At 6AM we were woken to the sound of the campers next to us shoeing a bear away from their tent. We both pulled the sleeping bags over our heads and went back to sleep. When we woke around 9AM all the serious backpackers were long gone. It’s motivation like this that has given us the self title of “The Late Starts”.
We loaded on our backpacks and trudged out of the campground the short distance to the head of the Mirror Lake Trail. Becca’s pack was about 40lbs and mine was about 60lbs, heavy but didn’t seem unmanageable. At the head of the trail there was a warning of some sort about a rock slide on the trail that had happened in the previous year. We didn’t pay it much mind.
Mirror Lake is actually not a lake but a semi-dammed portion of a Snow Creek that widens out. The hike to it was fairly flat and relatively easy. We covered the 2 miles in about an hour. At the lake there were numerous deer eating, surrounded by tourists taking photos. They were fairly blase about the tourists and walked quite close as they leisurely chose the next grass to eat. Once we passed Mirror Lake there was about another mile before the start of the Snow Creek Trail. A short way further down the trail we came to the previously mentioned rock slide. It was covering the whole trail. At this point that we realized the warning was not to be careful crossing the fairly recent rock slide, but instead that the slide was impassable. We turned back on the trail and considered how far back we’d have to go down the trail in order to cross over to the other side of the creek and meet up with the head of the Snow Creek trail as it was listed on the map. We were in a small valley, very close to the main Yosemite Valley Road, but our backpacks by this point were starting to get uncomfortably heavy. I was confident we could cross the stream near where we were. I suggested we find a crossing to Becca instead of walking all the way back to cross. Becca did not like this idea. I really did not want to add an extra mile to the trip as it was now about noon, getting hot, and we had not even begun the steep ascent portion of the hike. I took off my pack and bushwhacked through some woody thicket and grass to the edge of the stream. I found a large tree that created a bridge over the stream but it had lots of branches sticking out. I climbed over and once I got to the other side walked through some thick reedy grass towards where I thought the trail would be. All of the sudden a young guy walked out of the thick brush. “Whew” I thought, the trail must be very close. I asked “is the trail close?” He looked really nervous and a bit agitated and said, “yeah it’s right up there” and pointed to more thick brush, and quickly added, “I’m looking for my skateboard, I stashed it down here” This seemed odd to me and for a second I really felt like I was in an episode of Lost. Why the heck would you hide your skateboard way down deep in the brush, at the end of a long sandy trail, in a National Park without hardly anywhere to skateboard. It just didn’t make sense. I thought he was lying for some reason and looking for something else. Hmmmm, who knows what? I didn’t have time to figure it out. I had an agitated girlfriend, that would likely try to get us to walk the long way around and I needed to get some positive results of this bushwhacking back to her pronto. I ran up the hill and “right up there” as my skateboard navigator had promised was a bit further than you’d think. Once I had located the trail, I rushed back down the hill and over the spiney tree back to Becca, and told her “the trails right over the fallen tree”. She still was dubious. I somehow convinced her to make the crossing and insisted that I would carry both backpacks across in two trips. The bushwhacking and stream crossing were actually pretty challenging, and I have to give Becca lot of credit for soldiering forward. I also promised this was the last time we’d leave the trail under an circumstances.
The Snow Creek Trail is the steepest ascent out of Yosemite Valley. The ascent is 1.7 miles and rises about 3000 vertical feet. This is likely why the trail had availability during the busiest time of the year. When we picked up our back country permits the ranger had given us some friendly advice about the trail. “There 115 switchbacks on that trail, just take it slow and take lots of rests, eventually you’ll get to the top.” We smiled and promised we would. How hard could it be after all? Ummm, this was the hardest trail, if not one of the physically hardest things I have ever done in my life. Yes, my life.
It was about noon as we began the ascent, we both had about a whole camel back of water. Tall pines covered the foot of the trail and provided shade for the first 5-10 switchbacks after which the rocky soil thinned out the vegetation capable of shade. The switchbacks were steep, the footing was challenging and we got tired fast. Within a fairly short distance we began to take more frequent breaks, about every 2-3 switchbacks. This was also about the distance when a small scrub tree would appear on the side of the trail to provide a tiny patch of shade. We stopped at each opportunity of shade to rest. Sitting under these small shade spots, our bodies would recuperate, and our breathing would return to normal. It felt so different without the pack on. As soon as we were minimally rested we’d hoist our packs on, and head out. Immediately the constriction of the waist belt would make it harder to breath and within steps you’d begin to feel as lethargic as a turtle climbing a volcano. But we couldn’t stop, we had no place to go back to, no alternate place in the valley that would allow us camp. We couldn’t give up. I’d look ahead for the next shade spot, no matter how small, and set my mind on it and trudge forward trying to forget the insistent pull of gravity. I knew that once i arrived at that shade, I could let off the backpack and be free again if only for a few minutes. Between the heat, the elevation, and the weight, this trail was quickly starting to get to me. Looking back at Becca I could see she her cheeks were flush pink. I think we were both resisting complaining because we knew it wasn’t going to help, though we did nickname ourselves “The Angry Snails” at some point during the hike.
We were alone on the trail except for two guys without backpacks that had passed us earlier. We had also seen a couple with packs start the trail when we were about 5 switchbacks ahead of them. Every time we stopped, I imagined that they would pass us and I’d have the brief opportunity to commiserate about how hard the trail was, but they never caught up. They must be stopping repeatedly too. The hours began to slip away. We reconsulted the map to confirm that this climb was in fact 1.7 miles. It was. We looked for some excuse to explain that we were misreading the map, apparently we were not. At what I would later guess was 3/4 of the way up the trail we passed the two guys from earlier who were no descending. Like most other National Park visitors they were German. I asked if they made it to the top, and how much farther it was. “No we didn’t make it, it just keeps going. It’s never ending. You’re going to run into a very steep wall further up, that’s where we gave up.” This was not great news. They were beat, and they were mildly delirious. It was about this time that Becca ran out of water. I had about 16 ounces left and began to share with her. We took only small sips. When we passed a rock slick with a sheen of water, I looked at it very closely to determine if I could filter some into our camelbacks. No dice.
We trudged on. I think we’d begun to whine to each other by this point, it’s hard to remember. We were resting at the corner of a switchback when all of the sudden, a woman came trotting down the trail. She was moving right past us when I lobbed a questions at her, “How much farther” “It’s not too much farther” she replied. “Is there water” I asked. “Yes, there’s a very nice creek”. We started off again and soon, but not too soon, we were in the woods. The steepness of the ground relented and we were walking on a soft pine needley trail. We heard running water off in the distance. It made me happy. When we reached the creek it was gorgeous and fast moving. The water looked beautiful and clear. I hurled off my pack and pulled out my water filter. This was the first time i’d used it, and I had to pause for a minute to read the instructions. Once I’d figured it out, I put the clean water tube in my mouth and pumped water directly in. We filled out camelbacks and drank. It was so refreshing after tiny sips for hours. I pulled out my watch. We had been ascending since Noon, and it was now 6:30PM. It had taken us more than 6 hours to cover the 1.7 miles and 3000 ft of elevation. Amazing.
We wandered the area looking for a place to camp. The sun was setting on Half-Dome across the valley and we chose to camp on the flats across from it. It was a beautiful sight. We set up the hammock between two trees and took it in. It was an amazing day.