California dreamin’

11 Aug

My job was to stay awake.  But that was so hard…. between the jetlag and being up late and rising early, (oh, and being really good at falling asleep in the car), I kept nodding off.  Fortunately, with my brother having fun driving his new toy car, and my need to press the brake on my side, it was probably better I nodded off.

He nudged me awake as we entered the park and hugged the turns until we climbed up to an amazing view, the only car on the road and stars filling the night sky.  I forget living here in NYC how much I miss those clear nights.  As we approached the ranger station, I got more and more excited, looking forward to the adventure coming out way – just the chance to get some time under those stars.

We pulled into the ranger station around 1:30, prepared to sleep there if others were in line*, but not seeing anyone, we headed out to a campground to crash.  Oh – it is probably important to note here that the campgrounds are also on permit.  And often always filled.  But, sometimes you can find a spot that hasn’t been taken or cozy up and crash for the night (you know, if you are a real dirtbagger and don’t mind that kind of thing)  (which, for the record, we don’t).

We pulled into the campground, turned the lights down low and quietly cruised around to try and find a spot.  We saw a spot next to the campground host, but deemed that as too risky, so we moved on.  We found another and spent 15 sleep-deprived minutes debating whether the people who had the site reserved would be coming back (who would come back after 2 in the morning?!).  Finally, we grabbed out our bags and slept under the stars.  Of course, all that sleep I got in the car kept me staring up at the night-time sky, thinking about what I would say when we got busted for stealing the camp site.

A few hours after we crashed, the alarm went off and we snuck away, headed back to get in line for permits.  Somehow people had already beat us there, but we made coffee while we waited the hour+ until the rangers showed up to grant us a permit.  We made small talk, but mostly we tried to sleep, while standing and looking like we were focused on the line.  It’s a tough skill to master.

The tricky thing about not getting a permit before hand is that you cannot really plan your trip.  Sure, we knew we were headed into Yosemite for 4 days, we had a bear canister, we had plenty of gear.  But where to go?  We had some ideas (cathedral range is our favorite area), but unfortunately, all of those trail heads were closed.  The rangers make it a practice to not give out trail advice, so all we got were some non-committal yes/no’s, but we know how to read maps, so off we went – figuring we could cobble something together.  Fortunately, out on the trail we ran into a backcountry ranger who took a look at our topo with us and helped us figure out the plan.  We would go backcountry from Bernice Lake and spend time wandering back there, bag some peaks and then go over a pass to Ireland lake to rejoin the trail.

With plan in place, we slogged on to Bernice Lake, which meant going up a big pass and then down down down to …. climb back up.  Fortunately the views weren’t bad.

Views from the first pass

Views from the first pass – the lake on the right is Bernice lake. the expanse in the center – that was where we went backcountry

Bernice lake was delightful – no one there, no bugs and great swimming.  Ok – cold dipping.

so cold, so great

so cold, so great

I am more of a wuss about cold water than my brother — he jumps right in and swims, me — it takes 15 minutes for me to get even half way submerged, but it felt good to wash the dust of the trail off.

i got this far after 15 minutes

i got this far after 15 minutes

Other than one couple camped far away from us, the lake was ours.  Following a perfect day, a perfect evening with a full moon rising over the mountains, we eat dinner in blissful tired silence.  Easing into the rhythm of being on the trail.

I’m quite lucky to have my brother as a friend — we grew up together, went to the same college and other than my senior year of high school when I lived in France, we lived near each other until he was 21 or 22.  Since then, we try to do a backpacking trip when our schedules allow.  But, more importantly, we get along well and amuse each other, but are also comfortable with silence.  He’s also a great adventure partner, up for challenges, willing to push himself (like the time we did 22 miles in Yosemite in one day) – and push me (like on this trip).



Our next day was into the backcountry — no trails, no people, just head on out.  And the beauty about Yosemite is that everything is above tree line, so you just look, point and head out.  Simple.  (but, we also have extensive knowledge about backcountry travel, thousands of collective miles hiked, wilderness first responder, etc.  This is not recommended if you do not know what you are doing).

We entered the valley (formed by the mountains/ridges that you can see above) and dropped our gear at a site we thought that we could camp at.  From there, we decided to head up towards on of the mountains.

Headed up unnamed peak

Headed up unnamed peak

whole lotta rocks

whole lotta rocks

We spent the day climbing up to Unnamed Peak, which meant a lot of scrambling over loose rocks, crossing snowfields, being a little freaked out by talus fields and getting an amazing view.

