Happy Independence Day!
Today we bring you a story of a different kind of 4th of July celebration, from WF member George Parker.
Friday of the first week our trail crew was camped at Vogelsang Peak in Yosemite National Park’s High Country was a holiday. July 4, 1987 fell on a Saturday, so the Friday before was a State Holiday, giving us a three day weekend. We used three day weekends for long 2-night backpacking trips. We looked forward to them. Anne came up with a great plan to head west around Rafferty Peak for some cross country hiking and visiting several lakes. Wayne, Jose, and Dewey all liked that plan and decided to go with her. I wanted to, as well. However, this particular Friday I was scheduled for KP. Since it was a holiday and Patti, the cook, had the day off, I was responsible for feeding anybody who was in camp on that day. As KP, I couldn’t leave camp to join Anne’s group.
I had one possible escape route. If enough people were going to leave camp for the weekend, the KP was off the hook and the few people in camp could fend for themselves. I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. I mean, everybody was going to going out for overnighters, right?
I polled the crew and found out that quite a few people were planning to do day hikes out of camp for the whole weekend, but a lot of people were going to be in camp for dinner each day.
I tried to ‘reason’ them into at least going on an overnighter. “You’ll have the next three months for day hikes out of camp. We’ve only got two three-day weekends. Get out and see some country!”
“Nah. We just want to stay close by. But just go with Anne and Jose anyway! We can take care of ourselves.”
Moose, our supervisor: “Nope. The rule is that the KP does duty if there are more than five people in camp. You have to stay.”
We reached an impasse. In this case, an impasse meant that I lost. OK. Fine. I know my job.
The next morning went fine. I made everyone a good brunch. Everyone got the dishes washed and then headed out for their day hikes. I took my mid-day break, reading David Copperfield beneath Vogelsang Peak. After my break, I looked at the sign-out log. For safety reasons, anybody leaving camp had to sign out. The log listed the names of everybody in the party, date and time of departure, complete itinerary, and estimated time of return. I checked the log to find out what time everybody expected to be back so I could plan dinner accordingly.
And then I lost it.
The day hikers weren’t due back until 7:00 PM—three hours after the crew’s normal weekend dinner time. I hadn’t needed to stay in camp after all. If only these guys had told somebody they were staying out that late! I was furious. I was livid. I vented into the crew journal. My handwriting got bigger towards the end of the entry. I wrote some words in the journal that I should not have used. And then I got on with dinner preparations.
I went ahead and made dinner for the few people we had left in camp. We washed dishes. After I burned the garbage, Moose took me off to the side.
“Do you know the route Anne and the others were going to take?”
“Yep. They were going to go over the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peak to Reymann Lake tonight.”
“Do you think you could catch up to them before dark?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. CCC policy was that we needed a minimum of two Corpsmembers in a party to leave camp on a trail, and at least three in a party for any cross country hiking. Peter Lewis had been most emphatic about this at orientation. Moose noticed my hesitation.
“I wouldn’t offer this to just anybody. I think you kinda got hosed on your KP, and I trust you enough not to do anything stupid. Do you think you could get to Reymann Lake before dark?”
“Maybe. I could sure try!”
“What would you do if you can’t find them?”
“I think the most likely reason not to catch them would be if I couldn’t get over the ridge before dark. If that happened, I’d spend the night on the ridge and come back to camp in the morning.”
“OK, go ahead and try it. Be careful!”
It didn’t take long to throw together the gear I’d need and hit the trail. I hiked fast past the High Sierra camp and back down the Rafferty Meadows Trail. When I got toward the north end of Rafferty Peak, I got out the topo map to look at my options for getting around the mountain. If I kept hiking down the canyon to a creek and went up the drainage, the ground leveled out on the top of the saddle between Rafferty and Johnson Peaks. It looked like it might be a fairly easy route. Following a creek uphill can be tricky, though. You don’t know how thick the riparian vegetation will be. You don’t know if you will run into any cataracts that you would have to climb over. Sundown was going to be here sooner than later. I looked up the draw I was in front of and decided that my best shot of getting over by sundown was to go up right here.
When I used to think of mountains, I would think they were humongous slabs of solid rock. Yosemite taught me different. Sure, there are big slabs of solid rock like El Capitan and Half Dome. But most of the other majestic peaks you are seeing from far away are actually jumbled piles of smaller granite blocks. Remember, though—‘smaller’ is a relative term. Some of them are as big as a bus, or a house. A lot of them are as big as cars. Millions of them are as big as you. So most of the time you are climbing in the Sierra, you are actually scrambling up and over and around boulders.
That’s what my attempt to find a route around the right side of Rafferty Peak was—a boulder scramble. You stand at the bottom and look up at the jumble of boulders. You can’t see the top, so you have to guess which route might be the most likely to get you where you need to go. You start crawling over and walking around the boulders as you make your way up. You aren’t hiking anymore like you were on the trail below. You aren’t really climbing, either. You keep working your way up, up, up. Before long, you look back and are amazed at how much height you’ve gained over the canyon floor. Every once in a while, you run into a dead end, either a wall you can’t get around or a chasm you can’t get across. Then you have to back track. You hate having to give up any elevation that you’ve sweat so much to gain, but you have no choice. Eventually you make your way around and up.
