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    • Our group’s proposed backpacking trip this September showed the potential to be a memorable sufferfest – 5 days, 60 miles, 5 passes on a route called the Clark Range Circuit in southern Yosemite and Ansel Adams Wilderness. But, it also promised fewer crowds and I’d never been to this area so couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

      We started from Glacier Point Road and went counterclockwise around the circuit.

      Our permit was for the Mono Meadows trailhead on Glacier Point Road, so we had a much longer trek into the main circuit than the southern route shown on the All Trails map. The goal for the first day was Lower Merced Pass Lake – about 13 miles, just shy of the main loop. After a few steep descents early on and getting through muddy Mono Meadows, the trail was mostly a fairly gentle, forested climb with occasional stream crossings.

      Early trail miles...

      It was a long first day – leaving home at 5 a.m., hiking for 7 hours and arriving at the lake fairly trashed, but with enough daylight to set up camp. Day 2 was a 2-pass day, although the first one (Merced Pass, 9300’) wasn’t much of a climb from our camp. The trail stayed mostly forested, saving most of the fun for the last mile of the climb to Fernandez Pass (10,200’), with steep pitches and still-too-heavy packs. At the top of the pass, the trail enters Ansel Adams Wilderness.

      Rest stop at Fernandez Pass

      The trail made a long winding descent for about 2 miles into Ansel Adams before we caught a side trail to Rutherford Lake, our destination for Day 2.

      Morning at Rutherford Lake

      Day 3 started with some beautiful hiking through Ansel Adams Wilderness, with several stream crossings, small ponds and lush, green meadows.

      Ansel Adams Wilderness

      The pass of the day was Post Peak Pass, at 10,800’. During the long climb, we encountered several groups descending, all attesting to incredible views on both sides of the ridge at the top. Their descriptions were accurate, unlike the tip we got that with a short, 15-minute diversion we could bag Post Peak from the pass. I’m sure Alex Honnold could, but for the two of us aging, occasional hikers who went to the top of this narrow, exposed 200’ boulder pile, it was a much longer, mentally and physically exhausting climb. But, the views were spectacular.

      View from Post Peak

      Post Peak summit

      Post Peak in background

      After recovering at the pass about an hour-and-a-half after starting our “15-minute diversion”, we continued along the ridge, crossed back into Yosemite and descended to a lake for the night’s campsite.

      Looking back towards Yosemite. Day 3 camp was at the far end of the larger lake

      Day 4’s challenge was the highest point of the circuit – Red Peak Pass at 11,200’ – coupled with a forecast of a front moving in with high winds. After a descent through forests, we began a long, gradual climb towards Red Peak, passing various small ponds and streams before starting the more serious climb towards the pass as the weather got more blustery.

      Heading towards Red Peak Pass

      Plentiful switchbacks and somewhat lighter packs made the final climb to the pass much more manageable than feared. Views from the top were again spectacular.

      Top of Red Peak Pass

      Upper Ottoway Lakes descending Red Peak Pass switchbacks

      Red Peak was our last pass of the trip. From here it was a couple miles to descend to Lower Ottoway Lake, our camp for the last night. This was a beautiful setting at the lower end of a bowl with large granite peaks surrounding most of it. We arrived around 3:00 so for the first and only time of the trip, had a couple hours to just kick back. Couldn’t think of a nicer spot for it.

      Lower Ottoway Lake

      The concern for Day 5 was surviving the 16-mile descent on grumbling knees and progressively more beat up feet. We started at first light and made the best time we could to try to beat the afternoon rain and get home at a reasonable hour. The weather stayed cool and breezy – agreeable hiking weather – and we made good time. Almost missed the large black bear that blended in with the dark tree trunk he was scratching at. Couldn’t get much of a shot with my wide angle lens as he slowly ambled away, totally unintimidated by us.

      Large local fauna

      We had lunch at a stream about 3 miles from the trailhead. The next 1+ mile was a rather grueling climb that I just had no memory of from Day 1. That was followed by some rolling terrain through a previous burn with various patches of wildflowers and fall color, back through the muck of Mono Meadows, and then a final steep climb to the finish line.

      After some clean up, we joined the throngs at Glacier Point to take in the views. It was hard to believe we had been way out beyond Red Peak just the previous day.

      View of the Clark Range from Glacier Point Road


      Although not in a class with some of the epic Cake postings, this was a memorable trip and a step up from our typical 3-day, single campsite trip. It was great to see some incredible Sierra backcountry with nowhere near the crowds of the usual popular Yosemite routes.

