Yosemite-To-Tahoe Fastpacking Trip Report

Willie McBride narrates he and Jeff Boggess’s fastpacking trip between California’s Yosemite Valley and Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2014.

By on December 22, 2014 | Comments

As hard-working small-business owners in Portland, Oregon, Jeff Boggess and I needed a vacation to ease our stresses and a major adventure to quench our thirsts. We’re fortunate to regularly get out on day-long and weekend trips often but we were seeking something to immerse in more deeply, to really get away from our computers and cell phones and emails. A long, point-to-point journey that would test our physical abilities and mental fortitude seemed to fit the bill, something beyond a race. Ideas bounced back and forth, maps spread out on tables: the search was on.

As a burgeoning ultrarunner and founder/owner of Trail Butter, Jeff wanted to continue pushing his limits while product testing his energy nut butters. I was signed up for the inaugural Tahoe 200 and had to get in some major back-to-back-to-back (-to-back…) training efforts. A multi-day trip in the wilderness was just the thing.

Our first idea was a three-day fastpack on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier but scheduling didn’t work out. I was going to be in California at Western States, crewing and pacing my business partner Yassine Diboun, so I suggested that Jeff come down and we stay and do something in the Sierra Nevada after the race. He grew up near Placerville, just a few hours from Tahoe, and loves the Sierra like family so he was immediately game.

Though I grew up in Chicago, I’ve visited Yosemite and the Sierra since a young age so the Range of Light has long been in my blood, too. We decided to start in Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park and head north to Lake Tahoe—a 200-mile stretch. I was thrilled thinking about being out in those magical mountains away from the usual stresses, sleeping under the stars, and waking up in the early-morning air. Jeff took the reigns on finding maps and planning out our mileage each day and I bought a bear canister and researched packs to use (in the end going with a local company called Six Moon Designs). We figured we could do it in five days—40 miles a day. It actually sounded relatively easy on paper but then again it’s easy to lose perspective as an ultrarunner.

An absolutely integral part of our trip was Jeff’s mom, Elaine Boggess. Being the incredibly generous and supportive person she is, she offered to drop us at the start and then meet us twice along the way to resupply. We’d see her on the morning of the third day and the evening of the fourth, so the most we’d have on our backs at one time was overnight gear and food for 2.5 days. Seeing her smiling face and hearing her praise and enthusiasm atop Sonora and Carson Passes, in addition to her logistical support, would lift our spirits immensely.

Preparation for the trip meant mapping out mileages, buying necessary gear, and training as usual. We wanted to stay as minimal and light as possible and so decided to forgo a stove; we knowingly embraced that we’d be without some of our favorite comforts—like hot coffee in the morning—but it was a fair trade. Jeff and I do a lot of ski mountaineering together and we’re in a huge community of people who are constantly running and adventuring so we basically stuck to a ‘time-on-foot’ policy for physical preparation and just stayed really active. Even with all we did and a sound fitness base, we knew we were going to get worked.

Day 1: Yosemite Valley to Matterhorn Canyon
The forecast down in the valley was 102 degrees Fahrenheit for the day we left, July 1st, and ‘only’ eighty for the exposed granite of the high country where we were headed. We got up early after a hot, restless night in the backpackers camp and set off on the horse trail toward Mirror Lake. It was just a couple miles before we started our 5,500-foot climb from the valley floor up to May Lake. Right away things felt difficult. I had bought the bigger pack—the Flight 40—to accommodate the bear canister that we were required to have (as per National Park Service regulations) and it felt awkward and heavy. I quickly found myself having to fight to stay in a positive mental space as Jeff effortlessly hiked away from me and the massive, water-streaked face of Half Dome loomed over us from across the valley. Memories of climbing those walls flooded back to me but I had to stay on task as we had only just begun.

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Jeff on Day 1, beginning the 5,500-foot climb out of Yosemite Valley on the Snow Creek Trail. All photos Willie McBride unless otherwise noted.

As I said, I’ve spent lots of time in Yosemite and have attempted some major run/hikes over the years and on every occasion I have felt humbled by the terrain of the park. The big, boulder-y, technical trails often force you to walk even on downhills and the sand and gravel can feel like running on a beach, combined with exposure and altitude. Even the picturesque, dead-flat stretches across the meadows can be tough; the tread is so narrow and deeply grooved that it’s easy to trip yourself up.

