Mountaineering Take 3.  Last Spring I attempted to reach two destinations: Honeymoon Lake and Telescope Peak.  I reached neither of them due to some unsafe snow conditions.  Mountains 2, Snakeye 0.  Eight months later, I chose Yosemite to snap my losing streak.

Researching where to go in Yosemite proved to be a challenge, due to a lot of it already being closed in mid-October and a forest fire on the western edge of the park.  Furthermore, Half Dome (what Yosemite is famous for) is great and all, but I like to steer clear of crowds and enjoy a oneness with nature when I backpack.  In researching, I came across this not-as-well-known mountain peak that overlooks Half Dome: Cloud’s Rest.

Cloud's Rest from afar

That’s where I wanted to go!

The Logistics of getting Overnight Reservations

The problem: in order to backpack overnight, you need reservations (which are limited in number)… and you have to provide the trailhead you want to start on and where your first overnight stay will be.  To submit reservations ahead of time (people apparently do this months in advance, unlike my measly 3-day notice), you either phone them in, fax them in, or snail-mail them in.  Everytime I called (which is what I wanted to do so I could ask questions) no one would pick up the phone… so now to the fax, only the fax machine number was always busy.  Oh, and in addition to the reservation issue, a raging fire has knocked out some of the western areas of the National Park.  Without being able to phone for information, I wasn’t sure how this would affect my plan.

My gamble: Yosemite also takes a limited number of “walk in” reservations on a first-come, first-serve basis.  During the Spring and Summer, these are pretty hard to secure since it’s the peak of tourism at Yosemite.  But it’s mid-October on the last weekend that hiking trails are officially open, so there may not be much of a crowd there.  Then again, it’s also a 3-day weekend (Columbus Day), so maybe it’ll be jam-packed with people leaving me with no hope of a reservation.

After waffling on the fence for a bit, I just decided the only way I was going to find out was to get in a car and head up to Yosemite as early as possible on Friday.  By this time, interest had generated amongst some of the guys I worked with: Benjo of course was in, but three others wanted in as well.  I had suggested they could car camp while Benjo and I did a little backpacking (since they were ill-prepared in the gear department).  In the end, we found a place that rents gear and got everyone outfitted.  On Friday morning, the five of us piled into the van and headed 4 hours north to Yosemite (hoping and praying that I would be able to get these reservations last-minute).

The gamble worked.  We showed up around 1pm (they say to get there at 11am to be first in line to secure these first-come, first-serve wilderness passes), and though we didn’t get the trail that I had originally hoped for, we still scored passes for a group of 5 on the next trail over (adding maybe 7 additional miles of hiking).  Score one five for Snakeye!

This seems to be a reoccuring theme in my travels (such as Santorini): go during off-peak periods and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Onslaught

Yosemite BackpackingWe arrived at the trailhead around 3pm with the goal to make it the 10 miles into camp by sunset.  It was gonna be tight.  With high spirits we started, and were almost immediately greeted with a 1600-foot climb to 10,000ft as a welcome-to-Yosemite reality check.  My lungs weren’t quite used to the high altitude yet, so the trek was hindered by a few catch-your-breath and water stops.  I tried to make my stops where I could kill two birds with one stone: catch my breath and take some pictures of the awesome landscape.

Overlooking Cathedral Lake (from L to R): Figo, Kupsie, Snakeye, Jim

Regardless, things seemed great until around the 6-mile point.  It was at this point that I could feel my pack start to dig into my shoulders and my legs getting tired.  As per usual, Benjo scouted ahead and came back with the great news that we only had about ¾ mile left.  Ok!  That lifted the spirits and gave my legs a bit more energy.  Benjo led the way and about the point where you see “Sunrise” at the junction (at right on the map), Benjo went off path and proclaimed “we’re here!”.

Snakeye on the John Muir Trail in YosemiteUhhh… we were surrounded by abandoned campsite buildings… this wasn’t it, we were supposed to be staying by some lakes.  We were all pretty trail-weary at this point, and after consulting the maps, I had to break it to the guys that we still had 1½ miles to go with an uphill ascent (of course, I only said “1 mile to go” to prevent a mutiny).  So press on we did.

