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First Time Backpacker from Chicago Spends One Night Alone in the Yosemite Backcountry

Thoughts as the mind ascends to the pinnacle of fear.

By: Joe Mahoney + Save to a List

Let's start with some background. I'm 33 years old and originally from Chicago. I quit my corporate life a year ago and sold everything, house included, to travel and make some drastic life changes personally and professionally. This started with culinary school in Ireland followed by several months in South and Central America. Now, 9 months in, my travels took me to Yosemite, my first national park, as part of a larger US road trip in a recently purchased 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never backpacked before. The only experience I had was a couple nights car camping in the Midwest. I researched as much as I could online and picked up the recommended essential gear. I had initially planned to try and car camp in Yosemite and build my way up to the backcountry. After hearing about Clouds Rest from a friend in San Francisco I booked the only available campsite in the park in Wawona. But when I spoke to a ranger and laid out my hastily made plans, he said my planned campsite was 3 hours away, within the park. He suggested I spend the night in a “backpackers camp” and that he could get me a “Wilderness Permit” to do the overnight to Clouds Rest the next day. Just like that I was going to sleep in the Yosemite backcountry WAY before I was mentally ready. The ranger’s name was Chris. I’ll never forget him since he was so helpful. He was helpful partly because it was his name on the Wilderness Permit and his ass if I got eaten or burned the park down. He handed me a mandatory “bear canister” and was adamant that anything with a smell goes in there. He said this as he highlighted the part on my Wilderness Permit that says humans frequently encounter bears in the backcountry. Remember that I've spent my entire life in Chicago. We don't have mountains. We really don't have any elevation at all, minus the skyscrapers. And we most definitely don't have bears, mountain lions, or any other large mammal that could kill you. 

Me as the ranger was running through bear safety.

Everything with a smell in your vehicle goes in “bear boxes” located in the parking lots and there is a sign at every opportunity to tell you about bear safety. Remember that this is all completely new to me. 

So anyway I’m cruising along thinking about bears killing me and I enter Yosemite Valley. Holy shit. Yosemite Valley. If anyone remembers the movie The Land Before Time, Yosemite Valley is what I picture. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s known for it’s vertical granite walls, majestic waterfalls and giant sequoia trees. You can really see how a glacier mashed its way through a mountain. When I see something spectacular I say “wow” out loud. Natural reaction. I think I had 15 “wows” driving through the Valley in a car by myself.

So the Backpackers Camp is hidden away a bit from the RVs and other camping palaces of wholesome families that were reserved 3 years ago. Most people there were waiting their turn to climb Half Dome, Yosemite’s toughest hike. I was heading to Clouds Rest which, at 9,900 feet, is no small hike itself. It has what some argue is the best view of the Valley and of Half Dome. Having never done this before I sought out advice from some fellow backpackers, all of which were super cool and helpful. Every single one of them however was taken aback when I said that I’d be doing my first overnight backpacking trip alone. After the initial shock they’d try and play it down like it was no big deal. But you can’t fake the look on their faces when I first said it. So I spent the night at the backpackers camp thinking that it’s dumb to do this alone and that I might get eaten by bears. Onward.

The next morning was a good one. An excited one. The backpackers camp is nestled in the Valley with a view of the granite cliffs and a waterfall. I pushed the coming night out of my mind for the time being and packed my pack. This was comical. I was about to venture out in to the Yosemite backcountry where survival is my own responsibility and I’d never properly packed a backpack before. I knew I had all the essentials thanks to enough research. I had no idea where to put them all. Who knows if I did it right. Picture Joe from Chicago with my pack on and a smile on my face thinking I’m ready to sleep in the wilderness.

On my way out of camp I met two biologists. They needed a ride up to the trailhead, about 1.5 hours away in the park. It was a breathtaking drive to get there. I gave them a ride and they gave me some tips. Like assuring me that my first aid kit should in fact make the cut in my pack. Basics. We hiked the first half mile together but then I went ahead when they stopped. Even with the opportunity to keep going with other people I wanted to go at this alone. Once alone I became intrigued by the sounds of nothing but nature. When you stop there is so much silence that you can hear the ringing in your ears.

The trail started with knee deep snow melt water. Had to take off my boots and socks and roll my pants up. Another perfect opportunity to question why the F I was doing this. After I left the biologists I naturally lost the trail and ended up just climbing these giant granite boulders for a while. I knew the general direction from my map so wasn’t TOO concerned, and I eventually caught the trail again. On the way back I realized the trail switchbacks up on the left of where I was at and I didn’t have to scale the boulders. Lesson learned.

I used my map to scout a campsite. I was going to set up camp about 1.5 miles before the summit so I didn’t have to carry my pack up the final, steep stretch. This campsite was a beaut. Sandy terrain and an unobstructed view of part of the valley. I set up camp and had my first reminder of the day that I was going to spend the night alone in the wilderness. This fear would grow over time.

