Friday, August 17, 2012

Backpacking 2012: Rancheria Creek, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park

The most important thing a backpacker must do is to pay attention to the weather.

When you are out in the wilderness, with only what you can carry, it is essential that you understand what weather you will be facing, and plan accordingly.

On this trip, I didn't do that, and I paid the price. Luckily, the people I was with were more aware than me, and it all turned out well. Learn from my mistakes, so you don't make your own!

This year, we repeated a trip that we had done nearly a decade ago. The trip begins from the O'Shaughnessy Dam at the foot of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The trail winds around the far side of the reservoir, staying fairly close to the reservoir's edge, until you reach Rancheria Creek, at which point the trail breaks away from the lake and heads up higher into the park.

Due to time constraints, we were packing the trip in tightly.

We left the Bay Area as early as we could on Friday morning, but after stops for gas and coffee, a trip to the Oakdale SaveMart to pick up fresh-made sandwiches from the deli, and then the long drive up the hill, it was mid-morning by the time we reached the Hetch Hetchy ranger station. We filled out our paperwork, picked up bear cannisters, and drove down the seven mile single lane road to the dam.

By the time we had parked the cars, readied our packs, and were stepping out onto the trail, it was noon.

And it was 98 degrees. And getting hotter by the minute.

Even though the trail stays close to the lake surface, this has been an unusually hot and dry year, and this weekend was the middle of the mid-August heat. We walked on, trying to conserve our energy and water, but by the time we reached Wapama Falls, it was dry, dry, dry.

For comparison, Wapama Falls often looks like this.

And, only last summer, there was so much water at Wapama Falls at the end of June that it was the site of a backpacking tragedy.

But there was no water for us at Wapama Falls, so we re-shouldered our packs and began the ascent up over the large granite dome between us and Tiltill Creek.

By this time, it was mid-afternoon, and probably 103 degrees. After a long sunny stretch, the trail plunged into a small oak grove. Suddenly, I realized that I was exhausted, and my pulse was racing through the roof. I sat down to rest, and Roger caught up with me after a few minutes.

Thinking I was recovered, I strapped my pack back on, but I made it only 50 feet farther up the trail before I had to stop again, dizzy and faint.

It soon became clear that I was overcome by the heat. Worse, we were all out of water. Worse still, I think something was wrong with the sandwich.

After 20 minutes of resting, Roger and Rich determined to press on, bound for the next water, which we estimated we'd find at Tiltill Creek.

A full 45 minutes later, I was able to resume hiking, but by this point I'd made a rather dramatic decision: I shed about 15 pounds of weight, composed of my (full) bear canister and some excess gear. I packed it all in my day pack and left it by the side of the trail, thinking that, once I got my main gear up to camp, I could trot back and get the remaining gear, or (at worst) I could return at the crack of dawn Saturday morning to fetch it.

With a significantly lighter pack, and having completely emptied my stomach (yes, I think that sandwich wasn't quite right...), I was hiking strong again. By the time I reached Tiltill Creek, Roger and Rich had just finished filtering and filling the group's 3 gallons of water bottles, so I was able to have a long, full drink.

When I told Roger what had happened, he instantly volunteered to race back and get my gear. Roger is a year-round triathlete, and in superb shape, so he thought he'd be back within 40 minutes. I finished taking my main pack up to the Rancheria Creek camp, and settled down to wait for Roger.

And waited. And waited.

It turned out that, just a few minutes after starting back, Roger had encountered a full-grown California Black Bear on the trail. In that section of trail, hugging the granite cliff face some 400 feet above lake level, there was no other way forward or back. So the bear stood his ground.

Eventually, Roger was able to retreat far enough that he found a spot where he could climb above the trail, and the bear made its way on.

By the time we all connected back up, and got our gear to camp, it was 8:00, and rapidly getting dark. Happily, though, we were all safe, and ready to spend the weekend relaxing by the river.

What did I learn?

  • Understand the weather!. For the last few years, I'd been taking trips at much higher altitudes, even camping near the snow several times, so I'd been in the habit of bringing long pants, coats, hat and gloves, etc. Here, at low elevation, in a very warm and dry year, I was horribly mis-packed.
  • Understand your situation: I was hiking too hard, in extremely hot weather, with little shade and water. I needed to take it easier, and not push myself to the point of exhaustion.
  • Never go alone. Happily, I was with a highly-experienced group, strong and capable, and they kept me from doing anything stupid. Had I been by myself, things might have turned out very differently

A few more pictures here:

Bryan Backpacking 2012

Yosemite National Park is a beautiful, special place. It is certainly the most beautiful place in the country, possibly the most beautiful place on the planet.

But it is the real world, not an amusement park. Just this week, two young boys drowned in the Merced River. Meanwhile, one man is dead and another woman seriously ill from Hantavirus in Curry Village. And right on the trail we hiked, it's been barely 13 months since two experienced hikers drowned trying to cross the footbridges at Wapama Falls (don't miss this video!).

Go to Yosemite. Walk the trails, see the sights, enjoy this special place. But be careful, be thoughtful, go with a friend (or two or three!) and come back alive.


  1. My friend just forwarded me the link to your post. I wished we had seen this before our hike. We had a very similar experience. We got on the trail at 11:00 am. We are used to hiking at higher elevations where the temperature is a lot cooler. We were not used to hiking with all our gear at 100+ degrees as we did two weeks ago on Rancheria. Our mistake was that we mistook Wapama Falls (there was water) for the first waterfall. By the time we realized we had passed Wapama, and the last water stop before Tilltill, it was too late to turn back, we were fully exhausted and dehydrated, and we had run out of water. Somehow we made it to Tiltill Creek but there were moments when I feared we weren't going to make it. I am glad we all survived to tell the story. We lived and we learned.

    1. Wow! Thanks for writing. I, too, am glad you came through that experience without any lasting damage.