Monday, October 8, 2012

High Sierra Fastpacking: Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile and Back, plus some extra credit to Vogelsang

This past weekend my buddy Marc and I went fastpacking in the High Sierras.  I paced Marc at the Western States 100 miler this year(last 38 miles), but that was all business, this was all fun.  I uploaded a bunch of pictures and some vid clips, but the pictures and words can not communicate what we were feeling when we were up in those mountains.  It was surreal at times, it was just hard to believe that these places even existed.  Fastpacking allowed us to soak up as much of it as we could in three days.  We drove from the bay area starting out at 4 a.m. and got our permits and were out on the trail by 8:45 a.m.  We didn't have any set plans except to get to Devil's Postpile National Monument and back via the John Muir Trail, and do some fun stuff on the side.

Marc and Me at the Tuolumne Meadows Permit Office starting off on our adventure.

 The first part of the trip takes us through Lyell Canyon, which is really a large alpine meadow with a creek running through it.  It was easy traveling, not much up and down, so we were making good time. And it was really neat, nothing like something I have seen before.
On our way up Lyell Canyon to Donohue Pass 
Looking back to where we came, still going up Lyell Canyon. 

Me at the Lyell Headwaters, right before we start the grind up to Donohue Pass at 11050 ft.
 At some point we start climbing.  It isn't really a discrete thing.  It was like going up a steep ascent and then ending up at yet another high alpine meadow that has a lake and stream that feeds the lower creeks.  Every time we crest one of these steep climbs we are greeted with these breathtaking views, kinda like the one in the picture above.
Looking back at Lyell Canyon from Donohue.
 Donohue Pass is up pretty high, 11050 ft.  Going into this trip the only real question that Marc and I had regarding our abilities to cover this terrain was how we would handle the altitude.  It is a tough thing to figure out, because you have to try it.  Everybody seems to react differently to it.  I think we actually did very well.  Even though, the higher we got, the slower we got(due to less oxygen, and therefore less efficient energy production of our systems), we still had a good pace, didn't have to take breaks and just generally moved well.
It was awesome up there.
I have to say that there were no words for getting to the top of the pass.  It was breathtaking, literally and figuratively.
Alpine stream where we cooked lunch on the other side of the pass.

The views were out of this world.

Thousand island lake with Banner Peak in the distance.
 One of the most beautiful parts of the trip was the Thousand Islands Lake area.  I don't have much to say, just look at the pictures.
Garnet Lake, just on the other side of Island Pass.

Rock we decided to climb, very fun.  That is Marc at the top.

The trees looked totally different.

View from our dinner cooking spot at our Garnet Lake camp.
 The first day wiped us out.  We were really tired by the time we rolled into Gladys Lake where we made camp around 6:30 when the sun was going down.  Another one of our worries going into this trip was what was going to happen with the bears.  Almost all of the trip reports that I had read told some horror story about some bear that defeated their food protection system and made their trip more interesting.  We were pretty much 100% sure that we were going to see a bear on this trip.  Turns out that the bear stories you hear:  they have all been fabricated.  There are no more bears in the High Sierras.  It is just a fear factory to make people slow down on the roads, clean up after themselves, and make them carry heavy and totally useless gear with them while they go backpacking.  But anyways, like good boyscouts or something, we put our food in the bear cannister and stashed it in some rocks 100 feet from camp, and put our extras in a bear bag which we hung with my newly acquired bag hanging skills form the Santa Cruz adventure.  Silly waste of time.

Sleep was tough.  I don't know if I really got any "deep" sleep the whole trip, but every morning I woke up, I woke up refreshed and ready to go, so it must have been enough.  Both nights we camped around 9500 ft.  The first night when I would start to doze my heart would start pounding through my chest, like it didn't know what I was trying to do.  But at some point in the night it calmed down, and all was good.  No more issues.
Nice place to eat dinner.

Devil's Postpile, totally weird.
You can look up Devil's Postpile National Monument if you want a good explanation for what is going on here, but I am here to tell you now, they didn't just photoshop some pictures and make up a story, it is a real thing.
This is what the top of Devil's Postpile looked like.

That is hexagonal rubble.

Gladys Lake, where we camped at the first night.  This was on our way back.

Water falls where we cooked breakfast.

Cool views as we ascended from Shadow Lake.

View of Alpine Meadow that we are climbing from.  This trail was made out of a pile of rocks.


