Saddleback Ride in the High Sierras -                                             "The Incident at Vogelsang Pass"


Looking around me as we continued our ascent up Lewis Creek Trail, glimpses of Lewis Creek intermittently in sight, I sat in wonder looking at my surroundings. In addition to the conifers that were our nearly constant companions, what really impressed me was the granite. These mountains are almost continuously granite, by that I mean one huge mass of solid rock. Imagine how many eons it took for the forces of Nature to create the conditions for vegetation to get a foothold and then flourish upon those rocky slopes. The portraits it has produced are phenomenal, powerful, fantastic, inspiring. I only wish I could transfer what I saw directly to everyone just as I was viewing the scenes. 

After we had lunch, the ride was mostly routine as we proceeded upward toward Vogelsang Pass. Nearing the Pass, we came upon a work crew, who, just as we approached started up a chain saw. Knowing that sudden loud noises can cause some havoc amongst the mules, it alerted me to full attention. 

This was a moment that could panic our animals. 

Would this end up with riders suddenly in the midst of a stampede, mules running amok... crashing into tree branches…riders being jostled and thrown about, flipping and falling to the ground, hard granite rocks waiting to crack heads and bones? 

Holding my reins tighter, stiffening in my saddle, feet planted firmly and securely in the stirrups, I prepared for the unexpected.

The work crew, not knowing we were passing above them on the trail, continued their work, the chain saw roaring, oblivious to any plight we faced upon our mules. 

Whether by fortune, or our own instincts, the load noise having given us a pre-warning, tightening up our control of our mules, those tense few moments passed as not much more than a ripple in a pond. It all passed away, as quietly as the noise as we proceeded further and further away from the work crew. 

Relief - tension averted.


Now being able to relax, again, our mule train plodded along, the pine forest becoming less dense, more open space as we began a climb upward above the tree line. At this higher elevation vegetation changes rather quickly, much smaller plant life prevails on the high slopes. Above the forested areas, tops of pine trees were all that remained in our view behind and below us. Nearly barren mountain tops loomed before us as we made several hairpin turns up the steep slope. 

This was the view I had not seen several days before when I hiked into Vogelsang Camp on the lower Fletcher Creek Trail. It was jaw-dropingly awesome. Not yet at the crest of the Pass, I struggled to look all around me to take in this view, high alpine meadows, two small lakes nestled on this side of the crest one higher up than the other. Patches of snow still tucked into crevices on the higher peaks.With my position on Steve-O, leaning forward, still going upward, keeping a tight hold and planted firmly in my saddle, not stopping and on the move, it was impossible to look, aim and shoot with my camera, So I simply pulled my camera up and pointed and shot what I could without aiming at anything in particular.


Then, as I tried to capture scenes on my camera, looking up toward the crest of the Pass, came a wrangler on his horse followed by 4 fully packed mules. There is only one trail here, and, while still hundreds of feet away, it was obvious that a right of way needed to be established. Trail protocol mandates that upward traffic yield to downward traffic. Our group had some distances between mules, so K-Bar and Kendall had to get us grouped closer together and step our mules off of the trail. That already became obvious to me as I had steered Steve-O off trail and others behind me followed suit, with K-Bar coming back from the lead to assure all of us made room for the descending wrangler and his mules. Now, milling about, letting Steve-O graze at will, I saw that another, stray, packed mule was straggling, un-attached to the other mules on their downward path. Wow, that seemed peculiar, but the wrangler, his hands full with his horse and the other 4 mules tied together, had decided to lead his pack of animals off the trail to bypass our group. Perhaps that was to avoid any conflict between our mules and his own. Making his way over the slope, trailblazing his own path, his lone, straggler mule, some distance behind, suddenly seemed to realize he was being left behind and he started to run to catch up with his companions, his pack bouncing and swaying as he galloped over the rough terrain.

Oh my gosh, would he be able to keep upright on this steep mountainside, fully packed, and running downhill?

Having given himself and us a wide leeway, keeping a good distance between us, his mule actually did very well. He did not stumble or fall and he caught up with the other mules and his wrangler without further ado.

Drama and disaster de-fused.

Meanwhile, we are all now idling alongside the trail, looking around us at the incredible views. Feeling like being on top of the world, I could have dismounted and just sat up there to linger, lounge and look all about. But Vogelsang Camp was just a mile or so over the crest of the Pass. Once K-Bar and Kendall had made sure everyone was assembled and ready, K-Bar led us on up to and over the Pass.


We didn't always follow in any specific order as we rode on the trails, we mixed it up a bit, sometimes I was near or at the front of the group, other times in the middle or towards the rear. After our detour and wait off the trail I got back about eighth in line, "J" in front of me on her mule, Finney and behind me was Julian.

As we proceeded up to and then began our descent over the Pass a very sudden and dramatic change of events.

