Winter miscellany, December–March

Yosemite

This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.

I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.

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Santa Barbara

There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.

In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.

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* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land

Angel Island

It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.

It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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Yosemite, 6/3–6/5

The valley in summer is as hot and buggy and crowded as I would have thought, but I’m here for a trails workshop and spending much of the day indoors anyway. The point was to learn to use tools, become handy … but I can’t help but maneuver into my comfort zone—i.e., bullshit—and instead wind up debating fundraising language with a rep from another nonprofit. His expression suggests he may fake a seizure in order to end the conversation. Whatever.

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Not pictured: hang gliders landing the meadow, a serious blow to what remained of my interest in rock climbing.

The workshop also includes a bit by the park geologist, whose job it is to investigate rockfall in the middle of the night and shoot LiDAR at El Cap. He’s pretty cute and also talking casually past my farthest points of reference in space and time: of bedrock 2,000 feet below the valley floor, of using cosmic rays from another solar system (????) to measure isotopes in flecks of quartz. In combination with the heat this is dreamlike and soothing. “The granite you see is the guts,” he says, “of hundred-million-year-old volcanoes.”

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Less problematic than the last time I went this way.

At 10 p.m. that night I’m hiking back down from Glacier Point when I encounter a mule deer glowing electric white, like it’s Harry’s patronus* or being abducted by aliens. In reality it’s backlit by the headlamp of an off-duty ranger, who mitigates my initial disappointment by walking the rest of the way with me and reciting draft tour scripts that didn’t pass muster with his supervisor. These include a talk on the cultural role of selfie sticks and another I would have titled, “Did you guys have any idea how badly this park fucked over the Miwok?”

The following evening finds me at the base of Yosemite Falls. I’ve never been before, and in the fast-failing twilight the hurtling plumes appear as a massive, warlike spectre, emitting a howl from another world. I have water on my face, my heart in my mouth.

* J.K. Rowling’s marketing team says mine is a falcon, so.

Yosemite, 11/15-11/16

Belaying with Nabokov 

I was not, to be honest, having quite the weekend I’d wanted. I’m useless in the cold, and the month since Red Rocks was plenty of time for me to forget how to climb. Throw in a bad poison oak hangover and by Sunday afternoon, thoroughly defeated, I was content to sit with a Grigri and six layers on while the more robust specimens grunted their way up Generator Crack.

Generator Crack
From the window … to the wall?

I found myself staring into an inky pool of the Merced just below the belay. Fallen leaves in russet and ochre had come to rest on a flat-topped rock submerged near the bank, and for a while I considered the mechanics of this. I followed pine needles and the high clouds as they drifted across the water. I studied the inverted pinnacles, how the dark-streaked wall emerged from the dim cloak of the trees.

A gust of wind rumpled the surface. Or rather, as it has to my dismay already been written

The auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags.

As the image stabilized I noticed a strange speck moving across the pool. Not an insect, not a fish—the water was still again before I realized I was watching the reflection of someone walking a highline on the Rostrum.

There was the jolt of comprehension and then, at once, the vertiginous, rapid flight of the mind’s eye from my vantage point on the riverbank to theirs, a thousand feet up on inches of webbing in the empty air. I saw their bare feet and the long, long drop, heard the wind, felt the sweat bead on my palms and tasted the adrenaline in my mouth. And—

For a moment, we were both in the same warm green bath of the mirror that reflected the top of a poplar with us in the sky.

Later, I stepped out from under the trees to look up the cliff face and watch the walker right-side-up. But the late afternoon sky was too bright for me to see something so small, and so the scene existed only in solution.

Generator Station
Generator Station, liquefied.

This, by the way, is why I write—even though I’ll never be Nabokov: for the things invisible except in reflection, for the perspective of the reverse.

Yosemite, 10/11-10/12

Three things I learned this time:

1) When the topo gives totally contradictory  information (“munge-filled,” “cool!”), best to assume the worst of it is true. Also best to have Chris lead. The man is impervious.

