FOR ANYONE WHO is fond of the outdoors and especially for anyone who has even the slightest inkling of love for rock climbing, Yosemite is mecca. This widely beloved national park, protected since 1864, has been the source of inspiration, even obsession, for countless artists and explorers - I had no chance of escaping its charm. Yosemite's wonderland of granite, tumbling waterfalls, glistening lakes and lush meadows had me feeling so content that I never wanted to leave.
BUT IT WASN'T quite love at first sight. Of course, I was happy when I first laid eyes on El Capitan and Half Dome, but I wasn’t blown away, the way that I had been in Zion National Park where everything was absolutely awe-inspiring. I guess I had wanted to be in Yosemite for so long, so badly that I expected to feel a sort of euphoria as soon as I stepped foot into the park...and yet those first steps walking through Yosemite Valley only made it worse, as we fought through maddening foot and road traffic. Even on our first night in the Yosemite Wilderness near Sunrise Lakes, I still wasn’t feeling it. The hiking had been tough, consisting of a thousand foot climb that zigzagged along only a mile worth of switchbacks. There were no spectacular views to motivate me, just dense red fir forest and no even ground in sight. Fatigue instantly overpowered me and I trudged along slowly and heavily, weighed down by the heftiest pack I had ever carried. All night at camp, I was constantly attacked by hoards of mosquitos and the day's heat had seeped so deep into my core that I had troubles sleeping. It just felt like Yosemite was kicking my ass.
Luckily, as we left Sunrise Lakes that next morning to head for Clouds Rest, the penny started to drop. We passed beautiful mirror-like lakes and fringes of multicoloured wildflowers. When we took a brief pause that morning, I found myself sitting under a pleasant sun, on a giant boulder, encircled by tall pine trees and merry birdsong. A man strolled past me with a Canon DSLR hanging around his neck and a tripod strapped to his laden pack; the thought of him backpacking solo and setting up stunning shots on his own made me smile.
THIS DOES NOT mean, though, that Yosemite had let up on me. The unrelenting uphill battle to the summit continued and saw us ascending about another thousand feet of elevation until we finally reached the base of Clouds Rest's spine, where we finally stole our first sneak peak at the incredible vistas over the Yosemite Wilderness. When people think of Yosemite, images of magnificent El Capitan and distinct Half Dome no doubt flash through their minds. But for me, it has always been and will always be about Clouds Rest.
LONG BEFORE we had even booked our American adventure, I had stumbled upon Clouds Rest on the interwebs and it promptly became emblematic of Yosemite's grandeur. I actually fell so in love with Clouds Rest that I banned myself from researching it any further, so that I could have my own most pure and real experience of it.
AT A HEIGHT of 3,027 metres, this mostly granite ridge rises above the valley and was given its name by Lafayette Bunnell, one of the first non-Indians to enter Yosemite in 1851, who noticed "the clouds rapidly settling down to rest upon that mountain".
On the summit, there were no clouds for us; just an endless horizon of granite under a dazzling sky with a warm, rustling breeze. I sat there alone, perched high on a small outcrop that jutted out precariously enough to get my heart racing and have me feeling like I was the only person in the whole wide world. How long had I wanted to be right there, in that very spot, in that very moment? I could hardly believe that I had finally made it here and I wish time had stood still. I thought of the moments that represented raw, sheer fulfilment to me, like when climber Conrad Anker topped out on Meru after three attempts and paid respects to his late mentor and mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev’s poignant words in his memoirs, “Above the Clouds”. I was moved to the point of tears. I know that Clouds Rest can hardly compare to their achievements...but it is still my own personal achievement.
When I was ready to break the spell, I returned back up to where everyone else was hanging around, expecting a bit of a circus. But everyone was totally transfixed by the view. Nobody was talking. Nobody was even taking photos; any movement at all was minimal, except for the occasional shooing of a squirrel. The silence and stillness felt sacred and it was as though we were all praying. I knew then and there that Clouds Rest and Yosemite would forever remain home for me.
I HAD READ many John Muir quotes before coming to Yosemite. My favourite one is, “it is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter". This was certainly always a glorious idea but it was only on Clouds Rest that I entirely understood it. When I look back on my too-short-a-time in Yosemite, I recognise it as having been one of the most content and rewarding times of my life and I have to believe that we will be back there one day soon.