On the off trail
"I have a proposition for you," J. said the night before. "Proposition" takes on a whole new meaning with this guy, and I was intrigued. 22 years old. Climbed el cap for the first time when he was 18. Conversations thick with climbing jargon, crazy stories from big wall life, portaledges and seventy foot whippers, dirt bagging and portering eighty pound loads for fast cash. But, his experiences all gritty and dirty and unglamorous and natural in a way that only people who give their whole lives to something can posses. No osprey packs and sparkling new gear, no patagonia soft shells and black diamond climbing helmets. Just some ratty t-shirts and an arsenal of stories of wayward adventures. So when he asked me if I wanted to climb to the top of el capitan by taking a hiking, scrambling, climbing route his friend had set up in the west gully, I responded with an emphatic "hell yes."
His friend Richie was a climber who lived for weeks on end in little shelters and homemade bivys in secluded spots deep in the valley. He passed away a year ago in a climbing accident. One of those harrowing stories about an indestructible life coming to an unbelievable and illogical end. We were going to follow a trail he set up that wound up a boulder-filled creek on the west side of the captain, through wild brush and loose rocks, and up sheer granite faces. Totally off trail, no “trail” to even really speak of. That’s where adventure begins.
Up and over boulders the size of small cars, trekking through a steep gully in a canyon that would somehow take us to the summit of el capitan. Richie’s cairns were still there to lead the way, as were the ropes he fixed to aid climbs up rocks with no holds. J. had never been all the way to the top of the route himself, so the trail seemed even more like a pilgrimage - a journey guided by the spirit of his friend that seemed to live in the uniquely piled stones that pointed us in the right direction, the worn ropes bolted into walls that probably only he and us had ever used.
Summit. Fresh, light air and wind, blue skies. I lied down on my belly, peering over the edge, imagining the ascent, the top-out, the undeniable adrenaline, the jubilation.
Then, scrambling over to the east ledges where those who have climbed descend, and I get a little taste of what it’s like when we rappel six-hundred feet to the ground. At the end of the day, my legs were beaten and battered and bloody and bruised, my chest a burnt red, and my hands dirty and blistered from the ropes. “Battle wounds” I later called them, as I hobbled off to pass out in my tent.
Early morning sunrise at tunnel view with A, followed by whole wheat chocolate chip banana coffee pancakes (!)
Life is simple
"We wanna leave by 10 to hitchhike up to Tenaya by noon, so try and meet us at our tent by 9:30" was the text I received at 11pm the night before, whisky in hand, listening to my roommate’s story of almost slipping off the edge of Yosemite Falls and already having plans to wake up at 5am to see the sunrise with A. Why not?
Note to self: pizza boxes make great hitchhiking signs. We were only out there (in the middle of it, cars buzzing past, curious onlookers, adrenaline from the thrill and laughter, one guy out there before us with “San Fran” painted on cardboard. “good luck’s” exchanged) for five, maybe ten minutes at the most when a rusty brown SUV pulled to the side of the road. We whooped and laughed, amazed at how easy it had been. Hungover couple from a farm an hour away. Young, tan, long hair on the boy, short hair on the girl. “The farm’s called Wondernut, you should come visit sometime” he said an hour later when we got out at the trailhead. We promised we would and headed off towards Cloud’s Rest, a sight I was glad to see again. Except, this time, the company of three, and the plan to hike back to the valley the same day.
A long, sun-drenched nap on top of Cloud’s Rest before we sprinted back down to beat the dark - ten miles in three hours, right on time for pizza and beer.
Early dawn amble up the wooded Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. A Swiss couple chat quietly ahead of me, nodding as I walk past. Another sprawling view of half dome (could it ever get old??) But, too many tourists eating cheez-its and taking selfies in the sunlight. Walking quickly past, panoramic journey downwards through waterfall territory. Mist and sun and dirt and sweat. “Where did you hike from?” some idle kids ask, 8 miles later. “From there!” I reply, pointing out and all the way across to the peak in the distance, almost as astonished as they are. It’s incredible how much distance one can travel on two feet in so little time. Sunburnt arms instead of legs this time around. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten a burn that these past few have seemed like novelties - pale skin, smarting red, the eventual fade to brown. Fifteen miles in seven hours. I think I’m starting to get my hiking legs.
