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Lost in Yosemite [C_033706]  Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012 | by Steven Christenson
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Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

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I hope there is a happy ending to this story. What you see are two hikers standing on the far shore of the Merced river just beyond the end of the bridge that crosses above Nevada Fall. It's a man and his niece. The photo was taken at 11:05 pm, July 24, 2011.


5 of us were undertaking a night hike to Half Dome. We found this pair at the John Muir/Mist Trail junction near Nevada Fall. They were cold and tired. The man was carrying a single dim penlight flashlight. And he asked us how far it was to the valley floor.


Taking a look at their footwear - the man wore sneakers, the woman had hiking shoes - I told them their options were the rough, wet, steep Mist Trail at 2.5 miles or the longer, less difficult John Muir Trail for about 4.0 miles. They seemed to balk at hearing either figure.


That's when we learned that they had started hiking at 3:00 PM from the Toulomne Meadows trail on a whim and "just kept on going". It's not clear they had a plan. It is 21 miles from Toulomne to Happy Isle at the valley floor. Though the trail is mostly downhill, it is a LONG way to go. They had no map and they had just the one dim penlight flashlight - no backup.


I asked them if they had food and water - they said they were fine. Since they were both dressed in shorts, I asked them if they had any additional clothing for warmth - they said they had sweatshirts. I asked them if they had additional batteries (he did) or a second flashlight (they didn't). I gave them my LED keychain flashlight. In about 2 and a half hours the moon would give some additional light, but hopefully they would be down by then.


When the man asked me about directions on the John Muir trail, I told him I hadn't been down it in a long while, but I believed there was only one right turn at an intersection and that would take them below the Vernal Fall.


I was trying to dissuade them from taking the Mist Trail. We had just come up over that path and I knew that they'd get soaked AND there were several footing problems along the trail as well as some turns that are easy to miss in the dark - I know because we had missed them on the way up!


I offered that we were headed on our way to the Nevada Fall to take some photos (a half truth) and that they could come along with us to the bridge. At the precipice of Nevada fall the rushing water at our feet created cold, damp wind. The pair crossed the bridge and stood for a long time on the far side while we set up and took photos of the scene. The fall was roaring in what would have otherwise been a still, peaceful starry scene. The pair stood for so long I wondered what was going on. Eventually they continued onward down the trail... only to turn around and head back mere minutes later. Apparently they were spooked by a large buck on the trail that wouldn't move. We had come across a small buck on the Mist Trail on our way up.


Crossing back over the bridge meant they must take the Mist Trail. I offered to escort them back to where we had at first encountered them. I left my companions behind so they coud do more shooting. From the fall edge there is a wide open scramble across flat granite. In the daytime it can be difficult to find your way, but finding the trail at night led me down a few momentary wrong turns. At last we arrived after two tenths of a mile back at the trail head and I asked them again if they needed anything. They said no, thanked me for the flashlight and started down what I know is gnarly footing and arduous going. I struggled with myself over what the best course of action was. Perhaps I had made a mistake and should have just called off our Half Dome hike and escorted them down. On the other hand, they at least had some supplies and had already managed 19 miles on their own and appeared to be in good shape despite obvious fear and worry on the face of the young woman.


After the hikers had disappeared down the path I waited for my companions to return. Eventually I saw flashlights and headlamps headed my way. Then I noticed the lights veering off in the wrong direction at a point where the trail should come straight toward me.... so I left my pack on the bench and ran to them. I managed to corral my group and we got back on the right path headed onward and upward.


It worries me that the wayward pair may have run into similar trouble with no one there to set them back on the path. I just hope they made it without injury and will be much better prepared next time.


Meanwhile: Please PREPARE well before you do any wilderness hiking. And I pray this pair made it back safely.


Interested in Photographing the Milky Way? I've written several articles on the subject. Let me know how it works out for you.


One of the judges from Royal Observatory had this observation:


"I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings." ~ Olivia Johnson


© Copyright 2011, Steven Christenson

Bay Area Night Photography


All rights reserved. Curious what "all rights reserved means?" it means that without written permission you may not: copy, transmit, modify, use, print or display this image in any context other than as it appears in Flickr.

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Taken on July 24, 2011