Van Life: Yosemite

“Hey Cathper, do you like fish thticks?”

I jolted out of my hiking reverie to the sound of an inquisitive fourth-grader with a lisp. A kids day camp bustled past as we descended Yosemite’s famous Mist Trail. Tim had broken his finger mountain biking about a week into our trip, so we opted to hike today instead of climb. It was a good choice, as Tim’s finger had swollen to the size of a large cherry by midday. So we woke up early, inhaled the icy air, and started up the Mist Trail. This is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes, and for good reason. Large stone steps lazily wound up towards the pounding falls, the greenery and multitude of rainbows suggesting that if unicorns were real, they would live here. The icy mist quickly drenched us, providing both the trail’s namesake and the first shower we’ve had in a while. Tromping towards the raging falls, we passed a fit guy about our age hiking the other way. “Hey, how’s the hiking?” he asked cheerily. Before we could respond, he tripped violently, barely caught himself, and immediately launched into a run as if that had been his intention the whole time. We stared after him for a while then laughed. “Oh no, I didn’t trip, just needed a boost”, Tim mocked. I grinned, “I bet if he had fallen he would’ve just started doing push-ups”. We had started up the trail around 8am and hadn’t encountered a ton of people. The hike down was a different story. A cornucopia of sweaty families, muscle-tanked bros, camera-happy foreign tourists, and shrieking teenagers soon filled the narrow stone walkway, causing Tim and I to resort to a mad scrambling power-team dash to get down. Glide around the potbellied man, high-step over the screaming toddler, matrix-dodge the flailing tourist yelling in Vietnamese, two hops this time, sliiide to the right. Criss cross! We hopped back into the van around 1pm and exchanged our soaking wet clothes for dry ones, contemplating what to do next.

    “Uh oh….that doesn’t look good”.
The EMTs grunted as they heaved the man on the stretcher down the loose trail, muscles straining. We stood out of the way and watched them go, necks stretching with morbid curiosity. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to test Tim’s finger with some easy climbing after hiking the Mist Trail. As the sound of feet stomping in unison petered off, we continued up the trail to Sunnyside Bench with a bit less enthusiasm as before. “Hey what happened?” I looked up to find Tim talking to the group of people the injured guy had been climbing with. Although shaken, they were able to tell us that he had been climbing a route above his pay grade and was not placing gear well. He also wasn’t wearing a helmet. His foot had slipped, a few pieces had popped, and he had flipped upside down. His belayer had given him a hard catch so he didn’t deck, but did smack his head pretty good against the rock. “And that’s why you wear a helmet”, they concluded. We nodded in agreement, feeling a lot less sorry for the guy now. We had decided to take it easy due to Tim’s finger and, with about two hours of light left in the day, hopped on a fun looking 5.9 after warming up. As we were gearing up, an older, dirtbag bomber daddy looking-guy and a younger, Alex Honnold’s little brother-looking guy plopped their packs at the base of the route and started gearing up as well. Tim and I glanced at each other. “Hey do you guys mind if we go first?” Tim asked. “We’ll be fast”. Honnold’s little brother looked up at us and grinned, “yeah sure man, no problem”. Relieved, Tim snatched the sharp end and hustled up the route like that one kid in gym class who everyone hates for actually trying. I hadn’t realized that there were two pitches to this route, and was a little confused when Tim began pulling up the rope. Eh, he’s probably gonna rap or something, I thought to myself. He knows what he’s doing. Turns out he did, in fact, know exactly what he was doing. I, on the other hand, didn’t have the slightest clue what I was doing. “Uh….are you tied in?” My stomach dropped a little as my ears burned red with the realization that I was supposed to be following. “Uh….shit. No. Sorry. I didn’t realize it was two pitches. Shit. Sorry.” I glanced at bomber daddy and Honnold’s little bro. “Um, we don’t usually do this”. I mumbled, meaning that we don’t usually mess up like this. But Honnold’s brother took it to mean that we don’t usually do multi pitches. Or maybe even that we don’t usually climb. Either way, he smiled gently at me and said, “oh it’s ok. Just take your time and be safe. Let me know if you have any questions”. I opened my mouth to correct him, ears burning crimson now, and immediately closed it. Oh well. He meant well, and there wasn’t really a way I could convince him that I was actually an experienced climber without sounding like a douche. Or worse, a noob. Oh god, he thought I was a noob! Ears and pride almost literally on fire now, I scampered up the route quickly, hoping to maybe regain some dignity by showing them that I knew what jamming was. I needn’t have worried. Honnold bro and bomber daddy were still only halfway up the first pitch when we rapped from the second. As Tim was waiting for me to rap, he chatted with Honnold bro, who’s name turned out to be Julian. Bomber daddy was actually Steve, and also actually a bomber daddy. They turned out to be super nice laid back guys and, upon learning that we had been driving out of the park every night to camp, offered us a spot in their North Pine campsite. A few hours later we all sat around a crackling campfire, swapping stories and spray. Turns out Steve was pushing seventy years old and had first been to Yosemite in 1957. He even still had the ticket stub from entering the park all those years ago. “Hey Steve, when did you get your first pair of climbing shoes?” Tim asked. “Hmmm”, Steve pondered, “when did calculators come out?”. Tim, Julian and I laughed at this as Steve stared at us, astonished and confused. It had been a genuine question. Tim and I soon learned that Steve was the epitome of “a character”. Whenever we would talk about living off the grid or on the move, he would shriek, “the dentistry!” and go off about getting dental care while houseless. His wild, scraggly grey hair and weathered stubbly face lit by firelight, he somewhat paid attention to the conversation while adding in an occasional random quip such as “the best way to sleep in a snow cave is to not sleep in a snow cave”, or “man, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t vote for Trump” (“wait, why shoudn’t I vote for Trump?” “dude, you need a reason?!” “well, no, but…. never mind”). Julian tended to be more on the quiet side, one of those secret nerdy geniuses turned wannabe dirtbag. He had just left his job doing some nerdy genius thing, and was trying to enjoy funemployment. He nodded and smiled as Steve ranted about some random thing or another, and it was clear that he had the patience of a goose whose egg is actually just a rock. Finally at 11:30, long past our bed time, we said good night. “Alright, we’re gonna go home now”, Tim grinned, and we crawled into the van. I don’t think he’ll ever get tired of that joke.

