Terra Galleria Photography

Love at First Sight in Yosemite

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After I finished school in France, I wanted to spend a couple years in the U.S. At that time, I was an avid mountaineer and climber. I didn’t know much about the geography of the country, but one of the few places I kept hearing about from other climbers was Yosemite – because of its high cliffs. In January 1993, I took a visiting researcher job at the University of California, Berkeley, since of all the top U.S. research universities, it was the closest to Yosemite.

In February, one month after arriving in the U.S., I finaly set foot in Yosemite, about 23 years to this day. At that time, I didn’t own a car nor a California driver’s license. So for the outing, I joined a group from a student club of UC Berkeley, the Cal Hiking And Outdoor Society (CHAOS). They had planned a backcountry ski trip with snow-camping at Dewey Point, on the south rim. I had absolutely no idea of the precise destination, nor of what was actually involved in the outing, but as long as it was Yosemite, I was game. Fortunately, I had packed in my luggage some of my mountaineering gear. My apartment was only a few blocks from REI, which I was told could rent me cross-country skis for the week-end.

We left after school in Friday evening, and arrived in the valley at night, staying at an almost empty Camp 4. On Saturday morning, I awoke to see the base of cliffs that looked impressive and mysterious because their tops were hidden by clouds, but the grey sky wasn’t too inspiring. We spent no time in the Valley. Instead we promptly drove to Badger Pass to start the trip in rather iffy weather. Because we were in the fog, the visibility was limited to a few hundred yards. We started skiing. I felt awkward because of my heavy backpack, loaded with camping gear – almost everybody stays in mountain huts in the Alps, but fortunately for me, the others were quite slow as well. Shortly before nightfall, the trip leader selected a seemingly arbitrary spot to pitch the tents in the deep snow. Since it was still lightly snowing, I was happy to cook dinner in the tent’s vestibule and then crawl into my sleeping bag. The morning was cloudy, but after we had broken camp, the weather cleared just in time for our short jaunt to the valley rim. I exposed my first landscape photograph of Yosemite, made more precious by the quick return of bad weather.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at my lectures and gallery openings is “What is your favorite National Park ?”. Based on their merits alone, it would be difficult to say, because they are so different. However, for sentimental reasons, I reply “Yosemite” without hesitation. What makes it special to me is that it was the first National Park I had heard of and visited, and the time I have spent there on repeated visits. Before I went to the park specifically for photography, I had made dozens of trips there to try and scale the big walls that drew me to California in the fist place.

Upon returning to Badger Pass, we drove back to the Valley, passing again through the Wawona Tunnel. As we exited the tunnel, a faint rainbow appeared over the Valley, prompting us to stop and take in the scenery at Tunnel View. Having seen the Valley from its floor, and then from the rim, I instantly understood that here was the view that epitomizes the essence of the park. I also realized that, due to flat light, the photograph I made there didn’t visually capture the wonder of the location. I never published that image. However, no matter how well-trodden the location, this was the moment that made me feel in love with Yosemite, rather than the wild view from the snowy rim. Memories of that moment would prompt me to return to this spot time and time again, until I photographed a decade later the one that did justice to this first impression.

4 Comments

  1. Greatly enjoyed reading this personal story of your first experiences in Yosemite. I went there quite a few times as a young boy too young to remember. I can relate to your story of marveling at the cliffs because of my first trip there as an adult. The summer after my first year in college, my dad got me a summer job in Yosemite working in the gas station and then in White Wolf as a server for Yosemite Park & Curry Company. When I first drove up from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I arrived in the dark, missing Tunnel View and the dramatic approach into the Valley. At 3 am the guest and employee parking lots were full. I parked in the main lot at Camp Curry, which I saw in the morning was not allowed. I slept in my car, also not allowed, but did not get bothered by rangers. In the morning I opened my eyes and was amazed how Glacier Point towered so high up into the sky and blocked the sun overhead. It was a dramatic way to meet Yosemite I will never forget. Those of us who have known Yosemite for a long time and connect some of our best memories to the place, have a special feeling for the place as you show in your excellent post here, QT.

  2. Oh, I also meant to say that I like those climbing images, both of you and by you. I get vertigo just looking at them.

  3. QT Luong says:

    Thanks David for sharing your experience.

  4. Tom Lambert says:

    Ironically, just this morning I was talking with someone about the concept of “your Yosemite moment.” It’s a question that gets asked a lot around NPS Interp and other places – “What was your Yosemite moment?” or more descriptively, “What was the moment that made you fall in love with Yosemite.”

    Strangely, despite making the decision (which actually isn’t true, because it wasn’t A decision) to live here, there is no similar moment for me.

    I remember my first trip – rained and snowed in the Valley and we woke to wall, which we wanted to climb, covered in snow. It was October and I had spent the four previous months in Alaska and the truth is that Yosemite did not make that big an impression.

    I have had many wonderful experiences in Yosemite and I can’t really pick a moment. Maybe it was my 17th time soloing up Royal Arches, because I truly enjoy that more almost every time. It might have been the first time I ran to Dewey Point. Hans and I ran the ski trail, jumping logs and bogs, and that was cool.

    Strange, that I can remember my Vermont moment very clearly. I was 18 and had lived there all my life. The summer I was 18, I took my first big climbing trip: Needles, Devil’s Tower, Tetons, Wind Rivers, Lumpy Ridge and Boulder. I was blown away by what I saw in Colorado. I came home and was trying to get exercise and was riding my bike as fast as I could to get miles in before sunset.

    Out on Spear Street with my head down and my legs burning, I chanced to look up and see a panorama of Lake Champlain and the sun going down over the Adirondacks on my right and Camel’s Hump with a bit of alpenglow on my left. I stopped pedaling, stared at the scene and cried.

    It was the first time I had really noticed the beauty of my home state and saw in it a beauty as great as any of the other places I’ve lived (Switzerland, Alaska, Wisconsin) and visited (many great mountains).

    I’ve only lived in Yosemite for 13 years (though my first visit was 1985). So maybe it will take another five years!

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