December 20, 2014

Failing Forward in Yosemite National Park

It’s taken over a year to really sink in: I’ve backpacked Yosemite National Park.

Thousands–maybe millions–of people have already accomplished that feat, so what makes the fact that I’ve done it so special?

I’ve been so caught up in the fact that I failed to reach the summit of Half Dome that I’d forgotten about the part where I strapped a 35-pound backpack to my body and hauled myself up miles of slick granite. Camped under the forest canopy and the stars above Little Yosemite Valley. Drunk cool water from the Merced River. And although I didn’t make it all the way up Half Dome, I’ve viewed Yosemite Valley with my own eyes in a way relatively few people on this earth ever will. And–so my guide told me–I kept my good humor even in the moments when my fear of heights almost debilitated me, my thighs burned like they were on fire, and my asthmatic lungs felt like they were about to explode.

That’s a victory, my friends.

My time in Yosemite National Park often comes back to me in a series of single frames flashed against a screen: children skipping past me on the 6.5-mile, all uphill Mist Trail like it was nothing. Watching saucy squirrels brazenly darting after a wayward M&M. The loud, rushing white water of Nevada Falls. The triumph of finally reaching the campground in Little Yosemite Valley. The almost reverent hush over the campsite as each group gathered there bedded down at dusk to prepare for the early morning hike up to Half Dome.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

I remember the quirky metal cutout signs on the way up the trail and the precise moment when I decided, somewhere on the narrow slope leading to Half Dome, to turn around. Even there at the foot of the granite peak, as I waited for the rest of my group to return from the summit, I struck up conversations with a man who’d just finished his seventh ascent to the top in as many years. Others who were too afraid to even make the attempt, including the man who crab-walked past me down the trail, completely undone by his fear. Sitting on a log under a hot sun, I pulled out the chocolate I’d packed to celebrate reaching Half Dome’s summit and ate it anyway. Why the hell not? I’d made it this far, hadn’t I? That’s something worth celebrating.

Munching on my summit chocolate at the base of Half Dome.

It’s taken me a year to realize that the whole experience, when taken together–highs, lows, successes, and failures–has been yet another highlight in my life so far, another chapter in what I hope is becoming a life worth reading about. A reminder that the small victories matter just as much as the big ones. And that failure in pursuit of something big and meaningful is much better than never making the attempt at all.

YOLO, indeed.

4 Responses to Failing Forward in Yosemite National Park

  1. I love this post and I totally get it! I had an experience in New Mexico at a healing retreat in the wilderness about 7 years ago. I went there, after a break-up, thinking that I was going to do a ‘fire watch’ (stay up all night by myself in the dark tending a fire). I’m afraid of the dark and it was truly the wilderness there, so I chickened out.

    For a while, I beat myself up, thinking that I’d failed. Months later, I realized that I had not. The fact that I even spent the night in a cabin there by myself was a big deal. Maybe someday, I’ll do a fire watch, but not until or unless the time is right.

    And I agree that small victories matter as much as the bigger ones. You should feel proud that you did what you did.

    PS: Love that pic of you enjoying the chocolate!!

    • Marsha says:

      Lisa, I’m actually surprised to admit you’re afraid of anything. You’ve always seemed so fearless to me. Thanks for validating how I feel and sharing your experience! :)

  2. Ekua says:

    Love this and totally get it. I’ve had moments like this where I didn’t go as far as I wanted to, but had to celebrate how far I DID go.

    • Marsha says:

      Thanks, Ekua! I’m trying to learn not to be so focused on the goal that I lose sight of the act. That journey/destination dichotomy all over again…