Tenaya Canyon YVF

Sat, Oct 19, 2002

With: Michael Golden
Monty Blankenship

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Sat, Sep 20, 2003


After a fairly adventurous outing the day before, we decided to choose something a bit less dangerous - an outing up Tenaya Creek. In other seasons this might be quite dangerous, but fall is the best time for this unusual adventure due to low water levels. The park service is kind enough to warn visitors away from this region, pointing out just how dangerous it is on the maps they hand out to all visitors at the entrance stations. Whether that keeps them away or draws them to it is unclear. I certainly fell into the later category, having first noted this warning on the map years ago, and slowly having my curiosity picqued as the years wore on. Finally it reached the top of the "todo" list in Yosemite Valley (and it's a fairly extensive list!), and we set out on this fine morning to see what it had to offer. Normally parties descend the canyon in one long day, punctuated by four rappels, that much we had beta on. But overnight parking was no longer allowed in Tuolumne Meadows, the stores were closed there, and the shuttle busses no longer running. So we decided for a climb up the canyon instead. It seemed unlikely we'd be able to complete the whole eight miles or so (one way), but it would be interesting to explore and see how far we could go.

The weather was gorgeous, though a bit cold in the morning. The previous day had seen considerable haze due to a controlled burn, but today the smoke had gone elsewhere and it was fairly clear. I don't quite recall what took us so long in the morning, but it was after 9:30a before we headed out from the stables parking lot on the valley's east end - a much later start than we usually get.

The first part of the hike follows some very tame trails on the way to Mirror Lake. There were a few others out and about on the trails, but not many, a typically small crowd for mid-fall. We hiked past Washington Column, Basket Dome and Half Dome, before leaving the maintained trail. A faint use trail continued on the south side of the creek, but this petered out after another 1/2 mile or so. We soon after came to the first of the interesting climbing sections found along the creek. Large boulders were scattered haphazardly upon each other in the middle of the creekbed, the trickle of water snaking its way through the jumble of rock, creating beautiful cascades a few waterfall, pools of clear, cold water found in various locales. We climbed around, over, and sometimes under the rocks as we followed the watercourse upwards.

As we passed Watkins Pinnacles on our left, the canyon opened to a relatively flat section about 3/4 mile long. We took a break in the beginning of this section, now about two hours into our hike. Continuing on, we were now hiking over a complex landscape of boulders in all sizes mixed with downed trees and a bit of bushwhacking through some forested sections. All in all pretty slow going for a less-interesting part of the canyon. Another hour later, by 12:30p, we caught our first glimpse of the Inner Gorge, reported to be the most interesting part of the entire canyon. We were not disappointed. Under the towering northwest flank of Clouds Rest, a mile high wall of granite slabs, we entered this narrowest part of Tenaya Canyon. It seemed as if the solid granite walls of Mt. Watkins to the northwest and Clouds Rest to the southeast met in a titanic clash here, the stream cutting a narrow gash as best it could through the hard rock. Avalanche and rockfall had brought boulders of all sizes into the canyon, some making for immense chockstones that were all but impossible to surmount. Fortunately there was always a way we could find to get around. At the major obstacles we found there were rappel bolts set in the solid rock above, designed to facilitate the work for those travelling down the canyon, not up.

The first obstacle we dubbed the "toilet bowl" because of the depression cut into a solid slab on the north side of the creek. The water flow was so low that we were able to climb around this first serious block by climbing up a short crack system, traversing across the toilet bowl, and then up just right of the cascade that came trickling down (class 3). This was the first rappel station, a set of two fine-looking bolts at the top. Another obstacle further up with an enormous chockstone blocking the channel was easily bypassed by a natural stone stairway on the left side, amidst a fern garden that thrived on the water trickling out of the cliffs here.

