Yosemite: El Capitan, My Capitan
liberosis n. The desire to care less about things.
The nice thing about driving in eastern California is that it’s really hard to get lost. To the east of the Sierras, there’s really only one road that runs north to south and that’s highway 395. It had taken us to Lone Pine and Big Pine and from there we just needed to keep following it to Yosemite. Finally, just before the park entrance, we split left onto highway 120, which took us over Tioga Pass, elevation 9,945 ft., and into the park.
The first thing we noticed about Yosemite as we drove across the winding, granite-paved roads, was that much of the park seemed… unnecessary. That sounds bad to say, but most of it was inaccessible to hiking and merely there as something to drive through. It wasn’t until we hit Tuolumne Meadows that Yosemite started to really become much of anything. Tuolumne Meadows is big in the climbing community, due to its hundreds of boulders for bouldering and several rock walls on the borders. For us, however, Tuolumne Meadows wasn’t much of anything, considering the campground and visitor center were both closed for the year, which made doing much of anything there impossible. By the time we had driven another hour toward Yosemite Valley, which holds every single iconic Yosemite landmark, it was near dark. Rather than head into the valley, we continued on out the west exit, known as the El Portal road, where we would try to find camp for the night.
Try became the operative word as we drove down the highway, onto little narrow dirt roads only to find that any nearby campground wanted to charge us $26 for sleeping in a tent on the dirt. Instead we settled for a small pull-off from the highway and settled down in the car for the night. Rather than someone getting the short straw of having to sleep in the driver’s seat, I volunteered to sleep in the backseat, my head behind the driver’s seat, with Chris reclined in the passenger’s seat over my feet. We were getting more and more efficient with sleeping in the car each time.
By the time was just starting to cast its first orange rays into the valley, we woke, finding a multitude of cars had pulled in around us throughout the night. We couldn’t really expect any better, as his was a pullout, but we still disliked the idea of sleeping in such close proximately to other people. After stopping at a nearby gas station to use the bathroom, we headed immediately into the valley with the intention of stopping at Yosemite Mountaineering School to sign up for a multi-pitch sport climbing class. Multi-pitch climbing is like the climbing that we do, but on a much bigger scale. We do single-pitch climbing, or a climb that is only as tall as the length of the rope. The Nose of El Capitan, however, is 3,000 ft. high. With a standard 70m rope, that’s the equivalent of 31 pitches. It’s something Chris has always wanted to get into, and he figured what better place than the most iconic climbing spot in the U.S.
After getting horrendously lost and disoriented in the valley, which is a series of usually one-way roads that was now made even more confusing by all the construction in the valley that had temporarily forced in some two-lane detours, we finally found Half Dome village and the shop. We waited around for about 15 minutes to talk to someone, only to find out that for both of us to take the day long class, and for me to take the necessary prerequisite anchoring class, it would have cost about $600 total. In Chris’ words, “the information isn’t worth that much to people who know how much it is worth.”
Disappointed, we went back to the car where we tried to decide what to do. Chris felt discouraged and said he didn’t want to climb even though I knew he did. It was so early in the morning to have things already going wrong. In our flurry and frustration, I pulled out of our parking space, swinging the car to the right and directly into a low boulder that had apparently been sitting just beside the passenger door. I got out to see the damage and immediately broke down crying. The lower driver side was dented in, at least not so much that the door couldn’t close, and horrendously marred with ugly white scratches. Mortimer had made it so far, taken so much abuse, only for me to do something as stupid as that near the tail end of the trip. Chris immediately had his arms around me, comforting me as I sobbed into his shoulder like a small child. This was the final straw. Finally, he took my face in his hands and made me look at him.
“Hey, you remember that night in Glenside when we went to the park? And we sat on the tree roots and swung on the swings?” I nodded feebly. That was the night we had started dating. “The night that I decided I wasn’t going to let you go?” I nodded again, smiling. “Just think about that. That’s what I think about when things get hard.” Have I mentioned how much I love this man?
After I calmed down a little bit, we decided we would try not to let the morning’s events ruin the day. There were still things to see and climb. The first thing I wanted to see was Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, but when we got there, we found it was dries up completely this time of year. Bridalveil falls was no different. I was trying so hard not to regret coming to Yosemite but it was getting more and more difficult with each disappointment.
