Category Archives: Trip Notebook

We Remember Rob Rylee

I met Rob Rylee four years ago at Vermillion Valley Ranch along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was late into the evening and I could hear the unmistakable sound of a Sierra Nevada mule packer by the fire. Rob was entertaining: storytelling, passing whiskey from his liter-sized flask, and giving his guests a show. His beaver-skin hat, wispy handlebar mustache, and larger-than-life personality reminded me of packers I had worked with in the past. But from then forward, Rob exceeded all of my expectations of a packer and, ultimately, a friend.

Rob wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with. He was hard on others, and even harder on his mules – a defining characteristic sourced from his unending pursuit of perfection in his work. Each morning when I would help Rob organize the duffel bags and pack the mules, I would notice his precision. He was, without a doubt, the best of his kind, performing well above the standards expected of the many packers I have worked with in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. His pride was in his work; how well it was done and how good it looked. He would settle for nothing less and he held himself to no less of a standard. On the days we exited the trail, he would ride out of the forest wearing a pressed white button-up shirt he had kept in a vacuum-sealed bag for seventeen days. He not only played the part, he encompassed it.

Rob was the best packer the Sierra had, and SYMG has been so fortunate to have him be a part of the team. He was a source of laughs, stories, and grand theatrics. But, above all, he was a friend. I woke up each morning with a cup of coffee next to my pillow which Rob had made just how I like it. He defended me against cranky hikers and gave his help and advice when I asked. He treated me like a friend and daughter. From him, I learned to take immense pride in my work, to push myself to be better, and to enjoy the trail.

Rob’s legacy will be celebrated and remembered by all of us at SYMG.

Sierra Zacks, SYMG Veteran Guide


Yosemite’s Wild Side

by Graham Ottley

This past year Yosemite National Park saw record visitor numbers with over five million visitors, a 21% increase from the previous year. Although these numbers are staggering, they have become an accepted part of Yosemite Valley during the summer. Many people may be left asking, “Is it even worth it? Should we go somewhere else?”

That “somewhere else” is delving into the immense Yosemite backcountry. Last summer, I had the pleasure of guiding a group along SYMG’s Red Peak Pass Loop. This 7-day / 6-night excursion begins and ends at Half Dome Village and completes one of the wildest backpacking loops Yosemite has to offer. Over the last decade, I have enjoyed many personal and guided trips of this unique area and it continues to draw me back.

This photo is looking South towards Ottoway Peak (Upper Ottoway Lake is just out of sight below the group).

The remote range of mountains on the Red Peak Loop has no end of adventures and exquisite scenery. It is far removed from the mêlée of the Valley. As we walked this 52-mile loop, I found myself and the group in awe of the landscape, a magical-geological-mystery “tour-de-force”. We walked through the Clark Range pushing towards our literal high point of the trip, Red Peak Pass. Once we gained the pass and took in the breathtaking views, our trip was far from over. We descended into the Triple Fork Drainage of Triple Peak to a glacially strewn stream basin. The countertop granite slab we approached seemed expansive enough to contain a football stadium, along with most of the parking.

The camaraderie developed on the trail is often what brings people back year after year, and our trip was no exception. The group consisted of six individuals from different regions of the country. We laughed hard at the natural humor evoked from our common experience and we shared moments of tender silence.

Those are often the moments that make our trips so memorable.  I know I can’t wait to embark on another season, guiding folks through the beautifully remote landscape of Yosemite’s backcountry.

This photo is looking East towards Mt. Clark from our first nights camp. (Grey and Merced were also in view just to the South of Clark.)





Why I do this

By SYMG Guide Scott Morris

Tomorrow I leave for the first Yosemite Grand Traverse of the season, which means my work started months ago. Before anything, there is the scouting. A love of over-preparation and diligence has me out in the mountains as soon as the passes start to shed snow in the spring. I’ve walked every step of this route a few times, but I haven’t been here since the end of last season. So I walk it again, noting the campsites that have faded away and new ones that have sprung from the granite. Even the seemingly fixed macro-features of the landscape have a different look about them after a full winter.

In particular, I was in the canyon of the upper Merced, about a mile upstream of Washburn Lake. I had heard from a fellow guide about a great camp spot, but I couldn’t find it.

There’s a lot of distinctive patches of trees, Wilson, I muttered under my breath, shuffling between marked-up USGS topos, hand-drawn maps, and the few pages of notes I had: scribbled catchphrases I had managed to pull out of a long conversation with a fast-talking General Manager who’s been guiding here since I was in primary school.

