In High Places

Vogelsang Peak

The very thought of returning to Yosemite was enough to taunt my senses with deep spiritual longing and images of sublimity in its purest form. Our trip, however, loomed nearly four months away. By the time I arrived at Yosemite it had been nearly a year’s time since my last backpack. A year is a long time to wait for someone who is driven so passionately by his experiences within these spiritual sanctuaries.  I was determined to make every moment there count, to take away the most of every situation, and to fully immerse myself in the sublimity found only in these magnificent temples of mountains and thin air; this is where a simple trek became a journey.

We did not drive into Lee Vining until nearly eight o’clock the evening prior to us entering the park, all but the small market right off Highway 395 had closed for the night. We pulled into the small parking lot of the El Mono Motel, a quaint motel with only 11 rooms and a shared bathroom. We walked through the small office coffee shop into a large courtyard filled with magnificent wildflowers, their colors ignited by the Sierra sunset. Other guests in the courtyard quietly absorbed their surroundings, simply nodding as we passed by. Their facial expressions portrayed a sense of inner peace, liberation from corrupt thoughts that plague the average mind in today’s world. Their mind, void of these thoughts, can experience Yosemite and the High Sierra with a pure sense of serenity and belonging. As I lay in bed I wondered if I, too, may experience this liberation from my thoughts.

We awoke to my obnoxious alarm signifying 6:00 a.m. had finally arrived. We organized the car, grabbed coffee at the Latte Da coffee shop, bananas from the market, and set off toward the Tuolumne Meadows permit office. We maneuvered the car around the winding uphill curves precariously perched high above the valley floor, as the drive continued the views became evermore stunning and our thoughts simplistic. Past the kiosk the meadows gleamed with incendiary colors and vibrant creeks backed by pristine granite, all crafted by the grand master himself.

We planned to be at the Backcountry Permit Office by 8 a.m. to sit, accompanied by fellow backpackers, and wait for its inevitable opening at 11. There were only five parties ahead of us, two of which had slept out overnight to have the first spots in line; we enjoyed casual conversation in the parking lot, surrounded by cool air with a easy breeze, the sunlight just now beginning to break through the trees. Our backpack was set at a weeklong loop: complete the five high sierra camps first to Vogelsang, then Merced, a detour to little Yosemite Valley and over Clouds Rest to sunrise, a rest day at Sunrise, from there on to May Lake, and Glen Aulin, then complete the circle back to Tuolumne. I wandered into the Backcountry Permit Office to ask the rangers questions on trail conditions and the next week’s weather; it by then was 8:30, still over two hours before they would start issuing permits for the next day. As I turned to leave, Lissa, my mother and companion for the trip, entered the office with a look half way between bewilderment and extreme excitement, she just learned that we could get our permits now and start hiking today rather than waiting until 11 and to begin hiking first thing tomorrow morning.

The ranger working the counter checked our dates, asked for our signatures and set us off with our seven day backcountry permit. It was now 9 a.m. and sunlight fully engulfed the landscape warming the thin air to uncomfortably high temperatures. We were not prepared to leave today, our packs needed to be repacked, food needed to be organized, the car needed to be void of all items that might carry a scent, and mentally I was not all there. We managed to get all that we needed in order by 9:30 and we hit the trail, Vogelsang 7.7 miles away and nearly 1500 feet up.

We spent the first mile-and-a-half wandering through meadows, over creeks, and across granite slabs. I continued to hike with awe and amazement as the tranquility began to surround me, the very thing that I had long for since I left here nearly a year ago. We were beginning to gain elevation and the heat began to bear down on us. Our pace slowed to a stroll, however, this did not disturb me it only allowed me to take in the scenery with greater magnitude, allowing me to truly enjoy the journey. The journey is all too commonly ignored in our daily life; we become fixated on the destination rather that the path to getting there. Children are being raised in this era based on a destination mentality, unless, they are taught how to slow down and enjoy the experience. As we wandered past granite domes into thinner air we encountered numerous hikers all with emotions and apparent skill level spanning over a dauntingly large spectrum, one mother, however, struck me as interestingly different.

