"And then a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on; and you cast your fears aside, and you know you can survive. So when you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong, and you'll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you." - Mariah Carey
Was it by chance that this, one of my favorite pop tunes, was playing on two radio stations at the same time as I left Palo Alto on the afternoon of Friday, August 3 for my first solo adventure in the Sierras? Perhaps, but I have a penchant for the dramatic, and I preferred to see it as a sign of great things ahead.
What propelled this middle-aged woman to go off into the wilderness by herself? Most importantly, to begin to find out just what my skill level is. I'm very confident in certain areas of mountaineering (I know I'm a strong hiker for instance, and there have been times when I've lead the way), but there are other areas where I almost always defer to others - navigation or hanging the food, for example. So it was about a year ago that I got this idea into my head to go out alone - with no one to rely on but myself. This was the only way I would feel free enough to try what I wanted to try, to make mistakes and not have to worry about looking stupid or incompetent in front of anyone else.
I am not so afraid of the bears, or the dark, or the weather, or bad men out to hurt me; my greatest fear is of getting lost. I have learned how taking one wrong turn, or going off route by a few degrees can cause you to become lost, resulting in at the very least minutes or hours of extra time trying to find your way back; at worst, becoming so lost that you can never find your way out and no one finds you, until it's too late.
I can think of a couple of things that might have been obstacles to taking such a trip in the past that I have overcome in the last couple of years. First, I used to be deathly afraid of bears. But over the years I became convinced that they were not interested in hurting humans; they just want your food.
Second, was my inability to drive long distances without starting to fall asleep at the wheel. It always amazed me how men especially could drive endless distances seemingly without needing rest. Surely this must be some kind of testosterone advantage. But last year I drove to the East side and back successfully without help (my passenger did not drive a stick shift). So I knew I could do it if I had to. That was so liberating!
And so I began, full of excitement for the adventure ahead. Friday night I crashed in the back of my car at the Sunrise Lakes trailhead in Yosemite. There's a deluxe portapotty there - a big draw for me, the toilet paper queen. I got the idea to cover myself with my space blanket, not only to keep warm, but to camouflage myself from the rangers, who could ticket me if they found me.
As I lay there gazing out the back window at the stars, I flashed back on my early days in California, over 20 years ago. I had a big old hatchback Oldsmobile then, with plenty of room for sleeping when you put the back seat down. I used to go camping by myself, and have all kinds of adventures around the state. I was young, full of dreams, and lonely too. So much has happened since then - I've been to hell and back - and I've tended to dismiss that girl in her twenties as someone I don't know anymore. But I got in touch with her again. Her innocence. Her keen sense of adventure. She's still a part of me and I'm striving to love and accept all the parts of me.
At the permit booth by 7am, I endured a series of bear stories told by a rather chatty ranger who was in love with the big furry critters. Our mission was to save the bears, she assured us. To that end, we should rent the bulky nearly 3-lb. bear-proof canisters to keep our food and other smelly goods in. Not being confident in my food-hanging abilities, you remember, I consented, and after a hearty breakfast at the Tuolemne grill, I picked up my very own canister at the store. With all due respect, Ms. Ranger, my main concern is me and my food, not the welfare of the bears...
It was very refreshing to be able to pack up at the trailhead with no time pressures from anyone but myself. I could attend to all those little last-minute details to my heart's content. Still, a 9:10am departure is not too bad I think.
I had scaled down my original plan somewhat, due to the snow conditions, and not wanting to bite off more than I could chew on Sunday and not make it back to the store by 7pm to return the canister. My goal now was to hike up to Vogelsang Lake and see what the lay of the land was and how I felt. This entailed about a 7.5 mile hike with 2,000 feet elevation gain, a very moderate day, by PCS standards.
I began hiking up the trail, full of expectation, attending to every sign and trail junction, knowing that I alone was responsible for my journey this day. I travelled up the John Muir "Highway" for awhile, then took the Rafferty Creek turnoff, where, after a long uphill section you finally spill out into a beautiful meadow below Tuolemne Pass, and you catch your first glimpse of Fletcher and Vogelsang peaks. I checked my maps often, not because of any navigational challenge (the trail was clear, at least to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp), but to compare the map to the features around me, to see if I could tell where I was and if I could pick out various landmarks. To my delight, I felt that it all came together for me. Yes, that must be Rafferty Peak over there! I can tell by the long gradual slope to the summit. And that's obviously Fletcher. Look at the steep broad base and the vast flat top. I was able to match the features I was seeing in nature with what was drawn on the map. I've been frustrated so many times by my seeming inability to know where I was or what was what in the mountains. So I just follow along, enjoying the scenery but not participating much in the route finding. Thinking everyone knows more than me. But I underestimate myself! Out here all alone, I have permission to stop, examine, and guess. This makes me very happy.
