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Yosemite Grand Traverse joins forces with Columbia and Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides for an epic trek through the Sierra
By Peter Potterfield - October 5th, 2010

Editor's Note: 

Columbia Sportswear sponsored editor Peter Potterfield's week-long backcountry journey with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Yosemite National Park.


At nearly 11,000 feet, Post Peak Pass is not extraordinarily high for this part of the Sierra. In fact, Forester Pass, to the south, reaches above 13,000. Still, here on day two of a week long backcountry trip, with all the food, fuel and gear that entails--and bear-proof food canisters to boot--working up the south side of Post Peak Pass makes for an honest day's work. We stop for lunch beside a pretty alpine tarn nestled in it's rocky bowl before finishing off the last thousand feet to the pass. And when the five of us finally scramble up to the top of the ridge, we are rewarded with the kind of payoff that reminds us all why we hike: The imposing broadside of Banner, Ritter and the Minarets is right there, creating an unforgettable Sierra scene that makes all the hard work more than worth the effort.

We take a moment to absorb the sheer scale of this stunning landscape before dropping down the ridge to hike beyond the boundary that takes us out of  the Ansel Adams Wilderness and into Yosemite National Park. Once in the park proper, we'll work down the switchbacks  another mile and then hike through open meadows to make camp near 10K Lake--and get to work putting the tents up before the afternoon thunderstorms pelt us with hail and rain, as they did yesterday. We've seen amazing scenery over the past couple of days, and there are still five more days of hiking to complete this epic traverse of the Sierra.

I'm doing a hike called the Yosemite Grand Traverse, the brainchild of Ian Elman, founder of Southern Yosemite Mountain guides. He scouted the route and began offering it on his menu of backcountry trips in 2008, when the hike won National Geographic Adventure magazine's trip-of-the-year honors. It's not hard to understand why: Ian put together a sixty mile backcountry journey that takes the hiker through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, over Post Peak Pass and into Yosemite National Park. The route often follows the unique drainage of the Merced River before reaching, eventually, the dramatic high country of Tuolumne Meadows. A side trip to the summit of Half Dome via the cable route is a standard feature of the journey.

Columbia Sportswear outfits the climbing and backpacking guides at SYMG with clothing and outerwear, the better to get real world feedback on its extensive line of outdoor clothing. Last spring, Columbia suggested that go along on this, the guide service's signature trek, to both report on the route and to try out the latest and greatest backcountry clothing from Columbia. I immediately agreed, as here was a trip perfectly suited to our audience: a chance to experience an epic wilderness journey, and try the best new gear from Columbia, as well as test new, ultra-lightweight backpacking equipment from some of the top companies in America.

Ian and I discussed our options, and decided the late August, early September time frame would give us the best opportunity for good weather but with the fewest bugs. From Seattle, I flew into Fresno the night before our adventure began to have dinner with Ian and meet guide Laura Steinbach, who would actually lead the trip.  Michelle and Mel, both from the East Coast, and Bruce, from Melbourne, Australia, completed the party of five that would make the traverse.  We were up early the next morning for the three hour drive in the big van to our starting point, the Fernandez Trailhead.

From there, it had taken us two full days to reach Post Creek Pass and make camp at 10 K Lake. The following day brought a change of scenery as we began to descend into the extensive drainage of the Merced River, the lifeblood of Yosemite Valley, and Yosemite National Park.  Our route traced its headwaters through granite basins and channels, interspersed with sub-alpine meadows with stands of massive red fir. This was classic Sierra backcountry. The river here flows down toward the valley in hundreds of small waterfalls, shallow ponds, and big lakes.

Laura prepared lunch beneath a pair of flowing cascades while the rest of us shamelessly shirked any responsibility. We opted to swim and soak our feet where the cold river water ran over warm granite. The unsettled weather of the past few days had given way to cloudless blue skies and hot temperatures. We pitched our tents that night on an expansive granite slab between two waterfalls of the Merced, with a perfect swimming hole nestled in between. 

One of the reasons the trip appealed to me was the opportunity it presented to learn more about guided hiking. While climbing guides have for years worked in Yosemite, and other popular climbing parks like the Tetons, guided hiking has only gained a similar momentum in the past few decades. A guided trip is not necessarily for novices.  Experienced, competent backcountry travelers have discovered the advantages of going with a guide service. Permits, trailhead transportation, food and basic gear are all part of the program, which greatly simplifies the process and makes a guided trip particularly appealing for hikers coming from afar.