Further along we came to what was certainly a dead end. Another large chockstone with several like-sized companions stacked on top completely blocked the narrow canyon. Monty made a valiant effort to overcome this obstacle by trying to climb it from behind, but with little success. I had given up on that route as I watched Monty struggle with it, and went back a short ways to find a way up the north side. This I did, but it was steep and a bit uncomfortable on a steep series of small ledges. I called down to Michael and Monty when I was safely up, and they soon followed the same route (above was the second rappel station).

A third serious obstacle was soon encountered where a large pool was found going from wall to wall, chockstones blocking the upstream side of it. Michael had read of a necessary rappel into water, and correctly guessed this was it (the third rappel station). Michael decided to swim across the pool to the far side, his shoes and clothes removed and stored in his pack. The water was very cold, the rock on the far side steep, and neither Monty nor I wanted to repeat Michael's swim. We searched for an alternative and found one, a steep ascent and then descent around the pool on the left (south) side of the canyon, class 3+ climbing. After another minor obstacle was bypassed on some ledges to the left, we came at last to the obstacle that stopped us dead.

There were no chockstones blocking our way this time, just solid rock meeting solid rock, steep, overhanging rock on the left, sloped but unclimbably smooth rock on the right. The water cascaded down the only possible place we might have climbed here. It was now 2:20p, and we had to make a decision about going further. While the others took a break for lunch, I scouted alternatives, and found that a class 3 bypass was probably possible on the north side by climbing uphill a few hundred yards downstream from the obstacle and then traversing along some brush-covered ledges to the top of the obstacle (where we knew the fourth rappel station had to be). This would be a good deal of work, and the outcome wasn't exactly certain. I very much wanted to go on, but agreed with the others that it was more prudent to turn back at this point. Lost Valley, a hanging valley just above this obstacle was tantalizingly close as we could see some of the trees found there above in our view. At the upper end of Lost Valley we would find Pywiack Cascade, the last major obstacle through the canyon. We regretted not having started earlier in the day, but decided in the end to save it for a future adventure. I would love to be able to go back and climb the full route both up and down in a long day.

After a long break we began retracing our route back down the way we'd come. At the swimming hole, Michael opted to leave his clothes on this time and take the route that Monty and I had found. The descent was nearly as enjoyable as the ascent, and we paused often to take silly photographs along the way, as well as a few more serious ones to document the route. When we came to the last (what we called the first, but those descending will call the fourth, or last) belay station, Michael decided he'd like to rappel into the inviting pool below. He wasn't fooling me - that water was cold! But Michael sweats a good deal more than I do, and his desire to "freshen up" and remove the salty sweat more than compensated for any concern he may have had for cold water. Having carried a rope around all day unused, I actively encouraged Michael to follow his whimsy. Not missing an opportunity to capture this rare event on film, I photographed the first naked rappel that any of us had attempted or witnessed. I found it absolutely hysterical and could hardly stop laughing. With the black climbing harness the only stitch of clothing he wore, and me standing by with a camera to capture it from several angles, I swear if someone had dropped in unexpectedly they'd have sworn they stumbled upon some sort of gay bondage porn in the making.

Down he went, past the toilet bowl, and then a big plunge into the frigid waters. Michael wated no time in tossing the rope free and scrambling for the water's edge to get himself out of the water. It wasn't nearly as refreshing as he'd hoped, but he was fresh and clean. While Michael dried off in the sun Monty coiled the rope, and once the naked man was redressed, we were on our way again.

It was 6:15p when we passed by Mirror Lake and the NW Face of Half Dome. The sun hung low in the western sky, beautifully illuminating this side of Half Dome for which I took a series of pictures every five minutes as the lighting and viewing angle changes subtly. Half an hour and an easy stroll later we were back at the car, having taken less than four hours to retrace our route downstream. No doubt a second effort could be much faster since we'd be quite familiar with most of the route - but that would wait for another year perhaps.


Sierra Bonehead comments on 08/18/04:
I guess the next thing to try would be big wall naked free solo.
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