Yosemite and Mono Lake

Note: This post has two sections.  The first tells the story of my ridiculous chain of events and misadventure during my first visit to a national park, and the second shares useful information about hiking Half Dome, cycling Tioga Pass, and visiting Mono Lake.  I encourage you to read this entire post since the first section is entertaining, but if you’d rather skip the misadventure and only read the useful bits then scroll down until you see a bunch of photos.

Labor Day weekend 2010 was when I made my first visit to a national park. An acquaintance/friend asked me if I wanted to go to Yosemite National Park to hike Half Dome with a bunch of her friends.  They had an extra permit.  I said sure why not, despite not knowing anything about Yosemite, Half Dome, or the people I was going with. Literally. I thought Yosemite was north of San Francisco, I had never heard of Half Dome, and I assumed the group knew what they were doing. 2010 was the first year the lottery system was implemented for the notorious cables, and my friend’s friend scored a handful of permits. I had NO idea that the 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome was a bucket list hike for avid hikers.

I had just turned 25 years old. I had zero experience with backpacking and any kind of hardcore hiking, but I was a fairly in-shape newbie triathlete. Right before heading out to Yosemite, I had attended Burning Man for the first time from Sunday through Wednesday. I had literally partied all night long on Tuesday night, got back to camp around 9am on Wednesday, dozed around all day with a bunch of friends, and napped for 1 hour before driving the 5 hours back to San Francisco to make it for a Thursday wedding rehearsal to be a bridesmaid for a friend’s wedding that Friday. I stayed sober the entire wedding, left relatively early at around 10pm to be in bed by midnight, and got up early the next Saturday morning to carpool with a bunch of people to Yosemite. I brought my 10+ year-old sleeping bag from a 5th grade camping trip, a crappy 3-person tent I bought at Big-5 Sporting Goods for a skydiving event, my tiny 1.5-liter Camelback, some snacks, and some running clothes and running shoes.

We were 3 cars and 10 people. Upon arrival to our campsite (which was about a 45-minute drive from Curry Village, the starting point for Half Dome), I quickly learned how underprepared everyone else was. Not one person exercised regularly, nor had they ever done a long hike. That evening I asked the organizer of the whole group what the hell she was doing as she packed a head of lettuce, a half dozen tomatoes, and a loaf of bread into her pack. “I just thought it’d be nice to make sandwiches at the top of Half Dome,” was her response. “No,” I said firmly. “Everyone will be carrying their own lunches. You’re not carrying all that food to summit. Think of all that weight.” I had to convince her what she was doing was stupid, and she finally gave in.

It was still dark when we arrived to the trailhead the next morning. Of the 10 people, one couple stayed back at camp; they were going to hike elsewhere instead of Half Dome. 8 of us began the ascent together. From the very beginning I hiked ahead at my own pace, stopped, waited 5-10 minutes for the rest of the group to catch up, and hiked ahead again. This continued for about an hour until my natural impatience and utter disdain for ignorant hikers kicked in, and my brain told me to keep going after turning along a switchback. I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t.

For the next several hours I quickly ascended, taking a few pictures along the way and passing up people as I continued toward Half Dome. I realized that I did not have the permit to climb the cables, and I figured I would just wait for the rest of the group at the permit checkpoint.

One of many waterfalls:IMG_4098

As a young solo female hiker, I made plenty of friends along the way. It was my first long hike alone, and I hadn’t realized how much fun it was to hike solo. After hiking and chatting with several people, I continued to pass them, until I finally made it to the permit checkpoint. I sat down on a rock and contemplated how far behind they were. Based on my calculation of my pace and theirs, I told the ranger, “I think I’m about 3 hours ahead of them…”

Just a moment after I sat down two men showed up without permits. The ranger told us we might luck out with hikers with extra permits. And within 10 minutes a woman showed up with exactly 3 extra permits. SCORE.

The rock scrambling began. Half Dome was much closer now.IMG_4108

Then there were the cables.IMG_4113

“So this is Half Dome,” I thought to myself as I clung onto the cables. Honestly it wouldn’t have been so terrifying if it wasn’t so damn crowded. With it being the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, it was traffic jam on the cables. It took me (and everyone else) about an hour to summit with the congestion of people.

