July 14, 2011. Lost at 10,000 feet!
Its not an adventure if everything goes right. July 14/15 were the most traumatic and scary days in our entire lives, and I don't particularly wish to relive those moments. However, perhaps future hikers can take away something from our cautionary tale. So, here goes.
On July 14 at noon, we set off on the 7 mile roundtrip trail to Cathedral Lake. It should take 4 hours tops, and we expected to be back in our car & on the Tioga pass by 4pm. We parked the Versa on the roadside at Tuolumne Meadows, and headed off into the trail with nothing but a packet of peanuts and a can of water. It was a sweltering 85 degrees, and so V wore short shorts and a flimsy white tee. I wore beachwear - an thin, transparent shirt and cotton pants. We had no supplies, no compass, no matchbox or any hiker accessories. Nothing but a packet of peanuts and a can of water.
The hike starts off at an elevation of about 8800 feet and rapidly ascends to 9600 feet. The red line in the picture is the 3.5 mile long trail, winding between two mountain peaks - the Fairview Dome and the Cathedral Peak, and goes on to the Cathedral Lake. We never made it. Past about 3 miles, the trail was snowed out. We couldn't spot any tracks and made our way through the snow until we heard some music. Two hikers were seated at the base of a tree. One of them was playing a flute, and we walked up to them. They were on a camping trip and had tons of supplies in their giant backpacks. They were part of a group of 8, and had fallen behind. They were waiting for their group members to come back and get them. So they were lost.
They cautioned against going any further, and we decided it was wise to return. There was no trail, just a lot of snow. We weren't even wearing snowshoes, just plain sneakers, and had slipped several times. So we ate the peanuts, bid them goodbye and headed back to our car. This was about 3pm.
Around 3:30 pm I realized we were lost. Some of the snow had melted, creating a path which we had followed into the forest, and now we were in the middle of the jungle. It was not very bright and when we looked up through the trees, we thought we could spot Cathedral Peak, so we continued to walk towards it. However, it was quite a while before we realized we had mistaken a random peak for Cathedral. Our route had taken us in the opposite direction, and now we were much deeper into the forest.
At this point, things got a bit testy. V insisted we should look for the trail. I decided we should abandon any such hopes and simply follow a stream of water , which would descend down rapidly until it became one of the several lakes on Tuolumne Meadows, and from there we would spot the road. We weren't genuinely worried yet. It was only 4pm, and the sun sets at 8:30pm in Yosemite.
I gave V an hour to find the trail. We came nowhere close to it. We simply made elaborate loops in the snow and circled around on our own tracks. At 5pm, she finally gave me one hour to forge my own trail by following a running stream of water. I thought we made rapid progress. The water descended very quickly over a clearing, but then it went into the forest and the whole place turned very slushy. The stream grew very strong and we would we swept off if we slipped into it. At this point, it was 6pm, and we decided to climb back up by following the stream in reverse. Around 6:30, we were in a clearing. We looked around and spotted Fairview Dome. This is a 900 feet tall peak, and we spotted 3 mountain climbers on the peak!
We yelled Help! Help! and waved furiously at them. We thought they spotted us, and waited for them, but nothing happened. The climbers disappeared shortly after.
After a while, I left V on the clearing by herself, so I could find a path to Fairway Dome. My theory was that if I could get to the dome, I could find the trail the climbers used, and we'd climb down the trail. After a half hour, I came upon Fairview Dome, so I happily returned to V and both of us jointly set off to Fairview Dome once again.
Now we were halfway atop Fairview Dome, at about 10,000 feet. From this vantage point, we looked hard and far and found nothing. It was just woods all around. No trail. It was 7pm and the fog set in. The sun went behind the mountains. It got rather cold, and the forest looked really dark. At this point I knew we were officially screwed.
We picked a bare rock on Fairview peak from which we could view the forests below us and hopefully spot any wild animals that would head towards us. We decided to spend the night on that rock. We looked around trying to see if we were in a secure spot. We spotted a black bear drinking water from the stream! It was quite large and not very far from us. It could very easily have run towards us. Instead, it just sipped water and vanished into the forest.
It got dark rather soon, and very cold thereafter. I gave V my trousers and shoes, so I was basically sitting on a rock barefoot and half naked. V sat very close to me, and I hugged her tightly, trying to desperately stay warm.
V had a lot of morbid thoughts. She was convinced we wouldn't survive the night. It would get very cold and we would die of hypothermia. Or the black bear would come back and maul us. Or maybe a mountain lion would sample us for dinner. Or maybe a snake. So she cried a bit and said things like "We had a good life! We are in beautiful Yosemite surrounded by mountains. I don't mind dying in your arms!"
I on the other hand was determined not to be a statistic. The sun would rise at 6am, so we had only 10 hours to go. It was a full moon night, and the moon showed up promptly at 9pm. I had a bunch of stones I could throw if a bear or lion showed up. It was foolish bravado, but I was sure we won't die on this mountain. I held the first vigil, upto midnight, while V got some sleep. We had no way to tell time. Neither of us wear a watch, and my cellphone died after we tried calling 911 many many times. Yosemite has no cellular services, and the phone scanned for a signal ever and ever and then ran out of battery. So we took dark pictures every so often with the D700 and then looked at the picture details, which would show us the time!
At about 10pm, there was a series of very loud hisses. I woke V up. It was a snake and we couldn't see it, though it was quite loud. V said we should be very still. After a while, the snake slithered away!
At midnight, I woke V up and slept for an hour while she kept watch. After that we exchanged naps every hour or so. We couldn't really sleep. It was very, very cold and my teeth were constantly chattering. The rock got very cold and since I was half naked, wearing no trousers or shoes, my feet got incredibly stiff and I shivered violently. V hugged me tightly and rubbed my ears hard trying to heat them up, but the fog settled on us and then it was genuinely cold, like sitting in a fridge.
At about 1am, I spotted a shooting star and thought it was a good omen. But then, I was trying to read meanings into every random nocturnal event. I prayed long and hard, and tried to chat with the full moon. I was getting delusional and possibly boring, for the moon vanished at 3am. And then it was truly dark. We could barely make out the edges of the mountain, it was pitch dark.
At about 5am I went to sleep, and V was on watch. I was woken by the chirping of birds. We set off again at 6:30 am after the sunrise, and this time we decided to walk towards the Cathedral peak which was in full view now that the fog had cleared. We reached Cathedral which was covered by snow. No trail in sight. I started yelling Help! again. Only this time someone responded! I yelled again and again and soon 2 hikers came into sight!!! They were on the trail, which was only about 20 feet from us!
They were a young couple from San Diego hiking the 200 mile John Muir trail, and they were stocked with everything! We were very cold and shivering and starved. They generously gave us tortillas and cheese and fleece to wear and we followed them for the next 2 miles until we reached our car, and then we parted ways. We were so much in shock we didn't even ask them their names! So folks, whoever you are, thanks a ton!!!
At about 9am on Friday, we were out of Yosemite. Very much alive and incredibly in awe of nature and grateful for a second chance at life. After what we've been through, everything now seems trivial and silly. We just sat silently, held hands and stared blankly for the longest time.