To watch this Part 1 as a video (that has WAY MORE spectacular photos and videos)
To listen to Part 1 as a podcast
For 15 years, I have been wanting to climb Half Dome and Clouds Rest. I checked them off my bucket list in the last week of June, 2023, at the age of 62. The experience transformed my life.
Just as I was prepared to go on this trip solo, my son Daley decided to come with me the day before my departure date, out of love and concern – he was worried about my safety camping alone in the wilderness. Knowing that he was spending 99% of all his spare time with his girlfriend, I understood what he meant by calling it a “sacrifice” on his part to come with me.
I had to get all the gear ready for him within 12 hours. Thanks to my months of preparation and plenty of my sons’ boy scouts’ 50 miler equipment and supplies, we only needed to buy a new backpack, boots, wool socks, a bear canister, a broad brim hat, a ground cover under the tent, and new sunglasses from REI. Miraculously, his new boots and backpack fit him perfectly.
Daley was full of self doubt on the first day when we arrived at Yosemite: “I don’t think I can do it.” “What if I have an asthma attack? I could die!” “I will never do it again.” To which I replied: “Daley, I know for sure that you CAN do it, and you will never forget the experience. You will be fine.” We had nonetheless packed his 7-year old asthma inhalers, which were never used.
The first day, we each carried 40 lbs of weight, with a full canister of food for four days, and climbed 3,371 feet over 7.42 miles on the steep and treacherous Mist Trail.
The high Sierra mountain tops were still covered in snow when we arrived at Yosemite on June 26, 2023. The past winter and spring had a record amount of snow and rain, two to three times more than Yosemite’s record. The melting snow became the laughing creeks at higher elevation, then torrential river, and then roaring monster that sped through the rocky channels before dropping huge heights at Vernal and Nevada Falls, pounding and smashing down at the bottom with thundering and deafening roars, double rainbows, and raining mist. The power of the beast was created by both the record volume of bone-chilling water and the speed of the water throwing itself with such fury against the huge boulders, above and below the spectacular, thrusting falls.
The unprecedented huge waterfalls attracted so many tourists, so many of them crowded on the narrow, steep, slippery, and dangerous Mist Trail. Since John Muir Trail next to Mist Trail was closed due to falling rocks, and Tioga Road was closed due to unmelted snow and damages, everyone had to go through Mist Trail to get to the popular sights, which overcrowded the narrow trail.
The white splashing Yosemite Fall unceasingly roared in the vast valley, pounding, thrashing, tormenting the granite walls and bottoms.
But it could not make a dent on the granite, with the torrential downpour.
The solid granite, unmoved, unchanged, took it all, and stood tall.
Yet the white water didn’t cease to fall. It didn’t stop its roar, it didn’t relent its furious attempt against the solid rocks. It was always there, every step of my way going up or down the mountain, always there, for my eyes to be fixated and mesmerized in admiring its great beauty.
I could not take my eyes off the Yosemite falls, during the two weeks in Yosemite, every time I saw them: in the Valley, on Mist Trail, from Panorama Trail and the Four Mile Trail. I thought to myself: let all that prevents me from becoming my best full version to be like the water, falling off from my rocky core. Nothing sticks. All the triviality, the wounds, the hurts, the noises, the fears, the diminishing forces… let them all fall like the splashing water. I am the granite wall.
The great, wild nature instilled in my soul the calm strength I could not get from anywhere else: religion, relationships, and worldly life.
Frankly, the tourists of all ages and types, – including fat bellied men and women, some with whiny babies or out of control children – were an annoying sight. There were so many of them in the Valley, on the Mist Trail, and at both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. But 14 years ago, I was one of these annoying tourists: when my sons were 9 and 12 years old, we stayed in Curry Village and Housekeeping, and hiked up to both falls, and to Glacier Point.
This time, I came completely as a backpacking trekker and wilderness camper, with the “gold” wilderness permit that included Half Dome and John Muir Trail. This permit is hard to get. I trained myself for half a year climbing Bay Area’s mountains with my weighted backpack, even camped in Ohlone Wilderness after hiking eight miles and almost 4,000 feet elevation.
That’s why I could spot the “pro” wilderness backpackers in Yosemite, they were less than 1% among the vast majority of tourists. They were all in great shape. Some trekked in pairs, some went solo, men or women, doing it alone. Some came in groups of three to six. The larger the adult group, the less happy each person looked (unless it was a boy scout troop).
There were also newbies (or “pro backpacker wanna-bes”) whose gear all looked brand new – and the way they packed and carried their backpacks belied their greenness. I pointed my backpack to my son: “Look, my backpack looks like a Half Dome. It’s compact and well balanced with weight distribution, and stands alone.”
