As a child, I loved to read. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite subject in books was adventure. Among others, I was (and am) a big fan of Jack London, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury. Like anyone, I liked to picture myself along on any of the myriad literary adventures that the authors described. One of the things I liked best about these tales was the element of danger that was omnipresent in the wild – man versus man; man versus wild; man versus nature; or just plain man versus the unknown. Many years later, as much as I appreciate the outdoors, I still appreciate the danger that is inherently present. To me, Halloween is the best time to celebrate this danger – and risk with stories that deal with any of the topics above – or any wilderness danger topic that I failed to mention. For the last two years, I’ve covered some of the dangers I’ve seen in the wild with Tales of Terror from the Yosemite Backcountry in 2012, which is a story about me facing an unknown problem on a trail patrol in 1998; and Freedom of the Open Road in 2013, which is a story about me facing problems from my fellow man while camping in Colorado. I’ve also been lucky enough to get a story from Melissa Avery about her experiences with the unknown in Peru (More Than Myth), and will have a great post from Missouri Howell later this month about the unknown in Missouri.
My submission for this year is The Hard Way, a story that is near and dear to my heart still even after the experience sixteen plus years ago. It is a story, I think, that will always be near and dear to my heart, because I cannot think about the experience without thinking, “I shouldn’t be alive”. It is a straight up survival story; a story of a foolish young man versus nature; and like any true survival story, it is long. I point this out because I realize that for the most part, my target audience is individuals who like posts with photos, videos, and text totaling not more than 750 words. To these people, let me say I do monitor my analytics, your comments, and I appreciate all of the support you do give me; and you should rest easy: October will be over soon, and I will go back to providing my Dragnet-style trail reports, route reports and gear reviews which you can rely upon to the extent that you do.
If you are a person who loves the photos, and short trail reports, but not extended pieces of fiction, this post is not for you. Do not comment, or message me that the post was too long; I will be very unsympathetic, especially having now warned you that it is long. I believe that any great story deserves the space to be told well; and I know to my vary core that The Hard Way is a great story. The only other disclaimers I will provide about the piece are the following: first, do not e-mail me or write me about how foolish I am now based upon this story, as it is about an experience I had over sixteen years ago. The person reflected in the story is no longer me, as I now have less hair, more experience, more wrinkles, and an infinitely wiser approach to life and the outdoors. What I will say about the experience is that I think it reflects an unspoken truth in the outdoors community that many great outdoorspeople have made mistakes similar to mine when starting out; and the end result of such mistakes is that you survive, live, and thrive with the knowledge of what not to do; or you die. Such is the nature of the inherent risk present in the outdoors. Finally, in terms of formatting, I have placed a number of pictures of Yosemite in the post to break up the text and to provide pleasing visuals. Obviously, none of these pictures are from the experience as they are of the wrong areas of the park; and most importantly, they are not pictures of the experience as my film camera did not survive the experience. Now, if you’ve read all this, and you’re still curious, you are ready to experience as I did, The Hard Way.
In 1998, it was a cold, snowy El Nino year in California. In April, when I arrived in Yosemite for my summer job, the snow level was lingering at four thousand feet – the elevation of the valley floor. Before the clouds cleared in late May, it again snowed heavily on two separate occasions. By mid-June, large swathes of the park had yet to be rediscovered from the snowfields that covered them; and over half of the park roads had not been plowed, including the Tioga Pass, and the Glacier Point Road. The conditions had caused a great deal of difficulty for us, the Backcountry Office of the National Park Service. Most of the park’s trails were closed (as they were covered in snow or ice); and even though it was our job to patrol the trails and provide the public with information regarding trail conditions, we had very little information to go on ourselves based on what limited areas we had been able to access. In many cases, we had no idea what existed in certain areas, because Rangers had been invariably stopped by high water crossings or other dangerous conditions.
Based on the conditions, we were constantly gathering – and updating information as snow melted, causing areas to become accessible, or then inaccessible due to high water crossings. At all times, we were encouraged to get outside – even on our days off – to hike, climb, backpack, and gather the information in order that we could serve the park – and its visitors better. Getting outside, however, was something that we did not need “encouragement” for – we were already working for the Backcountry Division of the National Park Service. To this day, I cannot think of one person in that office who didn’t have an obsession about being outside. One Tuesday, I was in the office, writing up my trail report from the previous day. I had traversed the near-impassable flooded morass that was Little Yosemite Valley; and had found that the campground that was one of the park’s most popular summer backpacking destinations was still covered in two feet of melted snow.
