Yosemite Falls

Fri, Feb 7, 2003
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Sat, Feb 26, 2000

I left San Jose around 5a Friday morning, without much idea where I would hike today, other than somewhere in Yosemite Valley. Bigger plans had been made for Saturday, and this was just a play-around sort of day. It was unseasonably warm in most of California, and the snow and water levels were well below normal. As I zipped across the Bay Area and the Central Valley, I stopped only twice - once to buy gas, and a second time to photograph a majestic oak tree along SR120 in the foothills of the Sierra. Half the tree had succumbed to the force of gravity, a sign of old age among these stalwarts of the hills. It was just before sunrise and the scene struck me as as rather serene - death among trees is much less tramatic than that for animals.

The sun came up shortly after, and before I had reached Yosemite Valley I had decided on a visit to the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. I had visited it once in the past during the winter, and found the ice cone at the bottom both fascinating and highly adventurous. This time I would attempt to reach it from a different route, coming from the right side up a cross-country route I had yet to discover. I've been making a patchwork exploration of the Valley walls, looking for interesting cross-country scramble routes to the Valley's rim. It seemed prudent in winter to leave the cold & icy south walls for a warmer season. Yosemite Falls is located on the north side of the Valley and so would have sun on the walls most of the day. This turned out to be the case - there was no snow found anywhere on this side, other than near the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. And the temperatures were in the upper 60's, sunshine all day - in other words, just about perfect.

I started my exploration from the parking lot near Lower Yosemite Falls at 9a, heading to the viewing area at the end of the short trail, then east along the Valley Loop Trail. The area immediately right of the falls is basically cliffs I found, with no scrambling route up. Later I found that this is a climbing area called Sunnyside Bench. I hiked along the walls, climbing up ten to twenty feet where I could, but generally backing down as I found myself on fifth class terrain. After backing down I headed east, systematically exploring the cliffs along here.

After about 30 minutes of this, I found a route that took me several hundred feet up, and looked quite promising. But it ended in more fifth class. In retreating I found myself at the saddle between a detached pinnacle and the main cliffs, the pinnacle rising about 15 feet above the saddle and maybe 200 feet above the valley floor. I found a short class 3 route up the pinnacle and found an unexpected surprise. A small campsite was found atop, with a sandy floor that could sleep two cozily, a small rusted grill, and a heavy trail sign weighing maybe 20 pounds that someone had hauled up here. It was an exquisite little bivy site, commanding a swell view of the Ahwahnee and the surrounding forest and meadows, well hidden from view below. There was no telling how long ago it was last used or how often it might be visited. But for a short haul off the road, it offers a nice last-minute camping arrangement.

Climbing back down, I continued along the cliffs to the east until I was at last able to scramble up talus three hundred feet. At the top of this I moved left into some trees and shrubs where I found a pile of rocks. By now I was a quarter mile east of the falls and quite far away. But I had stumbled upon the climbers' route used to access climbs on Upper Yosemite Falls and Lost Arrow Spire. By comparison to the leaves and other debris I had been scrambling around on, this was a fairly deluxe use trail. It follows nearly level along a ledge running horizontally all the way to the falls. This wide ledge is called Sunnyside Bench (and for which the climbs below it are named), and meanders through little meadows and trees, and is really just a delightful little walk.

I followed the bench all the way to the top of Lower Yosemite Falls where it ends. From here I could look down on the small crowd gathered at the viewing area below. If anyone had seen me, they must have thought my presence there rather odd. Going east about 20 yards from the falls I found a class 3 route up a series of cracks (that could be bypassed by class 3 slab climbing) that took me higher. I found many ducks now marking the route, but they were hardly necessary as the way was pretty obvious and one could take several routes up or down. I climbed up to the base of Lost Arrow Spire, where I could see the beginning of the route up the chimney located on the west side of the spire. Moving a bit east, I climbed the remaining talus and grass-covered rocks as high as I could go (another 40 vertical feet or so) before running out of scramble. I could safely go no higher. I found a number of slings along the base of the cliffs here, some crushed and slowly disintegrating 2-liter water bottles used on multi-day climbs, and even a pair of wooden wedges made from 2x4s that I took back in my knapsack as a souvenier.

Climbing back down towards the falls, I first stopped at the cliffs immediately to the right of the falls, just above the top of Lower Yosemite Falls. It was quite a view looking down at the water crashing onto the rock and ice below. At the bottom, the falls rained down on the ice cone at the bottom, an amorphous blob of snowy white from this viewpoint. Retreating, I found an easy way down to the base of the upper falls. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't approach as closely as I'd been able to from the Yosemite Falls Trail on a previous visit. The water from the falls runs close to the rock on the right side here making a safe crossing impossible, and an unsafe one almost suicidal. I climbed up to where the spray made me uncomfortably cool, donned my mittens and jacket, and approached a bit closer. The spray had formed ice on one side of the boulders here, and a thin layer of ice/snow covered much of the talus here. I watched the water falling over a thousand feet in freefall from high above for some time. I was mesmerized by the patterns the water would make as the wind would push the falls to one side and then to the other, the water running off in many different channels depending on where the breeze pushed it. Most of the ice from the previous night had fallen off the face, but large patches of ice piled up on the few ledges found on the face. Despite the beating they took from the water they didn't seem to melt a bit - the water was evidently close to freezing.

In late summer it should be easy to navigate across the creek from one side of the falls to the other, and a looping route up the Yosemite Falls Trail and down Sunnyside Bench would make a very nice hike for some future date. Then I could spend more time exploring the interesting gorge dug by the creek between the bottom of the upper falls and the top of the lower falls. I retreated back down the way I'd come up, returning to my car around 3:30p.


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