Cool Ridge.

Looking south from Donohue Pass.

Back down at the headwaters.

Looking down to Lyell.
So, we had reached Devil's Postpile and started back, knowing that we were going considerably faster than the conservative pace that we had planed for.  So Marc came up with the great plan of getting back up over Donohue and down to Lyell Canyon where we could camp and then go on the Vogelsang loop before heading back to the car on day three. This night of camping was much more relaxed and orderly.  We had our system down, and we didn't have to mess with bag hanging because everything now fit into the cannister(we consumed a large portion of what was taking up space the night before).  This was true wilderness camping.  We were just running down the JMT (John Muir Trail) and picked a nice spot up on the hill where we wanted to sleep.  I recommend wilderness camping over established camp spots whenever possible:  You can pick pretty places that have nice soft ground(I picked a bed of pine needles to put my setup on), and you will likely have less issues with rodents and bears(if there was such a thing) that have these sites in their food finding rotation.

Day 3 views from first ridge we climbed.
Day three we travel down through Lyell Canyon(it was cold that morning), before hooking up with a trail that took us up one of the ridges on the side that would eventually lead us to Vogelsang Peak.  It was a grind of a climb, but eventually we made it up above the trees and all of the sudden the views just take over, and we get a renewed source of energy.  There were a couple of peaks that looked totally climbable to us, and we decided to see if we could do it.  We were rewarded with some incredible 360 degree views since these were the highest spots for miles around.  
Strange rock formation, one among many.

We decided to climb some more rocks, this was where we got 360 degree views.  Probably one of the funnest part of the trip.

Another Alpine lake that we were passing on the way to Vogelsang.  This is where we cooked lunch.

View of the shore from the water.
 It was refreshing to cool off the lower limbs in the various bodies of water, but it never really got hot enough to entice me to go all the way in.  The water, obviously, was of the highest quality. We saw the snowpack that fed directly into these lakes, it doesn't get much better than that...
Got to test out my camera's underwater skills, pretty sweet.

Our last descent into Lyell Canyon and back to the car.
I didn't put up any pictures of Vogelsang because the stupid sun messed them all up.  But it was really awesome.  We then headed down another alpine meadow(I am pretty sure that these were all carved out by glaciers back in the day).  This trail presented some really fun and technical running to finish up our trip.  I felt kinda bad when we would pass a hiker at breakneck speeds while they try and ask us where we came from and I would sputter something about Devil's Postpile(which would make no sense to them) while hopping from rock to rock, basically descending this mountain in a semi-controlled fall.

Beautiful water features nearing in on Tuolumne Meadows.
We make it back to the Permit Office after getting confused for the first time this trip about where we were.  It was before 1 p.m. and we had gone like 20 miles that day.  We had to get back to town because Marc had to fly to China the next day, but that was fine, we crammed a lot into that 6.5 hours!

Finally, here is a compilation of the various video clips that I took while on this trip:

I think we went 80-some miles in all this trip.  It is hard to tell for sure because of all of our side trips, but we covered a lot of ground in two and a half days.  This was likely the last chance that we had to do the high sierra trip this year, it was supposed to snow Monday.  We will be back!

Boring Details:

Gear Review

  • I used basically the same gear from the Santa Cruz Mountains Fastpacking Adventure, so I am only going to list the gear here that is of note for this particular application:
  • Jetboil Sol Stove: A-.  Did it's job extremely well.  Very nice for two people because of the insanely fast boil times(which are supposed to increase with altitude- but was still super fast).  The igniter was not instantaneous at the higher elevations, sometimes it took several tries before it actually worked.  Still heavier than other options.
  • REI Minimalist Bivy: B. Upgraded from B- from Santa Cruz because it was better for the colder weather, it actually served a purpose.  From what I read, these bivies add 5 to 10 degrees to your sleeping bags temperature rating.  It got sub freezing at night, and I was fine.  Still have not gotten to test it out in precipitation.
  • Inertia X-Lite sleeping pad: B-.  Upgraded from C+ because I got to pick my sleeping spot this trip, which allowed the other 1/4 of my unpadded body to be comfortable.
  • Zissou Lite Nautical Long Sleeping Bag:  A.  It got really cold, and I was comfortable.  It is rated for 28 degrees- I am not sure what that means: comfortable at 28, survivable at 28? But it was 28 or colder, and I was fine.
  • Gossamer Gear Gorilla Pack: A-.  Upgraded form B+ because I am figuring it out.  I found that the sternum strap doesn't do anything for me, the wide shoulder straps take a natural position on my shoulders, and I have no issues.  I still have to figure out how to keep the shoulder straps from slipping through the clasps as easily as they do, but I will figure out a solution.
  • MSR Hyperflow water filter: A. I used it a lot more this trip, basically because our only water sources were from the land(not water fountains).  Most likely was not necessary because this was about the cleanest water I have ever seen, but it is a good precaution- and doesn't detract from the awesome taste of the water.
  • Outdoor Research Ultra Light Ditty Sacks: A.  Total upgrade from left over grocery bags.  It was nice to have the different colors and sizes so I knew exactly what was what.  They seemed durable enough, no holes or tears in the three days of running and repacking and squishing and all of that stuff.
  • Black Diamond Ultra Distance Hiking Poles: A+.  Still about my favorite piece of gear.  Marc got a pair for this trip, and he was as skeptical as I was about them, but was a quick convert.  Trekking poles are for real, and these are about the best for fastpacking!


  • GU: B. Still Gu.
  • Cliff Bars/Lara Bars/Mojo Bars: B+.  Took a little different approach to the energy bars this trip.  Went to Trader Joe's and ran down their energy bar selection, and took one of each.  Worked great- but in the end, they all tasted the same.  Kinda a let-down.
  • Trail Mix: A-.  Same as SC
  • Jerky: A-.  Downgraded from SC because we got some organic stuff that just ended up being a copy of the generic grocery store jerky like Jack Links or something like that.  I would have preferred something that tasted a little more real- whatever that means.
  • Backpacker Pantry Lasagna: D.  Terrible, don't do it.
  • Backpacker Pantry Chana Masala: B+.  Actually not bad.  The indian food selections are usually real ingredients, no preservatives(because Indian food ingredients are mostly natural preservatives), and tastes not bad.
  • AlpineAire Foods Broccoli Beef: B-.  Meh.
  • Loaded Oatmeal: A.  Same as SC
  • Dried Pear Slices: A.  A nice mixup.  More evidence that variety is king when backpacking!


  • Every morning we would wake up, pack up as fast as possible(because we were freezing), and get moving.  We would then pick a nice spot to cook our first meal of the day.  Until then it was energy bars, trail mix, etc.
  • We woke up pretty much with the sun on this trip.  It was nice to have a little light when we hit the trail.  This does take away from the potential ground that we might have been able to cover for that day.
  • Still running about 40% of the time.  Even at altitude, downhill running is pretty much an effortless task and should be implemented to cover the most ground possible.
  • I didn't weigh my pack this trip, but used everything from last trip except got rid of: extra gas canister and extra headlight.  Had about the same amount of food.  So I am guessing that I was still around 23 lbs, even split between water/food, pack/gear.
  • Marc carried the Bear Canister (which is basically the smallest, lightest one on the approved list for the JMT), so I carried the stove/pot/gas, and water filter.  I think it was a pretty even tradeoff.  This shows the benefits of doing fastpacking with a partner or two.
  • We usually stopped to camp just as the sun was setting.  This made it nice for picking a spot, and doing chores while there was still some light.  Again, this is a convenience in fastpacking, there is nothing that should keep you from continuing to move in the dark to cover trail.
  • I would say that our pace was actually pretty similar to when Toshi and I did Santa Cruz Mountains.  Even with altitude.  10 miles in 3 hours should be doable no matter what the mountains throw at us(unless it is 10 miles uphill- which I haven't run into yet).


  1. Beautiful pictures! I am sure, like you said, that it doesn't even begin to portray the awesomeness of what it was like to actually be there. So glad you guys were able to go and do this! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. The pics are so beautiful from this trip! Looks like you guys had a lot of fun! Glad you didn't run into any bears! :)

  3. What an amazing trip! So cool that there probably aren't a whole lot of people who have expereinced those views, which is probably why the area is so pristine! Love the "money" & underwater pics! Do you use a GoPro??

    1. Just a water-proof camera: Olympus T-320

  4. Your blog is so fun to read!

    A friend of mine just did the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike with her husband--24 miles in 14 hrs...wonder how fast you guys could do that one?

    I definitely want to know more about that hexagon thing...