As I tried to make my atrocious handwriting pass through three sheets of carbon paper, my boss came in, and asked me what I was doing on my days off. Even though it was a Tuesday, it was my Friday, as Wednesdays and Thursdays were my Saturdays and Sundays. Irregular time off and modified weekends were some of the many interesting things that you also dealt with when working for the National Park Service; but like everyone else, I didn’t care as I was working in Yosemite. I didn’t have a concrete answer, so she did what he always did: started talking about the many beautiful places in the park that were off the beaten path that I didn’t know. After discussing one or two places that were just flat out inaccessible, she started telling me about Ostrander Lake, which she said was the most brilliant cerulean blue lake that existed in the park.
Once she started talking about the ski hut that was next to the lake that I could stay in with my Park Service keys, I was beyond interested. It was a no brainer that no one had been out there since deep winter; but after checking the maps together, we agreed that the snow had likely melted enough for a person to get out there on foot. It was at this point, that she looked up from the map, looked around the Wilderness Center to see that it was indeed not busy, because it was a cold Tuesday in June, and told me that I could take the rest of the day off to go out there on an early weekend excursion, as long as I drafted an additional trail report about what I found when I returned. Before she could change his mind, I was out the door, and back at the house I shared with three other Valley Rangers. Packing was easy – I selected what gear I would need from the different piles of often-used equipment in my room. Once I was packed, I raced over to the nearest bus station and chased down the bus that had just left. With my chest heaving, I gave the annoyed bus driver and assorted tourists my best devil-may-care grin as I stepped aboard, and within five minutes was at the Four Mile Trail, the trailhead that would take me up to the South Rim of Yosemite Valley, and then back toward Ostrander Lake. As I stepped onto the trail, I felt lucky to be alive; and lucky to be adventuring on what was just a normal Tuesday for me.
Even with my pack, I easily outdistanced the few day hikers that were on the lower reaches of the trail. After an hour, the only sounds I could hear were the steady crunching of my boots against the worn gravel of the Four Mile Trail. As the sun began to set in the West, I crested the last rise of the Four Mile Trail, and walked into Glacier Point. The parking lot that would be full of hundreds of tourists on daily basis in a number of weeks was empty because its many spots remained covered with several feet of snow and ice. I checked my bearings; watched the sun slip a little more toward the horizon; and wound my way through the silent trees until I reached the solid granite edge of Sentinel Dome. With my fourth wind of the day, I sprinted to the top of the Dome just as the sun vanished. As the last rays of light stained the surrounding mountains pink, I laid out my bivy sack at the foot of the ancient and famous Sentinel Dome Jeffery Pine. As the day turned to night, I watched the moon rise and illuminate the North Rim and the rumbling Yosemite Falls in pale ghostly light. The real spectacle, however, was the black that had paved over the fleeting sunset that gave way grudgingly to a thousand tiny holes in the ceiling of the world. Under the long lost light of a warm blanket of a myriad stars, I fell asleep.
Shortly after dawn, two scrub jays landed and began to raucously chirp at the stranger under their tree. After being serenaded this way for a couple minutes, I decided that it was time to get up. As it was a chilly alpine morning, I leapt out of my bivy sack, into my boots, and soon had my breakfast warming. After breakfast, I packed up my gear, touched the ancient pine and headed off. As I walked back down the Dome, I marveled at how perfect the day appeared. There was not a cloud in the sky; and from my 8,000 foot viewpoint, I could see that the bulk of the high country was still experiencing winter in summer. To the North, South, and East, firm white lines of snow and ice covered the expanse of the park.
Back at the Wilderness Center, my boss and I had looked at the map and agreed that the best route for my journey was to follow the Four Mile Trail up to Sentinel Dome; and from there head West on the South Rim Trail, before heading cross-country briefly to the Glacier Point Road, which I would follow West-Southwest to the Ostrander Trailhead, which I would then follow to the lake. These decisions were made easily on the dull colors of the topographic maps that we looked at; but even at that time, we knew the route would likely be much more difficult given the amount of snow present from Sentinel Dome onward. As I came off the Dome, I hit the South Rim trail easily, and followed it for a whole quarter mile without snow. This was better than I had expected, but I was not surprised when I rounded a corner and found the rest of the trail hidden under six feet of snow. I grinned, kicked in steps on the melting edge, and climbed up, and continued on. After a little bit I came upon a raging river headed toward the South Rim. Absently, I checked my map. I knew that if I followed Sentinel Creek due South, I would hit the road almost exactly where the trailhead would be. However, Sentinel Creek was marked on my map as simply that – a creek, not a raging torrent of water that was at least fifteen feet across and impassible.
