Multiple times I’ve been asked, “Where is the strangest place you’ve ever slept?” I’m not exactly sure why this question continually comes up in conversation, but I always have an answer at the ready: “On the side of a cliff in Yosemite National Park.”

This always raises some eyebrows, and I have to explain.

It all started with an innocent proposal from my uncle and cousin: “Why don’t you come out to visit us in California for a week, and we’ll spend a night backpacking through the woods of Yosemite?” My prior experience with camping had been limited to sleeping in a backyard, so I decided the trip would be a good way to get out of my comfort zone. So, off to California I flew.

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After a few days of planning, the three of us settled on Cherry Lake as our destination and campsite. Our plan was to park on a hill overlooking the lake and hike down toward the water’s edge, then trace the shoreline to the far side of the lake. After solidifying this route, we busied ourselves, making homemade trail mix, packing some basic cooking supplies, buying dry food, packing our tents, and departing. We arrived at our parking spot without any hassle, unloaded the car, hoisted up our backpacks, and said goodbye to civilization as we entered the woods.

Our pace was slow, mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t used to carrying 25 pounds (11 kilograms) on my back while hiking, and my uncle and cousin had to slow their cadence to keep from leaving me behind. But I knew the struggle would be worth it — or so I thought.

After trekking for an hour or so down the slope towards Cherry Lake, we reached the shoreline. Much to our dismay, however, we saw that there was no walkable path along the water. Instead, trees grew right up to the water’s edge, and as we looked toward our planned camping site partway around the lake, we saw that the land between us and the campsite sloped sharply upwards, leaving us with no choice but to try to find a pathway higher up. We thought it would be easier to cut diagonally upward as we paralleled the lake, rather than retracing our steps. And so, with packs in tow, we slowly ascended the ever-steepening hill thinking we would be able to parallel the lake from higher up.

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But before we knew it, the slope ceased to be gentle enough to walk, and we were left to suddenly rock climb up a cliffside. With no ropes to support us, I thought more than once about how to somehow cushion my impact if I were to lose my grip. But knowing my chances of surviving such a fall were slim, I decided that my only choice was to not lose my grip. And so I scrambled on, only looking at the rocks above. Fortunately, I had the support of an uncle and cousin who were both more experienced in the wild than I was, and they provided me with step-by-step instructions on which handholds to grab and which ledges to stand on.

We came upon a flat area partially up the rock face, and, looking at the waning sunlight, we decided we weren’t going to make it to the top before nightfall. So we made our home for the night, halfway up the cliff. The landing was too small to fit a tent and, with no source of water to boil for cooking, we subsisted on trail mix and the water we had left in our bottles. The bright side to this whole situation was that no bear or other large animal would have been foolish enough to join us. That, and the view of the stars was exquisite. After a bit of stargazing and idle conversation, we settled into whatever nooks and crannies we could find to try to catch some shut-eye.

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As soon as the sun rose, so did we. After taking all of three minutes to pack up our supplies, we finished the rest of the arduous climb, glad to have only a few more steep sections to overcome. As we crested, I expected to breathe the biggest sigh of relief I had ever let out. But instead, my reaction was one of triumph. I realized that over the last 24 hours, I had learned more about patience and acceptance of the situation at hand than I thought. My uncle and cousin had instilled in me the confidence to push forward, and by the end, I knew that with the support of my family, I could conquer any climb.

Having crested the hill a short distance away from our car, we made it back in no time — not once thinking of the weight on our backs that had mostly proven superfluous. As we drove back towards civilization, I realized how ideal of an ice-breaker this story would be in the future.

Header image by Vashishtha Jogi