The Rest of Yosemite

This first appeared this summer on the Parks Project blog, a cool project run by my friend Keith Eshelman.


I got a call from my buddy Clarke and I had to go. He had a plumb line picked out in the high country, away from the heat and crowds of Yosemite Valley, and was looking for a climbing partner. We were headed for a route on Cathedral Peak, 700 feet of gleaming white granite topping out at 10,916 feet.

It felt liberating and expansive to leave our everyday routines and go to Yosemite, not only a National Park, but a UN World Heritage site, on a rarified list that includes the Walled City of Baku, Angkor Wat and the Galapagos Islands. Once you’re there, pack on your back, disappearing into the forest, there’s no doubt this place – a place to which John Muir said, “no temple made with hands can compare,” – belongs on that list.


While driving past the liquor stores and freight cars of Mojave on the trip up, I wondered if it’s absurd to drive six-hours just to run up a trail as fast as we can, climb a huge rock, run back down, jump in the car and head home.

The early bird gets the splitter granite.

The immense granite faces of Yosemite were 25 million years in the making. The radical change of the landscape, though made invisible by its glacial pace, effects you here, slows you down. Environmental writer Kenneth Brower wrote of the Yosemite High Country, “Each visit there is a personal time travel, a return to the very beginnings of myself.” Once you’re living outside, sleeping on the ground, drinking snowmelt, the idea of blitzing up here for a just few days feels almost insolent in some way, if nothing else, to our selves.


As I got my hands on the coarse white granite, I focused on the climbing. Each footstep became a unique event in itself. Instead of wondering whether it’s absurd that we do this, I thought it was absurd that we don’t do this more.

Walking in the shadows of big peaks, still below tree line, you only get glimpses of granite walls that go up, up, up. You feel tiny. Once on the summit, you can see like an equal among towering peers. The high mountains and ridges stand out in succession, growing hazy toward the horizon, and now you realize the extent of Yosemite. It covers 760,000 acres. The Valley, with swarms around Camp Curry and Half Dome, is a tiny part of the park; most of Yosemite is backcountry, this austere, harder to access area that remains similar to when the Miwok lived here. I can imagine the endless magical places – streams and cliffs and coves and waterfalls that no trails lead to, and no one ever visits.


Four million people come to Yosemite every year. Our impact on wild places can be huge, or it can be small, depending on how we act. National Parks and the people who take care of them are faced with budget cuts. Learning about minimum impact practices, and traveling in the backcountry with no trace gives as much of a sense of accomplishment as climbing a big route.


The climbing was only 5.6. Most experienced climbers would do it without a rope, but I’d been bodysurfing, gardening and hanging out with my two year old more than climbing, and decided to be a responsible dad. We did the Cathedral Traverse, which connects Cathedral Peak to a ridgeline with several other summits. It was a big day and the route pushed Clarke and I hard, which is what we wanted – a little penance for our absence. At the end we jumped in a lake, the best part of a day of climbing. The dirt and sweat and heat comes off and you feel cleansed beyond the physical. Your knees are iced, your feet cooled, your body tingles, your mind is quiet. You feel an uncommon, almost otherworldly peace, and it sticks around for a while. You’ve spent a little time in that part of life that lies out there like the rest of Yosemite, elevated and rarely traversed, and you resolve to come back more often before heading back down the trail toward the car.


Johnny Would Go

It rained this weekend. Almost everyone I’ve talked to was bummed about it. They’re disappointed with the weather, as if rain is unpleasant, certain elements of the natural world, annoyances. I wonder if they feel that way about gravity. Or certain shades of green. Or the way the big bang strew the constellations. John Muir didn’t. He loved the natural world in all its moods. He didn’t just like sunny weather. He liked weather.

I heard  he would jump in the path of an avalanche and ride it down the mountain for fun, which I doubt. But I do believe he climbed tall trees during fierce storms just to feel the driving rain stinging his face and the branches flexing in the gale. Windsurfing meets Qigong.

“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing,” he wrote in Mountain Thoughts.

Maybe he found some special mushrooms on his hikes. Or maybe he had a desire to be deeply immersed in the experience of the natural world that is alien to us now. I’m sure he knew how to find or make shelter in a storm, but for the times when he was caught out, well, Gore-Tex was still 117 years in the future in 1868 and there were no space blankets; Muir’s wool and leather gear would be soaked through. Hypothermia deep in the backcountry was serious back when a shot of Scotch was considered rewarming.

In Laguna Beach, if there is a sign of rain, people get their $400 synthetic jacket, their $200 Hunter boots, and layer up to brave the five minutes of the day they’re not able to avoid the rain by staying indoors. Even if the ocean toxicity spike after rainfall was a thing of the past,Orange County lives across a deep divide from the self sufficient aesthetic of Muir and company.

That’s why I was amused to see the fellow above. I was shooting photos of the biggest storm of the winter a few years ago. Unprecedented rainfall, flooding, landslides, closed roads, high winds blowing down tall trees. I was running around Laguna shielding my camera from the maelstrom when I saw this guy at Main Beach, going for a swim like a modern day Muir, heading out to ride the rip currents in a roiling ocean, in February. No wetsuit.







Here are some other images from that day.

Aliso Beach was closed as storm surf washed over the beach and flooded the parking lot.

I wasn't the only one who came out to watch the show.

The storm front hits Heisler Park.

Aliso Beach serving it up. Bodysurf?

Bigger than it looks.

As the storm cleared, the beach was slowly populated again.