I pondered the situation for a minute. I knew from six weeks of experience that all of the crossings were running at beyond record levels, and were all higher and larger than before. I also knew that the smart play was to set the map down, set the compass down, and take accurate bearings and triangulate my position. But I felt lazy. The day was warming, and I hadn’t been lost – well, I hadn’t been lost ever, really. I took out the compass – looked at it in an overconfident manner, and then decided that this had to be Sentinel Creek, took a bearing of one hundred and eighty degrees, and began walking. As I strode downhill, I passed in and out of the forest, and kept scanning the horizon for the road, which in my mind, would be appearing at any minute.
Coming down the hill, I found myself listening to an enormous dull roar. I shook my head in amazement. Clearly, I thought, that was the rumbling and scraping of the road crew just over the next rise, and we’d have a good laugh before I headed up the remaining trail. With that in mind, I scrambled over the hill, and stopped, completely dumbstruck at what was in front of me. There was no road. There was an intersection; but there was no road. Directly in front of me was a frothing wall of water, at least forty feet wide that dominated the area and its tributaries that were flowing into it. In the middle of this raging torrent, a number of trees were jammed together like broken toothpicks. For the first time that day, I pulled my map and gave it a serious look. I realized immediately that based on the time I had spent on the trail, and the geography of the region, I had to be standing next to Bridalveil Creek, not Sentinel Creek. Inwardly, I chided myself for my sloppiness earlier: I should have known that based on the size of the creek, I had to have been at Bridalveil.
Knowing where I was, roughly, because I still wasn’t motivated enough to take bearings even though I had already made one serious mistake, wasn’t exactly a bonus, because I realized that I had to cross Bridalveil to hit the road at some point. The creek, or river was the last obstacle on my way to the lake, and it appeared un-navigable because of the glut of snowmelt. This left me with two options. I could wander the banks and look for a better location to cross, or I could turn around. Or, as I realized, an hour later, after having traversed both East and West on the bank and finding nothing but rapids and a broken bridge, I could try to traverse the pile of logs being battered by the angry water. I decided to check out the pile of logs.
When I got down to the river, I could see that what obstructed the river was no pile of logs. They were fallen full size trees. The trunks were as wide across as I was tall, and then larger. They lay there, some in the might of the water, touching a bottom I could not see, others, stacked upon them, and more upon them, slashing boldly upwards, lying broken on their sides. I pondered the situation in front of me for several minutes. I determined that the conglomeration was either a stable bridge, or it was nothing but a death trap for fools. Impetuously, I went for it. I jumped up, grabbed a foothold and a handhold and boosted myself up. And then again up. Over, up. Across. Underneath me, I could hear the river screaming boldly again for my blood. I swayed on a bole, easily three times my size as the mass moved, I climbed down, and then over before leaping and landing on dry earth with a convulsive thud, sending dirt flying everywhere. Shakily, I straightened out my legs, and stepped out of the mud, adrenaline pumping, as I stepped up the hill and into the trees. I did not look at a map, for I was obviously going south.
Three hills later, I was no longer so sure. I was traversing a thick, dark forest, whose muddy dirt was interrupted with a thinning coat of snow. Despite my difficulties, I remained overconfident, and refused to get out my map. I would hit the road soon enough. My legs continued to move, up and down. I crested each ridge of trees only to find my view obscured by more trees. I kept walking. After six hills, I sat astride one, and looked around. It appeared that all the world would show me was snow capped hills, and green trees, but no road. Puzzled, I looked down the hill and saw another creek roaring with its small fury down a hill. I whipped out the map. Having no idea of an exact position, the creek below me could have been Avalanche Creek, which fell down to a main highway in the park, which I could follow up to the lake. I was a little off, or so I thought, and it would be a little annoying to take the road, but I still would be there.
The creek gurgled and threatened me like the larger Bridalveil, but could not muster the force within its tiny tinny voice to frighten me away from more than a couple feet. The creek and I began to drop down, to a larger roaring sound, which I again imagined was the traffic on the road. Suddenly, the water trailed off into a silver arc, flowed off the rocks, and down into the stream ten feet below. I peered over the edge, and saw a clump of sharp looking bushes. The grey stone was flat, cool, and smooth as I dangled my legs over it. There would be no climbing out once I dropped down. Once below, I was truly stuck. It was either the safest drop, or the stupidest thing to do. If that roar was the road, I was one short leap away from an easy trip. If that wasn’t the road, I was in big trouble. I gave it some serious thought: I could turn around; take a bearing; try to triangulate my position; play it safe, and follow my instinct for self-preservation, or I could take a risk and keep going.