“Wet?! What the shit?!”
It was the next day, and I was leading the Serenity crack on Arch rock, cowardly wishing for a bolt. I had gotten about two pieces of gear in after the first thirty feet of pin-scarred route, and neither of them instilled any confidence. And now the rock was wet. “Yeah, mountain project mentioned that it might be wet! I didn’t want to tell you because you might not want to lead it then!” Tim yelled up at me from his sunny, comfy belay. Meanwhile, my aching toes quivered ever harder as I absorbed this new information. “YOUUUU! GAH!” I shrieked. What I had meant to say was, how could you not tell me, I actually understand but still, what the hell man? I tried again, “YOU! ASS! Huuuuu!”. Really eloquent. About three-fourths of the way up the route, I finally got a decent piece in, a number one cam right in my only hand jam. “Goddammit”, I muttered, and launched into a desperate layback to the chains, not bothering to place any more gear. “Just go, just go, just go” I egged myself on as the chains inched closer. Hand shaking, I waved my hand around the chains like a shitty wizard. I couldn’t seem to clip in. I chased the draw around with my hand like a dumb goldfish not realizing that he’s in a bowl. “Come ON! You little…. ggGRRR!”. Finally my trembling hands found the gate of the biner and shoved the rope through. “TAKE!” I yelled, exhausted and suddenly extremely thirsty. “Tim! Bring water!” I probably should’ve told him to also bring his big-boy diapers, because a Yosemite 5.10 is not an everywhere-else 5.10.

