Category Archives: Trip Notebook


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.

We Remember Rob Rylee

I met Rob Rylee four years ago at Vermillion Valley Ranch along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was late into the evening and I could hear the unmistakable sound of a Sierra Nevada mule packer by the fire. Rob was entertaining: storytelling, passing whiskey from his liter-sized flask, and giving his guests a show. His beaver-skin hat, wispy handlebar mustache, and larger-than-life personality reminded me of packers I had worked with in the past. But from then forward, Rob exceeded all of my expectations of a packer and, ultimately, a friend.

Rob wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with. He was hard on others, and even harder on his mules – a defining characteristic sourced from his unending pursuit of perfection in his work. Each morning when I would help Rob organize the duffel bags and pack the mules, I would notice his precision. He was, without a doubt, the best of his kind, performing well above the standards expected of the many packers I have worked with in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. His pride was in his work; how well it was done and how good it looked. He would settle for nothing less and he held himself to no less of a standard. On the days we exited the trail, he would ride out of the forest wearing a pressed white button-up shirt he had kept in a vacuum-sealed bag for seventeen days. He not only played the part, he encompassed it.

Rob was the best packer the Sierra had, and SYMG has been so fortunate to have him be a part of the team. He was a source of laughs, stories, and grand theatrics. But, above all, he was a friend. I woke up each morning with a cup of coffee next to my pillow which Rob had made just how I like it. He defended me against cranky hikers and gave his help and advice when I asked. He treated me like a friend and daughter. From him, I learned to take immense pride in my work, to push myself to be better, and to enjoy the trail.

Rob’s legacy will be celebrated and remembered by all of us at SYMG.

Sierra Zacks, SYMG Veteran Guide


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.)





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.

Our Favorite Trips This Season

Getting around Yosemite is easier said than done sometimes. Here are a list of our favorite trips, and why we think you’ll love them too.

Red Peak Loop

ottowaysmsteinbachA new trip this season that we’ve created to delight you and embrace Yosemite in a whole new way. It spends equal time in the most remote and iconic regions of the park. Highlights include the rugged Red Peak Pass, hiking alongside the cascading “Wild and Scenic” Merced River, and a lakeside camp beneath the ice fields of the stunning Ottoway Lakes Basin.

Trans Sierra Trail

WhitneyTrlNearSummitThe legendary trip we created is an ultimate crossing of Sequoia National Park through some of the most remote areas of the high Sierra, culminating in an ascent of the highest point in the contiguous US; Mt Whitney (14,500’). It’s rugged and remote and those who are up to the 83-mile challenge will be rewarded with a backpacking adventure like few others.

Agnew to Tuolumne – John Muir Trail Pack Trip

MulesHigCntryHave you always wanted to walk on the JMT but that heavy backpack deters you? We have a 5-day pack-stock trip where the mules do the heavy lifting, so you can enjoy a section of the beautiful and iconic scenery of one of the most famous hikes in the world.

In the Spirit of John Muir

Zeki Basan and our SYMG guide Chris Plewa explored remote regions of Yosemite to embrace the spirit of John Muir himself. Take a look at the 72 mile trek these two covered, including the amazing Red Peaks and greater Yosemite Valley.

Want to explore these areas with us? Check out our Red Peak Loop trip to learn more.

Climbing El Cap for Charity

By SYMG Guide Drew Brodhead

SYMG Guide Drew Brodhead high up on El Capitan, Yosemite CA

Hanging from a 4-point anchor, I yell down to Les “Dude! This is awesome!” Looking up disturbed and tense, he yells back “What?” in a way to mach his demeanor. I don’t blame him, nothing but 2,500 feet of air below him. Engulfed in the present, I don’t reply back. We are now on the Salathe headwall. Five degrees past vertical, “steep” is a conservative way to describe for what is to come. It’s around 6:30-7:00 P.M when Les reaches the hanging belay. We discuss our options: 1) Set up the portaledge and sleep on the headwall. 2) Push to Long Ledge, two more pitches up. Les leaves it up to me. My climbing block still looms over my head. Weighing the options, a quote came to mind “there ain’t no challenge in being sensible.” Very true! I turn to Les, “Ok, let’s go!”

The Salathe Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan is considered one of the greatest rock climbs in the world. Established by the three musketeers of their time: Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Royal Robbins. These modern pioneers established their new route in 1961 over 9½ days. Using the unconventional alpine style method, the three climbed in a continues push, never coming down to the ground for supplies. This landmark ascent still holds its face value.

“There is no challenge in being sensible!” I say to myself as I plug gear into the perfect crack. Breaking out of the metronome rhythm that took over my climbing, I stop to drink some water. I am now climbing in total darkness. Connected by a 9.8 millimeter piece of rope… I feel alone. Looking down to void my feelings, Les is a faint glow in the abyss. I feel no better. I know he is not having a good time. Hanging belays suck. When I was young they seemed cool, I was mistaken. “How are you doing bud?” I yell, hoping he is still awake. “I’m ok! How are things up there?” yelling back. Cool, he’s still awake. I would not blame him if he weren’t. I update him “20 minutes to Long Ledge”.

A few more feet I have broken from my rhythm. The easy C1 aid climbing quickly became awkward C2 climbing, drastically slowing me down. I wrestle using “the technique of struggle”, a David and Goliath type of story. I begin to fill the pin scar cracks with the smallest gear I have, equivalent to the tip of a lead pencil. Hungry with ledge fever I forget to slow down. Testing my pieces haphazardly, I am testing my luck 2,600 feet above the ground that I no longer can see.

Things have been going so well, what can happen to us now? That’s the dumb climber in me. I begin to move up onto my micro piece of gear. Looking up, I see the piece blow. Taking out the other smaller pieces below, I accelerate. Unsure of my future and my gear below, I continue to fall. I stop surprisingly comfortably. I instantly look up to see what stopped me. A mysterious piece of fixed gear stopped what could have been a 60-70 foot fall. Thankfully, I only went about 35 feet. With no shame of what just happened, I begin to yell out of excitement. Breaking out of my hysteria I hear a yell from Les. “Yo, what happened?” I try to explain though my gasping and slurred speech. He understood. We are now both awake, ready for anything. Feeding off of pure natural adrenaline, I finish my lead 20 minutes later, approximately 50 minutes after the 20 I gave Les.

Looking back, climbing the Salathe Wall was flawless. We climbed the route faster than expected, always a plus. With the backing of our loved ones, smart and safe climbing was our motive at the time. But now things have settled. We are one of many teams to climb the Salathe Wall this year. More will come. We climbed with our ambitions and hearts. While filling a lifelong goal of ours, we were able to give back. At first it seemed impossible: to climb El Cap and to raise money. Doing both brought on their own challenge. To be totally honest, the fundraising was the toughest part, more route finding and unknown then El Cap. We used a map to get up the El Cap. No map for fundraising. It was brand new terrain for us both.

Climbing has always been considered to be a selfish sport. Climbing for ones’ self is always the sensible thing to do. But like a Kiwi friend always said “their ain’t no challenge in being sensible Drew.” So why not up the ante?

Drew and his partner Les raised over $2,500 for the local Fresno Country School District. Way to go guys!