We joined the Pacific Crest Trail at Glen Aulin and took a little break beside a creek to filter water but the mosquitoes were fierce so we soon fled. Just like ultrarunning, but even more so, fastpacking is about systems and details. If your systems break down, if you neglect the details, then you’re going to have issues. The systems I’m talking about are hydration, fueling, heat management/blocking the sun, foot care, and so on. Though all of these things are essential, hydration and heat management were our most-pressing issues. The sun reflected off the acres of white, polished granite and shown upon us all day long. At every stream crossing, we stopped and dunked our buffs and arm sleeves in the cold water.

Jeff ran some sections here and there but I just let him go; already I wasn’t feeling great and, combined with the bear canister and the terrain and the heat, I basically didn’t run at all the first two days. I was wary of pushing myself too hard on day one of five anyway; I just didn’t know what to expect so I wanted to be prudent—besides we knew the first two days were the toughest. We’d been told that the terrain gets easier as you go north, which was a fact we happily looked forward to.

We started passing many PCT thru hikers and we marveled at their tenacity to be out there for months on end. It was funny that they treated us like the rock stars when we said we were going 40 miles a day.

“We’re only gonna’ be out here for five days,” we’d say. “You are the real badasses!”

We’d argue back and forth that the other was the more hard core. There was no shortage of thru hikers to talk to, either; one girl said a ranger told her that over 1,900 permits had been issued for trips of 500 miles or more on the PCT that summer. We figured that Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild must have had something to do with that.

That night we slept on a rocky bench off trail, near where Wilson Creek flows down from Benson Pass into Matterhorn Canyon. We each picked a little perch and set about readying ourselves for sleep. More essential rituals: cleaning and powdering feet, changing socks, getting out of sweaty clothes and hanging them out to dry, refilling water, eating, drinking. We fell asleep under the stars, both a bit apprehensive about what was ahead. It had been a hard, hot day and we’d stopped a couple miles short and so already we were getting in the hole.

Closing our eyes, we prepared ourselves for a good fight ahead.

Day 2: Matterhorn Canyon to Cascade Creek
From Matterhorn Canyon, the PCT traverses in and out of a bunch of parallel valleys that have been squeezed together like an accordion. Up and down the steep, rocky footpaths, it was another draining day with almost no running. Because we were moving slower than expected, the days stretched out—15, 16 hours or more. You really realize how long every little thing takes: stopping to refill water, to get something out of your pack, to take a picture, to splash water on your face a thousand times over. Again it goes back to the systems; the treating of water was the most time consuming. We both had small Sawyer filters that can be used in a variety of ways but take some figuring how to do it most efficiently. With the heat, it was impossible to stay properly hydrated and the exertion made my stomach bad which made me go slower and, hence, have longer days out in the draining sun—a vicious cycle.

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Jeff on a flat stretch after descending from Benson Pass on Day 2.

In an effort to keep morale high, we sang and joked and created ridiculous hypothetical situations. The most hilarious, vivid fantasy that emerged from our trail-addled minds was of an Arnold Schwarzenegger ‘God-head’ that floated above in the clouds and screamed down at us when we showed signs of weakness.

“You make me sick!” He would bellow wildly in a thick, Austrian accent, with bulging eyes and a red face. “Heather Anderson is making you look like fools! Dammit to hell!!! I thought you two were men! MEN!!!”

The terrain started to mellow as we entered Jack Main Canyon, an immense north-south valley that would take us out of Yosemite National Park and into the national forest beyond once we reached the head of it. The mosquitoes hadn’t been bad up until then but as we entered the canyon and evening fell, they came out in droves. It was one of those situations where you need to cover up to protect from the bugs but you’re also roasting hot; all you want to do is stop and rest and cool off but you know the bugs will only swarm more feverishly.

I fought to stay positive but I was exhausted. We were behind schedule and getting more and more intimidated by the task ahead. Self-doubt crept in, the negative self-talk. At nightfall, we found ourselves sitting in the dark against some rocks on the shore of Dorothy Lake, just below Dorothy Lake Pass at the northern terminus of the park. Stars shone and reflected off the surface of the water and the craggy, snow-streaked north face of Forsyth Peak stood above, etched in the night. A cold breeze blew in.

Reality came crashing down. We had known the trip was going to be hard—we’d sought a real challenge after all—but neither of us was expecting it to be so tough. As I said, it’s easy to lose perspective as an ultrarunner. Forty miles often doesn’t seem like that much when running a seven- to 10-hour 50 miler is routine, but once you’re out there with some weight on your back, it’s a whole other story. We sat there in the dark, dejected and utterly spent, doubting the itinerary and mileage we’d bitten off. Could we actually finish this thing in five days? We really weren’t sure.

