Tag Archives: yosemite

25 Years in Da’ Biz

by Ian Elman, Founder and President of SYMG

Wow, 25 years of High Sierra trips! Feels like just yesterday it was 1991 with just the three owners living in a rented room at Bass Lake near Yosemite and a small closet full of gear. In those days I really looked forward to every third night, when it was my turn to have the side of our king bed that was closest to the wall. It’s been a wild ride since then; going from a handful of trips into the Ansel Adams Wilderness each season with the 3 of us to big expedition style trips throughout Yosemite and the High Sierra with 20 employees. Thing is, we were never just doing it for temporary work and fun, we were doing it to have lifelong careers. To be eventually named “Best Outfitter on Earth” by National Geographic was one of proudest moments along the way.

Recently I have been walking down memory lane in light of our quarter-century anniversary– rifling through old photos, magazine articles, catalogs and such. In an old brochure (remember those?) from 1997 the intro reads: “Dear Friends… To cherish good times and good friends in the mountains, deserts, and wild places we hold dear”. Thus begins our mission statement, which remains unchanged to this day. Pursuing dreams–it’s what we are about. We’ve been laughing lately with the media popularity of the concept of “digital detox” weekend getaways and “getting unplugged” by getting into the wilderness. That’s a concept we have been living and providing since the old days, and now is finally hotter than ever. Heck, recently I read an article on social media about the popularity of people wearing beards and flannel shirts. “Boys, we are back in style!” was the title of the e-mail I sent my old friends and partners in SYMG with the link. All this to say that our commitment is exactly the same as it was then: Make it easy and possible for people to get out into their wilderness areas and create experiences that soothe the soul and memories that last a lifetime. Now more than ever we all need this.

I was asked recently about what’s it like being in the Outfitter Guide business for 25 years for an article and my first reaction was…It’s hard! But once you knock off the veneer of challenges that every business faces my thoughts turned to the trips themselves. The SYMG experience hasn’t changed tremendously in the last 25 years. For myself, for our guests, and for our guides, SYMG is about the people and experiences we create for them. I’m proud of that. The Outfitter Guide business is still a spectacular place to be.

Tech Tips: Alpine Daypack Essentials

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada certainly have their share of classic Alpine Mountaineering Peaks. Mt Conness is certainly one of our Yosemite favorites that quickly comes to mind. While the immediate planning requirements surrounding these trips become route choice and technical gear choices, choosing what to bring in your pack is just as important. Following are some considerations for single-day alpine pushes:

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite's Mt Conness

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite’s Mt Conness

 

