I have been away for quite a while. Sorry about that! Life has kept my attention pretty well occupied so far in 2016. The good news is I’ve rediscovered my interest in fitness (and in not permanently affixing my backside to the sofa) and shaken off about 40 pounds since the new year–nearly all of the unwelcome weight I put on in the three years preceding.
I’m back to running on a regular basis, and got my speed to the point where I’ve set a few personal records recently: A new 10K PR in Central Park (which is no small feat considering the hilly terrain) and a PR of nearly three minutes at the Broad Street Run earlier this month, which I’m especially proud of. I have other running-related announcements too, but I’m holding those for a day or two–unless you follow me on Instagram, in which case you already know.
More immediately, in one week I am loading a backpack and flying to Yosemite National Park, where I will spend three days and three nights on a solo hike through the backcountry, sleeping in a tent, bathing in ice-cold streams of fresh meltwater, and eating my food cold out of a bear canister.
More precisely, I am flying to Oakland, renting an SUV, and driving to Yosemite Valley, then hiking into the backcountry. I have planned out an ambitious route that will carry me over 30 miles in 3 days, taking me over or past the park’s most famous landmarks. I don’t plan to summit Half Dome–the cables will be down, and while I know some overachievers have made that climb, I’m a fan of being alive with bones intact–but I will pass over Clouds Rest, visit North Dome and Tenaya Lake, and (if all goes as planned) conclude my trip by descending Yosemite Falls.
I’d been craving a back-woods camping trip almost since early February, but couldn’t decide on a destination. Since I wanted to travel on the cheap, my choices were limited to regions where I could use my Southwest Airlines miles. Something was drawing me toward the Pacific Northwest, for craggy mountains and lush forests, but that early in the spring such a trip is awfully wet. I considered something drier, like Zion National Park or even Death Valley, but I’ve been craving a good campfire, and those desert parks only allow camp stoves, which also means carrying heavy, dangerous fuel canisters.
In late March I made a visit to REI’s flagship store in Soho, and browsed their selection of trail maps. I picked three that I would take home and consider: Death Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yosemite. Yosemite won out. I do eventually want to see Rocky Mountain, and Death Valley was my number two choice, even with the need to carry a camp stove, but Yosemite won out. That choice pretty much came down to the availability of water: In May, Death Valley is already starting to heat up, and I’d have to carry just about all of my water. In Yosemite, on the other hand, this year’s significant snowpack will still be melting, and the numerous streams and waterfalls will be running full.
What I didn’t know initially was that backpacking in Yosemite is not as simple as packing supplies and driving to a trailhead, as I’m used to in the East. To preserve the natural setting and sense of seclusion, the National Park Service sets strict limits on the number of people using each trail and campsite per day in Yosemite, and getting access means filling out an application for a wilderness permit, and often hoping to be drawn in a lottery. Fortunately, my luck with Yosemite was better than my luck in the daily Hamilton lottery.
In fact, I got very lucky with my Yosemite application. Initially, I applied for three different trailheads (you have to provide your second and third choices in case your first is unavailable) along Tioga Road, a high-altitude pass through the High Sierra. Unfortunately, in all my research I had overlooked the fact that Tioga Road closes each winter as the snow piles up, and while in recent years it has reopened sometime in mid-May, the very snowy winter the Sierras saw this year means Tioga Road is likely to be closed until early June.
Yes, it takes a month and a half to plow Tioga Road–thanks to dense snowpack, buried downed trees, and various other obstacles. Luckily, a kind person from the permit center phoned me and told me that since I was traveling solo, I could claim the last remaining permit to start at Happy Isles, one of Yosemite’s most popular (and hardest to obtain) trailheads.
I suspect the fact that the Half Dome cables aren’t up yet contributed to that luck. Happy Isles is hard to get mostly because of its proximity to the park’s most popular attractions, Half Dome and the John Muir Trail. I suspect it’s much easier to get a spot when I did, since most people won’t be able to summit Half Dome, than it would be two weeks later once the cables are up.
My permit requires that I camp somewhere past Little Yosemite Valley campground or Moraine Dome, so I plotted myself a course that will carry me all the way around the canyon and let me visit the sites I’m most interested in. 30 miles in three days seems quite reasonable, except for the 6,000 feet of elevation gain on Day One. I was already wondering about that plan, and then late last week I did the math and realized that’s the equivalent of almost six trips up the Empire State Building, all in one day. Ouch.
There’s also the fact that I’ll be backpacking, and camping, in bear country for the first time. But more on that later.