Tag Archives: Sierra

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.

Tech Tips: Alpine Daypack Essentials

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada certainly have their share of classic Alpine Mountaineering Peaks. Mt Conness is certainly one of our Yosemite favorites that quickly comes to mind. While the immediate planning requirements surrounding these trips become route choice and technical gear choices, choosing what to bring in your pack is just as important. Following are some considerations for single-day alpine pushes:

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite's Mt Conness

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite’s Mt Conness

 

  • Pack. 25-40 liters is typical. The larger volumes make sense if you need to pack climbing gear to the route.  I prefer a very streamlined pack with few features. One big compartment, maybe a second zippered lid for small items. Top-loading is the way to go, as zippers will undoubtedly be the part of the pack that fails.  The waistbelt and harness system should be thin and not restrict your movement. Always choose fit over styling when purchasing a pack. Lately I’ve been using the Mountain Hardware Summit Rocket, which fits the above description plus is made from reinforced fabrics for durability and has hauling loops for more difficult climbing sections. It also has a removable framesheet that doubles as a sleeping pad for unexpected bivys. And it only weighs one pound.
  • Raingear. You’re probably not planning on climbing during a storm, but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Storms do kick up and ultralight rainpants and jacket are essential for survival. You can improvise a lot of things in the backcountry, but waterproof isn’t one of them.
  • Extra clothes. Let’s face it: We’ve all been benighted. Perhaps you underestimated the time it takes to complete the route, or maybe there was an accident requiring you to spend the night or hike move slowly in the dark/cold. A wool hat is essential. Most of the guides here also bring a lightweight wool under-layer to throw on. It weight only ounces and adds an exponential amount of warmth during an unforeseen bivy. A synthetic “puffy” jacket, preferably with a hood always makes the trip, regardless of the season. If you’re not already wearing a mid-layer piece (my favorites is the WildThings power-stretch hoody), pack that in your bag too.
  • Headlamp. Get one with varied beams. Save battery life with weaker settings and route-find with the strong beam. Lots of time can be lost searching for descent routes and/or rappel stations with a weak beam. Make sure you have fresh batteries.
  • Food. High calorie snacks with a good mix of quickly digestible sugars and slow-burning fats. Consider some Gatorade to make a weak mix for flavor, enticing you to drink more often and for an electrolyte boost.
  • Small first aid kit. Everyone has his/her own acceptable level of risk. Some folks bring cigarettes and a flask whiskey. For others, gauze, athletic/duct tape, and alcohol swabs fit the bill. The key is to minimize weight and space while bringing along more essential items.
  • Route map/description. Consider covering it with clear packing tape for protection.
  • Compass/whistle. A compass is always a good idea, and you should know how to properly use it (by the way “orienting a map” using a compass does not constitute knowing how to use it). Get a compass with a mirror for signaling in the event of an emergency. Also bring a whistle for the same reason. These two methods are much more effective than trying to yell to rescuers (and your injury might dictate you not being able to yell).
  • Water. Nalgene and stainless steel bottles are fine, but heavy. Try an old Gatorade bottle with a custom (re: dirtbag) duct-tape handle. An extra 2-liter soda bottle can ride in the pack for refills and crushes down to save space as water is used. In springtime or in rainy/wet regions, consider bringing a straw. Keep it in your chest pocket and drink as you go when trickles and pools turn up on the climb. This can save a lot of water weight in your pack, but don’t depend on it entirely. Personally, I’m hard on my stuff and I’ve had so many issues with various bladders that I wrote them off years ago.
  • Knife/multitool. Terribly useful.
  • Sunglasses. Easy to forget during those 3am alpine starts.
  • Sunscreen/chapstick. Depending on the region and weather.
  • Cellphone/camera. Sure, why not. For a few additional ounces an iPhone or equivalent does double duty for documenting and checking in with your support crew.
  • Bivy/Foam Pad. For really big days in less than ideal conditions and/or when there’s a good chance of getting benighted, a lightweight bivy sack and ½ piece of foam pad will keep you warmer and drier than your clothing alone can provide. It just may be the difference between a comfortable night vs emergency situation. For bivy’s forget about comfort features. Get something lightweight and small because chances are you won’t actually use it. I use the MSR E-bivy. For really lightweight packs, the insulite pad also does double-duty as a back pad/structural component and makes for a nice seat in spring snow conditions.

Of course, don’t forget to leave a few celebratory Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the car for your return!

Tech Tips: Down vs Synthetic

SYMG Guides Colby and Laura wearing Columbia's Ultrachange synthetic jackets on a damp and snowy day in Yosemite Valley

One questions we get a lot in the SYMG office is regarding down vs synthetic insulation. These are fill choices for all of the sleeping bag and “puffy” jackets. Let’s explore the differences of each and discuss situations where each one excels.

Down fill is very light and compressible. It is typically given a “fill” rating between 500 and 900, indicating the quality of the down. The higher the number the lighter, more compressible and more expensive the piece will be. For any given temperature rating, down is lighter and more compressible than a synthetic fill. It also has a longer lifespan. The major drawback of down is that if it gets wet, it is utterly useless and takes a very long time to dry, even in ideal conditions. A waterproof dry-sack will keep your bag dry even when dunked in a creek, but humidity is more difficult to contend with, and accidents do happen.

Synthetic fills are man-made hollow fibers that trap heat. Their major benefits are that they retain up to 60% of their warmth even when wet and are less expensive than down for any given temperature rating. The downside is that they are heavier and less compressible than down.

So, which to use? I like to think of my gear choices in terms of a system.  In this case, we want our system to be lightweight, take up a minimum volume in our pack, and we need insulative value even in the event that our gear gets wet. Packing a synthetic bag and jacket will certainly keep us warmer if wet, but will be heavier than we’d like. All down runs the risk of having no insulating pieces if it gets wet. So, the combination that works best is perhaps a down sleeping bag and synthetic jacket. Since the bag is heavier and bulkier than the jacket by nature, it’s a good candidate for down. Meanwhile, the synthetic jacket will work if the down bag gets wet.

Especially in the sunny Sierra, this system works great. However, there are times when other systems are preferable. For instance, on kayaking trips or backpacking in rainy, wet forests of Olympic National Park, you may prefer to have all synthetics since there is a good chance of getting your stuff wet. On winter mountaineering trips, all down might be best because there’s little chance of getting them wet (everything is frozen). This minimizes weight and space, making room for all the extra winter gear.

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.