North Dome 2x YVF
Washington Column YVF

Nov 2, 2002
North Dome
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
North Dome previously climbed Aug 20, 1988
North Dome later climbed Jun 17, 2013


Ah, rogue camping in Yosemite Valley. The place is really quite large and one might think it's pretty easy to find a hidden spot to curl up and sleep the night away without paying a dime. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people in Yosemite Valley, and more than a few rangers whose jobs it is to keep things civilized and law-abiding. Having spent Friday dayhiking to Mt. Clark and returning for a relaxing shower and pizza dinner, I was ready to call it a night by 9p. I decided to try to sack out at the Trailhead parking lot, a large dirt lot between Curry Village and Happy Isle. That's the lot used by backpackers for the John Muir Trail and nearby Wilderness destinations, so a car parked overnight would not in itself draw unwanted attention. My genius plan was to park my car, take my bedroll a ways into the woods, and sack out for the night. And it would have worked too in all probability, if I had used it. Instead I went with the alternative lazy-ass plan - park my car and sack out right next to it. I had done well to stash my food and cooler in the bear lockers conveniently provided in the lot. But then I got lazy. I parked my car on the far side, with the driver's side facing Glacier Point. On this same side, I used my flashlight to start setting out my ground cloth, pad, and sleeping bag. A few minutes after I had started this process, a pair of headlights turned off the road and headed into the parking lot. As a precaution I closed my trunk and ducked behind my car. A gentleman with a flashlight got out and began to inspect the row of seven or eight cars near the entrance. I recognized the hat - rangers! Great. Five minutes into illegal activities and I'm caught. The rangers closed empty bear boxes left open, checked inside cars, and made me start wondering how much my fine was going to be. I tried to stuff my bedroll under the car, but some of it still stuck out. How would that help me anyway? How do you explain to the ranger why you're sitting in the dark behind your car? I was soon to be discovered, and I had no plausible excuse I could think of. Play dead? Run? Tell them I'm broke (with my nice, two year-old convertible next to me)? I resigned myself to the inevitable and simply lay down on the dirt as close to the car as possible. I tried to think of a humorous response that might get me out of a fine. After checking only a handful of the cars, the rangers got back in their car and drove in a wide arc, clockwise around the lot. Then they stopped on the other side of my car, not ten feet away. A ranger got out and shown his light through the passenger side of the car. Satisfied, he got back in and they drove away. What? That easy? Hah! I suspected they were simply looking for folks sleeping in their cars, not outside (later I found that these guys were Animal Control, whose job it is to keep bears from getting habituated. All they were looking for was food left inside cars, not people). Feeling like I'd just been granted a reprieve, you'd expect that I'd go back to the genius plan and hike into the woods, if only a short distance to get out of headlight range. Instead, I went from dread to smug in about ten seconds, thinking I was pretty sharp for these guys. Now that they'd swept the lot, I'd be safe to sleep until morning. So I went back setting up my bed and went to sleep.

A second set of headlights came driving in at 10p, not an hour after the first visit. Watching from my sleeping bag, looking under my car, I saw the occupants get out and examine a few cars. Rangers again! Dang. They did a similar sweep as the first rangers, though they checked on more cars, before doing the wide sweeping arc around the parking lot. This time the arc extended wide enough that my sleeping bag was caught in one of the headlamps, and they stopped their car about 20 feet in front of mine, lights blazing. For effect they turned on the rotating colored ones on top in case I might have thought they were just another annoying park visitor. I sat up, back to the officers, and slowly rubbed my eyes. There was only a single ranger it turned out, and he greeted me with "Ranger!" "Good evening," I whimpered back, attempting to seem very put out by this disruption. "Where you sleeping tonight?" he asked as he approached with a flashlight aimed at my head. "Apparently not here," was the best I could come up with, thinking it the appropriate response. After this our conversation went much better, and I was relieved to find that I was simply being booted and not fined. The ranger was actually quite helpful and suggested I could drive to Upper Pines campground where they still had available sites. So I wrestled my bedroll into my car (I could barely see out to drive), thanked the ranger, and drove out. Following his advice, I found several empty campsites, a nice restful place to crash, and still didn't have to pay a dime. Now I only had to worry about the bears waking me up, and I slept well knowing there were several Animal Control patrols out on the job to see that bears were properly deterred.

