We stood 13,061 feet above sea level and stared at the magnificent view around us – 360 degrees of Yosemite, with beautiful Mono Lake and rugged mountain ranges all around. It was one of the most breathtaking views I’d seen, and despite the slight headache from the high altitude and aching legs from the exhausting trip up, I managed a wide smile. We’d done it – a huge behemoth of a mountain stood before us the day before and now we were at the very top.
Our trip to Yosemite this past weekend was as memorable as it was fun. Who knew adventures in this national park could be had over a two-day trip? From camping at 10,000 feet to hiking to the summit of Mount Dana, the second-highest peak in Yosemite, we experienced the best of the wilderness and challenged our bodies to the limit. We’d decided on a more manageable approach for the trip and planned to spend Saturday adjusting to the higher altitude and Sunday hiking Mount Dana, which turned out to be one of the most important decisions we made for the weekend.
Luke, Mike, Jay, and I left the Bay Area early morning Saturday, driving east past small towns, empty fields, and increasingly-curvy mountain roads. After the four-hour road trip, we were eager to get our legs moving and set up camp. The only problem was that the first couple of campsites we looked at were completely full, so after another hour or so we finally found our perfect campsite, a nice tree-lined spot at Aspen Campground next to Tioga Road on the eastern side of Yosemite.
After we set up a couple of small tents and unpacked our gear, the camp host came over to greet us and warned us about a particular black bear that was fond of visiting the camp at night to search for food. We immediately packed our food into the included bear lockers at our campsite before heading out to explore the park.
We made a brief stop next to the highway at our starting point for the next day’s big hike. Mount Dana seemingly rose from the ground and loomed over the horizon, and I pictured us climbing among the rocks. It would be soon enough, and looking back the wait was so worth it. Next came our warm-up hike to test how our bodies would respond in the higher altitudes. We picked an easier 2.8-mile round trip hike to Dog Lake at 8,500 feet – no problem, right?
Wrong! Within minutes of starting the hike I was panting for air. I couldn’t believe how winded I felt – the higher altitude made everything much more difficult. Soon we fell into a rhythm and eventually made it to the lake, where we took a quick break, shot some selfies with deer in the background snacking on plants, and headed back to our campsite.
Dinner was simply amazing. I wasn’t sure if the higher altitudes made me hungrier, but I was starving! We made instant ramen and cooked sausage and eggs on a mini camp stove to make breakfast burritos (yes, for dinner). I also discovered one of the most wonderful inventions ever – spray cheese. You can use that sucker for anything and have it instantly taste better. With our stomachs full and a nice warm campfire going, we enjoyed some chit chat and post-dinner relaxing before climbing into our tents to rest before Sunday’s hike.
The air was cold when we woke up early Sunday morning. It was hard getting out of the warm tents, but we eventually did and made some quick breakfast before packing up and heading to our starting point. We got to the trailhead around 8:30 am, and the area was pretty empty. The hike to Mount Dana isn’t an official National Park Service trail, but thankfully there was an unofficial use trail that was pretty easy to find and helped guide us the entire way. We packed our bags with plenty of water, some energy bars and snacks, and hit the trail.
From the previous day’s hike we had an idea of how our bodies would react to the altitude change, which today would be 3,000 feet in 3 miles. But nothing could truly prepare me for the disconcerting feeling from the rapid ascent. The initial meadow was peaceful and quite pretty, with some water and plenty of trees. There was a slight incline once we hit the forest of trees, and within minutes I could feel my heart beating against my chest and hear my mouth gasping for breath. This went on for quite some time and the group was making slow but steady progress on the hike.
Since this was an unofficial use trail, the hike basically went up from here, with very little switchbacks. The climb wrecked havoc on our thighs and legs, and there were points where I felt like the character in the video game QWOP, moving my feet one at a time. It was hard to think, let alone chat. We slowed down a bit more and took plenty of breaks before reaching the first flat area of our hike. It would be the only flat area before the summit.
By now we were about 1.5 miles in, well above the treeline. We stared back towards the trailhead where we started and were shocked to see it appear tiny in the distance. We’d made it this far up already. The terrain was much rockier now, and we continued to make slow but steady progress, by now more used to the altitude and almost immune to the soreness that had been setting in.
The last mile before the summit was tortuous and required us to navigate along large boulders. It was like going on a StairMaster from hell, with some perilous wobbles on the looser boulders and even more climbing towards our 13,000-foot goal. And soon the summit was within reach. The last few hundred feet leading to the top elicited some intensely joyful feelings. We’d done it!
The top of Mount Dana was absolutely gorgeous, a panoramic view of the entire Yosemite wilderness with lakes, canyons, mountain ranges, and more. We spent some time up there catching our breaths, taking pictures, and chatting with another man at the peak who was an avid mountaineer (according to him Mount Dana was “very easy” and Shasta and Aconcagua are also pretty easy climbs – some people are just superhuman). After a final look at the scenery, we made our descent.
The hike down was much quicker and also a lot more fun. The boulders led to some talus hiking, which was basically hopping or navigating from rock to rock, and I felt this utilized my strengths. We spotted some high-altitude animals along the way down as well, including several marmots (think fat squirrel crossed with beaver without the huge tail) and pikas (mice-like mammals, pretty sure they named Pikachu after these adorable creatures). Sausage fingers was an interesting side effect of the quick altitude change during the hike back to the trailhead – our fingers swelled noticeably but thankfully they returned to normal after the hike. We made it back to the starting point in half the time, with the round trip totaling 6.25 miles over 6 hours.
We drove back to the Bay in good spirits despite the exhaustion, and we were proud that we’d conquered such a physically-challenging hike, by far the toughest hike I’ve been on. And maybe, just maybe one day, we would find ourselves at the top of another high summit, telling a rag tag group of recent college grads how easy that trail was and all the fun trips we’d taken. Who knows? It’s definitely possible, and this was a great introduction to potentially a bright future of more mountaineering trips.