One interesting thing that happens when you travel alone is that you tend to be much more outgoing and friendly to strangers. Does this stem from man's inborn need to connect to other human beings? So that when you don't have a travelling companion, you naturally reach out more to others? Whatever it is, I enjoyed that aspect of the trip very much. Stopping to talk to other hikers and backpackers, even the cowboys and girls leading packtrains and their clients, God forbid. On the way out as a matter of fact, I met a very nice family from Massachusetts, my home state. We exchanged names and I hope to call them next time I'm on the East Coast to ask them how the rest of their trip went.
Another time, I stopped to talk to a couple that was out dayhiking. The guy looked at my map and we discussed possible peaks they could do that afternoon. I looked over at his girlfriend, sitting passively, waiting. Gosh, that has been me so many times, I thought. It felt strange and wonderful to be playing the male role this time. Indeed a great part of this trip was about releasing my male energy - the part of us that makes decisions, takes risks, and takes action.
On the way up to Vogelsang Lake (10,324 feet), you pass right by the High Sierra Camp. It's a real ghost town this year, as are all the High Sierra Camps. I thought about how disappointed all those people must be who had reservations only to find that the camps would never open in 1995.
It was here that the trail started fading badly under the snow. But it's just a short way up to the lake from there and the way is pretty obvious. It was early afternoon when I reached the lake, a welcome sight. It was partially frozen with snow covering much of the landscape, but there were plenty of sandy rocky places for campsites. I decided to camp there and found a spot away from the lake facing west, hidden from view. The snow makes for a rather desolate ambience, but it was blessing because it helped to keep the people away - I was the lone camper there that night.
The old battle raged within - should I go for the gusto and try for a peak this afternoon or take a completely different tack and rest, write, and reflect. I couldn't do both. Not wanting to be too compulsive, I made a decision to go for the latter. After lunch I really wanted to nap, so that's just what I did. When I awoke, however, a wave of nausea hit me so bad I thought I must be coming down with the flu or food poisoning. What would I do? Ask for help from a passerby? Hike out as soon as I was strong enough? Stay put until I recovered (I didn't have that much food). But it must have just been a touch of altitude sickness, because it passed quickly. Then I was glad that I had stayed in camp after all.
I spent a beautiful quiet afternoon. I studied the map and read over the route descriptions I had copied from Roper and Secor. I had already decided that to atone for my slothful wimpy behavior of Saturday, I would climb both Vogelsang (11,493 feet) and Fletcher (11,410 feet) Sunday morning before hiking out. I wrote in my journal. I took time to observe the colors of the fish, the birds, the clarity of the lake. This is something I don't do enough. People are always telling me to stop and smell the flowers. I became quite friendly with one particular marmot. He (she?) would have taken the food right from under me if I had let him. He became my buddy.
I decided I had better cook my dinner, even though I wasn't very hungry. I ate one serving of my gourmet freeze-dried honey lemon chicken, but buried the rest. I always have trouble with my appetite at altitude. At 7:30pm, I got ready for bed and crawled into my bivy bag for the night. I had planted my canister about 20 feet away from my camp on level ground as instructed. My camera was ready to catch the bear if he came to bat the canister around. I thought for sure he'd come kiss me goodnight since I was so lathered up with various lotions and sprays. But he stood me up.
The constant sound of a waterfall was my lullaby. Watching the sunset I finally dozed off. I lost count of the number of times I had to get up to go in the middle of the night. Each time I would bang a pot, or call out "I'm getting up Mr. Bear" just case he was lurking nearby. I didn't want to surprise him. But I think if there were any bears around, they saw the canister and left, knowing they couldn't get in. When I couldn't sleep, I'd watch the universe, one advantage of sleeping in a bivy bag and not a tent. I was not afraid or lonely or cold. I was in the "gentle wilderness" after all, and if you respect its power, it will treat you to all its delights.
