Sierra Point

Wed, Jul 11, 2007

With: Ryan Burd
James Golden

  Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2 3
previously climbed Fri, Apr 15, 2005
later climbed Mon, Jul 15, 2013

This was Ryan's first backpacking trip, and as such I wanted to make it fairly easy in a nice setting. Choosing Tuolumne Meadows as a starting point, Wilderness regulations for the area require us to be four miles from any trailhead before camping - which means it wouldn't be "fairly easy" for 10yr-olds, but hopefully not too hard either. Ryan invited his classmate James to join us. It would also be James first backpack trip, and for that matter it would be the first overnight trip for me in almost four years.

We arrived in Yosemite via SR120 around 9a. We stopped at the Oak Flat station there at the park entrance and picked up our Wilderness permits and a bear-proof canister, now required for most overnight trips in Yosemite. Driving up to Tuolumne Meadows, we enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch as our last meal before hitting the trail. A bathroom break and water fill-up later, we were at the Cathedral Lakes TH and ready to go at 11a. It took a little more than two hours for us to make the 3.5 mile journey to Cathedral Lakes with about a thousand feet of climbing. The trail rises steeply at first, has gentle ups and downs in the second section, followed by another steep section to the pass, then a last downhill to the larger of the two lakes. Along the way we had many breaks, though none of them too long at my insistence, and of course there was a good deal of complaints and questions about how far and how long we still had to go. Sore legs, sore shoulders, blisters starting, and various other small ailments combined to make them believe they were running some sort of torture gauntlet. But they actually did better than I expected and made it all in one piece.

The weather was deteriorating almost from the beginning. What started out as mostly blue skies with some puffy clouds began to develop into darkening skies as thunderstorms started to form. Just over the pass as we were hiking down to the lake, thunder was heard in the distance and soon grew closer. Lightning lit up nearby Tressider Peak to the oohs and aahs of the human observers. Just before we reached an open meadow a lightning/thunder strike crashed overhead and woke us from our complacency. We instinctively ducked our heads as we heard the buzzing of the lightning around our ears. I looked back at the other two and saw that they weren't overly frightened, but were looking to me for a clue as to whether they should be. "Ok, maybe we won't walk through the meadow, but rather follow along the trees at the edge here." I explained that the trees would act as lightning rods, better than three people standing alone in an open meadow. Up ahead, we watched two figures run out of their tent and head for the woods. "See? Those guys thought they had a pretty sweet campsite on that rock slab overlooking the lake until they realized there're no trees around to protect them from a thunderstorm."

The thunder and lightning abated, but the clouds covered the sky completely now and it started to rain a bit. We hurriedly found a good campsite on the north side of the lake and while the two boys huddled under some trees to keep out of the rain as much as possible, I quickly set up their tent. They were eager to get inside and warm up, doing so as soon as I had the pads and sleeping bags inside as well. In the meantime the rain had nearly stopped which meant I didn't have to hide in a tent as well. I set up the gas stove and made some ramen for a late lunch to warm my charges. They enjoyed sipping their soup and eating their noodles from the open flap in the tent. They chatted, did some reading, and generally drove themselves to boredom after about an hour, while I wandered about the lake, taking in the sights and trying to see if the weather was going to improve or get worse.

Emerging from their tent, they decided to try swimming in the lake, even though I suggested it would be much to cold to enjoy. How do kids go from I'm-cold-let's-get-in-the-tent to alpine swimming in about an hour anyway? But there they were, changed into swim suits, heading for the lake. I followed them with the camera to capture the moment, curious to see if they'd actually swim. They didn't. James at least got wet up to his waist, but Ryan wasn't able to get past his knees. They wandered around various locals thinking (wishing, rather) that it might be warmer in other places, to no avail. So they gave up on that enterprise. Looking around for something else to do, and being boys, 10yr-old ones at that, they hit upon knives. Not the Crocodile Dundee type Bowie knifes that could kill tiger sharks, but your run of the mill Swiss Army knives that present little danger to anyone aside from the user. I gave them a short lesson that consisted almost entirely of showing them not to carve towards their fingers and other body parts, then sat aside reading and half watching from one eye as they went to work on their whittling projects.

