Thursday, July 07, 2011

Pohono Trail Adventure

We had permits to do the infamous Half-Dome hike on Sunday, but mother nature has had her way with the Sierra this past winter, and so the route was still deemed unsafe for the cables to go up due to snow and water runoff.  While some dude did mention that he saw people doing the climb a few days prior with caribiners, I opted for the 'minimal death risk' approach, and decided to fall on to our backup plan.  While Michelle was bummed, I welcomed the opportunity to be forced to go back to Yosemite eventually for a third time, or maybe even more to ascend what is the most recognizable hike of this great park.  As a backup plan, I had been considering Clouds Rest or the Pohono Trail - both of which are different than half-dome by the shear fact that you generally don't see a lot of people, whereas the dome cables can more mimic a traffic jam, rather than being out in the wilderness.

We spoke with the ranger on Friday about Pohono, and he mentioned that during the prior weekend, there had been reports of impassable terrain due to snow cover.  I didn't really think much of it for some reason (uh, impassable means they had to turn around), but I think it subconsciously drew me to doing the hike.

We started the hike at about 6:30am Sunday morning, where we gave our friends instructions to pick us up at Glacier Point, about 14 miles, and 8-9 hours later.  If we hadn't seen them by about 10 hours later, then it would time to worry.  Not having a backup plan, cell service, or much else to fall back on, we started the hike without a care in the world.

Generally, I was excited about the hike.  It is one the least 'advertised' hikes in the park, as evident by it not being on the brochure handed out to just about everyone within the park's boundaries.  It was also 14 miles in the wilderness, with minimal crowds.  However, I had this slightly odd feeling that there was a little something missing.  Maybe it was the 22 miles and 10,000ft of elevation worth of hiking that we traversed in the 2 days prior that left my legs a little (lot) sore, or getting up at 430am everyday that left me tired and a little groggy at the start - who knows.

The first 3 miles are basically straight uphill, and we eventually came out to a point where we found some people just waking up in their campsite right off the trail.  We stopped and had a quick breakfast, chatted with some guy for a few moments who was going in the same general direction and then we got on our way.

We eventually found snow, and after about 5 minutes of guessing where to go, we saw that one guy from the previous stop who was completely lost on where to go, and he gave up and started walking back to the start.  I motioned to him that we were going in the right direction, but he wanted nothing of it.  Fine by me! About a minute later, we came across this couple who was walking towards us.  I mentioned that they should keep track of the footprints through the snow, and his reply was right to the point: "that's nothing man", and then went on to describe how him and his wife were going to do Pohono trail yesterday, but after many patches of snow, and not enough trail, they decided to turn back and not even do it.  They also showed us on the map where things start getting a little sketchy - and naturally, it was off the map.
Yes, that's me in there...

His wife then mentioned that it's "possibly doable with a compass" (she actually pronounced it like comp-ass, which I still find funny), and I quickly recalled the Wilderness Basics FAIL conscience decision I made earlier that morning to not bring my compass for some unknown reason.  We thanked them for their heads up, and I immediately got excited.  I went into total problem solving mode.  It wasn't about the ego saying "I have to make it through the other side", it was about "How can we make it through?".  I was totally stoked for the adventure aspect, as that what was missing at the start of the hike.

Where's my comp-ass?
We made it to the next few (lookout) points, and eventually came across 8 backpacking dudes, walking towards us.  Naturally, we asked them where they came from, hoping it was Glacier Point (our destination), which they did.  Through the thick german accent, we gathered that the trail basically disappears, that we may or may not be able to find footsteps in the snow, and that even with a GPS, it was difficult for them.

I immediately relished the situation I was in, and totally got into the zone and started coming up with a plan on how we were gonna make it through.  My approach was to look for footsteps, natural and man-made trail markers, along with doing my own scouting while Michelle stayed put so as to not lose a point of reference.  Ultimately, using the basic 'map trace back' function on the garmin to get back to the Tunnel (start) was the backup plan that I really didn't want to consider.  Michelle started getting quiet, sure signs of stress, and my head was going at full throttle.  Good stuff.
This is a bridge, made of um, frozen water.

We took a relaxing break at Dewey point, where we enjoyed some incredible ridge lines heading down into the valley, before heading into the back country.

The next few hours were all business with zero small talk.  It wasn't an exceptionally stressful experience, but all systems were on full alert.  Sunglasses came off frequently to identify any markers, along with constant discussion on where to go.  I was looking for signs of trail, and Michelle was worried about being eaten by bears or mountain lions.  While both were essential for survival, I found mine much more productive.

Zero Trail

We were faced with disappearing trail, numerous water crossings that barely had enough natural resources to cross (eg. fallen trees) due to all the water from the snow melt, long stretches of snow where footprints couldn't easily be deciphered, not to mention just being "out there" when there are search and rescue helicopters that have been searching for people ever since we arrived at the park a few days prior.  Like I said before, Yosemite isn't idiot-proof, and I like that.  Across all this varied terrain, Michelle ended up taking over at times to lend a fresh pair of eyes.  After a while, all the lack of trail looks the same!  She quickly got her bearings, had some fun, and we arrived unscathed at Taft point, with smiles on our faces.

After wards, while hiking from Taft point to Sentinel dome, I was telling Michelle about a conversation I had with my buddy Shawn, when we were discussing Aron Ralson's story (the dude from 127 hours who had to cut his arm off to get out alive).  While some of the things he did in life were risky and to most people dumb, there is an element of confidence, experience and adventure that is built from being in those risky situations, and ultimately coming out on top.  A lot of that is in his book, rather than in the movie.  It goes against the modern day grain of constantly seeking comfort, an ignites small taste of that visceral feeling of survival in less than ideal conditions.

After descending Sentinel dome, we made the 1 mile trek over to Glacier point.  In the last quarter mile, we somehow managed to lose the trail, twice, and laughingly made it to back to our destination.  I may have mis-spoke when I said Yosemite isn't idiot proof, as evident by the .04 mile marker before Glacier point:

.04 mile marker sign to a destination.  Really?
As we finished out the last 211.2 feet, I immediately was greeted with a weird level of stress and anxiety that I hadn't felt in about 24 hours - which is about the last time I descended from the simple, peaceful and beautiful wilderness into a place where swarms of people on cell phones, eating ice cream, kids running around screaming, obesity, and just general congestion that clogs Yosemite every summer.  We finally found Desi and Rich, and made our way out of the park, already planning our next trip before having left the borders of this great place.

While this wasn't a life or death type situation, it made for a very fun and adventurous day in the park, and hopefully a good story to read!