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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Up, Up and Away: Hiking in Yosemite

It's time to start looking for a challenging new hike for this year's trip to Yosemite. I tease Mark about torturing him every year, making him come along on a forced march, but more accurately I'm torturing myself; Mark is in much better shape than I ever hope to be.

There are hundreds of hiking trails to choose from and they are all beautiful in their own way. There are the big famous ones: Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome. These are the trails that get hundreds of people a day trekking up and down in such numbers that hardly a vista point can be seen for the flailing legs, arms and cameras (If a trail is hiked in a crowd, does it have scenery?). There are the lesser known trails that don't have as many grand views, but offer closer looks at the granite walls and river habitat in the valley. Then there are the ones that are so gut-busting very few people are willing to try them and they have spectacular scenery to boot. Those are the ones I look for.

View from Yosemite Valley floor

Part of the excitement of any trip is in the planning. I have a thick California Hiking book (Foghorn Press) I've used for every trip we've done and it's a great help. I also love the website Yosemite Hikes (http://www.yosemitehikes.com); whoever writes the descriptions on this site deserves a Webby. Funny, informative, and once you finish the prescribed hike, so true (sometimes sadly so--ALWAYS take their advice, trust me on this). I would love to live in Yosemite from mid-May through September every year and do nothing but hike each trail listed. Unfortunately, I have not yet become independently wealthy (not for lack of wishing), so I have to be satisfied with a week a year sometime around the end of July and make the experience count.

If you've ever visited Yosemite Valley in the summer I don't have to tell you how crowded it can get. If you are one of the lucky ones to have scored reservations at a campground or cabin you pretty much have to park the car and leave it there until it's time to go home. There are virtually no parking spots during the day and the traffic can get so backed up it looks like the MacArthur Maze met Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It's really best to walk or take the shuttle bus once you get there. With that in mind, I try to plan hikes that take off from the valley either within walking distance from our camp spot or from a shuttle stop. Of course, the only way out of the valley is up--3,000+ feet depending on your destination--so it's a good idea to do a little training before you get there.

I would love to say that I get up at the crack of dawn and run like the wind for an hour, then hop on my bike and ride to work by way of the next county...but it's a good day when I get the milk on the cereal and the OJ in the glass without switching it up, so I do what passes for training after work. I start in March just walking around the neighborhood, going farther out as it stays lighter during the month. Then I start wearing a backpack with a few things in it, gradually adding weight as my feet and knees get used to the extra pressure. Although it's a little challenging to find a decent hill around town, I find them on the weekends and walk up and down with the goal of having my lungs stay inside my chest (I just hate it when they try to crawl out--it's so inconvenient). I'll admit, no matter how diligent I am about this process, once we get to Yosemite I still have to acclimate for a few days. The valley is 4,000 feet above sea level, which doesn't sound like much until you try to climb a few thousand more. That little difference in oxygen really takes away your gusto.

6:30am: On the way up Four Mile Trail, gusto leaking out by the minute.
Once we get to the park we usually spend the first day walking around the valley. It's really amazing sometimes; with all the thousands of visitors in Yosemite on any summer day, walk down the side trails just a hundred feet from the road and you find yourself all alone. After careful study, I have come to an (admittedly unscientific) conclusion: people are lazy. We've walked by a shuttle bus stop at a popular wayside and passed a hundred people waiting to get on a bus that holds fifty. Then we've walked along in the same direction as the bus and met it unloading those very people at the next stop. I much prefer the quiet and solitude, so I guess I should thank them for not cluttering up the trail.

There are, apparently, people on the opposite side of the spectrum. Once, while waiting our turn at the visitor information desk, a gentleman with a heavy accent dressed in matching olive green shirt and shorts, long wool socks, hiking boots and an impressive knee brace was demanding to know where the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls was located as he planned to hike it that afternoon. It was fairly late in the day and the ranger was trying to impress upon him how strenuous it was and how long it would take to complete.

Ranger: "It takes 6 to 10 hours to hike it round trip, and it gets dark quickly in the valley."
Knee Brace Man: "Where does this trail begin?"
Ranger: "It's 2600 feet of switchbacks up the valley wall."
Knee Brace Man: "But where do I go to start this trail?"
Ranger: "We really don't like to have to send the helicopter after people who get stuck on the trails. It's very expensive and endangers our crews."
Knee Brace Man: "But where can I find this trailhead?"
Ranger: "It's a very hard trail and with an injured knee, I wouldn't recommend it."
Knee Brace Man: "But is it hard for a German?"

Yosemite rangers are saints. I know what I would have said, but the ranger just smiled and told him to start his hike in the morning. He never did tell the guy where to find the trailhead though.

That brings me to another unscientific-but-interesting observation as a hiker on the trails of Yosemite. Americans will, almost without fail, say hello when passing on a trail. If they are particularly tired, it comes out more as a panting grunt, but they acknowledge you in passing. The Japanese tourists will nod and smile and make sure to leave plenty of room to pass (which is MUCH appreciated on the narrow parts of the trail with steep drop-offs). In general though, Europeans will not make eye contact, do not acknowledge your presence, and occasionally pretend you don't even exist. I have a German friend who explained to me how long it took to get used to strangers talking to her in the supermarket here in the US. She said in her country you just don't talk to people you don't know (which made me wonder how in the world you ever make friends, but I digress). So it makes more sense now, but I still find it a little off-putting, especially when you haven't seen anyone for hours and it would be nice to think if they came across your lifeless body lying prone in the middle of the trail they would at least stop to check for a pulse.

While we're meandering off topic, another trail observation: When you're in your eleventh hour of hiking and you're coming down off the trail, you can sometimes catch a whiff of shampoo or cologne or general cleanliness as you pass the fresh new hikers starting up the trail. Then in a moment of panic, you wonder, what in the world are they smelling coming off of me?

So anyway, I'm still mulling over which trail to choose this year. Only one thing is for sure: we'll be heading uphill soon.
The view from Panorama Trail. The lump of bare granite in the upper right is the side of Half Dome, and the valley below is the home of Nevada and Vernal Falls.