    Another 5.10 that we were proud to onsight was a route called Gripper. While walking up to this almost entirely off width route, we encountered a sign about peregrine falcon closures. The sign said that only certain routes were closed and that other routes were open, such as Gripper. Having had no previous experience with falcons or their nesting habits, we assumed that we could still climb Gripper. As Tim started up the third pitch of the route, I heard a blood-curdling “SCREEE!”, and knew that we had been wrong. Currently the highest measured speed of a diving peregrine falcon is 242 mph. These birds are raptors and have hooked beaks and extremely sharp talons, which they use to snatch prey mid-dive. My first thought when I saw one barreling towards me was that they are extremely beautiful birds. My second thought was that that extremely beautiful bird wasn’t slowing down in the slightest. “SCREEEEE!” the falcon shrieked. “AHHHHH!” I shrieked back. I ducked down just in time to feel harp talons scraping my helmet. And that, also, is why you wear a helmet. “What the…. oh fuuuuu!” the falcon swooped again, wingtip grazing my cheek. “Shit! AHHHH!” I screamed as the falcon tucked its gorgeous wings in again and shot towards me like a fighter jet. “SCREEEEE!” “FUUU&#K!”. Why are humans always so much less majestic than seemingly all other species? I certainly felt pretty damn un-majestic as I flailed around and grunted at the falcon. The falcon eyeballed me as it carved through the sky beautifully, gearing up for another dive bomb. It did not find me intimidating. “TIMMM!” I screamed upwards. “HURRY UPPPP!” I couldn’t see Tim at this point, but I was hoping he was close to the chains. I was very ready to get the hell out of there. So was Mr. Falcon. “SCREEEE!” suddenly, a spiraling football launched towards me from the other side of the wall. No, not a football. Another falcon! “NOOOOOO STOP!” I ducked down again, my only protection the bright pink plastic of my helmet. “GO AWAY I’M SORRY!” I shrieked, as I was simultaneously dive-bombed by two angry falcon parents working in tandem. “SCREEEE!” “SCREEEE!” “NOOOO PLEASE!” “SCREEEEEEE!” “FUUUU&#K!” I dip, dodged, ducked and dove just like the movie Dodgeball taught me, but the falcons were relentless. Finally, Tim shouted that we was off-belay and began pulling up rope as I shrieked and flung my arms around like Frankenstein at a party, trying to convince the falcons to leave me alone. All this got me was a questioning head cock as falcon number one tucked its wings in for another dive. As talons scraped my helmet once again, I felt a tug and a distant yell. “Alyse, you are ON BELAY!” Tim shouted. “Oh thank god!” I told the falcons, who seemed to agree. I began edging off the belay ledge into the traverse at the start of the pitch. “SCREEEE!” I glanced behind me, side-shuffling furiously now. “I’M LEAVING! I’M LEAVING!” I screamed at the falcons. Luckily for me, these were english-speaking Peregrine falcons, and understood immediately and backed off after offering me a spot at their dinner table that night. I wish. The falcons continued their tirade as I groped for holds while ducking razor sharp talons. Finally, as I transitioned into the crack and began racing upwards, the falcons dove further and further away. Finally they stopped altogether, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

We all make mistakes. We are all humans, and humans screw up. We shouldn’t have climbed in that area at all. And while I wish the sign had said “area closed” instead of just a few routes, I have no one to blame but myself. Falcons and other nesting birds are a big part of the climbing environment, and I should’ve educated myself on these animals just like I would rattlesnakes and bears. It is just as important to learn about species that YOU could negatively affect as it is to learn about species that could negatively affect YOU. Peregrine falcons are extremely territorial and will typically return to a nesting site year after year. They mate for life, and the two parents are very protective of their young. Even if you are a few hundred yards away, they will work together to eliminate the threat: you. It is important to realize that we are entering THEIR territory, not the other way around. If you see a sign saying anything about any kind of nesting closures, just avoid that area entirely. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way, but am very glad to have learned it. The important thing in these kinds of situations is to swallow your pride and admit that you were wrong, learn from your mistake, and spread the word to others so they don’t do the same.

The next morning we woke up bright and early, rubbed sleep out of our eyes, racked up, and began walking towards the east buttress of middle cathedral. The route we were aiming for was popular, and our goal was to be the first team on the wall. To our dismay, not one but two teams were at the base of the route when we jingled up the trail, racked up and ready to go. We watched with growing disappointment as a lady in a brand-new harness, new shoes, and a sparkling new helmet tried to remember how to tie in. “Now remember”, a voice coached her from above, “just follow the rope until you get to me. And grab the cams as you go like I showed you”. “Grab the what?” the lady asked. Tim and I looked at each other, exasperated. As we sullenly trudged down the trail, I couldn’t help but think that it was probably for the best. Tim’s finger was grotesquely swollen and crooked, and needed time to properly heal. We would be back for Yosemite and the currently closed Tuolumne, when the weather was warmer and the crowds were thinner. In the meantime, we packed up the van and headed to Grass Valley for some delicious home-cooked meals from my Aunt Vicki and some mechanical help from my Uncle Rich before heading up to Lake Tahoe to continue our California tour.