Columbia Sportswear sponsored GreatOutdoors.com 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 GreatOutdoors.com 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.
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: