Sept. 20, 2015: From Hetch Hetchy to Laurel Lake
Mileage: 12.68 miles
‘Floors’ climbed: 164
We woke up just before 7 a.m. Pacific time and immediately began to pack up our stuff. Our first day was going to be our hardest; besides the fact that we’d be carrying full food and water (as the rangers mentioned, most rivers in the area were already dry), we’d also be climbing out of Hetch Hetchy Valley on a switchbacking trail, gaining about 1,200 feet in about 2 miles. We’d be adjusting to the heat, the altitude, and pack weight all at the same time.
After a breakfast of almond oatmeal, we were ready to go. We filled our water at the campground and took our last pee in toilets; the women’s room door was covered in warning signs mentioning bears, mountain lions, and plague (transmitted by squirrels). We were not on a Club Med Vacation; that much was clear.
The trail began by taking us over O’Shaugnessy Dam and through a tunnel dug into the mountain ridge. We took our obligatory first day photos, then got down to the business of the trail. There was a handful of other people out and about, mostly day hikers with tiny packs or no gear at all.
As the switchbacks grew more and more grueling, the view of the valley became even more impressive. We stopped as needed to suck down water (the sun beat down on us on an 87-degree day) or rest our legs. I tried to count how many switchbacks there were on the map, but gave up. Just when we thought we were close to the top, the view would expand and we’d see a whole new ledge of rock we had to climb. Pinecones as big as my head were scattered across the trail. When we finally reached the last switchback, the trail continued to climb uphill but at a less steep progression. Still, it was enough to knock us on our asses.
During a lunch break of trail mix and Clif bars while sitting on some rocks, a ranger caught up with us. We chatted for a bit, and we gave us a heads-up that there had been a lot of recent bear activity at Laurel Lake and Lake Vernon, our destinations for the next few days. “Don’t forget,” he said, “they’re scared of us. Wave your arms, shout at them, throw rocks–not to hurt them, but to remind them to keep away.” We thanked him and said goodbye and he continued down the trail, giving us a view of the large shovel strapped to his pack. “That must be for a lot of poop,” Kurt joked. The ranger overhead and turned back to smile. “It’s for breaking up coals in fire rings,” he explained.
The trail continued to climb; Kurt’s legs were jelly and I was wheezing from the pack weight. When I stopped to rest against a tree and apologized for the pause, Kurt waved it off. “There’s no hike-shaming today,” he said.
Just when it felt like our legs were about to give out from underneath us, we reached Laurel Lake. As we set our backpacks on the ground to eat a celebratory snack of goldfish crackers, I spotted a black bear moving through the trees about 75 yards away. “Look!” I pointed it out to Kurt. Our first bear sighting–that’ll give you an adrenaline rush. We set up our tent, then took a dip into the lake to rinse the sweat and stink off our bodies. Back at camp, we made our dinner of rehydrated broccoli and chicken with rice-a-roni. A mule deer doe wandered through our site, unfazed by our presence. We made a campfire in an existing fire ring and rested our weary limbs while watching the stars come out. I told Kurt that my Fitbit estimated we had climbed 164 stories. Ever the mechanical engineer, he said “That’s almost the Sears Tower AND the Bloomingdale Building!”
Sleep came easily.