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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.)

 

 

 

 

PCT Pitas

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Getting into the backcountry is a perfect way to experience nature, and there’s no reason not to eat delicious natural foods while you’re out there! Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides loves celebrating healthy eats while in the wilderness, and our Backcountry Gourmet is unbeatable. Check out our “Pacific Crest Trail Pita” recipe below, a meal that’s great for short and long backpacking trips alike.

 

 

Pacific Crest Trail Pita

Courtesy of: SYMG General Manager and Senior Guide Colby Brokvist
Recommendations: Any trip, especially longer backpacks

Gear Needs:

  • 2 Ziplocs (for re-hydrating the tabbouleh)
  • Serving bowls
  • Spoons

Ingredients:

  • Dehydrated Tabbouleh
  • Sliced packet olives
  • Balsamic Vinaigrette
  • Feta
  • Pita bread
  • Red grapes

Optional:

  • Dolmas
  • Canned/packet chicken or sardines – you can also pre-cook some chicken to bring!
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Lemon

Directions:

  1. In the morning before leaving (or the night before), double-bag the tabbouleh with a fair amount of water and place it at the top of your pack.
  2. When meal time rolls around, put out all ingredients allowing everyone to make their own Pita Pockets!

 

Be Here Now – Finding your Yosemite

By SYMG General Manager and Guide, Colby Brokvist

“The mountains will always be there. The trick is to make sure you are too.” 

Hervey Voge, Mountaineer’s Guide to the Sierra Nevada

It’s easy to get lost out there. Not in the mountains per se; a map and guide will serve you well in the backcountry. No, I’m talking about getting lost in all the clutter of work, errands and the daily grind. I’m talking about losing yourself, and I do it too. It seems like often enough there’s something I need to do and I have to work hard in order to make time to do the things I want to do.

For me, Yellowstone had been on my “want” list for years. Geysers, wolves and bison, despite their allure, had somehow never made it to my agenda. So, this past winter I finally made time to visit Yellowstone and it was everything I had imagined… and more. I would say that Yellowstone and Yosemite have that in common; you’ve heard the stories, seen pictures, and plan to visit the main attractions, yet when you are finally standing there you’re still left breathless.

The first time I visited Yosemite I fell in love and never left. Even just this year I stood in sight of Horsetail Falls for the famous “firefall” display at sunset for the first time. This is a phenomenon that is well-known but only happens on occasion. Each February there is only about a 12-day stretch where the light hits just at the required angle to turn the waterfall flaming orange. And that’s only when water and cloud conditions abide. Some years there is no display at all. And so here I am, after 13 years of living in the Yosemite area, I am still able to feel that same sense of exhilaration as when I first arrived, just by making the time to get outside.

All this to say that yes America’s National Parks house some of the world’s most unique landscapes, but there’s also much more going on behind the “scenes”. Our wilderness areas offer the opportunity to break the bonds of the daily grind and to toss off schedules and the barrage of social media. They are quiet, relaxing, and romantic. They set the stage for exploration, pushing one’s physical limits and for strengthening bonds between friends and family. National Parks are good for the soul.

In “The Three Amigos” Steve Martin’s character claims that “In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face… and for some, it is the actual El Guapo”. I would also say that we all have own Yosemite to visit… and for some, it is the actual Yosemite. Face your Yosemite. Sure, it’s something you want to do, but maybe it’s also something you need to do for yourself.

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.

Lunch is the Goal

by Scott Morris – SYMG Guide

Some hikers, climbers, and outdoors people think that the high point of the day is the summit of the mountain that they’re trying to get to. These people are categorically incorrect. The most important, most rewarding, and most treasured time of the day is lunch.

We’ve just reached the shoulder of the Cathedral Lakes Basin, and my stomach is rumbling. I imagine my four companions are also feeling the hunger set in, as we made short work of the three or so miles from Tuolumne Meadows to where we’re now standing. We’re just above 9,000 feet, but feel relatively acclimatized – we’ve been camping in the Meadows for the last two nights which themselves sit at about 8,000 feet. When we started out this morning, big, doughy clouds slid from west to east slowly clearing; a good sign for our midday foray above tree line. I close my eyes for the briefest moment to appreciate the wind moving through the Lodgepoles and the Steller’s Jay tweeting from somewhere in the branches.