      I’d love to hear any tips from the more experienced backpackers how to make these trips easier. Obviously, pack weight is the biggest obstacle and the great equalizer. I’ve found that people of a sturdier build who I might easily outrun on a road can crush me when we put packs on. But, packing in Yosemite means bear canisters are required, I used all the clothing I brought except the rain jacket, and had too much food but not to the extreme. I had considered a bivvy instead of my solo tent, but the only time I used that I ended up pretty wet and we had potential rain at the end of the trip. So, it wasn’t obvious how to save weight except maybe bring a little less food. I’d guess my pack weight was in the low 30’s by the end of the trip and that felt ok. But, it was 5-7 lbs heavier at the start, and pretty oppressive.

      The second major impediment I have is aging knees without much shock absorption. I use hiking poles everywhere it’s not level, but still take slow, halting, lurching steps on steep rocky descents that others seem to just cruise through. I bought some stretchy neoprene-like knee braces and tried them on a test hike but they just seemed to bruise the tendons at the back of my knee so I left them home. I used a less restrictive Incrediwear brace on one knee that I had strained a few weeks prior and that seemed helpful. Any thoughts on handling rocky descents on rocky knees other than planning shorter hikes?

      Another problem for me me on this trip was abused toes. I know the spots that tend to get irritated and should have stayed on top of it, but on 3-day trips it’s never been a big deal. This time, once things started hurting, band aids and moleskin just got pushed aside and the damage got progressively worse. By the finish line, my feet were pretty much a bloody mess. I’ll also lose a couple toenails, which is a first from backpacking. Not sure why, maybe just a lot more up, down and total miles than I’m used to.

      The aftermath.......

    • Wow, what an awesome trip and write-up. Great photos. Did you suffer the extra weight of taking your real camera?

      Old school; you guys got away from the crowds and into seriously rugged backcountry. I’m astonished at how during the last 10 or so (?) years it feels like the national parks have become unbelievably busy, at least the places like Glacier Point which are easily accessible. Even the day hikes from inside Yosemite are crazy now. So it was great to read about getting truly remote.

      My most traumatic memories of backpacking are when I erred in the side of too little food and starved or too light a tent when the winds and rains came. But I guess for a trim, smoking-fast runner like you, pack weight makes a huge diff.

    • I brought my real camera but with a pancake lens only. That meets most of my needs for backpacking but obviously came up short at the bear encounter. I suppose I could consider just bringing my phone and a little solar charging panel. Some of the others did that but seemed to have a few problems with the charging. At one point it seemed as if the charger was sucking power out of their phones rather than putting it in.

      I think my most miserable backpacking trip was when I was in college and my brother convinced me to go in western Connecticut in the middle of winter. It would be a stretch to call my sleeping bag 3-season, my Ensolite pad was all of 1/8", and I got exactly zero sleep over the two nights.

    • The photos and commentary looks incredible! No signs of crowds unlike some other hikes around the Valley.

      For camera and phone charging have you tried carrying 10,000 mAh power banks? They are only 180 grams each and are cheap ($20-$30). Taking 3-5 of them should last the entire trip and no need to worry about weather for solar charging.

      As for black toes, I would recommend wide toe box shoe. This lets your toes spread out naturally while descending. Also, use double socks to reduce hotspots and blisters. With more cushion between socks and some friction transferred to sock-on-sock sliding, your feet should feel a lot more comfortable. Put thicker socks first then thinner on top of them.

    • Vin, great write up, thanks! For your toes, go up another half or whole size. I'm a 10 and my mountaineering boots are 12. My hiking boots are 11 and I was feeling my toes a little on this trip. I have a way to tie my boots that really prevents the foot from sliding forward. It's a lifesaver on downhills.
      Also, get the Smart Wool mountaineering socks once your boots are bigger and wear a thin, smooth liner sock under them. I can go for weeks with that setup.
      As for weight, you got it backwards - try starting out at 30# and work your way up to 37# by the end of the trip. 😉

    • Amazing trip report and photos! Like, really amazing! Abused toes are so brutal. Your photo of such brought back "great" memories! Thanks for posting up!

    • Thanks for the kind words. I'd mentioned to Vilen that it was a bit daunting coming up with something I thought was worth posting, given all of you incredible photographers and hard core adventurers who frequent the site. I'm glad that Cake is managing to stay such a hospitable forum.

