I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm. In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike. I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes. When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.
“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”
“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.
“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese. It’s September and this is California.
“Yes,” he smiles.
I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs. In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.
“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.
“Yes,” he smiles again. “Next.”
As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared. I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “
Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car. Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case. Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing. Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight. Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car? Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return. By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.
The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way. People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus. Several comment, “Wow! That’s a big pack.” “Yeah,” I grumble at them. At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four. I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot. You’ll see a campground, veer to the right. Then just go up.” “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face. “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors. The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.Timeline of Events 4:40pm: arrive at trailhead 4:50pm: breathe heavy 4:55pm: sweat profusely 4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath 5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness. Hike at your own risk” 5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone 5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options 5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop 6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker 6:20pm: check into Curry Village 8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up
The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent. Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take. I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way. The switchbacks are killer. I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.
I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain. Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me. “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye. “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.
And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper. It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex. It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now. Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around. I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.
The next level of incline is worse than the one below. Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break. I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.
Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits. A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below. A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook. Looking over I experience slight vertigo. Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain. Wind whips from all directions.
Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall. I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in. They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock. Stripping off my clothes, I leap. “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon. The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air. I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.
The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water. “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!” He catapults himself from a higher elevation. I snap a few pictures of his death leap. He survives.
I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment. I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back. Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation. Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature. I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.
After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass. That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.