Yosemite Firefall.

In the winter of my Junior year of college, I found myself perched on the side of a cliff waist-deep in snow. Behind me, my footprints dotted on the white landscape that stretched all the way back down to the valley floor. Accompanying them were a sprinkle of dark, translucent patches on the snowy backdrop - my only warning of my precarious fitting and the water running beneath me. Twelve hours prior, I told my friends (whom I’d met while pretending to be a student at Berkeley) to drive home without me - effectively stranding myself in the forest. I wrapped my sleeping back up in a tarp that night and tried to sleep, watching my breath condense and crystallize on the thin plastic that did nothing to shield me from the cold.

One step after another, I eventually made it up the snowy cliff and after spending an evening on the side of a mountain, watching the Firefall with some other photographers who shared the same trail-blazing mentality, I hitchhiked out of the park and made it back to Berkeley on time for class the next morning.

Longer version:
One of Dartmouth’s self-proclaimed selling points is the D-Plan’s off term - a quarter that students take off to study abroad or find internships during less-competitive seasons. But burnt out from my studies, I didn’t have the capacity to search for jobs or apply for internships - rather I decided to take a break from school and have some fun - ironically, by pretending to be.a student at Berkeley. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s apartment and shadowed classes at the engineering and business school. One afternoon - right before a 3 day weekend for President’s Day - one of my classmates invited me on a road trip to photograph the Yosemite Firefall. If you’re not familiar with what this is, it’s a natural phenomenon that occurs when the sunset in Yosemite Valley hits one of the waterfalls - horsetail falls - at just the right angle that it illuminates only the water, making it look like fire is streaming down into the valley floor. I did some research, mapping out vantage points and campsites and a few days later, we took off at 4AM to Yosemite. It started snowing partway through the drive - late and unusual for that time of year. On one segment I had us pull over and put on snow chains (since I was a little traumatized by a winter crash from the previous year). We made it to Yosemite just after daybreak and quickly cleared some snow to set up our rented 3-season tent. We all dove inside and passed out - having driven all through the night. Snow conforms strangely to the body - it’s soft and comfortable at first as it hugs the body’s curves, but it hardens the more time you spend on it and any hope to change positions or turn on your side is met with rock-hard ice. But I digress. When I woke up a few hours later, I went off scoping for vantage points, taking screenshots of my locations on maps and trying to point on where exactly the Firefall would take place (the water is near-invisible unless you know where to look). With the snowstorm, I honestly couldn’t even see across the Merced River - much less hundreds of feet into the air on the El Capitaine Face. But I pushed through regardless, chatting with some other photographers who were also on the lookout. 
While waiting at one vantage point around sunset, the fog and mist began to clear up and I caught my first glimpse of the Firefall. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if it was it - but the small group around me all started taking photos so I joined along with them. I hitchhiked back to camp with one of the photographers, and it wasn’t until I was reviewing my photos in the truck that I realized what I’d caught. 

This special moment - of swirling fiery airs and waters - that was only made visible to a few of us. To date it’s my favorite photo that I’ve ever taken. 

The next morning I set off at 7AM - before sunrise - to claim a spot in a predetermined location. I was the first to arrive - much to the surprise of the second person - a photographer named Heder DeSilva - who had come from Portugal and worked for Adobe in San Francisco. We chatted and went off exploring to look for other vantage points. As more and more photographers filtered in over the course of the morning, we quickly developed a sort of camaraderie as people shared photos, stories about van life, and of course - compared camera gear. I’d never felt so at home among a group of strangers before - in high school and college I was always a bit out of place with my penchance for strange photography adventures (waking up at 3AM to photograph the Milky Way, or spending time planning photography trips and applying for funding). The stories that some of these people had put me to shame, and I found it incredible to know that I wasn’t alone in my weirdness. My Berkeley friends came and joined me shortly after, but over the course of the afternoon more and more people came - many of which seemed more like “tourists” who were just there for the quick photo. The worst of them were these photographers who were dropped off on buses just before sunset and they squeezed their way into the scene - getting in the way of people who had already set up their equipment. One of them tried to set up in front/next to me but one of the photographers from the morning told him off - telling him that I’d been there from 7AM and that he should get is ass out of there (in a more polite manner). And then scene - the Firefall came, and went. The climate was blocked by the formation of a cloud just off the face of El Capitain - ruining the hopes we had for a full, flowing Firefall. It was honestly underwhelming, I turned around after it all happened and saw hundreds if not thousands of photographers - crammed on the side of this river, all in the same spot and photographing the same thing. It wasn’t special at all. 