Again, being boys, their project consisted of whittling spears with the intent of hunting birds when their weapons were sufficiently developed. A mother at this point might ask that they carve a sailboat or maybe just take the knives away, but I was thinking differently. Could they actually whittle a stick to a point? It's not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you pick a stick with too large a circumference. As I suspected, they hadn't the patience to whittle down to any more than a blunt end, but they could skin the outside of the stick down to the fresh white wood and make it look somewhat spear-like. Upon honing their weapons, they went off in search of prey. Here again Mom would probably interfere, but I figured the odds of them hitting anything with a small stick was close to zero, and if they somehow managed to injure or maim one of God's creatures they would probably feel terrible about it. A good lesson or parental misguidance? I'll leave that to the reader to decide. Of course it could all backfire on me in an orgy of blood-lust that I would then be compelled to quash, but fortunately it didn't come to that. They couldn't throw their 8-inch spears straight, and more often they would hit the side of a tree or get tangled in the brush. The birds were quite safe. So were the squirrels and lizards. After maybe 30 minutes of that, they came back tired and bored.

Next they tried fishing, but alas there were no fish. None that we could catch anyway. We did see one or two jump to through the surface off in the distance, but despite a great amount of bugs flying around the surface of the lake, there appeared to be no fish interested in dinner. James was fairly new at fishing (despite his claim otherwise) and I spent much of the fishing time with him in untangling lines. It wasn't all his fault because the pole he was using was a bit finnicky and about half the mis-casts were likely to end in a tangled reel. It seems probable that he won't be bugging his own dad to take him fishing any time too soon. By 7p we had run through the repertoire of boyhood adventures and they were hungry again. We had dinner followed by hot chocolate, but unfortunately there are no open fires allowed in this area so we had to go without a campfire. It wasn't quite 8p before the boys were back in the tent, this time for the night.

They had planned to talk and then read by headlamps as it got dark, and I left them to themselves and went off to bed in my bivy sack. They chatted for a short while, then it got quiet, then ten minutes later Ryan was unzipping the tent, coming over (quietly sobbing) and said we needed to talk. It was a bit confusing, but what I gathered had happened was that James had initially gotten homesick and began to sob. Ryan, who has never gotten homesick as far as I know, was confused by this, got upset that his friend was upset, and came over to ask for some help. I got up and went over to talk to James. He was perfectly rational, admitted to his homesickness, and his sobs were little more than a whimper by now. He really missed his mom and dad, that was the crux. And the trip was not turning out like he had expected. That was probably true for the both of them, and I'm the first to admit that an overcast sky is far gloomier and depressing than sunny blue skies. But that couldn't be helped. I explained that we could change our plans and didn't have to stay at the lake for the two nights as we planned, but we should wait and see how things look in the morning. James agreed there was nothing we could do about it now and we'd all just have to sleep on it since it was impossible to consider hiking out at this late a time. Ryan got back into the tent, I went back to my bivy, and not fifteen minutes later they were both sound asleep.

Morning came and we got up at 7a when the light first began to filter down through the trees. Everyone had slept quite soundly. It had rained a bit a few hours earlier, so I didn't expect blue skies when we got up. And so it was. The boys voted to hike out and find a motel. The motel idea didn't really appeal to me, but I spent the time hiking out to come up with a suitable alternative. We had breakfast, played around a bit, packed up, and headed out around 9a. The boys did much better on the hike out. James thought the pack felt lighter and wondered if maybe they weren't getting used to them. I think it was due to the fact that we were mostly going downhill today as opposed to the previous one. There were beautiful lupines along the trail to admire, the weather was improving, and it was generally a very pleasant hike out. A large packtrain of some 12 mules came through, much to the amazement of Ryan and James. We got back just before 11a, by which time I had the alternatives ready for the boys.

The motel idea was out. The prime motivation for that was the TV likely to be found there, and I didn't really want to have that entertaining them and driving me crazy at the same time. I told them we could either head back home, no hard feelings at all, or we could head down to Yosemite Valley and get a tent cabin for a night or two. We discussed the available ammenties (pool, shower, pizza, cozy beds) and the requirements (they'd have to do some more hiking, sans pack). They chose to head for the Valley, and off we went.