Our destination is the Upper Cathedral Lake, which sits at about 9,600 feet. I tend to favor this lake over the Lower because most hikers choose the slightly closer lower lake. The Upper sits within a stone’s throw of the summit of Cathedral Peak, which silently rakes the sky with its pinnacle. It’s also in that sweet spot of altitude, flirting with treeline to such a degree that things are thin enough to offer clear sight lines. You can see the granite walls that surround the lake, while also finding the odd tree along the water for a bit of shade to snooze through the hottest hour of the day.

We reach the lake. Setting a meeting spot, we head out for 90 minutes to enjoy the bounty of delights here. The five of us split up, each to their own private corner of paradise. There are no other humans in sight.

I make my way to my normal spot. It’s a bar of granite that juts into the lake, forming a small peninsula with a stout Douglas fir near the base, throwing a ‘Scott-sized’ pool of shade. The shade sits in a small alcove, where two different arms of rock come together to form a reclining bench, covered with a thin mat of pine needles. It’s my spot.

I settle into the nook, comfortably tired in the thin air, relaxed in the knowledge that it’s lunch time and it’s all downhill from here. From my bag I pull all the supplies I’ll need for my recess: My long-awaited sandwich (sourdough, thick-cut ham, stone-ground spicy Dijon that I had to go to three different stores to find, alfalfa sprouts, Swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, all the good stuff), my notebook (crammed with bad drawings and worse poetry), and my book (in this setting, beneath the peak that he was the first to free climb in 1869, nothing but the prose of John Muir will do).

With a practiced efficiency I set about my tasks, working slowly and deliberately. A bite of ham, a swig of water, an attempt to capture the way the granite bends and reflects into the clear water. A few paragraphs of Muir, and then a few minutes just staring at the reflections of the thin clouds, and how a slight ripple can change their shape and design. Repeat. The time passes quickly, as it often does when we have little to concern us in what seems like a separate, detached world.

Sooner than I wish, our time is almost up. I told my clients when we were walking up that if they wanted to swim that they’d have to do so naked, on account of a rule meant to protect the health of these alpine lakes. As they each jump in the water from their private beachfronts, I can see they knew I was lying. I can’t be seen breaking my own rule though, so I strip down and dive into the cold, halcyon water.

It’s time to head back down, out of the clouds, to our campsite. The sun will soon be setting on another Sierra day, and another one will follow shortly after.

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.

How to get in shape for your next adventure!

By SYMG Guide Scott Morris

You’ve decided where you’re going, and you’ve decided when you’ll go there. Your travel plans are coming together and you’re wrapping your head around the packing list. One important step remains – in order to get the most out of your mountain adventure, you may want to revisit your fitness before you arrive in the Sierra.

Lifestyle
Before starting any kind of fitness regimen, examine your lifestyle, and ask yourself if your daily routines are setting you up for success. Getting the right amount of sleep, drinking enough water, managing stress, and eating a diverse diet of healthy foods are all going to have you getting more out of your fitness work and will have you arriving on the first day of your trip ready to immerse yourself in the splendor of the High Sierra.

Light Cardio

If you’re just starting out a fitness regimen, it’s important to have patience with yourself. Everyone is starting out at a different point, so if you haven’t exercised in a while, start out with a thirty minute walk on flat ground, a few times a week. Add ten minutes per walk or an extra walk each week until you’re at an hour of swift walking five days a week. Once this is comfortable, aim to maintain sixty minutes of active movement most days, but work to increase the intensity. To do this you can add a day per week of running, cycling, or hiking, whatever you feel comfortable with and enjoy. You can expand your walks and get into some hillier terrain, always shooting for that goal of sixty minutes of challenge per day in the weeks and months leading up to your trip. Cycling is a popular way for many people to increase their cardiovascular fitness. It’s a good next step because it simultaneous engages respiratory endurance with the muscular systems of the leg that are relied on while hiking.