Walking back to camp, I checked my phone and saw that I had a new email; just before leaving to Yosemite, I wasn’t sure if I would have service in the valley so I emailed the two companies that I had scheduled interviews for (internships), and asked if I could postpone the interview until the following week. Luckily there’s pretty decent service in the valley, and the email let me know that the interview would be rescheduled to a later date. With nothing forcing me back home - I had no reason to leave. The others still had classes on Tuesday so they had to head back, but I wasn’t even enrolled in my classes (and had nothing on Tuesdays). So I did what any photographer in my position would do - I told me friends to drive off without me, and spent the night curled up in a tarp in the middle of the snow (yes I did put a tag on paying for a campsite). The entire night, my breath would condense against the tarp that I wrapped myself up in, freezing and melting again due to my body heat - soaking into my sleeping bag. I thought about moving into the bathroom nearby that is somehow heated, but eventually made it I through to daybreak. Packing up my stuff in a backpacking bag, I made my way down the road to find a new vantage point. 

Along the way, I met up with one of the photographers I met from the night before and together we trudged up the snow-covered path of the 4-mile trail. But halfway up we realized that the vantage point we were looking for was too far over - and even after trailblazing outward to find a new point, we were separated by a chasm and ice flow that prevented us from going any further. So we trudged back down onto the main road, hoping to stumble upon a place that could still give us an adequate backup location. I noticed a set of footprints that disappeared into the woods. Following it brought me to waist-high snow drifts that hugged the side of a cliff, and I wish I hadn’t told my friends to take home my snowshoes. As I kept pushing further and further, the path ahead got steeper and steeper and my footing became more precarious. Looking around me, I spotted gaps in the snow where frigid waters rushed below me. But I figured that if I were to die there, I’d at least die doing something I loved. 

Step by step, I made it up the mountain, having to grab at branches and tree trunks at times for leverage. But is the end, it was only a handful of us photographers watching the majesty of nature from our own personal little kingdom. 

After making it back down to the road, I hitchhiked out with one of the photographers out to a small hostel, where I caught a bus the next morning that took me to Merced, CA. From there I caught the Amtrak to Richmond, Bart to Berkeley, and made it back to class on time.   

To the students who feel constantly pressured to follow a certain path, socially or academically. 
This is for you.

Burnt out from Junior fall, I didn’t have the bandwidth to go through recruiting. With nothing lined up for my off-term, I ended up crashing with an old friend and pretending to be a student at Berkeley.

It’s a little ironic, addressing burn-out from school by going to more school, but being able to explore a new variety of classes was a welcome change. To truly get the “Berkeley” experience, I joined some clubs and had more than a little pizza by crashing rush events. I ended up making friends with some people in a business class, and found myself driving through a snowstorm with them to photograph the Yosemite Firefall - a phenomenon that occurs when the sunset hits horsetail falls off El Capitan at just the right angle. 

The snow was uncommon for that time of year, and after clearing a campsite in Camp 4, we snuggled up in a threadbare 3-season tent that I managed to rent from CHAOS - Berkeley’s version of the DOC. I spent the weekend scouting for vantage points to photograph the firefall, but each day I could barely even see El Capitan due to the heavy fog and snowfall. On my last day of scouting, just before sunset, the clouds suddenly shifted. I caught this photo - with plumes of fire rising from the surrounding fog. (photo: 3-1. Metadata: 150mm, f/11, 1/320 sec).

The next day, I woke up at sunrise and hunkered down at my pre-selected spot where I began my wait for sunset. As the hours passed by, more and more photographers began to pour in - all hoping to capture the phenomenon. At last, the firefall came and went, but the experience and meaning of it had changed; everyone had the same photo, from the same perspective, and I wasn’t satisfied. (photo: 3-2. Metadata: 150mm, f/11, 1/200 sec). As my friends packed up to drive back to Berkeley, I told them to leave without me. Back at Camp 4, I spent the night in the snow, wrapped up in my sleeping bag and a tarp watching my breath condense on the thin plastic that did nothing to shield me from the cold. 

The next morning I went trailblazing and, annoyed at myself for not bringing snowshoes, eventually found myself perched on the side of a granite cliff, waist deep in snow. Looking over my shoulder, my footprints dotted the white landscape and stretched all the way to the valley floor. They were accompanied by dark patches on the snowy backdrop - the only indication of my precarious footing and the water running beneath me. It was pretty daunting, knowing that with one misstep I could easily fall through the snow and get trapped underneath - but at least in that moment, I was pursuing something I loved. I kept pushing onwards and eventually found myself on the top of a hill of snow, overlooking the valley. Compared to the thousands of people from the previous day - this time it was just me. As sunset approached, a couple other photographers with similar ideas made their way up as well and the four of us had the firefall all to ourselves. (photo: 3-3: 35mm, f/11, 1/640 sec). I ended up hitchhiking back to civilization with one of them the next morning, and made it back to Berkeley just in time for class. 

Back in high school, my alumni interviewer told me that he had once met Robert Frost after a speech on campus. Frost commented on his iconic poem and how everyone focused on the phrase “less traveled by.” Rather, what he had in mind when he penned the lines was “I took the one.” You choose a path, which leads to another, and another, and the path you chose shapes who you are in ways you cannot foresee or explain. It matters little whether your path is well worn or never trodden, as long as you make the choice. 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference. 
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