“HOW BAD DO YOU WANT THE SHOT?”
We were on the phone when he asked me that, and I could just picture the smirk on his face as the words came out of his mouth. It wasn’t a disrespectful smirk; rather, quite the opposite. It was a challenge, because he knew I was capable of doing it. Well, maybe.
I had just told him how bad I wanted to shoot Glacier Point at sunrise in the winter — with a fresh dusting of snow. This would either require me snow camping in the Sierras or hiking up Yosemite’s Four Mile Trail at 3:30am, and I was having some trouble finding a partner on this one. If it’s the kind of excursion that worries my parents, I generally like trying to find someone to go with me. I don’t have a satellite phone and I’m clumsy, so you know. I’m kind of a walking disaster.
And of course, he had just told me how he kayaked 28km out and back to Spirit Island in the dark, alone, and though he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of doing it solo, he wanted the shot, and he didn’t want it during the day. You know, when you can “cheat” and take a ferry out there. He wanted sunrise and astro shots, and he was able to talk someone at the rental shop into letting him use a kayak for a night paddle, so off he went. I’m decent enough with a kayak, so I still wasn’t convinced that this was quite the same as what I had in mind for Yosemite, but I saw his point. If you want something bad enough, you’ll get over whatever fears you might have and make it your mission to get there.
I still haven’t had my sunrise moment at Glacier Point, but earlier this week I did something slightly out of my comfort zone. On Wednesday I snowshoed about three miles on Rim Drive to the base of The Watchman, which brings you to this lovely view of Wizard Island. You’re at 7,200+ feet, but the main trail is relatively flat and packed down, so it’s not super strenuous. You CAN go to the top of the Watchman in the winter from this point on Rim Drive, but that's ~500 feet over the course of a mile (the summit is listed as 7,881 feet), and I didn't feel comfortable doing that solo. The back of the mountain is an avalanche zone, and when you get to the point where you start going up, the trail looks sketchy AF. In hindsight, that might have actually been safer than where I stood when I snapped this photo. Yup, that's where we're going with this rambly blog post...
I decided to trek a mile out to Discovery Point and take it from there, and I felt great, so I continued on. It feels like you’re crunch, crunch crunching along forever until you get the view you came for, and even then, you won't see this from the main trail, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t find it. I had already trudged up two hills before getting to this viewpoint, and when I was a third of the way up this path and staring at the slope of sparkly snow in front of me, I paused. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see (or fall from) once I reached the top, and I started feeling that weird thumping in my chest. You know, when you drunkenly text your ex or know you’re about to get busted at work and your heart drops straight into your stomach. I was pretty conflicted on what to do next.
Elisabeth’s Fear: “Hmm, that looks a little avalanche-y. Not like I really know what an avalanche zone is, but it goes up about 45 degrees, and there’s a lot of snow on this hill. Oh, and the last person you passed is probably about a mile away.”
Elisabeth’s Inner Idiot: “Whatever! There are footprints leading to the top. Surely whoever else went to the top made it back down alive. You at least have to see what’s up there!”
Elisabeth’s Fear: “But weren’t you listening to the ranger? Don’t go more than 30 feet off the trail!”
Elisabeth’s Inner Idiot: “But there are two sets of tracks to the top, so this IS the trail, right? And look, there are trees on either side of that top section, so if those are there, you’re not standing on a cornice!”
Elisabeth’s Inner Idiot eventually won, and when I got to the top, it all made sense. And then I looked down and saw a giant crack about 5 feet in front of me, where the hill started sloping back down again. So, yup, that might be a cornice. But what about the section I was standing on top of? Since there were trees around me and other people had been up here, it couldn’t possibly be part of that hypothetical cornice. Or could it? And if it was, and it suddenly broke off, could I save myself by grabbing on to the large tree 10 feet away from me? Wait, how long would it take me to try to reach the tree if the ground below me started collapsing? (At this point, I should probably just write a book called “Adventures for People With Anxiety,” but I digress…)
As soon as I saw the crack, I realized I probably shouldn’t be up there, but since I had my camera with me, I might as well fire off a few rounds. I shot about 20 photos and booked it back down the hill. I wanted to stay and shoot sunset there, but I also wanted a ranger (or a very experienced winter hiker) to tell me I was in the clear. At that point, it was all pretty murky and I honestly didn't know whether I was being reckless or overly cautious.
So, because I have to know the answer to everything, I chatted with a ranger at the station a few days later and explained where I was. “Just because you see footprints, doesn’t mean you should follow them,” he said. “That wasn’t an avalanche zone, but we generally recommend that people stay 20-30 feet from the rim, because when the snow is that high, you just can’t tell where the edge is.” In the days after that, I also studied a detailed topographic map of the exact spot where I snapped this shot and realized that I was standing RIGHT on the rim, not 20-30 feet from it. I called the ranger station again to make sure I had my facts 100% straight, and while they told me what I was doing was totally legal, it was "not advised."
So, the lesson in all of this? It’s good to push yourself. It makes you feel alive, it makes you grow as a person and it can make for some thrilling stories. But make sure you’re 100% informed about what you’re doing before you pursue any kind of risky endeavor. Would I do it again? Definitely. But I should have marched out there knowing what I do now.