climb Vogelsang Peak and over the pass to Merced Lake and the final day I would hike out. According to the topo map the total mileage turned out to be 59.5 miles which included about 7 miles of offtrail route finding and climbing.

Day zero had arrived and I was finally on the road to the permit office in Yosemite Valley.  I got the permit office at 4:45, just 15 minutes before closing. The ranger was pleasant and polite as usual. I threaded my way through the throngs of tourists to the Happy Isles long term parking lot. Along the way I heard an exasperated father say to his family, "O.K., . . . so I guess that means that I'm the one who's wrong again". Oh man. I wouldn't miss leaving civilization behind. After parking and doing a quick gear check I was on the way. Let the journey begin. At 5:30 pm I had about three hours to get to the camp ground in Little Yosemite Valley before dark. As I quickly walked the 0.7 miles from the parking lot I came across the first familiar road mark.

It was already getting a little dark and I shared the trail with almost all people heading toward me on their way back down toward the valley. The cool late afternoon/early evening temps made for an enjoyable hike toward the JMT/Mist Trail junction. I had hiked this portion of the JMT almost 15 years earlier during a day trip to Half Dome. I decided to try the Mist Trial this time. Soon the first view of Vernal Falls along the Mist Trail came into view:

Finally I was being soaked by the water from the falls. "Full on single rainbow".

Three people were washed over this waterfall the day before. They slipped while posing for pictures after standing on a rock IN the water about 25 feet from the precipice. After an unsuccesfull search for the bodies the rangers had just reopened the Mist Trail.  

I enjoyed some solitude as the trail was empty after Vernal Falls. My pack weighed about 14 lbs which included all my gear and food for the next 4 1/2 days.

I got to the base of Nevada Falls just before sunset.

By the time I arrived at LYV most of the sites were already taken and everybody seemed to be getting into their tents for the night. After searching around for a while in the dark I found a stealth spot under some trees and shared the closest bear box with a couple that was already asleep. In the morning it turned out the guy in the couple spoke very limited english, but after a short broken conversation he got his wife who explained, "He likes the gear". Oh yeah, another gearhead. We both understood the language of ultralight hiking gear and he laughed as he picked up my 1 lb sleeping bag/quilt and 6 oz cuben backpack. By 6:30 am I was on the trail and heading up toward the JMT/Clouds Rest junction.

The final view of the back of Half Dome from the JMT:

Soon I was on a ridge looking across Little Yosemite Valley toward Quartzite Peak and Mt. Clark:

I stopped in this area for two hours doing some stretching on a rock. A hiker walked by and asked, "doing some Yosemite Yoga?". I thought that was perfect, Yosemite Yoga. It ended up being just what I had needed and I had no muscle or joint problems at all the entire trip.

The hike up the switchbacks to the top of Sunrise Mountain made for a strenuous hour but I just kept my slow and steady pace and made it to the top in good spirits. I had been trading the lead along the way with a group of six guys, all in their late teens or early twenties. They were carrying heavy traditional gear and looked exhausted on their 5 mile hike from Clouds Rest junction to Sunrise High Sierra Camp. At one break they asked where I was headed. They looked surprised when I went through my itenerary for the next few days. Cathedral Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Vogelsang, Merced Lake. . . all thanks to some ultralight techniques.

The trail levels out for a while along the top of Sunrise Mountain and the first views of Echo Peak and Matthes Crest come into view:

Next I was in Long Meadow and talking with a few other hikers at Sunrise High Sierra camp. It was the middle of the day and I was looking forward to seeing Echo and Cathedral Peaks after a nice long afternoon nap.

Echo Peaks

Cathedral Peak
By 6:00 pm I had reached one of the campsites near lower Cathedral Lake. I asked a group how to get to the lakefront and they told me I would need water shoes to cross the large swampish area which lead to the granite lakefront. After a while I heard one of the guys say something that I would end up hearing many times on this trip, "Oh, you're one of those ultralight guys". As I waded knee high in one of the creeks leading to the lake one of the ladies asked, "do you have a sleeping bag in there?". 

Alpenglow on Cathedral Peak.

Sunset on Cathedral Peak.
I slept under the stars by Cathedral Lake that night. The sunset was amazing. The outside of my bivy was wet from the moisture in the wind which was blowing toward me off the lake. It didn't leak inside, but there was a lot of condensation inside the bivy and on the outside of my quilt. Even though some of the water dripped on my head in the morning, the inside of the quilt was completely dry. It must have been below freezing that night because there was ice on the outside of the bivy at night but I was warm and cozy inside. I dried everything out in the morning and was on my way to Tuolumne Meadows.

Drying out some gear in the morning after a night on the shore of Cathedral Lake.  

On the way down from Cathedral Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows I passed many freshly showered day hikers on their way up to the lakes. 

If you are reading this as part of the JMT 2011 Trip Report please go to: 

JMT 2011 Trip Report Section Two

Or, just check out the next part of this trip. . . 

I was making good time and soon I was leaving the John Muir Trail and heading up toward Vogelsang from Lyell Canyon. Here is the first view of Mt. Fletcher and Vogelsang from Rafferty Creek: 


I camped in a meadow near Fletcher Lake at the end of the third day:

Fletcher Lake.

