Backpacking Merced Pass Lakes to Ottoway Lake – Days 3 & 4
As the sun rises on day three of our hike, we are so close to Ottoway lake that I can taste it. But, as it turns out day 3 is the day that Curtis and I’s responsibility as trip leaders come into play, and then in a another group decision as friends we end up completing our 5 day backpacking trip on day 4 in a impressive hike to the end.
Roles of a Wilderness Trip Leader
When reserving a Yosemite wilderness permit one person is designated at the “Trip Leader.” This person is responsible for listening intently to the ranger as they give information about camping and fire restrictions, potential wildlife and weather activity in the area, leave no trace principles, and attempt to gleam anything else useful from these knowledgeable people (have you met a park wilderness ranger that didn’t love the backcountry? I haven’t! They can help identify good fishing spot, side trips, and many other great ideas).
By signing the permit as the trip leader you are agreeing to all the conditions on the permit, and agreeing to make sure anyone in your group is as well. In a sense it is a contract to stay as a group in while staying wilderness, with the trip leader being the one ultimately responsible to assist anyone in the group to meet the requirements.
As it so happens, if one member of the group is unable to meet the requirements of wilderness backpacking then it falls on the trip leader and group to come up with a solution within the bounds of the permit. On day 3 of our hike Dan needed to leave the wilderness – day hiking (with gear) out to the front country and leaving the wilderness. As a group we knew it would be risky to force everyone in our party would to hike the approximately 13 miles out to the trailhead (especially given the late morning start time). Curtis and I also decided it would be equally irresponsible of us to leave either Dan or the of remainder of the group alone without someone experienced in the area. Thus it was decided that I would stay with Kate, Kris, and Jacquie as the wilderness trip leader, and Curtis would hike out of the wilderness with Dan.
It was super disappointing to watch them go, but the best decision given the circumstances. And, as the remaining group of 4 we decided to make the most of our trip and complete a day hike to our destination, Ottoway Lake, and then travel back towards the trailhead enabling us to meet back up with our friends one day before scheduled.
Day 3 of Backpacking: Upper Merced Pass Lake to Lower Ottoway Lake to Illilouette Creek Crossing
Trailhead: Mono Meadows (see day 1)
Distance: 7.5-ish miles? Three up to Ottoway lake, three back down, and a mile of two to our campspot where Illiliouette Creek crosses the trail (Day 2‘s lunch spot)
The trail up to Ottoway lakes was as unrelentingly uphill as I had remembered it, although I think the 4 of us made really good time. Before we could catch our breath we were crossing Ottoway Creek, which was so much easier to cross in late August as compared to early July, and quickly gaining ground to the lake. The final section of the trail here has some really quality stairs worked into the path using boulders, which is both beautiful to look at and enjoyable for hiking both the up and down.
Walking around the last ridge the mountains opened up before us, and at last we arrived at Lower Ottoway Lake. Dropping our packs at a spot near the water we treated ourselves to chocolate bars, lunch, foot soaking, fly fishing, and eventually after surge bravery – Swimming!
It was a great afternoon, and very tempting to just stay up by the lake and camp, but instead we continued down the trail and out to our campsite starting around 3pm. Hiking latter in the day allowed more of a possibility of seeing some wildlife- and we did as a marmot came barreling down the trail towards us! He posed on a log as we watched, adorably scared of us (unlike some of the RUDER marmots closer to populated areas that beg for food).
Camping at our lunch spot from the previous day (see map) we knew the next day’s hike would still a long one, but decided as long as we got an early start in the morning we could take our time and make the journey happen. It was a relaxing evening, including a persistent field mouse attempting to abduct our chocolate bar and enjoying the stars through the trees.
Day 4 of Backpacking: Illilouette Creek Crossing back to Mono Meadows Trailhead
Distance: 11-ish miles – Downhill to the final Illilouette Creek Crossing, and then up to the parking lot
The final day retracing the trail back to the parking lot went by without much excitement (besides inevitably deciding what we wanted to get to snack on once we got off the trail). Lucky we are all friends because we managed to keep well enough company, even near the end when everyone was beginning to tire of hiking. The uphill to the parking lot was much steeper then I had remembered heading down, and HOT in the early afternoon, but continuing on we managed to make it back to the car before dinner time.
Using our best spacial visualization skills we packed the 4 packs, the extra (non-backpacking) luggage, and miscellaneous stuff from the bear bin back into my sedan. We took off to the Valley and were met by Curtis and Dan, which had hiked the Mist Trail up to Little Yosemite Valley to kindly retrieve my hiking boots and champagne I had left up there as preparation for the original plan of hiking down from Hwy 120 to Half dome.
After all was said and done, I will say that was definitely one the biggest adventures I have had in recent history that did not go as planned. But, to survive you have to adapt, right? Plus with this group of people I knew we were sure to have a good time, no matter what obstacles we faced!