Yosemite National Park is a vast and magnificent universe located on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is only proper to speak of Yosemite as its own world. Any day hike to one of the massive peaks or cliffs, which overlook the entire valley and expanse that is the park and surrounding mountain range will make it clear that you are in a foreign environment.
The feeling can be quite overwhelming, putting tremendous strain on the brain as it processes the data being sent for analysis. However, the mental tunnel vision vanishes when you find yourself among the hordes of tourists that pop up every so often. They tend to hover around Yosemite Valley and Camp 4 as mosquitoes tend to hang around stagnant water.
Tourists are an effective buzz kill to the high that comes from looking out across Yosemite and seeing evidence for a flat world. Just beyond the rolling gray and green landscape lies what looks like the physical end of the world. At sunset, a glowing yellow line runs infinitely across the edge of the Earth.
Two friends and I had just finished hiking trails, dusty veins under the canopy of pine trees, which lead to locations that allow one to be mesmerized by the infinite yellow line, an ominous golden streak that slows down time.
The sun was still in the sky when we arrived at Yosemite Falls. As we drew closer to the large pool at the bottom of the falls, only a few tiny groups of tourists remained. Their numbers dwindled as the path to the bottom of the falls became more dangerous.
In order to get to the large pool that caught water from the lower falls, we had to traverse large, slick rocks that had piled up over time. Pat, Mark, and I ran recklessly towards the falls, jumping from one rock to another. My shoes lost much of their grip as the mist gently fell on the weathered boulders. I nearly slipped off and tumbled into the creek that was flowing away from the falls. It would have been a terrible mishap, but I remained focused and managed to move so fast that gravity couldn’t keep up, smiling like a goon the entire time.
The water in the pool was remarkably frigid. Easing into the freezing water was not an option—total commitment was necessary. I dove in and began swimming towards the middle of the pool where there was a rock covered by only a foot of water. My muscles seized up and swimming became difficult as I was forced to doggy paddle my way over. Once there, I was able to get most of my body, with the exception of my ankles, out of the water. When I rose from the icy water, a surge of energy came over me.
I was wide awake, completely rejuvenated by the water that seemed to be possessed by the spirit of Jack Frost himself. It felt like someone had waved a salt stick under my nose and injected the purest of amphetamines into my arm—those strange fat men who don tiny bathing suits for their Polar Bear Club outings were no longer strange to me. I now understand the draw of diving into water that takes genital shrinkage to an entirely different level.
All three of us felt the effects of the cold water. It was as if spirits had shot new life into our bodies. And oddly enough, the very plunge pool we decided to swim in was once considered to be possessed by evil witches known as the Poloti. The Ahwahneechee tribe of Yosemite Valley believed those who trespassed in the Poloti’s territory would suffer horrible consequences. In hindsight, the events that followed seem to be proof that the Poloti don’t take kindly to trespassers.
With a new energy, our enthusiasm for Yosemite had grown. Instead of heading back to camp—as originally planned—we decided to visit El Capitan. The sun was beginning to set on the 3,000+ foot monolith, which epitomized the essence of Yosemite: sheer colossality.
As we arrived at the trail head that led to the base of El Capitan, a father and his two sons came sprinting out of the woods, a retro 35 millimeter camera bouncing off the man’s souvenir t-shirt.
“Bears!” he yelled. “There’s a family of bears back there!”
His warning was wasted on us, and without any hesitation Pat, Mark, and I sprinted towards the trail, hoping to snap a picture of the bears. We came to a fork in the trail and headed right, which led us to the bottom quarter of El Capitan—no bears. And like the granite boulders that led to the lower pool of Yosemite Falls, the base of El Capitan was littered with jagged obstacles.
Our new found zeal caused us to mindlessly charge up the rocks until we stood on a smooth section of the colossal formation, looking up its giant wall—a massive wave of stone that looked as if it was about to break on all of Yosemite Valley. The wall worked to distract us from two very important facts: we had managed to climb above the tree line and the sun was setting at a much faster rate than we had previously assumed. Even though it was August, the nights at Yosemite possessed winter-like temperatures. Mark and Pat had both brought their hiking packs, but I had decided to explore El Capitan in my damp red bathing suit, a t-shirt, and shoes that struggled to maintain grip on the granite surface. It was a fashion decision that would make survival a wee bit harder if we were stranded for the night.
