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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

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Travel

Aug 31, 2018

A Sierra Nevada Plan B: Mono Hot Springs

Despite holding a lottery slot to climb Half Dome, in the face of the Ferguson Fire, Evan and his girlfriend Madison, needed another option.

WRITTEN BY

Evan Quarnstrom

As fires raged all across the state of California, I had my focus aimed towards one in particular, the Ferguson fire, which was rapidly burning west of Yosemite Valley. I formed a morning and afternoon routine of checking the Yosemite webcams, looking for non-existent visibility through the dense smoke that had ridden California’s westerly winds into the valley.

Through a lottery system, Madison and I had been successful in earning two of the 225 daily slots to Hike Half Dome on August 6. It would be my third time hiking Half Dome and I was excited for Madison to go for her first.

For those that are unfamiliar with the Half Dome permit system, the final section of the hike, which is strung with cables that you use to walk up the nearly featureless granite formation, had become so jammed with traffic that a permit system was implemented in 2010, making the hike more enjoyable and safer, but also making access more scarce and valuable. The date that you are given in the lottery is the date you have to go.

My third attempt at Half Dome would have to be shelved for the time being.

As August 6th grew closer and the smoke in Yosemite Valley grew thicker, I started to come to grips with the fact that Half Dome just might not be in the cards for 2018. Sure enough, August 5th rolled around and there still was not a damn thing to be seen in Yosemite Valley. My third attempt at Half Dome would have to be shelved for the time being.

Not wanting to waste the precious week of vacation that I had requested months earlier, a contingency plan had to be put into motion. I was not going to give up on the flowing, tree-covered peaks and crystal-clear lakes of the beautiful Sierra Nevada Range. All throughout my childhood I had camped out in a remote corner of the mountains called Mono Hot Springs and I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a return trip. It had been over a decade since my last visit. It would be a slightly different, more remote trip than a weekend in the tourist-filled Yosemite Valley. Also, I really wanted to show Madison the magical views on the hike to Half Dome, so we had to do our best to make up for the missed opportunity and look for a replacement hike.

On the first day the wind had shifted from the prevailing westerly winds and blew the smoke southwest to Mono Hot Springs, which made for a nice sunset, but unhealthy air. Luckily the winds kept the smoke away for the remainder of our trip. Photo: Madison Snively

Mono Hot Springs just as I remembered

To me, Mono Hot Springs is a paradise of sorts, an outpost in the Sierra Nevada that tastefully chose to retain its beauty and never overdevelop. An ice cold river cuts throughout the campsites, flowing along steep granite walls and giving life to lush meadows where wildflowers bloom. Towering pine trees dominate the terrain and aroma as they work their way up as high as they can on the surrounding monstrous peaks. And of course, the main attraction of the area is the numerous hot springs that dot the river’s edge, providing a relaxing way to soak in the views.

The campsites at Mono Hot Springs are in high demand, so we booked a site at Mono Creek Campground, just a few miles down the road.

any tow from this far out in the mountains would cost me my life savings

Getting to Mono Hot Springs is an adventure in itself. You have to take Kaiser Pass, a one lane, bumpy road that reaches elevations of over 9,000 feet (one of the highest roads in California.) The road has various blind turns and unguarded cliffs that can cause precarious situations when you come across traffic heading the opposite direction. While maybe a car with some clearance and four wheel drive would be ideal, my little Nissan did the trick and made it up there just fine. I drove cautiously, as any tow from this far out in the mountains would cost me my life savings.

Getting a quick dip in the hot springs after a long drive was amazing. This hot spring is my favorite because you can alternate between the relaxing, warm water and the freezing river. Photo: Madison Snively

We arrived at our campsite in the late afternoon on August 4th, pitched a tent, and took a dip in Mono Creek just a short distance from our site. We needed to rest because we had planned a hike for the following day that would fill the void of rigorous hiking that was created by missing out on Half Dome. We intended to reach the top of one of the towering peaks that loom over Mono Hot Springs, Graveyard Peak.

Forging our own path to Graveyard Peak

We woke up early on our first morning in the Sierras and heated water for a hot oatmeal breakfast. We had a solid thirteen-mile round trip hike on tap with just a hair under 4,000 feet of elevation to gain. The destination was Devil’s Bathtub, a natural lake in the high Sierras, and Graveyard Peak, one of the many mountains that form part of the semi circle of granite that encompasses the lake.

