John: Fat, bald and nearly 50 years old; I’d changed but Yosemite National Park hadn’t. As we emerged from the long road tunnel and pulled up next to the hundreds of other tourists the massive El Capitan mountain was still truly awe inspiring. It was April 2007. The last time I had been there was May 1980, so nearly 30 years earlier. I weighed 140lbs, had all my hair and was living in a tent. I had hitchhiked my way into the valley, which was still covered in snow. It was raining and miserable. The mountains could not be seen. After two weeks of struggling to leave the tiny tent to climb, I bailed out and took a road trip to Colorado in a beat-up VW camper van.
This was mid April, but the sky was a perfect blue. Not a cloud in sight and almost no wind. Probably the best day’s weather I have ever experienced in Yosemite. This time I had no intention of trying to scale the lofty granite walls. The main purpose was to show my wife, Junying the sights and take some photographs. An antidote to the noise of San Francisco, where we had spent an entertaining but hectic couple of days.
I wasn’t sure how well I was going to cope with memories of how good Yosemite had been for me. I first climbed there as a 20 year old in 1979. My standard shot up as I climbed every day in perfect weather becoming super fit in eight weeks. I’d worked through the previous winter to save for the trip, getting up at 3am to work as a bus conductor in Sheffield, UK. I was surrounded by the world’s climbing elite, including several Californians who thought they owned the place. Well, they did really. We climbed all day and cooled off in the freezing Merced River in the evening, scavenging food from nearby cafeterias and supermarkets, running away from park rangers when they tried to evict us for overstaying. How was it possible to overstay in such a perfect climbing arena? There were even nubile young Californian college girls working there as chalet maids, check out girls and waitresses. Some of them were as curious about the young foreigners as we were about them.
My friend “Nipper” Harrison got caught with a stolen salami in his trousers, and we all trooped in to watch his moment in court. He relived the moment of capture and we were thrown out for laughing too loud. Great days which will live long in the memory.
Moving down the valley in 2007, it was obvious that the waterfalls were in full flow. There were several that I had never seen before, because I had only been there in summer. Bridal Veil Falls was in magnificent form, sunlit from above and the breeze-blown plumes of vapour sparkled. The steam from the foot of the falls ripped and tore its way joyfully down the hillside, desperate to meet the rushing Merced.
I felt odd. Here I was in Yosemite and I had no climbing gear. It was like being at Malibu without a surfboard, or at Wembley without a football. I had to try to relax and act more like a middle-aged man on holiday. Walk a bit, take a few photographs, eat some food, breath in the fresh air, and be glad I wasn’t at work. It was made easier by the fact that no matter where I looked I couldn’t see any climbers, not even on El Capitan. I managed to convince myself to just shuffle about until it came to Vernal Falls.
Junying stopped at half way point, tired from the trek up the trail and the rushing about of the previous 10 days. She took a rest there and I carried on to the falls that were just visible further up the canyon.
It had been an enjoyable day, drinking in the sights and the cool clear waters from the massive snow melt of Spring in the Sierra Nevada; but I felt like I had to be challenged by the terrain. Not being challenged would mean going against some unwritten rule.
It was just a walk up a trail, but as I accelerated past the walkers in front of me I began to feel rather energetic. I reached the Falls in another 30 minutes and took what turned out to be a very good photo, complete with rainbow and twisted old tree trunk. The final section to the top of the falls was steep and slippery, demanding care as I picked my way across the diagonal traverse.
The view from the top was great, looking back down to the bridge where Junying was waiting. I would take the view back down with me. I shot some video and took a few more stills. The wet section of path stopped the people behind me. I was king of that little castle. It made the day for me.
I’d still go back to Yosemite if I were in California, but I’m not sure it would be the same. On reflection it was good to be nearly free from the competitive tyranny of youth, and great to share the Valley with someone else who echoed my appreciation of its grandeur.
That was a perfect day.
Junying: Perfect, indeed! John has captured the beauty of Yosemite not just in words, but also through his wonderful photos and video clips. Please take a look and share our joy by clicking below:
Awesome Yosemite National Park