Our May Lake soiree was hardly bacchanalian. Nevertheless, the next morning I was feeling the ill effects of alcohol, altitude, age or all three and was not looking forward to the day's trek, a steep eight miles to Sunrise Camp. Was there an easier way? There was, said the camp manager, who noted my morning pallor.
She recommended that I follow the designated trail to Sunrise for about a mile and a half to a junction with Tioga Road, which bisects the park. There, I could catch a shuttle bus, ride it uphill to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and hike that less arduous trail to Sunrise. The hardest part would be enduring my companions' mock outrage.
"A bus!.... You're going to take a bus?"
No matter that my route would actually be longer — if less steep — than the one they would take. I was immediately branded the Rosie Ruiz of hiking, Yosemite's version of the New York Marathon runner accused of riding the subway for part of the race.
Even among men our age, the urge to engage in some form of competition endures. During dinner at Sunrise, Al, the oldest and biggest member of our group, announced a point system that he had invented for ranking us based on trail speed and stamina. Thanks to the bus ride, I was in the minus column, alone at the bottom of the rankings, but not for long.
We had a welcome rest day at the Merced Lake camp. Established in 1916 on the grounds of an old cavalry post, Merced is the oldest camp. Surrounded by regal stands of Jeffrey pine and red fir, the tents are pitched in neat rows framing a quadrangle that still resembles a military parade ground. Just below the camp lies Merced Lake, which gathers and releases the headwaters of the river by the same name that races hundreds of feet down into Yosemite Valley. More than any of the camps, Merced has a relaxed aura about it — clothes drying on lines strung between tents, people lazing in camp chairs, a light wind rustling the tree tops. One might be tempted to spend the entire week here, given what lies ahead — a 3,000-foot ascent over seven miles to Vogelsang, the last and highest camp on the loop. There are two trails from the Merced Lake camp to Vogelsang, but there's no way to avoid the steep climb.
"Either way it's a haul," said Sheridan King, who has been leading mule trains in the park for 30 years. It was too late to purchase a ride aboard one of King's mules, nor did she have room for an extra pack. Still, a member of our group came up with a way to lighten his load. Davis hired a Sherpa.
Elizabeth, an elfin camp worker who lives much of the year in the mountains of Ecuador, agreed to carry Davis' pack to Vogelsang for a negotiated fee. Although he insisted that he had sprained an ankle, we saw no signs of a limp as he vaulted up the trail to keep pace with the fleet-footed Elizabeth. Had she captured his heart along with his pack? Could the trip get any more farcical?
The rest of us trudged up the winding stone steps that form much of the trail for the first 1,500 feet. We climbed through granite gaps and along Fletcher Creek as it ricocheted down the mountainside, the peaked roofline of Yosemite's majestic Cathedral Range visible around every corner. The enthralling scenery distracted us from the pain of the endless ascent as well as from the portents of early winter — a roiling gray sky and plummeting temperatures. Atop the alpine knoll where Vogelsang huddles, a fierce wind bent trees and battered the tents.
We cleared the last rise and arrived at the camp, gasping for breath, just as Elizabeth was shedding Davis' pack and preparing to make her way back down to Merced Lake. She had food, a head lamp and extra batteries for a nighttime return trip that could take several hours. Unfazed by the weather, she was excited at the prospect of descending in the dark, alone.
"Isn't this a great trail?" she said.
If any of us could have spoken, we would have agreed.