Day 4: Sherpa Steps to El Capitan
The nosebleeds started three years ago, on our backpacking trip from Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest to Little Yosemite Valley. That was another case of trying to go light by carrying less water, and sleeping at a high altitude. Ever since then, Randy has brought a kit of supplies with him to deal with sudden nosebleeds in the wilderness. I pass the time by theorizing about the causes and possible remedies – not of the symptom of having nosebleeds, but of the determining factors.
I contemplate the mystery of how the blood vessel constricting effects of the pseudoephedrine in Claritin-D could paradoxically promote bleeding. I wonder if the drying effect of the antihistamine in Claritin is too much in the already dry alpine air. I blame coffee, wine, and not enough electrolytes. I wonder if he should have done a sinus rinse using water taken from the creek. I even imagine how it would be possible, on future trips, to bring distilled water to do sinus rinses in the backcountry.
These are the things that go through my head as his nose is bleeding in the middle of the night. I also note, with some mixture of horror and pride at the accuracy of my self-assessment, that this is the kind of parent I would be, if I were to become one — an analyzer, a fixer of things. I am not a natural when it comes to providing pure comfort and soothing presence. My mind is usually too busy understanding “why”. Any abilities I now have in the area of healing and calming presence I have acquired from many days, weeks, and months of attending workshops and retreats and practice.
So when I wake up this time, with the sound of Yosemite Creek like a neverending train going by our campsite, I am slightly fascinated to notice that instead of staring at the ceiling of the tent and thinking thoughts, I jump out of my sleeping bag, unzip my side door and run around to Randy’s side. I am calmly looking for his kit of gauze, wet wipes, and ziplock bags in his backpack. He is making various sounds and uttering words of frustration, his head sticking out of the tent, blood dripping from his nose onto the earth.
He already has his kit, so there’s nothing for me to do, but I help him open the package of wet wipes and hand him one. He can now wipe his hands. I open a package of the three-inch square gauze, which works infinitely better than either the two-inch or four-inch squares. I notice I am just there. I am not reacting in one of my usual ways, either by trying to stop his reaction, or going into my solver mind mode. I am responding with what is there, observing, wondering, and breathing.
The days are long this time of year. I wake up with the sun and fall asleep around the same time it disappears behind the mountain walls around us. At some point in the course of a nosebleed, the only thing to do is simply wait. It is an unglamorous moment, having a rolled up piece of gauze shoved up your nostril, waiting. But it is the process.
During this process his nose stops bleeding and morning comes, and we have both gotten some more sleep. At the first hint of any blue in the sky, I am up and out of the tent. The first shot of morning air is always a shock to my body that has been wrapped in a down sleeping bag all night. I can feel the difference in temperature between here and North Dome already. “Here” is slightly less than 6,500 feet elevation, about one thousand feet lower than North Dome. I can put my bare feet in my flip flops in the morning. No need for socks.
Today I am committed to a protein-rich, higher calorie breakfast. Our plan is a day hike to the top of El Capitan, about five miles and eleven hundred feet in elevation gain from here. These numbers mean little when you are sitting at your kitchen table at sea level, planning a trip. It is the accumulation of heat, dry air, cold nights, sleeping on the ground, carrying over fifty pounds on your back, and walking miles every day that take a different toll than our usual lifestyles. Even a long day hike in our everyday life begins and ends with indoor plumbing, furniture, and insulated buildings.
But out here, I am immediately aware of every step of my daily routine. There is no perfectly flat terrain. To get the bear canisters, where breakfast food is stored, I walk slightly uphill to the rock, about a hundred feet from our campsite, where they were placed overnight. To fill our water containers, it is another hundred feet down, over many different-sized rocks and pebbles, to reach the creek. To fetch the water, I squat on a rock, connect each of the ends of the tubing to the hand pump filter, and begin pumping. I stop counting the strokes after one hundred. It’s many hundred strokes to fill the reservoirs for drinking, cooking, and washing. Then, gathering up all the water and carrying it back up, over the rocks, to the campsite. The “kitchen” is a low rock and a patch of ground in front of it. I sit on the rock, and do my prep on the ground.
I compare this routine to the one I follow in my own kitchen at home. I walk fifteen feet from my bedroom to the kitchen sink, turn the faucet on, and water comes rushing out. My arms don’t move at all to get it. I don’t collect it in a container. It runs down an invisible drain to someplace I don’t ever see. I turn and take two steps, and there is my stove, with four burners ready to go. I don’t bend over to reach for anything. It’s all right there. Life at home is very convenient. I just need the wilderness to remind me of that.
I pack more items for our lunch, and bring plenty of water. While our legs are less than fresh, it is better to take a walk in the woods than bake in the sun at our campsite all day. The climb out of our campsite is the first challenge. We are nestled at the base of a miniature granite dome. Mostly bare rock, with scattered madrone bushes along the edge, where the forest begins. There is no trail from here to the trail; we must find our own way. I rely on a combination of memory (how did we get here yesterday?) and feeling the terrain (which is the best way “up”?) to navigate this tiny patch of unmarked wildness. I remember that this spot is so special exactly because it is so hard to find.
When we were here five years ago, we chose two different day hikes to do from this spot. First we headed down Yosemite Falls trail and back up again. Then we did a late-afternoon sprint to Eagle Peak. The only things I remember about Eagle Peak were the intense swarm of mosquitoes as soon as the sun went down, and the fact that the final climb, from the trail sign to the top, felt like the longest 0.3 miles of my life.
This time, we would take the other fork in the trail and continue to El Capitan. The first part of the hike is the same. A steady climb out of Yosemite Creek and across a meadow. “Meadow” is code for “mosquito mating area” because it means a place where water has stayed. With water comes flowers, birds, bugs, and all forms of life. Emphasis on bugs.