Luckily, we noticed three climbers resting on a slight incline, gazing out across the valley. It was a field of pine tips and tops, nothing more than an overgrown Christmas tree patch. The climbers stood up and began walking towards us.
“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know if there’s a trail that leads down from here?” I asked.
Seemingly surprised by the site of non-climbers so far off the trail, they paused and looked at each other before answering, “Yeah. There’s a switchback over that way.”
Before I could say another word, they had already rounded a corner and were gone. The trail was not easy to find. We cautiously traversed the incline on which the climbers had been lying. Mark worked his way out towards the edge of El Capitan, trying to procure a photo of himself gallantly standing on one of the most famous rock faces in the world—probably to be displayed on Facebook as a means to come across as a radical dude. And while I would have liked to follow, in order to see how high up we were, my shoes simply would not allow it. Granite is far too slick for worn down rubber to cope with. After ten minutes of frantically roaming the varying incline of El Capitan, we found the trail, which was covered by a veil of brush and lined with a copious amount of scree.
My approach was to ride the loose particles of rock as far as I could and then grab on to one of the many branches to stop myself. This served me well for awhile—until the trail ended, leaving us standing above the tree line as the sky darkened. Seeing was difficult as brush and the absence of sun made finding solid footing troublesome.
“We just need to go left and down. Let’s just cut diagonally across,” I said as I began to realize my minimalistic get-up would not do me well if we had to make camp on the side of El Capitan.
Then, the damnedest sounds came from the woods off in the distance to our left: Bears. It all made sense. Those climbers weren’t climbers at all, they weren’t even human. In fact, they were the Poloti coming to teach us a lesson for treating their territory with a blatant lack of respect. Yes, bears and frigid conditions would work to bring us all to a violent and terrible end.
“How funny would it be if we found that family of bears now?” I jokingly asked.
“HA! That would be fucking terrible,” said Mark.
A sense of panic was beginning to set in, all of us were starting to remember the shows we’ve seen about stranded hikers who never made their way out, all the news reports that said their bodies had never been found. Reality had decided to show its face. The fantasy, the bubble of invincibility, which once surrounded us, had been popped and we were now exposed to our own mortality.
As the fear and uncertainty made us consider the not-so-distant future and what would become of us, a poorly paved maintenance road appeared. We were saved. No news report about our disappearance would air. No Discovery Channel special on stranded hikers who never found salvation.
We walked in the direction of the car. With relief washing over us, we noticed a brown spotted toad hop out from under a bush. The group’s focus quickly shifted to the capturing of the warty creature in order to take a picture of the toad in captivity, a photo that would illustrate our dominance over the animal world.
Mark eagerly led the campaign, chasing the toad like a child determined, with the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth. He grabbed the toad and it leaped from his hand, nearly back into the bush, but Mark got it to rest on his palm as Pat snapped the photo. The miserable little creature was set free after defecating on Mark’s hand.
We returned safely to the car, despite attempts by the Poloti to hamper our spirits. Their plot to strand us in the Yosemite wilderness at night had failed. Their wrath was no match for us. Yup, three eighteen-year-olds managed to outwit the evil ghosts, which terrorized an entire tribe of people many years ago. We were truly special. Then again, we were legitimately worried, if only for a moment. Maybe it was the Poloti’s intention to scare us, warning us of what would come if we continued on in our disrespectful way.
It was only fitting to push our luck even further, ignoring the Poloti’s warning just as we ignored the man’s warning of bears. Once we arrived back at camp, I took whatever food we had left over and spread it around the camp site, keeping a fifty-foot buffer from our tent. It was a combination of beef broth, frozen beef patties, Ramen, and any other items that might prove useful in luring a bear to our camp’s perimeter. My attempt to see a bear for the second time also ended in failure. Was it foolish? Sure. But I’ve always believed that fools have the most fun, and so far I’ve been right. Would I do it again? No, that was really dumb.
written: Jan. 2008