The Yosemite High Route
We’re going the wrong way.
Tugging at the long red braid of his beard, Konstantin glares at the maze of jagged boulders ahead as if to intimidate them into clearing a path.
“I’m gonna climb up and see if it goes through,” he informs me. His Belarusian accent, normally so mild that I forget it’s there, has deepened in frustration. It’s not the first time one of us has said that.
We’re attempting the Yosemite High Route, 94 miles of mostly off-trail hiking through alpine tundra and glacier-carved canyons in the backcountry of California’s most popular national park. It’s a fairly new route that was created by wilderness guide Andrew Skurka in 2018, and given my love of Yosemite’s backcountry, I knew I would have to hike it the moment I heard about it.
This is our first high route and we’ve meticulously planned and anticipated it for the past six months. We stepped off the trails at Grace Meadow, just south of where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects the northern border of the park, and we will trace the headwaters of the Tuolomne and Merced rivers around the northern and eastern borders of the park for seven days, staying mostly above 8,000 ft of elevation.
But first we have to get through this damned forest. We’re less than an hour in, and this is our second wrong turn. We’ve been on a few backpacking trips together, and both of us have plenty of experience hiking long, difficult trails, but I’m beginning to think we’re in over our heads.
I scan for a route while I catch my breath. The creek on our right has receded into a narrow granite slot too steep to descend. It’s either up through the labyrinth of rock in the hope that we can cross somewhere upstream, or we turn back, down through the tangled branches and loose rocks that have consumed the past half hour, so we can cross and climb again on the right side of the creek. Two bad options.
This is harder than I thought it would be.
“I think it goes through!” Konstantin calls down. It’s not the first time one of us has said that, either. As a computer engineer, he has a dogged tenacity for working through problems, and his mountain-biking habit keeps him in better shape than me. Despite his short stature, I often find it difficult to keep up with him, something I can say about very few people.
I drag my sleeve across my forehead.
“On my way,” I reply.
After finally finding our way through the rocks, Konstantin is now a dot on the slope above. We emerged from the forest into a crescent-shaped basin filled with short tundra grasses and crumbled mountain in chunks of all sizes. The jagged granite of the eastern wall remains in shadow despite the progression of the day. Where the crescent bends away, a stand of conifers has blanketed the slopes of the inner arc, concealing what? A family of deer, grazing in privacy? A bear, perhaps, idly poking about among the fallen logs for grubs?
After Konstantin finished pumping his water, I told him “Go ahead, I’ll catch up.” But I’m not interested in catching up just yet. I want to listen to the quiet laughter of the stream a little longer and share its delight in the late-morning sun. I’ve never visited this stream before, but it holds all the comfort of an old friend.
I pack my water filter away one piece at a time, careful to keep each motion individuated and separate, preserving my attention for presence and memory. Presence: the sharp grassy stubble poking through my pants; stray drips of cold water across my knees. Memory: sitting by a different creek, my dad and I, tasting the sharp clear snowmelt, wet numb hands warming in the sun. The hands have weathered, but they experience the same sun, the same refreshing snowmelt. Yosemite has changed little since that first backpacking trip with my dad. It’s a struggle to part with the moment, but my attention has moved on and I’m rested. It’s time to catch up to Konstantin.
Without the compulsory switchbacks of a trail, I’m free to take the slope head-on, a challenge I lustily accept. My lungs sting with the rush of cold air, my legs burn from within. The discomforts are part of the pleasure—an assertion of will over the inevitable slackening of the body, a repudiation of the forces of entropy.
I catch up to Konstantin just before the pass. Momentum carries us over the top despite our fatigue, and the near mountains drop away to reveal a wide valley stretching into the distance, parabolic in shape, like an enormous earthen pipe broken in half lengthwise, set in the earth and left to moss over with age. The upper edges of the pipe expose bare granite, smooth and polished in places, jagged and crumbling to the base of the pipe in others; below are the forests in uneven patches, stretching out tendrils and filling the low places with a dark, healthy green.
