Bloody Canyon to Yosemite
But oh, those rewards! The exquisite Camp Two along the Kuna Crest, looking straight across the canyon to Mts. Lyell and Maclure! The shocking beauty of Camp Three at the base of Banner Peak! The ungodly descent into the North Fork San Joaquin headwaters, and its rewards at Twin Island Lakes! Even the crowded but spectacular descent into Yosemite Valley at trip's end. As we noted before the trip: even though we may miss a few fine destinations, any route we take will be amazing and beautiful. And, of course, we were right. We were right a lot on this trip, with decisions that later would prove to be extremely foresighted in most cases. So nearly everything worked in our favor: our intuition served us well, our bodies and gear held up, the weather was most excellent, the route was truly spectacular, and the rewards and lessons learned will serve us well in the future. Especially the one about ambition tempered by reason, and making time to RELAX.
* Up Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass
* Across Kuna Crest to the Muir Trail¹, presumably meeting it at Donohue Pass
* Cross to the NF San Joaquin above Thousand Island Lake via the 'Sierra High Route'²
* Head north from Bench Valley into the Lyell Fork Merced drainage
* Reach trails again where the Isberg Pass trail crosses the Lyell Fork
* Descend to Yosemite Valley, with possible stops on top of Clouds Rest and/or Half Dome
¹using RJ Secor's Sierra guidebook
²using Steve Roper's High-Route guidebook
This truly ambitious route would require several days to cross trackless terrain, and from Thousand Island Lake to the Isberg trail would violate my 1999 vow to avoid consecutive days of x-c travel; I could only hope this violation would not impose too high a fine! We had eight days to perform this feat, possibly extending into day nine but with mighty resistance from Scott at the idea. Read on to see how our route and schedule fared!
Truly we were off - in less than a minute we crested a small hill and watched the trail descend sharply to Walker Lake. This suggested two things immediately: my message to Wally saying we started at the lake was inaccurate, and 2) my maps AND guidebooks were lying to me. If we're not starting at Sawmill Canyon (due to the gate), nor at Walker Lake, where exactly were we? And Larry was striding up a more appropriately-sloped (uphill) path, suggesting that it made more sense. In the confusion Larry was the most certain, so again we were off!
Ten minutes later we were WAY off: the fine-looking trail deserted us and we began bushwhacking across the slope in search of a way into Bloody Canyon, where the True Trail would presumably be found. We considered retreating, but it wasn't in our nature to give up without a struggle. So we struggled, crashing along on a slightly ascending traverse in search of a route between forest and cliff that would lead to the creek. By the end of our first hour we were exhausted, willow-whipped and thirsty, but we had worked our way across the creek and found the path patiently waiting for us. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, but after a bit of rest .. we were off!
The day was fine and hot, a bit more buggy than our liking (thanks in part to some fine aspen groves, which Larry pointed out are a good indicator-species for mosquitoes), but the path kept us on our way. We passed two pretty waterfalls - well, really steep slides to be more precise, but John Muir called them waterfalls back in the 1870s and NO one argues with him! - and we reached lower Sardine Lake late in the afternoon. With our early detour draining our strength and enthusiasm, we decided that this lake would make a fine camp.. assuming we could find a site. Larry wandered a bit and came back with news of good sites at the far end, so we staggered over and set up shop. A nice place, though again a bit buggy.
Day one ended on a disturbing note: my reliable white-gas stove refused to pump. It worked only reluctantly, creating its own pressure after a few iminutes; most certainly a bad way to start a long trip! I opened the pump chamber and discovered that the rubber gasket had pinched and deformed; I put it back in its place, and it worked much better.. for one day. It was sick again on later days - the gasket looked weak where it had been pinched - but the stove worked acceptably. (One of the first stops after the trip was at a store that sold replacement Coleman pump parts.) I decided to forego the tarp and sleep under the stars (well, trees and stars) with a bug-net over my face; it worked except for the droning bugs, which drove me slightly mad and made me sit up several times swatting the air. After several swings I would overheat in my cool-weather bag, which probably attracted still more bugs. Inevitably I slept.
And what a tremendous view!
