So earlier this week, an acquaintance of mine wanted to call me up and ask me where to go in Yosemite. He’d already been there once or twice before, but he wanted my insiders information of where to go with his family. I had a problem with this, so I didn’t answer his calls. He’s not the sort that takes “No” for an answer very easily.
The problem that I have is that him and his family are tourists, trying to go someplace they have neither the gear nor the knowhow to go safely, so while what my acquaintance said was “Scott! I’m going to Yosemite, tell me where to go!” What I heard was “Tagg! I’m going to imperil myself and my family doing something incredibly dangerous and stupid! Please Help!” He knows I’m a back country guy. He wants to drag his family out there and do a nice day hike and be pleasant and enjoy it. Problem is, he doesn’t know what he’s asking. He’s a tourist. I’m a back country guy. I don’t do tourist, and he doesn’t have the gear, the training, or the ability do back country.
So yea… I told him via channels to go buy a guide book. And I was, even for me, rather curt about the whole affair.
It’s not that I have a problem with tourists. Quite the opposite. I know tourists like to get out in the woods and go experience nature and perhaps even learn something from it, and all of those things are things I tend to encourage. What I Don’t encourage is when a tourist wants to go see the place where this neat picture was taken, not knowing that it’s a back country place, and getting there requires gear, experience, and training that your average tourist doesn’t have. What usually follows ends up headlines on the news as a cautionary tale of why people shouldn’t go up into those dangerous mountains, cue the sensationalism, and video that the news will gleefully warn you might not be suitable for all audiences.
And it’s not like my acquaintance has gone out and gotten his entire family outfitted and trained to go back country, either. I know this. If he had, he’d have bragged about it.
Let me explain it another way that will likely be easier to understand for all the city peeps.
This is Yosemite. All of it. Take a gander for a moment…
Aaaand this is Yosemite Valley. This is the area in Yosemite for tourists. Actually, it’s the Valley, and the Sequoia grove at the south entrance. But that’s about it. These are the places with ROADS going in and out of them. Ah, but “Tagg” you say, “There’s a lot more to Yosemite than the places that roads go to.” Yes, Grasshopper, you are indeed observant. There are more miles of trails then there are road in Yosemite. But think of it this way. Think of Yosemite like a Dance Club. The Valley is the main floor. You pay your cover charge to get in, and it’s where the dance floor and the bar is. It’s the spot where tourists go for a good time. But everything else??
That’s the VIP lounge. And much like any other VIP lounge, to get there, you have to have a few things more than the average guy on the floor (AKA, your average tourist..). To go to the VIP lounge in most places, you need money or prestige. The VIP lounge for back country is different, in that the criteria for admission is Gear and Knowledge.
And the Bouncer for this VIP lounge is Mother Nature. She has her own set of rules, and if you break them, she has no problems either kicking you out of the club, or on a whim killing you. She doesn’t care about your cash, or your prestige. Her rules are Gear and Knowledge. You don’t have those? Get out. Respect the Bouncer, Or She Will Kill You. Think I’m kidding?? Search for Yosemite Deaths, and it gives it to you BY YEAR.
And it’s not just tourists. It’s experienced back country people that do things they KNOW they’re not supposed to do. (Hint, climbing a smooth granite dome when it’s wet is generally NOT a good idea….) You break the rules, the bouncer breaks you. It doesn’t care who you think you are, what you think you have, or how smart you think you are. Remember a bit back when I said the most dangerous thing you can take on the trail is an expectation? I wasn’t kidding.
In the Valley, if you get a bear, it’s controlled by the quick response of a park ranger. There’s lots of “oohs” and “aaahs” and a few small traffic jams as a battalion of tourists armed with flash cameras are getting shutter happy with the “rare” glimpse of wildlife. Back country? There is no ranger, the bear is probably not as well fed as one in the valley, probably hungry, and probably thinks you’re a meal. And don’t even think about bear cubs. Your kids may want to snuggle them, but their mother has other ideas. And after a bit of screaming, you end up the news of the day. As a note; Yosemite has a black bear population of 350 plus, mostly in the camp areas, so “Rare” wildlife isn’t as rare as you’d like to think. The last few times I’ve been there, the rangers are really hard on speeders in the park because the number of black bears killed by speeders has spiked with the population.
