High Sierra Camps Loop - August 1991

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David G. Hough on validgh

Jan 1, 1992, 6:50:41 PM1/1/92
Warning - this is long and tedious, but then, so are some of the routes
I traveled. If you want to see exactly what I'm talking about, you'll
need the Tuolumne Meadows map with occasional reference to Merced Peak
and Hetch Hetchy.

When I was younger I tended to avoid the Yosemite High Sierra Camps and
the trails between them, thinking of them primarily as cesspools of
bears and horses and overweight tourists.

I was wrong about the tourists. Most came on foot, and were quite a
bit more interesting than you might think.

Actually the main problem at the camps is what to do with sewage and
waste water generally - high altitude decomposed granite just doesn't
make much of a leech field. Vogelsang has only had showers and flush
toilets once in the last several years. And it's not too hard to find
the leech field at the other camps, either. Sunrise has an additional
problem that its water supply dries up toward the end of the summer.

Anyway it's interesting how one's perspective changes when it
incorporates a son pushing 7, a father pushing 70, and one's own
muscles and joints pushed out of shape by too much sitting and not
enough mountaineering. Then I was in the mountains only twice in a bad
month; now I am glad to be there twice in a good year.

With the changes looming in the Curry Company and in Yosemite generally
the High Sierra Camps may be an endangered species, but as long as they
are completely filled up every summer I figure I might as well be one
of the fillers. Thus it was that I came to enter the annual Curry
Company Sweepstakes for a chance to buy a berth in the camps. In 1991
I won big time - two nights at each camp - alternating days of hiking
and days off. This posting is about what I did on the days off while
Grampa and Kendrick rested. It's worth mentioning that there are deer
trails almost everywhere I mention, which places some kind of upper
bound on the technical level.

Looking at a map in the safety of my Vogelsang Camp tent cabin, I had
sort of been thinking about going for Simmons Peak from Vogelsang Pass,
climbing up from the northwest or southwest and exiting toward the east
and back around to Vogelsang Camp. But the appointed day was
threatening stormy weather even at breakfast, and the view from
Vogelsang Pass convinced me that the if there had even been a day that
I could have done what I had in mind, it was long gone. So instead
northeast up toward 11779 and a fine easy alpine traverse to Parsons
Peak. Parsons Peak has some interesting approaches from the north and
south but it's pretty easy going from west to east. It's not quite
high enough for polemonium but most of the lesser high altitude flowers
were abundant. Easy scenic terrain leads one back via Ireland and
Evelyn Lakes to Vogelsang. The weather never got any better nor any
worse that day, so I was happy enough about that. By the way, I read
now that Simmons Peak is second class, so maybe I'll be bolder next

The most interesting person I met at Vogelsang was a grampa who was
hiking with a quadruple bypass and ruptured disks. I'm sure he
inspired my father.

Two days later, after descending the cobblestones to Merced Lake, I was
happy to spend my day off fishing. Renting a rowboat and hanging
around the inlet of the Merced River into Merced Lake seems to be an
optimal strategy. It's just that you have to do it at the crack of
dawn if you want to catch and clean your fish in time to have them
cooked for breakfast at 7:30 AM. I wandered off into the blank spot
on the map between the Merced Lake Ranger Station and the river and
discovered it was great for communing with mosquitos and climbing over
down trees and through mud churned up by mules, but the fishing wasn't
any better.

The problem with Merced Lake is that it is very much down in a hole,
and the obvious day hikes are too easy or too hard or too repetitious
(the ways you came in and went out). Quartzite Peak has always looked
interesting to me, but it's a long steep haul at best once you cross
the river, judging by the map. A loop that looks interesting is via
Washburn Lake to Lyell Fork to the High Trail and back, but it seems to
require turning around just as things start to get interesting, and you
end up back on those cobblestones again. Maybe there's a way up Mt.
Florence and back in a day, but probably not for me.

