Monday, July 15, 2019

Climbing Yosemite's Eagle Peak and El Capitan by trail

On July 6, 2019 I left my Eagle Creek camp on the west bank of Yosemite Creek to gain the extraordinary views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra offered by Eagle Peak and the top of El Capitan.

My first stop was to rephotograph John Muir's journal sketch "Bog back of Three Brothers," which he drew on August 13, 1869. I scared up a cinnamon-furred small black bear on my approach to the bog. Balancing on a long-fallen bleached lodgepole pine, I made my photograph and found that the trees now blocked Muir's view of Mt. Hoffman from the bog. Green rein-orchids and shooting stars were in peak flower in the bog and I saw a striped coral root orchid in the forest.

On Eagle Peak, which is the highest of the Three Brothers, I gained what I think is the finest view of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra of the Clark and Cathedral Ranges.

Though I promised myself I'd be satisfied with the view from the summit of El Capitan, I found myself drifting further down the granite slope trying not to slip on the granite pebbles that covered the bedrock. Soon I was withing 15-feet of the 3000' vertical cliff and I decided the last few feet were not worth the candle. I think I was the last one to visit the clifftop that day from bottom or top.

Enjoy these photos of my adventure. Note: If you click a photo it enlarges and you can scroll through the images.

Eagle Meadows photo:

John Muir visited Eagle Peak at least twice. the first time was August 13, 1869 just after he made the sketch of Eagle Meadows-bog. The second time was on August 8, 1870 with Joseph LeConte, the U.C. Berkeley geologist who was leading the University Excursion Party through Yosemite and over to Mono Lake with Muir as guide. Here are Muir's words describing his 1869 solo climb up Eagle Peak:

I spent the afternoon in a grand ramble along the Yosemite walls. From the highest of the rocks called the Three Brothers, I enjoyed a magnificent view comprehending all the upper half of the floor of the valley and nearly all the rocks of the walls on both sides and at the head, with snowy peaks in the background. Saw also the Vernal and Nevada Falls, a truly glorious picture, --rocky strength and permanence combined with beauty of plants frail and fine and evanescent; water descending in thunder, and the same water gliding through meadows and groves in gentlest beauty. This standpoint is about eight thousand feet above the sea, or four thousand feet above the floor of the valley, and every tree, though looking small and feathery, stands in admirable clearness, and the shadows they cast are as distinct in outline as if seen at a distance of a few yards. They appeared even more so. No words will ever describe the exquisite beauty and charm of this mountain park--Nature's landscape garden at once tenderly beautiful and sublime. No wonder it draws nature-lovers from all over the world.
Glacial action even on this lofty summit is plainly displayed. Not only has all the lovely valley now smiling in sunshine been filled to the brim with ice, but it has been deeply overflowed.

Eagle Peak photos follow:

El Capitan photos follow:

Western Azalea

Brink of El Capitan photos follow:

Lightning-struck pine on El Capitan

Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of John Muir's 1869 perilous adventure at the Top of Yosemite Falls

I am writing this on July 15, 2019, the 150th anniversary of John Muir's July 15, 1869 dangerous solo climb out to view the "death song of Yosemite Creek". Ten days ago I perched on the opposite side of Yosemite Falls trying to figure out how Muir survived this death-defying feat.

I recall hearing in the 1970s that someone had died trying to follow Muir's harrowing cliff hanging attempt to look directly down the 1,430-foot final plunge of upper Yosemite Fall. I am not foolish enough to physically track Muir's escapade which he realized at the time was foolhardy and which gave him nightmares of falling into Yosemite Valley above a "glorious avalanche of water and rocks" for two nights afterwards.

If Muir had the advantage of today's bridge over Yosemite Creek, he could have gained a satisfying view of the fall's plunge from the easily-accessed rock promontories on the west side of the top of Yosemite Fall. Standing there safely behind today's iron railings, I read out loud Muir's description of this adventure that he penned in 1911 as Chapter 5: The Yosemite of his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. Then I studied the cliff and worked out how his words matched the topography and how I would go if I were him. I found a good match, the only route I could see that fits his description and seems possible for a lone climber in 1869 without ropes or technical climbing experience.

Not satisfied with the view offered behind the railings of the upper viewpoint, I climbed over the barrier and very carefully worked my way down another 20 feet to a rock that promised an equivalent view to that of Muir's on the opposite cliff.

In this photo essay I match Muir's words with my photographs to offer my interpretation of his route. I welcome your comments and ideas on this fascinating historical adventure of Mr. Muir's. My notations on his words are in [brackets].

Note: If you click on a photo it enlarges.

Muir wrote: 

"Following the ridge [on the west side of Indian Cañon] which made a gradual descent to the south, I came at length to the brow of that massive cliff [Yosemite Point] that stands between Indian Cañon and Yosemite Falls, and here the far-famed valley came suddenly into view throughout almost its whole extent. The noble walls--sculptured into endless variety of domes and gables, spires and battlements and plain mural precipices--all a-tremble with the thunder tones of the falling water. The level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden, --sunny meadows here and there, and groves of pine and oak; the river of Mercy sweeping in majesty through the midst of them and flashing back the sunbeams." 

Muir continues: 

"The great Tissiack, or Half-Dome, rising at the upper end of the valley to a height of nearly a mile, is nobly proportioned and life-like, the most impressive of all the rocks, holding the eye in devout admiration, calling it back again and again from falls or meadows, or even the mountains beyond, --marvelous cliffs, marvelous in sheer dizzy depth and sculpture, types of endurance. Thousands of years have they stood in the sky exposed to rain, snow, frost, earthquake and avalanche, yet they still wear the bloom of youth."

