by Peter Holleran
"Yosemite is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar...
and the weary, nervous, wasted work of the lowlands"   - John Muir
For anyone looking for an exotic run or hike to do it is highly recommended they go to Yosemite National Park. In 2001 I did a spectacular loop including Half-Dome, Nevada Falls, and Glacier Point. This year I ventured further out, attempting to run from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, an adventurous journey spanning the width of the park. Most back-packers take two or three days for the trip, staying at one of the high Sierra camps or as part of a two hundred mile hike of the John Muir Trail ending near Mt. Whitney. Being only twenty-three miles, however, I figured it could reasonably be done in six hours, yet to hikers I passed this seemed phenomenal - which is one of the reasons I like to do it. Some hiking and running clubs take the easy direction, from Tuolumne Meadows or Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley, but that is mostly downhill and what good is that?!
The day started warm at Happy Isles (4000 feet) at 7:30, but once past Half Dome and eight miles out I heard thunder. At ten miles and 8000 feet I ran into a hailstorm that turned the ground white. I had some trepidation heading into a storm on a climb that would reach 10,000 feet, wearing only a t-shirt and carrying nothing else with me (big mistake).. Usually weather like that only gets worse as you get higher. Thoughts of hypothermia came to mind. Would I become just another statistic? Indeed, was I tempting fate by continuing? I spotted a family coming down from Sunrise Pass pulling out plastic garbage bags to cover their backpacks and asked if they had an extra to use as a poncho as I was getting cold and wet. The Dad said "no" even after I assured him that in less than a half-mile they would have bright sun for the rest of their hike, while I potentially faced more than ten miles of nasty weather. What a bastard. Talk about unwritten trail etiquette. Possible death from exposure was less important than one of their packs getting a little damp from hail. His seven year old daughter sweetly offered me her plastic bag but Dad again said no. After ten minutes of futile huddling under the sparse cover of scanty pines I decided to press on over the pass anyway, hoping to score a garbage bag from a ranger at Sunrise Camp, the approximate half-way point. Fortunately the downpour cleared, but thunder continued to crash and was my companion for the next two hours. It was quite thrilling, with huge overhead clouds. Afternoon summer rain or thundershowers are common in the Sierras, but it isn't supposed to happen at 9:30 in the morning. Consequently, I was ill-prepared. It turned out, moreover, that the Sunrise Camp "dining room" was closed until dinner time, and there were just a few campers hanging out in their tent cabins, so I could still have been standing out in the rain.
By the time I reached Tuolumne Meadows the hail and rain showers started again, only this time much stronger. The ground was soaking wet and it was quite cool. People had on ski jackets and long pants. I didn't count on such weather and was definitely unprepared. I had forgotten I was not on my home turf anymore but in truly wild country. Anyway, I successfully arrived at my destination with a half-hour to spare to get the daily 2:15 P.M. shuttle bus back to the Valley ($14.50 with no reservations needed in that direction since most people take the bus the other way, riding UP to the Meadows and then hiking down). Seeing my quivering form the bus driver graciously pulled two large towels out of the overhead compartments and draped them over me, while I downed two protein shakes, peanut butter crackers, vegie burger with cheese, and assorted "pogie bait" such as Hostess Twinkies and berry pie. Forget sophisticated zone diet philosophy, I had serious munchies. When the bus reached the Valley an hour later it was 85-90 degrees, an amazing contrast to what felt like an impending snowstorm at Tuolumne Meadows.
The run, with stops, took 6 hours. Racing it could be done faster, but when in paradise, why rush? I traveled light, carrying only a single water bottle in hand and wearing a one-bottle fanny pack with two slim pockets in which I stashed TP, money, and a couple of plastic sandwich bags with sport drink powder for refilling. In my trail shorts I put two cliff bars and Gu packets. At Marin Outdoors I had found a water bottle only costing $16.95 with built-in carbon filter that claimed to remove 99.9% of guardia. This seemed like the perfect, ingenious solution. I would fill it in streams and transfer water to the other bottle to mix with sports powder. It worked and I'm sure I was the envy of the long distance hikers burdened down with huge packs or those just day hiking with alot of gear. As Civil War general Richard Ewell once said, "The road to glory can not be followed with much baggage." I had some momentary concern about the fact that the John Muir Trail has its fair share of horses dropping their load of Cryptosporidia, which might work its way into the water supply, but the $49.95 filter bottle using iodine was just too damn heavy to carry and so I took my chances, making sure to filter only in fast-moving streams, which are fairly safe anyway.