My campsite on the way to Clouds Rest 

All of that fear subsided though for a few glorious moments when I reached the summit. You reach the summit by walking along a narrow, but flat enough path of stacked granite slabs. The wind is unobstructed and this is where you learn if you have a fear of heights. I knew I had a fear and this is where it kicked in. I gave myself a little audible pep talk along the way and made it.

Final quarter mile to Clouds Rest at 9900 feet.

Clouds Rest looks over the greatest geological site these eyes have ever seen. It’s the type of place where your mind goes completely blank of other thoughts in awe of what’s in front of you. It’s a mythical place. After the summit I headed back to camp where the fear set in.

Clouds Nest Summit.

On the trail you’ll run in to a few people. At dusk those people are gone. Here are the handwritten excerpts from my journal, written in my tent and around my fire. I wanted to capture in writing what goes through the mind alone on a slow ascend to the pinnacle of fear.

Yosemite – Clouds Rest Hike
Solo Camping

I can hear the pencil move as I write. I sharpened this pencil with a pocket knife.

I’m sitting in front of a fire I built with stuff from the ground.

It’s very scary doing this alone and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. The sun is setting over the ridge. The valley in front acts like a sun dial. It’s like a ticking time bomb of fear.

Every noise is amplified.* It’s setting in that I’m in this for the long haul. Oh god.

I have to keep a state of mind that I am not prey. I can scare and fight things off.**

I keep looking behind me for movement. Nothing. ***

I stuffed the last of the Vermont Cheddar in the last of my sourdough. Just stuffed it right in the center. I debated the Salsa Macha knowing the smell and mess would increase my chances of a bear encounter by at least a few points. But the sandwich needed tang. And sweetness and flavor.

The sounds of nature change as the sun sets. No more birds but it’s a gradual decline adding to the fear.

I’m sleeping in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Who knew?

*I learned a valuable lesson about myself here. I was laying in my tent getting situated with the sun still out. The wind blew my rain fly in such a way that, to me, sounded exactly like the heavy breathing of a bear sniffing out my site for food. I was 100% convinced there was a bear breathing right next to my tent, where my bear canister was with my food. The fact that I was 100% convinced is key here. Hair standing up, heart beating between my ears, mind went blank. In that moment I did what I was supposed to do. I unzipped my tent and jumped out and screamed. You’re supposed to scream to scare them away. Of course there was no bear. But I learned a valuable lesson. That in that moment of raw fear I didn’t freeze. You can’t manufacture those moments. That’s what sleeping alone in the wilderness earns you. Now you’re free to laugh at the thought of my primal scream that nobody heard.

**Note that I’m aware backpacking is common. And a seasoned backpacker might laugh at this. But as a first timer it’s different. You don’t know what to expect and anything can happen. It’s all completely foreign to you and you’re alone.

***Another side note. At some point after returning for the night from the summit, I’d noticed what resembled a fresh paw print inches from my tent. I think my mind couldn’t handle it and pushed it out, convincing myself it was my boot print. It’s now a few days later and I Googled what a mountain lion print looks like. You be the judge. My heart sank when the search results returned.

Picture of fresh print inches from my tent.

I’ll add a few more afterthoughts to that night in Yosemite here before getting to my entries from the morning. As a kid would you ever start going up the stairs after dark only for your mind to manifest that something is chasing you and you have to get to your bed as fast as you can? That was the feeling I had, like something was stalking me. And as the visibility faded that amplified. It’s also mandatory to extinguish your fire, something I was VERY reluctant to do as that meant it was really go time. In my tent I watched a downloaded Netflix episode. I tore the headphones off twice thinking I’d heard something outside. I kept my pocket knife next to me, open, and went through scenarios of how I would handle a bear or cougar attack. I know this sounds outrageous and maybe even embarrassing but that’s where the mind goes. It was a VERY cold night. But I was prepared. I couldn’t take my arms out of my sleeping bag and had the hood on. Like a mummy. I was very close to cold but I wasn’t cold. A few degrees lower and I would have been in bad shape. I did however bring an emergency blanket in case that happened, think of what the marathon runners wear after a race. It felt good to know I’d done enough research to be prepared for the cold.

I eventually found sleep and the next morning I woke up at 8am to a beautiful day. The temp was still cold but it was glorious in the direct sun. Coffee was something I would not be without. Coffee in the morning was one of the big highlights of doing this actually. So I had my coffee and listened to Wilder Mind by Mumford and looked out over my little slice of wilderness and the Valley and my eyes welled up a bit. I’d done it.

The bigger thing here is that now I am confident to continue to do things that push me to face fears. To make decisions under pressure. In my journal I wrote that this whole time since quitting my job I’d been thinking about what it is to be human. That conversation can go many directions. But one of them is what we do when faced with a quick decision under pressure. I didn’t freeze.

Thanks for reading.

Yosemite Valley.

View from the backpackers camp.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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