The big, wide open.

Oh Yosemite.

The rock here inspires and attracts climbers from all around the world. Long crack lines and big wall routes make this place a mandatory visit for any wandering climber. Yosemite serves as the birthplace of North American climbing and is rich in history. Native Americans, explorers, gold seekers, naturalists, presidents – all had their place in Yosemite.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir
May 1903, Yosemite National Park, California, USA — Theodore Roosevelt stands with naturalist John Muir on Glacier Point, above Yosemite Valley, California, USA. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS, courtesy of history.com.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed and passed the Yosemite Grant, protecting the 747,956 acres that is the park. This was monumental in itself (way to go, Abe) being the first time the U.S. Federal Government set aside land for preservation and public use. However, Yosemite was still not yet a national park. In 1903, the legendary John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt camping for three days in Yosemite near Glacier Point. Within those three days, John Muir showcased the magnificence of Yosemite to Roosevelt, and, in 1906, Roosevelt designated Yosemite a national park. Teddy, you are my hero.

Love history? Click here to read a tad more on Muir and Roosevelt’s venture in Yosemite.

Most have heard of Yosemite Valley – home to Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, and more – it is certainly the most popular for climbers and tourists alike. However, the national park is also home to Tuolumne Meadows, a beautiful landscape on the eastern side of the park. This was my first time to the park. Eric has climbed in the Valley before, but had never stepped foot in the meadows. Shortly after arriving, I think he wondered why the heck not. Tuolumne, from our observations, is like Yosemite Valley’s quiet younger sister. Sitting at approximately 8,600ft and over an hour and a half away from the Valley, this place offers multiple granite domes to climb and explore, the crystal clear Tuolumne River for fly fishing and swimming, hundreds of trails and alpine lakes for hiking, and sweeping green meadows full of wildflowers for finding peace. Even so, the tourist crowd was less in number and the place was far more quiet than the park’s main attractions. Tuolumne, unexpectedly, became home.

Our plan was to be in Tuolumne a few days and then move camp to the Valley. But, as you probably have already gathered, we are not much for sticking to our original agenda. First and foremost, we were worried about where our base camp would be set. National Parks like Yosemite fill up almost entirely with campground reservations months in advance before the season begins. We had done our research prior to departing Breckenridge and knew that we would have to gamble with the first-come-first-serve campsites. Yikes.

We entered the park late on a Sunday afternoon after climbing Cardinal Pinnacle and luckily scored a perfect campsite in the Tuolumne Meadows campground (the campground had JUST opened the day before!). At a higher elevation, the temperatures were much more moderate than the 90+ degrees the Valley was experiencing. It was quieter. The stars were clearer. And we were quickly convinced there was little reason to spend any time in the Valley…at least on this trip.

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On top of West Crack.
Coming off our great climb on the Cardinal Pinnacle in the High Sierras, we were ready to get started as soon as we arrived in Yosemite. Yosemite is known for old-school ratings (sandbagged climbs or climbs that are rated easier, but feel harder) so we wanted to start on something mellow and cruiser. Our first climb was West Crack (5 pitches, 5.9) on DAFF Dome, considered a meadows classic, must-do climb. With an earlier start and 20 minute approach, we jumped on the rock – a must-do it is. West Crack lived up to its classic reputation! Pitch after pitch offered clean, perfect cracks (except for one spot of very run-out slab section that made Eric, who had led it, glad he had had a small breakfast).

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Heather leading into space.
We finished that climb feeling strong and overwhelmed with excitement to be in Yosemite. With another classic climb planned, we decided to take the following day to ‘rest’ and throw on our trail running shoes. And, so began a cycle of magnificent climbing, running and rest days in our new home.

The most notable climb of the trip was undoubtedly Eichorn Pinnacle. Eichorn Pinnacle (10,680ft) stands tall next to Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne, being one of the most prominent natural features all parks visitors see. I had been borderline obsessed with this rock since I saw a picture of it months before, prior to this trip becoming a tangible thought. We had three options to get on. We could a) climb the moderate line of Cathedral Peak (5.6) and traverse 4th class over to the pinnacle, b) climb the West Pillar line (5.9), or c) climb the West Pillar Direct line (5.10b). With the way we have been climbing, together and individually, we were ready to test ourselves a bit more on the grade. So, we opted for the West Pillar Direct.

