Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Into the Valley

There come days in every trip where one just need to relax, and relax is what I did the next day. I could try and write a couple paragraphs about how I sat around watching television and stuffing my face with Rora’s cooking, she had been gracious enough to not only house me but also serve me a cornucopia of baked goods and an amazing pasta dinner, I can’t thank her enough, but I’ve decided instead to leave the days summary here in this first paragraph.
Swinging inch worm.
I left Rora’s house in the evening and headed for Yosemite, deciding that I would spend the night sleeping in my car just outside the park in what might be the only Walmart in California to be so accommodating. I drove through darkness, watching the city lights fade into the night. The short drive buzzed past with no incident to speak of, until I pulled off at Atwater exit, where the Walmart was, a cop driving the opposite direction did a sudden U-turn as I drove by, catching up to me as I slowed to make a turn. 

He continued to follow me, riding deliberately close to me, I wasn’t sure that I had done anything, so I proceeded on, not knowing what other option there was. As I neared the Walmart it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to pull into the parking lot of a close store and make a bed with the cop evidently following me. I spotted an open gas station down the street and decided to go there instead. As I pulled into the parking lot the cop did another U-turn and sped off in the direction we had just came from. I will never know what that was all about, but I kept an eye out for him as I made my way back to Walmart, finding a secluded corner where I could crash for the night. 

It had been a couple weeks since I had slept in my car but my body was still accommodated to the awkward position, within moments I was asleep. Next thing I knew I was awoken by the employees pulling in for their shifts. The place didn’t open till 7 but here they were waiting in there cars before even six am. I can’t imagine why they were so eager to show up to work at such an ungodly hour, and I was slightly perturbed that their presence had forced me from my slumber. I needed some food so I waited until the store opened, ran inside and grab my rations and hit the road. 

Yosemite is a super popular national park, and camps sites are limited, even though it was the off season I was unwilling to take any chances and wanted to be there to grab a site. The drive from Atwater to Yosemite National Park started off flat and desolate, your standard east California desert towns lining the highway. The flatness then turned into a sea of rolling hills, adorned with an exceptional amount of cattle, all lazily gnawing at the grass. Soon the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s appeared on the horizon, announcing Yosemite’s presence. 

The road slowly started to climb, as I entered the park, the flat valley floor stretch out around me, barricaded by steep granite walls. Around massive grey cliffs reached towards the sky, their snow cap peaks melting into the clouds. More than once I had to erratically reorient my car, as it drifted off the road while I stared at the bounty of beauty around me. I had been to Yosemite before but that was many moons ago, and most of my memories of the place had faded in the time since, but everything looked familiar but I was still enamored. I have claimed for awhile now that Yosemite was my favorite National Park, and within mere moments of pulling into the valley I reconfirmed this affirmation to myself. 

I went into the visit center to inquire about the where to camp, the best hikes and get some information on the weather conditions. The ranger suggested five hikes, and told me that the weather outlook was tame but that the summits of the higher altitude trails would have snow, possibly over a foot in places. I gathered up the material he handed me and headed to a campsite just down the road, at the trailhead of one of the suggested hikes. The campers from the night before hadn’t eve left yet as I was setting up my camp, many of them giving me a strange look as I was the only one putting up a tent instead of taking it down. The campsite wasn’t pack thankfully, and I was happy to find myself a nice spot, my home for the next three nights. 

I took my time setting up camp, only planning to do one of the five suggested hikes that day. I made myself a lunch and then decided to hit the trail. Instantly the trail turned into steep switchbacks, my atrophied legs burned within the first couple hundred yards. Once again I hadn’t bothered to consider I was at elevation, the trailhead at 4,000’ the summit of Yosemite Point over 6’800’, couple the thin air with the sore throat I had developed the day before and breathing instantly became a chore. I chugged along, convinced the route would level out. Each step reminding me why I should work out. 

I attributed much of the pain to the lack of intensive hiking in the past couple weeks, figuring it would subside once I got in stride. I peddled on, lying to myself that the worse was nearly over and that my body would kick into gear at any moment. 