I found it just where they said it would be. The first thing I spotted was a small, workmanlike fire circle, which is the natural nexus of any campsite. Ducking my head, I swept aside the bough of a lodgepole and took a step forward. When I let it go it moved back into place, irrevocably blocking out the trail and the possibility of a larger outside world, enclosing the glade in a hamlet of quiet.

Advancing farther into the camp I stopped at the flat bench tops of granite, covered with a mattress of last season’s pine needles. I confirmed their suitability for tent spaces by laying down on each in turn.  A few log sections sat near the fire, as if crowding towards a now-absent warmth. Beyond the flats, the granite receded towards the east bank of the river, which collected in a large, slowly-oscillating pool beneath a tumbling cascade of snow runoff. Almost too perfect, I laughed as I bent down to closely to consider a small cluster of Penstemon, a delicate spring wildflower.

The quiet only lasted long enough for the songbirds to check me out. Seeing me to be just a stoic passerby, they resumed their calls from the swaying lodgepole tips, flitting between branches gracefully.

Above the tops of these somber giants stood the more-stoic alpine walls of the Merced Canyon. Important high-country: this was the location chosen for the March 2015 reintroduction of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. Due mostly to livestock-carried disease and unregulated hunting, by 1915 there were no sheep left in Yosemite. The first reintroduction attempt in 1986 suffered setbacks and by the late 1990s there were a mere 125 individuals, state-wide, left in the species. As Californians rallied around this wilderness icon this proved to be a nadir, as an aggressive recovery plan was implemented. After a hundred years Bighorn Sheep are back in Yosemite, and throughout the Sierra Nevada there are about 600 animals in this rebounding population. No sheep today, so I leave the hidden site, with excitement about sharing this special place with those who travel in the mountains with us.

That’s the joyful part. Wading into austere wilderness, exposing people to the power of this landscape, that’s why I do this.

Our Favorite Trips This Season

Getting around Yosemite is easier said than done sometimes. Here are a list of our favorite trips, and why we think you’ll love them too.

Red Peak Loop

ottowaysmsteinbachA new trip this season that we’ve created to delight you and embrace Yosemite in a whole new way. It spends equal time in the most remote and iconic regions of the park. Highlights include the rugged Red Peak Pass, hiking alongside the cascading “Wild and Scenic” Merced River, and a lakeside camp beneath the ice fields of the stunning Ottoway Lakes Basin.

Trans Sierra Trail

WhitneyTrlNearSummitThe legendary trip we created is an ultimate crossing of Sequoia National Park through some of the most remote areas of the high Sierra, culminating in an ascent of the highest point in the contiguous US; Mt Whitney (14,500’). It’s rugged and remote and those who are up to the 83-mile challenge will be rewarded with a backpacking adventure like few others.

Agnew to Tuolumne – John Muir Trail Pack Trip

MulesHigCntryHave you always wanted to walk on the JMT but that heavy backpack deters you? We have a 5-day pack-stock trip where the mules do the heavy lifting, so you can enjoy a section of the beautiful and iconic scenery of one of the most famous hikes in the world.

In the Spirit of John Muir

Zeki Basan and our SYMG guide Chris Plewa explored remote regions of Yosemite to embrace the spirit of John Muir himself. Take a look at the 72 mile trek these two covered, including the amazing Red Peaks and greater Yosemite Valley.

Want to explore these areas with us? Check out our Red Peak Loop trip to learn more.

Climbing El Cap for Charity

By SYMG Guide Drew Brodhead

SYMG Guide Drew Brodhead high up on El Capitan, Yosemite CA

Hanging from a 4-point anchor, I yell down to Les “Dude! This is awesome!” Looking up disturbed and tense, he yells back “What?” in a way to mach his demeanor. I don’t blame him, nothing but 2,500 feet of air below him. Engulfed in the present, I don’t reply back. We are now on the Salathe headwall. Five degrees past vertical, “steep” is a conservative way to describe for what is to come. It’s around 6:30-7:00 P.M when Les reaches the hanging belay. We discuss our options: 1) Set up the portaledge and sleep on the headwall. 2) Push to Long Ledge, two more pitches up. Les leaves it up to me. My climbing block still looms over my head. Weighing the options, a quote came to mind “there ain’t no challenge in being sensible.” Very true! I turn to Les, “Ok, let’s go!”

