Warszawski: In Yosemite, even misery goes long way

The Fresno BeeJune 21, 2014 

Some of my fondest Yosemite memories are of times when I was completely miserable.

Yes, miserable.

Extreme suffering isn't a state of being that typically gets associated with Yosemite — certainly not as the park celebrates its 150th anniversary. Much more often, you hear of people being inspired, stirred and uplifted by what they see and experience. Both in real life and Ken Burns documentaries.

Don't misunderstand. Yosemite has inspired, stirred and uplifted me many more times than it has made me miserable. But the good complements the bad. To really appreciate such a place, both are needed.

I was 13 years old when Troop 75 of Los Altos set off to backpack the first section of the famous John Muir Trail to Tuolumne Meadows. The trip began as planned. We made it to Little Yosemite Valley the first night and climbed Half Dome (my first time on the summit) the following morning.

Then Mother Nature had her say. A big storm moved in, forcing us to camp. And once the rain began falling, it didn't stop for three days. Thunder and lightning, too.

I had a tiny pup tent that absorbed water like a sponge and a plastic poncho that doubled as a ground cloth. Everything got soaked, including my sleeping bag. I remember long, sleepless nights and waking up in a puddle.

But that's not my worst Yosemite "camping" experience. Nope, that happened about a decade later when a friend who was an experienced rock climber cajoled and persuaded me to follow him up Royal Arches.

Of the climb I don't recall much. Only it was long — very long — and we hardly brought anything with us, including jackets, in order to travel fast and light.

By the time we reached the top, it was early evening. To get down, we had to traverse a mile or so along the Valley rim before descending the North Dome gully.

Except neither of us had done it before and were relying on vague directions to avoid dangerous cliffs.

Looking back, I'm glad we were smart enough not to attempt such a treacherous descent in the dark without flashlights. Instead we spent the night shivering in manzanita.

Then there was that time at Emeric Lake, near Vogelsang, where a friend and I made camp only to get swarmed at dusk by thick clouds of mosquitoes. Some of the worst I've ever encountered.

That left us two choices: get eaten alive or dive inside my tent. (My friend had only brought a bivy sack.) Inside we went, and inside we stayed. Even cooked dinner in there, a big no-no.

I remember being cramped, sweaty and, yes, miserable.

Why bring up unpleasant memories, instead of just reveling in the wonderfulness of Yosemite?

Because without them, I wouldn't be presenting the complete picture. Only the sanitized version.

The vast majority of Yosemite's 4 million annual visitors only get that version. They drive to some landmark, at the foot of El Capitan or perched above Glacier Point, get out of their cars and gawk.

Then it's back in the car, turn the ignition and on to the next spot. Some may stroll along the Valley floor, hike to Vernal Fall or take a guided tour. But that's the sum total of their park experience.

It wasn't always this way.

Inside the Tuolumne Meadows Visitors Center are several historic photographs, including a few taken during Sierra Club-sponsored outings from the early 20th century.

In these photos, you'll see long lines of people — 50, 60, 70 — all climbing mountains together. The men are dressed in long sleeves and trousers, while the ladies wear bonnets and dresses down to their ankles.

I recognize some of the peaks in these photos: Mount Lyell, Tenaya Peak, Mount Hoffman. These are not easy hikes. Yet it didn't seem to stop anyone from going.

Were those people made from sturdier stock than we are today? Or were they just held to a higher, more rigorous standard?

To be sure, Yosemite still brings out plenty of folks for whom driving and gawking isn't enough: hikers, backpackers, climbers and mountaineers.

Only they're vastly outnumbered by those who don't set one foot off the asphalt.

There's nothing wrong with gawking in Yosemite. Even though I've seen Half Dome and El Capitan hundreds of times, I still do it. There are moments when the pure beauty of the place simply overwhelms.

Just don't make the mistake of believing that driving around the Valley or staying at the lodge constitutes a true park experience. That requires a deeper insertion.

Those nights I spent lying in a soaked sleeping bag, shivering in manzanita and hiding from mosquitoes form some of my strongest Yosemite memories. As the years go by, they've also become some of the fondest.

Why? Because of what I learned from them: how to waterproof a tent; how to prepare for an unplanned night out; and how to select a campsite where mosquitoes are less likely to swarm.

Without these negative experiences, all the positive ones would seem a lot less vivid.

Want to know how to get inspired, stirred and uplifted by Yosemite? Leave your comfort zone and risk a little misery.


The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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