She and her two daughters were on their way to Vogelsang for a two night stay; what made them stand out beyond the rest was a specific shell tied to each one of their packs, this shell signified a 500 mile pilgrimage through France and Spain: el Camino de Santiago. Entranced by the possibility of hearing her life changing journey, I had no choice but to stop her to ask. As it turned out she and her two daughters had not hiked the Camino yet, they were still training; taking backpacks and day trips whenever they could. They had hiked all around the United States, Europe, and parts of the Jesus trail. Her daughters were young, yet they had an incredible amount of life experiences already within them. Their mother was teaching them the true way to experience life: through the journey. She told us of how she has taken them into these magnificent places to teach them how to truly live in this new society. She would take them out of school to do weeklong excursions and bombard their weekends with hikes. Both being mothers deeply concerned with how a corrupt society can affect their children, she and Lissa had an incredible discussion on how they felt the world was effecting this new generation and why they thought taking us into these places to experience life’s true pleasures is the most powerful force of change.

As the conversation drew on we shared past experiences and our concerns for protecting sanctuaries like Yosemite. I began to realize how privileged I am to be raised the way am, to be here right now, to have the experience of a weeklong backpack in some of the greatest wilderness areas left on earth. It bestows upon me a duty to the preservation of these places, to allow future generations to seek what I sought and to find what I have found.

Creek side wildflowers on the trail to Vogelsang from Tuolumne Meadows

The sun was now fully overhead and we reached the first flat shaded spot in several miles. We took a break for lunch, trail lunches are the simplest of backpacking delicacies: a tortilla with peanut butter and applesauce, after four hours of hiking it’s the little things that make you happy. We ate next to a creek surrounded by lupine and shady pine trees, not a single soul around. After basking beneath the iridescent blue sky we wet our bandanas and continued onward. We were beginning to succumb to the heat that was unusual for these altitudes. Our pace continued to slow with a long ways still to go; the sun sinking lower into the sky. We eventually broke out into a gorgeous meadow situated at the foot of the nearly 10,000 foot Tuolumne pass; it was now 4:00 p.m. we last spoke with a human close to an hour ago. We still had to reach the top of the pass to reach the junction towards Vogelsang, after that we still had another 0.8 miles of uphill. We could not dream of a more beautiful place, royal purple lupine peppered the landscape, alpine meadow grass flourished supplied by the snowmelt creek winding its way back down to the Tuolumne River.

As the last few tenths of a mile fell away we could begin to see the scenery that would accompany us at our stay in Vogelsang. Mounts Fletcher and Vogelsang sat perfectly poised over the camp as if to be the guardians of this sacred place; Fletcher Lake captured the monolithic reflection of its namesake peak; Fletcher Creek, fed by the lake above, cascaded through meadows and over granite slabs into pools of water containing a beckoning charm; large expanses of meadows and pine trees laid way to granite walls. The camp was engulfed by a grand charisma like no other place I had been to before; it is here where the mind and soul can be truly replenished.

By the time we walked into the backpacker’s camp it was 5:30 p.m., eight hours after we started; we were exhausted and starving. After throwing all of our food in the bear boxes and making dinner we discussed plans for tomorrow. Lissa was completely drained; the heat that day was unheard of at those altitudes, there was a slim chance that we could get the early start we needed to beat the heat and reach Merced at a decent hour. After our short discussion it was decided to spend tomorrow at Vogelsang to rest and get prepared for the trek to Merced. Lying in bed that night I remembered how no feeling is better than falling asleep in Yosemite’s high country only to wake up the next morning to still be there.

A marmot basking in the rays of early morning light

The next morning was surreal; bright rays of light shone through the thin nylon walls of our aquamarine North Face tent. As I poked my head outside the vestibule I could see the splendor of our alpine meadow engulfed by crisp rays of sunshine. The backpackers who would be leaving this morning were long since awake, packing all their amenities that had made up their home-away-from-home since their journey began; for some weeks or even months ago. Their minds occupied with enigmatic experiences collected from -what some would consider a lifetime of traveling into a place that ingrains a unique collection of experiences within all who enter. We took a leisurely stroll around Fletcher lake before breakfast, photographing wildflowers and a family of marmots as they basked themselves on the shimmering granite. We followed the creek down pass the Vogelsang’s mess tent to a small pond to sit and watch the sun enliven the landscape and observe rainbow trout catch their breakfast before returning to camp to cook ours. By the time we returned to our tent, the camp was empty; until later that afternoon we had the whole meadow to ourselves.

We ate a fantastic breakfast of eggs with cheese and hash browns, all previously dehydrated of course. To most a disgusting meal reserved for NASA’s astronauts, to us an ordinary meal on a blissful rest day.  After dishes were washed and the food was properly stored we set out for the boulder fields that lay beneath mount. Fletcher’s monolithic prow. I bouldered on virgin stone blocks of laser cut granite previously attached to mount. Fletcher’s face witch loomed above. My mind was too incapacitated to deal with whimsical thoughts of the life I would be returning to when I got off the trail. The picturesque scene disturbed the balance that previously defined my life, a balance distorted by a corrupt world void of powerful experiences the encompassed me in these divine places. I enjoyed the art this sacrosanct sort of meditation unifying my mind and body, purifying my thoughts, the sense of true life transcending into my ever longing soul.