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Photo of Eichorn from Cathedral Peak courtesy of Mountain Project.
The approach to Eichorn was no short hike in comparison to most Yosemite climbs. One of the benefits of Yosemite is that pristine, world-class climbing is usually a 30 minute hike away, if not less. Eichorn, however, took us approximately 90 minutes to approach, not counting our few mile bike ride to the trail head. The longer approach was worth it – not only is it excellent training, but we had the place to ourselves. We roped up and started to climb.  All of Eichorn’s five pitches were a blast. Some off width here, perfect crack there and one cruxy move. The West Pillar Direct line turned out to be a one-move-wonder, but we kept asking the question, “Why are not more people doing this climb?!” We topped out and enjoyed the views on the peak’s roughly 6x6ft top. There was a summit register that we added our names to before heading down.

Throughout the next nine days, we basked in Tuolumne. We climbed and cragged. We chatted with through-hikers and other climbers. We became best-buds with the rangers as we visited them numerous times to extend our stay. And, for the first time on the trip, we felt settled. Oh…and we took a trip to the vet.

Turmoil struck when we returned from a few hours of cragging one day. We opened the door to our van and out jumps our happy dogs. But, something was off. Madi, our energetic, three-year-old Vizsla, had a funny looking nose. I looked closer and quickly realized that the top of Madi’s nose was swollen, bleeding, and pussing in spots. Her snout looked like a zombie dog’s.

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Poor Madi.
Eric took a look, and I started worrying as any dog-mother would. We cleaned her nose with water and decided to wait until the following morning to see if it would improve. Throughout the night, though, you could hear Madi licking her paw and rubbing her nose with it in attempt to itch and remove whatever was causing her nose to explode in inflammation. The next morning, it was not better…the more she scratched, the more it bled and pussed. So, to the vet we went. The nearest vet was in Oakland, California – a two hour drive from Tuolumne. The drive took us west through the entirety of the national park, passing through the Valley. Seeing Half Dome and El Capitan in the early morning light was incredible, but short lived.

Long story short, the vet report suggested Madi was bitten by some sort of insect or spider, leading to an immense allergic reaction. Madi got a cone, antibiotics and lots of love (and laughs…it is hilarious to watch a dog do anything in a cone). We drove the two hours back, but not without a stop in the Valley.

IMG_1441Our second visit of the day here was again short lived. The Valley was nearly ten degrees hotter than Tuolumne and people….were…EVERYWHERE. This was my first time to the Valley and Eric, who had visited in October, was in as much of a culture shock as I was. We described it as the ‘amusement park’ of Yosemite, which is certainly not a compliment. Both of us are extremely passionate about getting outside and find it encouraging when we see people exploring the natural world. But, the Valley was something else. Folks walked around with lattes from the food court. Parking and traffic in the Valley village felt more like a small metropolis than a nature center. People asked rangers where they could find the easiest paved hike. Kids ran wild. In 2014, over 4 million people visited Yosemite. I felt like all of them were there that day.

Deep breath.

We checked ourselves on the drive home, despite our crowd-induced crankiness. We both quickly realized that we have been in essentially seclusion for a month. Nothing but wild places, wild climbs, wild trails – just the van, the dogs and us. We have led a peaceful life up to this point, slowed down and felt far away from the hurry of modern day life. That is what the Yosemite Valley felt like that day. Hurried. Busy. Overwhelmed with visitors from all over the world trying to squeeze every last drop out of their vacation. I do not blame them.

It causes me to pause and wonder when we lost the battle in balancing our work, family, friends, recreation, health and well-being. Vacations, or the activities we enjoy doing, should never feel stressful, hurried or tick-list crammed. I, certainly, have lost that balance before and will again. One of my biggest challenges is spreading my all-out passion for things I do evenly across the board. Both Eric and I are, not worried, but curious to see how settling back in Breckenridge will unfold. We will find balance? It is even possible to still live ‘slow’?

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Camp in Tuolumne.
As we rolled back into our campsite in Tuolumne that afternoon, we saw happy families returning to their own sites, fishing poles in hand, climbers returning from a long day on the rock, hikers and backpackers carrying their hefty load, laughing, beer in hand. Every day we are reminded that this trip is monumental and special. We have been reminded of the importance of our passions. We have been reminded that balance is not only a goal, but a requirement. It keeps us physically and mentally healthy, and with that, keeps all other things in our life healthy.

Many have told us that this is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. But, when we look at the big, wide open reality of what this trip has taught us so far…we are not so sure it has to be.

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