I stood up, and dropped like a sheet of water. My body flew against the solid rock into the snarling, cracking branches that broke my fall. I swayed, and then steadied myself. Roughly extracting one leg, and then another, I pushed on. The ground dropped, and my feet planted themselves at angles to follow the steep decent. Suddenly, I was in open space on another cliff edge. It was a drop. As I looked down, I stepped back, so the air wouldn’t push me over. Water no longer fell in a silvery sheet from this height, but in clumps and bunches, each last drop clinging to his companions in a futile attempt to maintain a sense of cohesion as they were dashed on the clear pointed rocks below, reconstituted, and shunted away in a faster, more efficient version of the creek below. There was no way I could jump that drop and survive, and I couldn’t go back. There was one option left.
I scrambled up the side of the rock next to me, floored my legs, and with two feet of acceleration, jumped over the creek. With my limbs moving in desperately in the air, I could feel my right boot catching the edge of the waterfall. I landed grotesquely in dirt, my legs carving rivets in the hill. I pulled myself up and brushed myself off. Dirt fell all around me, and clumps of leaves brushed out of my hair. I sat on the spur of a broken hill, looking at the water clamoring and groaning next to me. I shook my head to clear it from the noise, so I could think. I considered fighting my way through the clinging hands of brush above me, but instead focused on the glacial valley below. It was clean, clear and free of any human signs, such as roads. I decided to go further down, and follow the stream to where I could get a clear bearing of my location. With a deep breath, I stepped down the hill.
Branches from all sorts of bushes and trees grasped my feet, legs and torso eagerly as I descended and I angrily yanked my legs forward and down, losing track of the rivulets of blood that appeared on them. At the bottom of the valley, I looked up to find that I was trapped in a prison of smooth rock. Above, the walls of the valley were a polished, wrinkled grey, which were slick from snow melt that cascaded down the walls. I was in a box with cerulean blue lid and two warped, water worn walls. I was now next to a rushing river, fed by the falls that I had circumnavigated in my one-way decent. The other side of the valley across the river from me was eroded solid rock, cut in a series of sheer straight angles. My side of the valley appeared to now be a gradual decent along the river’s edge. The top seemed an eternity away. I had no doubt that I was lost.
I set my pack down and rubbed my head and took stock of the situation, and the half dozen bad decisions that had led me to this point. As I sat there thinking, I noticed that my boots were soaked. They had been competing against the moisture all day, and now the leather dripped water. Since the soles were hard rubber, I could see myself easily slipping into the river. As I replaced my pack on my back, I did not re-buckle the straps, so it would not remain strapped to me in the event I went unintentionally swimming. I moved along the rocky side of the river slowly, feeling the sun dart between the mountains above, blasting my tired body, and then causing me to shiver in its absence.
Ahead of me, I could see the granite I had been walking on disappear into the water. Other than the swiftly flowing river, all that was left was the unclimbable slope, or a hanging face next to the water with definite holds. I sat down, gingerly, and felt the muscles complaining. I wasn’t worried about the traverse. I was worried about climbing the traverse with wet holds, a backpack, and a river beneath me. I also decided to confirm something I had suspected for the last hour. I was going to, for the first time that day seriously find out where I was. I pulled out the map, pulled out at the compass, checked my altimeter, and examined the formations around me. I took bearings, and compared them with the map. When I was finished, what I had suspected was confirmed. I was in Bridalveil Canyon. Bridalveil Canyon, an inaccessible hanging glacial valley, which held the last of Bridalveil Creek, before it tumbled down two to three thousand feet to form Bridalveil Falls, a feature that could be seen from miles away from many vantage points.
At this point, I didn’t need the contour lines on the map to tell me that things were bad. I had seen how bad things were with my eyes. I shut the map, and folded it absently, while looking around. The back of the box was sealed, with the smooth drops I had taken down rock faces. Unclimbable. I could not cross the river, that would have been silly, and the far canyon wall was steeper than the face on my side. Unclimbable. The right of the box was warped and sealed. The top of the box, the cerulean cover, was unreachable. That left the side of the box I was on. I could not climb out, nor walk out where I was. I could follow the river where I was at, hoping to find a crack in the box that would let me out. That meant traversing. It was surreal. It seemed that there was always an option, and yet the only option I had at this point, was to wait on a narrow slip of land, or go forward. That was the option. I could not move, conserve my food, and drink from the river. It was possible that they would find me.