Trekking solo is practically harder than going with a companion, but solo trekkers don’t need to sync up and get along with others. You have the freedom to go whenever and wherever you want. Without the need to gather together, and without the distraction of taking care of your companion(s), you can enjoy the wilderness individually and intimately. Your experience of relating to nature is more full and personal. It is all between you and the wilderness, a private meditation and interaction through your living and trekking in it. But it is lonely and can be difficult. I was ready to do it on my own before my son Daley wanted to “take care of me”. I truly didn’t need him to take care of me, but I did want him to share my love for nature.
Daley was a delightful companion and well trained in his boy scouts for wilderness backpacking. I could not have gotten a better hiking and camping buddy than him. We had our fair share of healthy conflicts, and we were a great team based upon mutual respect and love. I am so grateful that he came to share the beauty and magnificence of the mountains and created great memories by climbing, camping, and adventuring together.
Every day, he took the plastic water container to the creek to fetch water, while I lit up the fuel canister to boil water for cooking, and prepared for the next day. We helped each other by trickling water from the container for the other to wash hands and face. Sharing the work made it easier and less lonely.
In the wilderness, it is crucial that you and your buddy can handle healthy conflicts with open communication, respectful listening, and trust. Not holding grudges is paramount. The person you go to the wilderness with needs to share the same values, intelligence, and culture. If you don’t fully trust that person, it’s better to go solo. I learned my lessons from my first week in Yosemite before this trip with my son. I went with someone with whom the only two things we had in common was a love for nature, and speaking Chinese (he does not know, speak, read any English after being in the US for 10 years.). We had to cut short our trip after three days and two nights in the wilderness. Nonetheless, I took some breathtaking photos and videos during our three-day climbing, from the Mist Trail, Panorama Trail, near Glacier Point, and Four Mile Trail. Some of which are shown below. The first week turned me into a pro for Yosemite wilderness backpacking, and prepared me for the second week with Daley.
There were so many mosquitos and insects swarming around us, sometimes flying straight into our eyes. The smoke from the campfires kept insects away, as long as we stood in the smoke or within 2 feet of the fire. We had to wear our Permethrin pretreated broad brim hats all the time to prevent mosquitos landing on our faces, while eating, brushing teeth, going to the “bathroom” and going inside the tents.
Daley loved building campfires. Looking at the fire cracking and burning in the fire pit encircled by some rocks is meditative to him and to me. After all, early humans evolved into social packs around fires in the caves hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is in our DNA to gather around a fire, and find comfort, peace, and warmth both from the fires and from the companionship.
Twice a day, first thing in the morning and first thing when we got back to the campsite, Daley would collect the twigs, leaves, dead branches, light a fire, blow air into the fire, and then extinguish it.
After hiking up 3,371 feet to our campsite in the wilderness near Sunrise Creek from the Valley floor (which was already 3,960 feet above sea level), we were at 7,331 feet above sea level for three nights. The high altitude mountain temperature went through four seasons each morning and evening. The coldest hour was around 3am, when we were completely wrapped inside heavy down mummy sleeping bags for -7 C / 22 F degrees. With only my face exposed, I was always awakened by the biting cold around 3am. In the morning around 6 am, I needed to put on wool under armor, a down jacket, and a windbreaker and waterproof rain pants outside, to keep warm. The first morning in the first week, I woke up to find frost everywhere. My feet with double socks and heavy boots still felt cold.
But around 9am after the morning sun warmed up the forest, I had to take off all the layers and only wore thin and light trekking pants and just one light, sun proof shirt for the rest of the day, and would always soak through my shirt with sweat.
In the evening around sunset, it got cold fast, so we had to layer ourselves again before crawling into the tent while there was still daylight. We went to bed early as the day got dark, and got up early, after the chirping birds awoke us at dawn. It was good to sync our resting and activity hours with nature’s own biological clock, without electric light prolonging the daytime artificially.
We were going to Half Dome the second day from our campsite, over 5.16 miles, gaining and losing elevation of 2,083 feet, THE highlight of this entire trip. We went to sleep early and planned to sleep-in the next morning, to get enough energy for the ultimate climb. And ultimate it was indeed.
Stay tuned for all the miracles, excitements, and dangers ahead. Thank you!
To watch part 2 as a video, which has way more spectacular videos and photos
To read part 2 as a blog
To listen to part 2 as a podcast
© Joanne Z. Tan (Written June 22 – July 6, 2023. All photos by Joanne Tan or her designee. All videos by Joanne Tan, all rights reserved.
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