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Yosemite: Solo Hike
Yosemite Valley is by far the epicenter of attraction here, with its narrow, surrealistic valley, framed by massive cliffs, gentle meadows and some of the tallest waterfalls found on earth.
The irony of Yosemite is that most people who come only see a small percentage of the parks nearly 800,000 acres. Here, a lost alpine paradise is found, guarded by a rugged landscape difficult to access but filled with a beauty that's tough to describe in words. This is the far southern-border region of Yosemite, a place so remote Greg designed a special way to film this rarely-seen corner of Yosemite.
"I was just going to do this as a trip in between Motion shows and when I told my brother, Jeff, who produces the show, that I had this idea, he thought, 'Wouldn't this be great to do as an episode. What do you think about taking 15 pounds more of camera gear and self-documenting this,'" Greg explained. "I thought, 'There's already two good challenges, what's wrong with one more challenge?'"
The goal was to take TV cameras where they had never been before, into the most remote, rugged regions of Yosemite. Also to show what it takes to exist and to travel in this type of extreme environment.
If you're comfortable doing it, hiking alone is a magical way to explore places like this. But shooting this episode solo meant Greg had to really take his time moving through what can be very difficult terrain to walk on. Stopping to break out cameras and using specialized gear like an auto-panning tripod take a lot of extra time, so being patient on huge talus slopes was a must. Even a moderate injury this far in the backcountry could be spell big trouble when you're alone.
Greg's approach to Mt. Lyell and the Cathedral Range it is found in was from the southwest. There are no trails and few people ever venture that deep into Yosemite's backcountry. From almost every angle, just to get to the beginning of the area requires two to three days of rigorous cross-country hiking.
"Part of my goal on this trip was to spend as much time as I could in the Alpine Zone," Greg said.
Setting a good pace for yourself can make the difference between a memorable trip and one you would rather forget. Your body gets beat up so taking the time stop, let sore feet rest and cool off in a crystal clear alpine stream is the perfect way to enjoy the journey instead of always being focused on the day's destination.
"Dropping down into the basin on the west side of Mt. Lyell is so remote and completely rugged to get into," said Greg. "You think you're walking on rocks and boulders for so long that that's all you're going to be dealing with, but I found myself in this absolute manicured, Japanese garden of a place, framed by the biggest peaks in Yosemite, and water that was crystal clear. It's hard to put into words. This was one of most beautiful places I'd ever been in the high country in California, period."
Greg's solo-hike through Yosemite's extreme backcountry led to more rarely seen beauty, but a treacherous ridgeline crossing stood between him and his final destination. It took Greg two days just to get to the spot in a basin below the west slopes of the tallest peak in Yosemite, Mt. Lyell. After another tough day of hiking, he set up camp in one of the most beautiful basins ever seen in the Sierra.
It is a picture-perfect setting in the remote solitude of Yosemite's hidden backcountry. After setting up camp and eating dinner, Greg wanted to capture the magic that happens here at day's end. The allure of solitude washed away as long shadows cast over the high peaks and loneliness began to creep in.
"People say, 'Why do you like to do such difficult things, long and lonely trips?'" Greg said. "There's something about the self-reliance, I think, that is empowering. You feel very small out here. When I get home, I feel very big, large, confident. This place has a lot to do with that. Also, I can remember being 14 years old and having these experiences out here. The feelings are just as strong today as it was then. Not only is a great source of nostalgia and remembering my youth, but it brings it right back to my 42 years."
Without a doubt, the day would be the hardest and most dangerous part of the journey. After a long hike to this unnamed lake, Greg had to climb a steep ridge over loose rock to cross the cathedral range near Mt. McClure. This is a route he'd never done, or even looked at, so making the right choice about where to cross was crucial.
This far back, this far away from any kind of help and totally alone means you have to respect the terrain and be completely aware of what you're doing.
A GPS system is always a good idea as is a basic understanding and referencing of good topographical maps. Keeping track of visual landmarks is also another important skill that can be a lifesaver.
"Getting over this range, this was the big question mark," Greg said. "Even a year before as I'm looking at maps on Google Earth, I'm trying to decide whether this was actually a route or a dead end - this was the spot that was going to determine it, this was my question mark pass. I had been thinking about it all the way up to this point. Even being at the base of it and looking up, I didn't know if I was going to be able to make it."
One of the many rewards to venturing to a place this remote is the scenery. The high sierra is such a formidable landscape and the views are completely unique to this part of America.
"Getting in a place where you're scared, which I did," Greg admitted. "I've always been an advocate of having a little bit of fear piggyback on all of your adventures, because I don't think an adventure would be an adventure without some kind of fear. And so I did, I got to that point of fear where you're decision-making process goes south and it's very important to not let that happen."