It’s a breathtaking turn in a labyrinth I can only begin to comprehend, and I struggle to make sense of my place in it. I feel at once vulnerable and powerful, tethered to this moment and simultaneously a blip in the great sweep of time, balanced between internal musings and the external views. These are the moments that rebalance me and put my sense of self in perspective.
“Woah,” Konstanin says.
Two days later, the clouds are pressing in. We have just come over Tower Pass, a steep, rocky climb (“We can go the easy way or the fun way,” I told Konstantin as I pointed out the two routes through the cliffy rocks, “I’m going the fun way”) and now we face a long, steep, chute down into Stubblefield Canyon, several thousand feet below us. Thunder booms and roils to the north, growing louder as the skies thicken above us. It might have been a mistake to come over this pass so late in the day, but the skies above us had been mostly blue on the other side.
We face a double threat: first, there’s the potential of rain. Too much of it will turn this grassy slope into a slip and slide. The glacier-polished granite below the chute might be even worse. Second, there’s lightning. When people say things like “you’re more likely to get hit by lightning,” they’re usually trying to make a point about how unlikely it is to, say, win the lottery. What they don’t realize is that being struck by lightning is actually a fairly common occurrence: one in about fifteen thousand people will be struck in their lifetime. The odds go up considerably when one is standing near the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm.
We hustle down the mountain as the first drops begin to fall.
“Uh oh,” Konstantin calls back singsong as a roll of thunder subsides, “I feel rain-drops.”
“Let’s keep going,” I yell back.
We have to go one at a time, in sections, so that whoever is higher—me, for now—doesn’t trigger rocks to fall on whoever is lower. Konstantin chooses his footsteps carefully through the uneven slope while I wait in a nook alongside the chute. Any second now, I think, the downpour will come. But it doesn’t. Despite the continual rumble of thunder, the rain stops. Konstantin stops at the end of the chute, where it disappears over a lip. I hurry down to join him.
“I don’t think it goes through here,” he says. I peer over the lip. Granite slabs mellow out a hundred feet below, but there’s a maze of stone cliffs between here and there. The only place where the slope looks like it might be passable is a narrow section choked with willows. If we had time to explore carefully, we might be able to find a route through them, but the threat of the weather has us hurrying, and we could just as easily walk over a blind cliff.
“What do you think is on the other side of that outcropping?” I ask, pointing to a large bulb of rock off to our right. Below it looks like an even scree-slope down to the slabs.
“It looks better than this,” he says. “Let’s go check it out.”
Another narrow chute—we have to go one at a time again—takes us below the outcropping. The thunder chases us down the rock slabs until we’re almost at a run. If it rains now, we’ll have to choose between traversing wet rock or sitting out a thunderstorm fully exposed.
The thunder roars at us, but the weather holds. We make it to the base of Stubblefield Canyon and follow it downstream until we find a decent place to camp.
“Type 2 fun,” I joke. If type 1 fun is good old-fashioned fun, type 2 is only fun in hindsight, after the memory of the misery recedes, and you have a good story to recount.
The wind and rain begins in earnest just as we’re setting up our tents, big heavy drops that explode and splash back on impact. We hurry to secure our stakes and tent cords against gusts of wind. The thunder delivers its fury in a great performance.
The weather could care less about us, but it feels personal. These same thunderstorms have fallen for ages, but the rolling bass drums of this storm, the hammer of rain, these are a symphony witnessed only by me and Konstantin. The concert hall is prehistoric, but today we have it to ourselves.
Weather reminds us of “that proper order of things,” the English essayist Richard Mabey tells us, “that anchors us not just in the present moment but in the long rhythm of our lives.” In the wild it seems the weather goes one step further, anchoring our comparatively short lives in the longer rhythms of the world, linking moments and eons in harmony. Harsh weather reminds me that although I am a temporary part of this world, in this moment, in this place, I am real and alive.
Through the open ends of my tarp tent, I have a clear view of both ends of the U-shaped canyon. Perpendicular from the smooth, glacier-sculpted surface, a rock slide immortalizes a moment of sudden violence from somewhere in the canyon’s history. A vast drama plays out between the towering walls, nearby grasses whipping furiously in the wind while distant sheets of rain and specters of light float slowly across the canyon walls, thunder raging furiously. Does it matter to the thunderstorm, I wonder, that we are here to witness it?
