Saturday, June 22, 2013

Yosemite version 2

Every year, the Caltech Y runs a student trip to Yosemite National Park. I previously did this trip in 2011 and had a terrific time. J and I completed the mist-panorama-4 mile trail linkup, which was absolutely incredible. An account can be found here:

But I get ahead of myself! A few weeks ago I had been recruited (with no difficulty whatsoever) to join the trip, and to help out as a leader. As the trip necessitated three days away from my glowing computer terminal igloo, I made sure to get a bit of extra work done first. One bug after another crumbled beneath my comprehensive understanding of kdbg, and by the time I slept it was 4am. Not to worry, I set my alarm for 5:30. That way I'd have time to get up, eat breakfast, cycle to work, finish packing my stuff (mostly already shuttled in place over several days), and amble slowly over to the bus on Wilson. Come 5:30, evil me said "You have got to be kidding", rolled over and went back to sleep. The end.

Wait! There's more! I woke up at 6:30 in a blind panic. The bus was loading at 7am, and my best time up the hill to Caltech was about 29.9 minutes. In one fluid practised maneouver I leapt from bed into my clothes and out the door onto my already zooming bicycle. It was so early the air was fresh, the lights quick, the traffic slightly less suicidal than usual. I beat my personal best door-to-door by about 2.5s, which nearly reduced me to tears. But no time for disappointment at my lack of athletic prowess, those days are far behind me.

Into the office, check the simulations are still going (they are!) throw everything into several waiting bags, and trot out and down the road in the direction that a leaving bus would be taking. 

At first glance the meeting area is suspiciously empty. But then I spotted a tumiculus of spare sleeping bags and pads and breathed a sigh of relief. 

It turned out the bus driver had gotten lost twice and we didn't leave for another hour. I chowed down on a cliff bar and helped man a chain gang loading essential supplies of firewood, bagels, and powdered hot chocolate. At this point it should be noted that the bus was festooned with a giant advertisement for a factory outlet featuring a model's face about 10 feet high. The interior of the bus was thus somewhat dim. The seats were comfortable and the aircon highly crispy.

Before long were zooming down (up?) the 5 toward destiny. Any thrill we had at our driver making up for lost time on the expressway soon turned to adrenaline and a confused limbic system as he  flew up the twisty mountain roads through Yosemite National Park. At this point I thought I was the only slightly apprehensive passenger, though soon after a few people were actually ill from the curves. Only once before had I driven on a road where the speed limit was regularly exceeded by a factor of two. On that occasion, I had been driven along the Chuysky Trakt in the Altai Republic of Russia in a worthy Toyota Corolla. After several hours of tentative stabs at the language barrier, he managed to communicate that he wasn't afraid of dying in a car accident, since his lung cancer was already pretty bad.

On this occasion, however, we were in a rather large bus. True, the road was better, and the brakes worked, but ...

Soon enough we popped out into Yosemite valley itself. This is one of the few places on Earth that truly has to be seen to be believed. Not that that will stop me from uploading several thousand photographs, of course. The scale is beyond comprehension. I will now refrain from writing a small book on the geology of the gorgeous granite walls, and proceed to what happened next. 

We were dropped off at Camp 4 on the northern side of the valley. Z, J, D, and I (being the 'leaders') quickly performed a headcount, and then set off en masse for Columbia rock, one of the more accessible lookouts over the valley. I spotted a blue jay, and later one got close enough for some pretty nice photos. We attempted to spot some climbers on half dome, without success. There must have been some though, as we met them the following day.

Columbia rock is about 1.5 miles (2.5km) from the trail head. A few of the more enthusiastic types (including your humble narrator) set off further up the trail towards Yosemite falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. 2 years ago, it was flowing like nothing else, and we were all drenched well before we even saw it. This time, however, I was able to locate a little side trail and we climbed out on a pile of old talus underneath the falls. The setting sun caught shoots of water as they cascaded from the top of the escarpment. One of my co-conspirators wanted to scramble a bit more toward the cliff face, but we quickly found the going tougher than it looked. We turned back, and after a quick jaunt up the trail for a better view, returned to the valley floor in time for a quick dinner. We piled aboard the bus and our return trip began. Fortunately I was so tired I fell asleep and thus avoided the spectacle of the bus overtaking everyone on the way back down. When I woke up, however, there was a perfect profile of my face printed on the window from my whole body being slammed against it on every other turn. I was, it has to be said, rather tired.