2) Trad can actually be a social activity, even for an ornery individual like me. It’s not that I don’t like climbing near other people; it’s that I don’t like climbing near other people … I don’t like?

Manure Pile Buttress takeover. We're even missing two people in this shot! Photo poached from Robert, of course.
Whereas everyone I’m with here is awesome. Photo poached from Robert.

3) Why so far I prefer leading (easy) multi-pitch trad to (easy) single-pitch sport. No surprise, it’s lizard brain again: On a tall route protected with my own sketchy gear, that thing perceives safety at the top of the wall. Even in full freakout, I’m motivated to continue—whereas a trustworthy bolt is a compelling invitation to quit and come down. Absurd. Absurd! But isn’t all of this?

Tuolumne, 9/13-9/14

“Why do you climb when you don’t even like it?” 

Went to Tuolumne again, set off for Guide Cracks on Sunday with every intention of practicing hand-jams until I broke myself of either the fear or the inclination—or, more plausibly, just plain broke.

Instead we got lost. It took a while to figure out we were on the wrong rock, but less to realize that we ought to walk to the top of it. So we did, and it looked like this:

Not the top of Daff Dome.
Top of … well, definitely not Daff Dome.

Gasping for air under the weight of gear I hardly know how to use, I looked around and saw the reasons that I’m trying to learn—which are, oddly, also the reasons that it doesn’t matter whether I ever do. It’s another of the mountains’ tricks of perspective: that the whole world can contract so violently around a single knot or finger or knife-blade edge of rock; and then explode into infinity again on these summits, subsume the memory of the fear in space and light.

Three years ago and three years even less self-conscious about what I put on the Internet, I wrote,

There’s a vertigo in the view, something that pulls me out of and over myself so that the scene spins below me even as I’m looking to the shore. The sensation of smallness is a comfort and embrace; I’m at once enveloped and untethered and it’s peace. Why only out here? Why, elsewhere in life, is insignificance a worthlessness, a wound?

Ignore for a moment the writing and fact that in both cases I’d simply walked where I was going; that’s not the point. I think it’s still the reason. I think it’s still enough.

Tuolumne, 9/5-9/7

This weekend in Tuolumne: Baby’s First Trad Lead. I wasn’t going to try this for a while longer, but when I found myself sitting with idle hands in front of literally the easiest possible single-pitch climb in the park, equipped with a borrowed rack and an all-girl backup chorus of soothing voices … I had clearly run out of excuses.

Not pictured:
Photo by Stacy Bloom. This is the least embarrassing  in a sequence that documents a rapid deterioration in facial expressions from “resolved” to “hyperventilating.”

Anyway, here I owe some big thanks to Nicole,  for spending twelve years with her arms up while I fumbled around with the first piece and for reviewing my placements; verdict: 1) decorative, 2) good, 3) marginal, 4) over-cammed, 5) okay. It’s, uh … just as well I didn’t have to build an anchor.

Other high comedy in Project Be My Own Rope Gun: Freakout-leading easy slab on Sunday I missed the only gear on the route and then, while preoccupied with wondering what 150 feet actually looks like (…), wandered an extra 15 past the anchor. The only reason I even thought to look down for it was that the girl on the route next to me happened to sneeze. Having extricated myself from this situation uninjured, I then ate shit on the walk back to the car after getting a cam stuck in some manzanita.

I have, to put it mildly, a lot to learn. The particular difficulty of this sport, of course, is that while figuratively I may have nowhere to go but up I am literally a lo-o-ong way from the ground.  So I will give it a little more of my best effort …

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Zoom for a “Where’s Waldo” of more competent women— inspiration, moral support, and patient belays all weekend.

… and then I’m going to quit and try surfing.

