Hiking Yosemite National Park, California: Fighting to survive in the American wilderness
It was supposed to be a moderately strenuous 12 kilometre hike to the top of Yosemite's eponymous waterfall. It turned out to be a nearly 40km fight for survival which, at times, had me questioning my will to live.
If I'd been better prepared, perhaps I would have handled it better. As it was, I set off from my cosy cabin in Yosemite Village that blue-skied spring morning in t-shirt and shorts - 500ml of water, two sandwiches and a light sweater in my backpack - blissfully ignorant of the epic trek though the capricious microclimates of the Sierra Madre mountains that awaited me.
The plan was to meet up with a local hiking group at the trailhead at 7:30am and climb the equivalent of two Empire State buildings to the clifftop overlooking the famous falls, engorged by the snowmelt of a particularly harsh winter.
While a novice hiker, I was a semi-regular jogger and pretty sure I could make it without having a heart attack. Even if the hardcore hikers in the group left me for dust.
I waited 45 minutes and was beginning to think no one else would show when a hiker looking as lost as I did appeared. Realising we were part of the same group, she and I were just about to set off on our own when a dozen or so people passed by. They weren't our group but they were doing the same hike so we decided to tag along.
I realised immediately that my jogs along flat city streets had done nothing to prepare me for the cruel ascent. The tall pine trees that had shaded the trail to begin with soon left us to the mercy of the already scorching sun. Anna, the hiker I had met earlier, and I abandoned attempts to discuss our mutual resolution to spend more time in nature as we wound our way up the granite cliff-face, huffing, puffing and pausing every few minutes to take pictures of the glacier-carved canyon (really just a guise for rest stops). Two of our group - young guys kitted out in expensive activewear - collapsed about halfway up, telling us between wheezes that they'd decided to chill out there for a bit and then head back down.
The view from the top struck me like a physical assault. Confronted by a perfect panorama of the pine-carpeted canyon - a vision of pure, unadulterated American wilderness now the cars and crowds were obscured - I felt that sheer sense of joy that is so often elusive. Standing before this natural cathedral, the sheer granite cliffs supporting a roof of clear blue sky, I felt strongly that this is what life was all about - enjoying this big, beautiful world of ours while we have the chance. Our everyday worries are insignificant in the scheme of things. Like that brutal trail, they could be overcome.
It should have been the climax of the trip. But instead of head back down, as Anna and I had expected, the group continued onwards and upwards. Anna, clearly the more sensible of the pair of us, decided to turn back but I, ever fearful of missing out an adventure, pressed on.
Soon, we were in what seemed like a scene from The Revenant, walking alongside the swollen river charging back toward the precipice, pines stretching in every direction and not another soul in sight. I tried not to think too much about the bear tracks in the clumps of snow that began to appear, merging into each other the higher we climbed and eventually burying the track. Unused to snow, I made slow progress, fearful I'd sink into a hole I couldn't climb out of or slip off the edge of a cliff. The sting of the icy droplets against my bare legs turned my blood cold, but by then it was too late to turn back.
Reaching North Dome, which looks out at iconic Half Dome like some bald-headed sentinel, provided a beautiful break in the suffering, but only for the time it took to wolf down our packed lunches.
Nearing the well-named Snow Creek, we met a lone hiker who said he'd spent the past couple of hours wandering around aimlessly, unable to find the path under its thick snowy covering. He was astounded to find we were attempting the route he'd set aside two days for in one.
If it wasn't for the tracks he'd left behind, we too may have found ourselves spending the night in the wilderness. And, unlike him, we'd be literally sleeping under the stars. Fortunately I was with a group of seasoned hikers who'd navigated snowy back country trails before and could use the tracks and downloaded maps to steer us in the right direction.
By this stage, the cold and exhaustion had set in so deeply, my muscles felt on the verge of paralysis. Only the sound of our feet trudging heavily through the snow broke the silence as we channelled all of our energy into staying alive. The only thing propelling me on was the thought that if I didn't keep moving, I may very well never move again. That and the thought that the pizza place in the village closed at 9pm.
Darkness obliterated all but the new moon and pearly Milky Way as we descended the steep, stony switchbacks that would return us to the valley. While the others had headlamps, I had only the light of my phone to prevent me from plummeting into inky oblivion.
Arriving back at 9:30pm, we were ecstatic to find the restaurant still open and, once stuffed with pizza and beer, were so charged with adrenaline we felt we could do it all again tomorrow. While there may be a fine line between stupidity and adventure, I'm willing to play the fool if it leads to experiences like these.
As John Muir once said "The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness". I'll just bring more food, water and warm clothing next time.