This was the point where I swear the weight of my pack doubled!  I found myself taking even more rest breaks with morale being inversely proportional to every uphill step I took.  The only thing that kept me going was knowing that it was only a mile.  The sun was setting fast and as we neared the peak of the trek to the lakes, we became shrouded in twilight darkness with the temperatures plummeting.  Had I not known the lakes were less than ½ mile away, I would’ve stopped right then and there to set up camp for Operation Stay Warm.  But there were the lakes below!

We set up camp at 9,400ft in a field near the eastern-most of the lakes in the twilight of dusk (which by the way, is the least populated lake of the Sunrise Lakes… there were only two other people there the first night, and we were alone the second night!).

Our campsite on the eastern-most Sunrise Lake in Yosemite on night 1

Our legs hurt, we were tired, and a few of the guys were getting the chills.  We hung out long enough to get some hot rehydrated meals and a glass of hiked-in wine before heading to the tents for bed.

The sleeping bag liner I purchased prior to this trip was a touchdown.  I was able to sleep in my underwear (which is what’s comfortable for me when I sleep) without getting too chilled… but after I got up around 2am to drain the lizard while barefoot outside, my feet were never able to get warmed up again.  And then I found out from Benjo in the morning: it dropped to about 15°F overnight.  That would explain the ice-shield on the screens of my tent (by my feet, in particular).

One way to keep your feet warm with rehydrated camp foodAt this point, I think the guys were still a little miserable from the cold and lack of sleep (though someone was snoring away, and it certainly wasn’t me… though Figo would argue this from the second night).  Like at dinner, we rehydrated some breakfast meals… I don’t know what the dudes were more stoked for: the hot meal or “heat pads” to warm up their extremities (at right).

Cloud’s Rest

We hid our tents behind a bunch of rocks to lighten our loads to Cloud’s Rest.  As the sun came up, we hit the trail to find out that the two other lakes (that comprised the Sunrise Lakes) were packed full of hikers (the western-most one, closest to the Tenaya Lake Trail [again, see map] had probably up to 30 people camping out along its rim!).  With a lightened pack consisting of food, water and a camera, this 5.1-mile one-way hike wasn’t nearly as difficult as the hike inbound the night prior.  In fact, before we knew it we were at the trailhead for Cloud’s Rest (whose trail isn’t even ¼ mile long!):

Cloud's Rest Trailhead

The Trail to Cloud's RestThe challenge with Cloud’s Rest isn’t the climb, it’s the heights.  To be honest, I think it’s a semi-easy trail.  But there’s a point where you have about 3 feet on either side of you and then a sheer drop off, which I forcefully had to suppress my vertical “fight or flight” instinct.  If you stand up straight, I swear it makes you dizzy.  With a good gust of wind, you’ll find yourself holding onto the trail like you were riding a mechanical bull and inching your way up from there!

But once you get to the top, you almost get a God’s eye view of everything that makes Yosemite “Yosemite”.  It’s beautiful… in fact, the four Brits I dragged along with me agreed that this was probably the coolest sight they’ve seen in their lives.

A view of Half Dome from Cloud's Rest

Finally: Mountains 2, Snakeye 1… the streak is snapped!  The conquerors? From left to right: Jim, Snakeye, Kupsie, Figo and Benjo.

The Final Night and RTB

Yes, since we stashed away our tents for a lighter load, we camped in the same place as the previous night. Only this time I found a slab of rock on a cliff overlooking the lake to set up my tent (way more style points…):

Tent from the ledgeTent from the Lake

Also, because of the 2014 Freeze Out from the previous night, we decided to spark up a fire. Now, I know there are fire restrictions from 9,600ft and up, and because of the drought, 6,000ft and below… leaving 6,001ft to 9,599ft for a sensible fire.  We took advantage of that little window by finding a previously used “pit” on the rocks nearby at 9,400ft.  I must say, compared to the first night sans fire, this night was was much more jovial (and it only got to 32ºF).

Campfire in Yosemite

And with Fire-TV and Jim spinning some tunes on his iPod setup, the gathering went well into the night…

Fire TV: the only way to pass time in Yosemite

The way back the next morning?  Well, we knew the trail by this point, so it was rather uneventful.  Three to four hours later found us at the van ready to go back with sore legs and blistered feet.  Was it trying?  Perhaps in a few circumstances.  Was it epic?  Absolutely!

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  • Mike Winslow

    Great post! Always good to be ‘challenged’.
    Did it remind you of, say, a reverse Grand Canyon Trek?

    • It did, but with a more efficient load. Those sleeping bags we had then must’ve weighed a ton!