I arose about 6:30 to a very warm morning. Whereas Saturday had been a day to rest, observe, write, and acclimatize, Sunday was a day to KICK ASS. I cooked my cup of gruel that masquerades as oatmeal and put together my summit pack. I packed a space blanket JUST IN CASE. When you're out alone you have to be a bit more prepared than normally.
Going for the peak is what I love. That backpacking stuff is just a necessary evil to get in to your basecamp as far as I'm concerned. I decided to climb Vogelsang first, my main objective. I hiked around the lake toward Vogelsang Pass to get a head on view of the peak. I saw that there were 3 or 4 parallel ramps on the east face that run gradually along to the ridge to the left of the peak. This looked like a good way to go to me so I started up the rock to reach one of the ramps. At one point I used my ice ax to cross a short steep snow patch. As I made my way up the ramp, I became impatient and got a little too aggressive. I thought I'd take a short cut by heading straight up the face to the summit, rather than go all the way around to the ridge. But when I ran into some 3rd class climbing, I got scared and thought "this is not a smart thing to be doing alone." So I backed off (VERY carefully) and continued up the ramp till I hit that ridge. Once there, I could see it was a very easy walk up to the summit! And when I got to the top, there was a marmot stretched out on one of the summit boulders!
I was so happy to see the register box. I got a lump in my throat. Vogelsang is not a particularly difficult peak or anything like that, but I had found it, I had picked the route, I had made it all alone. Still no other people around. After a snack, a hero shot by remote control, more map reading and guessing about the other peaks around, I started my descent. Turns out there were some moves that I had done on the way up that I was not comfortable with on the way down, so I came down a different way, ending up on some steep snow. I was glad I had lugged up my ice ax and crampons because I really needed them now.
I had already scouted out the route up Fletcher from the top of Vogelsang. It was a "classic Sierra ramble" as someone wrote in the peak register. Secor notes you encounter "brush, scree, and talus<:...>before reaching the summit." Starting from a point just below Vogelsang Pass, I followed my route, making sure to stop and look back several times along the way (a wise practice - you'd be surprised how different things look from the opposite direction).
The summit of Fletcher consists of a very large sandy plateau with several rock outcroppings sprouting up. I headed for the most prominent outcropping, thinking that must surely be the summit. But there was no register there and it looked like the next outcropping over was a just a little bit higher. So I climbed down, trudged over more sandy scree to the next rock outcropping. I repeated this SEVERAL times, almost giving up. I let out a cry of relief when I spied a glass jar shoved into a crack. No one had signed that register in A YEAR! Judging by all the footprints however, I suspect that was due more to the isolated location of the jar and the numerous false summits, than to the difficulty or unpopularity of the peak.
Happy at last, I took another remote control hero shot, and looked over to the east to identify the nearby lakes and other features. A successful descent had me back in camp by 2pm. Two gals passed by as I was packing up - the first human beings I had seen in about 24 hours.
Ready to leave camp by 3pm I knew I had to make it out to my car in time to get to the Tuolemne store by 7pm closing time to return the rented canister. Boy, was I glad I was coming out rather than going in because I encountered several groups of backpackers and one packtrain on their way in. Stopping to be so friendly and all delayed me awhile, and I had to hustle to make sure I made it out in good time. Exhausted along the last mile of the trail, almost delirious, I kept horsely crying out "parking lot, parking lot," in hopes of seeing my car soon (I talk and mumble to myself a lot, actually).
It felt SO good to get my pack and boots off. Back at the store, I fulfilled a fantasy I'd been having all the way down the trail - I consumed a pint of Ben & Jerry's Mocha Almond Fudge frozen yogurt. God, did that taste good!
One of the most gratifying parts of the trip was calling some friends back in the Bay Area to let them know I had made it out alive. Knowing that there are people back home who love me and care about me makes it okay to choose to be alone.
The B&J's held me all the way to Oakdale where I stopped for late dinner at "Crap in the Box" (actually the Teriyaki Chicken Bowl is quite decent). And guess what song played over the loudspeaker in the restaurant, folks ...
I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to make it all the way home without stopping to nap, but I had no problem. I don't know if it was the caffeine in the yogurt or the adrenaline pumping through my body. All scrubbed and snug, I lay in bed a long time that night before I could get to sleep.
I hope to do this again next year - maybe I'll make it an annual event. The weather was perfect all weekend, I conquered some fears, and spent some quality time with myself, with nature, and with God.