Crossing the glaciers

Crossing the glaciers

the view from the top

the view down into the glacier

from where we came (the lake in the middle is Bernice)

from where we came (the lake in the middle is Bernice)

who doesn't love selfies?

who doesn’t love selfies?


at the summit of Unnamed Peak — looking south

It was an awesome, but looooong day.  The rock scrambling was tough.  Sometimes the rocks would slide, always you had to look at where you were placing your feet.  Basically, it was a 4 hour down-climb back to camp that took incredible attention.  Essentially a walking meditation – you cannot have a busy, monkey mind.  You just can’t.  At one point, I stumbled, fell forward – and tried to get my footing, but couldn’t.  It was a terrifying moment thinking that I would hit my head, break my leg, twist an ankle — all potentially life-threatening injuries when you are miles from a trail.  Somehow, luckily I just scraped up my legs and arms, but it was a scary moment for sure.

looooooong day

looooooong day

Back at camp, we rested, swam, eat dinner and were entertained by a gazillion little fish feeding and putting on a show of jumping out of the water.  And a pretty amazing sunset.

life doesn't suck - good tired, full belly and a glorious sunset

life doesn’t suck – good tired, full belly and a glorious sunset

thank you.

thank you.

Sleep was interrupted by the full moon, but who can really complain about that?  (it was so bright you could see your shadow!).  The next day was a climb up the pass, quick trip up Parsons Peak and then down to Ireland lake, eventually rejoining the trail.

summit shot

summit shot

More glaciers

More glaciers

More rocks

More rocks

Ireland lake brought more swimming, food, and relaxing.  We knew we only had a few more miles to go before rejoining the trail, which we were both reluctant to do — so we stayed at the lake until the storm clouds and thunder pushed us down below tree level.

Ireland lake

Ireland lake

Dropping below tree level always is a bummer for me, especially because we knew our trip was soon to end.  But we found a fairly secluded camp off the trail, set up near a stream and had fun sitting with our feet in the cold water – enjoying the fact that we knew where this stream had originated (the glaciers we had crossed up near Ireland lake).  The bugs pretty much sucked, so we retired early, planning to cruise through Lyell Canyon to get back to the car.

Lyell Canyon is an easy hike – flat but a beautiful walk along the Lyell River.  It is popular because it is also the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail — and that was where we saw our first people since we left Bernice Lake.  It was packed with tents (since we got an early start – we were out before most people were up).  All these people mean bears – which I had experienced when I did the John Muir Trail several years ago – but that was just at night (and I barely woke up to the bear trying to get at our food that night).

This year…..  Cody and I were walking along, talking and came around a corner and stopped in our tracks.  No more than 10 feet from us was a big ol’ bear!  We shouted – hey bear, hey bear! – and hit our trekking poles together.  The beat took one look at us and pretty much tripped over her own feet to get out of there.  It all happened so quick, of course we did not get a picture.  But it was awesome!

Back at the car, we cleaned gear and drank two tasty IPAs we had stashed for ourselves (kept cold by cool nights and the bear boxes).  All in all – a pretty awesome trip.

Our next trip....  back to Lyell and Maclure

Our next trip…. back to Lyell and Maclure


Day 1:  Tuolumne meadows to lake Bernice = 10.4m
Day 2: Lake B to unnamed peak to unnamed lake (12,200’+) = 8m of rock hopping
Day 3: unnamed lake up to parsons peak (12,147′) to Ireland lake to camp 3 = 6.5m
Day 4: camp 3 to lambert dome wilderness parking: 7.7

* Yosemite National Park has a permit system to get into the backcountry, which limits the number of people who enter onto a trailhead on any given day (and thus, people in the park).  Half of the permits can be reserved ahead of time, the other half are on a first-come, first-served basis, which is great for people who aren’t sure of their plans (like us).  The permit system keeps the wild wild.  It is a good thing, but can take some planning.

9 Responses to “California dreamin’”

  1. Carol Kushner August 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    I am so proud of both of you.

  2. Kim (@RTWsomanyplaces) August 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    SO JEALOUS! That looks so amazing. Lovely photos. It looks like you had a great time.

    • planetaurora August 11, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

      It was indeed fun! and glorious, even if so short!

  3. Tiffany Meyer August 12, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Your trip stories are amazing, A. Reading this one, several times I found myself smiling with a knowing, “yeah…” You’ve inspired me to blog about my upcoming trip; which is intended to be the first of a full line of new adventures. And, kudos to your parents for raising both of you to love—and enjoy—the wilderness, especially as a team.

    • planetaurora August 12, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Awesome Tiffany — cannot wait to read all about it!

  4. Sarah Akhtar August 13, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    Aurora – you remain an inspiration. So wonderful to read about your adventures with your bro. You make me want to get in shape so I can take pictures of beautiful places. 🙂

    • planetaurora August 13, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

      all about the work/life balance in this line of work, Sarah!

      • Sarah Akhtar August 13, 2013 at 11:50 pm #



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