Reckless decisions, perilous adventures, and gut-checking experiences were in no short supply during My Year Alone in the Wilderness of the National Parks, though there is one tale that awoke in me a sense of unshakeable hopelessness that was previously nameless. Specifically, I am referring to how a two-week excursion through the backcountry of Yosemite National Park and how one simple oversight resulted in a loss of vision due to snowblindness. Moreover, the following tale is about how a flash of optimism sprang from the overwhelming darkness of desperation.
To start, how about some background context. It was about month nine of what would end up being a twelve month excursion through the backcountries of the US National Parks. I found myself in one of the country's most cherished landscapes, and the same location that drove the life-long obsession of famed-photographer, Ansel Adams. Of course I'm talking about Yosemite National Park. Long had I imagined what the Yosemite Valley floor would look like in person. Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls had all only previously existed in photographs and in my rampant imagination up to that point. To accept that I had finally arrived in what John Muir once describe as his “church” was a pinch-worthy perspective for me. What's more, is that I now had nine months of perpetual, non-stop, gritty backcountry experience under my belt and I was prepared to jettison myself head first into the wilderness wonder that awaited me in Yosemite's less-manicured backcountry.
Considering myself a near-veteran of the backcountry backpacking routine at this point, I mustered my gear, loaded up on my rations, and busted out the new snowshoes. You see, even though the valley floor was experiencing the first hints of Spring, the High Sierras were still smothered in a heavy coat of snow. I spent several days doing quick 2-3 days journeys into the backcountry, and exploring the valley's gems, such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, etc, but after having my fill, I was ready to get in a long haul. With my map and compass in tow, I set out - to trek from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows and circle back through the High Sierras - a sizable trek even when the trail isn't covered by 5-10 feet of snow, rendering it useless.
The planned, days-long journey started off great. No snow. Sweeping vistas. No tourists (rare when starting any backcountry trek in the frontcountry). And I was making pretty good timing to boot. By late morning of day one, I had already breached the snow line. Almost immediately, the snow began to pile up foot by foot. The trail had disappeared. While this was something I expected would happen, I was not expecting it to happen so soon. The thick forest made it somewhat of a challenge to get any topographic bearings, though evidence of NPS Rangers - i.e. sawed limbs (of trees!)- provided occasional clues that I was still generally going in the right direction. I knew that I was seldom on the actual path but basic map use suggested I was marginally well oriented. Did I get disoriented? Yes. But never for more than an hour at a time - well within my comfort zone of feeling lost at this point in the year-long sojourn.
With immense elation, the timberline began to thin out as the "path" lead higher up in elevation. The disappearance of the forest made orienting vastly more cooperative. In fact, by the end of the first day I was met with an astonishing view of Half Dome far in the distance. Before this adventure was over, Half Dome would eventually become a speck in the far lying valley beyond. After pausing a moment to recollect my stamina and by bearings, I ventured from the clearing once again to then reenter the forest. Within one mile from the clearing, I had the good fortune of stumbling into a cabin that was unmarked on my map. Stupid map. The cabin appeared vacant and given its welcoming appearance, I made myself at home. Fire and not having to make camp in the snow...come on, folks, its a no-brainer.
I had fallen asleep in a rocking chair. No complaints here. Though by choosing comfort, I lost an opportunity to wake up early to take advantage of the crisp snow. Its not for being lazy, but the sun is normally what wakes me up, and being surrounded by four dark walls and a roof, the sun had a difficult time cracking my eyes open that particular morning. A stark contrast to what would plague my eyes in a short 48 more hours.
Saving time by not having to break camp, I was still well and able to get on my way by 7 or 8 o'clock. The snow was still crunchy and the trees had once again opened up, allowing me time to quickly orient myself by using the pronounced topography. Though nature being a cruel mistress of contrast, an advantage in one area meant detriment in another. Yes, the trees thinning out meant I could see the terrain more easily. However it also meant that I was now fully exposed to the harshness of the high-alpine sun. A foe that would soon get the best of me.
Remember how I first mentioned that one simple oversight would cause catastrophic consequences? Well that simple oversight was me forgetting sunglasses. This being the first park in the snow, coupled with me not really being a sunglasses kinda guy, sunglasses were not part of my mental checklist before heading out on each backpacking trek.
Flash forward back to the "trail" and this stubborn, foolish, and tenderfoot snowshoer is now deciding to push forward instead of following his footsteps back before things get worse. See at this point, I was thinking that the sun in my eyes was merely an inconvenience and that is where the pain would end. My focus at the time was so transfixed on not getting lost, that all other concerns took a backseat - especially being unaware of the dangers of snowblindness (remember I'm from Maryland, folks). Driven by a stubborn urge to finish what I started, I pressed on. Had I known what trouble lay ahead, I would have almost certainly turned back at the moment I realized my oversight.
The day proved to be a challenge on almost all fronts. The lack of trail and enormous blanket of deep snow proved to be a serious challenge. Had I miscalculated only one peak in the topography, getting lost would have been a guarantee. Again, I often went off the mark several times though I was fortunate enough to have the presence of mind to stop, think, reset my course, and reacquire my bearings. By the afternoon I had reached Tenaya Lake. For me it was a welcome relief, showing me that I had actually made it to where I intended to...the map was working! Though with the hike’s preoccupation of my mind behind me, I became increasingly aware of the searing pain igniting across my eyes. My eyes were starting to become difficult to keep open and just as difficult to close, for keeping my eyes open caused them to further get burned though keeping though closed caused a burning sensation on the insides of my eye lids. Of course this left me with little preferred options.
