'Between Dark Wall and Wild Throng': Yosemite, August 2011

Looking over the Vernon Lake Outflow in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite gave me nightmares. Each night, for four nights, I woke up startled and disoriented. What had jolted me awake was the howling of coyotes, a pack whose raucous voices sounded like a group of tipsy teenagers screeching in a darkened tunnel. But the real haunting, the panic I escaped from by way of the coyotes' hair-raising calls, was human.

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My dreams were filled with people dying, in ways terrifying and terrible. Real people. Like Kent Butler who in mid-May after climbing up Mist Trail to Vernal Falls had slipped close to the bottom, skidded down a rock, and into the raging, frigid Merced River. On July 19th, after clambering over a guardrail at the edge of Vernal Falls where it plunges 317 feet into the granite boulders that had claimed Butler's life two months earlier, Hormiz David, Ramina Badal, and Ninos Yacoub were swept away. Twelve days later, and hours before my wife and I arrived in the national park, Haley LaFlamme lost her footing while descending the vertiginous, rain-slick steps chipped into Half Dome, plunging 600 feet to her death. On our last afternoon, as one search-and-rescue team recovered Hormiz David's body from the still-swollen Merced we watched another transfer an unconscious Kao Kue, badly injured on Mist Trail, to a yellow medevac helicopter that had landed on the Ahwahnee meadow; the teenager was ferried to a distant hospital (where he later died).

These horrific stories were shared at breakfast, bandied across picnic tables, overhead during candlelit dinners; they hung in the air like the pall of smoke swirling up from the Avalanche Fire, stinging and acrid. Little wonder that I transmuted these lost souls' final screams into the coyotes' shocking wail.

A warning sign at Yosemite National ParkThat is not how John Muir would have us think of death. Not in his beloved Yosemite. Close study of Nature's ways there led him to conclude on an upbeat note: "no particle of her material is wasted or worn-out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable unspendable wealth of the universe."

Resurrection was the primary principle in Muir's cosmology, an impulse that my eldest sister, an Episcopal minister, likens to her flock's eagerness to skip Good Friday so as to get to the good news of Easter.

But then Muir was reborn in Yosemite, and ever after proclaimed its holiness. His words about the jagged landscape's divinity, its eternal peace, became scripture--part Bible, part Baedeker. And they energized the movement to preserve Yosemite as a national park. Now the National Park Service makes devoted use of his journal jottings, philosophical musings, and giddy affirmations about its manifold blessings to affirm and shape its many visitors' experiences.

The agency especially likes this aphorism that I spotted while browsing in the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center: "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity..." Other such homilies hang on banners tacked to the rough walls of the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. There, too, you'll find a reverential wooden plaque that reads:

In 1868, a young naturalist named John Muir came to Yosemite in search of a "wild place." After ten years of wandering and studying he left to become the most influential conservationist of his time. And although the Sierra was no longer his home, this range always remained his place of spiritual renewal. What drew Muir to these mountains and what legacy has he left us?
The marker, with its sermonic tone and didactic close, answers its own question; and underscores it with the accompanying carved image of the weary-eyed prophet, complete with streaming hair and long beard. Muir's our Moses, leading us to the Promised Land.

So when he tells us that death is natural, beautiful, I get it; or at least I get why he thought so. Walk along the handily named John Muir Trail as it parallels and then crosses the upper reaches of the Tuolumne, and even the dust you kick up seems purified in the subalpine air. Stick your feet into the river's chilled rush; lift your face to the brilliant warm-blue sky; breathe in the needle-sharp scent of mountain hemlock and lodgepole pine. Everything is clean. Elemental.

It is that essential clarity that Muir sought in the Sierra, the Range of Light. It is also why he became fixated on "dazzling bright" glaciers, why in their study this self-styled "moral wanderer" anticipated getting as "near to the heart of the world as I could." His journeys would be filled with peril. But Muir found compensation in mortal danger: "I have often felt that to meets one's fate in the heart of a glacier," he wrote in The Stickeen (1909), a tale about his adventures in Alaska, "would be blessed compared with death...from a shabby lowland accident."

He had a chance to test that sentiment in October 1872, during a rigorous ascent of icy Mt. Ritter, "king of the mountains of the middle portion of the High Sierra, as Shasta of the north and Whitney of the south." On his approach, he was confronted with "a glacier swooping down" the mountain's face nearly to his feet, "then curving westward and pouring its frozen flood into a dark blue lake, whose shores were bound with precipices of crystalline snow." Crossing it was the first of his worries:

the entire front above the glacier appeared as one tremendous precipice, slightly receding at the top, and bristling with spires and pinnacles set above one another in formidable array. Massive lichen-stained battlements stood forward here and there, hacked at the top with angular notches, and separated by frosty gullies and recesses that have been veiled in shadow ever since their creation; while to right and left, as far as I could see, were huge, crumbling buttresses, offering no hope to the climber.
He pushed on, only to discover that the mountain itself was "a wilderness of crumbling spires and battlements, built together in bewildering combinations, and glazed in many places with a thin coating of ice, which I had to hammer off with stones."

Mount Ritter and Thousand Island Lake

Muir knew he could not descend--"for, so steep was the entire ascent, one would inevitably fall to the glacier in case a single misstep were made"; his way forward was just as treacherous. As he picked his way up an avalanche channel, suddenly he was "brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below."

Although he was "nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountains," this "terrible eclipse" suddenly, miraculously abated: "life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. Muir's "trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a...precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete."

Would that those who fell to their deaths in Yosemite this summer had been so saved.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The top photo on this post is by Flickr user myelectricsheep and was used under a Creative Commons License. The second photo used on this post is by Flickr user Hanroanu and was used under a Creative Commons License. The third photo used on this post is by Flickr user fragile tears and was used under a Creative Commons License. The final photo is by Flickr user fredsharples and was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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