After the storm recedes down the canyon, we emerge from our tents to make dinner. For me, Andrew Skurka’s famous beans and rice. For Konstantin, the only dinner he ever brings with him—lasagna.
“Is that really where we’re headed tomorrow?” I ask, gesturing to a low point in the canyon wall where my GPS seems to be pointing us. It looks almost vertical. Konstantin cranes his neck to peer up at it.
He chuckles. We’re in it now, and it seems pointless to turn back.
“Yeah,” he says, “I think it’s supposed to be one of the easy ones.”
After four days of pushing my limits, you would think I’d be used to this. I am standing on a rocky catwalk several thousand feet high. To the west, the head of rugged Matterhorn Canyon drains away to the south. To the east is Spiller Canyon, our next destination. We spent the early morning crossing through the dewy meadows under Sawtooth Ridge—how the rising sun lights up your jagged teeth!—, climbing switchbacks over Burro Pass—how easy switchbacks feel now!—and crossing the rocky upper basin of Matterhorn Canyon. I’ve been here before. Well, not here exactly, but close enough that I could see where I’m standing now. If only I had known what a problem would be set before me now, I would have studied it.
In fact, from where we’re standing I can trace that previous path up the sandy southern slope of Matterhorn Peak, from Horse Pass all the way up to the summit that I climbed two years ago. Had I seen that climb from this angle, I’m not sure I would ever have attempted it—the mountain is formidable. I wonder whether I would feel the same way about my current situation if I viewed it from there.
We seem to be stuck, for the moment. Skurka’s guidebook says that 5-10 feet south of the pass, there is a class 3 scramble down a chute. Class 3 means that hands are required, and there’s enough of a drop that a fall is likely to cause serious injury. From where we’re at, any fall would mean certain death, and the climbing seems to require ropes.
“I think this is the chute,” Konstantin yells from somewhere beyond my view.
“Are you sure?” I yell back, “That’s way more than ten feet.” He doesn’t answer, but a minute later appears on a narrow ledge up the side of the cliff.
He makes his way back to me and says “I think that’s it. It looks better than anything else around here.”
I’m skeptical—we’re already more than ten feet from the low point—but I follow his route to have a look. We’re certainly not getting down this way, anyway. The ledge is about as wide as a narrow sidewalk, but uneven and with a deadly drop off to the left. I stay to the right. The ledge works its way up until it dead-ends at two rocks. I move to look past them, and there’s the chute. The drop is precipitous, but it looks manageable for as far down as I can see. The problem is that I can’t see all the way down. I start to climb up the boulders and look off to the left—as surely as if I had fallen physically, my stomach drops and my chest clenches. I can’t do this. I carefully, terrifyingly, step back onto the ledge. This must be the chute, but I don’t know how I’m going to do this. Even if I get over those rocks, the chute is narrow, steep as hell, and choked with boulders that are embedded in mineral sand. It looks like any one of those rocks is ready to pull free at the slightest nudge.
On the walk back to Konstantin and our packs, I struggle to rein in my emotions: you have faced fear before, I tell myself, and you have overcome it. Now you know what to expect. The greatest danger is if you panic. Take it slow and careful. Focus on the moment in front of you.
“Yep, that’s got to be it,” I tell him. “Looks fun.”
“Type 3 fun,” he laughs. The type of fun that isn’t fun at all, not even in hindsight. Tension around the corners of his mouth tells me that he’s as nervous about this as I am.
We approach the chute again, this time with our packs on. At the boulders, I pay close attention to my breathing. This is why you come out here, I remind myself, to push your limits.
The pass isn’t a problem to be solved, I tell myself. It exists as the natural consequences of the forces of rock, wind, and water. It’s our desire to move over it that creates the problem, and in our search for a solution, we ascribe meaning to the pass and to ourselves. Our desires—to see, to know, to explore—create the very obstacles that challenge us to increase our own agency in the world.
