It was mid-May. Time for my annual pilgrimage to the planet’s prime shrine to water and rock. In May the spigot is turned fully on, and two of the world’s seven tallest waterfalls – Sentinel and Yosemite – and their retinue, no less magnificent, with names like Bridalveil, Ribbon, Illilouette, Vernal, Nevada and Snow Creek, thunder down granite walls of dizzying verticality.
Take your pick. You can’t plan a hike that promises anything less than stunning scenery. But one of my favorites, especially in May, is a 20-mile loop that takes me from the valley floor up along Snow Creek, past North Dome to Upper Yosemite Falls, and down along the tallest waterfall on the North American Continent. Total elevation gain: 3,500 feet.
By late morning I’d passed into the upper reaches of Snow Creek Trail, where redwoods soar above a floor set ablaze with the fleshy fire-engine red of snow plants. Snow Creek, snow plants – I should have guessed Yosemite’s next move. That’s right. Snow. As I approached the cascade that brings Snow Creek Trail to a thundrous climax, I found myself scrambling up and down broad mounds of white; losing the trail, regaining it, losing it again. The snow was compressed from marginal melt, so the footing was acceptable. But the merry hike I’d anticipated became an uphill slog.
I found my ritual picnic boulder beneath the cascade. I hauled food, drink and camera out of my pack, lingered till my senses were sufficiently shellacked by the whoosh of water; then picked up where I’d left off, where Snow Creek Trail hooks west and becomes North Dome Trail. That’s where the ordeal got earnest.
I’d walked North Dome Trail a few times in late spring and run across an occasional patch of snow. On May 15, 2008, the patches were fully connected, the redwoods spaced just sparely enough, the concavities between drifts just alluring enough, to give every configuration the look of a trail.
I could head back, I supposed; retrace my prints in the snow and call it a snafu. But the temptation to achieve something remarkable – navigate by dead reckoning – despite risking something unthinkable – getting stuck in the high country after dark, unable to retrace my steps – was too great. I pressed on.
My mental map of the area argued for a southwesterly tack and a north-south zigzag, just in case the trail rematerialized. To my north curled Tioga Road, closed for plowing. To my south fell the 2,000-to-3,000-foot north face of Yosemite Valley, picturesque but not exactly helpful. My only hope was to T-bone the segment of trail connecting Tioga Road to Yosemite Point. I recalled an intersection of trails marked by a triangle of signs about 30 feet apart and a 2-mile sawtooth pattern southwest. That would be my goal.
After 20 minutes of zigzag, keeping the afternoon sun to my left but finding no sign of trail peeking out from beneath that ocean of white, I was forced to admit the hard truth: I was lost. I could be a quarter mile off course – and counting. Worse yet, let’s say I succeeded in T-boning that target trail: since it was likely covered in snow, I could easily tramp right over it and keep on going. I’d need more than dead reckoning to find my way home. I’d need a miracle.
Do guardian angels exist? Can’t say I’ve ever met one. The notion that celestial beings are assigned to human beings to keep us out of trouble sounds like quaint and wishful thinking. And yet … I’ve logged more than 150 night hikes in the wild, one involving a couple wild boar; another, a mountain lion. I’ve gotten knocked into the ocean by a rogue wave that dumped me on my shoulder instead of my skull. I’ve even done some dumb stuff.
So I sent a thought out into the universe, and kept it simple: Help.
One hour and countless zigzags later, as the Sun drifted toward its rendezvous with the tree line in the west, I had no better idea of my coordinates than the hour before. And then something remarkable happened, something that makes the notion of “luck” seem hopelessly quaint. One moment I was in the middle of nowhere; the next … I was walking into the dead center of that triangle of trail signs I’d set as my destination of deliverance. Not a few yards from dead center. Dead center.
On May 15, 2008, one set of footprints was stamped into the snow of North Dome Trail at Yosemite National Park. One set of footprints bearing witness to the presence of two travelers: Mr. Self-appointed Outdoorsman and his hiking buddy from on high.