Author Archives: SYMG

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Realizing John Muir Trail Dreams in 2019What comes to mind when you hear “John Muir Trail”? For us, it evokes images of glacial tarns and alpine meadows, of switchbacks that literally lead us into the clouds.  The granite amphitheaters seem perfectly composed with grassy hummocks and craggy benches that have a way of lingering in our minds. Like stepping into a great cathedral, these sacred spaces demand our silence and awe as we pass quietly through them.

While on the trail, our senses heighten to take in extraordinary details, so even the smallest movement creates a stir impossible to ignore. Suddenly one’s existence with a group of fellow travelers creates a bond that outlasts a lifetime of days back home. Even our sense of time begins to shift and becomes less relevant as we focus more on the barest of essentials: How many miles until our next water source? Where will we camp for the night? and of course… What’s for dinner?

Hiking a long trail such as the JMT offers a simplicity that is all but extinct from the modern way of life. Reducing our needs and desires to what we can carry on our back offers the “freedom of the hills” that is hard to find anywhere but in the backcountry. As a result, we come away from our time on the trail with an experience so rich, so full that we thirst for more…. Memories from the trail fill our minds through the fall, winter, and spring until our bodies grow restless. Our curiosity for what may be over that next ridge, just beyond our view nags at us. We’re desperate to be back  on the trail again!

This longing for exploration, for both sights unseen and the familiar trails we love, is what SYMG is about. This summer we are excited to announce a several expeditions specifically designed to meet a variety of travel windows. One that deserves special mention is our NEW 26-Day John Muir Trail that completes 99% of the trail. Of course we also feature outings that can be completed within a week such as the Rae Lakes Loop deep in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Join us in 2019 to realize your JMT dream with SYMG!

All images courtesy of SYMG Guide Chris Plewa

Behind the Scenes with Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren contacted us with a new “climbing inspired” clothing line they were designing for Fall of 2018. They were intent on replicating some of the iconic images taken by Glen Denny in the Golden Years of rock climbing that was evolving in Yosemite’s Camp 4 during the 60’s and 70’s. 

Working with a tight deadline of only a couple weeks, we were able to orchestrate a complex sequence of logistics to support the project. We worked with their location scout to identify key locations that would best suit the images and video that would represent the new line of products. When the crew of 20 people came out from offices in Los Angeles and New York we were able to help them navigate the intricacies of a remote wilderness setting including the proper Commercial Permitting, lodging and full catering, technical rigging, remote transportation and the entire support for the project.

It was pretty awesome to see the full RL team in action way out in the wilderness! We had full wardrobe, hair & makeup artists, photographers, videographers, and great-catered food all miles from civilization! It was quite the production but it made for some fun work.  – SYMG Rigging Expert – Josh Helling

After months of post production work Ralph Lauren have recently rolled out their “Hi Tech” line of performance pieces. The images and video tell the story of some of the historical roots of the brand, which include sponsorship of an ascent of Mt. Everest by Ed Viesturs in 1993.

“The results, we’re happy to report look as sharp on a city sidewalk as they do hanging from a cliff in Yosemite – or solo climb up Mount Everest” RL Mag

“SYMG and the team were spot-on. It was huge to have your understanding of the areas, guiding and safety knowledge and a general understanding of what’s required to make a production work. Everyone was always ready to help and I was impressed with everyone’s ability to think on their feet, always ready to come up with solutions rather then comment on why something can’t work.” -Marlon Krieger

Third photo from the top and Video: Ralph Lauren

SYMG’s Yosemite Falls Loop

Guided Yosemite Falls Backpack

When it comes to backpacking in Yosemite, few guided trips offer the same “bang for your buck” as the Yosemite Falls Loop. Whichever direction you intend to travel the loop, it starts by climbing out of Yosemite Valley which comes with significant elevation gain, but you are quickly rewarded by views of some of Yosemite National Park’s most iconic features. This 3-day guided Yosemite trekking tour, led by SYMG guide Dahlia, doubled as a 20-year college reunion for our guests from London.

Figure 1 (Left):   Dahlia leading guests up the Snow Creek Trail.

Figure 2 (Right): Will appreciating his Leki trekking poles during the Snow Creek ascent.