I was up at 6:30a, ready to head out at 7:30a (campground host comes on-duty at 8a). I moved my car back to the Trailhead parking lot, and set out towards Happy Isle. I was supposed to meet Dave at 5p this evening, so I couldn't do a marathon trek like Mt. Clark the day before. Instead I chose to climb North Dome Gully, a climbers' descent route used for technical climbs of Washington Column and North Dome. A few weeks earlier I had done trips up Tenaya Canyon and The Slabs on Half Dome, both of which start off by going past the North Dome Gully route. I talked with Michael and Monty about it, and found that it is rated class 3-4. That sounded like a fine adventure rating, and with a short approach it seemed easy enough to pull off before 5p. I cut through the Upper Pines campground, heading straight for Washington Column which towers noticeably to the northeast. My short wanderings led me across the Merced River (now just a trickle of its former self), across some gently rolling slopes, and across Tenaya Bridge to the Valley Loop Trail on the north rim of the valley. I headed east towards Mirror Lake, intently observing the trailside for ducks or other signs of a junction with a climbers' trail. I went almost half a mile, past the North Dome Gully I could see above, but found no indications. Just huge, lichen-covered boulders lining the north side of the trail. I briefly considered plunging headlong into the undergrowth and over the massive boulders, but recalled our slight bit of misadventure on The Slabs route when we failed to find the start of the climbers' trail and got lost for four or five hours. It then occurred to me that I might have to first reach the base for the climbs of Washington Column before finding my way to North Dome Gully. Climbers might have worn a path from the bottom of North Dome Gully back to their starting point on Washington Column in order to retrieve gear they may have left there. I turned around and retraced my steps, heading west on the Loop trail towards the Ahwanee.

About a quarter mile west of Tenaya Bridge, I came across a duck topped by a stick on the right side of the trail. It seemed to be the shortest distance to Washington Column and I surmised it was the climbers' trail I was looking for. A short way into the woods over a well-beaten path brought me to an NPS sign that was clearly geared towards the climbers (encouraging good behavior) and made me certain I was on the right path. I followed this up, losing the trail when it followed up several boulder fields. Sometimes there were ducks, other times not, but I trusted that if I stayed close to where the south wall of Washington Column came down to meet the forested talus field below, I'd be ok. Ten minutes in I heard a few voices off to my left, climbers getting ready to tackle The Prow. A short ways further up I heard the the soft bellowing of rap music from a ghetto blaster coming from the forested area a short way below me on the right. Rising smoke gave away the location of a hidden camp more precisely, but I never heard voices nor ventured over to check it out. It was 8:50a when I topped out on the talus field and peered over to the North Dome Gully route a short distance to the east, Half Dome prominently displayed behind it. A little downclimbing and I was onto the route proper. I could see an alternate route heading straight down (and avoiding the slight detour I took to get there), but where it actually came out was anybody's guess.

