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previously climbed Fri, Jun 23, 2000|
The first day of November was a splendid one in Yosemite. The temperatures were cool, but not cold, water levels were very low as the seasonal snow and rain had not yet started beyond a few flurries. There were no mosquitoes, and practically no insects of any kind still buzzing about at this time of year. And hardly a cloud in the sky.
I left San Jose at 2:30a Friday morning, literally zipping across the state with essentially zero traffic to contend with. I found myself in Yosemite Valley three and half hours later, and at 6:15a I set out from the hikers' parking lot located between Curry Village and Happy Isle. I had hoped to actually start earlier since I lost some daylight hiking time (and would use up all that was left), but couldn't bear to drag my butt out of bed any earlier than 2a.
I had the trail to myself (in fact I saw no one on the trail all day), not unexpected for an early morning start during the slow season. An hour later I was at the top of the Mist Trail and Vernal Falls. I walked out past the railing to check out the incredibly low flow of water that barely made it over the edge. Nevada Falls was similarly weak as I continued up the trail, arriving at the top there at 8:15a. Up until this time I was hiking in the shade, but the sun made an appearance now to begin warming the day. As I strolled through Little Yosemite Valley, I found the place deserted and things were slowly getting hazy. Beyond the backcountry campground there were controlled burns going on as indicated by some warning signs. The signs didn't say to stay away, just urging one not to report fires to the authorities. As I continued on the trail I found the air growing thicker with smoke until I began to wonder if I wasn't walking into someplace I shouldn't be. I was somewhat surprised to see logs burning away, all the underbrush already cinders, just the large fallen trunks burning after who knows how many hours or days. The ground off the trail was four to six inches deep in ash, and walking around was a bit unnerving. Would I step on a buried ember or sink into a hole? Fortunately the places that still burned gave off tell-tale plumes of smoke that rose from the ground and the detritus that had not yet been spent. It occurred to me that should the rangers come back during the day to continue burning areas further up the trail, I could find myself cutoff upon returning. How would they know if anybody was on the trail upstream? Certainly this isn't the time of year one would expect to find anyone beyond Little Yosemite Valley. This had me a bit uneasy until I returned, but there were no indications that additional areas were burned in my absence.
About the time that I thought I might have to turn back because the smoke was too thick (wouldn't that be swell to pass out from smoke inhalation?), the air grew progressively better as I found myself walking out of the burn area. Soon I was in fresh air again and the difference was almost night and day - from the dreary, smoke and ash-filled forest to the blue skies of a new day. I had never hiked the trail towards Merced Lake beyond Little Yosemite Valley, and I found it a delightful walk. Granite domes and cliffs rise up on both sides of the valley, and the forest opens appreciably for fine views. Looking back I could see Mt. Starr King rising up beyond the valley. Nearby, the aspens wore golden fall leaves that shimmered in the sunlight, and beneath them other flora added shades of red to the display.
I followed the trail up the Merced River as it made it's way in a large arc around Bunnell Point, a prominent granite dome on the south side. Following Warren's directions, I crossed Twin Bridges to the south side of the river and continued on the trail as it climbed uphill now, above the south bank of the river. Where it flattened and began to descend again, I left the trail heading nearly due south. It was now 9:45a. I had climbed 3,000ft in the last 3 1/2 hours, but now the more serious climbing would begin in earnest as I made my way up 1,000ft of steep hillside to get out of the main canyon, then another 3,500ft to the summit. A total of 4,500ft of cross-country climbing in about four miles. At first the climbing was easy on wide-open granite slabs, but these ended in less than 200yds, then I was into the forest, and shortly thereafter I was bushwhacking on some of the toughest terrain I've seen yet. There simply weren't enough trees on the steep hillside to shade out the underbrush, and there seems to be enough water dribbling down from above for most of the year to keep the central area of this hillside heavy in brush. Trying to climb up through this mess was slow and frustrating as all the branches seemed to be pointing down at me like daggers, doing their best to hinder progress (in fact the branches were decidedly fixed against upward progress - snow, gravity, and avalanches were the likely conspirators in encouraging the bushes to have their branches grow preferentially in the downward-sloping direction). Only a short while earlier I had ambitiously thought I could make it to the summit in six hours as I was making such fine progress. Now it seemed it would take me six hours through the brush.
It wasn't six hours fortunately, but I did waste a good hour thrashing about in that stuff before the slope grew gentler, the forest thicker, and the brush began to abate. At about the 8,400ft level, the travel in the understory became more manageable to allow decent progress, and the only obstacles now were downed trees (and there were plenty). As I climbed out of the canyon the views improved, and I could see well to the northeast to all the peaks in the Bud Creek drainage near Tuolumne Meadows. Half Dome was also visible to the northwest, but I could see a haze of smoke starting to move in from the west. About two miles from the trail and around 9,000ft, I caught my first view of Mt. Clark off to the south another two miles yet. It looked deceiving close, but was still several hours away. The view was lost again as I neared, now blocked by the ridge in front of me.