I hate hiking. I know this might come as a strange revelation from someone who has spent so much time pursuing hiking, but it’s true. It hurts, you get sweaty, the rocks stab into the bottom of your feet. Yes, in the end it’s always worth it and you feel like you’ve accomplished something great, you get amazing sights and stunning views, but when you are sitting on the side of a trail catching your breath as your legs burn, it all seems rather sadistic. 
View of Half Dome from somewhere along the trail. 
I have a very goal oriented mind, and even when the goals are solely internal decisions, with no consequences for not completing them, I still push through. Of course, I had told myself I would walk all the way to Yosemite Point, a mile past Upper Yosemite Falls, which itself was considered, I think understatedly, as a “strenuous hike.” So I pressed on for the sole reason of completely the arbitrary task I had given myself for the day. After an hour of constant uphill, I came to the base of the Upper Falls, or the top of the lower falls, however you want to phrase it, they are one and the same. The giant cascade of the upper fall stole the show, a beautiful veil of water raining down into the blue pool at it’s base. The white of the waterfall stood out brilliantly against the dark granite cliffs.  
Upper Yosemite Falls.
I stood an watched the thin layers of water be blown by the wind a ballet of white water dancing along the cliff side. After a few minutes it dawned on me what I was really looking at, the trail ended at the top of that giant waterfall, I still had thousands of feet to walk up before I was at the top of the cascade, and then another mile to the summit. I continued on in agony, not without muttering complaints to myself. The trail managed to get steeper, streams of water soaked the path. My feet constantly slid out from me on the wet granite, each slide causing my body to tense up, wasting what little energy I had to be making this trek. 

Soon snow started to cover the landscape, but the trail remained uncovered, the snow providing a pleasant change of scenery as I pressed on. In hindsight, it feels like it didn’t take all that long, but it was a two hour hike, and every minute of it was grueling and unforgiving, but when I finally made it to the top of the falls I was greeted with panorama worthy of the gods. The snow cap peeked lined the horizon in all directions, Half Dome, the most famous peek in Yosemite, stood in quite grandeur, watching over the peaceful pine laden valley thousands of feet below. I sat in wonder, enjoy a quick break and a small snack before making the final push to the summit. 
View from the top of the falls. 
Most people stopped at the falls, had lunch and headed back down, so as I made my way to the peak I was suddenly presented with a less well trodden path. For awhile I was able to follow it, but soon the snow, which by this point was up to my ankles, had obscured the path in spots and the barren areas in-between the snow patches hid any footprints that might be followed. 

Soon I was off the path, I wasn’t too worried as I could see the creek that fed the falls, “if I can get to the creek I can follow it to the bridge and then I am back on the trail,” I though reassuringly to myself. I saw a couple at the top of the hill where I found myself and tried to make it up to where I saw them. The melting snow had turned the steep hill nearly unclimbable. I looked back and realized I had no option of turning around, the hill was too steep with nothing to hold on to, I would slide right down it if I didn’t keep upward momentum. 
It looks very pretty now that I am comfortable. 
I pushed higher and higher but the snow pack kept forcing me to go right, towards the face of the cliff. Soon I came to the cliffside, rock climbing ropes were strung out over a finger of granite, called Lost Arrow. My feet slid from under me, I was too close to the edge for such a scare. I scurried back away from the edge, unable to investigate the rock climbing gear any further. Just then I saw a couple up at the ridge, I had to get up to where they were, as that was evidently the summit. I charted a route and started my climb, throwing my camera into my bag and using all of my extremities to climb. 

Finally I made it, I was exasperated, my inadvertent detour had cost me what was left of my energy, and I had a long walk back down. From the summit the view stretched out in ever direction, beautiful peeks surrounding the coddled valley. I was nearly 3,000ft higher than my campsite, this was my highest climb on the trip, and my body was letting me know. As I left the summit I managed to follow the trail, which lead through a huge swath of snow, in place up to my knees, soon my feet were soaked by the melting snow. At times I was forced to ski on my shoes, a lifetime of playing hockey paying off.

 I pressed on, my spirit fading fast. Walking down a steep mountain is still a pretty painful experience, each step onto jagged rocks that bend feet in awkward ways. I had little strength to put into the endeavor so my feet gave way constantly. Going down forced my feet to slide more, with each slip sapping me of the little strength my legs had left. A sign read “Yosemite Valley 3.2 Miles,” I cringed. 
See I really made it to the top.

I managed to distracted my mind by looking at the stunning vistas the plagued the route, a constant barrage of beauty stretching out before me. I caught up to some other hikers, one was an attractive Belgian girl, I know this because I eaves dropped on a conversation during my snack break at the top of the falls. It’s amazing how quickly my body can react to an attractive female, instantly my posture corrected, my legs stopped loafing, my strides getting longer, and the pain evaporated form my face. This new incentive carried me most of the way down the mountain, her group nipping at my heels the entire descent, forcing me to act like I wasn’t riving in pain. 
View looking down from the top of the falls. 
Thanks to the Belgian girls push I made it back to camp, just in time to collapse at the picnic table and start figuring out how tomorrow I was going to talk myself out of doing anything as grueling.  

It began to storm rain no long after I got back to camp, so I hurried inside my tent. Soon it was pouring outside, the sound of raining battering on the fly drowning out any other sounds. I ws exhausted from the days hike and I laid down falling asleep quickly as the rain sung me to sleep. 

Me overlooking the valley, Half Dome in the distance. 

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