I unfolded the map. Would they find me? I was over twenty miles away from where I was supposed to be. It was highly unlikely that they would even look where I was. They would be looking around Ostrander, where I was stuck at Bridalveil, with no wood; with nothing to build a signal fire or maintain such a fire. I could wait. It was the safest option. I had worked searches prior to this; I knew the protocols of wilderness rescue; I knew the safest thing to do in most situations was to wait; simply stay put, and the rescue would come. But somewhere, in the back of my head, I didn’t feel that they would find me; and that waiting was futile; and that they would never find me; or my body. It seemed an easy flawed decision then, as life could not wait, so neither could I. I had to get out on my own.
I pulled my body out on the holds and moved across the face, an inch at a time. I clung to the wall like a fly, moving slowly. The water slowed, and clamored around my feet. I hung on that face for an eternity, arms stretching out for small pieces of precious grey rock. Looking down, I could see the resumption of a grey shelf I could walk on if only I could swing across once more. My arms ached with fatigue. Suddenly, I slipped. I partially fell into what appeared to be six inches of water. I smiled wryly, waded out, and breathed again on the next shelf. Since there was still no place to climb out, I walked on. I could now hear the pounding roar of Bridalveil Falls. The second path ended abruptly. On my right, the water sped up, faster, whirling and wheeling past rapidly. I could not see the waterfall, but I could hear it, and it sounded close, perhaps around the next corner of rock that obstructed my view. I weighed my options: I could traverse again over the river, but this new traverse was more difficult, as it was higher above the water, about six feet, with very a flat face to contend with. The last climb had been sketchy enough in boots, this one could be impossible. I sat again. I couldn’t turn around; because there was no way out. I could only go forward, and hope to climb out from there. I looked at the pointed rocks in the water and shuddered. Since the waterfall could have theoretically been around the next corner, falling into the water was an especially bad option at this point. Dully amazed, I sat, and I stared. I found myself wondering: So, this is it. Real walls of rock; cold harsh water, and my fatigued body, now steaming in the last light of the afternoon. No way out, but forward. At that point in time, I could not remember ever having concentrated as hard on a single decision as this decision. For that matter, I could not remember else at that moment at all. All that existed was my thoughts; and the barriers around my body.
I stood up. I slipped one hand out, onto a slick piece of granite, and with the effort in my right arm, levered my body in space. My left fingers eased onto the black and grey flecked rock, straining and white. My feet dangled against the rock below, silent and impotent. My right foot found a hold. I moved, crab like, conscious only of the bright light from above and the sound of the furious entity below, waiting to swallow me. My right hand grasped another hold. Then my left. Then my left foot. Then my right foot. I moved my right hand again, to the exact center of the wall. The hold was cracked and broken, peeling off. I put my right hand on it, and pulled my body towards it. As my eyes flicked toward my hand, I saw the rock crack, crumble, and turn to dust in my grip. I fell.
My arms reached frantically for nothing, as my feet crashed into the water below. It was cold, blurry and dark. Gasping for air, my head broke the surface before it was jerked ruthlessly back down. The world was cold. The cold came into my chest. The smooth sullen embrace of the water ripped the warmth from me. I broke to the surface. There was no air. And then was dragged down. My throat was ripped open. The cold conscious careless caress of dark blue water poured down. No air. The warmth of my heart shuddered, and was tugged relentlessly by the water. I couldn’t breathe! I was being dragged down, down by dark grip that...that was my backpack. I couldn’t get out of my backpack! The straps were off. My hands flew like trapped birds, to my waist to my chest, all over my body. It wasn’t the buckles. It was. My head broke the surface, but only enough for my eyes to catch the mocking sun. It was the straps on my shoulders. I had tightened them to keep close to the rock. I couldn’t release them. My feet hit the bottom, and I looked up to see a blue mirror ceiling, reflecting the light from above. I couldn’t push off the bottom. I couldn’t get the straps undone. Images were flashing widely in front of my eyes, past memories, dreams, and faces. Pain washed over my body. Desperately, I focused and grabbed a rock at the bottom, using the leverage to slip one arm, and then another out.