The first portion of the hike was a relatively mellow climb that breezed by. In just under two hours we had completed the 4.5 mile, 1,000 foot climb up to Devil’s Bathtub. Considering that so many of the lakes in the Sierras are damned, it was refreshing to see a pristine, natural lake. The water was crystal clear, as every detail of the lakebed could be discerned from its edge. The lake and the scenery were stunning, enough to the point that I would recommend to most people that they end the hike there and enjoy the lake for the day, avoiding the merciless climb up to Graveyard Peak.

The morning light and lack of wind on the lake made for an amazing view upon arriving at Devil’s Bathtub. It was about a 2 hour, 4.5 mile hike from the trailhead with 1,000+ feet or so of climbing. The mountain in the center of the photo was our next destination, Graveyard Peak. Photo” Evan Quarnstrom

Passing on an inviting dip in the lake, we decided to save that for the afternoon and trudged on to accomplish our goal of summiting Graveyard Peak. A steep, but relatively short trail-less, two mile hike up a sharp ridge on the east side of the lake was all that stood between us and a panoramic view of many of the barren peaks of the high Sierra.

I gained a new appreciation for hiking on trails.

As we gained elevation searching for the ridge that would lead us to the peak, I gained a new appreciation for hiking on trails. Looking for the path of least resistance through boulder fields and thick brush makes the distance you hike at least twice as much as it would be with a trail. We knew that the ridge looked pretty steep from where we scouted it on the shore of the lake, but it was steeper than it appeared. The relentless incline required frequent breaks and the thinning oxygen at over 10,000 feet didn’t make matters any easier.

The terrain up to Graveyard Peak was pretty steep and rough. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

false peak after false peak

As with climbing peaks goes, we kept passing false peak after false peak. (A peak that blocks the view of the true peak, making it appear as the top of the mountain.) The immensity of the mountain made our progress feel increasingly slow.

As we were approaching what appeared to be the true summit, we noticed a plume of smoke rising through the pine trees just a couple miles across the lake. It was too much smoke to be a campfire, but we couldn’t see any flames that indicated it was a wildfire. Various scenarios started racing through my head. If this indeed was the beginning of a forest fire, we were an awfully long way from our car and there was an abundance of dry timber sitting between us and safety.

For the meantime, the fire didn’t seem to be growing and we were so close to the peak that we continued on, too close to give up on our goal. We arrived to the top of Graveyard Peak four hours after first setting off from Devil’s Bathtub, surely the steepest, prolonged hike I had ever done without a trail.

Finally arriving to the top of the peak. This isn’t actually the true peak. There is a rocky outcrop a couple hundred yards up the ridge that is slightly higher, but not very accessible without climbing. Also, note that on the right side of the photo you can see the smoke plume that was making us nervous. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

Reaching the top is as, if not more, rewarding than I had hoped for, as dozens of high Sierra Peaks come into view, with lakes, valleys, and even a few glaciers (I think?) adding to the scenery. Not too far to the northwest you could see the billowing smoke of the Ferguson Fire giving the sky a distinct hue of grey.

A helicopter had arrived and was circling the smoke, giving me the idea that it wasn’t a drill.

As we took in the 360 degree scenery, I kept one worrisome eye on the aforementioned smoke rising out of the trees across the lake. A helicopter had arrived and was circling the smoke, giving me the idea that it wasn’t a drill. A glorious rest in the clouds at 11,500 feet had to be cut short, knowing that it would be best to work our way back towards the car in the case that the fire got any worse.

You know how sometimes its hard to wrap your mind around the size of outer space? I was having that feeling, but with the overwhelming amount of untouched peaks and lakes in all directions with potential for backpacking. Photo: Madison Snively

We hastily began the descent, hopping from boulder to boulder. The return trip back to the lake took only half the time (two hours) and this time we came at the lake from the north side to explore the opposite shore that we had seen in the morning.

The north shore is where all the snow runoff feeds the lake from the mountains, resulting in deposits of sediment that had formed beautiful, gradually sloping sandy beaches. Noticing that the smoke from the perceived fire had not gotten any worse, we decided that a well-deserved break was in order and we got our daily bath of fresh water.

That evening we arrived at the car, as exhausted as ever, nearly 12 hours since we commenced the hike. Hiking to Graveyard Peak had used up nearly all the hours of daylight at our disposal, but I was satisfied as it definitely felt like a worthy replacement of Half Dome.

Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

Recovery at Doris Lake

After the overly strenuous start to the trip, our second full day in Mono Hot Springs was to be a mellow day to allow our muscles to recover. We rose a little later than normal and headed to the hot springs.