The Salathe Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan is considered one of the greatest rock climbs in the world. Established by the three musketeers of their time: Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Royal Robbins. These modern pioneers established their new route in 1961 over 9½ days. Using the unconventional alpine style method, the three climbed in a continues push, never coming down to the ground for supplies. This landmark ascent still holds its face value.

“There is no challenge in being sensible!” I say to myself as I plug gear into the perfect crack. Breaking out of the metronome rhythm that took over my climbing, I stop to drink some water. I am now climbing in total darkness. Connected by a 9.8 millimeter piece of rope… I feel alone. Looking down to void my feelings, Les is a faint glow in the abyss. I feel no better. I know he is not having a good time. Hanging belays suck. When I was young they seemed cool, I was mistaken. “How are you doing bud?” I yell, hoping he is still awake. “I’m ok! How are things up there?” yelling back. Cool, he’s still awake. I would not blame him if he weren’t. I update him “20 minutes to Long Ledge”.

A few more feet I have broken from my rhythm. The easy C1 aid climbing quickly became awkward C2 climbing, drastically slowing me down. I wrestle using “the technique of struggle”, a David and Goliath type of story. I begin to fill the pin scar cracks with the smallest gear I have, equivalent to the tip of a lead pencil. Hungry with ledge fever I forget to slow down. Testing my pieces haphazardly, I am testing my luck 2,600 feet above the ground that I no longer can see.

Things have been going so well, what can happen to us now? That’s the dumb climber in me. I begin to move up onto my micro piece of gear. Looking up, I see the piece blow. Taking out the other smaller pieces below, I accelerate. Unsure of my future and my gear below, I continue to fall. I stop surprisingly comfortably. I instantly look up to see what stopped me. A mysterious piece of fixed gear stopped what could have been a 60-70 foot fall. Thankfully, I only went about 35 feet. With no shame of what just happened, I begin to yell out of excitement. Breaking out of my hysteria I hear a yell from Les. “Yo, what happened?” I try to explain though my gasping and slurred speech. He understood. We are now both awake, ready for anything. Feeding off of pure natural adrenaline, I finish my lead 20 minutes later, approximately 50 minutes after the 20 I gave Les.

Looking back, climbing the Salathe Wall was flawless. We climbed the route faster than expected, always a plus. With the backing of our loved ones, smart and safe climbing was our motive at the time. But now things have settled. We are one of many teams to climb the Salathe Wall this year. More will come. We climbed with our ambitions and hearts. While filling a lifelong goal of ours, we were able to give back. At first it seemed impossible: to climb El Cap and to raise money. Doing both brought on their own challenge. To be totally honest, the fundraising was the toughest part, more route finding and unknown then El Cap. We used a map to get up the El Cap. No map for fundraising. It was brand new terrain for us both.

Climbing has always been considered to be a selfish sport. Climbing for ones’ self is always the sensible thing to do. But like a Kiwi friend always said “their ain’t no challenge in being sensible Drew.” So why not up the ante?

Drew and his partner Les raised over $2,500 for the local Fresno Country School District. Way to go guys!

Mountain Pose

Mountain Pose

By Jenny Kane

Moving back into the mountains, we touch the earth more directly again. As we slow down and walk, we can feel the ground under our feet more solidly.  We reconnect with the natural rhythm of life.

“Mountain pose” is the foundation of every other posture we practice in yoga, teaching us to balance our lives, our weight evenly across the soles of the feet.  In the same way the mountains, especially the High Sierra, offer us space to breathe and a place to rest in our natural states, shedding layers of technology and social demands.  We bring with us only what we truly need.

We are reminded to let go, making it easier to be present with each passing moment.  Whether in a studio or around a lake, yoga renews, resets our perspectives on life. I’ve been practicing yoga for the past 12 years and it holds the same place in my life as my relationship with the mountains.  It’s a space I go back to for balance and perspective.

Come enjoy a renewed perspective on life by joining our High Sierra Yoga Retreat.   This retreat is designed to meet your individual needs for a week in the mountains.  Imagine gourmet meals you don’t have to cook, daily yoga classes right outside your tent and guided hiking trips to nearby lakes.  You don’t have to carry anything but your water and camera.

I look forward to connecting with you in the mountains July 25-29, 2012.  More retreat info can be found on the website HERE.

A Day in the Sawtooths of the Sierra Nevada

A foreshortened view of the North Arete of Matterhorn Peak

The Sawtooth range looks like something out of an alpinists dream.  It has all the features one would look for; looming granite faces, knife edge ridges with big air under you heels, historic summits, a glacier and a few little snow and ice gullies tucked back in the shadows.  Plus, it has the key feature of being out just far enough that it keeps the crowds at bay. Most people will only take a curious glance from the window of their car at 75 miles per hour from highway 395, where the Sawtooths dominate the skyline above Bridgeport California.

