Mile 942.5 to 951.1 — Today’s miles: 8.6
I wake up before dawn in my Mammoth Lakes hotel room, shower and use the flush toilet, and get on the bus to Yosemite just after 7am. The two-hour bus ride takes us through Inyo National Forest, Mono Basin, June Lake, Lee Vining. The mountains rise up all around us, occasionally peppered with waterfalls and mirror-like lakes and perfect green meadows. I am, as always, awed by the scale of this landscape. A small part of my brain hums away with worries: will my packages be at the Tuolumne Meadows post office? Do I remember how to pitch my tent properly? Am I trained enough, or will the altitude kick my ass regardless?
We enter Yosemite via Tioga Pass and soon reach 9,000 feet elevation, according to a road sign. So far I’m not feeling any effects, and hope this continues. I get off the bus at the Tuolumne Meadows store and post office. It looks exactly as it did when Cyn and I stopped here two years ago, near the end of our JMT hike, and I still remember well the chocolate soft serve I devoured at that picnic table. My boxes arrived safely (bear canister, pocketknife, tent stakes, trowel, and trekking poles — all the things that would have forced me to check my pack on the plane), and I do some quick repacking before heading down the road to the trailhead.
There are many little trails here, and I choose incorrectly and have to backtrack before finally getting on the PCT around 10am. I’m relieved that I can’t smell any smoke, which means the effects of the Ferguson Fire that’s currently burning southwest of Tuolumne aren’t a danger to me (just, y’know, to the trees and meadows and animals). But I’d forgotten how dry the air is up here, and I struggle with it all day. There is water everywhere, creeks and rivers and waterfalls, and even though it’s been over a year since I hiked the desert section, all of this water feels so odd. I marvel. A few miles in, I must cross Delaney Creek, and there are no safe-looking options that would keep my feet dry. I remove my insoles and socks, then cross in my trail runners. The water is cold and clear.
I hike behind a train of horses for a few miles, dodging the giant poops until they have space to stop and let me pass. Now I have to hike faster so they don’t need to pass me later. I cross the Tuolumne River on a footbridge, and follow the sound of its rushing water down to an exquisite view of the thundering Tuolumne Falls. I eat a protein bar and drink some electrolytes in the mist coming off the waterfall. It is perfect.
Down some more, remembering that descents in the Sierra Nevada are frustratingly slow, on jagged stone steps and fist-sized rocks that require careful foot placement. I cross the bridge at Glen Aulin campground, which looks pretty idyllic. But I want to move past here — there have been many day hikers and horse riders since Tuolumne Meadow, and I suspect I’ll have more solitude after leaving Glen Aulin. I filter two liters of water so I can dry camp, and keep moving.
I’ve planned a short day today, about nine miles, to ease my legs and lungs into this terrain. I’ve felt pretty good so far, but as I begin my last three miles, I hit a wall. Hard. The altitude must finally be catching up to me, because this gentle but persistent uphill is crushing me. I gasp for air, never able to get enough. I take several short breaks to slow my breathing, but two minutes later am just as exhausted as before. It is agonizing. I take a longer sit-down break, make it through the last of this ascent, and fall into a slowish but steady pace on some nice flat single-track through the forest. “Hey bear!” I call out periodically, just in case.
With 0.8 miles until my planned campsite, I drop to the ground and rest on my dirty Tyvek for 20 minutes. The final three tenths are truly an incredible feat of willpower. I see what look like nice spots for a tent, drop my pack, and lie flat on my back for half an hour, dozing in and out of half-awake dreams. I drink another cup of electrolytes, see on my GPS mileage that this is still a tenth of a mile from my goal, and deliriously shoulder my pack again.
At my real campsite, I try to remember how to pitch my tent, which takes only a little bit of trial and error. I feel faint every time I bend over to put a stake in, and realize I have eaten almost no calories today. This is a stupid rookie mistake, but I also never feel hungry on my first few days out, even less so at altitude. I force myself to eat a meat stick, robotically spoon crushed potato chips and peanut m&ms into my mouth, stash my bear can, and climb into my tent at 5pm, almost incapable of staying awake long enough to finish writing this blog post. Welcome back to the Sierra Nevada, Apple Juice.