Then I hung out at the summit for another hour. It was the prime location of choice for lunch and more obligatory photos.IMG_4122

The descent on the cables also took about an hour. It was quite ridiculous.

Immediately after passing the permit checkpoint, I stumbled upon my original group whom were seated across boulders and taking a break. MY ESTIMATE OF A 3-HOUR GAIN WAS SPOT ON. It had taken me 1 hour to summit, 1 hour to hang out, and 1 hour to descend. Holy crap.

It was around 3pm. Two of the girls looked delirious; they had apparently vomited earlier from exhaustion. The guys didn’t look too hot either. Since they were my ride back to our campsite, we agreed to meet back at Curry Village. I’d have dinner and hang out at the village until their return. “Can you take this with you? I’m too tired to carry it,” one of the delirious girls handed me a big bottle of Gatorade. Despite only carrying 1.5 liters of water for the 16-mile hike, I wasn’t thirsty but I took the bottle as a favor. No one else had the energy to carry it.  I knew it’d be easy to find people on the way down who would want some extra Gatorade.

We parted ways. They continued up toward the cables, and I headed back down. “Do any of you guys want Gatorade?” I asked the first group of 3 guys heading up.

“OH MY GOD YES PLEASE.” Apparently they desperately needed it because they had run out of water.

“CAN WE HAVE SOME TOO?” Another small group of guys not far behind called out. They too had run out of water, and saw and heard my offer. Both groups (there were at least 5 guys) decided to split the single bottle of Gatorade. Seriously, what the FUCK guys?! It’s 90º out, you’re not even halfway DONE with this hike, and you’re already out of water? I thought to myself. As I mentioned earlier, I lack patience and have disdain for ignorant hikers. This is how people die!

The rest of the hike down passed by fairly quickly and almost without incident. I remember taking a quick break to soak my blistered feet in the river.IMG_4125

From the river I ended up off course and I had to scurry through a bunch of bushes and shrubs to get back on path. About 30 minutes later I noticed my jacket (that was loosely attached to my backpack) was missing. After pondering for a minute I realized that the shrubs must have snagged my jacket. Do I go back and get it? I asked myself. I considered leaving it behind, but after careful thought I turned around to look for it. The sun was setting, it was getting cooler, and it was my favorite jacket after all. However this meant that I had to hike back UP, backtrack through some shrubs OFF the trail, and hope that I would find it. As I ascended, I passed the same groups of people I had passed going down and they all thought I was psycho for hiking back up. It actually didn’t take long to find the jacket. I found it exactly where I thought it would be—snagged in a bush. I was glad I went back for it because that’s when I realized my ID and a twenty-dollar bill (the ONLY money I had on me) was in the pocket. From there I headed back down, passing the same people one final time.

Curry Village was bustling with energy when I returned. It was somewhere between 6:30-7pm and the dark shadows of the trees had already stretched over the village. The parking lot was still filled with cars, and famished hikers were busy socializing and stuffing their faces. Famished myself, I squeezed myself between groups of hikers at a counter and devoured a burger. I thanked myself for retrieving my jacket; otherwise, I wouldn’t have had any cash for food. Now all I had to do was hang out with random people and wait for my group to return. Luckily I wasn’t too tired—I didn’t even finish all the water in my 1.5-liter Camelback!

Soooo then I waited.

And waited.

Crowds began to thin out. Darkness crept into the parking lot as cars departed it. Soft chatter replaced what was once rancor in the restaurants and shops. As the sun disappeared, warmth went with it. Cold and alone, I paced back and forth between the lodge and the parking lot with some sort of naïve hope I’d reunite with my group. Soon it became apparent which cars belonged to my group. I borrowed a pen and paper and left a note on a windshield to let them know where to find me.

4 hours after finishing the hike, at 10:30pm, I sat down on a sofa in the lodge. The only people remaining were maintenance workers starting their graveyard shift, and they filled the vacant village with the murmurs of swishing mops and the grinding wheels of plastic mop buckets.