After what seemed to be hours of bouldering and wandering we escaped the heat of the day inside Vogelsang’s canvas mess tent; besides the camp staff we were still the only inhabitants of this mountain sanctuary. We made small talk with the staff, played Uno, and read their magazines and books in an attempt to forget the soaring temperatures. By now backpackers and day hikers began to trickle in a few at a time. Almost all of them portrayed looks of discontent or bravado even; others were genuine, they humbly came knowing they were in the presence of a power far greater than themselves. These are the people that are pulled by the true grand charisma of this place; they understand its unique magnetism.

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the stars on our second nigh at Vogelsang

It was past 4:00p.m. now and the heat finally began to taper off so we left the mess tent to enjoy our last few hours at Vogelsang. On our walk back to camp we crossed paths with a small group of four old friends gathered next to the creek, laughing and enjoying a bottle of fine wine with cheese and crackers. We sat and shared experiences all of us continuously raving on how lucky we are to be here, not just right here but here on earth. They were excited to see someone as young as myself truly enjoying being on a backpack and spending time with his mother. None of us could seem to accurately convey how we truly felt being in this place, how lucky we are to have places like this; how lucky we are to have these experiences to share with one another. After conversing for the better part of an hour we parted our ways.

Back at camp we organized gear, packed and repacked, sorted tomorrow’s food, and ate dinner.
As always, I was overjoyed to hike a new stretch of trail that would lead to a destination with uniqueness all its own. I reviewed our route to Merced High Sierra camp: elevation, distances, trail junctions, water crossings, everything the map could tell me. We climbed into the tent just as the alpenglow began to kiss summit the surrounding peaks, listening to the sounds of other backpackers reflect on experiences from prior journeys; a common ground that we all shared.

We were on the trail just before 7:00a.m., the air was fresh and cool with a morning breeze, the sun already begun dancing through the landscape. We had 8.1 miles of almost all downhill to reach Merced; we both felt ready for it. The trail took us past some of the most unique scenery in the entire Sierra’s. Fletcher Creek soon connected with other creeks to form a swift flowing river that flowed onto miles of granite slabs, forested areas hosted creeks and meadows that eventually laid way to more granite domes and pinnacles. The canopy supplied by the subalpine forest laid way to exposed granite slabs placed precariously to the side of the mighty river. Every so often the rivers perpetual flow cascaded down small falls, every droplet plainly visible as it fell for seemingly an eternity. It was here at one of these small falls that a truly remarkable woman crossed our path.

One of the many small cascades on the trail from Vogelsang to Merced Lake

She was on her way to Vogelsang alone; a well seasoned hiker, prepared, educated, obviously experienced. She actually stopped us, asking if we were a mother-son team, and to her surprise we were. She was ecstatic to see a team such as ours, proclaiming that she and her son use to hike as a team and he thought it was absurd that he never saw any other mother and son hikers; apparently he would be just as ecstatic to see the close relationship I have with my Mother. She described many adventures that she and her son experienced together over the years and how, now that he had grown up and moved on, she was left to trek the backcountry by herself. They truly lived the life of a hiker, for his senior project he through hiked the PCT by himself with his mother as his trail angel. They had to jump through a lot of hoops to make the trip work, training all four years of high school backpacking and hiking as much as they could to get into shape. After her husband was gone they only had each other and they used this to build a magnificent relationship based on the experiences that they shared from many journeys into the backcountry. Although he could not backpack as much as he use to, she said that he is always sharing his experiences with others; expressing to them how much those experiences effected his life, shaping him into the person he is today. She, however, continued to hike, drawn by the internal longing of the backcountry sanctuaries.

She told us of a time when a pack of coyotes attacked a deer where she was camping; she could smell the blood as the coyotes tore the deer apart. When the coyotes were finished with the deer they began to circle her tent howling. It was pouring down rain, she was soaked, she ripped her only pair of pants, and now was being taunted by a pack of coyotes; she was miserable and as soon as she got the chance she ditched the rest of her hike. This was an incredible experience that she enjoys sharing and despite the inherent danger, these experiences are what keep returning her (and the rest of us) to these places. We soon parted ways, continuing further into the heat of the day.