I exploded to the surface, hacking and coughing. I had to get out. I had to get out of the water. I looked around, confused, wondering why I had not been swept off a cliff. I found that I was pushed up against the very rock face I had fallen from by an eddy in the current. Coughing, I tried to swim out. My arms and legs moved disjointedly in the cold, and I made no progress at all. Then, something bumped me. It was my bag. Crazed laughter echoed in my head, as I inwardly laughed at the near instrument of my death. Since it now floated like a buoy, I grabbed it, and bobbed exhaustedly for a moment. Off to the side, the shore was ten feet ahead. I wondered if I could risk swimming into the main current, and risk a battering from the sharp looking rocks and a possible swift drop over the waterfall. I instantly realized that it was no choice at all. I could either risk it, and possibly get out, or stay where I was and slowly freeze to death.
I swept my arm over my bag, pushing it in front of me, and kicked hard. I entered the main current. The world surged by. Rocks zoomed by. I desperately grabbed and pulled myself onto the bank, before I realized I had hit the shore. Tiredly, I tugged my bag out after me. I lay on the bank, exhausted, feeling water trickling off every portion of me back into the river. I was cold. I was almost too cold to move. I would just lie where I was and rest. Sleep. I would sleep for a while, and then see to being warm. In fact, I felt warmer already just by lying motionless. Then, something clicked in the back of my mind. Most hypothermia victims fall asleep because their core temperature is too low. They don’t wake up. I had hypothermia. I was lying in wet clothes and had just spent at least five, maybe ten minutes, maybe longer, in a river that was just above freezing. I knew I had to make a fire to raise my temperature. I dragged myself over to my gear. Everything was soaked. My clothes were wet. My food was soaked. My sleeping bag was drenched. My hands were shaking now; I couldn’t feel my fingers.
I drew out my waterproof match case between my wrists. I couldn’t grip anything at this point. The top was loose. I spilled the matches over the ground. I picked up a handful like a child, and piled dry grass in a pile next to twigs. I placed the matches in my mouth, and with my wrists, gripped the case to strike them. They tasted funny. Wet. I struck. All snapped in a broken wet way, phosphorous merely rubbing off. The cap had been loose. Everything was ruined. I couldn’t make a fire. No fire. No warmth. I looked up, knowing that I didn’t feel as cold as I should. I was very tired. I had come this far; and I couldn’t believe that this was how it was going to end. I was having trouble thinking; remembering; moving; and was looking at my bag and its remnants around me, when it hit me. Emergency. Emergency blanket. With my last shreds of sanity, I ripped open the plastic shell, and with what movement I had left, spread it over my battered freezing body.
I lay there under the sun for a long time. I stared up into the blue space above, watching, as a small shred of clouds came across the sky. The small shreds flew by. Inside me, small shreds were returning, bit by bit. A-B-C-D-E-F-G, now I know my ABC’s, I muttered. But what came after G? When I could answer that, I looked for my name, and sought to spell it in characters that I did not recognize, but became familiar later. It was a name, it was mine. When I could answer that, I moved on to locations, places, items. All had fled, and all came back, sooner or later, in an order that seemed right. When I rose, on bowed knees and head, I was tired. I could not stay. My gear was ruined, and but for a sheet of plastic, I would freeze. I was bested, in all fields that day. Blood oozed from a half dozen spaces on my body. Again, I had a strong feeling that if I waited, I would not be found. I was still wedged in a trap of my own making, and my own stupidity.
I heaved myself to my feet. Dazed, I looked at the fading rays of the sun. I rallied what I could muster inside me, and set off. As I walked, I crinkled with the whisper of the emergency blanket, and the water dripping out of my gear left a trail that faded and disappeared. I arrived at the crest of the waterfall. There was no question of traversing down a black and grey granite wall. It could not be done. I considered lying there, under the sun, and then the stars, on the smooth rock that reflected nothing but wear, and draping my emergency blanket over the falls and waiting for rescue. After a second, I decided against it – it was yet another bad decision, one that had enormous downsides, and little upside.
The near side of the valley shot up from my feet, split and shattered in a thousand broken slabs. I grabbed a rock and started climbing. I climbed up and over pieces of broken granite. Time after time, I hung by my fingers from the slimmest of cracks, not looking back at the river; not thinking about the certain death that awaited me should I make but one mistake. My sodden, useless gear pulled at my back and shoulders angrily. I considered leaving it; abandoned the idea and kept going. When the gusts of wind howled in, I clung fast to the wall and ignored the pelting pebbles and grit that tore at my eyes.