Our first day on trail offered plenty of sunshine as we moved between sparse patches of shade while ascending the Snow Creek switchbacks. This challenging day rewarded our guests with breathtaking views of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon as we climbed and enjoyed a hot dinner at the cozy Snow Creek camp, topped off with a relaxing sunset viewed from the promontory.

Figure 3 (Top):   Jarad and Will enjoying a well-deserved break while taking in the views.

 

After a hearty breakfast and plenty of coffee, 11 miles along the North Rim of Yosemite Valley lay between us and our Upper Yosemite Falls Camp. Despite our biggest day ahead (in terms of mileage) the group still opted to include the optional North Dome summit along the way. The summit of North Dome is a great add-on to the Falls Loop and provides the opportunity to drop packs (and jaws) just before lunch and head to the summit of a granite dome offering incredible views of Half Dome.

Figure 4: The iconic NW face of Half Dome as seen from North Dome.

Figure 5: Group photo on top of North Dome.

After a long day, we made it to camp at the Upper Falls with plenty of time for the group to relax and swim before our final dinner together. Dahlia went the extra mile and capped off an already five-star dinner with a dessert of peaches flambé which drew a round of applause. With fully bellies and tired feet, the guys spent the remainder of the evening laying out on the granite slabs surrounding camp enjoying the clear, starry sky.

Our final morning had us up and out of camp early in hopes of beating the crowds to the view point atop Yosemite Falls and descended the Falls Trail before the full heat of the day had a chance to set in. In good spirits, despite nearing the end of our backpacking trip, we promptly made our way down to the Valley floor with brief stops to gaze at the Falls along the way.

After adjusting to the “real world” on our bus ride to Half Dome Village we sorted gear and said our good-byes before sending Simon, Ed, Will and Jarad off to their respective corners of the globe and back to their families. It was a real pleasure seeing such a long-standing friendship and sharing time in the back country with such a fun group.

Figure 6:   Dahlia leading guests up the Snow Creek Trail.

How should I train for the John Muir Trail?

If you are like us, you are already fantasizing about you upcoming summer trips. Your daydreams contain images of early morning mugs of coffee, spectacular alpine views, and high-fives as you summit a particularly challenging pass. This begs the question: How should I train for the John Muir Trail?

At SYMG we strongly believe that training can be FUN while also being effective. In general, the best way to train for hiking is to get outside and hike. However, there are some nuances that we would like to share. The difference between someone who has trained and someone who hasn’t is generally noticeable on day 1 of the trip. While we don’t offer a prescribed outline for training, we do offer general guidelines that have been “time tested” over the years. These guidelines can be typically summarized in five different categories:

  1. Cardio (aerobic capacity)
  2. Muscle strength (not just your legs!)
  3. Endurance (elevation not just distance)
  4. Acclimatization (easy to forget)
  5. Mental (head in the game)

Cardio: For most people, training for cardio can be the most accessible in terms of options. You can train for this in your living room, at your home gym or even a neighborhood park. There are a number of ways to train for cardio, so find one that fits your style best. Cycling, swimming, running or even just a fast walk on hilly terrain can all get the job done. The main thing with cardio training is to start with a set workout and then slowly increase it. You should feel your heart rate and respirations increasing without going “anaerobic” (panting for breath). The goal is to maximize the amount of time before you become anaerobic and to minimize your recovery time once you do. If you have access to a heart rate or power meter these can be helpful tools to monitor your progress. Otherwise, using a notebook to track your progress can also be beneficial.

Muscle Strength: Besides cardio training, it does help to spend some time specifically focused on building muscle strength. While many people still find climbing that first big pass to be tough, getting your muscles ready can help “soften the blow”. It’s easy to put all of your attention on building leg strength. Legs certainly do a lot of the “heavy lifting”, but you want to also consider shoulder and back exercises. These muscle groups do their fair share of the work as you’re lifting and carrying a backpack. Strong core support is also important to balancing on uneven terrain. Again, start with a baseline routine that feels moderately challenging and then take it up a notch each consecutive workout (while also listening to your body). Adding weight can also be valuable with your end goal to be at or beyond your anticipated total pack weight (including water weight).

Endurance: Building endurance takes time. It cannot be accomplished overnight, and this should be a key component to your workout plan. There are many ways to build endurance but you should consider the amount of time you are able to exercise for (at a moderate to difficult level) and what your recovery time is after your workout. This recovery time includes not only energy, but muscle strength and stability. Scheduling consecutive days can imitate what its like on some of our longer trips. We often remind people not to forget about training with elevation gain in mind rather than just distance. To be able to hike up 3,000’ ft to the top of a 10,000’+ pass (or even two) with a pack on, at elevation, is what you should focus on. The key is to be able to do this on consecutive days and still feel like you are having “fun” while doing it.

