Laying out all of my gear on the ground is something I do every morning before I pack. I want to make sure commonly used items are accessible during the day without unloading my entire backpack. What if it starts raining and my jacket is at the bottom underneath my tent and bear canister!
The trail was on a gentle incline through the forest and I was feeling pretty good. I caught sight of a few deer just off the trail and greeted them. Something I usually do, generally only when I’m alone so people don’t think that I’m too weird. “Hey, how are you doing this morning?” Deer glances up at me inquisitively, ears twitching. “Beautiful morning huh? Yeah I’m just here hiking the John Muir Trail.” I took a few pictures and then “Okay, have a nice day guys, I’m going to get back to the trail” although by this time I was talking to their rear ends as they meandered off to the next grazing spot.
The terrain got steeper and it was starting to get hot. Water was scarce due to the low snowpack the previous winter and not much rain throughout the year. Most of the creeks were dry or slowed to a trickle, in fact someone had told me there wouldn’t be water until Cathedral Lake, another 10–12 miles, which I wasn’t going to arrive at until the end of the day. Before I started the JMT I had looked up a bunch of fishing locations and marked them on my maps with a fish symbol. I had been looking forward to catching some dinners along the way but things didn’t look too promising so far.
The forest cleared at one point and in the distance I saw a beautiful jagged peak. Vogelsang, I learned after finding it on my map. I wanted to climb it! I made a note to check it out later and see what the routes up it were. It just looked so imposing and distinctive.
The bear: a final word
There were two hikers ahead of me that I kept catching glimpses of. They would be stopped for a break and then just as I came around a corner, almost caught up to them they would continue. It went on like this for an hour or two until I finally caught up to them taking a break along a creek, apparently truly the last water until Cathedral Lakes based on a note left on the trail.
It was a young couple maybe in their mid to late 20s that I had met yesterday after coming back from Half Dome. I had warned them about the bear in camp and so inquired as to how their night was and if they saw the bear. “Yeah about 6am when it was just starting to get light out.” The girl replied. “We saw him lift the canister up over his head, standing on his hind legs and throw it at the ground.” They chased him away before he could do any real damaged but it dawned on me
“That’s the noise I was hearing the other night, the persistent crashing that sounded like someone throwing a rock at something. It was the bear lifting up the bear canister and smashing it on the ground!”
And as I learned from the ranger it had finally broken open, the bear making off with the food! So it seems bear canisters aren’t “bear proof” rather “bear resistant”.
I was sweating and hot by the time I reached Sunrise High Sierra Camp (Some no-frills cabins where one can get food and a basic place to sleep, everything being packed in by mule and the only access is hiking or on horseback.) a few more miles down the trail and up some switchbacks. The main thing on my mind is if I would have enough time for another side trip that day. I had a guide to the trail with a bunch of side trips listed and I wanted to do as many of them as possible and maybe some others that weren’t listed. I felt that as long as I’m walking through the area why not explore less traveled peaks along the way. The trip I was currently considering was a rock formation called Columbia Finger a striking pinnacle jutting up out of the forest.
I had all but given up and decided to just go straight to Cathedral Lake when I finally got a view of the pinnacle. There it was so prominent and commanding. I started calculating how much time it would take to climb up. “It’s 3pm. If I leave now I can hike through Long Meadow and up around the North side, then come back to grab my pack.…hmmmm” It just didn’t seem there was enough time in the day for this one and to make it to camp before dark. I resolved, as I had the day before with Clouds Rest (another side trip) to come back and climb up Columbia Finger when I had more time.
As I got closer, passing quite a few people going to the High Sierra Camp, I kept thinking more about it, looking at my watch, then doing mental calculations to see if I in fact might have time after all. Studying my map again I saw the trail actually went right next to it, maybe I could skip the Long Meadow route and go up just off the trail. I decided to re-evaluate once I got to that point.
The trail wound around its base and it was just too close not to climb. I had to navigate across a boulder field followed by a scree slope first but I was getting pretty excited as the views got better and better. It was pretty windy on the summit ridge and I could see all the way past half dome and pretty much all of Yosemite. Quite an awe-inspiring view. The actual summit block while I could see it didn’t seem like as straight forward of a climb as I had imagined. It was only about 30 feet higher but there were a few large flakes of granite I would have to climb that just didn’t seem to be very safe. I wouldn’t really consider myself a rock climber and therefore don’t have the best judgement of what rock is solid and what would send me in an avalanche to my death. The rocks were piled like a stack of Janga blocks near the end of a game. One falls and they all do. To get to the summit I would have to put all of my weight on a balanced slab of rock with a few hundred feet of exposure. Not my idea of fun.
I had all but given up and decided to go back when I had a change of heart and concluded to give it a shot. I felt a rush of adrenaline and my pulse quickened as I hoisted myself up the crack. I tried to push out the thoughts of “What if I’m the last straw the rock needs to break away”. Words from a climber in a documentary on Yosemite I had seen the week before went through my head. He was talking about a large slab of granite called “Texas Flake” on El Capitan, slowly detaching itself from the wall. At some inevitable point it would fall, but hopefully not this time while he was jamming his body through it. That’s what I thought “Please not this time”. Luck was on my side this time and I felt quite relieved when I got above it and was standing on solid rock again. There was a small sheltered area, a little rock room that at one end opened up to a spectacular view of Yosemite but also dropped straight down a few hundred feet. Looking up, the summit block was still another 10–12 feet. I felt good having got this much further but I didn’t see an easy way up the last stretch and time was flying. I still had to hike another few miles to Cathedral Lake. So I decided to head down for good.
There was a beautiful flat open meadow and I got a good view of Cathedral peak as I closed in on the lake. By the time I reached it the sun was getting low in the sky. I raced over to its edge, pulled out my camera and started shooting. There weren’t spectacular colors but with the constantly moving clouds made for some interesting pictures. I got so caught up in taking pictures I ended up cooking dinner in the dark but went to bed full and satisfied.