Inexorably, I clawed my way up the slope; staring only at the ridgeline ahead of me. I kept climbing. With a staggering jolt, I yanked myself off the last section of rock. I had come three quarters of the way out of the valley. The final steep slope was a blasted section of knee deep ash. I took a step; and then another. All that surrounded me was the ghosts of a forest; nothing but badly charred stumps and eroding branches. I risked a look back. Far below, the river looked like a peaceful strip of blue. I turned forward again, and moved my feet carefully, as they caught and dragged in the thick silty ash. It was quiet. No birds. There was no sound at all. I lurched forward another step, and tripped, falling flat on my face, hands scrabbling reflexively to stop a slide that did not occur. The ash parted all around the impact, flying up in a swirling cloud to rain back down and around. I grimly pushed myself out of the crater, and watched the imprint of my body slowly fill with the floating ash.
I kept going. I staggered to the top of the ridgeline. I was covered in ash, hiding the red blood flowing freely from me. Sweat rolled down my body, accumulating dust, and fell of in little black drops. I could not see the beauty of where I stood, of where no man had been before, and no man would travel again. All I could see was a tall pillar of the split mountain. It rose another twenty feet in front of me, a smooth, slick flawless section of rock. It was in my path, and I could not climb it. I had made it this far; had staked my whole existence on climbing to this point on the assumption that I would find my way out; that I would escape. Now that I was at the top, I still could not find an exit.
Then I heard it. Liquid, dripping, flowing somewhere near me with a steady drip drip drip trickle. Absently, I ran a grimy hand over my cracked lips. I reached for one of my canteens. I shook it. Empty. I reached for my second canteen. It was unbearably light. I opened it anyways and licked the rim. It was also dry. I counted the memories in my mind, and could not remember drinking at all for a long time. In fact, the only water I could remember consuming was when I had almost drowned. I shuddered at the thought, but was still thirsty. Distantly, beyond the sound of water drops, I could see and hear the river below. I didn’t consider going back down, because I knew that within a tenth of a mile, I would fall, and when I fell, water would matter not. I also knew that even if by some random miracle, I made it back down; I would not have the strength to get back out.
I staggered back down the hill partway and stood on the edge of the rim. The water had to be close. The sound was making me mad. I peered over the edge. I couldn’t see the bottom, because the rock shifted from side to side in a series of narrow crevasses. I set my pack down and considered. I could climb over the edge from where I was, with my bottles tied to my back, and I could free climb down, over the slick rock sections of face, find the trickling stream, fill my bottles, and then climb back up. I wouldn’t go far. I’d only climb or traverse within a twenty foot radius from the rim. I licked my lips, and with some webbing, strapped my bottles to my back. Then I looked down again and stepped back. Roughly, despite the pain, I checked myself across the face and shook my head, and took another two steps back from the edge. What I had seen when I had taken my second look was what I should have seen on first glimpse. The crevasses only barely obscured a near vertical drop down. There was no way I could climb that without a rope and expect to live. The first step off the edge would have been my last, more likely than not, and even if I had made that, there would have been plenty more that were equally treacherous.
I shook my head. I didn’t even know if I was hearing water running, or merely thinking that I heard water running, because I was dehydrated, physically exhausted, mentally drained, or because I had a low core temperature still. I could feel myself slipping away still; ideas, concepts, aspects of my personality were being shunted away to unknown locations. I had to do two things: focus on basic decisions that would keep me alive; and find water. I looked at the towering rock in front of me, and determined that if I went around it, I could probably crest the ridgeline a little further away from the valley’s edge. Probably was the key word there, but I didn’t have a choice, because there was nowhere to go where I was at. Unhappily, going inland from the rim’s edge meant traversing back down into the valley; retracing steps that had cost me dearly on the ascent.
I looked at the sky. That morning, it had been an impossible blue. Now it was growing dark. As I moved back down, and back into the valley, I realized that the sun had been long gone. The day, the year, the month, the hour, the week was over. I watched my steps guardedly. Up ahead, I could see a slight indentation in the rock running up and down the slope, with a dark streak at the bottom. As I approached it, I could see it was the barest smidgen of snowmelt sliding down the face. I stopped and wedged my pack in a nearby crack. There was not enough liquid to catch in a bottle. Slowly, I lowered my body prone against the rock, placing my face flush with the water. Time went by as I drank from the slow drops. I didn’t care that I didn’t know where the water had come from, or what its quality was, or anything. I only cared about ingesting enough to survive.