Acclimatization: This can be difficult to train for depending on what type of access you live near. If you have the ability to workout at a higher elevation you can incorporate this into your plan. If you live near sea level and don’t have access to elevation, increasing your cardio workout is helpful. Some guests have planned to arrive early to start the acclimatization process. If time doesn’t allow for this, not to worry! Many of our itineraries take this into consideration with shorter mileages and elevation gains built into the first couple days of your trip. Another tip that can help is to keep close tabs on your hydration on the days leading up to the trip and even during the first days while you are on the trip. Eating carbohydrates may also help the acclimatization process.

Mental: Mental training can be achieved using a few different methods. Having put the time in to train is certainly one aspect that can help you fee ready mentally as well as physically. One recommendation we give to newer backpackers is to take a personal trip using all of the gear and equipment they plan on using during their trip. This can really help familiarize with the camping essentials and make the transition between the trail-to-camp, and back-to-the-trail, a much easier process overall.

With any training plan, the main goal is that you are as prepared as possible for the investment of time and resources you have already made. Evacuating a trip is not anyone’s idea of a good time and is something we try to avoid if at all possible. Putting the time in before you arrive allows you to not only complete your trip but also have FUN while you are out on the trail. Being able to be fully present in the experience and appreciate the landscape makes putting in the hours to train totally worth it!

-Graham Ottley

SYMG Guide and General Manager

 

Yosemite’s Wild Side

by Graham Ottley

This past year Yosemite National Park saw record visitor numbers with over five million visitors, a 21% increase from the previous year. Although these numbers are staggering, they have become an accepted part of Yosemite Valley during the summer. Many people may be left asking, “Is it even worth it? Should we go somewhere else?”

That “somewhere else” is delving into the immense Yosemite backcountry. Last summer, I had the pleasure of guiding a group along SYMG’s Red Peak Pass Loop. This 7-day / 6-night excursion begins and ends at Half Dome Village and completes one of the wildest backpacking loops Yosemite has to offer. Over the last decade, I have enjoyed many personal and guided trips of this unique area and it continues to draw me back.

This photo is looking South towards Ottoway Peak (Upper Ottoway Lake is just out of sight below the group).

The remote range of mountains on the Red Peak Loop has no end of adventures and exquisite scenery. It is far removed from the mêlée of the Valley. As we walked this 52-mile loop, I found myself and the group in awe of the landscape, a magical-geological-mystery “tour-de-force”. We walked through the Clark Range pushing towards our literal high point of the trip, Red Peak Pass. Once we gained the pass and took in the breathtaking views, our trip was far from over. We descended into the Triple Fork Drainage of Triple Peak to a glacially strewn stream basin. The countertop granite slab we approached seemed expansive enough to contain a football stadium, along with most of the parking.

The camaraderie developed on the trail is often what brings people back year after year, and our trip was no exception. The group consisted of six individuals from different regions of the country. We laughed hard at the natural humor evoked from our common experience and we shared moments of tender silence.

Those are often the moments that make our trips so memorable.  I know I can’t wait to embark on another season, guiding folks through the beautifully remote landscape of Yosemite’s backcountry.

This photo is looking East towards Mt. Clark from our first nights camp. (Grey and Merced were also in view just to the South of Clark.)

 

 

 

 

PCT Pitas

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Getting into the backcountry is a perfect way to experience nature, and there’s no reason not to eat delicious natural foods while you’re out there! Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides loves celebrating healthy eats while in the wilderness, and our Backcountry Gourmet is unbeatable. Check out our “Pacific Crest Trail Pita” recipe below, a meal that’s great for short and long backpacking trips alike.

