Yosemite Series: Day Three

Day 3: Arriving at Yosemite Creek

Before there is “arriving”, there is “getting there”. On North Dome, I am feeling unmotivated to get out the skillet and and do dishes in the morning. So we go with a very light breakfast. Perhaps too light. It is a granola with milk and blueberries dehydrated meal from Backpackers’ Pantry. Delicious and satisfying, but probably low on protein.

We leave North Dome at around 8am. I already know where the first creek is, so the day’s agenda is a matter of passing that creek, then Lehamite Creek, then cresting the ridge at Yosemite Point, and making the descent to Yosemite Creek, followed by a short ascent to our hidden campsite just above Yosemite Falls.

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Lehamite Creek is running quite a bit stronger than the glorified puddle we drank from the night before. Crouched on a rock is a man who moves out of the way to let us pass over the creek, pointing out that the actual trail is a few dozen feet the other way. He asks if we might have any Advil or Tylenol, explaining that he is here from Georgia with his 17-year-old son, who has a 100-degree temperature. As he is talking, I remember them from the previous night. We passed each other as Randy and I were on our way back up the switchbacks to Indian Ridge. They were coming down, and when we asked where they were headed, the father said, “Somewhere flat with water.”

Here, at Lehamite Creek, was the water. I wondered where they had found someplace flat.

Randy reaches into the outside zippered pocket of his backpack, which he has taken off and placed on a rock next to the creek.

“How many do you want?”

“How many can you spare?”

He shakes out six tablets of ibuprofen into the open hand of the man from Georgia, who goes on to explain that this was a pre-college father-son trip for them. They started in San Francisco yesterday morning and made the mistake of stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge first. With all the traffic, it took seven hours to get here, almost twice as long as predicted. He really wanted his son to see this place before “life got in the way”.

And now, a fever in the backcountry. I felt bad for both of them, knowing how miserable it is to be sick while backpacking. The father didn’t seem too concerned. Just glad to have some ibuprofen.

We continue on, knowing that the sun is getting higher, and our tree cover will soon be gone when we approach Yosemite Creek.

There is a stretch of the forest between Lehamite and Yosemite Creeks that has been burned recently. The charred, naked tree trunks and brown, grassless ground are not familiar to us from our last time here. Soon, on the steady climb up to Yosemite Point, the space in front of our faces becomes filled with gnats. They are not mosquitoes because they don’t bite, but they seem to enjoy swarming into my eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. I try to put as much Jungle Juice as I can near these areas without dissolving my sunglasses or poisoning myself. The gnats are unperturbed. Jungle Juice, by the way, is 100% DEET, which is about twenty times the concentration of regular backyard mosquito repellent. Apply sparingly and avoid contact with plastic. And don’t think too hard about what it’s doing to your skin or in your bloodstream.

We emerge from the tree cover onto the bare granite of Yosemite Point, and we are convinced by a day hiker’s assertion that we should head out to the guardrails, where we’ll “love the view”. We take the extra half-mile detour to the  the overlook of Yosemite Valley.

I am consoled by the idea that our biggest climb is behind us, and our campsite will be so much easier to find in full sun than in the pre-dusk twilight that I remember from our last time here. I also remember losing the trail at this point in our hike five years ago. Missing one of the cairns that indicates a turn of a switchback, we headed off trail and made our way straight down toward the banks of Yosemite Creek. I was convinced we could bush whack our way along the rocks to a campsite.

I was later convinced otherwise. After a few slips on the wet granite, while carrying heavy packs, we decided to turn back and head up the steep rocks lining the creek to find an actual trail, which eventually leads to a bridge.

So this time we remember the bridge. And we stay on the trail.

The bonus, on our way down from Yosemite Point, is a chance encounter with a mother mountain quail and her five (or six? or more?) chicks, foraging in the underbrush of the trees. The mother reminds me of my backyard chickens at home. The chicks are scattered quite far from her, crossing the trail back and forth in front of us. She is cooing rhythmically, which I imagine to be her motherly sonar, letting the chicks know where she is at all times. At one point, one chick charges full speed towards me along the trail as I stand perfectly still, watching. It takes a turn off the trail when it is less than a foot in front of me. I make up the story that I am its first encounter with a human specimen.

The descent to Yosemite Creek is in full sun, with the bare granite absorbing heat like a giant solar panel. While it is less than a mile of ascent from the top of Yosemite Falls to our campsite (which we are relying on memory to find), it is hot, and now there are mosquitoes.

I am full of energy and optimistic about my ability to find the site. I go faster, doing that thing that happens when my mind has an objective and my feet are walking. Each time we pass a slight clearing in the trees, I am convinced this is the one where we exit the trail and find our way to our campsite.

I am wrong several times.

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Typical view of the formations that indicate Yosemite Creek is on the other side of these rocks.

I exit the trail and march up to the top of a granite formation that looks promising. Randy is wordless, breathing in a way that I have learned to know means he is struggling. I encourage him to sit on a rock while I “run” up to scout the location. It’s not the place, but I can see our site, just a bit further up the creek.

