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[Yosemite]

Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Hiking, backpacking, running, biking, climbing, rafting, and other human-powered activities in Yosemite National Park

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Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby putwein » Fri Apr 15, 2016 6:15 pm

Some friends and I are planning to visit Yosemite during the week of May 23rd. We are hoping to backpack a loop route over 4 nights/5 days and cover significant distance distance (likely at least 50+ miles). We all have serious backcountry and snow experience, including multi-night trips in below 0 temperatures, hiking in 8+ feet of snow on snowshoes (Grand Island, MI), and off-trail navigation in wilderness (such as in Badlands NP's Southern Unit). That said, I am aware that the snow conditions in the high country in Yosemite can be quite dangerous and limit route options.

Given all that, I am wondering what areas of the park would be best for such a trip at the end of May. Especially, I'm wondering how much a willingness to backpack over snow (likely with snowshoes/crampons) would expand our ability to access some of the high country and extend possible routes at that time of year. I have been thinking about loops starting at Hetch Hetchy, but I am not sure how far we could get before being limited by snow. Would it be possible to get as far as Kerrick Canyon? Or are there other areas of the park entirely I should be focused on? All of the park is obviously beautiful, so we have no attachment to seeing any specific features or places, but would certainly enjoy reaching some high elevations and getting to see waterfalls (especially this year). We also aren't wedded to the loop idea, but it would certainly simplify logistics.

Any advice is very much appreciated! I am a recent West Coast transplant, still wrapping my mind around the scale of these parks and the number of options.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby AlmostThere » Sun Apr 17, 2016 6:19 pm

In late May, what you need is experience with streams running very high with snowmelt water. If you go higher, say 9-10000 feet, there will still be snow. Depending on the next few weeks and what the night temps run (consistent below freezing night temps continue the refreeze-melt cycle that happens every 24 hours, night temps that rise above freezing allow slow melting to continue at night) we may see a fast melt, or a continuing slow one.

In any case, streams can be deadly at this time. Trying to cross spring snowmelt streams kills people every year. Water is one of the top two killers in Yosemite - rocks being the other one. Being unwilling to turn around when the water is too high and fast can mean the end of more than just the trip.

What will determine what you find will be road openings. If you can get to higher trailhead, you may yet need snowshoes. If you can't, you may find a low route that gradually heads into slushy, absolutely miserable snow that's crunchy in the morning and disgustingly wet and slushy the rest of the day. There may be loads of coverage -- snow crusty on top with water running audibly underneath, what i fondly refer to as hypothermia cocktail. Fall through and flounder.

I really doubt by the end of May that crampons will be needed any more. Microspikes, possibly. Snowshoes? Only at much higher elevations than you'll get to in a couple days from the valley trailheads.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Sun Apr 17, 2016 7:55 pm

As AlmostThere says, even with your winter travel experience and abilities, it's the water from a rapid melt that's going to give you problems. With the current higher than average temperatures, assuming it stays like this, by late May, snowpack is likely to be the least of your worries along all but the highest routes.

Here's the report on current conditions from Rob and Laura Pilewski, the rangers stationed for the winter up in Tuolumne:

https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/tmconditions.htm
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby AlmostThere » Sun Apr 17, 2016 9:50 pm

Here is a list of water crossing tips.
https://www.nps.gov/lacl/planyourvisit/ ... ssings.htm

DO NOT USE ROPE. Ever. In water crossings being caught on a rope can quickly drown you as in swift water your weight pulls you under and the water will keep you there. Log crossings are also very treacherous- bark can give way at the worst moment.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby putwein » Mon Apr 18, 2016 6:21 pm

Thanks for all the advice! It's good to keep the water-crossing in mind as a potential hurdle. Given the unpredictability of the snow and potential impassable rivers, I'm figuring I should just pick a trailhead that has a least a few options if we encounter obstacles. We'll just have to be well prepared for potential snow. I'm tentatively thinking of two general loop options:

1. Start from Hetch Hetchy, past Rancheria Falls, take the connector towards Kerrick Canyon, to Wilma lake, and back to Hetch Hetchy.

2. Start from Tuolumne, through Glen Aulin and up Cold Canyon, then towards volunteer peak, down Rodger's Canyon, and back through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. [This assumes that Tioga road will be open in time, so somewhat risky].

Are those options reasonable? They both are in the just below 60 mile range, which seems appropriate for 5 full days of hiking with time for some dawdling or exploration. Or are we likely to have problems on these routes? Should I be considering options closer to the valley (although we would like to avoid crowds), or in the South of the park? Thanks!
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Mon Apr 18, 2016 8:12 pm

Both are reasonable. Route #1 has some nice scenery, but #2 has more and better, but is going to take you into higher elevations earlier, with the possibility of there still being a fair amount of snow in more places. As you also understand, that route also depends on Tioga Rd being open. GCT is incredible and worth seeing, but coming out of Tuolumne, you're likely to have high water east of Glen Aulin, a potentially gnarly crossing at Register Creek, and most likely high water flooding down in the area of Pate Valley. First thing in the morning is the best time to plan for any crossings you think or know of that are possibly going to be problematic. Either way, you guys are going to run into lots of mosquitoes (the real downside of late May).