I had just snapped a photo as we dropped down over the crest, (see the blurry photo to the left) when an unexpected scream broke the calm. "J" in front of me was screaming. A slight drop over a rock step on the descent required the mules to make a little jump on their front legs, nothing that we hadn't encountered many times along the trails. This time however, and in rapid sequence, I could see "J" leaning far to her left, right foot in that stirrup pointing upward, her saddle still exactly in place upon the mule, but she was slipping, slipping more and more off toward the rocks along the trailside. It was in a very tight spot, as we were also on a hairpin turn, whereupon everyone behind me was coming up unexpectedly upon what amounted to a stalled mule with rider in great distress. It could be nearly like a chain reaction, with everyone behind running into each other. Immediately, I directed Steve-O off of the trail, as time seemed to stand still and I watched "J" screaming nearing her inevitable fall. In my position off the trail I could see she had one hand far out on the reins, which gave her no control of Finney, while her other hand was trying to hold tight to the saddle horn. I'm shouting at her to pull herself back up, but my words were futile. In an instant, she had totally lost control of her position on her mule and fell - hard - onto the rocks. She hit and rolled several times coming to rest face down along the trail. No movement. 


Kendall, behind, having not been in the line of sight of "J", but quickly comprehending the situation, got the other 4 or 5 riders ahead of him off the trail. Finney, not seeming to have been bothered by the ordeal, stood patiently on the trail. As all this was transpiring, those in front of "J" were yelling ahead to K-Bar to stop, he being a couple hundred feet ahead. He stopped his horse, quickly dismounted and ran back up the hill toward the still motionless "J" lying below me. Athough my initial instinct was to get off and offer assistance, Kendall, instructed us to remain on our mules. It was a very precarious situation at that sharp juncture on the trail. I was thankful that most of the group were ahead of this and were spared the potential danger those behind had faced.

K-Bar, now at the scene, knelt beside the lifeless looking form of "J". Asking if she were alright, trying to get a response without disturbing her not daring to touch or move her.He could see she was breathing and some of the tension and anxiety showing upon his face slackened. The rest of us behind "J" were breathlessly awaiting, all of us keeping our mules a safe distance away, wondering how this could have happened and with such suddenness. 


In just moments, "J" stirred and turned over, now face up, and then she sat up. Obviously she was shaken, K-Bar speaking softly and gently to her, she said she was alright. Getting upon her feet, he gave her time to regain her composure, to check for any broken bones or other injuries and to try to determine how she was going to make it down to the camp, about 1 ½ miles away. She said she was OK and that she would continue to ride down. That seemed remarkable considering how hard she fell and that she had told several of us that she had back problems due to osteoporosis. Double checking, K-Bar was very willing to arrange some other means to get her to camp safely, but she insisted she was fit to ride.

OK then, near disaster diverted, "J" being assisted back upon her mule Finney, K-Bar hustling back down to his horse and Kendall being sure those of us behind "J" were doing OK, he too got back in his saddle and we began our final descent towards Vogelsang High Sierra Camp.

It didn't last.

Less than a 1/8 mile further on down the trail, "J" yells out. 

She HAD to STOP. 

She could not go on. 

She was in excruciating pain! 

Once again, with quite the disturbance, everyone came to a halt, K-Bar running back up the trail, and Kendall trying to keep his mules in check while the rest of the back group again kept our mules aside and calm. Helped her off her mule, "J" sat down and stated she was in great pain and riding the mule was only making it worse. Trying to decide, again, how we were to proceed, K-Bar was put in a very difficult situation, one that he had never before confronted until this trip. In a short while, "J" said she would walk the rest of the way, which I could see was not resting well with K-Bar. With Kendall being nearby, I told him that I would walk down with her and assist as best I could. But that would mean having Kendall take charge of Steve-O, which, he told me, would only make his job that much more difficult. You see he was already handling his pack mules plus one riding mule from one person who ended up walking most of the route on foot. One more animal for him to handle was not feasible. He thanked me for my offer, but had to decline in respect for the safety of everyone concerned. 

Now mind you, by this time Vogelsang Camp is in sight and, speaking for myself, I was looking forward to getting down off my mule and planting my own two feet firmly upon terra firma. We were all concerned with "J", yet we had to continue and, once in camp, they would send people to assist her on the rest of her way down and into camp. At the corral, is when Steve-O had nudged me and rubbed his face on my shoulder. Besides getting him through the bees near that trails end, I wondered if he appreciated being guided during the "incident". 

As the rest of us began to wait for our belongings from the pack mules, talk, naturally, revolved around the incident on the trail. While everyone was thankful that "J" was, for the most part intact, walking upright and otherwise OK, we also began comparing notes, most having heard her tell of taking medication for her osteoporosis and a couple of days prior telling us how she was nearly falling asleep while riding one afternoon. Having shared what little we understood, it was realized that what had happened had nearly put many more of us in a dangerous situation. I'm sure "J" did not intend to cause any of us to be involved in such a problematic predicament, but, she did. Most realized how we all had been jeopardized and we were not happy with "J" for having put us in harms way. 