    • Vin, thanks for the great writeup and wonderful photos. I love stories like these. They inspire me to do more in the outdoors. Thank you 🙏

      I’d love to hear any tips from the more experienced backpackers how to make these trips easier. Obviously, pack weight is the biggest obstacle and the great equalizer.

      In my opinion, a light pack is everything in terms of enjoying backpacking. Reducing your pack weight is entirely possible, and often not that expensive. I have back problems from getting rear-ended years ago, and I can't carry a heavy pack without having nerve pain throughout my limbs. So, I went ultralight.

      I reduced my base weight from 40 lbs to 10 lbs for 10-day summer Sierra trips without sacrificing comfort for a few hundred dollars. Base weight is all gear, including the backpack itself minus food, fuel, and water. I did this by analyzing the weight of every item on a spreadsheet and optimized for replacing pieces of gear with minimal $/oz saved.

      I switched from a bear canister to a kevlar bear bag, which saved 31 ounces. I sold the bear can, so the effective price to me for the bear bag was $43, thus I paid $1.36 per oz saved. I did that instead of replacing my 10-year-old Western Mountaineering 15F-degree sleeping bag. For $300, I could save 11 ounces with a lighter sleeping bag. That's $27/oz. A whopping 20x more expensive than the bear canister replacement.

      I'd be happy to help reduce your pack weight if you wouldn't mind sharing how much each piece of gear weights.

    • It's probably going to be so beautiful because of the crisp clear air of fall days in the mountains. Prepare yourself for frigid conditions! I summited Kings Peak in Utah over the weekend. It was 5F at 13,500ft at noon. So cold. Looks like Whitney is pretty cold too.

    • That's probably a good idea itemizing everything like that. I've never done it but I should. I'll ping on you for input if I ever get that organized. Right now, I only have a small kitchen scale so probably can't weigh the larger items.

      For awhile, I was trying to replace one or two items a year with something lighter and had some big gains with the larger things like pack, sleeping bag, and stove. I think now I'm at the point where I have to pay more attention to the details. I had looked into one of those Ursacks a few years ago but they seemed to get mixed reviews and weren't approved at Yosemite, so I held off. I'm curious - what pieces of your Half Dome tent do you bring to get it down to 22 oz?

      In addition to gear weight, next time I need to think harder about food with less water content. I brought too many Clif bars on this last trip

    • Vin, feel free to start a conversation here on Cake when you weigh your items so that we can discuss ultralight backpacking more!

      I only bring the tent poles, rain fly, and stakes in the summer. That weight is only the weight of the poles because I have a friend sharing the tent carry the rain fly. The Half Dome is a terrible tent for lightweight backpacking, and that's on the top of my replacement list.

      I'm planning to purchase this tent from Black Diamond. At 1 lb 10 oz, it's 3 lb 11 oz lighter than my Half Dome 2 Plus at full weight.

      Zpacks makes some of the best ultralight gear like sleeping quilts and backpacks, in addition to tents. This tent of theirs is only 15 oz, but at a whopping $549. It's more than I'm willing to pay for a tent, so I'll spring for the Black Diamond tent.

      Here's my Half Dome in ultralight mode, albeit still very heavy, on my last summer trip.

    • The Ursack is great, only because it weights so so much less than any bear canister on the market. It comes with downsides. Your food is at risk of being crushed by a bear. And two places in the US that I know of don't allow it: Yosemite and small portions of SEKI:

      From Ursack:

       It appears that Ursack will be allowed almost everywhere in the Sierra this year except Yosemite National Park and three areas (Rae Lakes, Dusy Basin, Rock Creek) of SEKI. We calculate that Ursack may be used on more than 98% of the Pacific Crest Trail. SIBBG, the Sierra Agency Black Bear Group, no longer exists. There are no standardized bear canister tests--each Superintendent of Forest Service Manager makes the decision for his or her own area. While Ursack will likely submit the S29 AllWhite Hybrid for consideration by Yosemite and SEKI, there can be no assurance of approval given those parks lack of testing criteria and/or their historical antipathy toward Ursack.

      What's absurd is that the Ursack AllMitey has the approvals to make it legally allowed in Yosemite and SEKI, but rangers will turn you away if you show them an Ursack at the permit issuing desk.

      As for food, optimizing for high calories per oz, say by only bringing foods over 120 calories/oz is a good place to start. Cliff Bars are actually quite calorically dense while offering decent nutrition. I like Mountain House freezed dried foods because they are extremely calorically dense and taste good.