July 22, 2017
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,731' / -1,748'
Today is the day. We’re going to summit. We’re going to bag a peak. We’re going to do it.
We will be strong. We will be powerful. We are the Amazons.
A few weeks before the trip, we did an introductory, get-to-know-these-people-you'll-spend-a-week-with, test-out-carrying-a-backpack-and-walking hike in Oakland. It was my first taste of Laughs' silliness and the incredible creativity of thirteen-year-olds who haven’t shut themselves down. Over lunch, we discussed the awesome empowering conversations happening around the Wonder Woman movie, and Laughs dubbed us the Amazons. A group of women hiking through an unknown world. We are Wonder Women.
From the first day of the trip, Laughs reminds us of this. She dubs us the Amazons, and the group name grows from there. The Amazons. The Amazon Wonder Women. The Amazon Wonder Women of BCM. The Amazon Wonder Women of BCM of Yosemite.
During that same introductory hike, a group of mountain bikers rode by us, shouting “gnash the tread” or some other mountain biker-y slang to each other. Laughs immediately wanted to know some backpacking slang. The first thing that came to mind, even though it's not limited just to backpackers, was bagging peaks.
Peak Bagging: verb; present: bag; past tense: bagged
- To climb a mountain or other tall point and reach the summit, thereby putting it “in the bag”
- “We’re going to bag that peak today”
Peak Baggers: noun
- Those who climb tall mountains or peaks in an attempt to reach the summit
- “A renowned peak bagger”
The phrase becomes an integral part of our trip, woven into our group lexicon.
“We bagged that hill.”
“That trail is in the bag!”
Today, we’re going to bag El Capitan. Or at least attempt to.
We move a bit slower in the morning than expected, so we set a “turn-around time” just in case, teaching MJ and Laughs and reminding ourselves that no peak is worth one’s life. We briefly touch on lightning and electrical storms, since we’ll be on top of a large, exposed granite slab in the sky. We weave peak bagging into the lesson, blowing the girls’ minds when we tell them that bagging alpine peaks is a sport, an obsession, that people get up in the wee hours of the morning to summit 14’ers in places like Colorado. We tell them if we were in Colorado, where Cherub is from, we’d never be setting out for a summit at the leisurely hour of 10am, because we’d be “shut down” by weather and stranded on unsafe spots on the mountain.
I’m not sure if these girls have ever left the state, other than MJ who visited Mexico when she was a baby and doesn’t count it since she can’t remember it, so we try to frame our conversations and lessons in terms they can relate to.
Cherub is from Colorado, that makes it Real.
She and BadAss have both woken at 3, 4, or 5am to bag peaks, so that’s also Real.
BadAss lived in Colorado and saw summer electrical storms roll in every day around 2pm. Real Real Real.
She knows mountaineers who’ve been shut down by weather, hunkered down in shallow caves on a mountainside, and narrowly avoided splash lightning strikes. Real.
Living in the Bay Area, it’s hard for us to remember what Real Weather is. We have fog and summer. Sunshine and weird snow-not-snow clouds. The “Storm of the Century” is really just some rain. The girls have never lived anywhere else, so they see thunder and lightning maybe once a year. We try to convey the eerie feelings of Real Weather, of a green sky, of huge thunderclouds looming on the horizon, of driving into pure black clouds, without terrifying them. Even in this part of the Sierras, weather doesn’t happen like it should. Clouds that portend rain in normal mountain ranges form in the Sierra but dissipate without ever dropping rain. Fitting that even California's mountains get special land-of-palm-trees-and-sunshine treatment.
MJ and Laughs struggle to conceptualize being on top of the huge granite wall that is El Cap, and to be honest it's hard for me too. We gawked at it from the Valley floor a few days ago. We swapped stories of Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, and others climbing the wall in huge feats of strength, endurance, and mind power. But still, I can’t imagine what the summit is like. Isn’t it just a tiny point, a knife’s edge, a rock barely big enough for two to stand on?
On the trail, a 300-meter climb hits us in the face immediately. BAM. Switchbacks, sucking for air. Laughs and MJ are so strong, probably stronger than us, physically, but hills really seem to beat them down. Another quirk of Bay Area children. There are no hills in Oakland or the eastern suburbs. If you want to climb a hill, find topography, you must seek it out - something these girls don’t have the time or resources to do. They've also never lived anywhere but sea level. The altitude in the Bay Area is anywhere from 20 feet to a few hundred feet above sea level. A joke to anyone who has lived away from the coast. Now we’re at 7,500 feet. The thought that air here might have less oxygen blows their minds, but they can feel it.
Today we don’t have full packs, just day supplies, which helps. We feel lighter and stronger. Aside from the hills, we are fast. We take a leisurely snack break at the top of the second hill, a trail junction for three different paths, and see more people than we’ve seen all week. It’s blinding. So many voices. So many people to talk to.
Laughs and MJ take turns anxiously asking us if there are more hills to climb. Last night and again this morning, we pored over the topo map with them, pointing out switchbacks that signified a steep climb and reading the contour lines to predict overall ascents and descents. Despite the preparation, they seem terrified of hills. It will be the most common question of the trip: “Are there more uphills?” They want us to peer into our magic crystal balls and portend the grade of trail ahead. I feel for them, and am both touched and worried they think we have this all-knowing, omniscient power.
But, we are done with the uphills, at least for now. We’re traversing the face of a sloping granite mound, the type of terrain where a trail gets lost and everything looks the same. The hills, the obvious obstacles, are gone, yet the trail still finds a way to challenge. MJ, our leader of the day, turns hesitant. Which way is the right way? Oh climbing, hiking, being outside. So many metaphors for life, all.
Then the hard parts are done or far away, so we play. Cherub finds a giant pinecone on the ground, the largest I’ve ever seen, and brands it our Wonder Woman sword.
Suddenly we’re on the flat granite tabletop that is El Capitan and I have to peeeeee. Bad. But it’s so flat up here. I can’t find anywhere to hide. Trees bent from years of wind, but they're too far off the path and too close to the edge. I’m a scaredy cat when it comes to heights and edges. Maybe I can squat behind these small manzanita bushes, cousins to the beautiful smooth madrone tree. I try to shout to the group that I’m stopping to pee, but they’re either too far away to hear me or don’t care or I can’t make my voice loud enough. All of these options make me momentarily mad, mad that my absence isn’t immediately noticed or that my voice or personality isn’t big enough. Then I get over myself and pee and I immediately feel better.
We eat a windy lunch, which feels oh so glorious after the dead heat of our climb. One of our plastic bags goes skittering dangerously close to the edge of the granite, and we all almost run after it but then catch ourselves, instinctively shying away from a 3,000 foot drop down down down, and BadAss is the voice of reason and tells us all to sit down and calmly walks over and steps on the bag so she can pocket it up a few feet from the edge. I morbidly envision a headline: LNT Principals Taken Too Far, 3 Hikers Fall Off El Cap. A plastic bag, while a travesty, is not worth our lives, I remind myself.
The students rename El Capitan La Capitana, to make it feminine, because why should guys get to have all the fun? Who says women can't be captains? Why shouldn't a massive rock face be female?
Somehow we waste an hour or so on the summit, playing and taking pictures and exploring and climbing over things and feeling the wind in our faces. Right before we leave, the girls begin to spell out WOMEN POWER in rocks, and it makes my heart feel so happy and full. MJ and Laughs have fully embraced femaleness, strength, wisdom, tenacity. We all join in, gathering rocks and forming the letters. It looks beautiful on camera, with Half Dome in the background, and I want to snap endless pictures here.
Once it’s time to go, BadAss picks up a piece from our rock-word and throws it behind her. She does this before she explains that we need to scatter the rocks in order to Leave No Trace. MJ has a look of complete and utter betrayal on her face that is priceless. Why is our fearless leader destroying her wonderful badass female creation? So we all join in, throwing rocks away from ourselves, and then it is time to go go go, back the way we came, down the uphills and up the downhills. Oh, the wilderness.
We get back to our home sweet home and burst in the non-existent front door and race to the creek just in time to catch the last of the warm afternoon light. We replay the scene from yesterday, dunking ourselves under the water, washing ourselves, shivering and then sunning ourselves dry, until we’re too hungry and trudge back up the hill to make dinner.
Food tastes so delicious when you’ve hiked miles for it, and I delight in dinner every single time this trip. I’m impressed that throwing together random freeze-dried ingredients can taste this good. I just need to work on my portion sizes. Tonight’s dinner is a quart freezer bag more than half full - and that’s before I hydrate it. BadAss calls me on it, asking “Are you really able to eat all that?”, but I don’t think much of it and add hot water to the bag exactly how it is. Once I go to check on my food and stir it around, I realize just how BIG this dinner is. It’s swelled to take up all the space in the quart size bag. This is real, heavy food like chicken and rice and vegetables, not just chips. Still, it’s so good. As we sit in the blackened dirt around the old fire pit that is our living room, I think I’ll just eat half and pull a “gnar points” move and eat the leftovers for breakfast. But it’s too good. I can't stop. The spices make my lips tingle and leave my tongue craving more food, even though my stomach is already full. After a breathing break, I end up finishing the rest of the bag. I am truly, uncomfortably, full.
We pour over maps, as we’re wont to do, going over the options and plans for tomorrow. We spend a long time making plans, but come away confident than we can either summit North Dome and camp near there, or hike a bit further up a different trail to give ourselves an easier time the next day.
It will all be for naught.