Michelle, from our group, who had flown out from DC, has hiked all over the world. But to do the Yosemite Grand Traverse, she needed to bring only her pack and her clothes. Everything else can be provided. Mel, another East Coast resident, does a long backcountry trip with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides every summer. "It's easy," he said, "The weather is almost always good, the food is outstanding, and you can't beat the scenery."

It works likes this: The first day, our guide Laura handed each one of us a bear proof container full of food, along with a few other pieces of group gear (I got the frying pan, Mel got the fuel, Michelle got the plates and bowls). Our little band would be entirely self contained for the next week, which meant heavier than usual loads for those of us accustomed to go-light backpacking (although SYMG does offer trips that are stock supported, for those who wish to travel lighter). Laura not only leads the way, but she handles all the cooking as well. So on arrival in camp each day, the rest of us only have to pitch our tents and deliver our group gear to her "kitchen."

The food is a highlight of this guided outing. When Laura's  lunches include fresh avocados, and dinner is heralded by the aroma of vegetables sauteeing in olive oil, suddenly the weight of our packs didn't seem so bad. It was a far cry from my usual menus of freeze dried entrees and cheese. In fact, being cared for like that was a novel luxury for me, and gave me additional time for notes and photography. One gives up a little individual freedom on a guided trek--as part of a group it's only considerate to stay together, be ready to leave on time, etc--but that's a trivial inconvenience. And Laura, who does this full time, acts as naturalist as well as guide. Her skill was invaluable, as knowing what's what in terms of birds, trees and flowers greatly enhances any backcountry journey. Once in camp, your time is your own. And by the third day or so of seriously good chow, we began to notice our packs were feeling a lot more reasonable (but I can tell you that frying pan didn't get any lighter).

We spent two nights camped near Sunrise Creek, with the extra day slated for an early morning ascent of Half Dome. I had done the cable route previously, so took that day to hike to Cloud's Rest, another nearby landmark within day hiking distance. We all spent a lazy afternoon in camp, a pleasant break from the miles we had put in every day since we started. From there the Traverse took us up and over Sunrise Mountain, another big elevation day, before dropping down to Cathedral Pass and into my favorite part of  the Yosemite high country around Cathedral Peak. A final evening spent camped at the lake below the striking spire, a Tuolumne landmark, was a fitting climax to a remarkable journey.

From Cathedral Lakes it was only a half day hike out to the road that runs through Tuolumne Meadows (on it's way to Tioga Pass), where Laura and Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides had yet one more surprise for us: there beside our waiting bus was an elaborate picnic with fruit and sandwich makings and coolers of cold beer. We celebrated the end of our hike as friends, now, not strangers.

Every backcountry trip is a journey of discovery, and this was one for the books. I popped the top off a cold Corona and looked around at the pretty expanse of high country meadow, and the smiles of my companions. Sixty miles through some of the most impressive scenery in the Sierra had brought us together. The wilderness does that. It felt a little weird to be getting in a vehicle after all those days on the trail, but we were all looking forward to seeing El Cap and the other wonders of Yosemite Valley before the drive back to Fresno.


For more information on the Yosemite Grand Traverse, see the Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides website, and check the Columbia pages at for the gear tested on this trip.


