The Marlboro Man Lives!

If you ever decide to go to Yosemite National Park in August, I have one piece of advice for you: DON’T DO IT! If you’re there already, I’m sorry.

OK, I’m being melodramatic to make a point. Yosemite Valley, even at 4,000 feet elevation, is hot in the summer. And besides that, it’s full of tourists. Not that there’s anything wrong…oh, heck, I’m repeating myself. I covered all that in Ghosts of Hikers Past. But I didn’t tell you what I actually did instead of going to the valley.

My second trip to Yosemite as an adult was based around some workshops that I wanted to do with YExplore Yosemite Adventures, just like my first trip. But after that was over, I wanted to have a grand finale of sorts. I was just really starting to get comfortable in the great outdoors by myself and I was looking for something to challenge myself a little. No High Sierra solo survival backpacking in the winter or anything like that – just something that would require a little preparation. And that’s when I saw a photograph of Mono Lake taken from thousands of feet above from the top of Mount Dana, and knew I had to get that shot.

Mount Dana, stuck way over on the eastern edge of the park, is the second highest peak in Yosemite and it’s also the highest non-technical climb. In other words, you don’t need ropes or any special gear to reach the peak – it’s somewhere between a hike and a scramble. You won’t find a trail to the top on any official park map, but there is a trail, and everybody knows about it. It even starts right behind the guard station at the Tioga Pass Entrance to the park.

The peak stands at about 13,000 feet, much higher than I had ever hiked, and as you might imagine, the air is starting to get a little thin at that point. (If you’ve ever climbed Everest without oxygen, I really don’t want to hear about it right now.) Anyway, the good news is that the Tioga Pass Entrance is at 10,000 feet, so you only have a gain of about 3,000 feet. That’s not really that bad, but it sure helps to be in shape and acclimated to the altitude.

So, if you live in Issaquah like I do and need to get in shape for a climb, you know the drill – you start hiking Mount Si on weekends. Mount Si is the quintessential conditioning hike for Seattleites, having a gain of almost 3,200 feet and eight exciting miles of round trip hiking with only a few thousand of your fellow urbanites. That’s an hourly rate of urbanites, not a total for the hike. Anyway, that’s exactly what I did, among other things, to get ready.

When you enter Yosemite from the east, the closest major airport is Reno. And if you’re not camping, which I wasn’t at that time, the closest city with lodging is Lee Vining, California. And Lee Vining has the advantage, to me, anyway, of being located on the edge of the Great Basin Desert at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet. That meant that if I arrived on Sunday, spent my days up in the park at 8,000 to 10,000 feet, and slept at nearly 7,000 feet every night, I’d be thoroughly acclimated to the altitude, such as it was, in time for a Wednesday ascent of Mount Dana.

There didn’t seem to be any particular rush, so that morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and started heading up the trail. The first third of the trail is beautiful meadow surrounded by small tarns – piece of cake! That’s where I met my first friends. (You know I always meet people on these trips – that’s half the fun!) They were a retired couple, and the wife was celebrating her 65th birthday by proving she could climb Mount Dana. What a great goal, I thought! I passed them easily, but I had a feeling I’d see them again.

Windbreak on Mount Dana Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Windbreak on Mount Dana Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Eventually, you leave the meadow and get above tree line and make your way up on one of the many paths leading across a rather barren plateau followed by a featureless gentle slope for the second third of the climb. That’s where I caught up with the other group I was to meet on this day. They were two brothers who had just arrived from San Diego, which as you may know is located at just about sea level. One of them reminded me of the Marlboro Man. I don’t remember him having any gear besides his cowboy hat, and he wasn’t even breathing hard, like he was right out of a commercial. (No cigarette, though.)  His brother, on the other hand, looked like death warmed over. This poor guy was about to pass out from exhaustion.

One time I left the “trail” to go photograph something and came back to find the slower brother almost where I had left him, but the other brother was nowhere to be found. “Where’s your brother?”, I asked. “Oh, he got tired of waiting and decided he’d hike to the top; then he’ll come back down and hike back up with me.” “Oh.”, I said. Interesting. The guy has stamina, I’ll give him that.

The last third was by far the most challenging. It was essentially a scramble up a pile of loose scree. There was no more trail, but only a series of cairns (markers made from rocks) to guide you up the path of least resistance. The slope was pretty serious at this point, and a fall would have been hard to break. So I made certain to stop and catch my breath whenever I felt even the least bit dizzy.

The Brothers, Yosemite National Park, California

The Brothers, Yosemite National Park, California

Eventually, we all made it to the top – the retired couple, the brothers, and myself. The views, as you might imagine, were spectacular. And, of course, this being the logical lunch spot for climbers, there was a friendly marmot family there to collect a toll. Well, they tried, anyway.

Toll, Please!, Yosemite National Park, California

Toll, Please!, Yosemite National Park, California

I got my photograph of Mono Lake 6,000 feet below, plus a few documentary shots of myself, the marmots, and the other hikers. After a quick lunch, it was time to head back. The trip down was harder than you would expect. It was getting warmer as the day progressed, and of course we were all more tired. I found myself more skiing than hiking back down the scree field, not really trying to but being generally unable to get a solid footing on the debris. And the fact that you could see the entrance station and parking lot all the way down, while being good from a navigation standpoint, just made the trip down seem that much longer. But, I eventually got back, satisfied that I had achieved my goals for the trip. Dinner back in Lee Vining that night sure tasted good!

Mono Lake from Mount Dana Summit, Yosemite National Park, California

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2 Responses to “The Marlboro Man Lives!”

  1. Lorraine says:

    Great story, Ed! Always fun to read; you make it so alive so it’s easy to imagine. Great pics too! Thanks!