When I finished, it was completely dark, and the stars had come out quietly. I salvaged what food I could from my bear canister, ate it, and tried to drink some more water off of the rock. Once I had finished, I took care to securely wedge my bag back away in the crack while roping it to my leg on the off chance that things moved in the night. Then, as best I could, I leaned back against the rock, bracing what limbs that I could against what rocks were present. I didn’t have a protractor, but I knew that I was leaning at least a forty-five degree angle. I was more upright than prone. I didn’t want to fall asleep, because I was afraid that if I did sleep, I would move, and then I would fall and not wake. Despite this fear, and being again cold in my ripped emergency blanket, my eyes drooped from exhaustion and closed in short order.
Crack. Crack. Crack. The sound of falling rocks jolted me awake and almost sent me cascading to the bottom with an unconscious reflexive jerk. It was still dark – and the stars had not moved that much since I had unwillingly fallen asleep. Slowly, I looked around, and tried to ascertain what had caused the rockfall. I saw its shadow first. It had four legs; and a bulky but graceful impossible stride that was carrying it over the rocks toward me. Bear. I lost what self control I had left. I pried up rocks with bloody hands, and threw them after my screams of primal terror at the creature. I screamed and screamed until I had no voice left until all I could hear in the valley were the last echoes of my terrified voice. Then, and only then did I hear its claws clicking away over the stones, as it shuffled easily over terrain that would take me hours to traverse. After that, there was no sleep. I watched the stars slowly wheel across the sky in their uncaring mechanical motions.
When it was light enough to see, I struggled to my feet and began climbing up the crack that contained the rivulet of water. I passed through the ash field a second time and staggered to the top. I looked back only once. I saw where I had initially tried to climb out, and the monolith that had blocked me. I saw the river streaming fast still, where I had almost drowned. And there, in the far off distance, I saw where I had made my initial mistake. I turned back around, and kept walking. Within five minutes I had come to a clearing, and within a half hour, I had found a section of the South Rim trail. Several minutes later, I realized that the sound I had been hearing in my brain was emanating from my mouth and flowing forth into the empty forest – heaving, crazy laughter. I touched my face. I was crying tears of relief; because no matter what happened after that point, I was going to be found. I came down from the trail at the exit tunnel of Highway 41. I was covered in blood; ash; rock; and other dirt. My clothes were torn. I was swaying from exhaustion on my feet. I looked like I had been gone for weeks, but it had only been two days.
From that point, one can sit at what is known at the Valley Overlook, and see the sights of Yosemite Valley – El Capitan, Half Dome, and of course, Bridalveil Falls. I sat on the retaining wall and stared at the hanging valley, wondering how I had managed to make it in and out and survive. Other tourists avoided me like the plague. After a period of time, I realized that my left leg had locked up. There was no way I was going to be able to walk the six or seven odd miles back to my house in the valley. I had no phone; no money; nothing. I began to beg for change from people so I could use the payphone next to the tunnel. I didn’t tell anyone that I was a park employee. Finally, either from disgust, or pity, I accumulated the fifty cents I needed, and called the Wilderness Office. A half hour later, one of my co-workers arrived in his car. He took one look at me, and said, “You look like you’ve had one hell of an experience”, and nothing more as we drove back to my house.
Later, after I had gingerly bathed myself, eaten, eaten again, slept, I told one of my housemates my story as he sat there in near disbelief, jaw open and aghast. Eventually, the story spread around everyone in our division, and a number of days later, when I was at work, my boss came in, took me outside, and asked how I was doing. When I told her that I was fine, she told me that was good, and that if I ever pulled a stunt like that again, I’d lose my job. I thought about it for a second, and told her frankly that I’d never pull a stunt like that again because I didn’t want to lose my life. She looked me over, and nodded, and walked off.
Several weeks later, I was assigned to go out to Ostrander on my trail patrol. The snow had melted further and the road had been plowed, but no one had been out to that area of the park yet. On the first day, I made it out to the lake easily. I came over Henness Ridge, and admired the winking half frozen sapphire blue of the lake. I walked up to the ski hut that was there, unlocked, and opened the door and heard various rodents scurrying for cover. After checking the building, I decided I’d rather sleep outside and wandered back out, locking the door behind me. I stared at the lake a long time, watching what I had inadvertently risked life and limb before to reach. Eventually, the sun set; the stars came out; and I went to sleep. The next day, I put my pack back on my shoulders, turned my back on the lake, and walked back out under the same perfect blue skies that my adventure had started under.