“Maybe we should eat,” I say.

I pull out the ration of food I’ve allocated for today’s lunch: pretzel sticks, peanut M&Ms, a pack of Justin’s maple almond butter, a package of cheddar cheese mini cracker sandwiches. I say a few encouraging words, like, “It’s just a little further. I can see it from here.”

Then we are on our way.

Maybe I feel that if I’m in a painful or stressful situation, going faster will make it go by more quickly. I’m trying to understand why I move faster when my head is filled with thoughts. Back when I was training for Half Dome, I would make video blogs of myself talking while doing long day hikes in the Bay Area. When I had an idea about a great truth I was going to talk about, I would, according to Randy, start walking faster and faster. My legs kept going faster even after the camera was turned on.

There is no video blog from this trip, but as I sit and remember it, I can feel how my legs carry me through situations by moving faster. Maybe they are like an engine for my best responses and instincts. Or maybe the gears in my thinking mind propel my legs forward.

When we get to the trail junction for Eagle Peak and El Capitan, we know we have gone too far. It’s slightly comforting to know we have reached that point. Now to choose when we exit the trail and begin stepping over fallen trees, through crunchy forest floor, then between gaps in the low madrone bushes perched on granite, hoping to find that lovely flat spot with the fire ring next to the creek.

What a relief when we spot it. Remembering the falls I took the night before, I keep my attention on each of my feet as I make my way down the steep, bare granite and patches of scree above the campsite. It’s the perfect spot, with a pair of Ponderosa pines, a pair of granite rocks, and a section of the creek made private by just the perfect curve on either side. There are two sets of mini waterfalls which make great natural jacuzzi jets.

Our first order of business, even before setting up our tent, is to soak in the creek.

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One view from our campsite.

Strangely, we are not feeling revived and refreshed from the dip. I remember that we have not had much protein, and we have taken a long, hot hike with heavy packs. I decide to cook the breakfast I had originally planned for the morning. Two real eggs wrapped in whole wheat tortillas. They won’t last until tomorrow in this heat anyway.

I fire up the JetBoil, and position the titanium skillet for the first time on this trip. I pour some olive oil onto the pan, which heats up in seconds. I have beaten the eggs in a titanium pot, and I add them to the hot skillet. Using my foldable GSI spatula, I flip the eggs around until they turn a light golden brown. I shut off the JetBoil. Then, with a tortilla on a plate, I am ready to serve the eggs. For some reason, I use my left index finger to “help” the egg onto the spatula, touching the titanium skillet.

So hot! Ouch! And WHY did I do that? “Water!” I shout.

Randy is drinking from his Nalgene bottle and there are a few milliliters left. He hands me the open bottle. I dump it on my hand but I know I need more. I have the spatula in my right hand, the tortilla on a plate on the ground, and the skillet full of eggs. “Here, you do this!” I yell, and then run down to the creek.

In this case, getting a burn in the backcountry is well timed, since I have a source of ice cold, gushing water to plunge my hand into. I don’t exactly run to the creek, since it involves scaling many different-sized, slippery rocks to get to the water. I keep my finger submerged for many minutes. I don’t care about eating. I just want to prevent a blister from forming on the tip of my index finger, which happens to be a very useful one in my activities of daily living.

Randy is revived after eating the eggs, as I knew he would be. I am encouraged by the healing properties of mountain water applied to my burn. Maybe it’s my violin calluses that have toughened the pads of all my left hand fingers. I also soak the scratches on my legs from the previous night’s water fetching excursion. The mini waterfalls are like natural hydrotherapy. I keep thinking of the word “debridement” and the tidbits of knowledge about wound care I learned from my medical school surgery rotation. This is natural debridement and irrigation.

Sitting by the water, experiencing what seems like infinite flow, I wonder, “Where does the water come from?”. I realize the answer could be, “The sky.” Or “The snow.” Or “A cloud.” It has only been from my visits to Yosemite – to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, to the sequoia groves in winter, to Tuolumne Meadow, to this creek, to the Falls – that I have gathered my own answers to this question: “Where does the water come from?”.

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Abstract sketch of the private section of Yosemite Creek near our campsite.

The afternoon sun shines directly onto the tent. There is no relief from shade except by sitting in the creek itself. We decide to put up the rainfly and try to take a nap inside the tent. Lying on our backs, we amuse ourselves by watching the bugs that gather between the fine mesh of our tent and the water resistant material of the rainfly. A hornet waits, then devours gnats whole, leaving their wings like shells of peanuts on a dive bar floor.

This pattern of afternoon napping has me rethinking our nutrition and hydration strategies. I planned for very light lunches and very hearty dinners. I am learning from our first two days that we need to front load our eating and drinking. We plan to camp here for two nights, and we are just steps away from a water source. Here we will fortify ourselves and learn the lessons that will make the rest of our trip much more enjoyable, in the most unexpected ways.

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See all the posts from this Yosemite series here.

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