"Finally, someone with a real pack on," exclaimed the man ambling towards me, his weathered clothes, hat and hiking backpack the color of sand, conjuring images of a dusty Sahara. I smiled, appreciating the newfound camaraderie between myself and others with sun burnt noses, heavy backpacks containing bear canisters and sleeping bags, iodine tablets and intricate trail maps. This becomes especially so in the tourist-flooded areas, where neon Nikes and light Camelbaks are the chosen accessories, and where a hike up a paved road to the trailhead has most gasping for breath, looking disgruntled. A slight nod of the head of another backpacker over the crowd acknowledges purpose, journey. You’ve either been somewhere or are going somewhere.
Happy Independence Day, America, from one of your most esteemed and treasured landscapes. I celebrated you today by traversing through what the scotsman who was more American than most, John Muir, aptly named The Range of Light. Up in the High Country and out of the Valley, where the cool breeze of 9,000 ft of elevation will do just as well as cracking open a can of The Great American Lager.
Today also marked my first foray into solo backpacking. I didn’t think much of it. Acted on recommendation: “Cloud’s Rest, sleep under the stars, hike back down to the valley, about 20 miles” check. And went. The process is quite simple. Just go. Just walk. Just sleep. Just do it. And do it alone.
Cloud’s Rest. Never have I ascended rocks so piercing a white, soft around the edges and piled upon each other like ocean-smoothed stones, natural cairns, leading you to the top. Climb them like a staircase as the valley opens up on all sides in a splendid and dazzlingly soft shade of blue - Half Dome in the distance, mountains for miles. A place where you wouldn’t be surprised if you suddenly became weightless, drifting up and out on the eddies of a breeze into the staggering purity of those whites and blues. It’s during moments like these that the present feels ungraspable, fleeting, as you try and absorb as much of you can of the panoramic vista surrounding you. But it’s moments such as later, when darkness descends and you are alone, and every rustle is an unknown creature at your head or feet and the slightest sound of moving gravel is a bear coming to sift and sniff and grunt through your things, and every time you peek out at the stars from the shelter of your thin and exposed sleeping bag you expect to see the silhouette of a mountain lion against the night sky, its bright eyes peering down at you with sinister curiosity, it’s moments such as these that seem to last an eternity. A sad irony of life, isn’t it? Pleasure is fleeting, while fear stretches on. But dawn always breaks, and its palliative pastels always illuminate the now-innocuous shapes and shadows around you, and you laugh in spite of yourself, ready to walk again.
Mammoth Lake Hot Springs
Fell asleep under the stars for truly the first time the other night. Driving out of the valley I almost forgot that I’m in the heart of a landscape whimsical and fluctuating, so different than what I’ve ever seen or am used to, and when the towering granite walls fell away, everything melted into flatness and brush. Without mountains, the night sky opens up in a spectacular shower of stars that surrounds you from all sides. The easy, tell-tale constellations I’m so used to seeing at home - the big dipper, orion’s belt - all but disappear amongst tens of thousands of their sparkling companions. To think that they’ve been there this whole time. We stripped and gingerly stepped into the hot springs - dark sulfurous pools of mirrors in the desert floor - and looked up at the milky way stretching above us. Silhouettes of bodies in the dark. I swear they have stars, too.
I only have pictures from the morning, but waking up at 6am to the muted colors of a desert at dawn is still pretty spectacular.
Yesterday I woke up early and walked through the morning fog to the mist trail. It was my first day off and I wanted to hike something long and hard. The night before I sat on what’s coming to be my favorite porch - block the tourists out of your peripherals, settle into your rocking chair - sweeping my finger excitedly over my new map, marveling at my choice of topography, landmarks with names redolent of another time: sentinel, cathedral, vernal, when nature inspired only the epic, the grand, the insurmountable. I chose the trail to Nevada falls. Steep and long with the promise of views of rushing water at sweeping heights. I reached the first waterfall at ten am, walking up rocky, knee-high stone steps slick with mist and moss. Fog rolled in waves in front of me, and the sound of roaring water imbued the air with a powerful freshness. I brought my camera but forgot my memory card.