Spending a little time in the wilderness in relative isolation sparked a thirst for more, so I decided to go on a solo backpacking trip in Yosemite. I excitedly started researching routes and permits, but a big snow storm had just hit the Sierras and all the roads up the Tuolumne were closed, so I had to wait until they opened back up again. Luckily they opened the roads two days later and I was on my way to the mountains for some alone time. I decided to do an improvised route through the High Sierras, with intended destinations including Cathedral Lakes, Lake Merced, and Vogelsang.
When I arrived at Tuolumne I found out that the backpackers camp up at Tuolumne was still closed due to snow, so I just hiked a few hundred feet off the road in to the woods to set up camp for the night. This was my first trip using my hammock in cold weather, so I was definitely a little nervous about the cold that first night. People who are really serious about cold weather camping in hammocks use a down quilt that hangs below the hammock to insulate them, but I just used my Therm-A-Rest sleeping pad and Marmot Sawtooth 15 degree bag. I actually stayed pretty warm that first night despite temperatures dipping down below freezing. The only times I did get cold was when my sleeping pad would slip out from under me in the night; whenever that happened whatever part of my body was not on top of the pad would get cold and I’d wake up and adjust it. Sleeping in a hammock in the middle of the woods is a much more vulnerable feeling than sleeping in a tent however, and this disturbed my sleep much more than the cold.
I woke up at 5:30 the next morning, made breakfast and coffee, packed up my bag, moved any extra food into the bear storage, and then hit the trail towards Cathedral Lakes at around 7:45. There was a decent amount of snow on the ground but the trail was clear and it was warm and sunny out. I was rearing to hit the trail and was moving at a really good pace, making it to the lakes by 9:30 (about 3.5 miles). I rested there, had a snack, and soaked in the beauty.
On the way back to main trail I attempted a shortcut and ended up getting lost for about an hour. There was a lot of snow on the ground which made it hard to spot the trail, but eventually I was able to use the map and compass to find it. At this section the trail looked more like a small brook as it was completely flooded from the snow melt.
Once I was back on track I paid much better attention to the trail and didn’t attempt any more shortcuts. The trail towards Sunrise camp went through a large meadow, across the lower face of a few mountains which were very exposed, and eventually to a fork in the trail. One path continued towards Sunrise and the other went south towards Merced Lake which is the way I went. This trail goes down in to a forested valley alongside a creek, and except for some pretty treacherous creek crossings, it was very pleasant hiking. I continued along another 3-4 miles past the fork in the trail and then set up camp and made a fire and dinner around 5. It had been a 13 mile day, much of it with wet boots, and I was definitely ready to crash.
I woke up at dawn (5:30), started a fire, made some oatmeal and coffee, and was on the trail by 7:15. The trail followed alongside Echo Creek for the next 5.5 miles and it was very flat and easy.
I arrived at Merced Lake, which is at 7,250 feet and beautifully situated in a mountain valley, at around 10am. I strung up my hammock, ate a snack, and relaxed and read for about 45 minutes.
The next stretch of trail is straight up and out of the valley and was really tough. I had to stop and rest every 5 minutes or so and it took me about 45 minutes until I got to a fork in the trail to follow either Fletcher or Lewis Creek towards the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Fletcher is definitely less rigorous and faster, but it doesn’t go through Vogelsang Pass, the highest pass in the High Sierra Loop, so I went with Lewis.
The Lewis Creek trail followed the river for about 4 miles until finally clearing out in to a meadow, which is where I got my first view of Emelie Earhart Peak.
The trail crossed the meadow and then started up a mountain face with relentless switchbacks. I could see the peaks above, but had a hard time believing that the trail was actually going to go all the up over the top. Eventually it did, and the view of the mountain range to the east was amazing.
Once at the peak, however, the snow was thick and I completely lost the trail. When I got a view of the other side of the mountain I was surprised to see that it was completely covered with snow and that the lake below was frozen over. I had a hard time believing that the lake I was looking at was the one I was supposed to hike down to, since there was a mountain face covered in snow between us, but after checking with the map I confirmed that it was. I began scaling down the snowy face, and even though there was only about 4 inches of snow on the ground, I was the first person to cross over this area since the snow fell and my steps were cracking ice sheets all the way up the mountain which was a very disconcerting noise.
After about 20 minutes I spotted the trail up ahead where the snow had melted away and was back on track. I passed through the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp which was completely empty and eventually setup camp for the night about a half mile down the trail from it. This was by far the most eerie night as I hadn’t seen anyone all day and I was very confident I was the only person camping anywhere in the vicinity of Vogelsang. It had been a 17 mile day though so I was still able to get a little bit of sleep.
The night was very cold (probably around 10 F) and at around 4:30 it started to snow. I was very concerned about getting snowed in up there and not making it out before they closed the roads (I was supposed to fly to Vegas the next day for my little brothers’s 21st birthday), so I made a decision to pack up camp and hit the trail in the dark. It continued to snow for about 30 minutes as I hiked in the pitch black but let up just as dawn hit. The landscape was completely white and windy and the scene of the sun rising over the prairie was unbelievable. Unfortunately the trail was already mostly covered in snow and after about 1.5 miles I completely lost it. I could see on the map that it mostly followed the Rafferty river, so I just hiked along the bank of that river for the next 7 miles or so. I had to cross over fallen tress several times when the river banks would disappear on one side or the other, and taking this route made what should have been a 7 mile hike back to Touloemme a 11 mile hike. I was once again exhausted when I reached the road and a steady snow had began to fall. My car was about 4 miles down the road, and I was planning on hitching a ride back to it, but after 10 minutes not a single car had passed by. Eventually a truck came by and informed me that whole upper part of the park had closed last night due to the snow. I asked him for a ride back to my car but he worked for the concession company and wasn’t allowed to give anyone a ride, but told me if I hiked down the road another half mile I’d find the ranger station. He also thought that the rangers had probably already towed my car.
When I arrived at the ranger station two rangers greeted me and asked if I was the guy with the red Subaru. I said yes and asked if it had been towed. They hadn’t towed it and were nice enough to give me a ride. The gates at the road entrance had been closed and locked, but they radioed down to another ranger to come unlock it for me in 30 minutes, about how long it takes to drive down to the bottom of the road. It was really cool being the only person on the road in this entire part of Yosemite, and I even saw a couple of marmots and coyotes trotting down the road.
Once I was finally out of the snow and on my way back to San Francisco I let out a loud whoop and was finally able to laugh for the first time that day. It had been an intense adventure but it was totally worth it and I felt amazing having it behind me.
With all the connections we have today it’s very rare to go 3 days without having any communication with other humans; it was definitely the first time I had every done it. The closest thing I can compare it to is taking psychedelic drugs. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but makes you think and introspect in ways that you never would normally. I definitely learned a lot about myself after this trip and feel I’m a better person because of it.