Snow pack varies season to season in the Sierra Nevada, sometimes as dry as J-tree to years like the last two, which seemed like a constant blizzard.  Here in Fish Camp, Southern Yosemite, we received about twice as much snow as usual.  Which means I had almost 7ft of pack at one point in my front yard, which sits about 5,100 feet in elevation.

When my long time climbing partner Matt and I showed up at the glacier we found conditions more like May 1st than mid-July.  The rocks were barely poking up from beneath the snow.  The little lake that would usually be a milky blue gem of glacially fed melt water was instead mostly ice with only one little corner free.  It exposed the clearest water possible after a long winter of lying undisturbed by wind and the constant surge of the glacial melt.  Believe me, it tastes every bit as good as you can imagine.

Matt and I had also decided to bring our two most entertaining climbing partners: Kevin and Carlos.  Kevin has an endless sense of humor, which could only be categorized slapstick clowning, not to be mixed with Matt’s sometimes out of control mischief.  For example, they were kicked out of Bangkok together.  You have to be pretty bad for the Thai police to not even want you in their jail. The fourth was Carlos, a blonde-haired blued-eyed Puerto Rican.  As a tropical fellow, Carlos was cold.  But he was awestruck by the setting we were about to partake in.  Soon we would all be eating up the cracks and drinking down the faces as it was the sweetest nectar on earth, Sierra granite.

Forest fires somewhere in the Sierra always help to make the sunrise beautiful and different every day.  Different shades of pink and purple reflect off the clean white granite faces. The hue changing as the wind and sun shift until it is blindingly clear and bright from the suns reflection off glacier and rock.

After we drank coffee until the point of shaking, we headed up the glacier. We found it to be firm and easy to walk on for the approach, though twice as long as it appears.  Our goal was the North Arête of Matterhorn Peak.  It is the type of peak a child would draw; geometric, near symmetrical, lines running to a pointed summit.  Add the climbers’ artistry to the picture and a striking arête running from glacier to summit would be next followed by a couple crack split dihedrals for good measure.  Luckily for us, it is real and we were there.

We were a group of climbers familiar with each other and the pitches rolled by only interrupted by laughter and the occasional snack. The climbing hard enough to warrant basic rock shoes but no more.  There is a crux on every climbing route, and I found ours on a little section of face and arête that I traversed out on to in order to, let’s say, keep the route clean.  After all was said and done, I kept going up finding the holds to be right on the arête, which was about 35 feet long and 800 ft. off the glacier, giving me maximum exposure and no gear. The edges and knobs kept my retreat at bay and seemed to be just big enough to try to go a little higher, hoping that one more move was going to give me the respite I wanted.  Of course it came all the way at the top of the arête where I was able to traverse back into the nice dihedral crack.

To finish the route, a traverse around the arête from one dihedral to another on the North Face is necessary. This section is cold and shaded, not to be taken lightly by our tropical companion.  The face is near vertical and split by only a few cracks, all of which look intimidating and hard. Not quite what I was expecting. Hand-jamming my way up the face I kept finding hidden cracks in the back for my tips making what looks 5.10+ climbing into 5.6.  But the cracks are ice cold the wind is picking up and the reality that alpine climbing is always serious is back on the forefront of my mind.

As we pull onto the summit ridge clouds began to stack and were blowing through the gap of Matterhorn Couloir; swirling dark vortices, like the water around a large rock in the Merced River in spring.  It was re-coalescing back into a stream of clouds over our base camp and across the Walker River Valley, East to Nevada.

After a few pictures we pull on rain gear for the descent, for both the glissade and the oncoming storm.  When we clear the saddle south of the summit and start our descent the ground beneath our feet aids our downward progress as it freely slides and makes you have to check your speed.  It consists of the ever so fine powder that only a glacier can produce over millennia, combined with flakes and boulders, proof of the effects of the freeze and thaw process from the walls towering above.  Once we hit the obstacle free snow we were back at camp in minutes.  Using both boot and butt glissade we did the last two-thirds of the descent in 15 minutes.  Arriving just before the short-lived rain, all four of us snacked beneath the Mega-Mid at basecamp. Damn! What a good day!

Pat Warren is one of SYMG’s Senior Guides and a Sierra granite addict. To learn more about Pat and the rest of the SYMG staff, click here