PHOTO: EVAN QUARNSTROM

We spent the greater part of the day relaxing at a lake just a mile away from the Mono Hot Springs campsite. Doris Lake is a small, hot spring fed lake, known for its steep granite walls that make for excellent cliff jumping. These cliffs had been the cause of much allure, anxiety and fulfillment for me when I was younger. I always wanted to be like the adults and jump off the highest rock, called Eagle Rock for its resemblance to the head of a bird. After many years of working my way up, I finally was able to do the highest rock jump. A great weight off my shoulders after years of looking off the edge and not jumping.

In my return to Doris Lake I needed a smaller warm up jump and then I was ready to repeat my jump from Eagle Rock. I climbed the rock and jumped off before my mind could process the potential (and unlikely) consequences of the jump, avoiding any second guessing that might turn me back.

I jumped off Eagle Rock not because I felt like I had anything to prove, but I knew that if I didn’t it would be on my mind until the next time I came back, and who knows how long that would be.

The rest of the day was spent swimming, reading, and snacking on the granite shores of the lake.

Hasta Luego Mono Hot Springs

For our third and final day we had played around with the idea of taking on another daunting hike to one of the many peaks in the area, but we had enjoyed our day lounging around the lake so much, that we scheduled a similar kind of day again.

For our final day we completed a hike up to a prominent rock formation called Devil’s Table (which was more strenuous than I remember it being when I was younger) and ended the day at Tule Lake, named for the dense tules that thrive around its shore.

Standing atop Devil’s Table looking towards Kaiser Pass, the only way to get in and out of there in a car. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

More swimming, reading, and fresh mountain air provided the perfect end to this trip.

paradise nestled up in the Sierra Nevadas

Mono Hot Springs surely isn’t Yosemite. It’s an entirely different kind of trip and despite my desire to hike Half Dome for the third time, maybe a couple days in Mono Hot Springs was what I was truly looking for after all. Hiking, swimming, cooking, and enjoying hot springs with nostalgic memories of my childhood sprinkled around every corner of the mountains made for an excellent stay up in the enchanted land of no cell service.

I sure hope I don’t have to wait a decade again to return to this piece of paradise nestled up in the Sierra Nevadas, hence why it’s an ‘hasta luego’ and not an ‘adios.’

Evan Quarnstrom grew up in the quiet surf town of Santa Cruz, California, where unsurprisingly he developed a love for the ocean and nature. At 18, Evan headed for San Diego in pursuit of warmer weather and an education. Evan attended San Diego State University to study International Business, finishing of his degree off with a year-long study abroad program in Chile. Evan is now the Marketing and Media Manager at the International Surfing Association.

You can follow Evan on Instagram.

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Expeditions

Dec 11, 2018

Mike Horn: His Devotion to the ‘Mountain of Mountains’, and the Loves of His Life

The "Explorer of the Decade" on his upcoming documentary "Beyond the Comfort Zone" that follows his attempt to summit K2 with his daughters following the loss of his wife.

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WRITTEN BY

Lorenzo Fornari

Mike Horn does not need much of an introduction. From swimming the Amazon river to circumnavigating the world unmotorized, and crossing Antartica, his next challenge is never far away. Mike’s list of accomplishments as a solo explorer is unparalleled, and he was recently acknowledged as the “Explorer of the Decade”. The Outdoor Journal has been fortunate to get to know Mike, having crossed the Namib and Simpson Deserts with him, we caught up for a quick chat ahead of the release of his new movie, Beyond the Comfort Zone.

You’ve been to K2 several times. Why this mountain in particular? What’s your connection with this place?

K2 for me is the mountain of mountains! Amongst many others, ascending K2 has always been a childhood dream for me. That mountain is like a magnet, every time I lay my eyes on it, it intimidates me. The way it stands, similarly to a pyramid, makes it beautiful to observe, especially from the bottom looking up. Technically, it is also one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, 8000-meter summit to climb. Everest might be the highest but a lot more people have made it to the top of Everest than to the top of K2…and that obviously means something. A popular destination doesn’t appeal to me as much as a challenging destination. Higher doesn’t mean better. It’s not because I haven’t yet reached the summit of K2, that I will be giving up on this dream any time soon!

Jessica, Annika, and Mike, followed by sherpas, approach K2. By Dmitry Sharomov

“Sherpas often feel ignored and under-appreciated, even by their own government. This to me, is not the essence of adventure travel.”

Why not Everest?

