I have always preferred the heat. I love the tropics, rainforests and deserts. Working a
decade in kitchens gives you a tolerance to high temperatures. Pictures of snow have always looked nice and heaps of fun but its not something I have craved to experience. Heading to the United States in early spring I never thought it would have to be something i would have to think about. Fast forward 11 days and I am driving into Yosemite National Park watching everything slowly turn from green to white.
It slowly dawns on me as I look at my clothing, I am not dressed for this, I’m going to die. I also recall that the room that I have booked into is basic, bed and no heating or electricity. I am going to die twice. As I get off the bus 2 things become clear. 1: hyperbole and 2: holy crap I love the snow. Seeing all the grounds and trees bright white was delightful and magical. Snowflakes filling the sky as they slowly drift down and landing on any available surface, yes including my tongue. I mean when you see snow for the first time that is what you do right?
Coming to Yosemite wasn’t about seeing snow, that was a fun sidenote. Originally my plan was to go to New Orleans and then Costa Rica. Because of time restrictions Costa Rica was taken off the schedule. However this did open up time to go to Yosemite, one of the worlds first national parks. Fast forward 5 months and I’m standing halfway up a cliff face, icy stairs in front of me, icy stairs behind and freezing wind spray hitting me and freezing my face.
My first morning begins with a -6°C, 6am mad dash outside to get to the toilets. A good way to start the day some would say. What follows next I would say is a better way. I walk out into the open and i finally get to see the grandeur of the park. The white skies have lifted over night and I can now see the immense cliffs that surround the village. Snow still blankets everything, but contrasting with the cloudless blue skies and small traces of green peaking out as the snow slowly melts, I am overwhelmed with intense beauty that words can not fully give justice. Ineffable some may say.
I am off to Mirror Lake, my first point of interest for my day. This is an easy 1.5 km walk. I make point of the distance and the word “is” because as what will turn out, things don’t go as planned. 2km into my hike and i have noticed this. I am not seeing any lake, I am not seeing the postcard perfect scenery that thousands of people have snapped to brag about being in nature. I pull out my map to work out where i could have ended up and as suspected I have taken the wrong path at some point. I could just go back and rejoin the right path, or continue walking and triple the length of my hike. And just like that I am on way on a path that , based on the lack of footprints I am the first person to be walking the trek today. I finally break free of the trees raining down on me with melting snow and i find myself out in the open face to face of a towering cliff. As I over look what could easily have been a recent landslide trying to pin point on my map where I possibly could be I know I need to keep going. But not long after saying this I am standing side by side by a fellow hiker staring at the flooded path ahead of us. I could just go back or continue walking around on a “path” my new friend thinks should get us around. Do I follow a guy I have just met into the woods along a path that i believe coincidentally just ended up looking like a path? Why the hell not.
As fate would have it, I didn’t get hacked to pieces in the depths of the Yosemite woods by a deranged serial killer. In fact my new friend was a nice guy from Alabama who was visiting for a few days. We finally rejoin the path and part ways and I finally continue on to Mirror Lake. Despite my longer detour I am still fortunate to have the area pretty much to myself, allowing for some peaceful views and space to take a few photos. For a good chunk of the year the lake is actually more of a meadow so I am pleased to be present while there is water allowing for the world famous mirror effects. After taking in the majesty of the valley and lake I mosey on to my next stop and one would assume another easy trek.
After a small break and hangs with some friendly and curious ground squirrels and mule deer I continue up towards Vernal falls. I know its going to be an easy walk, the mist trail being one of the easier trails in the valley, but that also makes it one of the most popular. It is just after lunch time so there are quite few people already heading up but the views over the valley are just phenomenal. I finally get my first sightings of the falls. And this is where the easy go story again decides to derail. The nice gentle rise of the path gives way to stairs. At first it looks like an easy walk up to the top of the falls. However watching a man and his young daughter struggling to walk down the stairs should have been a sign that things may not be as easy further up.
Puddles of melted snow cover the steps slowly turn into sheets of ice. Each step is taken carefully as to not slip however it feels like it should still be an easy ascension. I arrive to a small tunnel carved through the cliff and its here that i realise I have bit more than I can chew. The steps are icy with no traction. The spray coming from the waterfall is so cold that i can feel it freezing and burning my face. I am half way up. As I look back down I realise that with no handrails to hold onto going down will be to much of a challenge so I decide to keep on going up. Each step is determined and exact. One wrong step and ill slip and with nothing to hold onto I would be going backwards. Spray is hitting me hard, burning my face. I notice a few other people have also made the walk up and are now also realising the predicament. What should be a simple walk has turned into a potential deadly venture however I am getting closer and finally there is a hand rail where the trail is actually right on the edge of the cliff. The rail is covered in ice and hurts to hold but it feels good to feel secure. The steps actually dry up and I feel safer. And unfortunately I drop my guard. One the last step there is a layer of ice which lands me on my arse, and i find myself actually sliding to the edge of the cliff. Fortunately the handrail stops me. I quickly get up from my ungraceful stumble which was definitely seen by everyone and I make it the rest of the way up to the top of the falls. The views are incredible.
Sitting with my legs dangling over the edge and giving acknowledging nods to other hikers who also made it to the top of the stairs I knew I made the right choice.
Heading back I take the more gentle, albeit more longer walk down back it allows me to take in more the amazing scenery and wildlife without the potential death, which is generally a good plan.
Upper Yosemite Falls
The next morning I’m off again for more waterfalls, more amazing views and a lot more steps. A lot more. A 5 and a half kilometre walk up should be a breeze. But what I failed to realise that this 5.5km will be mostly a step filled path zig-zagging up the side of a
mountain. But It wasn’t until half up when I realised this was going to be harder than I thought. Mainly because my chest was going to self destruct. Every now and then the path would open up to spectacular views across the valley which made a great spot to stop and take some photos. And secretly recover my
lungs, which are now plotting my demise, from more experienced hikers who are cruising up the hills as if they hopped onto the VIP escalators that us amateurs are not giving access to. There are no signs. No markers to show me how far I have walked, or how far I have left to go. Each time I see the top of the waterfall get closer the path decides to turn around and take me further away. I am actually starting to think maybe I should stop. My legs are going strong but my breathing is struggling to keep up. I think I should have focused a bit better at the gym, maybe hit the stair machines a bit more. But I am to far gone for shoulda coulda woulda so I persevere and push on.
The path starts to level out and I see a sign saying that I am close. I am pushed now with confidence and the terrain opens up and I am walking across snow and rocks. I am finally up the top. I find a place to sit right on the edge of the waterfall and take in everything. I am asking for forgiveness to my body which is finally been given a well earned break. I sit in mental silence, just with the roar of the waterfall to take over me. I feel a sense of accomplishment that I have pushed myself to my own extremes. I am exhausted yet fulfilled. Months of work to put myself into a more fitter body, a more determined and focused head space has lead me to this moment and I could not be anymore proud of myself.
Even though Yosemite National Park wasn’t originally going to be part of my trip, as I head back down the winding path back down the mountain I know i made the best choice in coming here. This beautiful part of the world will forever be etched in my heart. Things may not have gone as planned but that has helped create some memories that will last a lifetime, experiences that will ultimately help me grow within and make me want crave more challenging experiences in more of the worlds most beautiful sights.