Just a few weeks ago, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was invited to go on a trip to Yosemite National Park with 8 other of my classmates, Lorena Castillo, and Rona Zollinger. Never would I have known what this trip would be like, or just how memorable it would get. I got an experience that will stay with me forever. Now I’m writing to reflect upon it, and share it with those who understand the importance and fun of being outdoors.
Back in 2005, New Leaf teacher Rona Zollinger jumped to the opportunity to take six of her students on a backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. During this one week, the students are given the opportunity to reconnect with each other and nature. All expenses and coordination are done through Wildlink, an organization of the collaboration between the Yosemite Institute and Nature Bridge that brings kids outside to the wilderness. They have been inviting students from New Leaf (at the time ESA) on expeditions on a yearly basis.
On April 22, 2012, the group and I packed our backpacks and headed to Yosemite for a one week expedition. On the drive up, the view was astonishing; with every elevation increase the horizon view grew bigger to where one could see an entire city at a glance. After the four hour drive, we finally arrived to the Yosemite Valley. A breath-taking site made up by gorgeous carvings to the rocks and quartz held by the land. Waterfalls and cascades that roared and dropped to the earth with immense power from the melting ice that was once immovable. Seeing this land itself is an experience that’s incapable of being replicated.
Our first day in the Yosemite Valley was spent unpacking our bags and enjoying down time in our cabins at Curry Village, a tent cabin resort in the Valley. We were able to enjoy some of the tourism that filled the resort, as well as meet enthusiastic hikers, backpackers, mountain climbers, and explorers of all ages. Monday was spent in the same way, but this time we finally got to meet our two guides, Andy and Elspie. We also saw Nature bridge facilitator Arami, who had been at our school two weeks before for a brief intro to this trip. They kindly gave us our gear and clothing for the trip, all packed tightly in our expedition packs that probably weighted 50 lbs. They also gave us a basic understanding of what the hike would be like. Our plan was to drive up the valley and start at the Merced Trail, which would take us across to El Capitan, and lead us down a waterfall, ending back in the Valley.
Finally on Tuesday, we drove up the trailhead. With our clothes on and packs on our backs, we took the first step out in the Yosemite wilderness. As we walked along the Merced trail, we were amazed by the remains of a wildfire accident that occurred a while back. Despite the damage the land had, we saw signs of life everywhere. From oak Saplings to small flowers like Lupin, the cycle of life made itself present in this one spot of land.
As eager as we were, we immediately found out how much effort it would take to complete this hike. The temperature remained steady in the 80’s, and our packs seemed to increase weight with every hill we climbed. Taking breaks for water or a breather were essential every couple of minutes. We walked through the trail as it transcended from a seemingly empty land, to a forest with trees that swayed carefully with the wind.
After a few hours of hiking, we made it to our first river crossing. Seeing the water flow swiftly through the river without stopping was an impressive sight. Even more impressive knowing we would have to cross it. After surveying the area, our guides decided that the best step to take would be using a falling tree as our guide. One by one we crossed until the last person made it through safely. So we set our sights for our camping site and headed onward.
With the sun giving us warmth, our shoes and feet began to dry, but after another hour of hiking, we realized we were going to have to get wet again with another river crossing. Our two guides bravely stood midway in the river, so that when we crossed we would have better support. Like before, each student crossed, and one by one, we made it through safely, if only slightly startled. We marched over a hundred paces, stopping only for a break, or to have a snowball fight with the many patches of snow left from the winter season.
Finally our goal was met as we reached our first camping spot, and small site near a passing river. We quickly learned how to set up tents properly, and know where all equipment needed to be stored. We made three areas that would contain our supplies, one would be for our tents, the other would serve as a kitchen, and another as our gear-aje. After settling down, and eating a warm dinner of burritos that filled our stomachs and helped us get ready for the night, we finally laid in our comfy mummy bags and slumbered with the sounds of the river.
