It was day two in Yosemite and I was already in love with Yosemite Valley and had the sense I wanted to stay forever. Yosemite is a magical place I have heard some appropriately call Narnia. Yosemite made me feel small as much as it made me feel more connected to nature, myself, my husband, and even with all of those around.
This day, we were hiking Vernal and Nevada Falls. I had done enough research to know that we wanted to get an early start to get ahead of crowds and the heat. I also knew that it was an estimated 5-6 hour hike with an elevation gain of 2000 feet. This meant we would have some burning legs along with some of the most amazing views and waterfalls in our country, and I was ready.
We had our backpacks filled with snacks, light rain coats, sunscreen, basic safety supplies, a new Nikon camera, and 64 ounces of water each and walking poles. I was in decent shape, but was still surprised at how much weight the two bottles of water added alone. We started the hike and paused and smiled at each other like giddy kids on Christmas morning. I should note that I already considered myself a hiker. Living in Virginia I often hike solo and while living in Boulder, Colorado I was hiking or running in the foothills several times a week. My husband on the other hand had never been a hiker, until now. We had already spent several days between Sequoia and Kings Canyon and as we hiked the 8-mile Mist Falls Trail in Kings Canyon I saw the look in his eye and knew he was hooked.
We were just 20 minutes into Mist Trail heading towards Vernal Falls when we were already stripping layers as we walked up a paved path. Paved paths while you are hiking are very mis-leading. They seem like something that should be at Disney World taking you to your next ride, but don’t be fooled. We had already also formed a silent friendship with a man and his daughter who were walking up the path at the same time – we shared smiles, nods and an eye rolling appreciation for the incline. In time, we made it to the Vernal Falls footbridge where the real hike seems to begin. Here, there are warning signs everywhere reminding you that there are no water refills and how much water you need per hiker. Now I was happy that I still felt the weight of my 64 ounces.
After taking a few pictures of the rising sun bouncing off the rushing Merced River, we continued to make our way towards Vernal Falls. The now dirt path goes up and up and as you begin to hear and approach the beautiful falls you breathe deep. Even with an early start, there were a fair number of other hikers around us of all ages and condition. What was amazing to me was how quickly everyone transitioned from silent comrades to sharing the awe and becoming each others’ biggest cheerleaders on the climb. I have seen this happen in other parks and hikes as well, and these instant friendships and support are something that I have grown to cherish about hiking. This morning in particular, I needed the support as much if not more than anyone. I was fighting an internal battle that I didn’t see coming.
After we took some amazing pictures and put on our light rain jackets to somewhat block the mist bouncing from the falls, we continued to climb and things seemed to get much steeper quickly. To some, the climb probably didn’t seem that steep, but to me these were the steepest, sleekest rock steps I have ever seen with no handles or significant ground between you and the falls. These steps were my burden. I felt like I could slip and fall backwards at any time. My backpack weight pulled at me and my poles were a nuisance. I was convinced I was going to fall and tumble out of control any minute. I knew where this unfounded fear was coming from, but that didn’t help. I couldn’t quiet it.
Almost 8 years ago, I had fallen backwards down a flight of stairs. There were angels around me that day and I walked away with a broken knee, broken elbow and a black eye. What had lingered however was a new fear of heights and stairs, and this fear was taking over right now. I continued to push up the steps more in my head than anywhere and at some points I put my hands down in front of me almost crawling. With seeing my fear and awkwardness, my husband offered to take my walking poles and my pack or for us take a rest. I said, definitely too loud and aggressive, “just keep going”. In my head, I continued to tell myself to “get it together”.
Eventually along with many others we made it to the top of Vernal Falls and it was more than beautiful. At reaching the top and seeing a mist rainbow over the falls below me, I smiled bigger than I had smiled in years. When I turned around I saw my husband was taking video. I looked at him, raised my arms in triumph and walked away to take in another view and to breathe. It was a big moment for me. Since my walk up Vernal Falls, I have done many more amazing hikes through Zion, Bryce and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon without the pounding fear of falling off the ridge. We now laugh about my crawl up the steep steps and I continue to take back that fear. I have no doubt that this was just one of the things I was taking from Yosemite.
The moving moments continued as we transitioned to part two of the hike. We now started our ascent to Nevada Falls and I had a lighter bounce in my step. However, it wasn’t long until I started to question how we would get back down. I was “pretty sure” the John Muir trail would get us down without descending the steep, wet stairs, but what if we missed this loop? Panic. One thing I had learned in our National Park adventures is that there are no guides waiting to direct you and don’t assume trail markings are your friend. Just at that moment of panic, we saw a hiker ahead who had a t-shirt draped from her pack and it said Search and Rescue! My tired legs were no longer tired. I literally ran towards her direction and when I reached her, she assured us there was an easy way down.
We had a lot more climbing to do and again we encouraged each other and made more friends along the way – often taking turns on who was in the lead. The great thing was that since being assured by the search and rescue angel, I had not been thinking, not a single thought. I was just enjoying the beauty and focused on walking, no thoughts at all. Many hikers say that they don’t think of anything when they are hiking and that you are often in a zen state. I had called myself a hiker for years, but now I felt like I was hiking for the first time.
In that zen state and when my husband and I were both about to step to the top of the trail, I heard someone running behind me, yes running. My husband and I both looked and laughed because as we pre-maturely celebrated our victorious climb which may as well been Everest, a trail runner ran past us reaching the top first.