A GOLDEN SUNRISE - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter One




I was lying on a mountain ledge adjacent to Clouds Rest, a thin ridge of granite rising some four thousand feet above the Yosemite Valley and more than nine thousand feet above sea level. Darkness had set in. Snow was piling up. I hoped that the final fifty feet I had climbed to a small plateau the size of a park bench would be enough to keep the bears away from me during the night.

I was here because of a loosely related chain of events that made my path in life seem clear to me. At age seven, my parents separated. My mom and I moved around a lot, changing apartments once a year. When I was sixteen, we moved in with a man my mom was dating. His place was forty-five minutes away from my school. The distance, coupled with my lack of interest in classroom work, was the reason formal education began to fade from my life.

I never fit in with the traditional educational system. I was ridiculously motivated to learn, but I felt like school had me sitting in a chair eight hours a day, spending only one hour a day running around outside playing games. That was out of balance. I needed half my time to be outdoors, and though I didn’t know it yet, I needed a large portion of the outdoor time to be nature based. Over time, it became not enough for me to be swinging a wooden club at a ball and running around a diamond and touching squares. I needed to experience the circles and ovals of nature.

Sitting at my desk in school, I would envision the natural world, just to keep my mind from feeling boxed in. I wasn’t designed to sit and absorb information. In every school I attended, I was considered the best athlete. God gave me the gift to be fast and powerful, as well as light and swift. But when I sat in a classroom for eight hours a day, I was fighting against my natural gifts.

The turning point came early, in second grade. We opened up our history books to a chapter on Native Americans. To this day, I remember seeing a picture of a beautiful spear point. My heart immediately felt something. Though I couldn’t articulate it then, I knew that the person who created that perfectly flinted spear point was somehow special. It was nothing like the tools I had seen in hardware stores; it had soul.

As I was marveling at this creation, my teacher told the class that we were also going to study their spiritual beliefs, but cautioned us that they “didn’t know God like we do.” Her telling the class that the Native Americans were lesser in the eyes of God made me instantly more attracted to them, because I knew there was more to that than the religious dogma they taught in parochial school.

The more the natural world came into view, the more I pulled away from school. Like most boys, I loved superheroes. Superman was cool, but it was Tarzan who captured my imagination, because he lived in the wild and protected both the people and the jungle itself. I was in awe of his physical attributes and how he lived as one with the world around him.

I wanted to be Tarzan, though I wasn’t quite sure how to achieve that.

I felt a strong pull toward the lifestyle I was exposed to in my childhood at our cabin in Lake Arrowhead. My father was an avid amateur naturalist, and he taught me about plants and the smells of the trees and took me quail hunting. He took me on hikes. He would show me the land features and make me smell the plants. Most kids would probably think that was stupid and want to get on with the climb. I, however, immediately felt a connection to the natural world.

Between these experiences and my mother taking me to the beach on the weekends during the school year, I became captivated by how alive I felt in nature. Whether I was in the mountains or the city park, I felt different from when I was on pavement or in a building.

I often found people confusing, but nature always made sense to me.

When I turned seventeen, I took advantage of my parents’ allowing me to make my own choices and moved to Yosemite. It was an ideal age to begin studying the wilderness. I had the strength of youth, no family relying on me, and years to explore on my terms. I arrived in the late fall. I took a job working at an ice cream store there. When it closed for the season, I worked in a cafeteria for another six weeks. I was a model employee, so I was chosen to work special functions and catered events. The best part about the job was that I only worked two days a week.

That freed me up to explore the land.

It also led to my being near the top of Clouds Rest during the biggest snowstorm of the winter, with only bears as my neighbors. But something unexpected happened on the mountain ledge: I didn’t feel trapped. I felt free. As much as I was there because I wanted to be there, I was also there because I had to be there. I had climbed Clouds Rest because I knew there was something up there.

It was bigger than me, and I had to experience it.


In Yosemite at the time, backpacking was all the rage. On days off and weekends, young people who lived and worked in the area would go on overnight campouts. To me, those trips seemed like no more than tourist outings. I wanted my first backpacking trip to be off the charts and slightly insane, which is why I chose to climb Clouds Rest.

It was winter, and I was off work for a three-day weekend. There was snow on the ground and the temperature ranged from a high of forty in the day to the single digits at night. I put on shorts, socks and shoes, and a medium-weight fleece. To allow me to move at a rapid clip, I didn’t bring a lot of supplies. I had a bivy sack—a lightweight, waterproof cover—to sleep inside of and help ward off the elements.

My goal was to climb Clouds Rest and then proceed across Half Dome. I wanted to spend the weekend up there with as few provisions as possible, and see what the land offered me.

The summit of Half Dome was once thought to be impossible to reach. In 1870, a report called it “probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which has never been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.” Five years later, climber George Anderson, who was laying the cable route that climbers now use, accessed it. More than a hundred years after that, any climber in good physical condition is able to reach the summit.

People I worked with had cautioned me that Clouds Rest was too treacherous a climb and the wintry conditions were too brutal for my first long backpacking trip, particularly since I was going it alone—and in shorts! But I had to see it.

I pretty much ran up the mountain. As I was going up, a snowstorm was starting to blanket the land. About seven miles up, I reached a halfway point where people climbing Half Dome set up their base camps. The area was emptying out. Hikers were coming off the mountain and heading back to town. Every person I passed warned me that the storm was already outrageous and getting worse, which only made me want to go even higher.

Something was driving me to get up there and see what it looked like in the thick of the storm.