But, now in camp, we looked forward to relaxing and to hot drinks and dinner just a little later in the afternoon. I met my tent mates, all dentists from Los Angeles who went adventuring together around the world. They also enjoyed photography and set out to capture some of the scenery before hot drinks and dinner. Meanwhile, my foot (toe) was hurting and I removed my shoes and socks to find the ruptured blister. Cleaning it with disinfectant, I bandaged it and hobbled about camp for awhile until it approached dinner time. 

As we milled about enjoying our hot drinks, "J" had come and sat by herself on the nearby boulders. Not many of us approached her or otherwise engaged in conversation with her. Perhaps some were uncomfortable not wanting to talk about the "incident" or to avoid making her uncomfortable in broaching the subject. Personally, not wanting to appear to you as cold or uncaring, I really just felt very unhappy with her. As it turned out, others felt the same. We had been instructed, from the beginning, that we should always be on the alert, to be diligent and expect the unexpected. Over the past several days, "J" had been offered some advice on how she was riding her mule, friendly tips by a few who had more riding experiences. It seemed that "J" was not interested in advice and simply would not listen. That kind of stubbornness is it own form of defiance. 

If it had been disclosed that "J" had a serious medical condition, it would seem unlikely that she would have been permitted to have gone on this difficult, jarring, jostling saddleback ride. 

We wondered if she had disclosed her condition… 

While we waited that afternoon, some did talk with "J" and she informed them she had taken more pain pills once she had arrived in her tent. She did seem rather "content" and unflustered as she sat there…

The next day would wrap up our Saddleback Ride to the High Sierra Camps. I looked forward to the end and to continue on with the rest of my month long vacation. That morning, as most of us gathered at the corral, Kendall and K-Bar packing the mules, and harnessing our riding mules, more talk about the "Incident at Vogelsang Pass" continued. How, we wondered, was "J" to proceed on this last day when she was in so much pain and her self medicating? Talk also revolved around the jeopardy she created for the rest of us, no one wanting to be put back into such a situation if she were planning to ride with the group. She had also told K-bar that she had taken more pain pills which, naturally, concerned him.

While we had a determined departure time set, K-Bar had been in contact via two way radio, with Tuolumne Stables, and we were told we were to hang tight for the time being. Word came that a helicopter was being sent to retrieve "J" and fly her back, presumably to a hospital. Having already mounted our mules, we were asked to take our mules off the trail and just work with them, turning them in circles, left and then right several times, then we sat upon the saddles and waited. Mules being easily spooked, there was little sense in starting on the trail if the copter were to arrive and the noise disturb the animals. But then, word came to head 'em, move 'em out. The helicopter was not coming until later, and it wouldn't pose any threat to beginning the ride. That was a relief to hear. 

As we rode along those 7+ miles back to Tuolumne Meadows Stables, I rode behind K-Bar for quite some time. This allowed me time to chat as we rode. Asking about his name, he told me he was from Kentucky originally, had moved to Wisconsin years before, became a licensed Jarvis (as in fishing rods) Guide. He had his own company once upon a time which had to do with his being a  fishing guide, I believe. His given name is Kevin, and the K-Bar came to be to distinguish him from the other Kevin who also worked at that particular job. K-Bar looked the part of cowboy, no doubt about it. It was a pleasure chatting with him as we rode the trail. 

An hour or so after we left Vogelsang Camp, he heard the helicopter approaching, but we were well away from any disturbance to cause concern for our mules reacting to the noise. 

Once back at the stables, we all were asked to write an incident report. Photos I and others had taken, just before, helped us determine exactly everyone's position on the trail at that time. "J" was not at the stables when we arrived and we suspect, as I noted, that they flew her directly to a hospital. 

"The Incident at Vogelsang Pass" aside, I have given thoughts to how the saddleback trip compared to the hiking trip. Both have their merits, both have there ups and downs (pun intended). But, if I were to do this again, I think I'd rather hike. I actually did see much more that I could photograph while on foot. Moving more slowly, on foot, allows for more observation at an eye level closer to the ground. Being able to just stop and take in what lay before me was its' own reward. Ideally, in hiking the High Sierra Camps Loop Trails, I'd pack far fewer items, carry enough water of course, but not the excess I had with me (water bottles can be filled in camps every night) and a gallon per day is more than enough, 2 liters being adequate. Any excess weight that I brought, I'd pack on a mule, but in reality a person needs very little in the way of "stuff". Since the beds are in the tents with blankets and pillows, even a sleeping bag is not essential. Lightweight hiking clothing is easily rinsed out and dried, so need for excess clothes. 

One thing is for sure, as I've thought about it, I can now say that I WOULD do this trip again, preferably with another friend or friends who would be as ambitious. 

But now, it was time to drive out of the High Sierras and down to the highly visited Yosemite Valley about an hour and a half drive. 

Oh my!! what awaited as I came down into the Valley…


IMG_6255 © Donald E. Kline 2012                                         Disqus Comments