 

 

Pacific Crest Trail Pita

Courtesy of: SYMG General Manager and Senior Guide Colby Brokvist
Recommendations: Any trip, especially longer backpacks

Gear Needs:

  • 2 Ziplocs (for re-hydrating the tabbouleh)
  • Serving bowls
  • Spoons

Ingredients:

  • Dehydrated Tabbouleh
  • Sliced packet olives
  • Balsamic Vinaigrette
  • Feta
  • Pita bread
  • Red grapes

Optional:

  • Dolmas
  • Canned/packet chicken or sardines – you can also pre-cook some chicken to bring!
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Lemon

Directions:

  1. In the morning before leaving (or the night before), double-bag the tabbouleh with a fair amount of water and place it at the top of your pack.
  2. When meal time rolls around, put out all ingredients allowing everyone to make their own Pita Pockets!

 

Be Here Now – Finding your Yosemite

By SYMG General Manager and Guide, Colby Brokvist

“The mountains will always be there. The trick is to make sure you are too.” 

Hervey Voge, Mountaineer’s Guide to the Sierra Nevada

It’s easy to get lost out there. Not in the mountains per se; a map and guide will serve you well in the backcountry. No, I’m talking about getting lost in all the clutter of work, errands and the daily grind. I’m talking about losing yourself, and I do it too. It seems like often enough there’s something I need to do and I have to work hard in order to make time to do the things I want to do.

For me, Yellowstone had been on my “want” list for years. Geysers, wolves and bison, despite their allure, had somehow never made it to my agenda. So, this past winter I finally made time to visit Yellowstone and it was everything I had imagined… and more. I would say that Yellowstone and Yosemite have that in common; you’ve heard the stories, seen pictures, and plan to visit the main attractions, yet when you are finally standing there you’re still left breathless.

The first time I visited Yosemite I fell in love and never left. Even just this year I stood in sight of Horsetail Falls for the famous “firefall” display at sunset for the first time. This is a phenomenon that is well-known but only happens on occasion. Each February there is only about a 12-day stretch where the light hits just at the required angle to turn the waterfall flaming orange. And that’s only when water and cloud conditions abide. Some years there is no display at all. And so here I am, after 13 years of living in the Yosemite area, I am still able to feel that same sense of exhilaration as when I first arrived, just by making the time to get outside.

All this to say that yes America’s National Parks house some of the world’s most unique landscapes, but there’s also much more going on behind the “scenes”. Our wilderness areas offer the opportunity to break the bonds of the daily grind and to toss off schedules and the barrage of social media. They are quiet, relaxing, and romantic. They set the stage for exploration, pushing one’s physical limits and for strengthening bonds between friends and family. National Parks are good for the soul.

In “The Three Amigos” Steve Martin’s character claims that “In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face… and for some, it is the actual El Guapo”. I would also say that we all have own Yosemite to visit… and for some, it is the actual Yosemite. Face your Yosemite. Sure, it’s something you want to do, but maybe it’s also something you need to do for yourself.

Why I do this

By SYMG Guide Scott Morris

Tomorrow I leave for the first Yosemite Grand Traverse of the season, which means my work started months ago. Before anything, there is the scouting. A love of over-preparation and diligence has me out in the mountains as soon as the passes start to shed snow in the spring. I’ve walked every step of this route a few times, but I haven’t been here since the end of last season. So I walk it again, noting the campsites that have faded away and new ones that have sprung from the granite. Even the seemingly fixed macro-features of the landscape have a different look about them after a full winter.

In particular, I was in the canyon of the upper Merced, about a mile upstream of Washburn Lake. I had heard from a fellow guide about a great camp spot, but I couldn’t find it.

There’s a lot of distinctive patches of trees, Wilson, I muttered under my breath, shuffling between marked-up USGS topos, hand-drawn maps, and the few pages of notes I had: scribbled catchphrases I had managed to pull out of a long conversation with a fast-talking General Manager who’s been guiding here since I was in primary school.

I found it just where they said it would be. The first thing I spotted was a small, workmanlike fire circle, which is the natural nexus of any campsite. Ducking my head, I swept aside the bough of a lodgepole and took a step forward. When I let it go it moved back into place, irrevocably blocking out the trail and the possibility of a larger outside world, enclosing the glade in a hamlet of quiet.

Advancing farther into the camp I stopped at the flat bench tops of granite, covered with a mattress of last season’s pine needles. I confirmed their suitability for tent spaces by laying down on each in turn.  A few log sections sat near the fire, as if crowding towards a now-absent warmth. Beyond the flats, the granite receded towards the east bank of the river, which collected in a large, slowly-oscillating pool beneath a tumbling cascade of snow runoff. Almost too perfect, I laughed as I bent down to closely to consider a small cluster of Penstemon, a delicate spring wildflower.

