August 29th, 2014
HWY 120 Eastbound, Yosemite National Park
My headlights lit the trees as I drove in silence. With the faint rise of the sun, the sky was a smear of painted clouds just beyond the Sierra Nevada ridgeline, and as the sun crept closer to the precipice of the mountains’ rugged shoulders, an orange glow began to spill across the horizon. Tenaya Lake shone almost white in the distance, drinking all the orange that fell upon its surface.
By 7am I was standing by my Jeep, clutching my small pack at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp trailhead. It only felt appropriate to head East first. A row of cars lined the forest wall but I was the only person around. I pulled off my thick sweater, stood there looking at my reflection in my Jeep window and began to feel the gravity of what I was about to start, a journey that I had no idea if I was even capable of completing. It was Labor Day weekend, I had been training the whole summer to reach my own distance goals of running 18 miles in a day, yet suddenly I was there. I had no foresight for it. Originally I was supposed to climb Mt. Whitney’s East Buttress with a friend but the plans fell through. Being there in that parking lot was nothing more than a last-minute decision.
Over the next three days I would try to trail-run 49 miles, completing the entire High Sierra Camp Loop, which visits all 6 Camps in the High Country of Yosemite National Park: Sunrise, Merced Lake, Vogelsang, Tuolumne Meadows, Glen Aulin, and May Lake. My lowest elevation will be around 7,020 ft. with my highest being around 10,150ft. I had read that the elevation gain and loss throughout the trek would be akin to summiting Half Dome from the Valley floor at least twice. I had never done anything remotely like this, and to top it all off, I was doing it solo.
I looked over my pack one last time, which was only a 30-liter REI Traverse, stuffed to the brim with hopefully everything I’d need to get by. I didn’t own the fanciest things, but I didn’t really need to. I had confidence in all that I owned.
- Sleeping Bag: North Face Cat’s Meow, 20-degree
- Outerwear: Go-Lite Women’s Selkirk Ultralight 800 fill, packable down jacket
- Clothing: WrightSock Cool-Mesh (1-pair), hand-made heavyweight wool socks for sleeping (from Chile), wool beanie (Target), Black Diamond Midweight Gloves, REI Midweight Running Tights, synthetic long-sleeve (Target), synthetic tee-shirt (Target), Brooks Running shorts
- Shoes: New Balance Trail Running shoes, foam pool sandals (Rite-Aid)
- Hydration: 3L Camelbak reservoir
- First aid: Mole Skin, antiseptic wipes, band-aids, athletic tape, hand-sanitizer, emergency blanket
- Navigation: compass, YNP High Sierra Camp Loop topographic tear & water-resistant map
- Toiletries: Unscented baby wipes, sunscreen, a small plastic bag & zip-lock (Leave No Trace!), Rite-Aid collapsible travel toothbrush & paste
- Misc: Outdoor Recreation Group Water-Resistant Stuff Sacks 3-pack (WalMart), Sunglasses, Petzl Spatha Multi-Purpose Knife, Olympus Stylus Tough Camera, Sea to Summit Alpha Lite Spork, iPhone, car keys, Driver’s License, pen, notepad
- Headlamp (with spare batteries)
My goal was to be the definition of ultralight and I was pretty much carrying the minimum. My food needed no preparation or cooking, and was either high-calorie or high-protein. I even baked banana-walnut, mini power pies from a recipe in Climbing Magazine, had 3 of them smashed in there, one for each day.
Strapping myself into the pack I stared into the trees and down the rock and tree-root laden trail, and listened. It was cold there beneath the shade of pine trees, around 8,000 ft, and the birdsong was as faint as my heart, but it was there. I tugged at my synthetic sleeves and breathed into my gloves. With one deep breath in and one long exhale, I started off, abandoning uncertainty for the promise of a new-found wood, the sun itself still too cold to offer any comfort. Almost immediately I was going up a steep incline, and in no time I was too hot. So I stopped to strip down into shorts and my short-sleeve and slowly jogged myself up, deeper into the mountains. I was left with only myself to feel the sounds of my feet, my breath, and the silence of being present – how there were no harsh words of doubt in my head.
By the time I made it to the Sunrise Camp the sun was in full volume over all the granite domes. The rock and forest opened up to a grand meadow with a narrow river snaking through. I ran across its openness, the trail thin and perfectly cut. In the East I could see Matthes Crest and Echo Peaks. I was led down into Echo Valley, where I traversed granite steps and slabs between trail segments. The morning was warming nicely and the light through the trees gave off an ephemeral, fairy-tale-like ambiance, placing me into a trance the whole way to Merced Lake.