Our Favorite Gear from Columbia

We were outfitted on this journey head to toe in Columbia clothing, but the following items were among our favorites.
Perhaps the perfect first layer for a protracted hike in the sunny Sierra, this shirt of uv blocking fabric proved unbelievably comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. The deep zip allowed ventilation on hot days, while zipping it up kept out the chill. The fabric not only protects from high altitude sun, but breathes well and effectively wicks perspiration.
 For weight conscious backpackers, packing a pair of shorts can be considered a luxury, but in late summer in the Sierra, it's a necessity. These feather-weights from Columbia were perfect, with UPF protection, and a quick drying fabric that allowed these cargo shorts to double as a bathing suit. And the multiple pockets can be secured with zippers to keep your pocket knife, lip balm and GPS device right where you want them.  
 We loved this ball cap, from it's long, curved brim to its water resistant exterior. This thing stayed cool on hot days, while keeping the glare out of our eyes, and stayed comfortably warm on cool evenings, and even kept us comfortable when a little rain and frozen precip changed the nature of the day. The fact that it is as green as they come--with almost 90 per cent recycled content--makes this functional hat an obvious choice for both backcountry travel and around town.
 These pants impressed as much by what they don’t have as what they do. There’s neither a belt or back pockets with these Head Wall Pants, which makes them perfect for a week long backpacking trip with a heavy pack. There’s no belt to conflict with the pack waistbelt, and back pockets are pretty useless when backpacking anyway. There are three pockets, all secured with zippers, so you’re not going to misplace your lip balm or pocket knife. And the stretchy fabric was comfortable over a wide range of temperatures, although we did wish we had chosen black instead of off-white to mitigate the inevitable effect of seven days in the wilds.
 Warm days but cold nights are a hallmark of the Sierra in September, so we knew a dependable insulated jacket was called for. This synthetic fill puffy jacket from Columbia performed above expectations. The Omni Heat reflective coating increased the thermal efficiency, while the water resistant outer coating meant we didn't have to worry about the hail and rain we got the first night at 10,000 feet. We liked the fact the attached hood  had no zips or snaps, keeping the jacket simple and lightweight. In fact, this jacket is so efficient  that we felt good about going with a lighter sleeping bag than usual, knowing we could supplement with this lofty item if necessary on the coldest nights. 
 As part of Columbia’s premium Titanium series of clothing and outerwear, this jacket measures up to the best in materials and construction with seam-sealed stitching, pit vents and the adjustable hood. We found it perfect for cool evenings, and even in the rain it kept us dry and  comfortable without that clammy feeling as your body’s temperature may rise.  The tasteful, two-tone color schemes add to the appeal of this jacket; from exciting greens and blues, to classic black and grays.  Overall, this shell was a high performer.

Backpacking Gear from Osprey, Big Agnes, Sierra Design And Therm-A-Rest

Our intention was to go with high quality, lightweight backpacking equipment to complement the new clothing from Columbia. By choosing a handful of proven items, we kept our weight for the "big four"--pack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad--to total of about 8 pounds. Here's what we liked: 

We really pushed the envelope on this three-pound backpack, carrying 50 plus pounds to start the trip. We were most impressed by the ventilation system, which on hot, sunny Sierra afternoons kept us cool, and for the genuine comfort even when overloaded. This is a well thought out pack. Big exterior pockets offer packing options, and secure gear loops facilitated carrying group gear. The waist belt slipped a bit under max loads, but soon sorted itself out as our weight decreased.
Here's a bargain in the ultralight sleeping bag category. We knew we needed a 15 degree bag, but still wanted to go as light as possible. The Sierra Designs Nitro, loaded with 800-fill down, did the trick at 2 pounds, 4 ounces. All ultralight bags are cut closer and smaller to save weight, and the Nitro incorporates a "jacket style" hood as well in an effort to keep ounces to a minimum. But we slept comfortably all night long, and were toasty even when the pack zipper thermometer read 24 degrees in the morning, and do believe this bag would go to its rated temperature no problem. The Nitro is a bag that rivals other  15 degree lightweights from Marmot and Mountain Hardwear, and begins to challenge premium bags from Western Mountaineering or Mount Bell. One caveat: if you're six feet or so, try both the regular and the long versions, our six footer found the longer version was worth the extra few ounces for the added comfort. 
We grew to love this tent. At 2 pounds 4 ounces with all the stakes, this is a legit double wall tent that is free standing, easy to pitch, and beefy enough to stand up to the rain and hail of the Sierra. Big Agnes calls this a two person, and that would work (you'd have to love your tent mate), but it may in fact be the best solo shelter currently out there: roomy for one, a great star gazer when you don't need the fly, and dependable in bad weather with zero condensation problems. A nice touch is that when pitched with the fly, small clips pull on the tent body to offer expanded interior volume.
For this week long backpacking trip, comfortable sleeping was a must, so for the first time I left my trusty Therem-a-Rest Prolite at home and took the NeoAir. This thing is a wonder, at under 10 ounces (I use a three-quarter length pad to keep weight down) it  provides mind boggling comfort. For side sleepers like me, the NeoAir totally saves your hip bones. I was a little concerned about its ability to withstand puncture, so I selected my tent-sites with care, and thoroughly checked the ground for sharp rocks and other dangerous debris, but in the end had no problems. It takes a minute or so to blow up, and when the air you’ve put in cools off, you’ll need to top it off again before climbing on. I got n the habit of blowing it up when I set up camp, then topping it off with a few breaths before bedtime. The cushion this pad offers is frankly unreal and despite the fact this is an uninsulated pad, it is quite warm even on cold September Sierra nights.




thanks for the photos and the gear review.

Posted on November 8, 2010 - 7:40am
by Visitor

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