Tuolumne, 8/16-8/17

This morning I took a little survey of reviews on SummitPost and Mountain Project. Here is everyone else’s assessment of what I personally would describe as, uh, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?
Somewhere above the Zee Tree. And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?
  • “I was disappointed. Fairly easy climbing and over-bolted.”
  • “Missed a bunch of bolts on two or three of the pitches, but didn’t need them.”
  • “Non-strenuous great fun for overweight geriatrics.”
  • “You can focus on your feet and not worry about the spacing between the bolts.”
  • “Super easy climbing, great as an intro to slab or to run up at the end of the day.”

Meanwhile, in my world, the route is over-bolted only in the sense that I wouldn’t have tired to lead it in the first place were it not bolted at all. And I can’t imagine I’ll live to be an overweight geriatric when I’m Elvis-legged on a 5.7, negotiating frantically with lizard-brain: Do not start crying, I protest, you’ll get the slab wet and then you’re definitely going to fall.

Seriously, I hate this sport. Who wants to go next weekend?

Yosemite, 4/19-4/20

The shuttles are running and the falls are flowing. It’s open season.

The campground has the feel of some manic jamboree. In the glow and smoke and trees I am quickly lost amidst coffin-sized iceboxes and palatial tents done up in Christmas lights and other states’ flags. The grimy bathroom reverberates with dueling blow-dryers; I yield the sink with my mouth still full of toothpaste, cowed by the unnerving reflection of teenage girls queuing up behind me to apply their mascara. It’s 10:45 at night. Where the hell are they going?

In the daytime the valley smells like barbecue smoke and there’s a baseball game underway at the base of El Cap. I watch a seven-foot-tall Nordic behemoth film his friend’s fast-food order at the register with an SLR. All this—Disneyland!—in the literal, creeping shadow of the most fantastic big walls on the planet. It’s bizarre.

There is a tiny, tiny speck in front of the wall that is, by the way, a YOSAR helicopter.
The white speck on the wall is not a dead pixel but a YOSAR helicopter. I’d like to produce a remake of Baywatch starring these guys. Who’s in?

What the crowds mean for me generally—no use pretending otherwise—is claustrophobic, misanthropic fury. This is aggravated rather than tempered by the acute awareness that in the next tent over is likely a world-class free-soloist with serious abs and a name like Nadia or Alessia, rolling her eyes and wishing I too would GTFO of her park. Who am I, anyway? Another wannabe in the wrong size puffy, flipping through the guidebook looking for, like, I don’t know, a 5.6 that I could maybe top-rope?

In the end, she’ll have to share with me just as I’ll have to share with tourists who don’t queue  or recycle. If I wanted it to myself I could pay for it myself—except it’s 750,000 acres and not on the market so, no, actually, I can’t. In which case, what does it take to protect the backcountry, to convince the public to foot the bill for the 90 percent of that acreage that 90 percent will never see? It takes a (Curry) Village.

After Six, party of three.
After Six, party of three.

On the last two pitches the wind picks up to the point that it’s pulling the bag off my back. I can hardly hear myself speak, never mind our rope gun. This is why I brought radios, but as the static coalesces into speech it becomes apparent that we’re on the same channel as a gang of grade-schoolers playing in the valley below.

Mathew, you have 15 feet of rope—
HELLO
Alia, I’m safe, you can—
HELLO-HELLO-HELLO, I’m in FOOOOOREEEEEST!
Belay is—
GERALD, GERALD, WEEE-OOO, WEE-OOO!
NICOLE SMELLS! NICOLE FARTED!
Belay is—
I have TEN POKEMON!
More like, POK-E-MOR-ON
Alia, can you hear me?
NICOLE FARTED, ROGER THAT
I’m exasperated. I’m stressed. I’m cranky. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want all these people to control their children. I want all these people to go away. But I’m laughing, I’m yelling, I’m climbing. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want every kid loose in the woods somewhere. I want them to love this place, too.

Yosemite, 4/12-4/13

Recently I decided I would learn to love solo hikes.  For a social creature, I’ve found the project surprisingly easy:  certainly I appreciate the ability to set my own pace and take pretentious flower photos without worrying about whether anybody else is bored.

