Hard-core Yosemite backcountry adventure

2013-04-25 10:07
Yosemite National Park — A few loose, fist-sized rocks tumbled by as we hiked down a steep mountain pass over unstable terrain, off trail deep in Yosemite's wilderness. We tightly gripped the solid rock holds on the side of Stanton Pass to steady ourselves when our feet slipped out from under us.

Our guides were two of the world's most accomplished hikers, Andrew Skurka and Brian Robinson. We were far enough from help that Skurka had reminded everyone that a serious injury here would probably mean the most expensive helicopter ride we would ever have.

This was fun.

Our group of six hikers had several goals for the weeklong trip. One was to get into the backcountry to be in pristine landscapes, far from the traffic and crowds of Yosemite National Park's developed areas. But more importantly, we wanted to learn skills from our guides to safely traverse wild areas where there are no trails to follow and conditions are rough.

Skurka was recognized as adventurer of the year by both National Geographic and Outside magazine and is known for his solo adventures, such as a six-month, 4,700-mile (7,565-kilometer) journey by foot, skis and pack raft in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, and the 7,775-mile (12,500-kilometer) Sea-to-Sea Route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Robinson was the first person to hike the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails all in one calendar year: 7,400 miles (11,910 kilometers) in 11 months.

Skurka, 32, decided that he wants to share the lessons he learned on those trips, so he started a guiding business. With the help of assistant guides such as Robinson, he teaches everything from what to do when a grizzly bear is charging you at close range to how to keep your feet healthy after punishing them with long distances on rocky, uneven terrain.

He also espouses the philosophy of only taking what you need on hiking trips. Because he likes to hike 30-plus miles (more than 48 kilometers) during 12 to 16 hours of travel a day, that usually means carrying much less than the average backpacker. He also wants hikers to depend less on gear and more on their brains to make sure they have safe fun when venturing off trail.

A few months before the trip last September, the planning began via a Google group. Skurka gave us spreadsheets to list everything we would take with us and how much it weighed, down to how many ounces a few sheets of toilet paper would add to our packs. We estimated how many calories we would realistically need to eat and took dense foods, such as protein bars, trail mix with nuts and even olive oil, which let us feel full without having too much to carry.

With Skurka's help, we also researched the climate, terrain, route hazards and more, so that we would know exactly what to bring. By doing so, we knew what we needed to be prepared for and were able to stay comfortable without relying on extra gear that we'd packed "just in case." For example, by selecting campsites on soft dirt (rather than hard-packed ground that others had already used), that were relatively protected from the elements by trees or boulders, we avoided having to carry heavier sleeping bags.

Skurka is a meticulous planner, so even though we had "homework" before the trip, he took care of all the complicated details such as printing maps, getting permits and buying and packing meals.

The group going on the trip was intimidating to me for their fitness: an ultra-runner in his 30s who competes in 50- and 100-mile (80- and 161-kilometer races, another ultra-runner in his 50s who barely had any had body fat, a mountain climber, a man in his 50s who runs marathons in well below three hours. I've done a lot of hiking and exercise regularly and intensely, but I spend most of my days sitting at a desk.

But it wasn't long after we met in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra mountains that we were joking with one another and realizing there were no overzealous egos in the group. And despite their status in the hiking community, Skurka and Robinson were laid back and fun to hike with.

Because we were confident that we could avoid getting lost by "staying found" through expert navigation, we left the trail system and explored seldom visited parts of Yosemite. We got to see places as awe-inspiring as the more famous sights in Yosemite, but there were few signs of civilization around.

After about six full days' hiking, we covered more than 80 miles (129 kilometers), much of it off trail, with about 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) of elevation gain. Fortunately, we all walked out on our own, with Skurka giving some wilderness medical treatment of cuts. I ate the biggest double burger I'd ever had when we got back to Tuolumne Meadows.

After the group trip, I had another week to explore the Sierras by myself. The skills I had learned made me confident in venturing off-trail into the wilderness on my own.


If You Go...

GUIDED TRIPS WITH ANDREW SKURKA: The site http://www.andrewskurka.com describes his guided trips in depth and gives details of his solo adventures, as does his 2012 book, "The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide." He offers seven-day trips in three levels of intensity (I took the high intensity), or three-day backpacking fundamentals trips for beginners. Seven-day trips in 2013 will be in Alaska and California; prices range from $1,575 to $1,975 and include breakfasts and dinners. Three-day trips are in North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, California, Colorado, New Hampshire and Michigan; price is $675.

Read more on:    travel international

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.


24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside Travel


#FindYourEscape with Traveller24

Your insider guide to exploring South Africa and the world...
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.