I’ve been going to Yosemite Valley since 1976 when my mom was still pregnant with my little brother, staying in every spot from the funky cots of Curry Village to the sleeping bags of Camp 4 and luxuriating in the down comforters of the Ahwahnee Hotel. It took 25 years to get out. Like so many others, I always fell into the valley’s trap, so it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted my friend Steve’s invitation to backpack the north rim instead of staying within its sheltering arms.
Starting high off Tuolumne Road, we headed south through towering ponderosa pines and scrubby manzanita bushes. The sound of the highway was quickly subdued after crossing our first stream within what seemed yards but could have been a half mile. Hours went by and not a soul had been seen when the loamy forest floor finally gave way to massive slabs of granite. We crested a small rise and there was Half Dome in the fading afternoon light, less than a mile across a 2,000 foot gorge. As we settled into camp – a fire ring and a flattish spot for sleeping bags – North Dome gave me a fresh perspective on Yosemite for the first time in many years.
We cooked up a meal among the boulders strewn along the wide summit of the granite bulb, watching the last traces of golden light disappear. Slowly eating our meals from our respective pots, we wandered south to a rocky ledge looking down into the valley as if it were an obscure terrarium, a different world detached from the one we were currently visiting.
Before long, it grew rather dark under the moonless sky and I left my companion to enjoy some solitude on the walk back to camp. I clicked on my headlamp and slowly retraced my steps back to the summit, stopping every now and then to get another look west. As I approached the small boulders that marked our camp, I froze in my tracks as the light from my headlamp reflected back two sets of glowing eyes. One pair of eyes was noticeably larger than the other, and instantly I knew it was a sow and her cub, the worst scenario possible. In that split second, my mind raced back to Steve, the distance, the mess of food we’d left in our post-hike hunger daze. Below, the only escape was the Royal Arches, a sheer climbing playground unnavigable without ropes. In every direction were cliffs, except one, and that one was blocked by hungry bears. Mistakes were made.
I turned off the light and slowly backed away, the sound of my boots on the decomposed granite seemingly loud enough to be heard in the Ahwahnee dining room far below, with accompaniment from my pounding heart. It was dark and I was scared. When I finally turned around I saw Steve’s headlight in the distance. I made my dash, at first a fast awkward walk then a full fledged run as I ignited my light. As soon as he saw me high-tailing it toward him, he quickly turned his light off.
“Bear?” is all he asked.
“How…did…you…know?” I asked through labored pants.
“Because you’ve told me a hundred times you only run if you’re being chased.”
We grabbed rocks and slowly approached camp banging the bottom of our bowls. Much to my relief, when we could spy our bags, there were no bears nearby and from what we could tell nothing was disturbed. Still, we stuffed our remaining food into the bear cannister and stuck very close together as we tiptoed a hundred yards toward the trailhead, away from camp and in the direction of our furry friends.
I couldn’t sleep. Those glowing eyes were burned into me, and I spent a restless night feeding small twigs to my safety fire and keeping an eye cocked for the sound of an approaching bruin, probably impossible over Steve’s snoring. Some time deep into the night I passed out.
In the morning as we packed up and started our day, Steve stopped and asked, “So, where do you think those bears were?” After looking around, breaking down some geometry and taking my best educated guess, I replied, “Right about here…” We looked down into patch of sandy granite and sure enough, there were the tracks. But they were cloven, just two sets of deer tracks, and not very big ones at that.
“Yep, that seems about right,” Steve laughed as we shouldered packs and started off the granite dome.