It was starting to get incredibly hot as we lost altitude continuing down the exposed rocky trail; mile after mile soon fell away until we ducked back into tree cover at the edge of Merced Lake. Lissa limped into camp with injured toes on each foot, the long stretches of downhill over granite steps continually beat her toes into the tip of her boots (not that the boots did not fit, her feet swelled abnormally due to the extreme heat). I worked on setting up the tent and putting away food; Lissa removed her boots only to find her pinky toes quite devastated. Just as I finished setting up, a grubby looking man walked into camp. His skin was dark and wrinkled from years of sun; his expression would lead one to believe that this was where he truly belonged. He simply asked to see our map, from then on I was completely immersed in the fascinating tales found within this captivating man.

I pulled out the map and added up the mileage for his day’s journey: little Yosemite Valley to Merced High Sierra Camp; we then looked at his options for reaching Vogelsang the next day. Living not too far from Yosemite in Merced, these mountains were home to Richard. When he was not backpacking or traveling he spent his time chopping firewood or picking his next excursion. He was a man beaten by time: a titanium hip, multiple back surgeries, foot problems; he considered backpacking retirement. We asked him how long he was going to be out for; he did not know how long he would be gone for, just a rough plan of where he was headed. We continued to talk about all of our travels. We reminisced about the Rae lakes loop in Kings Canyon National Park, a stunning trail whose beauty we all marveled at. Our travels to Death Valley, Grand Teton, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, Mt. Baldy, Yosemite, and other parts of the High Sierra. It is rare to meet another person with so much admiration and respect for the mountains. Our storytelling continued until we decided to venture on to the creek to soak our tired feet.

There we discussed our plan for tomorrow. The hike to Sunrise High Sierra Camp is long and really exposed, there was suppose to be thunderstorms and we would be walking next to a river on granite. With the current condition of Lissa’s feet it was decided to hike the 13.2 miles to Yosemite Valley to catch a shuttle back to Tuolumne. I was frustrated and I tried not to show it, I knew that these mountains were not going anywhere and that the experiences that I had over the last three days were going to stay with me for the rest of my life; there was no point in risking greater injury.

Starving, we returned to camp; as I made dinner we were again joined by Richard. We continued to share all of the experiences we had in the mountains: from my first trip -Havasupai Falls- to Richard’s solo ice climbing adventures on Mt. Whitney.  We talked and ate as the shadows grew longer on the ground; we began talking about what has become of the mountains and the people that come into them. How much the three of us have seen them change, even myself in my short lifetime. He and my mother could speak of times where you did not need a permit, the trips we had spoke of would have no people, and the people that did go were humbled by the mountains. I was in amazement of what the older generations were able to enjoy, where as now we live in a time when people disrespect the mountains, treat these great sanctuaries as mass amusement parks. They do not understand the impact they have on these places, what could happen if we are not responsible with the places we have been given.

Richard told more stories of large human footprints in the spring snows of North Dome, face to face encounters with bears, and countless others. Richard was a man shaped by his experiences, people like him and my mother are rare in the new generation, yet they are the very essence of backpacking. Richards’s stories were all truth, for he had nothing to prove to us. Eventually the sun dipped below the mountains and it was time to retire, tomorrow was going to be a long day. I was filled with anxiety as I lay in bed that night. Tomorrow was going to be a taxing day mentally and physically; the one thing that calmed me was reflecting on the last three days, all that I had done and all that I had learned. The mountains are the greatest teachers, but only to those who are willing to listen.

I was awake at four the next morning; anxiety riddled, my thoughts kept me from much needed rest. I pulled the map out again, checking every trail junction, following elevation contours, and areas of exposure; still no matter how many times I scoured the smallest detail I could not evict the ominous feeling of impending disaster. Richard had warned us of a bear he saw at one of the junctions the day before: a mother with two cubs; again only adding to my worries. I began to pack and Lissa woke up. We had planned on a 6 o’clock start so far we were way ahead of schedule being that was 4:45. Loading the packs went reasonably fast as most of it had been done the day before. Most of the gear went into my pack, hopefully leaving Lissa’s pack as light as possible to give us the greatest chance of reaching the shuttle by its 5 p.m. departure. After a farewell from Richard we were off, watches reading 6:07.

