We creep into Yosemite National Park, a single link in an endless, jostling chain. A ranger waves us through the gate with a sheepish smile. Apparently the NPS has decided against stopping the flow of traffic – such that it is – to collect entrance fees. A square deal, given my bladder is about to spontaneously combust.
Happily, we find both bathroom and parking place, in not-so-short order, and don our daypacks to explore Yosemite Falls. People are everywhere, like ants on a lollipop that’s been dropped in the dirt. But hey, it’s summer. And this is a mere blip of inconvenience on our way to the backcountry. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
All grouchiness aside, the falls are indeed something to behold. I may or may not have smiled a little bit when the cool mist from the Lower Yosemite Fall christened my sweaty brow.
Taking our turn on a standing-room-only shuttle, we start our ascent to Vernal Fall via the Mist Trail. I like the name. Sounds refreshing. Turns out it’s a bit of a misnomer after a winter with a lot of snow pack. Far from being refreshed, we emerge at the top of Vernal Fall looking like we attempted to drink from a fire hose.
It’s in the midst of the Mist Trail that the leg thing happens. My quads feel like the muscle and bone has been replaced by straight lactic acid. Or battery acid, to be more precise. I reach down and touch them, amazed they’re still thigh-shaped. This has never happened to me before. I’m talking way beyond the normal muscle burn we all feel when doing our bi-ped thing over hills and up stairs. And to be honest, I’m more than a little freaked out.
So I do what I always do when I’m freaked out: I lash out.
I inform my husband that I’d rather fling myself over Vernal Fall than retreat back down the Mist Trail, so he, in his usual good-natured and quick-thinking manner, suggests we take another route. It’s more of a climb, but it’s dry and…cue the angel harps…much less crowded! So we join up with the John Muir Trail at Clark Point, pausing for our traditional “boot photo” along the way.
Legs be damned, we climb higher still, eventually looking over Vernal Fall. I appreciate it a whole lot more when it’s not pissing on me.
Let’s put this day out of its misery with a quick re-cap: The Mist Trail far behind us, we hop on another shuttle bus, only to be delayed when the said shuttle bus removes the bumper of an unsuspecting parked car rather abruptly. Dinner is an overpriced pizza in Happy Isles (you get the irony of that, I expect), for which I stood in line for over an hour. We make it to an over-crowded backpacker’s campsite after dark, where we pitch our tents in the glow of our headlamps (mosquitoes apparently see this as a neon sign announcing an open buffet).
Then, just as I’m flicking the last of the ants off my tent footprint (another advantage of pitching one’s tent during daylight hours: anthills are more visible), two glowing eyes bounce through our campsite. At this point, I’m almost disappointed it’s too small to be a bear. But alas, it is a juvenile raccoon. It shinnies up the tree next to my son’s tent and proceeds to scold us from above. I zip myself into my tent and pretend not to notice.
I wake to a moth beating itself senseless between my tent and the fly. Hurrying into my clothes, I shudder at the sight of my leg:
It doesn’t hurt or itch, so I shrug it off. The other leg thing – that burning in my quads – concerns me a whole lot more.
My husband, the very picture of efficiency, already has his tent packed and is making oatmeal. I unzip my tent and ungracefully tumble out, only to clamber back in for my mosquito netting. Eating breakfast with one’s head covered in mosquito netting is tricky…and fairly pointless, in case you are wondering.
We break camp at break-neck speed, hike back to the car, reclaim our toiletries from a communal bear box*, and get the hell out of “Happy Isles.”
*Riddle me this, my backpacker friends: Why will a bear tear a car door off its hinges to get at something with the slightest hint of a scent, but won’t bother things left in a thin metal box with a chain latch?
Anyway, we are Glacier Point bound, baby! And…
just look at all the people here. (pulls handful of hair from head)
On the other hand, check out this view:
I decide to concentrate on the latter.
No daypacks now! It’s the real deal! Full packs, full weight, and we are on our way down the Panorama Trail, en route to Little Yosemite Valley.
It’s called the Panorama Trail for a reason!
The trail is mostly full sun, and as we descend into Illilouette Gorge, we pass some backpackers on their way up. They don’t look like happy campers. We make a note of it and decide to start that upward trek as early as possible on our last day.
After crossing Illilouette Fall, it’s our turn to make a steep and steady climb upward. And there go my quads again. Damn it!!!
Okay, for those who think I’m just being a wimp:
- You clearly don’t know me.
