A Night on the Trail
Last June (2005), my friend Warren and I decided to take a little trip to Yosemite for a couple of days to do some photography. The falls were all going full tilt and things were in bloom. We had three days. Road trip!
For the last day we decided to hitch-hike up to the Tioga Pass Road, hike out to North Dome from Porcupine Creek and then go west to Yosemite Falls and finish by hiking down the Yosemite Falls trail to the car, which was parked in the Yosemite Lodge parking area. Not having hitchhiked in many years, I was worried that it might not be so easy nowadays, but I had made a sign out of cardboard from an all-night market the night before and we were resigned to taking a shot at it until it became clear that we would be too late to do the hike, which was about ten miles total.
We had been up in that area before but I did not have my present camera then, so I wanted to go back and get a couple of shots that I knew would be winners. This is basically the north rim over Yosemite Valley. Check out my trip there in the backpacking section for what happened the last time. So we stood out by the entrance to the falls for about an hour with our sign, feeling a bit foolish at times, but it was fun- a couple of aging hippies must have made quite a site. It was a beautiful day and despite a late start, we finally got a ride with a couple from back east who were visiting Yosemite for the first time. We left the trail head about one P.M.
The last time we did this trip was with backpacks, so the daypacks we had this time were much lighter and the trail went by pretty well. The first stop was the arch at Indian Rock where I got some good shots and Warren got some good ones of me after I climbed up to get the view I wanted. From there we went out toward North Dome to look for a shot that I wanted a "do-over" on with my new camera. North Dome is a great place to go. There are really unique views of Yosemite there and it isn't a bad hike at all.
Next we headed west along the trail to Yosemite falls, stopping to take pictures and generally just soaking up the beauty of the backcountry in Yosemite. Even though this is not far from the valley as the crow flies, you don't run into a lot of people up there. Its really nice. There are some wonderful vistas as you approach the falls area. On we went.
We reached the top of Yosemite Falls trail at dusk, around 6:15 PM. We rested for a minute or two and then we decided we should get moving and head down the trail to the valley floor. I had never been on that trail before and it was only 3 miles down to the valley from the top of the falls. It was June, almost the longest day of the year and 6;30 PM. No way we could not go 3 miles before dark. This was a day hike and the car was at the bottom- we did not have backpacks and overnight equipment so we had to go on. We had been out the night before until dark shooting somewhere else and we figured we had at least 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours, maybe more, of daylight left. 3 miles, all downhill, no problem. Well at least I thought that. Warren was a little worried. There was nobody left at the falls. WE wondered if a ranger had told everybody who wasn't camping up there to leave. The sun was still up though. You can do 3 miles in an hour at a brisk walk on level ground. This was downhill!
Well that was the slowest trail I have ever hiked downhill. Steep, tight switchbacks, cobblestones everywhere and slippery sections near the falls. I even slipped once and whacked my camera against a rock. You really had to watch your footing. Twisting an ankle was a real possibility. I was tired and I don't like downhill trails that much, its hard on my knees. So it was slow going, but even then, I stopped a few times to take pictures. Warren had gone ahead. He likes going downhill. The problem for him became that he hadn't brought his regular glasses, just his prescription sunglasses.
I caught up with him as the light failed near the top of the lower falls. I figured we were getting close to the bottom because the lower falls aren't that tall compared to the upper one. I figured a few switchbacks and we would be down in time for dinner. Warren surprised me a little at this point by saying he now needed me to lead him out because he couldn't see any more because of the sunglasses. (He doesn't see really well without glasses either.) He was also not sure we were still on the right trail anymore because it was now going uphill. Well, if you have seen Yosemite falls from a distance you know that it is a very steep drop from the top. It didn't seem possible that this trail would be going up for some distance and working its way west, away from the falls. It occurred to me that we had missed the trail down and were now on some connecting trail to the west. Fortunately, I had a map with me that at least showed the trail turning in the direction we were going. So on we went, slowly but surely.
I was pretty sure we were on the right trail, but I did take time from then on to check side trails to see if there was a shorter way down. So I would leave Warren and go check the trails. No luck, just incredible dropoffs from little viewpoints. This was probably the final nail in our coffins- wasted time looking for a faster way down. Finally, with darkness upon us, one of us basically blind, the trail still going uphill and us out of energy with no flashlights, we knew we were not going to make it out of there that night. We both had a really sinking feeling at that moment. The inevitability of the situation struck as like a punch in the stomach. Warren threw up. I felt dizzy. It was way after 9 PM and almost dark.
We discussed our options. We had no way of signalling for help aside from lighting a fire. It seems I did have a lighter in my pack. Since fires aren't allowed there, it would surely get some attention. I didn't want to go that route unless absolutely necessary for fear of starting a forest fire. What kind of a hullaballoo would that cause with the rangers anyway? Besides, what real danger were we in? If I hiked out to get flashlights or help it would take a long time to get back and I was already very tired. The trail is tricky along there and it would be very dangerous in the dark. We had snacks and even though we were low on water, there was water nearby and I had a water filter with me. Eventually we decided to just hunker down on the trail until it was light enough to see. One thing about that trail is that it just drops off on one side, so there isn't much room to actually camp or anything. Its not allowed there anyway. You certainly don't want to go wandering around up there in the dark on a moonless night.
We had no jackets. We had been sure we would not need them because we would be back before dark and it was warm up there in June. I had on a long sleeve polyester hiking shirt and my photo vest. Warren was dressed similarly without a vest. I knew from reading the weather reports that it wound get down to about 55-60 degrees that night. We were not going to freeze, but it would be chilly. Well, that old photo vest was soaking wet from the hiking. I actually had to take it off and hang it over a bush to try and dry it out. My shirt dried out fine. I would have liked to have that vest to wear that night. When I tried to put it on later it just made me colder. Every time the wind came up a little it was chill city. I had forgotten what real shivering was like. I did have my camera pack to protect me a little so I hugged it to me, but we were pretty much just exposed, lying on a dirt trail, curled up back to back until daybreak. It does help to keep your back warm!
No one else came down that trail. I was sure at least one group would be at least as stupid as we were and I was hoping they would have a flashlight. We took the precautioon of putting our food in a pile down the trail a bit in case a bear came by. I was more worried about mountain lions. Animals do use that trail apparently and there is no room to give each other a wide berth. The thought of an up close and personal encounter in the dark was on our minds as it turned to pitch balck. The moon did come up later, but we still could not see well enough to leave. Little sounds kept us on edge until we got used to the situation or maybe we were just too tired to care.
So I went with one of my strengths, telling stories, and kept it up until we finally did fall asleep for a few minutes towards daybreak. As my father used to say, "it always darkest before the dawn". Well it is definitely coldest too. Its hard to sleep when you are chilled like that.
The amazing thing was that when we did decide to walk out it still took over an hour to get to the car. We weren't even close. I have never goofed that bad estimating a trail before. There were some serious exposed dropoffs on that remaining trail so I am glad we didn't try it in the dark.
The one good thing that came out of that trip is the picture on the top of my website. So it was worthwhile. It also taught us to be more careful. Careful about planning and careful about taking things along that we might need. What I wouldn't have given for a windbreaker or a space blanket, not to mention my headlamp. I like to travel light on the trail. This time I went to far. Never again.
Finally, I would like to say that it never pays to panic. Of course as a principal horn player in an orchestra, I learned that a long time ago. If it had been snowing or otherwise physically threatening, we would have had to do something else but once we assessed the situation we realized that there was no sense in exposing ourselves to any more danger, it was more embarassing than anything else. Lesson learned.