Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

California, 2012, 8

 In which we dodge deer and follow the road not taken

We designated Tuesday as a chill day, remaining mostly in Yosemite Valley and doing this and that.

Doing this, we bridged a gap that exists in most mountain camping areas, where there are two types of occupant. Hikers (as we'll call them generically) are there to pursue their particular activity, whether it is hiking, bouldering or rock climbing. The campground is a place to eat, sleep and shower. Campers are there primarily to chillax, commune with nature (or fellow campers), cook, eat, etc.

We did get up early for a low-speed Valley hike, heading generally for Yosemite Falls and perhaps El Capitan Meadow. This was the first noticeably cool morning, and I awoke with sniffles. No, nothing like hanta. All my life camping, save only the last Yosemite trip, I've either caught a cold or found that the conditions awakened one. In this case, having inhaled a few pounds of trail dust probably contributed. The family also informed me for the second night that I had snored. Great start.


Apart from the squirrels, ravens, and the Steller's jays (lovely to look at, with raucous calls), the first wildlife we saw was a fly fisherman in the Merced River. Again, there was no sign of bears, but before we had reached Yosemite Village the first deer popped up, almost underfoot.

Last time, Em said the deer around Yosemite Village must be on the park payroll, because they showed up when visitors did and had absolutely no fear of them. The NPS playbook enjoins visitors to stay 50 metres away from deer and other large animals, and 100 away from bears. The payroll deer haven't read the playbook. For the most part, they aren't mooching. They're just grazing, often mere feet away from people, and it can be they who close the distance. The bucks we saw were younger ones, but they had all of them scraped the fuzzy "velvet" off their antlers and looked ready for the rut. The onus was on us to try to open some distance between us and them, to achieve the official distance, and without actually running it was a full-time preocccupation. We watched one family group closely for a time. The buck and doe were small ("teenage parents," said Em), and they had a pair of fawns who looked a bit small for the time of year.

Nearby, other deer decided to cross the road. I haven't seen a bear do this, but Em has seen plenty of deer in the road at Yosemite. Their fearlessness, unfortunately, extends to motor vehicles. Most, she said, don't spring across cautiously, as road-wary deer often do in the Northeast. No, Yosemite deer saunter, stroll, amble across the road. At this hour, with a bit of valley fog, and a lot of delivery traffic, this seemed little short of suicidal.

The one disappointment in Yosemite in September is that most of the legendary waterfalls typically have shut down for the year. Last time, Bridalveil Falls, Nevada and Mist Falls were still photogenic, but Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls were reduced to trickles. This year, after a winter nearly as open as New England's, the Yosemite Falls were just gone. The attraction had been renamed Yosemite Walls by the locals. "You shoulda been here last year," they all said. Em had been. In the high country, the winter of 2010-2011 didn't end until July, and all the Valley falls, which are entirely snow-fed, kept going through the entire year.  We consoled ourselves with another breakfast at the Yosemite Inn.

By this time my game leg was a bit gamer, stiff and bleeding again, so we split up. I took the bus back to the camp, thinking a dip in the river would be therapeutic. The remaining family units took off for El Cap Meadow to look for rock climbing activity (to which we'll return shortly). Em said she'd have a look at the wound when they came back.

Therapeutic was just the term for a very quick dip in the Merced, which was approaching winter temperature. It did some good for the stiff muscles, and I went back to the camp to rest and repair my broken pants with tent tape. When the troops returned, Em had a look at the injury, which had become somewhat infected: no surprise considering the dust. She washed it, applied more antibiotic, and bandaged it.

Between the treatment and the freezing river, I felt ready for anything. Up to this point, we had all resorted to the usual hiker's shower: you walk in in whatever you've been wearing, and carrying a change of clothes. Then, shower and hand wash the clothes simultaneously, and change into clean stuff. All our gear is quick-dry, especially so in the Valley's dry heat; but all of it was somewhat short of clean. This was bothering Christine, who decided  to stay in camp and  run an actual load of laundry. She also remained stiff from yesterday's fall. Em and I launched ourselves up CA41 to set about finding the Old Wawona Road.

Driver Sam's story, confirmed elsewhere, was that improvements to the Wawona Road (CA41) in the early 1930s had left this stretch of the old road abandoned in the woods. He claimed that one could find remains of Model Ts etc. that had gone off the road still rusting away beside it. There was also the assertion of a number of photographers that Ansel Adams could not have taken his signature views of Yosemite Valley from today's Tunnel View. He had to have been somewhere else, and that somewhere was along the old road. There's all that, and the appeal of exploring an unofficial trail that few visitors know about.

It's 2.6-ish miles from the Tunnel View trailhead to Inspiration Point, the first well-known viewpoint going eastbound on the Pohono Trail. The Pohono crosses the Old Wawona Road about halfway up, with very little fanfare.

Nobody even pretends that this stretch of the Pohono is flat, or easy, or moderate. It is difficult. The measured climb all the way to Inspiration Point is over 2000 feet in those 2.6-ish miles. Bostonians might imagine the stairs up from the Red Line's Porter Square Station (some 200 steps) going on for over a mile and a quarter. It's tight switchbacks all the way, and it has something most Yosemite trails don't have: a lot of ledge and large boulders. Eastern climbers should feel right at home here, with climbs that come very close to scrambling.