- Screw you.
- Go set your own legs on fire and then we’ll talk. (I’ll even supply the matches.)
I lag behind my boys. Way behind. They’re good sports, waiting for me to catch up every now and then, but I’m embarrassed and ashamed. And scared. This does not bode well for me summitting Half Dome.
About a mile and a half from camp, I plop down on the banks of the rushing Merced River and strip off my shoes and socks.
Plunging my feet into the ice cold water, I welcome the numbing sensation.
But it’s short-lived. The boys are anxious to get to camp, so I pull on my boots and climb the rest of the way to our campsite in Little Yosemite Valley.
Most of the backpackers have cleared off, so we get a choice site, complete with a big “table”:
And on one of the stumps at the communal fire ring, this:
We conclude it must be from an overzealous backpacker. Or, judging by the way the squirrels are eyeing us, the result of not taking them up on their generous offer to “hold our bags” for us.
This, of course, is what happens if you take them up on their offer. Or turn your back on them for more than thirty seconds:
But there are visitors of the kinder, gentler sort, too:
And you gotta love trees big enough to produce cones this size:
Granted, we prefer camping by ourselves, but this stop makes sense with our route to Half Dome in the morning. And it’s a pretty decent backpacker’s campsite, even if our neighbors – a group of guys from Los Angeles – like talking until the wee hours of the morning. (Our 2 a.m. wake up call: “Holy shit! It’s a deer!” Clearly city boys.)
Hey, Half Dome! You ready?
Thanks to my husband’s impeccable planning, we only have 3 ½ miles to get to Half Dome from here. And (drum roll, please!) my quads are feeling normal again, further fueling my courage.
Why do I need courage, you ask?
Open another tab in your browser and search on Half Dome cables. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
So now you understand when I say:
As we climb the approach trail, a ranger stops us for our permit, which we proudly wave in her face. Getting a permit to climb Half Dome isn’t easy. You have to plan months in advance, take your chances on a lottery system, and cross your fingers. My husband did that a total of five times. The sixth was the charm.
The backpackers coming down the trail seem almost giddy. “Keep smiling!” one lady chirps. “Just keep smiling.” My stomach lurches a little. Here is a woman who has clearly accomplished something significant. A survivor.
We meet other backpackers on the way up, including a young lady and her boyfriend. She has quite an impressive hiking/backpacking résumé and is interrogating my husband on his experience summitting Mt. Whitney. She’s planning on doing it later this year. My shoulders droop a little. I feel so inept. I mean, hell, I’m just happy my thighs aren’t melting into puddles of goo on the trail.
At some point, we get separated from the young lady and her boyfriend, but that’s hardly at the forefront of my mind. No, that stage is currently reserved for the monster looming before me. And it’s not even Half Dome. It’s the Sub Dome, which, for the record, should have its own set of steel cables.
Need a visual? Search on Sub Dome Yosemite.
I put my nose to the proverbial grindstone – or, in this case, granite – and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Trekking poles are no help here, so we put them away and resort to half-crawling/half-stooping up the side. I make the mistake of looking up at the summit of this beast. It’s daunting enough without knowing what’s on the other side of it.
The badass in me almost blinks. Almost.
But we make it.
And then this:
I marvel at the range of exclamations from my fellow hikers as they crest the top of Sub Dome:
“No f’n way!”
As for me, I slip on my heavy work gloves. No sense in dancing around inside my own head. Let’s do this thing.
The cables are maybe three feet apart, a narrow passage through which climbers going in opposite directions must maneuver. They feel solid in my grip. Ready to do their job. Now I must do mine.
My boots slide down the rock every few steps and I must rely on my arms, my grip, to keep from backsliding into my husband. Wooden planks lie perpendicular to our path every six feet, providing a respite. Everyone seems to be whispering the same mantra: Just get to the next plank.
We are about a quarter of the way up when I realize the young lady with the impressive hiking/backpacking résumé is two people ahead of me.
And she’s in hysterics.
Despite the harness she’s brought to attach herself to the cables, she is now huddled on a plank, frozen in place and weeping. Part of me is relieved (and more than a little shocked) that it’s her and not me. The other part of me tells that first part to shut the hell up because I feel the exact same way, I’m just reacting differently. She’s losing her shit and I’m speechless.
“I can’t do it,” she wails. “I’m coming down.”