  • Pack. 25-40 liters is typical. The larger volumes make sense if you need to pack climbing gear to the route.  I prefer a very streamlined pack with few features. One big compartment, maybe a second zippered lid for small items. Top-loading is the way to go, as zippers will undoubtedly be the part of the pack that fails.  The waistbelt and harness system should be thin and not restrict your movement. Always choose fit over styling when purchasing a pack. Lately I’ve been using the Mountain Hardware Summit Rocket, which fits the above description plus is made from reinforced fabrics for durability and has hauling loops for more difficult climbing sections. It also has a removable framesheet that doubles as a sleeping pad for unexpected bivys. And it only weighs one pound.
  • Raingear. You’re probably not planning on climbing during a storm, but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Storms do kick up and ultralight rainpants and jacket are essential for survival. You can improvise a lot of things in the backcountry, but waterproof isn’t one of them.
  • Extra clothes. Let’s face it: We’ve all been benighted. Perhaps you underestimated the time it takes to complete the route, or maybe there was an accident requiring you to spend the night or hike move slowly in the dark/cold. A wool hat is essential. Most of the guides here also bring a lightweight wool under-layer to throw on. It weight only ounces and adds an exponential amount of warmth during an unforeseen bivy. A synthetic “puffy” jacket, preferably with a hood always makes the trip, regardless of the season. If you’re not already wearing a mid-layer piece (my favorites is the WildThings power-stretch hoody), pack that in your bag too.
  • Headlamp. Get one with varied beams. Save battery life with weaker settings and route-find with the strong beam. Lots of time can be lost searching for descent routes and/or rappel stations with a weak beam. Make sure you have fresh batteries.
  • Food. High calorie snacks with a good mix of quickly digestible sugars and slow-burning fats. Consider some Gatorade to make a weak mix for flavor, enticing you to drink more often and for an electrolyte boost.
  • Small first aid kit. Everyone has his/her own acceptable level of risk. Some folks bring cigarettes and a flask whiskey. For others, gauze, athletic/duct tape, and alcohol swabs fit the bill. The key is to minimize weight and space while bringing along more essential items.
  • Route map/description. Consider covering it with clear packing tape for protection.
  • Compass/whistle. A compass is always a good idea, and you should know how to properly use it (by the way “orienting a map” using a compass does not constitute knowing how to use it). Get a compass with a mirror for signaling in the event of an emergency. Also bring a whistle for the same reason. These two methods are much more effective than trying to yell to rescuers (and your injury might dictate you not being able to yell).
  • Water. Nalgene and stainless steel bottles are fine, but heavy. Try an old Gatorade bottle with a custom (re: dirtbag) duct-tape handle. An extra 2-liter soda bottle can ride in the pack for refills and crushes down to save space as water is used. In springtime or in rainy/wet regions, consider bringing a straw. Keep it in your chest pocket and drink as you go when trickles and pools turn up on the climb. This can save a lot of water weight in your pack, but don’t depend on it entirely. Personally, I’m hard on my stuff and I’ve had so many issues with various bladders that I wrote them off years ago.
  • Knife/multitool. Terribly useful.
  • Sunglasses. Easy to forget during those 3am alpine starts.
  • Sunscreen/chapstick. Depending on the region and weather.
  • Cellphone/camera. Sure, why not. For a few additional ounces an iPhone or equivalent does double duty for documenting and checking in with your support crew.
  • Bivy/Foam Pad. For really big days in less than ideal conditions and/or when there’s a good chance of getting benighted, a lightweight bivy sack and ½ piece of foam pad will keep you warmer and drier than your clothing alone can provide. It just may be the difference between a comfortable night vs emergency situation. For bivy’s forget about comfort features. Get something lightweight and small because chances are you won’t actually use it. I use the MSR E-bivy. For really lightweight packs, the insulite pad also does double-duty as a back pad/structural component and makes for a nice seat in spring snow conditions.

Of course, don’t forget to leave a few celebratory Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the car for your return!

Tech Tips: Meal Planning

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Just because you’re in the backcountry doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy great food. At SYMG, we pride ourselves on cooking amazing food in amazing places and our “Backcountry Gourmet” cuisine has even been acclaimed in Sunset Magazine. Here are a few tips from seasoned (ha ha) John Muir Trail Guide Alex Steiner on backcountry chef-ing.

Many of our guests are surprised when we serve the first backcountry meal and it isn’t mac-and-cheese or something dehydrated in a pouch. While dehydrated foods can occasionally be lighter (keep in mind that you’ll need to pack out all the trash they create), they definitely don’t make the trip any easier. Having nutritious, fresh food provides better nutritional value and arguably creates an all around more enjoyable experience. If you’ve been eating nothing but dehydrated pasta sauce for 4 days, you won’t have quite as much pep-in-your-step as if you’ve been eating sea bass tacos with fresh guacamole.

I’d like to share some tricks-of-the-trade of a creative backcountry pantry.

  • First and foremost, be accurate in portioning food. There are certain averages that can be worked with for all sorts of food, and obviously, a group of teenage athletes will probably eat more than my grandparents, so there is some room for flex. That being said, when in doubt, hedge on being a little lighter for a comfortable carry while beefing up more nutritious items such as quinioa.
  • Tied to the first point, have calorie-dense snacks or desserts available if people are still hungry after a meal. Things like candied walnuts or cookies go a long way towards filling people up, can be eaten without any preparation, and are great for morale.
  • Have at least one fresh food every day, regardless of trip length. This one tip makes every meal something to look forward to. On day 21 of our 23 day John Muir Trail, my co-leader Wilson and I pulled out some green onions, a package of chevre (goat cheese), and some prosciutto (fancy Italian ham) for pizzas – no one could believe that we still had some good, fresh food left in our packs and it brightens everyone’s mood to still see real food.
  • Having fresh food is not easy and it needs to be packaged properly to last.

    ◦      Know the shelf life of your food – i.e., kale will keep much longer than spinach, so eat the spinach first.