Because we didn't know exactly what we were looking for, we timed our climb carefully. Just when impatience was getting the better of us, there it was. One rusty sign gave the mileage to Bridalveil Falls, but there was nothing indicating that a trail existed. Having a choice between up or down, we tried down. Somewhere is the vicinity was a rumoured view called Artist Point. Whether that was on the Old Road or not, and whether it was uphill or down, were matters for conjecture.

This is not a maintained Yosemite trail. It is paved, but the paving is authentic. The Wawona Road was among the first paved roads in California. As a hiking trail, it's practically an avenue, but the idea of actually driving anything on it is a bit scary.

In this picture, to the left is nothing but a rocky drop-off. To the right is ledge. There were no rusty wrecks visible.

We went on for about a half-mile. The trees began to open up and, presently, we were pretty confident we had found Artist Point. It would be hard to imagine anything better. Well, there's Inspiration Point, but everybody does that.

There were recent footprints showing that we weren't the first recent visitors. The attraction was obvious:

Here, the road looked even scarier, taken as a road. The real estate around Artist Point resembles that in a period photograph of a stagecoach descending into Yosemite by the Wawona Road.


Those were the days when tourists had hair on their chests and probably lost ten pounds through sheer fear on the descent.

It was tempting to explore more of the road, either down to Bridalveil or up to where it peters out near the southern end of the Wawona Tunnel. But time pressed again. We had tickets for an evening presentation,  Yosemite Search and Rescue, and were working against a culinary obstacle.

Soon after we arrived, Em discovered a serious equipment malfunction. She hadn't packed the tube that connects the propane tank to the two-burner stove. She thought, and realised it wasn't even in Berkeley, but probably still stored in Bakersfield. After three unsuccessful attempts to get a replacement, we accepted that our cooking would be done on a one-burner backpacking stove and the open fire. This wasn't impossible, but required both time and planning to get a proper bed of coals to supplement the noble efforts of the backpacker stove. If we meant to eat before the presentation, it was time to head back.

After years in an organisation devoted to boating safety, I love it when safety shows like this begin with "how not to do it" clips. The most dangerous element in Yosemite is water, so it was natural that the opening clips began with people in danger in white water. We saw video of three incidents, one fatal.

The presenter, John Dill, an experienced SAR person with NPS, introduced basic rescue techniques, then moved to the most sophisticated rescues, those involving rock climbers. These make the media noise and get lots of attention, but it became clear that they are often enhanced by the skill of those being rescued. Most, though not all,  high-altitude Yosemite rock climbers have national or international skill levels. They know what they do is extremely dangerous. The best of them are active participants in their rescue so far as their situation permits. On one extreme is a party stranded by broken equipment, who need only fresh gear to get themselves off the mountain. On the other would be one example he presented, of an international climber who sustained multiple fractures, including a skull fracture, in a fall halfway up El Capitan. One audience member asked why NPS doesn't regulate rock climbers. The answer is much the same as everywhere in wild country. Doing so creates a subtle shift in liability. The park does require permits to climb Half Dome, expressly to limit traffic over the scary "cables" section. How they do that and stay on the safe side of the liability question I don't know. In any case, the example at hand showed that bad things can happen to the best-prepared people.

People who climb El Capitan don't make the trip in one day, as we knew. They spend their nights hanging in cocoon-like shelters that are (hopefully) well-secured to the cliff face. The video and slides showed us why we'd never seen climbers with the naked eye on El Cap. The eye doesn't comprehend the scale of so enormous a piece of granite. One needs powerful binoculars just to detect motion. To see in detail demands a 20x or greater telescope on a tripod. If you're well-equipped for amateur astronomy, you can probably see climbers on El Capitan.

Back to our injured climber. Members of the party had gotten pictures of what was going on at the injury scene, included in the show. The injured climber bled through the night. Em said it was a wonder the man hadn't simply bled out and died during the course of a rescue effort that lasted over 24 hours. He did survive and recover, airlifted off by a chopper hovering only feet from the face of El Cap. Other, less prepared and less skilful parties have not been so lucky.

SAR efforts in the National Parks are at taxpayer expense. By contrast some states, New Hampshire for example, can and do fine or bill hikers in need of rescue who are found to have been reckless or negligent. However, the National Parks' free ride ends at the door of the ambulance, medflight helicopter or even the Valley clinic. It is about 70 miles to the nearest acute care facility from Yosemite Valley, and your medflight helicopter ride, Dill said, currently costs around $50,000. Better be sure of your health insurance before trying your climbing skills.

Of course, Em and I were fascinated by the rescues and clinical details. Christine may have closed her eyes for the nastier parts, since she doesn't do well with the sight of blood, and there was plenty.

We hopped the bus back to Housekeeping Camp, remembering our former bear adventure. Considering the crowd on the bus (packed, young and rowdy), I think we would have done better with the bears.

Linux subsidio est.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home