All that said, if it's accessible and you're not shut out by consideration of conditions (safety not being the least of them), I would try to shoot for Route #2.

That's my two cents anyhow.

And one other thing- Late May isn't going to be much of a problem with crowds, even if you come out of the Valley. The masses just aren't usually hardy enough to brave it yet.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Mon Apr 18, 2016 8:22 pm

Here's another thought- If Tioga Rd is open, the snowpack not too deep, and you can tolerate the bugs, leave out of White Wolf, head up and over Ten Lakes Basin, down to Glen Aulin, then the GCT, and back up to White Wolf. That's an incredible route. It's work, but if it's within your capacity and conditions cooperate, it's worth every step. Or you can entirely reverse it and save the climb from Pate Valley back up to White Wolf. Your high points will be Ten Lakes Pass at about 9600 and just below Tuolumne Peak at about 9900. You'll see some snow in a few areas, but it shouldn't be too bad if things stay the way they are weather-wise. I would seriously consider this before your other routes for the shear beauty alone.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby putwein » Thu Apr 21, 2016 1:33 pm

Thanks for the suggestion Phil. I think we're going to try to do the loop you propose from White Wolf, gambling on the road being open by May 23rd. If the road is closed, we might be able to divert to Hetch Hetchy pretty last minute. Will report back on how things go.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Thu Apr 21, 2016 4:36 pm

Awesome! Glad I could help. I like it when people that seem to know what they're doing are willing to push themselves for the sake of the adventure of it all. Watch the forecasts and have a bit of winter gear handy in the car, just to make sure it's there if you need it. Try to give yourselves a couple days to get used to the altitude if you can, especially if you go up to Ten Lakes first. Do be smart about crossing water. And definitely bring more bug repellent than you think you'll need, as well as head nets.

We'll look forward to the report. Have an incredible trip!
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Thu Apr 21, 2016 5:06 pm

Oh yeah, and when the rangers give you the spiel on bears and food storage, take them very, very seriously. Be sure to camp in Pate Valley :twisted:. I'm sure you'll be popular.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby putwein » Wed May 18, 2016 7:53 pm

An update, for anyone interested:

With the road opening, we have the permit in hand and are going to attempt to do this loop, with the knowledge that it will be a challenge and we may have to turn back if conditions are too dangerous. We decided to really test ourselves. We start on Sunday, and I will report back on how conditions are on the trails.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby Phil » Thu May 19, 2016 10:39 am

When you pick up your permit, make sure to verify that the gate to White Wolf is open. If not, ask about using Lukens Lake as your alternate entry, or if it's available, Yosemite Creek.

You guys are going to run into a good amount of snow and a some fast water, so be ready for it.

Have fun and be safe.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby mebgardner » Thu May 19, 2016 12:39 pm

Really looking forward to the adventure novel they write when they get back. The good kind, that ends well.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby putwein » Sat May 28, 2016 2:54 pm

Well, we did it. I would say my initial use of the word "ambitious" was in order though. Also, as a disclaimer to anyone who may read this post in the future, definitely do not attempt this trip, in these conditions, unless you feel very confident in your ability to handle wintery conditions and off-trail navigation. It was a really spectacular trip, and was certainly worth the effort, but is not for the faint-of-heart or ill-prepared.

Trip ended up expanding by one night (five total, Sunday-Thursday) and reducing by one person to three. The extra night was nice, but didn't end up being essential. Also got a late start Sunday (hit the trail about 4:30) due to an airline temporarily losing losing luggage for the one person in our party flying in from out of state. Did end up using Lukens Lake as our trailhead (as opposed to White Wolf), per Phil's advice.

The first half of the hike, from Lukens Lake to Glen Aulin, was very challenging, mostly due to snow and weather. I would (generously) say that we were on or in sight of a trail for only about 15% of this portion of the trip, although we did not have any truly major navigational problems. Pretty much immediately from the start we were facing large and rolling snow drifts, probably covering at least 80% of the ground in most places. Depth was extremely variable, but I would estimate that many drifts exceeded 5-6 feet. Luckily the snow was fairly crusty and compacted, so postholing was not a major problem as long as we watched the ground carefully for snow bridges, and tested questionable areas before applying our full weight. Actually, in many places it seemed the snow helped us cross was would otherwise have been swampy or wet areas. In the end we just used normal boots - no spikes or snowshoes - and it was fine.

We weren't using GPS for this trip, so navigation was entirely by compass and Trails Illustrated map. Thankfully the topography in Yosemite creates a lot of recognizable landmarks. Below about 7500 feet the snow disappeared almost entirely, so the navigation for the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne portion of the trip was much easier - we basically followed the trail.