Wednesday started as an uplifting day, as the sun was shining brightly and our energy was replenished. As our new day began we ate some oatmeal to get enough energy for the morning hike, packed our tents and sleeping bags, and were on the move again for our next destination. Our hike sailed smoothly through lunch time, which by then we had hiked up to reach the top of the mountain. We looked back to see the starting point of the trail, amazed at how much progress we had made by foot. However, the view wasn’t the only thing we noticed. The clear blue sky was now as white as the snow that was covering the soil. What started as a walk through a carpet of snow turned into a terrain made of snow. We carefully placed our feet over our footprints to avoid sinking in. A student got her foot stuck and she hyper extended it.
Feeling cold, shivering, and tired, we decided as a group over what our course of action should be. Either stay at this one patch of land that was just big enough to camp at, or keep moving forward to reach our hiking goal of the day, but risk our friend’s injury to worsen. Our choice was clear, and with the approval of our guide, we put our bags down, took out our tent, and began to prepare our camp site before the rain got stronger. Dinner was made and in the rain, a small fire was built. Together we sat, trying to dry our soaking wet clothes. We looked back on the day and considered how this unexpected weather would affect the rest of the hike. Our guides kept close focus on the injured knee and it became clear she would have to be evacuated out. Finally, we settled down in our sleeping bags, and anticipated what the next day would be like.
Morning came, but despite our best attempt to rest, we woke up cold and wet. We quickly ate our breakfast and talked about the final decision made by our guides and Rona. The plan was to have a helicopter come pick up our injured friend. It was also decided that the rest of us would head back the way we came to avoid farther snow covered trails. Andy, Rona, and the student would wait for the helicopter to come. Together in the snow we gave our wishes, said goodbye, and began our long backtrack through the snow-packed trail to our last camp site.
Slowly but surely, we hiked as it began to rain and harder, and then hailed. Setting our sights for returning back to our cars instead of camping another night out in the weather. We made much faster progress through the snow, stopping for a few seconds, and navigating our way through the terrain carefully. Making our ascent and descent, we walked without stopping, helping each other out and trying our very best to stay positive in this challenging situation.
After two hours of hiking, we had already covered close to four miles, which had taken us half a day before. Then, just as we were getting confident in our pace and reaching our goal, we arrived at the first river crossing. This time the water was much higher than it had been before. The water roared as loud as thunder. We stood still in awe, and in worry. Yet, we were determined, and with every bit of courage we had, decided we could cross.
Elspie went in first then, one of our students bravely assisted our guide and together withstood the cold waters. They helped us cross the river, which we surely would not have accomplished if we didn’t have their helping hands to hold. It was an intense moment, and so surreal to actually be crossing a river in a rain storm. But this day, we wouldn’t stop short, we had a goal. One by one, everyone arrived to the other side of the river till at last we all crossed the river with help from friends. A sense of emotions rushed to us just as fast as the rapids had. Appreciation, however, was the most eminent. We cheered, laughed, yet deep down cried at the relief of what we had just done. We made it through together, and we planned to finish this hike, together.
Pumped and ready to take on anything else that was in our way, we moved forward until we had reached the last river crossing. We then realized that this river was not going to be any easier to cross. The fast waters caused the log we used before to shake and tumble around. We looked for another way to cross, but found no safer way. After brainstorming possible methods to get across, we thought of everyone crossing at the same time, interlocking our arms, on what seemed to be the shallowest spot to walk in. We watched as our guide tested the river. It soon became clear that the water was much stronger than before and the slippery rocks made it impossible to gain any sense of balance. Thankfully, our guide was an expert in backpacking and when she fell into the river, she extended her leg to latch onto a rock, carefully standing back up. She reached for the student’s hand and was brought back in safely. Relieved even more than before we stood together taking in the circumstances we were in. Then, in silence we stood, hearing only the roars of the river. We looked out confused, unsure, and utterly, our spirits felt defeated.