I spent about an hour bouldering up the lee side of Rafferty Peak. Every time I would top a bench or a large boulder, there would be more boulders up ahead. The sky was still light, but shadows grew darker on the east side of the ridge where I climbed. Finally I topped a bench and did not see another one above. I saw nothing but sky up ahead. My heart thumped as I dared to believe I was at the top of the ridge by now. As I worked my way across the last few boulders I thought, ““It’s only gonna be downhill from here!”
As I crested the ridge, the setting sun’s rays blazed with glory. I paused and soaked in the beauty and considered the sheer drop off at my feet.
The granite sure looked pretty bathed in the setting sun’s rays. The sun was almost down to the next range to the west. The west side of the ridge on this spot was one of those big slabs of rock, about three hundred feet straight down. (I know it was about three hundred feet because it crossed about eight contour lines on the topo with 40-foot contours. At least I think it crossed eight lines. It was kinda hard to tell because they were all running together.) There was no way anybody was getting down here without ropes. I took my pack off and laid it down as I broke out the topo map again. I compared what I could see of the ridge to the north with the map. I had definitely crested too far south. There is an inherent hazard in the bouldering type of climbing that I had been doing. Your visibility is usually limited to the rocks right around yourself. Following the easiest way up might take you significantly off course…like it had just done to me!
The sun was getting lower as each minute passed. Whatever I was going to do, I had better do it fast. I swung my pack back on and headed back down. I needed to find a way to crest about 200 yards further north. That doesn’t sound very far, does it? Two football fields. About two city blocks. However, 200 yards on a mountainside are not nearly the same thing as a level and smooth football field. I had to pick a route down without spraining an ankle. Then I had to find a route through the boulders in roughly the direction that I needed to go. Then I was going to have to climb back up to the crest. And then climb down the west side of the ridge and make it to Reymann Lake before I lost the sunlight!
The light got dimmer and dimmer. Shadows in the boulders got darker and darker. Stars started coming out. I still hadn’t found a way back up the ridge. I came across a relatively flat spot big enough for a sleeping bag. The cool thing about this spot was the large, thin, knife-like piece of granite sticking vertically out of the ground right on the edge of the flat spot. It would prevent someone from falling off the edge if they happened to roll over in the night. It did not look like a natural rock formation to me. It looked like it had been placed there by somebody who had been caught up here before.
“Well, I guess this is as far as I go tonight.”
By now I needed the headlamp to see into my pack. I rolled out my closed cell foam pad and laid my sleeping bag over the top of that. I drank some water and ate a granola bar. Then I leaned back and looked up, enjoying my own private observatory on a mountaintop in Yosemite. The stars were thick in the sky over my head.
Life was good.
July 4, 1987: I woke up on my perch above Rafferty Meadows. The sun hadn’t cleared the mountain ranges to the east yet, but I was still in full daylight. It was about 5:30 or 6:00 AM. I crawled out of my bag and hopped onto a higher rock. I let my bare feet dangle over the edge as I soaked in the morning view. Vogelsang and Fletcher Peaks stood tall across the canyon. I could barely make out the yellow rain flies of our trail crew camp right below Vogelsang. It still looked dark down there in Fletcher’s shadow.
As I breakfasted on GORP and water, I sketched out a plan. I was an early riser, even for a trail crew. It was possible, if I got over the ridge in the next hour or so, to catch up with Anne’s group at Reymann Lake before they pressed on to Nelson Lake. I gathered up my stuff and resumed my way through the boulders.
An hour later, I was still nowhere near to being over the ridge. I kept running into walls and crevasses. I reached a point where I had to admit there was no way I was getting to Reymann Lake before they left. I took my pack off for a short break and started my way back down.
About half-way down the ridge I stumbled across something odd. It looked like a faint trail, following the contour along the ridge. It looked like it had not been maintained in years, but it sure looked like a trail. I decided it was a good time for a break as I shed my pack and broke out the topo map one more time.
The only trail showing on the map was the causeway through the bottom of Rafferty Meadows. No other trail at all appeared on the map through this canyon. I studied the lay of this ‘phantom’ trail again. It was possible this was just a game trail, but I didn’t think there was enough game this high to leave a trail. I left my pack on the ground and followed the trail south about thirty yards until I found a water bar across the trail. That clinched it! This was definitely a man-made hiking trail! Now I was curious about where this unmarked trail led. It went the same direction I was already headed, so why not follow it? I retrieved my pack and headed south. The only reason I could think of for this trail to be here was if it was an old cavalry trail. I daydreamed about cavalry troopers riding through these mountains.
At the top of Rafferty Meadow, the trail dropped down off the contour. I lost the trail several times once it got lower. It practically disappeared. I couldn’t tell where it was by the break in the contour like a trail would follow. I stopped seeing water bars. The right of way was overgrown. Once I lost the trail, I had to stand still, look ahead, and ask myself where I would route the trail ahead. I would catch glimpses of trail clues every once in a while for about fifty yards. As I worked my way through the overgrown brush, I suddenly popped out onto the main trail through Rafferty Meadow! I could not see the main trail until I was actually out on it.
Well…that was a fun adventure!
I even made it back to camp in time for brunch. I spent the rest of July 4th, 1987 catching up on laundry and reading more David Copperfield.
Considering that I had managed to go on an authorized independent but illegal solo hike, I think it was an appropriate Independence Day.