At this point, I wasn't sure which was the easiest or fastest way to reach Mt. Clark as I had no better instructions than "head south." In hindsight I believe it may have been faster to head around the east side of the small lake here and climb up the valley east of the NW Ridge. But not knowing any better, from the topo map I had it seemed most convenient to simply follow the long ridge up from its starting point, nearly two miles from the summit. It probably wasn't the best choice. The northern most part of the ridge was nice, easy walking under a thinning forest cover. But around the 10,000ft elevation mark, the ridge grew thin to a rocky edge (where I got a second view of Mt. Clark) and I found myself traversing across acres of boulders on the west side of the ridge. The ridge itself was too rocky and had too many ups and downs to follow directly, and the east side is pretty much one long, continuous cliff. I carried on, and eventually the towering West Face came into view a third time, now larger and more impressive. The NW Arete looks impossibly steep from this vantage point, but from previous experience I knew it to be mostly class 3. As I climbed higher I could see over the ridge north of Quartzite Peak off to the east, and could now see all of the Cathedral Range as far south as Mt. Lyell. It was 12:45p when I reached the start of the NW Arete, with a final 1,000ft of climbing to the summit. The snow that is usually present on the West Face, just right of the NW Arete was completely gone, and it drew my interest to see if I could climb up the West Face to the summit rather than follow my previous route up the arete. The lower half of the face is loose sand and shrubby, but the rock grows progressively better the higher one climbs. I found myself on class 4 and then easy class 5 terrain, with my options becoming more limited. But I continued to find a way up with good holds despite the exposure until I was within about 150 feet of the summit. Then it looked to get more technical yet and I was happy to find an exit left onto the NW Arete. I climbed the final distance in a few minutes, and by 1:15p I was on the summit. It had taken 7 hours to reach the summit - not bad time, but not record-breaking either. I was mostly just glad not to be climbing up any more.
A fair amount of haze obscurred what are normally very fine views from the summit. I could not see beyond the mountains on Yosemite's southern and eastern boundries, and could barely make out Half Dome to the northwest, though it was only about seven miles distance. There were several other controlled burns in the park besides the one I had passed through earlier, and the combination made for hazy skies all around. I found the register and added my name to it, which has to be the last entry for 2002 (a week later the first big winter storm hit). I had a snack of two granola bars, the only food I had brought with me on the hike. Then it was time to head back.
Going back, I chose to follow the NW Arete down as the safest route on this side. It is also the more scenic and fun, too. I had no trouble route-finding, and retraced the exact path I'd taken two and half years earlier. The few tricky moves I had recalled from that first climb seemed much easier this second go around. I again hiked along the long ridge its entire length. I knew that Warren had found a more direct route back to Nevada Falls and found that easier, but it looked to me to be a long series of rolling hills all covered in forest, and I was afraid I might get off-track and end up taking more time instead of less to return. I would leave that option for some future climb here. Maybe on Warren's birthday. Maybe a combination Starr King - Clark dayhike. Yeah, right. I was getting delusional which suggested I was plain tired.
I followed mostly the route I had taken up, veering more west in an effort to avoid the horrendous bush-whacking I'd found on the way up. I passed near point 8,554ft on the topo, about a mile southeast of Bunnell Point. The terrain here was a bit steeper, but still class 2, and there was probably only about 50 yards worth of bushes that I had to fight my way through. Definitely a better choice than the more easterly tack I had taken going up. It was just after 4p when I returned to the trail, the cross-country part complete. Now a long walk back. Half an hour later the sun faded behind the canyon walls and the air grew chillier in the absence of its warming rays. I refilled my water bottle in what remained of the mighty Merced River, the Bunnell Cascade now reduced to a shadow of its normal flow. I passed through Lost Valley and then Little Yosemite. A father and his pre-teen son were setting up camp, having the whole place to themselves. I passed by without their noticing me. At various times I tried jogging a bit, but I was simply too tired to keep it up for more than a few minutes. It was much easier just walking along.
Below Nevada Falls it grew too dark in the forest to see clearly, and I stopped to pull out my headlamp. The air grew chillier and I stopped to put on my jacket for warmth. It was 6:45p when I returned to Happy Isle, and a few minutes later found my way back to my car. Twelve and a half hours roundtrip. Not quite the twelve hours of Warren's early days, but this was my first try, too. It had been an enjoyable day all around. Shower and dinner were the last two things I had to occupy my thoughts before I was ready to head off to bed that night. I would sleep quite well...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Clark
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