Muscular Cardio
The last step of preparation is muscular cardio. There’s two exercises here I’ll recommend above all others, and the first is swimming. Swimming provides a good combination of muscular endurance and cardio, all while providing a full-body workout to a range of muscular systems. If you’re not an experienced swimmer, get a kickboard and hold it in front of you while kicking with your legs; you’re strengthening the muscles of your core and legs and getting a cardio workout at the same time.

The second and, in my opinion, best way to prepare for a backpacking trip is to move your body uphill with a bit of weight on your back. Start small – just a few books in a backpack is a good place to start. If you live near a steep hill, make a few laps up and down with your backpack on, while wearing the shoes you’ll be using for your trip. If you don’t live in hill country, go to your local gym with your pack and boots and get on a Stairmaster machine, or a treadmill that has a variable inclination function. As this becomes more comfortable, add more weight – books, water bottles, whatever you have at hand that’s heavy – and do more laps. After a few stories on the stairmaster or laps on a steep hill, your lungs will start to burn, well preparing you for the challenge you might find at the end of a day in the mountains, at altitude. Remember that lifestyle is an important part of preparation: get into the habit of staying hydrated, and always make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover after each workout.

The Take Home Message
Physical challenge is an important part of getting into the mountains. If that which is gained too easily is esteemed too lightly, then by working to get to these places we’re increasing the payoff for ourselves. It’s a challenge, but a manageable challenge, and with a bit of preparation beforehand you can arrive for the first day of your trip confident, ready to dive fully into the adventure and appreciate your surroundings for all they have to offer.

SYMG Guide Scott Morris specializes in our long-distance backpacking trips. He has through-hiked Vermont’s 280-mile Long Trail in just 9.5 days, has participated in several 100-mile ultramarathons, a few Ironman Triathlons, and many more trail races. You can read more about Scott and the rest of the SYMG Guide Staff Here.

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

Mountain Ramblings: Journeys

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike… We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.  -John Steinbeck

Challenging. Exciting. Memorable. Often in the adventure travel industry these marketing buzzwords are haphazardly thrown around. They are polished clean from rolling off the tips of travel agents’ tongues. Of course, interpretation of these buzzwords is quite subjective. For instance, many folks find adventure in a boat cruise headlined by rock legends Journey and Styx. But for many of us, we relish an experience that is more engaging. One where we are active players. One that goes beyond the expectation set by buzzwords and where the stage is set for us to learn something about ourselves. That’s where the true adventure lies: not in the printed itinerary, but in between the words, waiting to be recorded later.  

Palisade Basin copyright Colby J Bokvist

The 2011 mountain season here in the Sierra Nevada was especially remarkable for us at SYMG. The root of our excitement was an unusually deep and long-lasting snowpack that created some unknowns out in the field. Sure, the name “Sierra Nevada” translates to “Snowy Range”, but does that really include the summer months?! Many questions arose and answers were not found in the written itineraries. Will the river crossing be flooded? Will the pass be free of snow? How are the marmots faring in all of this?

Challenging! Exciting! Memorable! The guides and participants forded the rivers, glissaded the snow slopes and sunbathed with the marmots in grassy meadows. Indeed, we guides plunged into the use of the buzzwords like an ice axe into a glacier. And in the end so did the trip participants. After all, what’s so great about mountain trips is that they are inherently unpredictable in nature. And to me that is what sets mountain journeys apart from cruise boat Journeys: true adventure. Don’t Stop Believin’. 

This is the first installment of “Mountain Ramblings” where SYMG guides will share their thoughts on mountain life, guiding and adventure travel. This edition’s Ramble was written by SYMG’s General Manager and Senior Guide, Colby Brokvist. Learn more about Colby and the rest of the guiding staff HERE.