Granite slides gave way to the Merced River and the lake itself was the largest lake I had ever seen. I wandered off trail towards a tree by the water’s edge, removed my shoes and waded up to my knees. I stood there, covered in sweat and dirt, sports bra and bare belly. I had passed a good handful of hikers so far, and one gentleman even asked if I was running the whole thing, amazed. I felt confident. My legs felt great. But I knew I needed a break, so I sat beneath the lone tree and wrote a poem for a project I was participating in, where I was to write a poem every day during the month of August.
But the confessions and the sorrow materialized. I had just come out of a long-term relationship – a breakup where you have to completely re-think every aspect of your life. We were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when he realized he didn’t want to marry me, and that pushing himself hard on the trail was strikingly different than catering to my growing injuries and desire to smell the flowers. Harsh, but necessary, I also realized that I was blindly pursuing a path with him that I wasn’t passionate about. Four months later, there I was, having combatted panic attacks, heart palpitations, insomnia, and involuntary mourning. I was ready to feel the rawest form of me. So I heard the words flow through, how I wanted to prove to myself who I was, that I was capable, that I was worth something, anything. That I was brave. Audacious. Beautifully strong. Yet there was nothing to conquer, I realized. It was more about surrendering to the woman I always was, the one I ignored all those years in trying to make life work with that man.
After about half an hour, I gathered myself and my things. The wind shook all the trees and I ran on. But I was feeling a hot spot on my back from where the pack was rubbing against my skin with each running step, thus the shirt had to stay on, despite my aversion to sweaty tee armpits. Day-hikers or backpackers on the trail stared at me as I jogged by. I crossed a stream, and glanced to my left, unintentionally catching glimpse of a pale and naked man down by the water. He was bathing and I immediately tore my glance away, unsure if he noticed me or not. I strode past without looking back and hiked up to a small saddle.
I hadn’t spoken all day, maybe a few passing words, and was afraid to camp near anyone actually, let alone the man I had spotted. It was strangely easy, when you’re alone and you desire to remain so, to commit to solitude. The unfortunate reality was that my danger would drastically increase with the presence of other humans, not animals. And as a woman I had all those uncertainties drilled into my head, that women shouldn’t go into the woods without a man. So I didn’t want anyone to see where I was settling in for the night, walked off trail through the trees until I felt I was far enough away from the potential of discovery. I chose a bivy spot near a rocky cliff, overlooking the small valley I had just come through and the vast Yosemite backcountry. I laid out my ground-cloth (aka my emergency blanket), its noise and shimmering light a comforting distraction. I unpacked my sleeping bag, only a 20-degree bag, but I figured the blanket underneath would sizzle me up nicely.
Day one ended with me covering just under 20 miles, and I timed myself at six hours of actual time spent moving, averaging 3.3 mph. Not bad, I thought. It was well into the afternoon by then and I was somewhere between Merced Lake and the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp near a turnoff for Bernice Lake. I walked down a steep hillside to get to some water, ate mainly summer sausage and crackers, and suddenly had the urge to experience nudity in the backcountry for myself. Why not? So I stripped down and sprawled out on a large rock, sun-bathed in the evening sun. The chances of anyone being somewhere where they could spot me had to be insanely slim, so I felt so free, watched the clouds change and the sky change hues. The wind danced across my body and the nearby stream babbled playfully.
Re-clothed, I crawled into my bag just before the sun fell away behind the walls around me. This would be the first time in my life sleeping completely alone in the middle of nowhere. I was denying fear and anxiety the entire day, focused solely on the running, the hydration, the eating – but then I was there, confronting it with eyes peeping out from a mummy bag. I had hung my food bag in a tree far from where I laid (technically you’re supposed to carry a bear can, but I chose to risk citation for the sake of running without one), but I couldn’t stop thinking about the potential for being woken up by some creature. Black bears are manageable here and being a local, working and living in Yosemite Valley, I had a few encounters under my belt. But mountain lions are the cats I have nightmares about. So I took out my pen and notepad and started to write in order to calm my nerves:
“Night is coming and I am alone. River scuttles and birds, just the wind comes by. Reminds me how I am just a human, so small against the mountains, the sky, the slow clouds. You are far away; though I think of you because you once made me feel safe. Tonight I face my own fears – they’ll be laid out with the stars. I only hope I am tired enough to just sleep through the night. But what is there to fear? Uncertainty? The darkness? All of it? That I am here without you? Well I should actually be proud. Proud that I came, of my own volition, and am willing to face myself.”
