Now Reading:

Stairways to Heaven

A raven greeted me at the gate. The view of Yosemite — like a great blade sliced the Earth and shattered itself into a thousand shimmering pieces on the valley— took my breathe away.

Or, maybe it was the altitude: 7,124 feet.

I never get over Half Dome, its enormity is impossible to convey. The mystery of its creation seems impossible to comprehend. Yet, here it is. Hidden in a holy valley of the Sierra Mountains, Half Dome stands and it watches. Maybe the whole trip was a fool’s errand to find another place as inspiring as this.

I teetered on a log at Glacier Point watching kids and parents battle for views at the overlook a few dozen yards away. My gaze fell on a thin patch of dirt weaving its way through the valley.

I knew that dirt.

It was the beginning of the John Muir Trail, a close cousin to the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. I walked part of it last year, but only for a few, fleeting miles. The JMT is too long for me to thru-hike right now. At 211 miles in length, it would weeks to complete. And while I can’t walk its entirety—stretching from Yosemite Valley along the Sierras to its terminus at the summit of Mount Whitney—I can walk its bookends.

The log gave way under my feet, and a new path was plotted. “Tonight is training night,” I thought. “I need to hit the trails.”

Like most national parks, the crowds at Yosemite are easy to shake by getting away from areas with a parking lot. From Glacier Point, I struck a line for the trailhead of Sentinel Dome, with the purpose of making its 8,100-foot summit my training ground for Mount Whitney, my training ground for 14,000-feet, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

I was going to walk to the end of the John Muir Trail.

But first, I needed to know that I at least have a puncher’s chance of succeeding. Far from the crowds, on a deserted dusty trail, I made the summit of Sentinel Dome. From there, Half Dome smiled accordingly from the right. El Capitan nodded from the left. “Ready as you’ll ever be,” they seemed to say.

I sat for an hour soaking in the fading afternoon light, taking in the last sips of Memphis from a bottle far from home.

I sit now at the base of Mount Whitney, many hours drive but a short raven’s flight from Half Dome. Memphis is gone now. The brew and the city are far behind. Before I can go home, I have to go farther than I ever have before—I have to climb to the peak of Mount Whitney.

I’m not a mountain climber, but I know this is serious business; serious enough to sign a log at the top; serious enough to be a bucket-list item for most hikers; and serious enough to warrant a permit lottery for entry.

The second-to-last hiking permit for August 21st sits in my pocket. A few walk-ins, it seems, are reserved for wanderers.

Before the sun rises, I’ll be wandering my way to the top. Summiting Mount Whitney in freezing winds and thin air will likely be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. 22 grueling miles of high altitude hiking await me. But I’m not out here to take it easy. I’m out here to learn, to drive and to push…to come back to Memphis better than before.

See you at the top.

Written by

When my home was sold out from under me, I bought a tent and decided to live outside. Now, I'm a freelance writer for Travel Channel, INSIDER, Nat Geo, and Fodor's Travel and I'm on a never-ending quest to get out of my comfort zones and see the world.

Input your search keywords and press Enter.