Still, we pushed on, this time trying some climbing in the valley at a place called Shultz Wall, just below the base of El Cap. On the way, we got a little lost and decided we “might as well at this point” just head to the base of El Cap to see it before trying to reroute. Little did we know we were still a rough scramble over a long slide of massive granite boulders away from the base. When we finally reached the base, looking up that massive solid wall rising for thousands of feet above my head, all I could think about was how small I felt. There were big wall climbers dotted all across the wall and they looked like not much more than specks. Had it not been for one them yelling, “ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!” as a large dislodged and tumbled down toward the ground, I might not have known they were there.
As we walked along the base, we encountered a group of three big wall climbers, prepping their gear to begin a five-day ascent of the wall. Big wall climbing is yet again different from multi-pitch, as it is done over several days, with massive amounts of gear hauled up the wall behind the climber. As opposed to free climbing, where the skill of the climber is what determines the climb’s success, big wall climbing is more dependent upon the gear. It’s more technical and less physical. Essentially anyone can do a big wall climb provided they have the gear and at least one person who knows what they’re doing. This was my first time ever witnessing what it takes to big wall climb. Staring at their massive drums of supplies and liters and upon liters of water, I couldn’t even imagine how they could possibly haul all that up the wall.
On the way down from the base, we somehow got lost yet again, veering too far to the right so much that we lost the wall we had intended on climbing. No matter how much we moved left, we couldn’t seem to find it again, and so just settled on going down. When in doubt, always go down. I admit, as the trailblazer it was sort of my fault, but honestly Chris should expect as much from me by now. We made it to the road and followed it back to the car, without having actually gotten to do any climbing, yet another disappointment of the day.
However, the big all climbers we had met on El Cap had recommended some nice sport climbs over on the opposite side of the valley at the base of Cathedral peak, one of the three “Big Walls” in Yosemite. Yet again, we scrambled up the hill, scaled along the base of the wall, but couldn’t find any accessible routes and ended up giving up once again. Despite our efforts to make the best of everything, it had been such a defeating day. Soul crushing was the phrase that came to mind. We had been so looking forward to Yosemite and it had been nothing but a disappointment. All I wanted to do was leave and go home at that point. After talking it out, we decided that was exactly what we would do. We would spend more night near Yosemite, drive back in to see the Glacier Point Road before setting our sights for home.
I didn’t even want to do any hiking in the park. The only hike I had really wanted to do was Half Dome, but that too was ruined. You see, Half Dome can only be summited with a permit, and permits are assigned through a lottery. Beyond the base of the subdome, the trail is a series of chains and bolts that the park allows a maximum number of 300 hikers on per day. If you subtract the amount of pre-season permits people purchase, it leaves only about 50 permits up for grabs each day. To apply, you must do so two days in advanced, paying a non-refundable $4.50 (online) or $6.50 (by phone). You then get to anxiously stew over your 50% odds for the next two days before they inform you “late the night before” whether you got the golden ticket or not. So much for preparation. Then you get to pay another $8 per person when you receive the permit. I had already had my fill of gambling in Las Vegas. All in all, Chris and I were just ready to go home.
Since we had failed to find any suitable camping out the El Portal entrance, we tried the northwest entrance at Hodgdon Meadow. We were low on gas and by the time we reached a station outside the park, Mortimer was running on fumes. I hated filling up the car since we had entered California, and so I tried to do it as little as possible. Whereas we had been paying anywhere from $2.20-$2.40 for gas, California’s high minimum wage and subsequent cost of living had driven gas prices to $3.50-$4.00 per gallon. Getting gas in the state had become a game of calculating how much gas I needed to put in just enough to scrape by until I could get to cheaper stations. I put in $20 and hoped it could get me through the park tomorrow and into Nevada where the prices would be cheaper.
From the gas station, we turned back toward Yosemite on highway 120, and pulled off to the right onto Harden Flat Rd. where we had read online about some free dispersed camping. Sure enough, a few miles down the virtually deserted road, past a large actual campground and RV park, we round a nice pullout, across from which was a small dirt road that lead right down to an even nicer camping area complete with a stream and fire pit. Despite the fact that we had found an actual campsite, we still couldn’t be bothered to set up the tent. We could suffer to sleep in the car again. We built ourselves a fire, cooked some cans of soup on the coals, and settled into the car for the night. Sometime just after midnight, I awoke to headlights glaring into the car. Immediately I panicked. Was this someone to tell us we couldn’t be here? A robber? An axe-murderer? Chris was still sound asleep and so I waited in silence to see what would happen. In a few moments, the headlights turned off and nothing happened. So apparently, this guy had just pulled into our campsite and taken up residence. I was too tired to be angry at that point, and so rolled over and went to sleep.