According to the plan, we had another 10 miles to go that day before camp and another 11 miles to Sonora Pass where we were to meet Jeff’s mom, Elaine, at nine the next morning. Some rough figuring told us that in order to arrive at the pass at a reasonable time, we’d could only afford to stop and sleep for two-and-a-half hours. The prospect made me nauseous but it’s what we had to do.

At midnight, we bedded down beside the trail and set our alarms for 2:15 a.m. It was a terrible wake-up call but soon we were rolling on again, repeating the same motions we knew so well.

Day 3: Cascade Creek to Wolf Creek
Our headlamps illuminated the singletrack for miles as we marched into the coming dawn. Overall the morning went smoother than expected and I was thankful for it; I knew that sort of sleep-deprived suffering was essential training for the Tahoe 200 and that practice run gave me much-needed confidence.

We knew we had a big climb ahead, up to the high point of our whole route at 11,000 feet but we had no idea how spectacular it would be. As the sky slowly lightened, we worked our way west into Kennedy Canyon, shooting for the crest of the ridge near Leavitt Peak. Jeff had stopped to use the bathroom and I hiked on, happy for a bit of complete solitude. I passed treeline and found myself in wide-open alpine grandeur with the orange light of sunrise sparking the landscape into fiery radiance. I could see distant peaks in Yosemite to the south that we’d traversed; it already seemed like long ago. My sleep-deprived brain buzzed off the sights and the glow dazzled in my eyes.

Those are the moments that you’re most thankful for fastpacking and lightweight gear; so many of these places and wild experiences simply aren’t accessible by day trip.

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Sunrise selfie on the morning of Day 3, heading toward Sonora Pass. Photo: Jeff Boggess

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After just 2.5 hours sleep, Jeff climbs toward the high point of our route near Leavitt Peak in the Hoover Wilderness. This sleep-deprived sunrise was open of the trip highlights.

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Jeff above 11,000 feet in the Hoover Wilderness, pushing on toward Sonora Pass for our first resupply on Day 3.

Once high on the ridge, the trail traversed steadily so we finally were able to get some more consistent running in. Also, the packs were getting lighter, which was a welcomed difference. We ran the big descent to the pass and managed to arrive on time after all. Elaine, and the Boggess’s sweet, old, black Lab, named Galileo, were waiting with food and coffee and myriad comforts, like fresh clothes and clean socks. We fully enjoyed all she brought.

After gorging myself, we hit the trail again right in the hottest part of the day. Much to my dismay, my stomach went especially bad after this, a combination of overeating after two grueling days of under-eating, dehydration, and general exertion in the heat at altitude. Again, the negative talk and self-doubt crept in. I thought again about Heather Anderson (better known as Anish in the thru-hiking world) and couldn’t comprehend how she averaged 45 miles a days over the course of the entire trail. We were practically killing ourselves over 40 miles a day so our egos were getting a good check—and Arnold’s angry taunting from the clouds didn’t help either.

Nicknames emerged; Jeff earned the title ‘Morning Legs’ because he always started out hiking with a ton of energy and would cruise away from me like I was standing still. Then, over the course of the day, he would slowly lose steam. I got the name ‘Afternoon Legs’, as I would take a long time to warm up before picking up my pace later in the day. I felt best and was moving the fastest in the late afternoon and early evening.

So it was on Day 3 as well. After feeling sluggish for hours after Sonora Pass, I finally started feeling better and was able to run for some miles into our camp beside Wildcat Creek. The landscape had already changed so drastically; even in one day the difference was remarkable. We’d gone from scoured granite to chunky brown volcanic rock, from gleaming, white rock faces to sand-castle like towers and funky conglomerate totems of lichened stone.

We got to camp and did our rituals: wash feet, treat water, eat, brush teeth, put everything in the bear canister, and pass out. A simple life. It’s amazing how quickly things distill down to a more primitive existence, how remarkably fast all the normal comforts of society become non-essential luxuries. Eat, sleep, drink, hike, run, repeat. Eat, sleep, drink, hike, run, repeat. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Your body naturally starts to sync with and adapt to the rhythms of the land.

Day 4: Wolf Creek to Carson Pass
Two days remained. We reached Ebbetts Pass the morning of the Fourth of July and an American flag flew atop Ebbetts Peak near the road. It was hot and the land was dry and we felt like Americans, fortunate and free. From there we had a long runnable section on a narrow tread lined with wildflowers, passing beneath Reynolds and Raymond Peak in the Mokelumne Wilderness.

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Trying to stay cool on the Fourth of July while cruising through the Mokelumne Wilderness on Day 4.

