Outdoor Writing

Sweat streamed down my face and leg muscles ached as I planted one foot in front of the other, creeping up the steep mountainside. The relentless mid-day sun ricocheted off the granite canyon walls. I paused to take deep gulps of fresh mountain air only to have a tiny fly dart to the back of my throat. Coughing and spitting, I wondered if this trip was such a good idea.

This trip was conceived three years prior while enjoying a family reunion at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, California. I had worked in Yosemite as a wildlife biologist in the 1970s and 80s and spent many summers traveling all over the Park. Toward the end of our vacation our six-foot two-inch, 30-year-old son Aaron asked:

“Dad, now that we’ve seen Yosemite, what’s your favorite part?”

“It’s three-days walk that way.” I responded, pointing north into Yosemite’s remote wilderness.

That sparked our planning a 55-mile, six-day backpacking expedition into the most rugged mountains in Yosemite National Park. It included four major ascents and three mountain passes over 10,000 feet in elevation. The date was set – August 5, 2013. I would be 64 years old. I wondered if I was up for the challenge with our athletic children and spouses, aged 24 to 39.

When I worked in Yosemite, my family couldn’t join me on late-night hunts to capture nuisance black bears or 10-day pack trips deep into wilderness. They never knew the killdeer that greeted me when I crossed the gravel ridge en route to Lake Vernon nor the smell of a high-mountain thunderstorm. This expedition invited them into a part of my life they never saw.

More importantly, I hoped to make deeper connections with our children. All lived far away and our phone conversations were limited and shallow. When we could get together, their kids’ activities dominated agendas.

As an aged wilderness zealot with foot, back, and butt problems, I knew there would be special footwear, sleeping, and dietary issues. I attacked dietary planning like a college student preparing for final exams. I balanced high caloric content with light food weight. I chose high fiber foods to keep me regular. I built spreadsheets, created recipes, and calculated nutrient content. I rode a bike regularly and made frequent overnight hikes. I trained my feet to like my hiking boots and bought an insulated air mattress.

Eight adults left the Twin Lakes trailhead on Monday, August 5, talking, laughing, and walking with a bounce to our steps. We enjoyed blue-petaled lupine and fireweed’s deep pink flowers as we passed through spicy sagebrush and vanilla-scented Jeffrey Pine. Mid-afternoon we hit the first of four torturous ascents. The brutal sun bounced off canyon walls and my leg muscles ached; I worried that I was not sufficiently fit for this trek.

The 2,500-foot climb and 8.4 miles distance to our Peeler Lake campsite was a tough pull for a first day of hiking. Exhausted, we sprawled out on short alpine grasses and moved as little as possible. We woke to sunshine, clear sky, and mallard ducks quacking softly – no alarm clocks, no traffic, no sirens.

Day two we hiked 7.1 miles and dropped 330 feet to camp alongside Rancheria Creek. Along the way numerous daisies colored the short-grass meadows. I told of three mules that broke loose and my resulting high-speed chase on horseback through Kerrick Meadow.

Hiking resumed in earnest on day 3 starting with a short climb to Seavey Pass. The pleasant trek among lodgepole pine and several ponds preceded a 1,700-foot plunge to picturesque Benson Lake, with a broad sandy beach and towering mountains. Everyone seemed stronger as we labored the soreness out of over-worked muscles.

At Benson Lake I recounted the Boy Scout backpack trip when one of the fathers displayed a two-inch blister on his heel. We ripped the skin off and coated it with mercurochrome while he chewed on a leather belt and screamed. After a few coats of the tincture he hiked the rest of the trip without discomfort.

The 1,800-foot climb out of Benson Lake in the warm afternoon sun challenged us. I attacked the second of four grueling ascents concentrating on steady, plodding footsteps and cadenced breathing. Grateful for the many training hikes, I led the youngsters up the steep switch-backed trail.

We thrilled at clouds of lemon yellow, peach, and pumpkin orange as the sun eased below the horizon at Smedberg Lake. The next morning we trekked past wind-weathered lodgepole pine snags colored copper, gold, and gray. They stood as seasoned sentinels of high mountain regions and dear friends from past adventures.

We rested at Benson Pass, our first 10,000-foot summit, to revel in spectacular mountain scenery that Aaron described as a “giant panorama of awe.” Two cowboy-led strings of mules passed so I described the nuances of the box and diamond hitches that secured their loads.

Tracy, our petite but determined daughter, remarked that experiencing part of my former life was one of the highlights of her trip – that and watching me whoop and holler as we began the long descent into Matterhorn Canyon. The trail dropped 1,600 feet down Wilson Creek with its long avalanche chutes; the toppled lodgepole pine, strewn like pickup sticks, had turned silver with age.

Around the campfire at Matterhorn Creek we reminisced about pulling our children out of school for a bighorn sheep capture; we couldn’t let school interfere with their education! We laughed about our tent blowing down in a sandstorm in Death Valley, swimming lessons at the Yosemite Lodge pool with Eldon, and things I didn’t know like their jumping off Swinging Bridge in Yosemite Valley.

The next morning we left a still frosty camp in anticipation of a grueling 10-mile hike over two mountain passes each of which exceeded 10,000 feet in elevation. We thrilled at yet another “giant panorama of awe” as we approached Burro Pass, a lofty 10,600 feet. The steep climbs and thin air challenged my endurance, but with the soreness gone I felt strong and alive.

As Tracy and I hiked together we talked of raising children, managing careers, and the depth of our faith. The struggles that our children face brought emotion-filled memories of challenges their mother and I experienced during child-rearing years. Tears tugged at the corners of my eyes as I felt the pain of their struggles. We hiked in silence as I pondered our children’s growth and maturity, the good citizens and parents they’ve become, and the gratitude I felt for this insight and reconnection.

After a quiet, thought-filled night in biting cold at Crown Lake we reached the trailhead where our journey began. As we climbed into our cars cell phones emerged and conversations ceased as everyone caught up with their children and jobs.

I accomplished an amazing physical feat at age 64 and renewed my love affair with wilderness. Most importantly, I thrived in the company of family: strengthening friendships, treasuring past experiences, and building new memories. Recalling that first day with brutal sun and that annoying fly in my throat, I recognized that this trip was an outstanding idea.