Fraser and I marvelled at the three thousand foot drop to the Yosemite Valley floor. We had battled through eight hours of sun and snow to be here, and it was worth every minute. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder staring at the most famous rock climbing valley in the world, the greatest big wall under our very boots.
We had hiked El Capitan!
We now faced our mistake. We hiked for eight hours to reach El Capitan, the half-way point of our mission. Sunset was in three hours. We steeled ourselves and stepped back into the woods, hoping we wouldn’t cross paths with a bear.
El Capitan soared high in our aspirations with the daring of Alex Honnold in the National Geographic documentary Free Solo. In 2017 he became the only person to climb El Capitan without ropes, a granite dome that towers three thousand feet above the valley floor of the Yosemite National Park. Fangirling, we wanted a taste of the adventure ourselves.
Our El Capitan adventure felt more like a multi-day hike. But it wasn’t. It was one… long… day hike.
13 hours long
50,000 steps long
5,000 calories long
The fast-changing terrain combined with the mental and physical demands on the body left us broken. It felt like we walked for days. We were on a rollercoaster of emotions: excitement, euphoria, fear, desperation… we experienced it all.
We joined the crowd pounding the steps of the Yosemite Falls Trail at 08:30. It was dry and dusty in the morning sun. Shortly we stumbled upon the most striking waterfall I’ve ever seen; meltwater from the snow above plummeted over the side of the cliff, striking the rocks below. The sound was tremendous, rumbling like thunder overhead. Everyone stood united in awe.
Here the trail took on the appearance of a rainforest; large leaves shaded the path and the ground was littered with greenery. A steady spray cascaded down from the waterfall, cooling our sweaty bodies.
Fraser, who would continue working out during the apocalypse, bounded along in front of me. His energy knew no limits. I crawled along behind him, sweating, panting and groaning. It isn’t easy hiking with someone who possesses the hill fitness of a mountain goat.
We reached the fork at the top of the stairs after two and a half hours. The Yosemite Falls Trail twisted off to the right and the chattering crowd disappeared down it.
We stood alone on the edge of a dark, intimidating forest. Rocks and tree trunks littered the ground, barring our way. The sun failed to penetrate the thick tangle of undergrowth and a deep layer of snow blanketed the earth, covering the trail from view.
In an instant our journey transformed from tropical paradise to wintry woods.
I took one step forwards. As my boot crunched onto the snow a sixth sense flared to life inside me, and I knew –
The forest was alive.
Every plant and animal felt our presence. Eyes were on us. Noses sniffed the air. Ears pricked. An odd, hushed silence accompanied our progress, muting the outside world. Our movements were marked by every snapped twig and every boot print. All the while my fears from California crept along behind us, latched onto me, like a bear-shaped shadow.
The forest put up a fight and it was an exhausting trudge. We were forced to use our GPS to navigate the inhospitable terrain; the path lay hidden beneath feet of snow and boot prints veered off in all directions.
My boots sank into the snow with every step and the slightest miscalculation sent us plummeting through hidden snow bridges. Fraser was the first victim.
We were challenged by the icy rivers fuelling the tremendous waterfalls below. The only way across was over rotting and slippery tree trunks. The slightest stumble would send us plunging into the waist-deep water below. It was vital that we kept our feet dry in the icy conditions to prevent frostbite.
It was an uphill three-hour battle to Eagle Peak. The handful of people we encountered were walking in the opposite direction, back towards the valley floor. Most had made it no further than Eagle Peak. This was my first inkling that our plan may be too ambitious… but we hadn’t come all the way to the Yosemite to skip El Capitan!
By the time we stopped for lunch I was exhausted but we had a further 3km to hike to El Capitan. Our lot was sweetened by the stunning view of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley from Eagle Peak.
Eight hours in we finally broke out of the woods. We ran the final two hundred metres to the top of El Capitan. We crept to the edge of the granite and peered over into three thousand feet of air.
The Yosemite Valley stretched out for miles below. Tourists bustled around like ants, navigating traffic jams in tiny toy cars. The Merced River meandered through the park fuelled by cascading waterfalls from above. It felt like we were perched in the heavens, looking down on the earth.
The final anchor-point for climbers was bolted to the granite right next to us. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for a ropeless Alex Honnold to look down and know there were only fingernails between him and the valley floor.
We were ecstatic.
It was now time to face our mistake and hike back in the dark. We were breaking all the rules. I thought of all the advice given by the Rangers –
“DO NOT HIKE AT DUSK…”
“DO NOT HIKE IN LESS THAN THREE…”
The feeling of dusk was already present as we stepped back into the woods. The darkness crept in around us, drawing us tight into its grip, encircling its prey. As the gloom thickened, shapes and objects became hard to distinguish. I kept my eyes down and followed the footprints in the snow… I prayed not to see a bear print.
Following advice from the Rangers, we made as much noise as possible and frequently yelled “Hey, bear!” to avoid startling any grizzlies. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this plan as black bears have been known to actively hunt humans so I couldn’t shake the feeling we were inviting them to dinner.
By the time we left El Capitan we were the only people in the woods. The last group we had seen had been heading back to the valley two hours before. There was nobody to help.
It was at this moment that I remembered this monster from Big Bear.
I felt a familiar sensation in my chest. My throat constricted and my breath came in gasps. My hands dropped to my shaking knees and Fraser turned, recognising the symptoms of my panic attack… I wouldn’t have made it back without Fraser. He navigated our way back through the darkening woods, his encouragement and calm nerve keeping me together.
We agreed to speed up.
It was an eye-opening experience. The human concerns I’d brought into the woods were dissolved and replaced with a primal awareness. There was no halting or decision-making. I simply pounded after Fraser, walking directly in his boot prints to avoid hidden snow bridges. I navigated the terrain with confidence. We halted only to check the GPS and navigate the invisible path.
Fraser suddenly increased his shouts of “Hey, bear!” I felt too frantic to question this and didn’t find out the terrifying reason until later.
Halfway back we came to the icy rivers.
Without hesitation we agreed to beeline across them. Fraser didn’t need persuading; he was keen to test out the waterproofing on his new boots. We splashed our way through the rivers, avoiding only those that were waist-deep. Icy water gushed into my boots but I barely noticed.
We staggered back to the top of the steps at 19:50. It had taken us a mere two-and-a-half hours from El Capitan. The stairs, which had been buzzing with tourists, now appeared empty. But suddenly we caught up to a group of people – actual people! – coming down from another trail who looked, like us, as though they’d bitten off more than they could chew.
Relief flooded my body and I dropped instantly from high alert to low alert. We were safe. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next; waves of nausea crashed over me and my legs shook violently.
Was this hypothermia?
Was I going into shock?
Nope, it was an adrenaline dump.
It was not until this point that I realised I was in bad shape. The adrenaline rush I had experienced in the woods had pushed my body beyond its usual limits. I had been drained of all resources. My legs buckled under me and I was weak with hunger and thirst.
I dragged my protesting body down step by step, fighting the urge to be sick or collapse, until we reached the camp.
We emerged from the black woods wild-eyed, our bodies broken. The campers cast strange looks at us as we staggered through; we were dripping wet and caked in mud and sweat. I limped along, my boots squelching, looking like I’d seen a ghost.
It was only now that Fraser admitted he’d seen a large bear print ahead of us in the woods.