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Sierra 2002: Ambition Gone Astray

Bloody Canyon to Yosemite

The Sierra trip for 2002 was more than ambitious: it was an extreme challenge for all three participants. Since all returned intact it can only be considered a total success, but looking back to those exhausting days that ended late and provided little high-quality downtime, it was a bit more work than I personally like to put in for the reward.

But oh, those rewards! The exquisite Camp Two along the Kuna Crest, looking straight across the canyon to Mts. Lyell and Maclure! The shocking beauty of Camp Three at the base of Banner Peak! The ungodly descent into the North Fork San Joaquin headwaters, and its rewards at Twin Island Lakes! Even the crowded but spectacular descent into Yosemite Valley at trip's end. As we noted before the trip: even though we may miss a few fine destinations, any route we take will be amazing and beautiful. And, of course, we were right. We were right a lot on this trip, with decisions that later would prove to be extremely foresighted in most cases. So nearly everything worked in our favor: our intuition served us well, our bodies and gear held up, the weather was most excellent, the route was truly spectacular, and the rewards and lessons learned will serve us well in the future. Especially the one about ambition tempered by reason, and making time to RELAX.


The trip itself was, of course, simply the execution of a plan that was hatched several months earlier. Among my many untried routes in the Sierra Nevada were routes along the south and east borders of Yosemite National Park. The trail up Bloody Canyon had been in my hip pocket for a few years, since it was one of the few non-quota trails in the Sierra (especially on the east side); while that changed in 2002, the trail was still essentially deserted. This is not surprising, since Mono Pass is easier to reach from Dana Meadows inside the Park, so few people feel compelled to get there the hard way! A few guidebooks convinced me that a route to the North Fork San Joaquin could be traced from there into Yosemite's wild southeast corner, from which a loop could be made back to the car via Vogelsang and the Muir Trail. Several other interesting routes were examined through the dark nights between hiking seasons, but this one won out for several reasons. Most notable of these was that, having hiked the Sierra only in areas south of the Silver Divide, the entire stretch would be absolutely new to me. I mentioned this plan (and a few others of note) to a few co-workers who often went to the Sierra, but all of them thought they would stay closer to home this year. At about this same time my ten-year marriage came to an abrupt but unsurprising end, and my free time became infinitely greater than I had expected. I began re-examining routes and plans, thinking that I might be hiking alone this time. Soon, however, I had two interested parties: my co-worker Scott, whom I blame for my thorough enjoyment of the Sierra at the expense of the Pacific NW, and my brother Larry who needed a time-out from his job in a big way. The three of us agreed on the 'Bloody Kuna' route in one form or another. Shortly after this, Wally (another co-worker) volunteered to shuttle a car to Yosemite Valley, where he would be meeting relatives during our hike. With this generous offer we could change the route in new and exciting ways, and so the final route became clear:

* Up Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass
* Across Kuna Crest to the Muir Trail¹, presumably meeting it at Donohue Pass
* Cross to the NF San Joaquin above Thousand Island Lake via the 'Sierra High Route'²
* Head north from Bench Valley into the Lyell Fork Merced drainage
* Reach trails again where the Isberg Pass trail crosses the Lyell Fork
* Descend to Yosemite Valley, with possible stops on top of Clouds Rest and/or Half Dome

¹using RJ Secor's Sierra guidebook
²using Steve Roper's High-Route guidebook

This truly ambitious route would require several days to cross trackless terrain, and from Thousand Island Lake to the Isberg trail would violate my 1999 vow to avoid consecutive days of x-c travel; I could only hope this violation would not impose too high a fine! We had eight days to perform this feat, possibly extending into day nine but with mighty resistance from Scott at the idea. Read on to see how our route and schedule fared!

Day Zero - 18 July

Larry and I departed from my brother Tom's place in Medford for the long drive to Lee Vining. Scott was driving separately and had left a day earlier, and we would meet at a reserved campsite near that town in the evening. The drive had several entertaining moments that we could have done without. In Reno for example, where rain and hail reduced our driving to 40mph and started us questioning the optimistic weather forecast and my choice of foul-weather gear (just a light poncho). Things got even worse in Lee Vining, where I was forced to pull over twice to wait out a combination of quarter-size hail and intense rain! Even worse was the misprint on the wilderness-permit form, which implied that we could reach town by 5:30 and get our permit; the shop closed at 4:30, and we wasted about an hour in that commute. We finally reached camp, where Scott was already setting up. The camp was not hit by the Lee Vining storm but clearly had been dampened a few times recently. With no time for a lung-expanding day-hike (we have found those to be quite helpful in getting our sea-level lungs ready for backpacking), we instead returned to Lee Vining yet again for dinner before turning in. We almost overwhelmed the waitress with our questions, but she was cheerful and tolerant - and her art-work at the bottom of the bill was very nice!

pre-hike - day One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six - Seven - Summary

First Day