Fatigue did not drift me away. Boredom did. And before I knew it someone was tapping me softly on my shoulder to wake me up and tell me they were closed. It was past midnight.

Unsure of what to feel or think, I slowly made my way back to the parking lot for perhaps the 5th time that night. It was absolutely vacant except for the two cars.

The only building showing any sign of life was the Curry Village Yosemite Cabins office. Receptionists there told me they were fully booked for the night, but I could grab a chair and wait for my group to return. They also said rangers wouldn’t be able to help me since it wasn’t an emergency situation. Since I had already spent 6 hours waiting and doing nothing, the thought of waiting and doing nothing some more until who knew when killed me, so I thanked them and told them I’d hitchhike back to camp. (There was absolutely no one coming and going so hitchhiking wasn’t actually an option.) I just needed to keep moving. I needed to do something.

And there I was again back in the damn parking lot. My memory of sitting on the curb and staring up into the starry sky remains one of my most vivid memories. It was 12:30am and I was sitting alone in the middle of the wooded wilderness in the dark, surrounded by nothing but serenity and silence. As I sat, I reminisced how only 5 days ago I was also sitting outside gazing up at the dark sky, but in the middle of the desert wilderness with a bunch of friends and listening to the heavy bass of music cars. Both times I was seated, hugging my knees to my chest, looking up into the sky, taking in the beautiful moment and wondering what was going to happen next.

Approaching headlights disrupted my chain of thoughts. Excited that something was happening, I hopped to my feet and dashed toward the first moving vehicle I’d seen in hours. It was a truck with a park ranger. He pulled up to chat with another park ranger who was standing along the curb.

My excitement rudely interrupted their conversation as I burst into their view, desperately ranting, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I just need to vent. I’ve been waiting here since 6:30. I lost my group of people and they haven’t returned yet. They have the keys to that car and I have no other way back to camp. I’m kind of desperate right now. I really don’t know what the hell I can do right now. Is there anything I can do?”

“Was it a group of 7?”

“Yes!”

“Yeah, someone from that group got in contact with a ranger. We’re aware that they’re hiking out there. They’ll be fine—there’s 7 of them. We can’t really do anything unless there is an actual emergency.”

“Well, is there anything I can do? My camp is 45 minutes away.”

They both looked at me, and frankly, I thought they were annoyed. After exchanging a few words, the driver told me, “I can take you back to camp.”

“Seriously?!”

“Sure. I’m not really doing anything else anyway.”

HELL. YES. I took my note off the other car and hopped into the truck. After waiting alone for 6 freakin’ hours, pacing back and forth between the lodge and parking lot, and filling my lonely mind with crazy and worried thoughts, I had driven myself insane. The fact that there was now a turning point, that something was actually happening, uplifted me beyond words.

The drive back to camp filled me back with normality. Like all park rangers, the park ranger who volunteered to take me back was friendly and patient. We shared small talk throughout the drive. It wasn’t until we arrived to the campsite that I realized I didn’t even know my campsite number. It was pitch dark and nothing looked familiar…

Fortunately after slowly driving around the campsite twice, I was able to recognize my campsite. Whew. I thanked the park ranger profusely and ran back to camp.

I mentioned earlier there was one couple that didn’t hike Half Dome with us. I rattled their tent to wake them up to inform them the rest of the group didn’t make it back. They were shocked, but there was nothing we could do. Going to bed and hoping for the best in the morning was really our only option.

It was almost 2am when I crawled into my sleeping bag. I had been awake for 21 hours, hiked Half Dome for the first time (alone), got stranded at Curry Village until after hours, and luckily met a kind enough ranger to take me back to camp. I wasn’t tired. It felt eerie lying there in my tent beside an empty sleeping bag. My friend who invited me was supposed to have shared my tent with me. Now she was not only there, but a couple of vacant tents surrounded me as well. This hollow feeling dug deep into my guts, and the memory of gazing down into my cold, empty tent is still oh so very vivid to this day.

Eventually I dozed off.

It was a while past sunrise when I was awakened by the soft rattling of my tent. Dazed and confused, I opened my eyes to see…that the group had returned. They literally had just returned.