The most memorable person at Merced Lake was state senator Quentin Kopp
and his legal and political cronies who supposedly were there to visit
his daughter, a Curry wrangler. They came by horse and were well
supplied with wine at dinner, and talked outside their tent loud and
late into the night (9 PM). This was more like what I had always
expected to find at High Sierra Camps, although I have never
encountered anybody else like that.

The thought of all those cobblestones has led many people to speculate
on possible direct routes between Vogelsang and Sunrise. Many years
ago I had discovered that Rafferty Cr -> Reymann Lk -> Nelson Lk ->
Matthes Lk was reasonable enough, but for my day off at Sunrise, I
decided to see what could be done as far as direct routes to Emeric
Lake. The more southerly route is to head SE back down to the
Cathedral Fork trail, then up Echo Creek. The latter is amazing.
Almost dried up, every pool had a 6-8" trout in it. It's a lovely
section of stream trickling over sensuous smooth granite. The goal
was to cross the ridge to Emeric Lake at a saddle south of point
9993. I eventually got almost to the saddle with no difficulty, but
just before the top I got stuck and had to study matters some before I
found a route, but even that was not one that I'd undertake with my
children. Once on the crest, easy terrain led NE down to lunch at
Emeric Lake, which is a beauty, just as advertised. After lunch I
followed a watercourse more or less N to a broad spot in the ridge,
then W to another broad spot and down more or less N, eventually to
Echo Creek in a meadowy-foresty area quite different from the smooth
granite stretch I'd passed in the morning.

From there it took a while to find a hole in an unadvertised granite
wall but eventually I got onto a plateau with rather choppy topography
which eventually got me around an unnamed prominence of 9840+, to the
trail more or less due E of 9711. Although I wasn't encouraged by the
density of contours on the map, I found a slope I could stagger up into
the basin between 9711 and the Mansfield Domes. I started following
the Long Meadow creek up the hill when I heard an out-of- place
clinking. After a day of solitude it was surprising to find one of the
High Sierra Camp cooks nailing his way up a boulder in the basin. Next
time I might try Columbia Finger, but I read now that it's class 3
which means I might have trouble getting down; see below.

The most interesting person at Sunrise was a clinical psychologist from
LA who was hiking with her son. On their day off they hiked to Clouds
Rest and back.

Two days later I started out from May Lake toward Tuolumne Peak and was
surprised to discover a very well constructed but abandoned trail that
starts N where the current trail to Glen Aulin starts to descend, and
follows an obvious watercourse up to a nice saddle just below 10000',
with quite a view. I presume it headed toward Ten Lakes in former
times, and was rerouted perhaps to avoid avalanches. I continued on
uphill to Tuolumne Peak and climbed enough of its summits to satisfy
me, then one more, which was OK going up but I had a confidence crisis
at one point coming down. I finally ended up making a couple of moves
in a not very good style that could be described as "act of faith" or
"too tired to climb back up and around the problem". I suppose I
would be better off doing Colorado Basin canyons where you do the
downhill first and then climb out but there are hazards in that too.
The guidebook doesn't even bother to rate Tuolumne Peak.

Anyway after lunch my confidence restored itself and I went W over the
ridge toward a small rockbound lake in a bowl due N of May Lake. I
worked my way up a rather steep ridge that I wasn't too sure about
beside a peak to the W of the lake which has some interesting
possibilities for people who can deal with exposure, including a ledge
in the middle of the face which appears quite wide in spots and may go
all the way around. Or may not. I went W to the next low point in the
ridge and had a nice view of the interesting lakes N of Mt Hoffman and
W of Tuolumne Peak, including a virtual one that I couldn't quite see
because it was in a hole, but that's a challenge for next time. It
appeared from this vantage point that the South Fork of Cathedral Creek
would have been a logical place to put a High Sierra Camp on the way to
White Wolf, but the time for that is presumably past. I went down to
May Lake and accidentally caught a fish after dinner. I say
accidentally because cleaning a fish in the dark in an environmentally
sound fashion is not my idea of fun, but I managed to do it and turn it
in for breakfast.