But her boyfriend, who stands firm on the plank between us, talks her through the rest of the way up, his voice calm and soothing. I let his words wash over me as I gaze up at the sliver of moon in the sapphire sky. I whisper to myself, “Okay.” And I am. I totally got this.
And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a damn squirrel offering to hold our daypacks while we explore the summit!
Smiles everywhere. High-fives pop all around me like firecrackers. The very air, while thin, is electrified. WE DID IT!
I walk up to that young lady’s boyfriend and thank him for helping me, as well as his girlfriend. And to her I say, “Girl, I was so with you!”
Too soon, it’s time to make our descent. To be honest, a lot of people feel like going down is worse than climbing up. That is not my experience.
Yes, it is more or less a controlled fall, but I feel very in control. I take it one plank at a time, just like I did on the way up, and encourage every single person I pass. The way I see it, we’re a team. It requires communication to move past one another on the cables, so why not give folks a kind word to hold on to?
At the bottom, I look at my gloves. The steel cables have worn holes clean through them.
Back at camp, I’m still wearing a stupid grin. Turns out two of those L.A. guys didn’t summit. One got freaked out by Sub Dome and turned back. Half Dome itself sent the other one packing. I excused myself to go take a dip in the river, lest they see my smile grow a little.
The original plan was to hike up to Clouds Rest today, but the water situation – or, lack thereof – makes us reconsider. After carrying extra water to Half Dome yesterday and still running out, doing a hike nearly four times as long with the same amount of water (there are no viable water sources from which to filter) seems like a pretty stupid move.
Remembering the “unhappy campers” we saw backpacking up to Glacier Point, we decide to split the trip up and overnight near Illilouette Fall. Climbing the rest of the way out tomorrow should be a snap. A hot snap, but a snap nevertheless.
About a mile and a half out of camp, the boys see a Northern Pacific rattlesnake on the trail. Well, they hear it before they see it, which generally isn’t the best possible scenario to hope for, as it’s snake for “get the hell out of my air space.” Fortunately, they all parted ways no worse for the wear. I’m a little jealous, as I’ve never seen a rattlesnake in the wild before, but I was lagging behind – pretty much the usual story at this point.
At every turn out of the valley, it’s like Half Dome is watching us. Maybe it’s saying, “I’ll get you next time, my pretty!” I don’t know. But it’s nice not to be afraid of it anymore. To know I actually stood on the head of that beast.
We settle into a “preemo” campsite in the Illilouette Gorge, along the river.
The smoke from the Mariposa County wildfires descends on us, turning the evening an eerie shade of orange and blocking the distant mountains from view.
A woman is already there solo backpacking, but a giant redwood log divides our camps. She is pleased to see us and happy to have company. I smile and nod, eager to set up camp and catch up on my journal writing.
Afterward, I walk past the redwood “partition” into the lady’s camp. She invited us to join her at her campfire earlier. Her eyes light up when she sees me and she leaps up to re-kindle the dying flames. Karina is her name, and this is the first campfire she’s ever made. She is thrilled to have someone to share it with. To be honest, I’m quite thrilled she asked! We talk and talk, like two old friends catching up after a long separation.
A soul sister is someone you don’t have to see or talk to every day because your memory of her never dims. She makes the fount of your heart spring to life because, from the moment you meet a soul sister, that’s where she lives large. Karina is a soul sister to me, and continues to inspire me to take care of myself, nurture my art, and live fully and deeply.
By the time I return to our camp, the boys are zipped up in their tents. My husband has left the backpacking equivalent of a flower by my boots:
Karina left around 5 a.m. to hike the two miles to Glacier Point where the loveliest of sunrise over Half Dome shots are to be had. I take the pinecone my husband left by my boots last night and turn it into “Paula Pinecone”, which I leave by Karina’s tent. She’ll get the message.
We leave camp at a leisurely pace, enjoying some hot chocolate before our two-mile ascent to Glacier Point. (One of the best parts of backpacking is the hot chocolate. Just sayin’.)
The leg thing seems like it’s about to start up again, but quickly dissipates, first from one leg, and then the other. Before we know it, we’ve reached the crowd at Glacier Point. I stand on a rock above them, watching as they push and shove – iPhones in hand – for the best view of Half Dome.
No, I think to myself, that will never be enough for me. For I’ve seen the best view of Half Dome, and it’s more beautiful and terrible than they can ever imagine. As for Yosemite, I’ve bathed in its rivers, breathed in its essence, and counted stars in the Milky Way from its rockfaces.
No, nothing short of that will ever do again.