Our climb had revealed the Sierra crest behind us, including Mt. Dana and part of the Yosemite road through Dana Meadows, but the million-dollar view was now to our southwest. Mts. Lyell and Maclure proudly showed off their high-quality glaciers and led a parade of peaks that lowered only slightly before rising again as the Cathedral Range. In that low gap was a granite dome that looked suspiciously like the highest part of Half Dome! Further left of Lyell, through a low gap east of Donohue Peak, we had our first glimpse of the Banner/Ritter massif which so dominates the area south of Donohue Pass along the Muir Trail. We'd be seeing it up close soon enough, but this day belonged to Lyell and Maclure.
After dropping and contouring south we began seeking a camp with decent water. We found an excellent spot with a dying stream (decent water but little flow), dropped our packs and looked over the next ridge for better water. Since the next basin showed little water and more exposure, we returned to our packs and sought a good camp. We had several excellent choices, and settled on a spot somewhat elevated and surrounded by monstrous granite blocks. Clouds now drifted overhead, but two claps of distant thunder was all the trouble they could muster. We cleaned up and ate, still marveling at the views, and then were treated to a fantastic sunset. Larry and I scrambled over rocks in search of yet another angle as the clouds turned to gold, then a cool rose as alpenglow settled over the snowy peaks. This was a memorable day - and it was only day two!
It didn't look good. We were staring down sheer granite slabs inclined at something close to 40 degrees, with minimal handholds and few cracks. After a couple hundred feet the going would get easy again, but that was irrelevant for the next twenty minutes! We pulled out maps and plotted our way to the Muir Trail, but our focus was still much closer than those three miles. We slithered gently downward, then gratefully followed the creek as it led us back toward genuine trails. After a good while, though, we met nothing, and pulling out the maps we noted with dismay that our creek was veering south to hit Waugh Lake and the Rush Creek trail - and so were we! Rather than get greedy, we accepted this alternate route and worked our way downhill, the reservoir now visible through the trees. We traversed one particularly nasty 30-foot stretch (needlessly, as it turned out) and reached the trail. Relieved that we no longer had to think about the route, we headed west and encountered a group of men and dogs going our way. We soon reached the John Muir Trail and took a break, letting them take the lead toward Island Pass. The distance passed swiftly (while we looked back toward the Lost Lakes and wondered "did we really do that??"), and soon we were passing through a gorgeous scene of tarns and wildflowers. Suddenly we were at the pass - one final tarn framing the Banner-Ritter group in all its glory! We shot the scene and relaxed, preparing ourselves for the long stretch of off-trail travel that awaited us. The pass at Lake Catherine was visible from here, and while it didn't look very intimidating after what we had already done it was clearly no cakewalk (and didn't cake sound good right about now?). We began again and soon left the trail, seeking good water and a fine perch from which to attack the pass early the next day. We ended up above Thousand Island Lake near its twin inlet streams, and a bit of searching found enough space for small tents near a slow-moving stretch of creek. The sun was nearly behind the cliffs of Mt. Davis, and while the others set up tents I did a quick jump in the creek, giving the sun sufficient time to dry and warm me. I again chose to skip the shelter for the night, and just after dark I remembered the bug-net; when I returned for it I saw Larry setting up his camera, shooting the Moon as it neared Banner Peak (a magnificent tower from our camp). I grabbed my camera and got off a quick shot before retreating to bed for a great night's sleep, bugged by far less bugs than the first night.
A tremendous and starkly wonderful landscape confronts you here, and on a clear
day you won't forget it any time soon. Lake Catherine fills the granite bowl
below, a deep indigo color that makes Oregon's Crater Lake seem merely a pretty
A slash of ice and snow descends from the gap between Banner Peak and Mt.
Ritter, making the summits accessible in theory but not to me. The wind was, to
put it mildly, a bit brisk - so we rested and took photos while waiting for the
strength to tackle the next leg. Two day-hikers met us at the pass, intent on
climbing high on Banner Peak; we wished them well and saw them later as we
traversed Catherine's talus shoreline. A small lower lake put a short cliff or
two in our way, but we passed them soon enough and found ourselves on the brink.
The guidebook mentioned the view from here, but as it was in the Wind River
Range with the first sight of Mt. Hooker, it has to be seen to be believed.