The lower part of the route is over sandy ledges and is well-marked by hundreds of boot prints. Several trails split and rejoin at various spots as I climbed up and diagonally right. One side trail (I mistook for the main one) traversed horizontally to the right until I came to a tree with rappel slings on it. Evidently some folks get tired of the downclimb and choose to rappel, but I doubt it's any faster really. I heard voices to the west and was just able to make out a climber or two on the lower portion of Astroman. They looked truly ant-sized compared to the great height of the wall, and from my vantage it looked like they were climbing up smooth granite walls (though I can't say I saw either figure actually climbing in the few minutes I watched them). I continued climbing up, favoring left branches where it forked, and followed over some nice slabs and use trails up into the obvious gully (obvious once I was in it, anyway) for which the route was named. A steep rock wall lined the east side of the gully which was filled with boulders, sand, and other loose debris. I stopped to take a few pictures of Glacier Point and the Valley behind me, and soon found I was actually higher than the top of Washington Column. Between myself and Washington Column were some steep slabs and cliffs known as the Death Slabs, presumeably having taken a life or two from climber's letting down their guard during the descent. Or maybe it's just a name designed to make climbers think twice before going down them. It seems one has to climb several hundred feet higher than the top of Washington Column before being able to traverse left and southwest along the tops of the Death Slabs. I cut left earlier than I should have, partly to add a bit to the challenge, but also because I was a little over-eager and worried I might climb too high and miss the traverse.

As I fought my way through some nasty undergrowth and over some steep slopes covered in pine needles, I shortly came to some ducks offering evidence of prior travel. It seems there are several trails that split and rejoin along the traverse as well, and resigned to that I had no further trouble ambling along. How these guys do this with 70-100lb haul bags on their backs is another story. And in the dark it would seem to make for a truly horrendous experience. I made my way to the saddle between Washington Column and North Dome, and then headed south out to the top of the column itself, arriving around 10:30a. There were no other persons around, though there was ample evidence of topside bivouacs, fire rings, and even some freshly cut pine boughs for bedding. I admired the views from there a short while, took some pictures (Tenaya Canyon, the Valley below, Glacier Point, and west) and then turned my attention to North Dome. I could see at least one climber on the Crested Jewel route found on the north face, but my route should be considerably easier. It seemed a simple matter of contouring around the south and west sides of the granite dome under forest cover. Actually doing so turned out to be harder than it looked.

The first part of this section was characterized by huge boulders toppled onto each other with pine trees growing between the boulders where they could. This made for a strange combination of bouldering and bushwhacking to get through the branches draped over the tops of the boulders. Tiring of this, I cheated closer to North Dome itself where I soon found myself on some low angle granite faces. At first this was easy and I walked up a wide crack to a rounded ridgeline, only to find the other side a decidedly more difficult prospect. I then climbed upward toward the start of the Crested Jewel route, thinking I ought to find a nice climbers' trail there to avail myself of. Problem was, the slopes grew steeper and steeper until I was doing class 4 friction climbing in my boots and just barely tolerating the slope and increasing exposure. Fortunately a small chute led me off the north side of this face and I was soon on steep and sandy slopes that weren't any more fun, but at least less hazardous. I continued climbing up and around the west side of North Dome, from time to time finding a good series of ducks that allowed me to make decent progress through the thick manzanita found here. Losing the trail, I would quickly find how difficult a virgin bushwhack could be, and my progress would slow to a snail's pace. Eventually I managed to get myself around to the north side of the dome where I connected with the North Dome Trail that I took to the summit. It was noon now, having taken almost four hours for the ascent. Maybe this wasn't any faster than the trail, but it certainly had been more adventuresome. I had the summit all to myself which I used to hike around the top a bit and take in the fine views to be had in all directions. Mt. Starr King could just be seen poking up to the south above the Merced Canyon, and to the southeast the NW Face of Half Dome dominates the view.

I continued back on the trail heading towards Yosemite Falls with the plan of descending Indian Canyon a few miles west of North Dome. I had ascended this canyon once before some years ago and found it a very exciting class 3 scramble up a dry creekbed that tumbles steeply down into Yosemite Valley near Ahwanee Meadow. While on the trail still, I crossed Lehamite Creek and was surprised to find water there. I hadn't been expecting to find water all day, and so had been conserving my quart and a half that I had carried with me. I took the opportunity to drink greedily and refill my water bottles. Over the next ridge was the Indian Creek drainage, and I left the trail heading downstream.