Back at the campsite, we unloaded the bus and proceeded to set up camp. I quickly located the only viable hammocking spot, moments before a tent composed of highly snore-prone-looking people set up right next door. Fortunately I was able to stockpile a few boulders to take care of any eventualities. 

Later that evening we drank our all-important powdered beverages, sat around a campfire and talked. I'm inclined to agree with Kim Stanley Robinson when he says that, dollar for dollar, sitting around a campfire with friends is by far the most blissful thing possible to do. I packed my bag for the following day (rain jacket, first aid kit, 2L of water, a few gadgets, and my own body weight in nuts), and retrieved my trusty binoculars. The rapidly waxing moon rewarded us with a long line of craters and mountains, and not far away Saturn's rings awaited anyone with the focusing ability of a brain surgeon and the hands of a biathlete. At length we retired for the evening.

I hadn't used my hammock in quite some time. One bug/feature is that the processing of getting all the blankets and sleeping bags in the correct position to avoid a freezing shoulder in the middle of the night involves dozens of sit-ups, effectively pre-warming the volume in a satisfying way. Nevertheless, my sleeping bag was insufficiently lofted as I had not unpacked it since Death Valley and I was, at times, rather chilly.

The next morning I became awake at about 6:30, extricated myself from my sleeping bag, sat up and stuck my legs out through the boarding door. From here I was able to retrieve my sandals and stepped down onto the ground. Turning around I packed the appropriate stuff away (with full head room, of course), and had some oatmeal and sugar for breakfast. Before long the bus had turned up and we piled on. This time heavy traffic prevented our rather gung-ho driver from breaking any more records or trees, but that didn't stop him tail-gating like crazy. 

This time, he dropped us at Curry Village. After a quick bathroom break we set off for the Happy Isles/Mist Trail. We gave everyone some tips for good trails to try, but discouraged an attempt at the Panorama trail. Two years ago, a few people went very slow and held everyone up for hours and it was no fun for anyone.

The water above Vernal Falls was not raging above the safety railing this time, but a few signs asking hikers to keep a look-out for the as-yet unlocated remains of someone swept over the falls reminded us that the water was still dangerous.

From here the trail proceeded up a series of lung-bursting switchbacks hewn from the living rock. As we passed the meadow below Nevada falls J cried out "Bear!". I had completely missed it, but about 4 meters ahead was a juvenile black bear (though he was brown). He took a good look at us before ambling off into the scrub. Sadly chasing him with my camera was a low priority and we continued up the trail. As always, I wore my trusty expedition sandals, and they performed admirably. Over the entire day's 18 miles (29km) I skidded only twice.

At the top of Nevada falls, J had a surprise - some permits for half dome! The group split as a few others headed for Panorama point instead of Glacier point, and J, D, D', and I headed up the little Yosemite valley toward Half Dome.

The trail circled Half Dome to approach it from the north. Along the way we had excellent views of the granite monolith from all angles. It's vaguely dome-shaped, and only a small amount of the original pluton has fallen away to reveal the famous face. It has a storied history, and is one of the classical big-wall rock climbing ascents. Earlier this year my friend H and his partner V set a record on the sheer face of Half Dome: Slowest In A Day. I think the current speed record stands at a little under 90 minutes, when Alex Honnold climbed it without ropes. Two days is a more typical time, and we passed a few climbers on their way down.

Just before the edge of the treeline, we verified our permits with the ranger, who warned us about a population of brutal carnivorous marmots on the summit. Apparently there's also some peculiar species of salamander up there as well. We took a few moments to eat a snack, catch our breath, and admire a few horses who were taking a well deserved break in the clearing. From here the trail zig-zagged up the northern face of the sub dome, a small outcropping below the main dome. After a bit of haphazard trail findings, we popped out onto the saddle, and finally our main prize and last challenge lay ahead of us: the cables!

Half dome is frighteningly steep even on the non-sheer sides. Indeed, it was thought unclimbable until a bolt ladder was drilled in 1875. Today there is a pair of steel cables on poles that run up the 45 degree slope for about 400m. We had gloves to aid our ascent, but the rock between the cables was worn smooth by millions of shoes, so an element of diceyness remained. I was surprised to learn that only 6 fatal falls from the cables have occurred since 1919. About half the hikers were clipping into each section of the cable, and more than a few people turned back either at the bottom of the last pitch or else shortly thereafter.

I checked the velcro on my sandals, and the four of us climbed slowly to the top. At 8800 feet, you feel the altitude. After an eternity, we mantled the last ledge and the trail leveled out - we were at the summit! We found a nice pile of granite flakes next to The Visor - a rocky protuberance that several hikers decided would make a good photo opportunity to clamber out onto. Personally, I put my feet up, opened my sandwich bag, and proceeded to envelop thousands of calories with gusto. 