I continued past Little Yosemite Valley toward Clouds Rest. The trees started to thin out, and soon I was above the tree line. I reached a point about two miles from the peak. The land was pure white. The snow was getting thicker and thicker, and the visibility was about five feet. Because I was moving fast, I wasn’t cold, despite the fact that I was wearing shorts.

Still, I had to continue climbing. I was feeling drawn. Though most people would feel that I was entering a dangerous situation, I wasn’t scared or concerned for my safety. This was not a foolish ego trip. In fact, there was no ego involved. I was doing this for myself. I knew that as long as I made the right decisions along the way, I would not get hurt. I would not cross the line to where things became too dangerous. Fear would not become a factor.

Everybody has a certain way they approach and handle fear. I believe that people who are on a genuine path and are being true to themselves as well as everything around them can ward off fear. The situation is never just about us. There is a greater force that is pulling us to what we should be doing.

Knowing you are on the right life path can mitigate fear.

Some degree of fear can be appropriate and healthy. It can compel you to make sane decisions rather than rash ones. But fear creeps in and becomes dangerous when you are doing something you should not be doing. Uncontrollable fear occurs when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time and you are caught off guard. You have either arrived in the wrong place to begin with, or you have undertaken the wrong course of action. In that situation, we lose the ability to control our fear.

So there I was: The storm was packed with energy. With every step, the snow became thicker. It soon reached the point of a whiteout. Even though the peak of Half Dome was directly ahead of me, I couldn’t see it. I was moving by simply feeling the land. If I detected a cliff, I turned and went in a different direction.

Eventually I hit a rock wall that stopped me. I stood still and tried to let the land tell me what to do. Every once in a while, a beam of light would break through the thick snow. From what I could see, it looked like there was a small peak directly in front of me, about fifty feet up a rock wall.

The sheer newness of the area was captivating. What was up there? For the excitement of what I might find, I decided to climb the snow-covered face of the wall. The climb turned out to be easier than it appeared to be because the wall was smaller than I had imagined.

The plateau at the top of the wall was roughly three by six feet. I tried to look down the other side, which would normally provide a sweeping view of Yosemite Valley, but the visibility was zero. I was walled in by blowing snow. I assumed the cliff in front of me was probably steeper than the cliff I had climbed, but there was no way to know for sure until the snow stopped.

I decided to spend the night there. Though the area was known for bears, I wasn’t worried about bears coming for my food. I knew—or rather I had been told—that a bear couldn’t climb a near-ninety-degree rock wall.

The snow was falling in thick sheets and the wind was picking up. I pulled out my body bag and my bivy sack and crawled into them. I lay there, not afraid but intensely curious about what the storm would do to me.

It was my first test of patience in the wild. I would have to wait out a night—or maybe longer—on this peak. I would have to appreciate and respect the energy of the massive storm. I didn’t sleep a wink. The wind was way too intense. Throughout the night, as huge gusts blasted me, I curled up tighter and tighter into a ball. I was completely drenched. The body bag seemed to do nothing to protect me.

Because I had a Christian upbringing, I found myself praying throughout the night, not for my safety but for a gift.

During the night, during the storm, I received it.


Though I was lying near the top of Clouds Rest, wet and cold, covered by what felt like an iced towel, the excitement kept me warm. I had a feeling something was going to happen. I didn’t know what. I wasn’t the least bit afraid, because I was waiting for something extraordinary. I thought maybe the peak would break loose and float away.

At some point just before dawn, after being awake all night, I managed to fall asleep.

When I opened my eyes, I learned how Clouds Rest had gotten its name. The sunlight was shining on my face. I lifted my head and looked out over a crisp blue sky. At the exact same level of the peak where I was lying was a layer of clouds that went on forever. I was just above the cloud line, so I couldn’t see anything below. It looked like I could step out and walk across the layer of clouds.

Actually, I thought about trying.

Still to this day, I have never seen such a sight in the mountains, or in an airplane descending through clouds, for that matter. Those clouds provided a perfect floor for the sky, much the way the land does for mountains.

I sat up and watched the sun rise. It was a magical sight. As the sun crested the horizon, the entire cloud layer turned orange. It took about an hour for the sun to fully rise and the white color to return to the clouds. The sky was now clear. There was no sign of snow.

I imagined that this must be God’s view of us and the sunrise.

I packed my wet belongings and descended from the clouds. At the base of the rock, where I had climbed up to sleep, there were fresh bear tracks. Clearly, a bear had been trying to get up onto the peak to eat my food. I never saw the bear, and I never feared that I might have been in danger. The bear couldn’t have climbed the rock, because it was too steep for an animal with claws.

I came down the mountain without incident and without seeing any hikers, all of whom had been discouraged by the storm.

For my first climbing experience, I took what I had seen as a sign. I had the feeling of being given a gift. I had gone to a place where everybody told me not to go; yet despite their warnings, everything inside me told me that I needed to go there to see something. And I had.

I had been blessed with the sight of a magic carpet of clouds and an immediate sunrise that few humans ever see. It was a transformative experience that validated the unusual, nonacademic path I had chosen, and showed me that the natural world held unlimited possibilities.

Coming off that experience, I was elated. I felt so full of light. When I returned to the valley floor and tried to talk to people about what I had seen, I felt as though I was talking to a wall. In comparison, everything else seemed dull.

The contrast was so stark that I began to separate life in society, the artificial world, from life in the wilderness, the real world. I began to understand that if I made nature my sole study, I would always see the world through a different lens than people in society.

But I was ready and willing to take that journey.