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Justin Kern

Starlight and Climbers on El Capitan

Starlight and climbers on El Capitan
Luminous above and below.

In Yosemite with two friends, one an avid photographer who had never been, moonless night and clear skies—you can guess where our thoughts were headed.

We opted to face south, so as to capture the more brilliant central disc of the Milky Way. The grassy meadows of the Merced’s flood plain were the perfect spot to capture a silhouette of El Cap and those climbers crazy enough to strap a headlamp around their temples and ascend into the luminous heavens.

I’ve learned to always look for Andromeda in the north, especially during the Fall and Winter. Sure enough, there she was, tough to spot by eye but easy to make out on the LCD screen—a sliver of starlight piercing distance and depth to put even the most intrepid astronaut’s sojourns to shame.

But winter is coming and we found our resolve to remain longer stolen by the wind rushing through the cavernous heart of California.

I thought of the figures upon the granite icon before us, surely El Capitan provides little shelter from what Mr. Lightfoot called the “gales of November come early.” I imagine those intrepid climbers wearing but shells of synthetic fabric and the warm embrace of adrenaline and shivered.

Once, on a family vacation years and years ago, my siblings and I first saw a night sky undimmed by urban pollution. As my parents tell me, we were shocked and frightened by the visual proof that we—and the whole living crust of the Earth—are hung by our ankles into the void. Through all the long years of my life I’ll never shake that reeling, churning euphoria I experience every time I step from the road and slake my thirst upon the sight of our luminous universe burning pinpricks through the abyss.

As if to vocalize the beating of my heart, from time to time we heard a shout of elation bounce from El Cap and reverberate through the pines and the auburn oaks and the cold and the dark.

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