In the morning of day four I took a closer look at the snow on Volgelsang and remembered the ranger told me that Vogelsang Pass was "100% snow". Breakfast somehow raised my spirits and I decided to at least head up to the lake and see if it was passable. This is a view of Vogelsang with the empty high sierra camp in the foreground:

Vogelsang high sierra camp.

Vogelsang peak is in the middle. My plan was to climb up the snow field on the left side then follow the ridge to the top. During a normal summer this area would have been easily accessable but the unusually large amount of snow meant that I would be digging foot holds into the snow on the way up. It turns out that the lake was still covered with ice in places and the pass was 100% snow.

A piece of ice happened to be floating by as I passed Vogelsang Lake, and then it floated down the small waterfall that drained from the lake.

I met two guys at Vogelsang Lake who were on a day hike and considering climbing the peak by following the snow field on the right side.  They were concerned about the possibility of avalanches, not having enough water and running out of daylight. They asked where I was headed and how long I had been out. I told them I was on a 4 & 1/2 day solo hike and that I was planning on camping at Merced Lake that night. They could hardly beleive I could be carrying enough gear for that kind of trip in such a small pack. One of the guys said, "normally I would need 60 to 80 pounds of gear for a trip like that". . . then, "Oh, but you're one of those ultralight guys". Sweet. I could just camp wherever I got tired so I took off to check it out. Thanks BPL.

The trail up from Vogelsang Lake was mostly covered with snow. It's difficult to tell from these photos, but the sun cups were knee high in some areas.

 The melting snow created these beautiful creeks along the way.

After a while the trail completely disappeared and I just headed toward the snow field that I knew would lead to the top. Even though it was already late afternoon the snow stayed solid enough to make for easy footing.

 This is the final snow field leading to top. It is difficult to capture how steep this really was. I had to dig footholds for each step to avoid sliding down.

Almost at the top. The snow on the right gives a better idea of how steep this part got, especially toward the top.

This shot was taken looking back toward the snowfields that lead to the final ridge. Lewis Creek is visible draining from Gallison Lake in the background. The view of the Cathedral Range was awesome. I think that is Parsons Peak on the left and Simmons Peak on the right.

At this point I ran out of water so I had to backtrack and boil some snow.

 The view of the Cathedral Range, Gallison Lake and Bernice Lake on the way to Vogelsang Peak.

Finally the peak is in sight. The top of the rock hanging over the edge is Vogelsang Peak (11,516 feet).

There was an old metal amunition box at the top that had a pen and this ragged piece of paper. I signed the 'registry' and headed down. There wasn't much time to hang out as it was already about 5:30 pm.

Vogelsang Pass was 100% snow like the ranger had said. On the other side there was much less snow, but the trail and switchbacks were not visible. It looked like a rock fall had covered the trail. I made my way down the other side using a map and compass and followed the granite slabs and boulders down toward Lewis Creek.

It was getting late and by 7:30 pm I was losing light. I had 6 miles to the Merced Lake Ranger Station so I picked up the pace. The view along the way of the sunset behind the back side of Half Dome was beautiful. As the red glow slowly dissapeared the granite stepping stones and stairways became less visible along the trail. By 9:00 pm I had decended into the forest and it was completely dark. The moon wouldn't rise for another few hours so I used my half ounce headlamp to navigate the last half hour and stumbled into the ranger station. One of the lights on my headlamp died and the other was barely providing a dim light. I was thirsty and hungry and although I could hear the creek I was too tired to make out a pathway to the water. I drank the last few sips of water in my bottle, ate a few handfulls of trail mix, layed out my quilt and bivy and went to sleep. The end of a great day.

I got up early the next morning and was on the trail by 6:30 am. Echo Valley was full of spring flowers (and plenty of mosquitos).

The Merced River along the trail in Echo Valley.

I took a lunch break and nap next to this sandy beach along the Merced River.

Just before Bunnell Cascade the trail narrows and in some places has been cut into the granite.

Bunnell Cascade must have been close to full spring water level. This picture doesn't really capture the energy of the massive amount of water that was flowing over these rocks. The mist felt really good in the 80+ degree summer heat.

Lost Valley was lush and full of wildlife and spring flowers.

I followed Little Yosemite Valley back to the top of Nevada Falls and started the final descent down the John Muir Trail. After 4 1/2 days solo in the wilderness the sight of well groomed tourists seemed strange. . . but I probably looked and smelled pretty strange to them.

What worked:

The quilt/bivy combo was great. I liked being able to just lay down and sleep under the stars after a long day. This was my first trip using a quilt and I will probably never go back to a conventional sleeping bag.

Trail runners: Non-gortex trail runners are comforatable, lightweight and dried quickly after trudging through the snow all day. 

Caldera Keg-F: Lightweight and super efficient. 

Duct tape: I used this on a few hot spots after the snow day and it kept me from getting blisters.

Zpacks cuben tarp: I only used it one night, but I love this tarp. 3.5 ozs w/ guylines for a 5.5' x 8.5' tarp. 

What didn't work:

Zpacks Zero. This is an amazing pack and there is nothing wrong with the pack itself, I just ordered it with the wrong torso size. It's a little too small. I plan on making one with a larger torso size for my next trip. More on that later. . .

Thanks for reading. I'll be rejoining the JMT at Tuolumne Meadows in August. See you on the trail.