As the afternoon turned to evening, and the sun began to fade, I was preparing my camp to sleep. Despite the rest of my body freezing due to a drastic drop in temperature, my eye balls began to feel like two hot coals in my skull. Also, despite putting on plenty of sunscreen, the day's harsh sun was doing major damage to my face - a part of my body that could use as much help as it can get! Thinking that a night's sleep may help ease the burns, I tucked in for the night but set my watch to wake up hours before sunrise. You see my plan was to try and reach a Sierra Club cabin by Tuolumne Meadows (according to the map) by the next day by setting out VERY early to avoid the sun's harsh rays for a third day in a row. I figured if I reached the cabin, I could seek refuge there for a day or two to give my eyes a chance to heal (I re-rationed my food to account for the extra days).
Despite waking up to boots encased in a block of ice, the day started off as planned. I was able to get a huge head start on the day. Unfortunately the night's sleep did little to aid my wounded eyes. In fact, the moment the sun peaked over the horizon, the reflection off the snow was so severe against my weak eyes that the burning feeling was colossal. Having miles still before reaching the suspected cabin, I had to devise a new method of blocking my eyes from the sun. For starters I twisted my hat so that one ear flap would cover one eye and my long hair would cover the other eye - using my hair to filter out the light. It helped but not enough. The damage appeared to be done. Not only were my eyes hellishly red and hot, but my ability to see was quickly waning. By noonish, I reached Tuolumne Meadows. Though since the meadow was covered in snow and was tree-less, its expansive field was like staring directly at the sun with no where to hide.
My ability to make out details was completely gone. Anything I could see was now just a shape. The pain of keeping my eyes open was only matched by the searing pain of trying to close them. Well this is bad. I had to get out of the sunlight. I needed to find that cabin. As if it were a mirage in the desert, the cabin presented itself high atop of nearby hill. The sensation of relief was short-lived however. For upon reaching the cabin, I discovered that it was locked for the season with no way to enter inside. My heart sank. It was that moment where I had reached an awareness that I had not yet experienced...utter hopelessness. The reality of my situation was as clear as my vision was blurry. It was too late to turn around and the likelihood of another person within 50 miles was surely nonexistent. I rolled the dice and chose...poorly. Thinking this cabin would be my refuge, I forfeited my best chance of survival by not turning back when I had the chance.
With my situation not improving by dwelling on my fate, I had to devise a Plan C. I needed to get out of the sun. With it being noon, I had no shadow to hide under so I dug a hole and jumped in. Did I just dig my own grave? Well obviously not because I'm here to tell the tale, however, at the time, the thought had crossed my mind.
No I wasn't scared! Shut up! I'm super brave! Psssh I wasn't scared. I totally knew I wasn't going to die. Not worried one bit. Nope, not me! Suuuuper super brave. *shakes head*
After sitting in a hole for a while (not many opportunities to say that in life), I pulled out the map again and scoured it for any other refuge from the sun - no small task for someone basically blind. For those of you thinking my tent would have been a good idea...nope...the sun would still breach though the thin walls. I was in need of some real-deal walls. Low and behold, on the map, a Ranger Station. I had no hope that it would be open but I figured I'd have to take the chance. It was two-ish miles away. Normally two miles would sound like a drop in a big bucket but given the situation, it was not an easily made decision to leave the hole and jump back into the sunny trap of doom. But eventually the decision was made.
I lumbered out of the hole and made my way across the meadows. After crossing one bridge (at least I think it was a bridge), I could make out what looked like a structure with very defined edges. I knew it wasn't a tree. While marking towards it, it became clear to me that this shape was that of a structure. In fact it was an old unmarked ski hut that was NOT on the map. I used all my tricks in my spiritual repertoire to extend my hope to help ensure that this hut was open. To my utter astonishment...the door opened. The hut was occupied...well at least with bags. The fire was still warm. I Goldilocks'd myself into the shelter and made myself at home.
Hours later, two men had returned to the hut that they had been calling home for a week by that time. They introduced themselves to me as Don and Bruce, but not after first seeing my eyes and informing me that I was snowblind. Ya think!? You see, Don and Bruce were spending a multi-week backcountry skiing excursion through Yosemite's High Sierras based out of this hut.
Don and Bruce were best friends but could not be more different. Don was a man with an old soul whose outward appearance matched his affinity for simplicity - old skiis, suspenders, leather ski boots, etc, while Bruce was in touch with the latest and greatest of outdoor equipment. Despite their difference in outward appearance, the two formed a dynamic duo of friendship that was forged long ago. Yes, though perhaps I was disturbing their solitude, they did not hesitate to make me feel at home.
Though for three days and nights, my eyes were so scorched - making it near impossible to fall asleep - these two Guardian Angels essentially nursed me back to health over the course of that time. They also spent laborious amounts of time going over the map of the High Sierras, recommending routes through the Wilderness along the John Muir Trail. Due to their generosity, I ate better over those three nights than I had over the course of the previous nine months. Whats more, is that on the third night of my recovery, Bruce and Don took me up a nearby mountain. They took me up there so that they could visibly show me the neighboring peaks to help orient my return route to the Valley, still yet MANY miles away.
Before ultimately leaving the company of these great men, I was given an extra pair of sunglasses. Without these sunglasses, their aid, and their confidence, this story and my ability to tell it would have fallen lost to the deaf ears of time. Though succumbing to the fate of the snowblindness, I do not reflect negatively on this experience. Despite my vision being lost temporarily due to my careless oversight, I have forever found kinship in the company of two heroes - owing them a debt of gratitude I could never pay back.
The return hike was a true mix of both orienteering and prayer, though my newly unearthed sense of determination and the imparted wisdom from Don and Bruce helped to usher me through the throws of danger. One not to be overlooked as a major adventure in its own right…but that tale will have to wait for another day.
P.S. My apologies for the rather gruesome pictures of myself. Only thought they were necessary to help paint the grim picture.