Words and pictures fail as one tries to capture the disheartening view of a
vertical wilderness such as this, and the sight of a small piece of one of the
Rock Island Lakes was not in any way reassuring. However, someone made a strong
claim that a way can be found, so with their reassurance supporting our own we
sought the way, chanting our mantra "whenever in doubt, go right" as we sought
enlightenment at every cliff-face. Every fifteen minutes or so we reached one
of these cliffs, and with sinking stomach we peered over the edge. Sure enough,
if we made a descending traverse to the right we could go another ten minutes to
.. another cliff-face. Spooky though it was, it worked: we soon crossed a
creek, passed through a gap near some reddish cliffs (mentioned in the guide),
and .. another cliff-face. Only a few left, though, and we were at the main
flow of the North Fork as it reached the northern Twin Island Lake. Oh, did I
say "we"? Actually I lost the other two and reached there first; I must have
descended by a different route while they waited for me elsewhere. After an
anxious few minutes I reached for the whistle, but then I saw Scott waving from
higher up the hill. Relieved and a bit annoyed, I took a nice break waiting for
them, only to lose them again when I had to go back to the resting-place for my
camera (turned out it was attached to my pack but I couldn't see it until I
began removing the pack in search of it). We met again at a wondrous spot, a
small cascade mere feet above the level of the lake; we took our sweet time
here, drinking our fill and resting in the mist from the short falls. Larry and
Scott soaked their feet, but since we were about to cross that same piece of
North Fork water below the lake I chose to wait for that moment to provide
relief to my feet. We wandered carefully along the eastern shore until we hit
the stream, swapped boots for water gear, and just as carefully crossed the
stream. Larry's walk kept him at calf level or below, while Scott and I were
closer to knee-height at midstream. After swapping back into boots, we
clambered upslope to the higher lake, the one we had seen impossibly reposed
from the stream below Lake Catherine. We reached it swiftly and rested some
more - this had been an amazingly hard day for the few miles we had traveled!
Larry and I had lost our millions; now it was Scott's turn to lose. While
setting up his tent, a gust of wind sent it airborne as he was reaching for the
stakes. With a single high bounce off its springy fiberglass poles, it made
straight for the lake! Larry had planned to take a quick dip in the near
future, so this event accelerated his plans; he rushed to the lake, stripped and
jumped, while I passed over some short cliffs that stood near where the
now-sinking tent was drifting. Larry paddled the tent over to me, then unzipped
the door so we could lighten its load before handing it to the still
shell-shocked Scott. Within an hour his tent was not only dry again but cleaner
than it had been in quite some time, while Larry rested on sunny granite slabs
to get warm. I again chose to sleep sans shelter, and this night the
bugs were quite respectful, allowing me a good night of sleep. Exhaustion was
most likely another contributing factor.
Aside from the cold wind, we had another steep slope to descend before reaching
camp, so after a short break and more photos we marched wearily down. The slope
at first looked good on the left, but after ten minutes the right began to look
much better; as Larry and Scott worked their way down the steepest stretch I
doubled back and came further right. We met at the highest lake and continued
down toward several inviting lakes in a rather barren landscape. We really
needed to find a camp pretty soon, yet camping by a treeless lake did not hold
much appeal, so we veered north toward where Foerster Creek should be. Soon we
reached a couple of dry creek-beds, but the next valley held a small tarn and
moving water- not a great flow, but good water nonetheless. We didn't search
long before settling on a nice spot, and we hardly finished our dinner before
the sun set.
We retreated from the edge and now moved west, and in less than a half-hour we were on trail again! Not since Island Pass had we traveled on a genuine trail, and we were greatly relieved that we could take our minds off the near horizon and concentrate merely on keeping our feet on the path. At the Lyell Fork we found bugs and a swift stream, so we de-booted and crossed in our water shoes before moving on. Several huge junipers gripped the granite firmly along the path, a most impressive sight. Soon thereafter we passed what several guidebooks refer to as one of the Sierra's best camps: a splashing waterfall, level ground, and picture-window views of the entire Clark Range. We continued north with a vague plan of camping near the junction of the Isberg and Vogelsang trails, but somewhere in here that old quote came back to us. Scott suggested that, with a bit more of a push, we could in fact be at the car by the following afternoon. I was pooped but willing, and Larry agreed that we had seen far more than our share of beauty; we therefore advanced our schedule and aimed for Merced Lake, which would leave just over 14 miles of work for day seven. This would cut Half Dome from the schedule, but we had been on several viewpoints just as awesome, and without the crowds or cables. [The fact that these two final days would be harder than if we had camped in the Lyell Fork valley was conveniently ignored at the time..]