At May Lake we met a very modern woman who was doing her best to make
mountaineers out of her husband and daughter. Her daughter was a
little older than Kendrick but they played together OK. She knew more
card games and karate moves than he did.

Two days later I was working out a plan for Glen Aulin. In olden times
I had been to Virginia Lake, Cold Mountain, Mattie Lake, and Wildcat
Point, and they are all worthwhile. Jeff Schaefer warns against Return
Creek as a cross-country route so I was hot to try it but I could see
from the map how the worst case might be pretty bad, and this was
confirmed soon enough in a roundabout way on the other side of the
Tuolumne River on Falls Ridge. The latter has always struck me as an
interesting opportunity - a complete traverse of the high points ought
to take about one long day, allowing time for maneuvering around the
technical difficulties at the ends, and perhaps one day would be
possible for some people.

My first mistake was to approach on the south side of the river. My
goal was the gentle slope W from California Falls, but there was a
little problem of an intervening jumble of giant talus that took me a
couple of hours to pass. I could have taken the trail on the N side
and waded across the river at California Falls. But once I made it up
the gentle slope in time for lunch, I could see that a complete
traverse was not going to happen and that I would be doing well to get
to 8615. Even that turned out to be more of a challenge than I had in
mind. What appeared to be on the order of small heather (and would
have been near timberline) was actually a tougher order of brush, some
higher than me. So it took about an hour to climb a few hundred feet,
but I eventually made it without losing my pack or too much blood. I
did resolve to take a soft pack next time. Coming down was easier, of
course, and led to a deer highway through a slot that runs due north
and south at the E base of the ridgelet containing 8615. I descended
the south side of Falls Ridge to Cathedral Creek without brush or other
incident and enjoyed walking up the creek bed, some of which was smooth
rock and easy going. The creek was quite pleasant here, even though
it hadn't looked attractive further upstream where the trail between
May Lake and Glen Aulin crosses. In a woodsy section I surprised a
mama bear and two cubs but I was glad to let them follow their fortunes
separately from me. Finally just before I had planned to leave the
creek bed to head up over the hill to McGee Lake, I noticed an unmapped
spring on the south bank. Actually what I noticed was the iron-red mud
and the animal tracks that had churned it up. When I went to
investigate, I found a miniature version of the famous Soda Springs,
except there was just one hole, producing about one cup a minute of
very carbonated water, quite tasty, and despite the animal tracks I
wouldn't think of treating it. Presumably I've been exposed to giardia
often enough in former days.

There was a grandma or maybe she was even a great-grandma at Glen
Aulin, traveling through with her family including a grand or
great-grand daughter.

I must say that at the end of each of these days off I very much
appreciated the certainty of cold lemonade and hot showers waiting in
the camps, followed by a dinner that I didn't have to cook or clean
up. Although I have an intellectual problem accepting permanent
habitations above the altitude at which they can treat their sewage,
I'd hate to see the High Sierra Camps go. If anything, judging by the
tales of intrigues plotted to obtain the elusive reservations, more are
needed, perhaps lower in the heavy timber belt where the soil is
somewhat more active.

The trip I described was August 1991; earlier in the season there is
more snow and more mosquitos. If you are interested in visiting the
High Sierra camps, it is probably too late to get advanced reservations
for 1992. You can try calling 209-454-2002 during the summer for
cancellations, but there aren't many because you don't get your money
back. For 1993, you should write for a reservation form in October
(Yosemite Reservations, High Sierra Camps, 5410 E Home Av, Fresno
93727) because it will be due the first Monday in December of 1992, not
a day earlier and not much later, either. They may not tell you
whether you've made it until March, however. It may help on your
reservation if you specify that you will accept any date. Figure on
$100/person/day total including for lodging, meals, and a contribution
to the scholarship fund. For some reason, about 90% of the staff are
either from UC Davis or Dartmouth.

David Hough

d...@validgh.com uunet!validgh!dgh na.h...@na-net.ornl.gov

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