The weather was perfect, low 60’s with a silky wind blowing up the canyon; the sun still had not shown itself over the peaks to the east. The trail followed the Merced River down to the valley floor over 3,000 feet below us. Most of the trail until Echo canyon was hiking through dense meadows of quaking aspen, tall grasses, and wild flowers, the wind still crept unseen through the trees; if felt as if we were trekking through Shangri-La. I was starving, I would not eat until we got passed the junction that Richard had warned us had a bear.  We continued down the trail walking on precipitous ledges mere feet from a fatal fall into the pounding cascade. As we approached the junction at Echo canyon I was incredibly attentive yet surprisingly calm. We no sooner turned at the junction and their mother bear was, with no cubs. We stopped dead silent in the middle of the trail and backed up the hill as she ran off into the trees. We waited 10 minutes to continue down the trail, walking as calmly and making as much noise as we could.

So far today we were the only people on the trail and it was almost noon. This gave me a lot of time to reflect on my journey both mentally and spiritually. Even though this would be my last day in the backcountry for this trip I was too focused on everything that I had experienced in just these four short days to be upset. I had the pleasure of the company of my mother, sharing experiences with genuine people, stepping away from a corrupt and chaotic world, gathering wisdom from the mountains, most importantly resetting the balance of my life. We continued alone further down river stopping every so often to look back at where we had come from; you could see the river carving its way down the valley as the sun sharpened the landscape. I could not accurately describe this scene because it was not just a picture it was the whole moment, a point in time where the grand charisma of the landscape captivated all of the senses rendering my mere human mind incapable of grasping the divine aura defining the moment.

We did not see another person until we were less than a mile outside of Little Yosemite Valley; by then we were exhausted. Lissa’s feet had tormented her to an unbearable level and we still had the most challenging stretch to go: the Mist Trail. The heat had reached an insane level well into the high 90’s to 100. When we got to Little Yosemite we found cell phone service and called Will, my Father, to let him know our situation. He gave us information on the shuttle to Tuolumne and wished us a safe journey after we promised to call when we got back to the car. After a quick snack we got back to the trail, it was 1:30 we had three-and-a-half hours to reach the shuttle that was nearly 4.1 miles away.

As we turned towards Yosemite Valley, the whole atmosphere changed. The people were rushed, so focused on where they were going that they were oblivious to their surroundings; they did not know trail etiquette or seem to have any sense of outdoor ethics. There was a blatant disregard for the place in which they stood; the amount of rubbish compiled on the ground increased astronomically and people walked about as if it was not even there. I was dismayed at the amount of people were on the trail at such a horrid time of day and how unprepared they were with one water bottle between four people, no packs or snacks. I was confused by all of this, I had just came from a place so divine there was no way anyone could enter without feeling obligated to preserve the serenity you experienced so that all others could experience it as well. Or could you? Was this the fate of any place that succumbs to crowds and overuse? I could not bear to think that one day what was once a mountain sanctuary could be destroyed by the phenomenon I saw here.

I let these thoughts go, that is why I was here: to experience these mountain temples. All the people that I met on my journey, all the experiences that I had gathered and shared, the peace and tranquility motivated me not to dwell on these negative thoughts but to never forget about them. If I forget then I lose the reasoning for protecting the divine mountain sanctuaries I travel to; I will no longer be able to replenish my ever longing soul by returning to the mountains. So silently I continued down the trail.

We made it, off the trail and at the shuttle with only 15 minutes to spare. We had gotten off the trail and taken the free shuttle to Dagen’s Deli for a sandwich and a drink, by the time we finished the last bite our shuttle had just rolled up. We boarded the bus bound for several destinations in the Tuolumne Meadows area; everyone on board looked exhausted with expressionless faces. I had my eyes transfixed on granite monoliths that kept watch over the valley: El Capatian, Washington Column, Leaning Tower, the Lost Arrow, Royal Arches, Half Dome; all of them loomed so ominously above, yet I felt like only I could see them, understand them. For the hour-and-a-half ride I sat with my eyes gazing onto the landscape watching the storm douse the high country with much needed rain. My mind was empty, pure, transformed.

We reached the car in an exhausted haze; it was 7 o’clock I had been up 15 hours, ten-and-a-half of them hiking.  We threw all the gear in the back seat, took off our shoes, and started driving to Bishop, storm clouds dotted the sky. The drive, like the bus ride, was silent; I spent every moment that I could taking in every detail of the landscape. I still did not know what to think, what to say, what to do, I just listened to the mountains, hanging on their every word.  As we turned back onto 395 I could see the sun setting over the jagged peaks. The tell tale light that gave these mountains their name “Range of Light”; brilliant oranges, reds, violets, yellows all collided to send shock waves of incendiary color resonating off the granite peaks, igniting the clouds with a pulsating iridescent glow. It was time for me to return home. Or was I already there?


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