Jeff’s calf was tight and nagging him and I had a few hotspots on my feet that I put duct tape on (as the thru hikers suggested) but otherwise we were holding up pretty well. My stomach was definitely not 100% but the real challenge was all mental. Our bodies didn’t naturally want to push hard like we were, day after day, and it was only our will that kept us rising to our feet each morning for another long effort. That will was tested even more when self-talk came chattering away, “I should be doing better than this.” “Why the hell does this feel so hard?” “I suck at fastpacking!”

The runnable sections helped with keeping things positive, though the heat was constantly draining, mentally and physically. As always, our simple act was a stark life lesson—if you just put one foot in front of the other, one step a time, you’ll eventually get where you want to go. Though the going felt painfully slow at times, we were making progress; each high point and look back revealed a distance that felt unfathomable. We were accomplishing something big, for us at least. At a top of a big climb near the Nipple, with massive Upper Blue Lake on one side and the pair of Lost Lakes on the other, we could look to the farthest distant peaks to the south and know with hard-earned satisfaction that we’d started on the far side of them.

We came upon more thru hikers and stopped and chatted. Jeff gave them a packet of Trail Butter to try and they loved it, of course; it’s an easy sell. It was interesting to observe all the hikers we encountered and see what gear they were using, what the trends were. Almost 100% of the folks we saw wore trail running shoes. The days of hiking boots, for the long-distance trails, at least, seemed to be over.

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Jeff descending off the Nipple with Upper Blue Lake beyond, nearing Carson Pass and the end of Day 4. Psyched for Fourth of July food and beer with Jeff’s parents at the pass.

One final climb of the day, up and over the shoulder of the Elephant’s Back in the setting sun, lay between us and a wonderful Fourth of July meal at Carson Pass. Jeff’s dad, Bill, was able to make it and so he, Elaine, Jeff, and I sat at a picnic table in the cool evening and ate delicious food and drank Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while Galileo looked on longingly. We offered food to a thru hiker and so he joined us and regaled us with his tales of his months in the woods.

After dinner, Jeff and I did our little resupply for the last day, said our goodbyes to his parents, and then walked into the woods off the parking area and crashed out on the ground for one final night.

Day 5: Carson Pass to Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
We awoke early, before the sun rose, like usual—a necessity to make our miles each day. The night had been rough. My body was finally protesting the long days with aches and pains as I lay there, trying to rest. I woke up with throbbing hips and sore legs and feet, which was also due to the very small foam camping pad I was using that I’d cut down to a ridiculously small size to save weight. Next time I would definitely make some different gear choices as, again, it all comes down to the details.

It was a challenge to force ourselves up and out, but we did, of course; no quitting so close to the end. It was the last day and we were ready to be done, ready to celebrate the journey with Jeff’s family and relatives after our triumphant finish at Emerald Bay. The first section from Carson Pass to Echo Summit was quick and very runnable, though it illustrated the inexact nature of mileage. On the official trail sign at Carson, it read 12.5 miles to Echo and at Echo the official trail sign said 11 to Carson; then our PCT Half Mile maps (the standard maps used by the majority of thru hikers) read somewhere around 16. It was a good reminder not to get too wrapped up in the numbers; you’ll get there when you get there.

Before reaching Echo Summit, the Tahoe Rim Trail joined the PCT and I thought about being out there in two month’s time, in the midst of the Tahoe 200. It was a frightening to think about how far we’d come already and to try to do that and more in a race effort. We could finally see Lake Tahoe itself and were awed yet again by the scale, even having both been there many times before.

Jeff’s brother, Brad, and childhood friend, Denver, met us at Echo Summit for a visit and some refreshments in the mid morning; Denver would continue on with us to the finish but Brad had other obligations. The crowds were increasing as we traveled north, especially being Fourth of July weekend. When we passed through Echo Lake and the marina area, it was madness. What a insane juxtaposition to go from complete wilderness and solitude to a teeming, spring break-esque, party scene. We moved through as quick as we could although the trails were packed, too, on the climb up to Aloha Lake. Although the change in population on the trail was a bit jarring, it is always good to see people enjoying the mountains.

One big climb and even-bigger descent lay between us and our finish line at Emerald Bay. Dick’s Pass, the last time the PCT goes over 9,000 feet going north, was a suitable and grand last high point, and we had to work for it.

I was not feeling very good, especially mentally. The combination of intense heat, dehydration, and a bad stomach had worn me down and my duct-tape bandages had become crusty and irritated my feet worse than ever. That was definitely a huge takeaway for the Tahoe 200: take care of your feet, and everything else, early and often and don’t let things get out of control. I got separated from Jeff and Denver for a while and then we somehow leapfrogged and missed each other again, each time adding to my frustration. I wanted so badly to be out of the relentless, roasting sun. After 190-some miles, I fell down for the first time of the trip and sat in the hot dust, cursing and annoyed. I gritted my teeth on the climb following that, though, and really pondered my situation.