Everything Greg thought about in climbing the face from the bottom was right on. The rock was completely unreliable. That apprehension turned into fear, which turned into panic. Once that happens, when you're by yourself, you have to stop.
He backed off the fear until it was at a manageable place and he was able to move up the mountain.
Making it to the top of the ridge was tough, but a long down climb is no walk-in-the-park. Then, the finish line was in sight, with a glimpse into the high deserts of the eastern Sierra.
This is an isolated part of Yosemite National Park rarely filmed or even explored. For a park that sees nearly four million visitors a year, the fact that this section of Yosemite is only ventured into by handful of people says a lot about how remote this southern-boundary region really is. After tough three-day solo hike to this granite basin below Yosemite's Mt. Lyell, Greg crested on top of the Cathedral Range, crossing over into the Lyell-fork drainage.
"Aside from getting past the danger of the climb, being in a place like that, on top of the ridge, where you just have this sense that there's a good possibility nobody has ever been here before," Greg said. "Part of that feels really good to me, and the views up there are so amazing. Even being on a ridge like that fills you with so much wonderment and accomplishment. I hung out there probably a lot longer than I should have with the daylight going away, but I just loved being in that spot."
This section of Yosemite is home to two of the park's dying glaciers. The Lyell Glacier and McClure Glacier are now just a remnant of the once massive ice flows that carved these valleys about one million years ago.
After a good rest and taking in the one-of-a-kind views from this ridge-top perch, it was time to move down the east side of the range and off this exposed mountain. In the summer, strong thunderstorms are common in the Sierra with drenching rain and deadly lightning strikes.
It felt good to have this day behind him and knowing he would have a soft place to sleep for the night definitely raised Greg's spirits. This part of Yosemite is much more visited than the other side of the mountain where he came from.
At 13,114 feet, Mt. Lyell and its glacier are popular with mountaineers and day-trekkers hiking up from the even meadows of the Lyell fork below. Sunset came quick after he made camp, casting warm lights on the rugged peaks of Yosemite National Park.
"For me, today was more about risk and challenge than anything," Greg said. "I'm not sure that what I chose was the right thing, but I also don't think necessarily it was the wrong thing. It just comes down to, like I made most of my decisions, my gut."
Being gone that long in a place that remote made Greg think and then he hit the final descent of a long journey about to end.
This has been an amazing journey, a solo hike through Yosemite National Park's most remote region, the first time some of this landscape has ever been filmed for television. After a long, tough hike on the fourth day, it was time to sleep below the dying glacier of Mt. Lyell.
The next day would take Greg on a path above the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River and along the Kuna Crest, the eastern boundary of the deep canyon carved by the massive Lyell Glacier long ago.
"I grew up in these mountains," Greg said. "Doing this show, I've certainly been in a lot of beautiful mountains in different parts of the country and in doing that, it's made me re-appreciate the Sierra for its uniqueness. It's one of them most inaccessible places. You can really get back in there away from roads and away from people."
With morning came his last day in the Sierra. A short distance marked the end of remarkable adventure he'll never forget. What made this hike even more enjoyable was the chance to bring cameras along and share the unique beauty found in Yosemite's most remote areas.
"Any trip that I do really is about feeling like a kid, which I've never really left, so I don't know how it feels actually to be an adult," Greg said. "As you get to the end of the trip, you're certainly looking at the things that are the comforts of home. I'm looking for that hot shower; I'm looking for the cheeseburger. But at the same time, this place has been my exciting home for the last seven days and it's going to be gone tomorrow.
"It's going to feel nice to patch up the blisters and heal the bruises, but you also know that once the superficial wounds of this trip heal, that all you're going to left with is a lifetime of memories of another great time spent in the Sierra."
For more information:
- Segment 1
- Southern Yosemite's Seclusion
- Greg embarks on a rugged journey into a region of the park few people ever see. The alpine landscape here is breathtaking, and also treacherous. Focus and preparation are key to a safe and successful trip.
- Watch Segment
- Segment 2
- Push to the Ridge
- Traveling alone in such a secluded area can be dangerous enough without obstacles. After packing up camp, Greg has a critical decision to make concerning his route and a potentially dangerous crossing that could save him some considerable distance on foot.
- Watch Segment
- Segment 3
- Below Mighty Mount Lyell
- After a nerve-racking climb to crest the ridge, Greg continues down into the Lyell Fork drainage. A welcome camp waits at a small tarn below the Mighty Mt. Lyell.
- Watch Segment
- Segment 4
- Journey's End
- As the end of this ambitious trip nears, Greg reflects on what it means to spend time in these places. Making it even more special was to be able to document it to share this adventure with the Motion viewers. The memories of this particular trip will stay with him for a lifetime.
- Watch Segment