A few hours later, Chris woke up because he was cold and crawled in the backseat with me, an admittedly tight fit. It was then that he found out about the van. In the morning, we were able to feel properly angry about what he had done. Had we been camping in a pullout it would have been one thing. In a pullout, you expect company. In a campsite, however, you expect a small degree of privacy and courtesy. We had planned on building ourselves a fire that morning and making a potato boat for breakfast, but he had properly ruined that for us. Instead, we decided to just leave, though to teach him a lesson about campsite etiquette, we laid on the horn on the way out, even though it was only 7am.
Once again, we drove back into the park, turning toward the Glacier Point road, a windy road that stretches from the iconic “tunnel view” of Yosemite’s Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls (were it running) to Glacier Point Lookout. All in all, the drive takes about an hour, with another fifteen minutes of circling the parking lot once you arrive. Despite that, Glacier Point was the first thing about the park that had not been entirely disappointing. Sure it was packed with people all trying to get their photographs of Half Dome and the valley below, but the view was still pretty stunning. Chris and I, behind ourselves, crept passed some “Do not enter” signs onto an overhanging rock with the valley in the background, an act which spurred us into conversation with a lovely couple from California. We ended up chatting for nearly half and hour before bidding farewell to both them and the park.
Except that we still had to see a lot of the park considering we needed to drive all the way back through to Tioga Pass so we could rejoin the 395 to Carson City, Nevada. Just outside Carson City, in a town called Gardnerville, I came upon the first Les Schwab Tire Center I had seen in hundred of miles. Finally, I could get my tire replaced and drive with a bit more ease. We unloaded the trunk, handed over the shredded tire, and got a brand new one to take us on home.
We drove on through Reno until we could get onto I-80, a drive that took us into the night. We were aiming for Winnemucca, but after finding it too big of a city to really feel comfortable sleeping in the car there, we pushed on a bit to Golconda, where we pulled off on a dirt road into a power station pullout and slept. This time, we both crammed into the backseat, piling our duffel bags of clothes on the floorboard to expand our space just a little bit.
The next morning, with stiff joints, we crawled back into the car for what would be the last time. Past Golconda was a town called Battle Mountain, where we stopped at a very swanky gas station for coffee. One thing I learned on this road trip was how vastly unique and eccentric something as simple and necessary as a gas station could be. But then again, you never really appreciate something until you rely heavily upon it. From there, we split north onto highway 93 that took us up into Idaho, through Twin Falls, then onto I-86 to Pocatello and, finally, I-15 to Idaho Falls that took us all the way up to Butte, where we would spend a few more days spending time with my grandparents and family. WE had finally done it. We had made it home.
Granted, this road trip wasn’t something I had wanted to do, but in the end, I was glad I had. Sure, some of the park had been disappointing, but I had still seen and experienced some incredible things. But more than that, I had gotten to experience a host of little oddities and eccentrics that made America as weird and diverse as it is. We had met kind people and shopped around odd little stores. We belted old 80s tunes in the car as loud as we could and laughed at the many stupid signs we had seen along the way. For instance, Yosemite told us every ten miles or so that “Speeding Kills Bears” and in Arches, we were politely reminded how to use a toilet, in case one had forgotten in the heat of the desert.
All in all, I didn’t regret the trip. Would I go back and do it again? Probably not, but I was glad I had at least had the genuine road trip experience once in my life. I feel like it’s a right of passage as a traveler. Now, Chris and I would have two more weeks of relaxing back in Bud’s basement before we set our sights on Central and South America; from living out of a car to living out of a backpack. I could hardly wait.
For anyone wondering about how much this road trip cost, I’ve broken down the expenses below. These are the total costs that were split between three people (at least for half the time). Obviously this is hugely subject to gas prices of the time, unexpected car breakdowns, and how luxurious you want to make the trip. We rarely ever ate out and never paid for any sort of accommodation. This is a guideline for about the cheapest you can possibly do a road trip, which pleasantly ended up being cheaper than I had imagined.
- Gas: $400- The trip was just over 4,000 miles, Mortimer averaging between 20 and 30 miles per gallon (closer to 30 when Mitchell’s weight was subtracted).
- Food: $300
- Coffee: $50
- Oil change: $35
- Tire change: $0- Keep in mind this is only because my tire was still under warranty because I had just paid $120 to have it replaced. If your car is all-wheel drive, expect to pay more because you’ll need to replace all four tires. Could get away with mine because I blew a rear tire on a front-wheel drive car.
- Campground/hotel fees: $0
- Park entrance fees: $80 for an Annual Pas