I started out to Yosemite Falls on a whim, late in the afternoon after a show-off breakfast of eggs with thyme, tomatoes and feta cheese. I had mistakenly assumed that, since the sign was right next to my campsite, and since all of the other campers in my site were going there, the hike would be easy.
The name Upper Yosemite Falls didn’t really register to me as a fact (that I must go up) until I was climbing the first few stairs of the hike. Oh, come on, it’s not going to be that bad, you’ll be fine. I didn’t consult the park newspaper, which had detailed descriptions of the lengths and difficulty levels of hikes in and out of the valley. Instead, I had used it to (rather unsuccessfully) kindle my fire the night before.
My plan for the day was to take in a couple of small hikes and eat a nice lunch on a rock somewhere. Upper Yosemite Falls gave me a nice rock to sit on, I just needed to climb 2,425 vertical feet before I could get there.
Following those first few stairs and switchbacks, were another few stairs and switchbacks. I considered turning around, but there were good little old people all around me, trudging along, pushing through. I must also be capable. Come on, you can. do it girl
At some point, my brain switched to cursing between the pants. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck matching the pace of my short, quick breathing. Really? Honestly, I must be getting there soon. God, they really mean it with that “Upper” business.
My Camp Four site-mate had explained over breakfast that he had taken LSD the day before and climbed to the upper falls. For him, the best part wasn’t the natural display, but the looks on people’s faces as they approached it. Elation and wonder. Probably mixed with joy about the culminating torture. I was careful about my face as I finally reached the base of the falls. Stoic. Uninterested. But interested. No-one cares probably, but I didn’t want to be the park wildlife.
Upper Yosemite Falls is a beautiful view. You get a nice mist coming off the unnaturally abrupt downpour. But the trail didn’t end, so I continued without even a break. Perhaps you can sit in or around the falls, I thought. As I trudged along with the occasional view of the watery mist, I started to realize that I was climbing higher. The valley was now completely visible without the block of trees, and looking up the cliffs above me, and down into the green fields, I realized I’d already made it up half the mountain. That explains all the panting.
There I was, halfway up, definitely not on my way to the base of the falls anymore, but unclear where this trail should lead. Ahead of me was really only a cliff. This curiosity kept me going. If this trail really does go the top of the fall, I wanted to know how it physically could get me there without becoming a climbing route.
Turns out, that the hike really does just go up the cliff. One switchback after another. Back, forth, back, forth, back, forth. Back, fuck, forth, fuck. And then the intermittent view out, just to remember where I was, what I was achieving. I was essentially scaling a cliff. One of the most beautiful cliffs in the world. Back, fuck, wow, forth, fuck, wow, became the new pace.
When you get far and high enough along, the trail dips between two cliffs, and the valley is no longer in view. Then the real torture begins. Looking both up and down the path seems insurmountably steep and unforgiving. Did I mention I was in the mid-day sun? No? I was. I was tag-team climbing with two girls in their twenties who, having been warned about how hard the hike was before setting out (unlike me), were busy complaining to each other and half-heartedly cheering each other on. Vowing to not be like them, I did my best to eliminate “fuck” from my mental vocabulary and pushed forward, chipper and excited to almost be there. When my water ran out, I maintained my positive outlook. I’m almost there. Asking other hikers on their way down, they also said, almost there. I was hoping for a prognosis of 5-10 minutes, they said 30, it was actually more like 45. No worries, though, almost there. After summiting, the trail turned back toward the cliff the perfectly idyllic landscape of pines and smoothened granite, I was too exhausted and eager to really take in.
As if that hasn’t been enough, getting the falls requires going down a deadly cliff staircase with railing on one side and death on the other.
And then I was there. All the suffering was over for the moment, and all there was to feel was the view. Glacial water sliding across slick granite, breaking into thick white falls. Each fall a composition of droplets forging their way to the valley floor, clearly discernible along the way as individuals, but part of the entirety. One perpetual rainbow living just above and to the left. And the valley.
Having gone so far, and gotten a water-purifying tablet from a nice guy at the falls, it seemed appropriate to push forward to Yosemite Point, just a mile along the trail. My butt was already kicked. Why shouldn’t I continue the kicking? It will all feel the same in the end. Chasing a Malaysian man who had no respect for the no shortcutting signs and was climbing up the middle and cutting off the corners of every switchback, I enjoyed the relative flatness and took in every corner of the trail. Afterall, switchbacks relieve the steepness. Having just begun, it came to an abrupt end at the point. And there it was again, but this time, in its full glory. The valley.
Although it is no surprise what the valley looks like by the time you reach the top (indeed, you’ve been looking at it the whole hike). Viewing it from up there is different. The effort lends deservedness to what you see.
Yosemite is all about looking at the same view over and over again. From every angle. You can see Half Dome, from your car as you pop out of the valley tunnel. All of it is clearly visible from the valley floor, which you can climb, hike, bike or crawl around. But people in a tour bus just outside the tunnel and confined to the meadows don’t get to appreciate how tall Half Dome is, how massive and solid the stone cliffs, until they’ve climbed something adjacent and tried to match up or slid their hands along the stained rock faces.
When I got back to the bottom, and to my campsite I asked why no-one had warned me about that hike. The LSD guy said, oh yeah, that hike’s really hard. Fuck. Yes. But worth it, he added. Yep.