The quiet only lasted long enough for the songbirds to check me out. Seeing me to be just a stoic passerby, they resumed their calls from the swaying lodgepole tips, flitting between branches gracefully.

Above the tops of these somber giants stood the more-stoic alpine walls of the Merced Canyon. Important high-country: this was the location chosen for the March 2015 reintroduction of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. Due mostly to livestock-carried disease and unregulated hunting, by 1915 there were no sheep left in Yosemite. The first reintroduction attempt in 1986 suffered setbacks and by the late 1990s there were a mere 125 individuals, state-wide, left in the species. As Californians rallied around this wilderness icon this proved to be a nadir, as an aggressive recovery plan was implemented. After a hundred years Bighorn Sheep are back in Yosemite, and throughout the Sierra Nevada there are about 600 animals in this rebounding population. No sheep today, so I leave the hidden site, with excitement about sharing this special place with those who travel in the mountains with us.

That’s the joyful part. Wading into austere wilderness, exposing people to the power of this landscape, that’s why I do this.

Lunch is the Goal

by Scott Morris – SYMG Guide

Some hikers, climbers, and outdoors people think that the high point of the day is the summit of the mountain that they’re trying to get to. These people are categorically incorrect. The most important, most rewarding, and most treasured time of the day is lunch.

We’ve just reached the shoulder of the Cathedral Lakes Basin, and my stomach is rumbling. I imagine my four companions are also feeling the hunger set in, as we made short work of the three or so miles from Tuolumne Meadows to where we’re now standing. We’re just above 9,000 feet, but feel relatively acclimatized – we’ve been camping in the Meadows for the last two nights which themselves sit at about 8,000 feet. When we started out this morning, big, doughy clouds slid from west to east slowly clearing; a good sign for our midday foray above tree line. I close my eyes for the briefest moment to appreciate the wind moving through the Lodgepoles and the Steller’s Jay tweeting from somewhere in the branches.

Our destination is the Upper Cathedral Lake, which sits at about 9,600 feet. I tend to favor this lake over the Lower because most hikers choose the slightly closer lower lake. The Upper sits within a stone’s throw of the summit of Cathedral Peak, which silently rakes the sky with its pinnacle. It’s also in that sweet spot of altitude, flirting with treeline to such a degree that things are thin enough to offer clear sight lines. You can see the granite walls that surround the lake, while also finding the odd tree along the water for a bit of shade to snooze through the hottest hour of the day.

We reach the lake. Setting a meeting spot, we head out for 90 minutes to enjoy the bounty of delights here. The five of us split up, each to their own private corner of paradise. There are no other humans in sight.

I make my way to my normal spot. It’s a bar of granite that juts into the lake, forming a small peninsula with a stout Douglas fir near the base, throwing a ‘Scott-sized’ pool of shade. The shade sits in a small alcove, where two different arms of rock come together to form a reclining bench, covered with a thin mat of pine needles. It’s my spot.

I settle into the nook, comfortably tired in the thin air, relaxed in the knowledge that it’s lunch time and it’s all downhill from here. From my bag I pull all the supplies I’ll need for my recess: My long-awaited sandwich (sourdough, thick-cut ham, stone-ground spicy Dijon that I had to go to three different stores to find, alfalfa sprouts, Swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, all the good stuff), my notebook (crammed with bad drawings and worse poetry), and my book (in this setting, beneath the peak that he was the first to free climb in 1869, nothing but the prose of John Muir will do).

With a practiced efficiency I set about my tasks, working slowly and deliberately. A bite of ham, a swig of water, an attempt to capture the way the granite bends and reflects into the clear water. A few paragraphs of Muir, and then a few minutes just staring at the reflections of the thin clouds, and how a slight ripple can change their shape and design. Repeat. The time passes quickly, as it often does when we have little to concern us in what seems like a separate, detached world.

Sooner than I wish, our time is almost up. I told my clients when we were walking up that if they wanted to swim that they’d have to do so naked, on account of a rule meant to protect the health of these alpine lakes. As they each jump in the water from their private beachfronts, I can see they knew I was lying. I can’t be seen breaking my own rule though, so I strip down and dive into the cold, halcyon water.

It’s time to head back down, out of the clouds, to our campsite. The sun will soon be setting on another Sierra day, and another one will follow shortly after.