Hiking and Photographing the Yosemite Sierra High Camps, by James Morrissey"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
-John Muir, Our National Parks, (c) 1901
Tuolumne Meadows at Sunset
Yosemite National Park has been a place that I have dreamed of visiting for years. I was pretty excited when Steve Kossack called and asked if I would be interested in taking a "busman's holiday" with him and go hiking a half loop of the Yosemite High Camps. I did not realize that I would be getting a taste of something that most people who visit Yosemite will never see. Of the nearly 4,000,000 people enter Yosemite National Park each year, only a small fraction (less than 4%) ever enter the High Sierra Camps.
While I see every trip as a photography expedition, the truth is that something like this is predominantly a backpacking trip. The two most important questions you can ask at the beginning have nothing to do with photography. They have to do with conveyance. 1. What bag are you going to use to bring your stuff in, 2. What boots are you going to use to get there? Neither question, unfortunately, was an easy one. I did not have anything that really met what my needs were going to be. This created an unexpected financial cost on my journey that put a bit of an initial damper on my enthusiasm.
The first problem was that I did not have a hiking backpack. Hiking backpacks are generally different from photography backpacks, even ones designed for hiking. Hiking backpacks are made to allow weight to be continuously redistributed more flexibly. Most of us who photograph don't normally shlep our gear for that long a period of time. Recently, there have been hybrid bags developed to do both. While I own a F-Stop Loka, which is a photography bag designed in for mountaineering, it was not large enough for the 4 day trip that I was planning. I considered one of the larger F-Stop bags, but while they have a great harness system, I ultimately opted for a traditional back packing bag that also has a hip belt that moves independently of the harness. The bag that I purchased was the Gregory Baltoro 75. As far as I know, Gregory is unique in selling bags with independent hip and harness systems. The pivoting belt is pretty cool because it mirrors the body's movements and helps evenly distribute the weight without restricting your movement or stressing your hips and shoulders. If these guys made a camera bag, I would jump for it in a minute. I can testify that the hip strap really made a huge difference during the trip. However, much like everything else in life, there are trade-offs. The big trade off is that it is absolutely NOT a camera bag. I purchased some lens wraps and placed my lenses on top of my clothes for easier access when hiking. I also had to jury-rig a system to hold my tripod. To save weight, I was able to procure a small but sturdy travel tripod from MAC Group. They sent us the MeFOTO 1350 RoadTrip Travel Tripod.
If you click on the link, you can read a review of this great little tripod.
MeFoto Road Trip Tripod, jury rigged on a Baltoro 75 Hiking Bag
The second problem was that I did not have any good hiking boots. I have not generally advertised the fact that I am a vegetarian on the forum, but I have not eaten meat or worn leather in over 25 years. While there are plenty of good non leather sneakers out there (and even some boots), high quality hiking boots are almost impossible to find. After a bit of research, I was pretty fortunate to find a boot called the "Veggie Trekker, Mark IV" by Vegetarian Shoes. Prior to purchasing them, I tried on boots from Vasque and Asolo and feel that these are a surprisingly good alternative. For people who are interested, I wrote a review on these boots that can be read here. The review also includes how to lace the boots - something I only learned recently.
The Veggie Trekker, Mark IV Hiking Boots
With those two problems solved, I now had the opportunity to figure just WHAT I was bringing on this trip. One of the huge advantages of staying at the High Camps is that we did not have to bring our own food. While this gave me the ability to bring a bit more camera gear - when hiking, it is still all about ounces. One important rule when hiking in the back country is whatever you bring, you must carry your own weight.
You cannot count on someone else to carry it for you. There are no Sherpas. When they talk about "the weight of a stone,' it is not a joke.
So, how much do you really bring? The answer is "as little as humanly possible." Fortunately, the National Park Service has suggestions about what to bring on back country hiking trips. To keep weight down, it means purchasing travel sized items of toothpaste, sun block, shampoo, etc. Even minimizing the way that I did, my bag still weighed over 35 pounds when I included water. Considering that I am normally about 150 pounds, that is a pretty scary load to carry.
For folks who are interested, I ultimately brought:
1. Four Long Sleeve Tech Shirts
2. Four Socks (Medium Weight Wool)
3. Two Pairs of convertible pants (which I had brought just one).
4. One pair of Keen H2O performance sandals as a back up for my boots
5. One REI Rain Jacket
6. One Columbia Rain Pants
7. Travel Sized Deodorant, Sunblock, Camp Soap, Toothbrush, Tooth Paste, and a Camp Towel (a must).
8. My camera gear (5d Mark III with grip, 16-35L, 28-70L and 70-200L) and MeFoto Tripod. I also brought 3 Singh Ray ND Grad Filters, a Singh Ray Warming Polarizer and regular polarizer.
