I woke early yesterday to get some sunrise photos in Yosemite Valley, but quickly realized that I had gotten up too early. Peering upward through the grainy darkness I scanned the walls for potential shots and realized that I would have to wait awhile before the light was bright enough. High above me dawn's rays spread sapphire life into the sky, but down on the valley floor it was cold. Really cold.
I threw on my big puffy and stamped around the meadow to stay warm. Icy blades of grass crunched softly under my feet. Cold feet. Soon the soaring granite walls began to brighten, the surrounding forest bled from black to blue, and the gentle click click click of my shutter fell in step with the shuffling dance of my feet. After a few minutes I couldn't feel my fingers and shoved my hands deep into the jacket's down pockets.
Orange light swept the very tops of the valley walls, illuminating gray faces and emerald trees shrouded in snow by a recent storm. Not cliffs but massive icebergs, summits poking up into the light, most of their mass still hidden in an ocean of shade. A unseen bird began its morning opera. Evergreens on the walls above silently shed their icy burden.
I looked up at this twice-fallen snow, breathed in the sharp morning chill, and shivered in my down jacket. And then it happened. Suddenly it was no longer October in Yosemite, but February in New Hampshire. Single-digit highs, dazzling white hills, golden light slanting through forests of bare birch, air so crisp it could break in half. Fighting up frozen waterfalls, trudging through deep snow, praying for the sun to bring warmth to a shivering belay stance.
I don't know why, but that moment in the meadow brought to life the last five winters that I spent in the Northeast. Long-forgotten and uneventful days spent ice climbing suddenly exploded with color in my mind. I could smell the smoky creosote of the train trestles at Frankenstein Cliff, could grab the lone yellow leaf that had somehow escaped autumn's winds and was only now fluttering down to the snow in front of me. Memories of the first time I ever climbed outside, of pre-dawn starts in Huntington Ravine, of sitting around a wood stove with good friends, warming frozen limbs with food and laughter. I smiled.
Today the snow is gone, the sun is shining bright, and tomorrow the temps might even hit 80. "Rocktober" is once again in full swing in the climbing capital of the world.
But yesterday was an early reminder that winter is coming. That soon we'll be chasing the sun and the rock will be too cold, wet, and icy to climb. For a lot of climbers it will mark the seasonal shift indoors. A time to train and get strong for next season's goals, a time to wait for Spring to pry the Earth from Winter's icy grip. This will be my first winter back in the Northwest since I started climbing so I'm sure I'll spend more than my fair share of time pinching plastic while the rain blankets Seattle.
Yet my experience in the meadow was also a reminder of how psyched I am to once again feel the cold in my fingers as I lace up my crampons, to taste the bitter chill of the wind as I stare up at walls of frozen ice and rock, and to breathe deep the refreshing air of the mountains in winter.