The next day I somehow woke up completely energized. Maybe it was the relief of first-light. I packed up quickly, ate and tried to warm up my legs with dynamic stretching before I jogged on. My goal was Glen Aulin, 17 miles away. I crossed high-alpine meadows and groves of stunted trees. Crossing over Vogelsang Pass was the highest point on the loop and the views were otherwordly. Marmots hid themselves among the rocks and the sun blazed its way across my body. I passed few hikers, yet I managed to almost embarrass myself by poorly timing a pee-break in the manzanita right off the trail.
When I reached Tuolumne, the most popular and accessible camp which sits off the same highway I started from, I rested, refilled water from a faucet. There, dozens of tourists roamed, cars drove by. I was surprised by its business, having spent so much time alone thus far. But I kept to myself and pushed on. When I reached Glen Aulin, I clocked my time spent moving at 4.5 hours, averaging 3.8 mph. I had plenty of daylight left, even contemplated running more, but I wanted to ensure smooth performance the last day. So I laid out by the oasis that is Glen Aulin, with a waterfall pooling before it drug itself away as a river. There were benches by the shore where campers read or fished. I wandered through camp, even went for a short hike to some cool boulders overlooking the river. Yet I somehow came across a Pacific Crest Trail sign and peered down its hallway of trees and stone. Felt my heart pinch. I never got this far. When I left the PCT at Kennedy Meadows, he continued on to Canada. So I knew he had been there, and frankly it filled me with hate.
Thus I welcomed my solitude even more as it was mine to feel, and when it was time to strike up my own camp, I hiked back up to the main loop trail and scrambled up one of the small granite buttresses. I found a large, flat break in the rock, where dirt filled itself in with just enough space for me to fit. I nestled into my bag, watched the sky turn red. I couldn’t have asked for a better view of sunset, with Mt. Conness glowing pink off in the distance and the fading din of campers below. Every movement I made, the emergency blanket crinkled loudly, but I didn’t care. I repeated sleep to myself, forced my mind to steer clear of paranoia. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be there, so absolutely vulnerable yet better for it. And when the sun was gone, I watched the moon glow above the silhouetted trees, felt my chest rise and fall with every breath, and wondered how beautiful I must look from the sky, outlined in a captivating silver as bright as the moon herself.
On the final day, I calculated only having 11.4 miles left. I remember the giddiness, how the promise of success was so near. The forest felt dense and green and I passed dreamy, granite outcroppings. But suddenly my eyes locked onto a familiar form on the trail. I stopped to study the dirt. Bear paws. I looked around, listened. A welling sense of uneasiness washed over me, but I knew better. I had come so far, so why give in to fear now? I grabbed my phone, turned on the music as loud as I could, and kept running – the tracks followed the trail for a mile before they disappeared into ghosts they were.
I had to climb and traverse one mountain, the outer rim of Tuolumne Peak, before landing in the May Lake High Sierra Camp, and after that, it was strictly downhill. I paused at May Lake for a short break, ate lunch at its shore. Mt. Hoffman loomed brightly, its reflection dominating the lake, and I could faintly make out the bodies of hikers at its summit. I managed to average 4.1 mph that day and made it back to my car well before noon, the sun hot and stifling already. The trailhead parking lot I started in was busy with people now. Nonetheless, I was ecstatic. I looked into my reflection in the Jeep window and saw something new behind those eyes.
The drive back home into Yosemite Valley was long, but I basked in the euphoria for accomplishing such a journey, how I met parts to myself I had forgotten or never knew existed. The most important thing, however, was how I proved that it was okay to depend on just me. Solitude shouldn’t be a scary thing, I understood; and as a woman, solitude in the wilderness is absolutely paramount. It was just me, the whole time, and I knew that my life was as tangible as I was willing to make it. It was a much-needed reality-check to see myself outside of all attachments, outside familiarity, outside the world even, dressed in moonlight and baring everything. An audacious woman. Then to come back, having broken some boundary in myself, I understood the want for more, and I forgave the old me. I forgave him. And all the more, these experiences were mine and mine alone, as was my future, so vibrant and open. A blank canvas. I knew I would be okay, that a deep-seeded passion for the outdoors was where my life needed to reside. It was therapy. A clean slate. A moon to call my own.
Sara Aranda has a B.A. in Creative Writing and is a freelance writer and avid trail runner, climber, and gear tester. Her work has appeared in The Climbing Zine, Terra Incognita Media, and online blogs for Outdoor Prolink and Mountain Standard. Her true passion is to get out there, find adventure, and share the beauty of the wild outdoors and all it has to offer through writing and photography. To make ends meet she has worked seasonal jobs in places like Yosemite National Park. Read more content from her at bivytales.com or follow her on Instagram @HeySarawrr. She currently lives on the Front Range of Colorado.