It couldn’t have been any clearer. As determined as we were, we would not be able to cross this river today. No one could avoid feeling hopeless as we retraced our steps yet again to scout for a camping site. We eventually found a clear enough space to use, despite it’s placement on a slope and debris everywhere. Everyone did everything they could to keep each feeling positive. We all tried to find the joy in every moment. It was nearly impossible, but a necessity. Finally, real good news arrived. Elspie was able to get service to call the officials and ask for assistance on getting back to Curry Village. It was very exciting hearing that people were going to come and help us cross the river. We set up our tents, made hot pasta for dinner, and anxiously laid in our sleeping bags. No doubt we had failed our initial goal of reaching the cars, but we would never give up on ourselves or each other. We tried to get as much sleep as possible, knowing that the next day we would be able to sleep in dry clothes on our warm bed.
We awoke the next morning, and despite the finger-numbing temperature, the sky was finally clear. Our energy was low, but we used the most of it to get through the last stretch of land. Our extra help arrived just as we were packing up our gear. Arami, and another guide were here not only to help us cross the river, but assist Andy and Rona who still had to backtrack the 10 miles we hiked. We noticed that their pants were only soaked up to their shins. Then, once we arrived back at the river. We saw that things had changed again for the better. The river was back to its normal state as it was on our first day backpacking. It was as though everything that happened before was a dream. So we crossed, made it to the other side of the river, and said our thanks as well as our goodbyes. They then set off to meet with Andy and Rona, and we set off to meet warm dry clothes. During this walk, the sun began to once again shine brightly down on the earth which began to warm up our bodies. Cool breeze was all around us, giving us a fresh air to keep going. We looked around and again saw the beauty of Yosemite. The distinct rock faces, forest, and cascades that make it such a picture perfect land. Yet, it was not the scenery we were most thankful for, but the adventure we got out of it. After all the exhaustion, sweat, and tears we had. We were back in the road where our journey in Yosemite began. We made it to our cars, dropped our 40lb. backpacks, and rested upon the warm rocks that lay beneath the sun.
After driving back to Curry Village, we all took a hot shower, put on dry clothes, gave back the gear we received, and waited patiently for our classmate, teacher, and guide.
As it turns out, Andy, Rona, and the student had as much difficulty staying in one spot as we had moving around the trail. On Thursday, they had to wait all day in the camping site for rescue to come. The rain was pouring, descending into the tent like a waterfall. Snow and water surrounded the whole tent. Every article of clothing was wet and trying to stay warm doing nothing was a grueling challenge. Then, Friday came, and so did a helicopter. As I heard, the helicopter came, but with the area being less than ideal for landing, they had to circle around for nearly 40 minutes. The landed an eighth of a mile away to talk with them about the situation, but the student wouldn’t have been able to walk that far with all of the surrounding snow. Finally, they decided they would try to land the helicopter right in the only possible opening available; right in front of the tent. Very carefully they lowered their altitude, making sure not to hit a single branch of the trees nearby. They landed, got the student in the helicopter, and lifted back into the sky and to our cabins. I can only imagine the incredible view that student got flying right over the waterfalls and mountains of Yosemite. It made the pain she had to endure worth most of it.
She arrived and we greeted her kindly, eagerly exchanging stories of our adventures. Then a few moments later, Rona and Andy arrived. We were finally able to regroup together after our death-defying experience.
Call us crazy. Every one of us would accept to go on another trip to Yosemite in a heart beat; maybe we would have brought better rain gear. If anything now we had experience and would be better prepared for another backing expedition. During our drive back we couldn’t help but realized how we can never expect anything from the wilderness, but instead accept what we are given. We laughed at ourselves, and reflected how all of us demonstrated leadership skills. We got back to Martinez and dropped the student off at the hospital. After washing the cars, we were all set to go home, eat a warm dinner, and sleep in our beds.
Most people would consider a trip to a national park a leisure spot to spend a nice vacation in. Indeed national parks provide us with an amazing resource of scenic, educational, and historical value. Most of all, being in a national park gives the individual a chance to experience true wilderness, untouched by the advancements of human kind, where the fauna and flora roam ever free. One should always keep in mind how important it is to be prepared, safe and motivated. Then, like John Muir, or the natives of the land, we too can understand the land and the spirit of Yosemite.