The creekbed is fairly level until one gets close to the Valley rim, and then the drop-off is quite dramatic. Surprisingly, water was flowing here as well, though not much, and certainly not enough to be a hindrance during the descent. In fact the water added to the delights of the climbing and I was enjoying myself a great deal. I noticed ice formations in some of the pools that had not melted with the day - evidence of the waning power of the sun as it hung low on the horizon in November. The descent was easier than I had remembered the ascent, partially because I was more proficient on such terrain, but mostly because I could jump and slide down features that were a bit tougher to get back up. As much as possible I stayed directly in the streambed, avoiding having to bushwhack almost entirely. In a few places where I was greeted by a waterfall or other impediment, it was easy enough to find a way around to one side or the other.

A third of the way down the canyon I noticed some cables bolted to the east cliffside, near its base. I went over to investigate and found a half inch, steel stranded cable about 50 yards long attached to the rock wall in three or four places. At the lower end I found a heavy chain link tied to one of the anchors, the other side tied around a much heavier two-inch cable that lay half buried in the ground. It seems the thinner cable is used to anchor the much heavier one, perhaps to keep it from shifting its position along the easternmost side of the canyon. Possibly a power or phone cable? I was surprised to see such a thing in this steep canyon, and marvelled at the effort it must have taken to carry out such a large engineering project in such terrain. Whether it had been there 30 years or seven was impossible to tell, as it looked like the cable might be perfectly functional still, even if the outer thin sheathing was worn.

Further down, I was clambering over some mostly dry rocks that seemed to have water spray over the tops of them. Only there was no waterfall nearby and I couldn't figure out where the water might have come from. It almost looked like someone was carrying a leaking jug of water a short distance in front of me. I stopped to investigate this puzzling item. Certainly the water couldn't have been there very long or it would have evaporated. Maybe it was oil I thought, but it had no distinguishing smell, and it evaporated off my fingertips readily enough. It wasn't urine, and it definitely seemed to be water. I followed the water-covered rocks down further before hearing noises in the bushes that stopped me suddenly.

Through the trees on the west side of the creek were two juvenile bears play-wrestling each other not 50 feet from me - and I hadn't been spotted. I watched them play for a minute as I got my camera out to get a shot. What luck, I thought, after my last two bear sightings went unrecorded, unable to get the digital camera started up before they ran off. This time I had the camera ready as I moved to get a better position from where to take a picture. My luck unchanged, they spotted me as soon as I moved and tore off into the brush. My photo of the bears running away is indistinguishable from a rock, or big foot for that matter. Dang. At least it explained the water on the tops of the rocks. I headed down (not wanting mama to come after me for spooking her offspring) and noted that the water disappeared altogether, having gone underground at this point. It never did reappear the rest of the way to the Valley floor. It seems the bears climbed up this canyon to where they could access water, and probably climbed back down to the bottom under cover of night to wreak mischief and mayhem as bears are wont.

I continued down the canyon, now dry, in place of water a carpet of oak leaves painted the creekbed a variety of fall colors in shades of yellow, red, and brown. Further down the annoying flies I remember from my last hike here found me, buzzing about my head. Don't the freezing temperatures at night kill these things? It was just after 3p when I sighted a bridge across the streambed, indicating I'd reached the Valley Loop Trail and civilization again. Heading back towards Curry Village, I walked through Ahwanee Meadow on a newly built trail along its western border. Some nice homes here, probably of the more important residences in the Valley, were graced with a spectacular view of Half Dome across the meadow in addition to the satellite antennae found in every yard. These were not the accomodations of your regular minimum wage yosemite employees, to be sure. On my leisurely walk back I took a few pictures of some of the Valley features I had just visited including North Dome and Washington Column, and one faraway view of Lost Arrow Spire which I am eager to visit someday in the future. Total hiking time was 8hrs, total distance not more than 10 miles - but high quality miles to be sure!


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