My friend, Steve Kossack, and I headed out for what is becoming an annual tradition - hiking and photographing the Yosemite Eastern Sierra High Camps. While we were hoping for a full loop of the Park, we wound up drawing a half loop in the lottery. The exciting thing was that we were scheduled to see to the three Sierra High Camps that we missed last year - Glen Aulin, May Lake and Sunrise. Gear this year was a snap! Essentially I bought stuff last year that will last a lifetime. The one exception was that I was sent the Mefoto GlobeTrotter Carbon fiber tripod this year (review here
). The GlobeTrotter is the big brother to the Mefoto Roadtrip that I brought in 2013. For people interested in the nuts and bolts of how to prepare for a hike like this, I discuss that subject at length in last year's article, which can be found here.
On Sunday, 09/07/2014, we drove out to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne Meadows acts as our de facto base camp as that is where our hike begins and ends each year. In addition to acting as a base camp, I love Tuolumne Meadows because there are lots of great photographic opportunities. We were both very excited as 09/07 was also scheduled to be the night that the full moon was going to be most photographable. As I am sure you know, photographing the moon is easiest the night before the actual full moon as it will be rising during the time that there is still light in the sky.
We were more than a bit surprised when we saw - from about 100 miles away - at 2 PM in the afternoon - that the bright blue sky was being marred by thick clouds. The closer we got, the more evidence we saw that there was fire in The Yosemite. The bright clouds were turned red at the bottom from the heat and proximity to the flames. When we arrived at the gate entrance, the ranger told us that our hike was more than likely being shut down as a result of a fire incident that had gone out of control.
We headed to the ranger station in the park near Tuolumne Meadows and were told that we were still going to be able to go on part of our hike. Glen Aulin and May Lake High Camps were both still open. We were told that Sunrise had been evacuated. Given that the season was about to end, we assumed that the camp, once evacuated, would not be re-opened.
Sunset - Tuolumne Meadows
Sunset - Cathedral Peak
Photographing sunset that night was a real treat. Fires often make for beautiful sunsets as debris from the smoke in the lower atmosphere scatter the sun's rays, leaving just the red and orange light to survive. Some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever photographed were a result of this phenomenon. The sunset in Tuolumne Meadows was no exception. The sun was a syrupy, intense red. If I saw these images without knowing the conditions, I would have assumed they were heavily doctored. They were not.
That night, we had dinner at Tuolumne Meadow Lodge. As is customary, dinners at the high camps are held family style and it is great fun to get to know the various people who will be joining the trails with us. One person that we sat with had a horrible shock. She had hiked from Merced Lake to Sunrise High Camp only to be turned away as the camp had been evacuated due to the fires. The hike from Merced to Sunrise is considered to be a grueling 10 miles with profound fluctuations in altitude. She had to hike an additional four miles to get to the main road and get a bus to Tuolumne Meadows. She recounted her experience, telling us that she had gone to climb Mount Connes to release her brother's ashes. She reported being able to see the fires on the far ridge clearly as she descended alone. Eventually, she ran into two younger hikers who helped her navigate her way and get her through those last few miles.
While there are many people who hike the camps alone, I believe that it is a mistake. Even though there may be other people on the trail, there are periods when you are completely by yourself. If you get hurt on the trail, or lost, it could be hours until someone passes by. If you hike the high camps, take my suggestion and bring a friend.
The next morning, we started out bright and early for Glen Aulin High Camp. The hike to Glen Aulin is considered a 'lighter' one, but it still is strenuous. The smell of fire and ash was notable in the air, and our clothes and bags soon began to reek of smoke. We were fortunate that there were periods where it rained. The rain, while uncomfortable, had the effect of clearing out the air and making it less smokey to breath.
Glen Aulin Camp's name comes from the Gaelic. Spelled properly, it would be "Glean Alainn" for "beautiful valley or glen." We spent two nights in Glen Aulin, photographing the various wonders of the valley. It always blows my mind how fortunate I am. This world is so beautiful, and the fact that I am able to go and see such amazing places never escapes me.