We dropped down to the junction at Lewis Creek, only to be confronted with several new sensations. Among the first was a string of horses, each with a helmeted visitor bouncing along between guides. I had expected that this junction would effectively mark the end of our isolation, yet this was still a surprise! The next new sensation was even worse: cobblestones? For reasons that don't seem to appeal to horses OR hikers, the National Park Service had employed a great many people in the construction of trails that forced a slow pace on everyone - just what we did NOT need for our sprint to the car! We worked our way down to the Merced, then camped at the first available site as darkness tried to catch us walking yet again. A short way past the ranger station we found a huge and unused camp area, which we promptly made use of. Our plans were to be awake and ready to move by 6AM, so we turned in rapidly in order to recharge our weak batteries for the final push. Before turning in I wandered back to the ranger station for news. We had seen smoke further down the valley, and we needed to be sure that our route wasn't blocked. I returned with two important pieces of news: the path was clear, and beer was still being produced (the ranger station had a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on its table). Since we had stopped a mile short of our goal, we had fifteen miles to go; the ale news put Larry in the proper frame of mind! A good night's rest would recharge us for the last long haul.
NIGHT SIX So much for recharging! At 2AM Larry found himself face to face with a good-sized black bear; his shout sent it wandering in a new direction (toward MY shelter!). I woke up, retrieved my whistle and lamp, and tooted him on his way - even though I didn't actually see the bear as I was blinded by Larry's light. Larry suggested that I grab his walking-stick for his defense in case of a closer encounter, so I swung my lamp to our gear to find his stick. Either the same bear or another one was exploring there, so I whistled and flashed my light until he moved toward the river (which he probably did regardless of my actions). All our food was securely stuffed in bear canisters, but any damage to our gear would make life on the last day pretty miserable. At last we saw no trace of the bear(s), so we tried to relax and get back to sleep. Needless to say, it took a while!
The final three miles now awaited our footsteps! We strode / staggered down the steep trail, encountering still more people whose accents betrayed a wide range of foreign visitors. Some of the conversations I had were quite interesting, most especially the one where the man offered to shoot me to ease my 'broken leg' (I was wearing a knee-brace, as I had pretty much the entire trip). I asked for a last beer before being shot, and he pretended to acquiesce before laughing and passing me by. As has happened so often in the past, Scott began to accelerate as the finish line drew near; I let him pass and wandered down with Larry, whose knee was troubling him on the descent. We reached a junction with no sign of Scott, or the Muir Trail: just a sign that cryptically read "foot traffic only". While that sounded promising it was decidedly unclear, and since I saw no sign on the other trail we chose to go that way. (Scott claims this trail was marked for stock; sure would have been nice to see that sign!) The trail was clearly leveling off, but of course the temperature was pretty warm down here, the lowest elevation we had visited since .. who knows, but it was long ago when we traveled by car! As we crossed a stream I asked Larry if he needed to stop for a bit. He pondered it a while before realizing that this proved he needed a break, so we broke for a while by the pretty stream. At last we hit pavement, and followed it into civilization!
As we came into a crowded area we could see Scott at the end of the other trail, shouldering his pack and mentally preparing to go back up to find us! We shouted until he turned around, and we were united again at last. A brief walk to the Happy Isles parking lot followed, where we happily found Scott's truck in plain sight (thanks again, Wally!). After a quick celebratory beer (Larry practically insisted it match the ranger's brew of choice, no complaints here) and a new shirt to replace my 1971 "go climb a rock" logo, we were off - this time on wheels. Scott called and canceled his reservation for the following night and booked himself into Bishop instead. We enjoyed the drive over Tioga Pass very much, looking back from Dana Meadows to our day-two territory, and by late afternoon we were at the Walker Lake trailhead. I noticed that an 'agriculture inspector' had examined my car, dressed in a bear costume: one huge pawprint and several smears were evident. Sure was glad I had rolled up that window! (Later inspection found a wet nose-print on three of the four front windows, and I wiped other paw-prints off when I cleaned the rear window.. they had been pretty thorough!)
Part of the filling in came less than three months later..