So I was content this weekend to head up Yosemite’s five-mile-long Four Mile Trail (yeah, rounding error) on my own.  The climb was a grind but the view from Glacier Point was perfect and deserted;  I half-ran down the other side of the ridge in something approaching straight-up glee.

 

Illilouette Fall. Dying day?
Illilouette Fall and the dying day.

At the top of Illilouette Fall, I dawdled on the rocks admiring the mad rush of green water into the setting sun, then started back down the trail to the bridge crossing, where I then saw—to use the description that came involuntarily out of my mouth at the time—A Huge Fucking Bear.

And this is when I discovered that there is actually no such thing as a solo hike. You never truly walk alone: lizard brain goes with you.

Me Lizard Brain
While they may get big—up to 600 pounds—there are only black bears in Yosemite. “Black bear” is a misnomer; most are brown. The last California grizzly was shot and killed in 1873. HOLY SHIT A GRIZZLY HOLY SHIT A GRIZZLY IT IS THE SAME EXACT GRIZZLY FROM THAT ONE MOVIE WHERE EVERYONE DIES IN ALASKA
If you encounter a bear, make as much noise as you can. I can’t. I can’t. It’ll hear me and eat me. If I open my mouth to scream, I will instead just vomit. Of course bears love vomit; they’re omnivores.
Keep the bear in sight. Under no circumstances should you run. Turn your back and book it for somewhere comforting and wide open. You know, like the African plains of early human evolution? How about that riverbank? Yes, that one, right above the 370-foot waterfall.
Literally no one has ever been killed by a bear in Yosemite. I am going to be killed by a bear in Yosemite.
By contrast, dozens have died being swept over the waterfalls. Also, bears are excellent swimmers. I’ll be safe if I can just cross the river. The bear would never cross the river.
The narrower the stream, the faster the flow. I just have to find a good spot to jump to the other side.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The best I can say is that I was reasonably prepared for just about anything other than an apex predator: for weather, for poor trail conditions, for minor injuries, to bivvy overnight if necessary. And it wasn’t a matter of temporarily forgetting what I was supposed to do. The entire time I spent frantically casing the slabs I was completely aware of how stupid it was to be doing so. But as in other, less pressing situations—more toprope freakouts that morning, for example—the lizard had seized the machine.

So, what to do? Then: wrest control from the lizard, scan and proceed cautiously across the bridge, and hammer out the last five miles to camp with fresh batteries in my headlamp for reassurance, forcing myself past the site of our New Year’s encounter with a mountain lion by alternating between loudly reciting poetry and singing camp songs (…).  Now: buy an air horn, some bells, and some bear spray. And never make the same mistake twice.

Yosemite—12/28-1/1

A few belated notes from New Year’s. It was my third in Yosemite and fourth since the revelation—possibly just a symptom of mild hypothermia on my first, ill-equipped snow trip—that it’s a holiday better spent in the woods than the city. The crowds are more manageable; plus I’m less likely to take the occasion to wallow in my own mortality if I watch the sun rise on the new year, rather than the clock running out on the old one. Tick-tock, people.

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Nature photography pro-tip: travel with one handsome man per giant sequoia.

The lack of snow (versus last year) nixed our plans for Badger Pass, and crossing the stark and ashen path of the Rim Fire on the way into the park was a reminder that the dry winter will have consequences beyond a lousy ski season. This is why I’m not getting smug about the Polar VortexTM: come August, life will realistically end in an apocalyptic, statewide inferno. Get, uh … stoked.

On the bright side, the conditions (and my more competent friends’ gear and goodwill) meant I got to do Snake Dike. The climb had a great fun-to-terror ratio; despite this I was so focused on Not Dying that I was within a hundred yards of the summit before I remembered where we were actually going …

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…the top of Half Dome!

That moment of realizing where I was—on the map and in time and on my own evolving bucket list—was humbling and gratifying at once, well worth the long-ass hike and a tense ten minutes spent downslope of a mountain lion in the dark. More of these in 2014, I hope.

(Reflective moments on granite, I mean, not lion sightings. Yeesh, those eyes!)