A Thru Hike of the Sierra Nevada — Section 1: Yosemite Valley to Mammoth

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Lake Catherine at 11K’ with Banner Peak and Mount Ritter in the background [Photo: K. Mathews]

With my permitted entry trailhead closed by a persistent wildfire that had the entire Yosemite Valley shut down for three weeks and my intended hiking start date fast approaching, I wasn’t at all certain what my hike this year would look like, or if I’d even be able to get on the trail. With the news that firefighters had made good progress in containing the Ferguson Fire and with a tentative reopening date for Yosemite Valley, I decided to go for it and gamble that I’d be able to get a walk up permit and that everything would work out.

Coincidentally a friend was free for a few days and made a last minute decision to tag along. We drove up the 395, stashed our cars, spent a sleepless night in a Mammoth hostel, and hopped the morning YARTs to Yosemite Valley to find out our fate.

Arriving in the valley we walked into the permit office at noon, mind you an hour after the next days walk up permits are issued, and posed one of the most ludicrous questions ever asked; “We’d like a permit to start at Happy Isles?”. The ranger responded with “When would you like to start?” to which we half jokingly yet optimistically answered, “In 10 minutes.” A brief silence then to our combined astonishment she casually says, “No problem”. Ha! Arguably one of the most sought after and difficult to get permits in all of hiking and we just sauntered in like it was no big deal, answered a few questions about “leave no trace” practices and a few minutes later we were on our way. Too easy!

With the administrative particulars behind us we packed up and began hiking. We set an aggressive pace climbing out of the valley in hopes of outrunning the crowds and smoke from the still very active wildfire. It was hot, dry and dirty but by evening we had knocked out 11 miles and climbed over 3K’ to our camp along Illilouette Creek. A fairly bland day in terms of sights and scenery, but this is often times the entrance fee the backcountry charges on any backpacking trip.

Day two took us further up the Illilouette Creek trail. We took a break at the Merced Pass Lake junction and watched two skinny coyotes move across the ridge quickly and efficiently only stopping periodically to investigate potential food sources. We took another break at Upper Ottoway Lake to swim and bask in the glorious sunshine before continuing upward again. Unacclimated we suffered getting over 11K’ Red Peak Pass. From there, a short descent to an unnamed lake just below 10K’ brought us to camp, where the day’s effort had us both in our tents, asleep before the sun fully set.

On day three we descended the valley, climbed the opposite side and after what seemed like an unnecessary series of mini ups and downs, left the established trail and began the cross country portion of our hike. As we contoured around and through the open basin above Forrester Lake I was startled by movement at the base of a nearby tree. I looked over just in time to see a small bear hurriedly scurry up to the tree top. Sudden panic overtook my buddy and I as we both froze thinking “Uh oh, where’s momma?!?”. We retreated to a rock barely large enough to fit us both, climbed atop, and began a terrible duet of bear speak (“Hello bear”, “Its ok momma” and other ridiculousness) hoping to avoid being mauled by the protective mother. Strangely momma was nowhere to be seen so after a few minutes we climbed down from our relative safe position and continued hiking giving the treed bear a wide berth. The day ended with a final scramble up and over 11.2K’ Blue Lake Pass to a camp with a fantastic view of far off Banner Peak, Mount Ritter and the Minarets.

Day four was filled with route finding confusion, first in contouring around to Twin Island Lakes from Bench Canyon, and next in trying to wrap our heads around the ascent up the massive headwall to get to North Glacier Pass. We must have stared and studied for an hour looking for the “route” that supposedly paralleled an impressive 100 meter waterfall. Finally we decided to get a closer look and sure enough once we did we found a fairly straightforward and passable route.

In celebration of finally making some decent progress we stopped to take a dip in the small creek running off the backside of the Mount Davis glaciers. Unsurprisingly our swim was quite abbreviated; the water temperature measuring 46F degrees on my watches thermometer.

We continued upward following our overly simplified route guide which told us to go “slightly right” up what it termed “complex terrain”. After climbing for 2 hours over countless boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles we ended up at a barren and glaciated lake; unfortunately it wasn’t the correct lake! We studied the topo and decided to climb another 500’ to the top of a ridge where we thought we’d be able to see the lake we needed. At the top we were relieved that Lake Catherine was where it was supposed to be and that we could reach it with a fairly easy down climb. Once at the lake we set up camp and watched an energetic pika harvesting long grass; sprinting back and forth from his burrow, occasionally running over to the creek to snack on some flower roots. We watched until the cold wind whipping across the pass sent us to the shelter of our tents.

We woke leisurely on day five, scooted over North Glacier Pass then made our way south skirting the easy passes west of Thousand Island and Garnet lakes. We climbed past a series of lakes; Nydiver, Ediza, Iceberg, and Cecile before finally reaching Minaret Lake where we camped for our final night before the hot and dusty descent to Red’s Meadow for a deserved lunch of “real food”. An excellent trip, amazing scenery, great company and of course the utmost respect and gratitude to the hiking gods for allowing the hike to take place!

This hike took place in mid August 2018.

NEXT > A Thru Hike of the Sierra Nevada — Section 2: Mammoth to Bishop

Vagabond, Bean Counter, Adventurer and Occasional Writer.

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