We had a fine time in Yosemite Valley. I was a bit surprised that it cost $94 for a tent cabin (I think they're a good deal cheaper by advanced reservations), but the fun we had was worth it. We had pizza in Curry Village, a long swim in the pool (much warmer than the river), then had an afternoon hike to Sierra Point. This was a bit of challenge as the trail to Sierra Point has been abandoned for more than 30 years. It required some minor bushwhacking and boulder hopping until we actually found the old trail, then made our way up the ancient steps comprising much of the route. I had told them it would be a jungle adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones, and in this they were not disappointed. At one place a rope has been placed by some kind soul to aide in climbing the rock for a short section where the trail had been wiped out in a landslide. They thought this was the best part. It was a bit tougher than they had expected as the trail rises more than 1,000ft above Happy Isle, but the views to be had were excellent. Under mostly sunny skies we were able to see four of the five major waterfalls in Yosemite Valley from one point, including Vernal, Nevada, Ilillouette, and Yosemite Falls. Directly below we could see people no bigger than ants going to and fro on the trail to Vernal Falls. They tried shouting down to them, but the roar of the Merced River drowned out all sounds they could make. The boys seemed suitably impressed and even thanked me for taking them when we finally got back down to Happy Isle.

The rest of the day consisted of showers, dinner at the Curry cafeteria (which was highlighted by a visit from a wayward squirrel who came into the building for dinner, completely unafraid of people milling about), chess and reading in the adjacent lodge, then the campfire program at the Curry Amphitheater, though without any campfire, real or otherwise. For the second night in a row they slept quite soundly, and I don't think it took either more than ten minutes to fall asleep.

In the morning we had a quick breakfast in our tent, packed up the car, then headed out for one last hike. The boys weren't too keen on this one to start, but they soon warmed up to it. We took the bus from Curry Village to Happy Isle, then did the 3.5mi hike up to Vernal and Nevada Falls. I told the boys they got one point for every person they passed on the trail, and lost one for every person that passed them. The goal was to end with a positive number. They liked this game, though unknowingly it encouraged them to keep moving and take only short breaks. They finished at +10 by the time we got to the top of Nevada Falls less than two hours later. The Mist Trail (the lower part of the trail to Vernal Falls) was not as misty as usual, but it was a stunning sight. The steep steps slowed the boys down, but they were fascinated by the water, the falls, the squirrels, lizards, and other things that interest boys. They were particularly impressed that we could see the railings for Sierra Point high above the lower part of the trail since we knew just where to look - a sight few visitors would even recognize, and fewer had ever visited. This made them feel like part of select, secret society, and quite proud, too. By the time we were heading back down, the sun had begun to shine on Vernal Falls and we were treated to a swell double rainbow at the base of the falls. Cool. As another game, we counted the number of people heading up the trail as we were going down. This is one of the most popular trails in the whole park, possibly the most popular, and there were more than 500 people that we passed in the last two miles back to Happy Isle.

All in all, the boys enjoyed their time in Yosemite Valley more than they did the backpack trip in the High Country. While the weather played a role, I think the biggest factor was the number of ammenties and options available in the more civilized part of the park that appealed to them. That didn't surprise me of course - the appreciation of nature for its own sake doesn't happen overnight or with a single experience - it takes a lifetime as far as I can tell. I had been particularly observant of this as I watched the boys around Cathedral Lake the previous days. While I could sit and read, take a walk around the lake, or just enjoy the views from our campsite, the boys didn't see things the same way at all. They wanted to figure out how to interact with the environment and how to mold it to their imagination and playtime. Though the surrounding mountains, trees, and lakes were impressive, in their minds there was nothing more special about it than their own backyard - each was merely a backdrop for their own entertainment. That this area had been set aside by an act of Congress, declared Wilderness - free of human development for all time, had little meaning to them. That, I think, takes time. And we had a fine first step in that direction.


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Anonymous comments on 09/28/07:
Well done Bob. Children see things very differently than us "Old" folks. But one must wish, to be a "youngin" again. The world is very different at 10 years old. Especially when your whittling sticks.
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This page last updated: Fri Sep 28 21:52:55 2007
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