Apparently they hadn’t begun to descend Half Dome until around 5pm. Even the rangers told them they needed to hurry up, and the group casually told the rangers that they’d be fine, not thinking they’d need at least 5 hours at their pace to make it back down and that it would be dark in 2.5 hours. Sure enough, darkness fell upon them and they simply got lost. One guy rolled his ankle. Two of the girls had puked earlier from exhaustion. They had enough water and snacks to last them the night, but it was COLD. They attempted to sleep on the ground, but the constant shivering kept them from falling asleep. It wasn’t until when the sky showed a hint of light that they were able to find their way back down. Exhausted, cold, miserable, and deprived of sleep, they drove back to camp and made it back after sunrise. It took them 24 hours to hike up and down Half Dome. Check out was later that morning, so they were able to nap for a couple hours before tearing down camp.

Naturally, I drove back so everyone else could get some rest. After partying at Burning Man from Sunday to Wednesday, celebrating wedding shenanigans Thursday and Friday, and experiencing Yosemite National Park and Half Dome for the first time from Saturday to Monday, I was back at my desk in the office Tuesday morning.  What a week…

***

I returned to Yosemite in 2013, this time with competent people who knew what they were doing: my boyfriend, a coworker, and my coworker’s brother. Despite how difficult they say it is to get Half Dome tickets, Chris won the lottery on his first try in March. Our date of choice was the end of July. Being one of America’s most popular national parks, all campsites were naturally booked well in advance. Fortunately we were able to snag a campsite on an early Friday morning at White Wolf, one of Yosemite’s several first-come first-serve campgrounds.20130726_190612

After setting up camp, we set out for an incredible out-and-back 70-mile bike ride from White Wolf over Tioga Pass (Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park). As the pass is the highest highway in California and the Sierra Nevada, it is closed for the majority of the year due to snow (October through May). Cycling on Tioga Pass was magical—with its perfectly paved roads and 3-4% climbs and descents, one could descend for miles without ever hitting the brakes. However the ride is not for the faint of heart; the climbs are long, the elevation averages 7-8,000 ft., and the ride tops out at almost 10,000 ft.  You don’t have to be a strong climber (I’m definitely not) to ride Tioga Pass but you’ve got to be in decent shape to endure the high elevation.

 

Checking out Tenaya Lake:

The next morning we hiked up and down Half Dome without incident. Unlike my first hike, I was able to keep track of time—4.5 hours up and 4.5 hours down. There was no lollygagging, no mental or physical exhaustion, and definitely no one getting lost and hiking for 24 hours.  I also took more pictures.

Epic overlooks:

Approaching Half Dome:

And of course, obligatory shots from the ridge:

Traffic jam on the cables on the way down:IMG_0409

Friday was our epic 70-mile bike ride, and Saturday was the epic 16-mile Half Dome hike. What was Sunday? We got up bright and early one final time to check out the outer eastern side of Yosemite—Mono Lake.

An eerie beauty lurks this human-caused environmental issue. Due to a lack of outlets the lake has high levels of salt, making the lake water alkaline. It wasn’t until when Los Angeles began to source water from the lake to the city that the lake drastically lost its volume. As the lake level dropped, previously submerged calcium-carbonate spires and knobs called “tufas” became exposed.  Thanks to recent conservation attempts, Mono Lake has been saved from being completely dried out. In a nutshell, the damage Los Angeles has done to the lake, I hate to say it, has created a breathtaking and surreal landscape that attracts tourists and photographers.

After our brief visit to Mono Lake, we headed back up over Tioga Pass to White Wolf Campground where we broke down camp and headed home.

Both times I’ve been to Yosemite have been extended weekends: first was Labor Day weekend and second was my own extended Thursday night through Sunday noon weekend.  With 1,190 square miles of land, Yosemite has so many more trails I have yet to explore.  I’ve only been in the summer; I’ll need to return in the winter for the scenic, snow-topped landscapes, and in the spring for the numerous gushing waterfalls.  Despite the fact that my first trip to Yosemite was a memorable misadventure in itself, I hope to never experience a misadventure like that again.

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