In the Valley, if the weather turns suddenly inclement (as it quite often does, spontaneously), you can hop into one of the shopping centers, the museum, and the five star hotel and get out of the rain. High country? You won’t get rain, you’ll likely get snow, or a snow and rain mix depending on how high you are. Do you have a pancho, or a parka? No? Do you know not only HOW to start a fire, but where you’re allowed to in the back country? No?? Your cause of death will likely be a draw for hypothermia and your ego writing a check your gear couldn’t cash. Note; in Yosemite, fires are restricted to areas Under 10,000 ft. Above 10k? Don’t do it. There isn’t enough oxygen up there, and being around a fire up there may lead to death by asphyxiation.
In the Valley, there are a dozen or so places to get food, and just about any kind you’d like. Over Tioga pass? Two. Tuolumne Meadows and Crane Flats, at either end of the pass. The former is a through hiker restock point, so expect high calorie low weight food, and nothing you have to cook. Crane Flats has a convenience store and gas station.
The valley is for tourists. Back country is NOT. You go back there unprepared and the Bouncer will treat you like an ant to a boot.
And even *I* am guilty of this and have had a recent reminder of the rules. Last month I went up to Tahoe with New Stick and Tenaya to show New Stick part of where he now lives. The day was nice and sunny in the morning, and a little chilly and breezy when we got up there. But of the three of us, only my wife had a proper gear load out. Most of my gear was still in the wash from the week before. So I was up there in bare bones gear and shorts and short sleeves. It was a bit chilly, but not bad.
About a quarter to three in the afternoon, clouds blew in, and it looked like rain. That wasn’t good, so we made our way back up to the parking lot of D. L. Bliss State park. That was when Mother Nature reminded me of a few things. Thing one was that when you’re above 7k feet and the temp is low enough (like it was then) you don’t get rain. You get snow. Thing two was that even in late spring, you can get snow enough to get white out conditions getting back to the highway. Thing three was a not at all subtle reminder that I was NOT PREPARED FOR SNOW OR COLD WEATHER SURVIVAL. What followed was 45 minutes of white knuckle driving racing to get down out of the mountains before it snowed us in. I say race because we didn’t have chains either, and as we were coming down off of Donner Pass, the signs started changing on 80 to “Snow at pass, carry chains.” The bouncer bounced us right out of the club. We did Not have the gear to be there. Are you on Facebook? The video of the beginning of the bad weather is here. By the time we got past Squaw Valley, it looked like this.
The whole episode was a none too subtle Trial By Error that thankfully we survived, made worse by the fact that I should have known better. Out of the three of us, tenderfooted Tenaya was the best prepared. She followed what she’d been taught but what one of her teachers was idiotically ignoring (that’d be me, and yea, I’ll take my lumps..). She had a jacket. She was prepared. She did it right.
But back to my acquaintance. My acquaintance has a choice to make here. He can stay a tourist, pay the cover, get in the club, and have a good time, metaphorically. But if he wants to take his family back country, to go have a nice day hike in the high country? He’s got some work to do. I can’t tell him how to get up there and do a day hike safely with little gear and no knowledge because there simply IS NO WAY to do that safely. I’ve been bounced out of the high country for not being prepared for it. I lived, not because I’m hard to kill, or macho, or anything other than stupidly lucky and intimately familiar with my own contingency planning (which helps loads). Believe me, I’m not going to shoot my mouth off around the Bouncer. Her message was well received, thank you and may I NOT have another…
And anyone else who asks?? Hey, if you have a real interest in going there and learning that, I’ll do everything I can to either teach you or put you where you need to be to learn. I try to be nice about it that way. But if you’re going to ask me how to get away with doing something really stupid or unsafe?? Then no, I won’t hold your beer, and no, I won’t “watch this.” You’re walkin’ with Darwin, not me. I respect the Bouncer.