Saturday, July 18, 2015

JMT Day 3: Little Yosemite Valley to Past Sunrise Creek

Day 3 was a rough one. Little Yosemite Valley provides an amazing social setting from which everyone can set off for and return from adventures together and then compare notes while swimming in the Merced or sitting around a campfire. My third day on the JMT took me away from that, through a long burnt area of Yosemite and up more elevation gain than I've ever done while wearing a fully loaded pack. It turns out a major mistake I made in planning my trip was assuming that if I can hike something with a day pack, then I can backpack it too. The pack weight REALLY makes a difference.

On my 3rd day, I had originally intended to go to Sunrise High Sierra camp, an 8.7 mi hike with 3600 feet of elevation gain. Someone I met on the Mist Trail who had just come from there told me that if I stopped just short of that, I'd camp a bit higher up and miss the big mosquito problem at Sunrise High Sierra camp. The elevation gain topped out at 7.2 miles and went down from there, so I hoped to get at least that far and then play it by ear.

The first 1.4 miles took me through familiar territory, since I'd hiked that the day before en route to Half Dome. Then the Half Domers went one way and the JMTers went another. At that junction, I met two other JMT hikers, a father and son duo. We attempted to hike together a bit, but they were faster than me. In the end, I saw them on and off throughout the day but did not stick with them. So, for the first time on my trip, I was mostly alone. Entirely alone. Including potentially camping alone.

I entertained myself by observing forest succession and patterns of death, decay and rebirth. For example, look at these baby trees growing in an area of rotting wood in the section prior to the Half Dome junction:

Baby Trees

You can see here how a fire clears out the undergrowth and makes way for grasses to grow, providing food for wildlife. Low intensity fires like the Native Americans used to set leave mature trees intact, creating a very open area like this one.

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Two hikers among huge trees

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Look at the roots of the downed tree in this shot. Its roots grew around large rocks, and it took the rocks with it when it fell over. It could have fallen from a windstorm, and it amazes me to imagine winds that could take out a giant like this.

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Here's a burned area, in which grasses and shrubs are regrowing. Some of the tall trees died, but others lived. It's not rare to see a tree with a burnt looking trunk that is still alive and intact above.

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I really like this incense cedar right near the Half Dome junction. It smells wonderful, and there's so much in that area that you smell the aroma as you hike.

Incense Cedar

At this point, the JMT split off from the Half Dome trail, and I went off along with the father son duo in the photo below.

Jim and Jason

After a short time, we could turn around and see Half Dome one last time:

Half Dome

I also spotted a plant that is a very common site in this part of Yosemite, Pussy paws. Aside from the fact that it's pink, it does look a lot like the underside of a cat's paws.

Pussy Paws

I continued to amuse myself by photographing flowers for the next half mile or so, until we hit the Clouds Rest junction.

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Fringed willowherb. Epilobium ciliatum subsp. glandulosum. Evening primrose family.

Meadow
Meadow of flowers

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Flower close up

Western Azaleas
Western Azaleas by a stream

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Monkeyflower

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Daisies

Then, after Clouds Rest junction, I hit the burnt area. I believe it's from the Meadow Fire, which occurred last September. At first, only some of the trees were burnt, and I saw the remnants of flame retardant on the ground in places.

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You can see how all of the smaller trees died and the older, taller ones survived. That is what happens when California's native vegetation regularly burns with low intensity fires. When the fuel builds up and the fire increases in intensity, then these older trees can't survive. That's what appears to have happened in much of the burnt zone I hiked through on Day 3.

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Blue Eyed Mary
Another flower whose name I initially forgot. It took a few more hours on the trail to remember: Blue Eyed Mary. Seems like the cure for any memory problem is just more hiking.

Mariposa Lily
Mariposa Lily

Before long, the burnt area was just one big dead hellscape, with occasional green on the ground. The regrowth was often beside streams and other water sources. No living trees anywhere. And it smelled like your clothes do after a campfire. The one thing I can say for this several mile (all uphill) stretch is that the flowers near the streams were nice.

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Monkeyflower

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A mint

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Tiger lily

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Pond

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It seemed like forever before I finally reached some live trees again. Actually it was just a few miles, but man it took a while.

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Toward the end of the burnt zone, you reach a spot carpeted in lupines, with good views to boot.

Lupines

Lupines

Most of the lupines were purple, but some were pink.

Lupines

Lupines

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At last, the end of the burnt zone!

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And... better yet... deer! At first I just saw the mama. Then the baby followed.

Mama Deer and Baby

Baby Deer

Mama Deer and Baby

At 5.9 miles into my hike, I crossed Sunrise Creek. Several people were camped there, but the mosquitoes were horrible and there was no way I could stop. A little past Sunrise Creek (now out of the burnt area), I saw this fly agaric mushroom. Don't eat these, they are poisonous.

Fly Agaric Mushroom

At this point, I was dead tired and not very happy because I'd walked alone all day and was facing the prospect of camping alone that night. I made it about half a mile past the Sunrise Creek crossing and realized I'd come to a decision point. I was out of water and needed more. I was walking beside Sunrise Creek and had a water source. If I filled up my bladder with more water, I'd have to carry it up the hill - and it's heavy. If I didn't fill up on water, then I'd have to walk til I reached more water and I would be thirsty. So I decided to camp as soon as I found a suitable campsite near the creek. That was not easy because the ground was so steep, but at last I found one and set up camp.

I fetched water in my collapsible bucket... then spilled most of it. I was too tired to go get more. I had enough for dinner and dishes, anyway. I got in my tent and tried to fall asleep. Then I heard some hikers passing my tent. Within a few minutes, I had company. Wonderful company! Two women from Orange County who had had a worse day than I did. (They'd gotten lost and hiked far out of their way and now, after a 12 mile day going up hill, they could not find their companion. He'd started separately from them and apparently had mixed up "Sunrise Creek" and "Sunrise High Sierra Camp.")

After a lonely day feeling awful, it was great to know I was not alone. I was not just upset because I'd had a bad day, but because I feared that meant I was not up to hiking the entire trail. Knowing this stretch was rough on others too made me feel better. We were all hiking together, and we had our bad days together. But that didn't mean we couldn't finish. It didn't mean that I was worse off than other hikers. So maybe I could hike the whole trail? At least now I had hope. And some really, really fun new friends.

Day 3 miles hiked: 6.5
Day 3 elevation gain: 3100 ft
Total JMT distance hiked: 11 mi

All of my JMT photos can be seen here.

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