I love that more and more people are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and travel to remote places to achieve challenging feats, but not at the cost of having a negative impact on our environment… Unfortunately, Everest is now suffering from the effects of adventure-tourism. The commercialization of the mountain has resulted in an increasing number of visitors over the years. Camps and hiking tracks are now suffering from mass-tourism during the high seasons, which naturally leads to an increase in the amount of waste disposal (oxygen cylinders, food cans, tents and other equipment), which in turn impacts the environment and the experience of future travelers. I believe too many adventurers wish to add the summiting of Everest to their bucket lists simply for the sake of ascending the world’s highest peak, without necessarily respecting what the mountain has to offer. Locals are also affected by this vicious cycle, Sherpas often feel ignored and under-appreciated, even by their own government. This to me, is not the essence of adventure travel. Thankfully, K2 does not suffer from these problems…at least not yet.

Mike Horn and Fred Roux attempting the summit of K2. © Mike Horn

“My daughters and I planned this expedition at a fragile moment of our lives… some of the best moments for me were the times I shared with my daughters Annika and Jessica”

Can you give us a preview of the best moment from this expedition?

This expedition was filled with great moments. My daughters and I planned this expedition at a fragile moment of our lives. They had just lost their mother, and me my wife, together we agreed to go on an adventure to change our minds and to regain faith and trust in the world. I’d therefore say that some of the best moments for me were the times I shared with my daughters Annika and Jessica, driving across countries or walking up to the base camp of K2. I also deeply value the times shared with Fred and Köbi, my long-time climbing partners!

Just don’t look down. © Mike Horn

“There is a very fine line between carrying on and giving up,”

You didn’t manage to summit again. What stopped you? Will there be another attempt?

Unfortunately, despite making it over the 8000-meter mark, we took the difficult decision to turn back due to poor weather conditions. The abundance of snow resulted in high avalanche risks. After years of exploring, I am aware that one bad choice can result in losing my life. There is a very fine line between carrying on and giving up, too often we want to push a little further simply because we know we are physically capable of it. However, at that time more than ever, it was essential for me to make it back home to my daughters. Mountaineering is for the patient. Only when all the stars are aligned (weather, snow conditions, season, physical aptitude, etc.) can one summit successfully. As mentioned earlier, I will not be giving up on K2 quite yet, I definitely plan on going back!

The unforgiving terrain encountered trying to get to K2. by Dmitry Sharomov

“The Unknown Adds Spice to Life”

We saw the trailer, it’s awe-inspiring. When is the movie coming out and where will be able to see it?

The movie has just been screened at the Toronto Film Festival and will be released in different theatres around the world next year, in 2019. As soon as we have detailed release dates we will communicate these on social media:
Facebook: @PangaeaMikeHorn | Instagram: @mikehornexplorer

Mike Horn and Fred Roux. © Mike Horn

“THE UNKNOWN ADDS SPICE TO LIFE” stood out from the trailer. What’s next for Mike? What do we have to look forward to after this? How much “spice” to expect?

Indeed, you can expect lots of spice! My next big expedition will be the crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. I plan on doing this next year with my Norwegian friend and fellow polar explorer: Borge Ousland. Until then, I plan on sailing around Asia and up north to Alaska to explore different remote locations along the way. You’re going to have to stay tuned to discover exactly what I’ll be up to.

You’ve crossed one of the Poles in your current « Pole2Pole » expedition with a stunning world record, what’s the plan for the second Pole and when?

As mentioned above, I plan on rallying the second pole next summer (2019). The idea is to sail as far north as possible up the Bering Strait with my boat Pangaea, then to be dropped off onto the ice shelf and make my way to the North Pole and cross over to meet my boat again on the other side near the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The crossing should take us up to 3 months during which we except a lot of open waters given the summer season. We thus plan on equipping ourselves with rafts, paddle boards and impermeable wetsuits to secure safe progress between the floating ice shelfs we will encounter along the way.

Dromedary having a staring contest with Mike. By Dmitry Sharomov

When we traveled together across the Simpson Desert in Australia you mentioned that you’d like to concentrate future expeditions toward discovering the mysteries of the depths of the seas and oceans. Any updates you can give us on this?

No news on that front.

Camping with a view. by Dmitry Sharomov

You can follow Mike on his website, or via his social media channels below:
Website: MikeHorn.com
Facebook: @PangaeaMikeHorn
Instagram: @mikehornexplorer

Read Next: Taming the Munga-Thirri Desert with Mike HornRacing Across Namibia with Mike Horn or Mike Horn Completes Solo Traverse of Antarctica

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