    ◦      Keep things that need to stay cold all together in one stuff sack or bear can. I pack all the cheeses and vegetables in a bear can and put the whole bear can in the refrigerator. Then, when I’m hiking, I put this bear can in the center of my backpack, and always out of the sun. Consider freezing some items as well.

    ◦      Package things like tomatoes and fragile fruit tightly, but not squished, in hard tupperware-like containers. If there is empty space, stuff it with paper towel.

    ◦      Certain types of produce such as leafy greens can turn bad fairly quickly without refrigeration. Besides bringing more stable substitutes, another is to wrap the produce in dry paper towel.

Going into the backcountry is an amazing experience, there’s no reason not to have equally amazing food. I’m looking forward to hiking with you all this coming season. Bon appetite!

Mountain Pose

Mountain Pose

By Jenny Kane

Moving back into the mountains, we touch the earth more directly again. As we slow down and walk, we can feel the ground under our feet more solidly.  We reconnect with the natural rhythm of life.

“Mountain pose” is the foundation of every other posture we practice in yoga, teaching us to balance our lives, our weight evenly across the soles of the feet.  In the same way the mountains, especially the High Sierra, offer us space to breathe and a place to rest in our natural states, shedding layers of technology and social demands.  We bring with us only what we truly need.

We are reminded to let go, making it easier to be present with each passing moment.  Whether in a studio or around a lake, yoga renews, resets our perspectives on life. I’ve been practicing yoga for the past 12 years and it holds the same place in my life as my relationship with the mountains.  It’s a space I go back to for balance and perspective.

Come enjoy a renewed perspective on life by joining our High Sierra Yoga Retreat.   This retreat is designed to meet your individual needs for a week in the mountains.  Imagine gourmet meals you don’t have to cook, daily yoga classes right outside your tent and guided hiking trips to nearby lakes.  You don’t have to carry anything but your water and camera.

I look forward to connecting with you in the mountains July 25-29, 2012.  More retreat info can be found on the website HERE.

A Day in the Sawtooths of the Sierra Nevada

A foreshortened view of the North Arete of Matterhorn Peak

The Sawtooth range looks like something out of an alpinists dream.  It has all the features one would look for; looming granite faces, knife edge ridges with big air under you heels, historic summits, a glacier and a few little snow and ice gullies tucked back in the shadows.  Plus, it has the key feature of being out just far enough that it keeps the crowds at bay. Most people will only take a curious glance from the window of their car at 75 miles per hour from highway 395, where the Sawtooths dominate the skyline above Bridgeport California.

Snow pack varies season to season in the Sierra Nevada, sometimes as dry as J-tree to years like the last two, which seemed like a constant blizzard.  Here in Fish Camp, Southern Yosemite, we received about twice as much snow as usual.  Which means I had almost 7ft of pack at one point in my front yard, which sits about 5,100 feet in elevation.

When my long time climbing partner Matt and I showed up at the glacier we found conditions more like May 1st than mid-July.  The rocks were barely poking up from beneath the snow.  The little lake that would usually be a milky blue gem of glacially fed melt water was instead mostly ice with only one little corner free.  It exposed the clearest water possible after a long winter of lying undisturbed by wind and the constant surge of the glacial melt.  Believe me, it tastes every bit as good as you can imagine.

Matt and I had also decided to bring our two most entertaining climbing partners: Kevin and Carlos.  Kevin has an endless sense of humor, which could only be categorized slapstick clowning, not to be mixed with Matt’s sometimes out of control mischief.  For example, they were kicked out of Bangkok together.  You have to be pretty bad for the Thai police to not even want you in their jail. The fourth was Carlos, a blonde-haired blued-eyed Puerto Rican.  As a tropical fellow, Carlos was cold.  But he was awestruck by the setting we were about to partake in.  Soon we would all be eating up the cracks and drinking down the faces as it was the sweetest nectar on earth, Sierra granite.

Forest fires somewhere in the Sierra always help to make the sunrise beautiful and different every day.  Different shades of pink and purple reflect off the clean white granite faces. The hue changing as the wind and sun shift until it is blindingly clear and bright from the suns reflection off glacier and rock.

After we drank coffee until the point of shaking, we headed up the glacier. We found it to be firm and easy to walk on for the approach, though twice as long as it appears.  Our goal was the North Arête of Matterhorn Peak.  It is the type of peak a child would draw; geometric, near symmetrical, lines running to a pointed summit.  Add the climbers’ artistry to the picture and a striking arête running from glacier to summit would be next followed by a couple crack split dihedrals for good measure.  Luckily for us, it is real and we were there.