Muir follows the cliff edge westward: 

"I rambled along the valley rim to the westward; most of it is rounded off on the very brink, so that it is not easy to find places where one may look clear down the face of the wall to the bottom. When such places were found, and I had cautiously set my feet and drawn my body erect, I could not help fearing a little that the rock might split off and let me down, and what a down--more than three thousand feet. Still my limbs did not tremble, nor did I feel the least uncertainty as to the reliance to be placed on them. My only fear was that a flake of the granite, which in some places showed joints more or less open and running parallel with the face of the cliff, might give way. After withdrawing from such places, excited with the view I had got, I would say to myself, 'Now don't go out on the verge again.' But in the face of Yosemite scenery cautious remonstrance is vain; under its spell one's body seems to go where it likes with a will over which we seem to have scarce any control."

Top of the Lone Arrow

Muir describes his approach to the Upper Yosemite Fall:

"After a mile or so of this memorable cliff work I approached Yosemite Creek, admiring its easy, graceful, confident gestures as it comes bravely forward in its narrow channel, singing the last of its mountain songs on its way to its fate--a few rods more over the shining granite, then down half a mile in snowy foam to another world, to be lost in the Merced, where climate, vegetation, inhabitants, all are different. Emerging from its last gorge, it glides in wide lace-like rapids down a smooth incline into a pool where it seems to rest and compose its gray, agitated waters before taking the grand plunge, then slowly slipping over the lip of the pool basin, it descends another glossy slope with rapidly accelerated speed to the brink of the tremendous cliff, and with sublime, fateful confidence springs out free in the air."

Muir's "lace-like rapids and agitated pools"

Muir's "last glossy slope" before springing free

The black line in the following photo marks my interpretation of Muir's route to the verge of the Upper Yosemite Fall. Dropping down from the western end of the Yosemite Point cliff, Muir would have had no trouble descending to the ledge wide enough for the lone pine, which he found did not take him far enough to peer over the lip of the fall. 

"I took off my shoes and stockings and worked my way cautiously down alongside the rushing flood, keeping my feet and hands pressed firmly on the polished rock. The booming, roaring water, rushing past close to my head, was very exciting. I had expected that the sloping apron would terminate with the perpendicular wall of the valley, and that from the foot of it, where it is less steeply inclined, I should be able to lean far enough out to see the forms and behavior of the fall all the way down to the bottom. But I found that there was yet another small brow over which I could not see, and which appeared to be too steep for mortal feet."

This should have been the end of his quest but Muir continues his increasingly dangerous descent to the lip of Yosemite Fall seduced by the siren songs of the thundering waters: 

"Scanning it keenly, I discovered a narrow shelf about three inches wide on the very brink, just wide enough for a rest for one's heels" [As the photo shows, there is only one such horizontal micro-ledge and this runs from the second plunge pool to a viewpoint of the fall's leap]. 

"But there seemed to be no way of reaching it over so steep a brow. At length, after careful scrutiny of the surface, I found an irregular edge of a flake of the rock some distance back from the margin of the torrent [the only such flake on the cliff is found at the end of the first wider ledge and connects with Muir's 25'-30' section of the three-inch-wide ledge]. 

"If I was to get down to the brink at all that rough edge, which might offer slight finger holds, was the only way. But the slope beside it looked dangerously smooth and steep, and the swift roaring flood beneath, overhead, and beside me was very nerve-trying. I therefore concluded not to venture farther, but did nevertheless. Tufts of artemisia were growing in clefts of the rock near by, and I filled my mouth with the bitter leaves, hoping they might help to prevent giddiness. Then, with a caution not known in ordinary circumstances, I crept down safely to the little ledge, got my heels well planted on it, then shuffled in a horizontal direction twenty or thirty feet until close to the outplunging current, which, by the time it had descended thus far, was already white. Here I obtained a perfectly free view down into the heart of the snowy, chanting throng of comet-like streamers, into which the body of the fall soon separates."

The red line shows Muir's final bare heel-shuffling to get to his prized viewpoint.

My butt-scooching viewpoint on the west side of the fall's lip.
Muir concludes his tale:

"While perched on that narrow niche I was not distinctly conscious of danger. The tremendous grandeur of the fall in form and sound and motion, acting at close range, smothered the sense of fear, and in such places one's body takes keen care for safety on its own account. How long I remained down there, or how I returned, I can hardly tell."

"Anyhow I had a glorious time, and got back to camp about dark, enjoying triumphant exhilaration soon followed by dull weariness. Hereafter I'll try to keep from such extravagant, nerve-straining places. Yet such a day is well worth venturing for. My first view of the High Sierra, first view looking down into Yosemite, the death song of Yosemite Creek, and its flight over the vast cliff, each one of these is of itself enough for a great life-long landscape fortune--a most memorable day of days--enjoyment enough to kill if that were possible."

Having had a full and glorious day myself thinking about Muir and tracking his movements on that fateful day, I retired to my Eagle Creek solo camp and reflected upon how the fate of Yosemite National Park and the parks and environmental movement that Muir helped birth were all suspended on that three-inch ledge above the sublimity of the "death song of Yosemite Creek." I had my own thundering irised waters resounding in my soul to carry home.