Falls at Glen Aulin
Sunset at Glen Aulin - Mount Conness
Sunrise at Glen Aulin
Dinners in the high camps are essentially feasts. Lots of miles are being hiked, and they overload you with good food and good conversation. This year, we learned at Glen Aulin of something called the Tuolumne River Project, which appears to be a compromise plan to help save the Sierra High Camps from closing as they are perceived to be a danger to San Francisco's and Las Angeles' drinking water. The compromise plan would incorporate composting toilets and fewer tents to help insure that the high country environment will remain pristine. Given that rumors have been rife for years that certain high camps could be closed, we are hopeful that wise minds will prevail and allow a safe and effective balance for those of us who love the parks. I believe that these camps - and these 'wild places' - are essential in today's world. As John Muir wrote, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” Unless people know of and are able to access and share these spaces, I am afraid that they will be taken away by larger political interests. All you have to do is look at the horror of the Hetch Hetchy to know that our national parks are not inviolate.
You can learn a bit about the Tuolumne River Plan here:http://www.parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?parkID=347&projectID=14043
We left Glen Aulin on Wednesday and hiked to May Lake. The hike from Glen Aulin to May Lake is very strenuous and both Steve and I were pretty wiped out at the end of the day. We ate dinner and rushed out to the shelf to photograph sunset as May provides a beautiful view of that part of the valley. Unfortunately, we misinterpreted timing for direct sunlight on the mountain range. It was still beautiful to watch though. The fires raging in Little Yosemite Valley were apparent to us and we were concerned that other High Camps would be damaged.
The next morning, we went out to photograph Mount Hoffman for sunrise. We were so incredibly fortunate. The lake was completely still and the reflection of Mount Hoffman on the water was beautiful. I am told that this phenomenon happens very rarely as it takes only a small wind to eliminate all reflections in the lake. This is, perhaps, my favorite photograph of the trip.
Mount Hoffman at May Lake
At May Lake, we were told that this would be the end of our hike. Sunrise High Camp was definitely closed, so we hiked down to the Tioga Road and grabbed a bus back to Tuolumne Meadows. As we had already spent time at Tuolumne Meadows, we were able to get the park to make accommodations on the valley floor.
Half Dome from Olmsted Point
While I was bummed about losing my nights at Sunrise High Camp, I have never photographed from the valley floor before. This was going to be a fun experience! So, Steve and I headed out and spent two days photographing the marvelous wonders of The Yosemite. Every turn in The Yosemite is amazing. Every peak has a name, and each name has a story that goes along with it. In two packed days, we hit just about every drivable part of the park - from the Mariposa Grove of majestic Sequoias to the top of Glacier Point. What a marvelous country. We were also fortunate that by the time we left that the fire was mostly contained. Little Yosemite, unfortunately, may take years to recover.
Half Dome from Glacier Point
As Steve's occupation is a professional nature photographer (leading photographic workshops), he was able to share many locations for sunrise and sunset. His intimate knowledge of the park made the experience of leaving the high camps much better than had I been on my own. For folks who are interested in seeing some of my friend's photographs, they are on the gallery of his website (linked below). Steve provides workshops all over the country. Sometimes, I even join them when he needs a bit of assistance. http://stevekossack.com/gallery/index.htm
Half Dome Panorama from Glacier Point
I would like to close this article with a poem from Nancy Newhall. She was a famous American photography critic and conservationist. She worked with Ansel Adams and the Sierra Club (among many others) on a variety of projects. Portions of this piece were featured in Ansel Adam's autobiography, which I am currently reading. I wish that I had this power of words. It is as close as any that I have read that captures my feelings of hiking through the Yosemite. This is her poem:
This is the American Earth.
To the primal wonders no road can ever lead; they are not so won
To know them you shall leave road and roof behind;
You shall go light and spare,
You shall win them yourself, in sweat, sun, laughter,
In dust and rain with only a few companions.
You shall know the night—it’s space, its light, its music
You shall see earth sink and darkness and the universe appear.
No roof shall shut you from the presence of the moon,
You shall see mountains rise in the transparent shade before dawn.
You shall see – and feel, first light, and hear a ripple in the stillness.
You shall enter the living shelter of the forest.
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before.
You shall know immensity, and see continuing the primeval forces of the world.You shall know not one small segment but the whole of life, strange, miraculous, living, dying, changing.
You shall face immortal challenges; you shall dare, delighting, to pit your skill, courage, and wisdom against colossal facts
You shall live lifted up in light;
You shall move among clouds.
You shall see storms arise, and, drenched and deafened, shall exult in them.
You shall top a rise and behold creation.
And you shall need the tongues of angels to tell what you have seen.