My strategy right off the bat is to go fast. I am bounding up the hill taking big strides. It feels normal to me. I hear the sounds of Randy’s grunting, labored breathing. Again, no words, just sounds. We just started! How can he be tired already? I made a big breakfast, we have plenty of water, I have a big lunch…the list starts going in my head. I am out of ideas for what more to do. We didn’t train for this trip. We’ve been playing too many music gigs, sitting on our asses instead of hiking more. The litany of thoughts rushes into my head to explain what’s wrong with us.
We are in the middle of a small stretch of rocky switchbacks, following the Eagle Creek bed. I stop. In my mind, we have these choices: go back to our campsite and bake there all day; cut the trip short and make alternate plans; or find a way to do this hike and survive it.
I am brought back to one of our early hikes together, on Mount Diablo, six years ago. I was in gym-workout, Spinning-class shape at the time. Running up hills was what I did for fun. Randy was ten years in to an IT career. In other words, a lot of ass sitting. One of the mantras we were taught by a colleague of Randy’s, who was in his sixties and an avid hiker, was “sherpa steps”. When going up a steep hill, he told us, walk like the sherpas in the Himalayas. They don’t take big strides. Too much energy. They take tiny steps, no bigger than the length of each of their feet. They follow their breath, and step only as fast as their breath will allow. And that’s how they climb the tallest mountains in the world, sometimes carrying hundreds of pounds of gear for their Western clients.
The idea of following my breath, rather than using my breath to propel my body at a speed my mind would like it to go, was the new concept for me. In that moment, standing on those switchbacks along Eagle Creek, the words “sherpa steps” come back to me. I start walking again, this time placing my feet close to each other, stepping only as far as a foot length at most. In a way it’s like a geisha step, an image that helps my attention focus on the contact between the bottom of my feet and the earth.
What I notice immediately, walking with sherpa steps, are two things: my breath is through my nose and paced normally; and I am suddenly looking around, observing and enjoying my walk more. I notice the contrast between the idea of hiking as exercise – something where I am supposed to “work up a sweat”, “get my heart rate up”, “burn calories”, or some other goal – versus hiking as the activity of the body breathing and moving on this terrain, in this place. With my breathing at a quiet, comfortable pace and volume, I can hear the chirping of birds, the tapping of a woodpecker, the wings of a dragonfly zipping by, the dribble of a creek in the distance. My feet strike the ground almost silently. I place them mindfully without effort. I am moving forward steadily, at a totally different pace than I have experienced before. I am not using all of my attention simply to push forward. I have leftover attention to be able to turn my head from side to side, appreciating.
I notice Randy behind me, too. His breathing has gone from grunting to silent. His footsteps have gone from stamping to silent. I say, “I am really enjoying these sherpa steps. How about you?”
“Yes. This is a totally different way of hiking. It’s very meditative.”
“We have all day.”
“Yep. Nowhere to be.”
We hike the entire way to El Capitan and back this way. We hike the entire next two days this way. Sherpa steps. It is so revolutionary I begin to imagine teaching a series of classes based on this experience. But first I have to have the experience.
The views along the trail to El Capitan reveal the shapes of a group of rocks called The Fissures in a way I have never seen them before. We have been on top of The Fissures two other times — the first was our very first hike at Yosemite, from the road to Glacier Point to Taft Point. The second was a winter snowshoe from Badger Pass to Dewey Point. From today’s vantage point, I see how each of the formations is its own spire, not just a crack in a solid piece of rock.
There is a confidence that comes from sherpa-stepping that I haven’t felt before on climbs. With my breathing comfortable, I feel my body can go on indefinitely. I have confidence in my own breath. I am not “running out” of anything.
The top of El Capitan is surprisingly flat, and has plenty of fire rings. I imagine the parties that must happen up here when it’s full of climbers and backpackers. The only people we see at first are a couple from Australia who say they have come from Tamarack Flat. “How far is THAT?” I wonder to myself. They are walking fast, with big strides.
“Sorry we are hurrying, but we have to get back before dark! And it’s a long way!” they say over their shoulders as they disappear down the hill toward the nose of the rock.
I smile because we are in no rush. We have no schedule to adhere to, only sherpa steps to take. As we keep walking down the slight incline, I wonder where the edge is. Why doesn’t it look like the ninety-degree angle of the nose I’ve seen in all the pictures of El Capitan? Up here, it’s just a big flat area of scree, with scattered trees and a gradual incline toward an edge I can’t quite see.
But the view. I am ready to find a tree, sit down, and eat something. I have conquered something big for me today by experiencing sherpa stepping. It’s time to enjoy the view from the top. Randy finds out there is Verizon LTE coverage here, so we can post our first selfie from this trip for our Facebook friends to see.
We munch on pretzels with Justin’s honey peanut butter, saltines with smoked oysters from a can, peanut M&M’s, mini cheddar crackers, and a Lara bar.
I take the time to sketch the entire panorama on a two-page spread. I sherpa step in my art now too.
Light is fading and we are getting ready for bed. Tomorrow will be another tough hike back to North Dome. All the sherpa stepping has our attention dialed up a notch. I point out a rock formation that looks like a fan to me. Like a hand of playing cards dealt by the glacial forces millions of years ago.
Randy says, “You mean the Buddha head?”
I have no idea what he is talking about, but then I stare a bit longer and see it. It is a perfect Thai Buddha in profile, right there in the rocks. This changes my sketch completely. We rename our special spot on Yosemite Creek “Buddha rock”. For reasons obvious only to us.
See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.