Lost in Yosemite

An Irishwoman’s Diary: A summer hike takes a turn for the worse

‘We passed an 85-year-old who’d hiked since childhood. Calmly handsome, he travelled with only a water bottle. Smart!’

‘We passed an 85-year-old who’d hiked since childhood. Calmly handsome, he travelled with only a water bottle. Smart!’


Breathe! In survival movies and Stephen King thrillers, the dumb-ass heroine always sends herself this memo. But I was groggy. Yosemite wilderness is paradise, but I was beyond caring and feeling faint. I was on a nine-mile zigzag uphill section on granite slabs to 9,270ft (3,100m), and I did wonder how I’d gotten lost among these mountain peaks.

What would hiker-writer Cheryl Strayed say? “What have I gotten myself into?”. The author of Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail hiked the same area.

Strayed’s bestseller enticed many up to Yosemite National Park this summer – and it has been a season of extreme weather. The rapidly-spreading Rim Wildfire, blazing since August, torched 200,000 acres of trees that will take a century to recover. As the near-largest in Californian history, it’s still blazing away while wildlife tries to outrun it.

The inferno torched beloved holiday camps from Tuolumne to Camp Mather, although the narrow resort of Yosemite Valley remained untouched. Californian scouts and guides spend their summers in these tent camps, sleeping outdoors on starry campfire nights: it’s a nice way to grow up.

Every year, unwary visitors to Yosemite stray or die: 18 this year. They upset rattlesnakes, get swept off Vernal Falls (three died “rescuing” each other), fall off Half Dome (two) or wander off-course from dehydration and disorientation (me).

“I know Yosemite wilds. I’ve hiked Tuolumne to Hetch Hetchy” (47 lonesome, scary miles), says Brent Gregston. “You can easily fall off a cliff, get lost, bit by a rattler.” Especially now they’re losing their rattles (a local mutation). Last year, Hantavirus Sin Nombre virus from deer mice threatened. Currently, Lyme Tick disease is spreading. Water-born dysentery is lessening, but . . .

I’d set off that morning with two-litre CamelBak tank and three companions. Apprehension made me add filter pump, binocs, compass, headlamps (three!), GPS, maps, anti-tick/mosquito stuff, moleskin, first aid. My backpack weighs 0.85k, but 25k more made it excruciating.

We passed an 85-year-old who’d hiked since childhood. Calmly handsome, he travelled with only a water bottle. Smart!

A hike I went on in Yosemite in 2009 was paradise – for mosquitoes; luckily Karyn O’Hearn, guide and water monitor, trained me well. “Over 12km to May Lake: heartless slog of 500m uphill to 3,100m,” I wrote in my log then. “Granite switchbacks through mosquito-infested pines.” But this summer was odd: no insects, no falls, lower lakes.

Soon we were clambering slabs, slippy and vicious. I reached for my watertube nozzle. It was twisted. I feared losing my co-hikers. They’d raced on with my map. I couldn’t find my compass, my GPS had no signal, and elevation is a killer.

“Just don’t go!” a couple of buddies warned me earlier. But I’d been teaching hard; oh, how I needed a break. And what is life without risk?

At around at the five-mile mark, I tugged my tube. What was with the nozzle? Defective? I turned to see and stopped dead. The water had run out behind me, and I’d used up precious oxygen calling for help, in vain.

I reached a sign announcing “Trail junction”. “Sign” would have been more useful. The granite was shiny; I couldn’t see my co-hikers’ prints. I’d been looking around in a daze. Half-falling over, I stumbled in dust (Hantavirus dust?)

Was that a bear or lion claw? My eyes were dimming. Suddenly desperate and dizzy, I couldn’t remember how long I’d been lost when I staggered around a flat outcrop with a stunning, shocking drop, only to face two women. They looked startled. I asked if they’d seen my co-hikers.

One woman – Gina – asked me politely: “Have you peed?” She diagnosed dehydration disorientation. It was my good fortune that she was a health worker, and she and her teacher buddy Libby gave me water and help.

Two, or three more miles. Shepherding me like a lost lamb, they made camp, then co-hikers carried my pack and staff supplied first aid – gallons of Gatorade and breathing advice. At supper I gave away half my pack, drank more, and kept everyone awake slamming the privy door.

Hiking to Highway 120 with Gina and Libby and hitchhiking home, I told my homeys I’d suffered from dehydration delirium syndrome in the High Camps.

“How could anyone tell?” they asked. Oh, ha, ha, ha. You try it!

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