9. Hiking Poles
As I was flying in a day early to hang with Steve, we decided to head up to Tuolumne Meadows to help acclimate me to the altitude and to orient me in the proper use of hiking poles. I had never used hiking poles prior, but I got accustomed to them pretty quickly. For folks who don't use poles, or have never tried using them - I suggest that you at least take some time and try them out.
In my opinion, they made this trip easier. I did not have one fall the entire hike. Heading up early also gave us the opportunity for an additional sunset. "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to the body and soul alike."
- John Muir, The Yosemite, (c) 1912
Tuolumne Meadows at Sunset
From Tuolumne Meadows the next morning, the journey was about to begin! The first day, we hiked from Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 Feet) to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp Ground. Vogelsang is approximately 7 miles from Tuolumne Meadows at an elevation of 10,300 feet. Steve would remind me routinely to not focus on how far we had come saying, "Mileage Means Nothing!" Hiking in the Sierras, there is no such thing as a straight line. Steve quoted me that the average speed hiking in the Sierras is about 1 mile per hour. The moral of the story? You hike at your own pace. When your body says move, you move. Stop when it says you need a break.
Hiking is not about style points. It is about getting to and from your destination safely and in an enjoyable manner.
I strongly suggest that your first trip you do something like this that you go with someone who is competent.
While you have the option to go on a ranger led tour or to figure the back country out yourself, there was something nice about going with someone who knows the place like the back of his hand. Steve was able to not only keep me on the trail, but he also showed me a bunch of great landscape locations. On those rare occasions when we were hiking separately, I did get confused on a few occasions about staying on the trail. The trick is to stop as quickly as you realize you are off of the trail and to walk back to your last known verified location.
Usually it only takes a minute or two to figure out where you need to be.
"I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in "creation's dawn." The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day."
-John Muir, The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (c) 1938
Hiking to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
Hiking to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
The people responsible for getting food and stuff to and from the high camps.
We arrived at Vogelsang at approximately 4:30 in the afternoon. The Vogelsang High camp is absolutely beautiful. You are so high above the valley that from certain locations, it looks like the earth literally drops off. The world ends. After shooting a bit, we went and had a dinner that could not be beat at the Vogelsang Campground and cut out early again to make good of the last of the good light. While we did not get an awesome sunset or sunrise, I got some compositions that I was very pleased with."Fresh beauty opens one's eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on moutain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common everyday beauty."
John Muir, The Mountains of California, (c)1894
Fletcher Peak at Sunset at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
Fletcher Peak at Sunset at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we hiked up to the Vogelsang Pass. The pass is approximately 10,800 feet above sea level. Again, it was a marvelous view - even at noon o'clock. "Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue."
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, (c) 1911
Hiking at Vogelsang Pass
From the pass, we made our way down to the Merced Lake Camp. The hike was approximately 8.4 miles, with a drop in altitude of nearly 3,700 feet (Merced Camp is at 7,150 feet). Steve refers to it as the Banana Belt, and it was sure warm compared to Vogelsang. You might think that the fact that we were dropping altitude meant that the hike was easier. For me, that was just not the case. My knees felt like they were burning when we got into Merced Campground that evening. My quads were also very sore. I was able to make it out though for sunset. There was not a great sky that evening, and I had a difficult time developing a composition, but I did better at sunrise."The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continets and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
John Muir, John of the Mountains, (c) 1938
Merced Lake at Sunrise
The last day of the hike, we were going from Merced Lake (7150 Feet) to Curry Village (4,000 feet). It is a very long day, at approximately 14.6 miles. Another guest affectionately referred to it "The Death March." While it was grueling, the scenery was just amazing. I also saw my first rattlesnake in the wild - a smallish guy, balled on a rock sunning himself. I was surprised as I would not normally assume a poisonous snake would be so high up. However, it was definitely a rattler. Always remember to know your surroundings and put your hands and feet only where you can see them.
I like to think I am in pretty solid shape, and typically I try to exercise about five miles every day. However, I can honestly say that I met my match on that last day. I drank over a gallon and a half of water and still felt dehydrated when we got into Curry Village. I was so tired that I almost did not stop to photograph the magnificent locations of Vernal Fall, Nevada Falls and Half Dome. I also developed a blister when I decided to continue to push through and not follow my body's desire to stop and take a break...a mistake I won't do again.
I will admit that I limped into Curry Village feeling pretty worn out. However, I did it. I may not have earned many style points, but given that I brought a full accompaniment of photo gear, I am pretty proud of the accomplishment. It was definitely worth it - and I might decide to put myself into the lottery for next year....maybe this time I might even get a full loop!
Please note: The photos and story are (c) 2013 by James Morrissey and the Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum. Neither the images nor the text may be used without explicit permission. Throughout this article, I have included quotes from John Muir who wrote extensively about the Sierras and the National Parks. All quotes have been appropriately attributed.