Day by day description (pretty long):

Sunday: Left late from Luken's lake, followed footprints for the first half mile or so, and then began to realize that this was going to be a trip with frequent stops to check the map and compass, scrutinize the topography, and make educated guesses about what direction to head. Accidentally went around the east side of Lukens Lake, only to find a sign about the trail being diverted to the opposite side for a restoration project (we got it right on the way back). That was the last sign we would see for a long, long, time. Caught glimpses of exposed trail once in a while, which was reassuring. Camped north of the trail (we think) about a mile and a half beyond the lake.

Monday: Perhaps our most challenging day. Lost the trail for hours at a time, which meant ascending steep faces in the deep snow without real switchbacks. Used an early vantage point of Double Rock and Ten Lakes Pass from below to aim in the general direction of the pass, but ended up about a quarter mile up the slope to the left of Halfmoon Meadow. We didn't even see the meadow until we were mostly past it. The climb up Ten Lakes Pass was one of the hardest we did, as we basically went straight up. Thankfully none of us experienced altitude sickness, but we were getting short of breath very easily as we neared the top. At the top we had lunch at a nice rock outcropping overlooking the Muir Gorge in the distance, but then realized that we had descended about 200 feet towards Colby Mountain instead of going over the true pass, which made for some frustrating and steep extra climbing. Getting through the basin was relatively easy with lakes to guide our way, although the second climb up to the height of the last large lake was brutal. Luckily found the switchbacks down to the South Fork of Cathedral peak, which made for an easy last half hour of hiking, even though it started hailing pretty hard. Camped just as we got to the bottom by the creek. The hail turned to snow as we ate dinner, which was cold but also quite beautiful.

Tuesday: Woke to about three inches of fresh snow. Followed the creek for a while, catching glimpses of the trail, and basically guessed at where to take the sharp U-turn based on surrounding topography. Visibility was low due to dark and low clouds. The climb over the shoulder of Tuolumne Peak was reminiscent of climbing up Ten Lakes Pass. Not quite as strenuous, but very treacherous terrain since we didn't have the trail. Lots of walking across steep, snow-covered slopes, kicking footholds into the snow/ice when necessary. The new snow actually seemed to help with traction. Found some, but not all, of the switchbacks on the way down. At the bottom we had the minor miracle of spotting in the distance through the woods the sign for the junction to May Lake. It was barely above the snow. This was the first trail marking we had seen so far, and gave us a good starting point for navigating some relatively flat and wooded terrain. Nonetheless, the next couple hours was probably the most lost we got. We headed Northeast, aiming for the Cathedral Creek crossing. Found a stream not marked on the map that we decided to follow, based on the thought that it should be flowing the way we needed to go. It was a fun stream, passing over a lot of flat, open granite outcroppings. However, when it met the main creek things seemed a little off, and we had trouble placing all the topography we saw. We almost thought we were at the pass to McGee Lake, but at the last minute realized we had gone too far east, and were looking at the cliffs further south on Cathedral Creek. We headed North, and crossed the creek by piling large logs over an open space between otherwise nearby stepping stones. Were very happy to come to McGee Lake and confirm we had picked the correct pass. It also began to sleet fairly heavily at this point. Camped near Glen Aulin (which was completely people-free, even though it looked like a lot of the tent structures were laid out, waiting to be erected) that evening as the sleet turned to rain. It was much warmer than previous nights, but we got pretty soaked.

Wednesday: Relatively uneventful day. Snow was gone at the lower elevation, and the start of the day was gorgeous and sunny. Had to boulder and walk on fallen logs to get around the swampy area just beyond Glen Aulin. The views were amazing on the way down the valley. The river was really raging, and we took time for a leisurely lunch at a nice vantage point. Started to rain in the afternoon. We also saw our first other humans, a group of three headed the opposite direction. Waded across Register Creek without much problem. Passed by a group of two people and four horses camped in Pate Valley, and stopped for the night a little while beyond them. Looked closely for bears throughout the day, but only saw scat.

Thursday: First full day without any precipitation. Did the switchbacks, which weren't quite as awful as expected, given that we actually had a clear trail to follow. Lots of colorful wildflowers along the trail. Stopped for the day by mid afternoon in a burned area about a mile beyond the second juncture to Harden Lake. Took the time to goof off and rest our legs.

Friday: Back into snow country, although somewhat meltier and lower now. Lots of muddy ground. We saw the just barely exposed tops of a few trail markers. Went the proper way around Lukens Lake and got back to the car early enough for a nice drive through Yosemite Valley before the Memorial Day crowds got truly crazy.

Overall it was a very rewarding trip. Really felt like we got a good taste of much of what Yosemite has to offer. Thanks again to everyone who gave us advice in advance. If anyone has more specific questions about trail conditions in specific areas, let me know and I can give more information or send pictures.
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Re: Ambitious 4 night loop - late May

Postby MadDiver » Sun May 29, 2016 10:46 am

Wow, pretty gnarley. Great report, thanks for sharing.
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