Starting early in the day I felt that I might not meet anyone on the trail once beyond the more popular hiking areas. The possibility of encountering a bear at that hour while running alone was mildly daunting. Last year I had to slow down to permit a bear to get out of the way while descending the Four Mile trail from Glacier Point. But this time there were no bears, only deer, and a single coyote. From Yosemite Valley I took the popular Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, then on to Nevada Falls (2.9 miles) and the trail to Half-Dome. At 6.2 miles I veered right onto John Muir Trail for the rest of the way. It is a steady ascent from the valley floor at 4000 feet up to 9900 feet - actually a steep ascent to Nevada Falls, more moderate rise on Half-Dome Trail and first part of John Muir Trail, followed by a steep 2000 foot climb over Sunrise Pass (where I entered the hailstorm, started to get a little scared and had doubts about finishing). Then there is a brief descent to a lovely meadow at 9400 feet, the location of Sunrise Camp (13.7 miles).
Sunrise is one of six High Sierra camps in Yosemite arranged in a loop with each about a day's hike apart. Reservations are usually required months in advance. These camps provide cabins with beds (sleeping bags required), cooked meals (breakfast and dinner) and running water, for $126 per night. Through-hikers can also purchase meals there. I primarily counted on Sunrise Camp as a water stop in case my filtration system didn't pan out. Elapsed time was 3 hours, 45 minutes. After a ten minute stop, refueling and exploring the campgrounds, I headed into unknown territory amidst awesome scenery and threatening weather. There is a gradual rise over several miles to jewel-like Cathedral Lakes at 9700 feet, a four mile descent to 8500 feet near Tuolumne Meadows, a right turn and final two miles to reach the Tuolumne Store at 8700 feet. Secretly desiring attention I wore a Quadruple Dipsea t-shirt, and, sure enough, coming down the long downhill from Cathedral Lakes and passing some plodding hikers one yelled out "Oh, a DIPSEA runner!" That gave a me much needed boost, as spirits and legs were flagging. What really turned me on earlier was when hikers asked where I was going. When I answered "Tuolumne Meadows", they exclaimed, "TODAY?! Like THAT?! Where's your food, your gear?! (no boots, pack, tent, sleeping bag, extra clothes, rain gear, sandwiches, trail mix, freeze dried lasagna, flashlight, guidebook, gallons of water, etc.). I liked that. It's a real kick to do in a few hours what others think should take days. "Sure," I said, "You see, I have to catch the 2:15 bus!" "You aren't one of those ultra-marathoners, ARE you?", asked one. That was cool. A fairly recent convert to running, with a quiet joyous realization I said to myself, "You know, I guess I AM."
Since I spent no time acclimating, the effects of altitude were noticeable. The motel I stayed in the night before was only at 2000 feet.* A couple of nights at elevation would have been better. There are 17 miles on this run over 7000 feet and 12 over 9000. Still, it isn't too bad. Certainly not as strenuous as Pike's Peak or Mt. Whitney, both of which are over 14000 feet - but definitely worth doing.
* The same dive on Route 140 (John Muir Lodge) that I stayed in last year where one is virtually guaranteed a vacancy - and for good reason - only the price had risen from $29 to $40. After I mentioned to the owner that I didn't see any other cars in the parking lot, he said, "O.K., $35." When I added that the room had no air conditioning, he said, "O.K., $30." What can I say, it's a tough business!
John Muir Trail Distances and Elevation
Happy Isles 0.0 4,035
Mist Trail 1.0 4,550
Panorama Trail 3.3 5,950
Little Yosemite Valley 4.7 6,150
Half Dome Trail 6.2 7,000
Clouds Rest Trail 6.7 7,200
Merced Lake Trail 8.6 8,100
Forsyth Trail 8.7 8,150
Sunrise Camp 13.7 9,400
Echo Creek Trail 14.7 9,450
Cathedral Pass 15.7 9,700
Cathedral Lake Trail 17.8 9,500
Tuolumne Meadows Trail 20.8 8,550
Glen Aulin Trail 22.3 8,600
Ranger Station 23.9 8,700