Before long a curious squirrel had given way to a practised pair of marmots. With fire in their eyes and death in their teeth, they flanked us from all sides and repeatedly snuck between fissures in the rock to try and pinch our food. Without success, I might add. By now it was getting late, so we had a quick explore, took a photo doing handstands, and then approached the cables once more with some trepidation. My gloves were not of the high-friction variety, and I was not equipped with a harness or rock shoes. I decided to cling to the uphill cable on the theory that if I slipped, I would pass a cable pillar from the opposite cable to which I might be able to cling. Fortunately, I found that I could use friction to allow me to walk backwards down normal to the surface, thus minimising the possibility of a foot slip. At some point I noted that my coordinate system had changed. Up and down were now separated by a mere 90 degrees. Opposite of down was out, and opposite of up was death.

As we descended a few people dropped water bottles which skittered down the face at alarming speed. Meanwhile, a kid above me decided that the best method for descent was the controlled slide from one rung the next. Admittedly he did do it well, though I was concerned that if he slipped he would probably hit me. 

Fortunately, we reached the base without incident, and I stowed my gloves as my hands began to swell from the work. The walk back was much like the walk up, only in reverse, save for a deer, a snake, and a grouse we encountered along the way. At the top of Nevada falls we realised that neither of our two options would return us to the valley floor in time for dinner, so we opted for the less steep but longer John Muir trail, which wound around under a series of cliffs with curtains of water dripping from above. Unfortunately this trail was also popular with horses, so we spent much of the time dodging their excrement. Once we got onto the Happy Isles trail, D and I were sufficiently energetic that we ran all the way back to the road. I also decided to reward my long suffering feet by doing the last few miles barefoot. The ground, as usual, had an intoxicating mix of temperatures and textures. 

Back at curry village we corralled the troops, refilled our water bottles, and boarded the bus back to camp. We didn't lose anyone!

After another hair raising bus ride (not for a lack of asking the driver to slow down) we arrived back at camp in a cloud of smoke from burning brakes and got ready for the evening. I repacked some gear, then fetched my pajamas and made for the river. Running a few inches deep and COLD, I found a secluded rock and proceeded to ensure I did not inadvertently remove any rocks (especially the tiny ones encrusting my feet) from the park, and had a jolly good sponge bath while I was at it. Meanwhile a water skater came over to say hi. 

Thus invigorated and somewhat lighter for the lack of dirt, we set a fire, I ate a bunch of my leftover food in lieu of dinner, and we conspired with our friendly Caltech alum D for the following day's trip to Centennial grove. I set up a time lapse, stared at the burning embers, and speculated wildly about future developments of space technology. 

That night my sleeping bag had fluffed up to the point that not only was I not cold, I even inhaled a feather! The hammock as usual proved to be comfortable and prone to excellent, vivid dreams.

The next morning I retrieved my gear from the bear-proof box, packed up my gear (except for all the warm stuff which I was still wearing) and helped to put away the group gear. Before long the bus was loaded, the last stragglers had boarded, and our friendly Caltech alum had arrived to lead us to the place. At this point the plan we hatched the night before went into action. D drove at a sensible pace all the way. Our driver, now adorned with at least 2lbs of silver chain and crucifix, was gnashing his teeth as corner after corner passed on all four wheels. J and I rubbed our hands together with glee, and the other 23 stomachs breathed a little easier.

Arthur Fleming (after whom Fleming Hovse is named) was an early trustee of Caltech, back when it was called Throop college. He made his fortune in timber, and when he retired he donated his estate, including the timber operation to Caltech. After his death, all except one 20 acre parcel was sold, and today we were visiting this plot of land, which contains a grove of 5 giant sequoia trees. Before long we'd managed to find the place (it involved a bit of bush bashing) and had seen the giant trees for ourselves. Many more of their ancestors were lying around on the ground, which afforded excellent roads through the underbrush. The largest of them was about 7m (22') across at the base, and had a hollow in which six of us stood with plenty of room to spare. I also took a moment to appreciate more than a few wildflowers which were blooming at this time of year. 

After a quick bite for lunch we reboarded the bus and headed for LA. With just one brief stop at Tejon Ranch, we were back in Pasadena by 5:30pm. We unloaded the bus, kissed terra firma, and laid out a few wet tent-flies to dry. 

Another trip over. Yosemite valley remains one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen.

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