We were a group of climbers familiar with each other and the pitches rolled by only interrupted by laughter and the occasional snack. The climbing hard enough to warrant basic rock shoes but no more.  There is a crux on every climbing route, and I found ours on a little section of face and arête that I traversed out on to in order to, let’s say, keep the route clean.  After all was said and done, I kept going up finding the holds to be right on the arête, which was about 35 feet long and 800 ft. off the glacier, giving me maximum exposure and no gear. The edges and knobs kept my retreat at bay and seemed to be just big enough to try to go a little higher, hoping that one more move was going to give me the respite I wanted.  Of course it came all the way at the top of the arête where I was able to traverse back into the nice dihedral crack.

To finish the route, a traverse around the arête from one dihedral to another on the North Face is necessary. This section is cold and shaded, not to be taken lightly by our tropical companion.  The face is near vertical and split by only a few cracks, all of which look intimidating and hard. Not quite what I was expecting. Hand-jamming my way up the face I kept finding hidden cracks in the back for my tips making what looks 5.10+ climbing into 5.6.  But the cracks are ice cold the wind is picking up and the reality that alpine climbing is always serious is back on the forefront of my mind.

As we pull onto the summit ridge clouds began to stack and were blowing through the gap of Matterhorn Couloir; swirling dark vortices, like the water around a large rock in the Merced River in spring.  It was re-coalescing back into a stream of clouds over our base camp and across the Walker River Valley, East to Nevada.

After a few pictures we pull on rain gear for the descent, for both the glissade and the oncoming storm.  When we clear the saddle south of the summit and start our descent the ground beneath our feet aids our downward progress as it freely slides and makes you have to check your speed.  It consists of the ever so fine powder that only a glacier can produce over millennia, combined with flakes and boulders, proof of the effects of the freeze and thaw process from the walls towering above.  Once we hit the obstacle free snow we were back at camp in minutes.  Using both boot and butt glissade we did the last two-thirds of the descent in 15 minutes.  Arriving just before the short-lived rain, all four of us snacked beneath the Mega-Mid at basecamp. Damn! What a good day!

Pat Warren is one of SYMG’s Senior Guides and a Sierra granite addict. To learn more about Pat and the rest of the SYMG staff, click here

Mountain Ramblings: Journeys

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike… We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.  -John Steinbeck

Challenging. Exciting. Memorable. Often in the adventure travel industry these marketing buzzwords are haphazardly thrown around. They are polished clean from rolling off the tips of travel agents’ tongues. Of course, interpretation of these buzzwords is quite subjective. For instance, many folks find adventure in a boat cruise headlined by rock legends Journey and Styx. But for many of us, we relish an experience that is more engaging. One where we are active players. One that goes beyond the expectation set by buzzwords and where the stage is set for us to learn something about ourselves. That’s where the true adventure lies: not in the printed itinerary, but in between the words, waiting to be recorded later.  

Palisade Basin copyright Colby J Bokvist

The 2011 mountain season here in the Sierra Nevada was especially remarkable for us at SYMG. The root of our excitement was an unusually deep and long-lasting snowpack that created some unknowns out in the field. Sure, the name “Sierra Nevada” translates to “Snowy Range”, but does that really include the summer months?! Many questions arose and answers were not found in the written itineraries. Will the river crossing be flooded? Will the pass be free of snow? How are the marmots faring in all of this?

Challenging! Exciting! Memorable! The guides and participants forded the rivers, glissaded the snow slopes and sunbathed with the marmots in grassy meadows. Indeed, we guides plunged into the use of the buzzwords like an ice axe into a glacier. And in the end so did the trip participants. After all, what’s so great about mountain trips is that they are inherently unpredictable in nature. And to me that is what sets mountain journeys apart from cruise boat Journeys: true adventure. Don’t Stop Believin’. 

This is the first installment of “Mountain Ramblings” where SYMG guides will share their thoughts on mountain life, guiding and adventure travel. This edition’s Ramble was written by SYMG’s General Manager and Senior Guide, Colby Brokvist. Learn more about Colby and the rest of the guiding staff HERE.