When it’s my turn to go over and the fear rises from my belly, I don’t resist it, but let it pass through me. As it spreads, it turns into a sensation of warm energy, an intensification of awareness. The fear is gone, and in its place is focus. I grab a lip on near the top of one of the rocks, set my foot on a crack, and hoist myself up and over, one careful move after the next, until I am safely over, resting in the upper nook of the chute.
I flash Konstantin a grin. “Type 3 fun.”
After eight days of hiking, six of them on the High Route, we’ve reached the final climb one day early. The slope up Quartzite Peak is every bit as bad as I’ve imagined: mineral sands, loose rocks, and an incline steep enough to make sure that any falling object stays in motion to the very bottom of the long drop below. It’s the final ascent to the “best view of the entire route,” according to the guidebook. First, though, we have push through this endless scree.
It’s the stuff of nightmares—quite literally, as my dreams for the past few nights have been filled with shifting talus, slippery scree, stones that go out from under my feet and send me plummeting into emptiness; this slope seems to represent a mixtape of greatest hits from the darkness of my anxieties. Maybe they’ll name this slope after me if I plummet to my death here. Or maybe someone will find one of my hiking poles decades or centuries from now and it’ll be a historic artifact like that tin coffee mug that John Muir lost. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the one to find the mug, after I tumble painfully down this slope. I’m nervous, and yet I can already anticipate a time when I will miss this: this is our last day of hiking, and the clarity of this danger is soon to be replaced by the murky anxieties of civilized life—do I weed the backyard first, or answer my emails, or tackle my five-year plan? And how long has it been since I called that friend? I’m grateful for a little more time away.
As I wait for my heart to catch up with my muscles, I scan above me for a clear path. I wonder whether that rock will hold or come tumbling down, whether this gravelly soil will allow me enough purchase to continue up, whether this gully will top out in a cliff and I will have to retreat to go around. Konstantin has taken a different route, somewhere off to my left in order that we might not kick rocks onto each other. We call back and forth to check on each other’s progress occasionally, but mostly we leave each other to reckon with our own bad decisions.
“Are you still alive over there?” I call.
“I think so,” Konstantin yells back, “You?”
I climb past a clump of trees and look up to see the blue skies that define the top of the ridge. This is it! I scramble up the scree, shaking half the mountain loose in my haste, and crest the top with triumph and relief. Konstantin catches up a few moments later and we walk together across the ridge toward Quartzite Peak.
I hurry again as we reach the summit, and the mountain reaches out and cracks me across the shin to remind me of my status. Painfully chastened by a modest hunk of pink quartz, I remember I am a visitor to this place as I hobble the last few steps to the lookout.
Before us, the Merced River cuts a valley several thousand feet below, and opens the space by which we survey the vastness of Yosemite from the crest of its backbone. Opposite us, the slope rises in waves and troughs, and I’m surprised to find meaning in so many of them—here I find the narrow ribbon of the John Muir Trail, layered over with personal memories; I can see the back of Half Dome, which at once represents to me the whole Yosemite Valley and by extension, either the throngs of civilization or the portal into wilderness, depending on my avenue of approach; and far in the distance, Tower Peak, near the very beginning of our hike, representing the outer limit of a tidy container to hold it all.
It takes us a long time to balance all these opposites—the internal and external, the past and present, the abstract and the concrete, the infinite and the personal—and to pack it all away into ourselves. It’s not a process I can put my finger on, but there’s a moment where it feels complete, like I’ve found my place in the universe again, and I’m ready to face civilization. We pick up our packs without speaking, as if we both know it’s time.
On the way down the mountain, Konstantin asks me if I’d ever do this again. He’s been thoughtful and quiet most of the way down.
“That’s a tough call,” I say. “There’s so much else to see. I think I’d climb Quartzite again, but I don’t know about the whole thing.”
But I know what he’s really asking is whether I think the pain and struggle have been worth it.
“I don’t think I want to do a high route again,” he says. “This was a little beyond my comfort zone.”
“Yeah, mine too.”
A few months later, we start to plan the next one.