It was the end of a demanding training year for Northumbrian Universities Officers’ Training Corps (NUOTC). Officer Cadets, Staff and Instructors had worked incredibly hard for 12 months to ensure that every one of the 23 staff and students from NUOTC were ready for the culmination of their Mountaineering Programme, the formidable; Exercise Northern Bear. Having been awarded The Ulysses Trust Prince of Wales Award for Best Expedition in 2016, this year’s expedition had much to live up to and with an unsurpassed reputation. The expectation of all involved was colossal to say the least. Despite the exercise having now run for the last three years, Officer Cadets are only ever allowed to attend once and are required to plan everything from the route they choose to the food they eat, ensuring the Exercise rewards all participants with a unique, demanding, developmental and life changing experience almost impossible to achieve outside of the Officers’ Training Corps, supported by the vital funding of The Ulysses Trust. Needless to say this year’s expedition did not disappoint, in fact it was undoubtedly the best yet!
The 2-day preparation period in San Francisco before the trek was spent figuring out how to pack for 0-30 degrees Celsius conditions and every variety of precipitation, attempting to cram 9 days-worth of high calorie meals into a 10L bear barrel, deciding which (if any) toiletries qualify as “truly essential” and praying you don’t forget something important. This left little time to dwell upon the scale of what we were all about to undertake, but the excitement and an eagerness to set off was evident.
Almost all of the team had worked relentlessly around intensive University studies and managed to complete the Summer Mountaineering Foundation (SMF) qualification. Only 3 participants were not already in possession of this formative qualification, and would be awarded it if successful on the expedition. Those already holding it would amass 9 International Quality Mountain Days (QMDs), clocked up by every individual, and gain a first-hand experience of the true wilderness that only somewhere like the High Sierra Nevada Mountains can provide. The 9-day trek, conducted in early September, tested each of the three groups in a whole manner of ways; carrying food and sourcing water was challenging enough in itself, add 10-mile days, 30,000ft of total height gained, wild electric storms, every type of rain possible, hornet attacks, bear sightings at sub-optimal times, questionable singing and endless conversations. We were thoroughly out of our comfort zones and learning about our personal character.
Weather conditions were not quite the ‘California Sunshine’ that some had been expecting, temperatures at night would drop dramatically to below freezing, most mornings Officer Cadets were seen in full thermals holding tight to their mess tins of porridge. After being promised very little precipitation, causing half the group to opt-out of taking a tent, ominous clouds on a few occasions signalled this may have been a tough judgement call, and for those lucky enough it was time to quickly put up tents and smile at those in only bivi bags before the heavens opened.
The park authorities enforced tight limitations on the number of groups out in the back country. Each group had a pre-determined route that was we planned and kept us all apart except an RV on the 4th and last days. The routes covered 6-14 miles a day over undulating terrain which demonstrated beautifully why Yosemite is such a popular destination for hikers, climbers and ecologists – unique and dramatic scenery which would have you scrambling up Rocky Mountain trails one day and exploring lush meadow paths the next. Ex Northern Bear is by definition a ‘Wilderness Trek’ meaning we often were trekking to places inaccessible by any other route than the one taken in over the 3 or 4 days. This also meant we had to be entirely self-reliant, carrying with us everything we needed, 30kg+ bergans on tired legs in hot conditions up a steep incline is doubtlessly challenging, physically and mentally. At our highest, we were over 10,000ft and the view of the High Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, which covers is an area larger than the UK, was truly spectacular. The groups set off from the trailhead at Hetch Hetchy reservoir and White Wolf camp-ground, passed through Tuolumne Meadows and over Clouds Rest finishing in Yosemite Valley. We were very lucky in our timing as the group starting at Hetch Hetchy passed along the trail only a few days before a massive forest fire damaged much of the land where they camped on the first night. The view of the valley from the top of Clouds Rest, which had previously been obscured by smoke cleared just in time for our ascent. Forest fires at this time of year are a massive problem for the park, ignited by electric storms and encouraged by the dense woodland and soaring temperatures, acres of forest are decimated by dangerous fires.
There were strict rules on camping location, river contamination and fires which at first seemed over protective but, as the week wore on and we saw the beauty of a landscape barely touched by human activity. The importance of complying with the rules and keeping all food and toiletries locked safe inside the bear barrels became apparent when the cadets woke in the morning to a fresh pile of bear poo next to one of the tents and the stash or barrels in disarray. With a few in the group making it their main aim to swim every day in the beautiful rivers and lakes, others set their sights on spotting animals, and a lucky few managed to acquire permits to summit Half Dome which had not been possible in previous years.
At the conclusion of the trek, the three tired, heavily laden and generally feral groups camped together in the valley for the first time. This provided the opportunity for the group members to compare experiences and a notable quote from Officer Cadet Mintern:
“This has been the hardest thing I have ever done, I have learned how to plan, lead a group through one of the most demanding environments on earth, and survive bears and rattlesnakes – not bad for someone who is still at Uni!”
Our sheer presence heading out of the true remote wilderness, experienced only by the select few working hard enough to achieve it, came as a significant shock to some of the 4 million tourists visiting Yosemite Valley per year. The commercialised valley area itself, was also a shock to the system, the BBQ food and accessible toilets however were a welcome luxury. For me personally, the highlight of the trip was the clarity of the stars; at 8,000/9,000ft on a clear frosty evening we saw the whole of the Milky Way, which put blisters and group squabbles into perspective. We were definitely sad to leave the park and travel back to San Francisco, while we all enjoyed the return to showers and comfy beds, I think we had taken advantage of the clean air and quiet nights that the city couldn’t provide. The effort that the Rangers go to, to keep the park as close to its original state as possible really does create a sense that you are the first person to forge new paths into the tranquil wilderness. Quite often the phrase ‘Dinosaur Land’ was used to describe the terrain and this seems like the only way to get across how untouched and wild Yosemite feels. A day in the city post-Ex was enough for the tired travelers to have a last look around, before heading back to the UK. Without a doubt Ex Northern Bear has provided an unforgettable insight into true Yosemite wilderness, impossible to experience anywhere else on earth, and the importance of team work – not to mention the sheer value of a flushing loo…!