I chose to do this, I thought. I am incredibly fortunate and lucky to be doing this! …and for many reasons: I am financially stable enough and have a job flexible enough to even take the time off to make this happen, I am physically fit and healthy enough to make this happen, and I am alive! That’s nothing to scoff at; we know how many have gone too soon.

As I winced every few steps at the pain in my feet, I thought, There are crippled and sick and impoverished people who will never be able to do something like this. There are dead people who can’t feel the blissful sting of a blister—or a quad cramp, or the blazing sun—just for ONE minute! To feel alive like that even for a single second, some people will never feel that!

I sat underneath a huge, ancient juniper tree on the rocky slopes leading to Dick’s Pass, pondering these things. They spurred me on and made me embrace the sensations I was feeling, pain and all. Singing helped, too. Between heavy breaths, I belted out verses of Bruce Springsteen’s The River, over and over, with the Desolation Wilderness stretched out below me.

At the very top of the pass my great friend, Tony Barbero (of “Things Done Changed” fame), suddenly appeared out of the trees, a surprise he’d been planning since I’d told him our itinerary. Jeff and Denver caught up and the four of us enjoyed the views and the company. It was the final high perch of the trip and Jeff and I soaked it in, gazing south toward where we’d started, far beyond what our eyes could see. It was hard to grasp the distance we’d come, and easy to be amazed at what your two feet and some determination can do.

Happy for Tony Barbero and Jeff’s childhood friend, Denver, who came out to meet us for the last day from Carson Pass to Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe. Hanging out and basking in the amazing-ness atop Dick’s Pass,

Happy for Tony Barbero and Jeff’s childhood friend, Denver, who came out to meet us for the last day from Carson Pass to Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe. Hanging out and basking in the amazing-ness atop Dick’s Pass.

The final descent was pure hell. We’d been on some really technical, rocky trails but the last few miles and 3,000 feet were the worst of all. I suffered my way down the big, boulder-y drop-offs, feeling like we were coming full circle from Yosemite’s treacherous tread. Trekking poles solidified themselves as essential gear, taking weight off beaten quads and thrashed feet. There is an art to trekking poles; when used properly they are a true blessing.

Jeff’s mom and dad were waiting for us with food and a cooler of beers as we came trotting down the popular Eagle Falls Trail into the parking lot. Luckily most of the crowds had cleared out by the early evening but Highway 89 was still humming with Tahoe summer traffic. We said cheers and drank a beer or two, cracked into the chips and guacamole, and took some pictures. Then we headed to Jeff’s relatives’ house on the lake. The journey wouldn’t be over until we’d fully submerged in Lake Tahoe itself, so we wasted little time in stripping down and taking the plunge. Standing on the dock in the setting sun, towels around us, we could finally celebrate.

Finished at last! Five days and 200 miles down… Totally beat and happy to be done, with Emerald Bay beyond. Photo: Elaine Boggess

Finished at last! Five days and 200 miles down… Totally beat and happy to be done, with Emerald Bay beyond. Photo: Elaine Boggess

On the trail, we accomplished what we had set out to do. We wanted to be broken down and have our egos and mental and physical abilities put through the ringer. Check. We wanted a break from the often-stressful circus of modern life. Check. We wanted to share the experience with family and friends and dogs, like Elaine, Bill, and Galileo, and Tony and Denver. Check.

Day trips may feed the soul and be essential, rejuvenating forays but multi-day outings have a special effect. Why? Because in being out for longer, you make yourself more vulnerable to the experience and nature, and therefore, are able to gain more in return.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you were stripped down to your core by the forces of nature or your recreation choices? Where was it, what were you doing, and what do you remember most about the experience?
  • Have you ever reached the point in an activity where you’ve found a little too much suffering or that you can’t actually do what you set out to do? How did you find a resolution?
  • Do you take multi-day hiking, fastpacking, and/or running trips? If so, why? And, how are these multi-day trips different from a regular long run for you?
Willie McBride
Willie McBride is an avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner who now resides in Portland, Oregon. He owns and runs Animal Athletics, a personal/group training and coaching business, with friend and fellow ultrarunner Yassine Diboun. The two provide services to aspiring outdoor athletes and people of all abilities in the Portland area and beyond. You can enjoy more of his writing and photos on his blog and Animal Athletics' blog.