Yosemite Wilderness Wandering
by Chris Townsend

The switchbacks eased. Suddenly we were in the narrow notch of the pass gazing out to a wildnew horizon. Below us lay a tangle of bare rocky spurs and lake strewn benches, split by curvingvalleys that gradually darkened with the green of forest as they sank towards the black slash of a deeper, wider canyon. Beyond that cleft lay waves of rugged peaks, mainly rock though dotted with small white glaciers and remnant snow patches.

In all the vast view there was no mark of human hand. This was what I had come to find. This was pristine wilderness. We had been walking for a day and a half, pushing hard to this pass. Now for the first time Irelaxed and began to feel at ease, to feel the power of the land, to feel at home.

Red Peak Pass, at 11,180 feet, is the highest pass accessible by trail in the whole of Yosemite National Park. I was here with a companion to explore the Yosemite Wilderness, that is the 90% of the park that lies away from the car parks and auto campgrounds, the shuttle buses and gift shops; the part that requires an effort to reach, the part that is still  wild.

Our start was in Yosemite Valley, where the scenery is spectacular but which has about as much wilderness feel as Disneyland. In summer the population density here is said to be higher than that of Calcutta. I can believe that. We'd stayed with the crowds on the popular developed trail (water fountains, outhouses, bridges, concrete) to Nevada Falls. However once we'd turned into the Illilouette Creek valley the people had just melted away and from being amongst crowds all the time we went to meeting no more than half a dozen others a day.

Pushing from 4000 feet to 11,180 feet in a day and a half with heavy packs isn't a good idea as far as altitude acclimatisation goes but I wanted to shake off the trappings of the world below as quickly as possible, especially as this was a short, eleven day trip. There was no time, I felt, to ease gently into the wilderness, to meet it slowly and quietly. I wanted to be there at once.

Although it left both of us tired, for me at least, this forced approach did work. After Red Peak Pass I no longer felt the sense of urgency, the sense that I must press on as fast and far as possible, that I'd started with. This was is probably a good thing for I doubt I could have kept up the pace much longer. I mightn't have had a companion anymore either. As it was, the final sweaty climb to the pass, up four dozen rocky switchbacks in the searing heat of midday, had been hard enough. The view of the land we would be living in for the next ten days instantly wiped away the memory of the ascent however.

"There's a lot of snow the other side of the pass. You might have problems following the trail". The words of the rangers we'd met above Lower Ottoway Lake came back to us as we looked down into the deep bowl on the north side of the pass. The top of the descent was more snow than rock though lower down we could see bits of switchbacks running in and out of the snow patches. In places the snow was steep too and we took the top section quite gingerly, carefully kicking steps and feeling very glad we had staffs with us. A slip could have taken us a long way.If I'd had an ice axe I'd have used it. However these difficulties also marked our passage into the wilderness, separating us from the easy valley trails and helping us shake off the world outside. They warned too that however benign the climate these were real mountains and we were out here on our own.

Beyond the pass we undertook a high level walk above the upper Merced River basin; a fine little-used route, known as the High Trail, that undulated in and out of the forest. Leaving the basin we climbed to another pass, 10,600 foot Vogelsang, dropped down Rafferty Creek to Tuolumne Meadows - where we resupplied with food - then wandered through Matterhorn Canyon and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River before finally returning to Yosemite Valley via the last twenty or so miles of the John Muir Trail.

The exact route we took didn't matter though and we altered our original plans several times. There are eight hundred miles of trails criss- crossing the Yosemite Wilderness. We covered just 130 miles of these. I imagine that all of them are worth walking, while the scope for cross country travel is almost infinite. No, the point of the trip was not to complete a certain trail or a walk from A to B but to immerse ourselves in wilderness. To live, for however brief a time, in the present - our senses attuned to the winds and the wildlife; to the scolding of the squirrels; the screeching of the jays; the clicking of deer hooves; the delicate whispering of breezes in the aspens; the trickling of tiny creeks and the roar of mighty waterfalls. Yes, and the whine of the mosquitos, the buzz of rattlesnakes and the rustle of unseen animals in the bushes at night that just might be bears. And beyond the sounds of nature there lay the silence of nature, a silence profound and deep.

Much of the time my companion Mark and I walked apart. I vividly remember walking alone beside the roaring cataracts of the Tuolumne River to enter a thick grove of massive ancient conifers and feel as though I'd walked into a blanket so all-embracing, so physical, was the total silence.

Rock, snow, river, lake, forest; a simple yet infinitely complex world; a world where every piece fits together to create a perfection and beauty so far beyond the creations of humanity as to be almost inconceivable. It is this mixture that I love, not the trees alone, or the mountain tops, or the lakes but all of them in harmony. And the Sierra Nevada, the range John Muir called "the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains that I have ever seen" is still one of the best places to find this. To be part of such wild beauty was the reason I was there.

The magnificent trees were a particular joy; the glorious incense cedars and mighty ponderosa pine, the solemn red fir darkening the forest floor with its high dense foliage, the white fir, Douglas fir, foxtail pine, sugar pine, whitebark pine, lodegepole pine, quaking aspen, black oak and many more. Natural forest is rare in much of the world and often what remains is tiny in extent so few have experienced the sensations of walking for hours, days even, amongst immense, centuries old trees. And the Yosemite forest is a living forest with seedlings everywhere and a rich understory of shrubs and flowers. Elsewhere we have lost so much.

Nights as well as days are important for truly experiencing wilderness and in Yosemite the summer weather is such that sleeping out under the stars is possible most of the time. Only once did I resort to the tent, on an evening when the mosquitos stayed out later than usual. Otherwise I fell asleep lying in my sleeping bag staring up at the tree tops as the stars came out and the moon cast its pale light onto the granite cliffs and the dark waters.

No camp was unmemorable but some hang so real and sharp in my mind that I can bring them right back just by closing my eyes. Waking at dawn after a night sleeping on huge granite slabs by the Lyell Fork of the Merced River to see, across the black slash of the valley below, the sun lighting up the multi-hued peaks of the Clark Range; lying in my sleeping bag in Matterhorn Canyon as the moon rose and the pale granite cliffs above glowed with a ghostly white light as though they were covered with an otherworldly snow; watching the full moon rise above a lone pine atop the dark serrated edge of a steep pass from a camp on a rocky bench high above the Tuolumne River as bats swirled overhead and crickets kept up a chorus of noise from the nearby bushes. What nights under a roof can offer such glory.

Apart from Red Peak Pass the walking was mostly easy with several steep descents down endless switchbacks actually harder than any of the climbs. Few creeks are bridged in the Yosemite backcountry but late August is a time of low water and all the fords were safe though a couple were knee deep and required staffs for balance. This was a total contrast to my first visit here, back in 1982 on a Pacific Crest Trail walk. Then I'd come through Yosemite in June at the height of the spring snowmelt and all I remember of the hike is crawling across slippery fallen trees above deafening crashing whitewater creeks and staggering through thigh deep icy waters clutching a rope. McCabe, Return, Spiller; these innocuous creek names conjured up feelings of terror and panic. Crossing them dryshod on rocks brought back no memories. They might as well have been totally different streams; ones I'd never seen before. In a way, of course, they were. The Zen saying "you can never step in the same river twice" certainly applied here.

Eventually and as always (though perhaps one day, I like to think, I will stay) the time came to descend back to the flatlands, in this case the crowds and noise of Yosemite valley. I came down feeling content and calm though, a long way from the urgent pushing person who'd set out only eleven days before. The wilderness had worked its magic again.