Tenaya Canyon 2x YVF
Mt. Watkins YVF

Sat, Sep 20, 2003

With: Matthew Holliman
Sam Mills
Daniel Pylot

Tenaya Canyon
Mt. Watkins
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Tenaya Canyon previously climbed Sat, Oct 19, 2002


We were up before dawn in our Curry Village tent cabin, eating a quick breakfast and packing off to the car. Sam, Matthew, and I drove to the stables parking lot where we were to meet two other hikers before our 6a start. Daniel drove up about 10 minutes before 6a, but the other hiker never materialized. Or if he did it was after 6a, as I'm never one to wait around past start times.

My previous hike up Tenaya Canyon had started too late in the morning and progressed too slowly to make our way to the top of the route and back. We had been stopped near the top of the Inner Gorge before running out of time to continue. We would have to move quickly today if we were going to make the route through all the difficult sections and return before dark. We carried no rope or other climbing gear - with careful route-finding we didn't expect anything more than class 3. I had climbed with Matthew and Sam before and knew they had the stamina to make the long day. Daniel was an unknown, but as it turned out he had as much skill on the rock and as much stamina as the rest of us.

From Happy Isle we followed the trail to Mirror Lake on the south side of Tenaya Creek. We followed this past the impressive NW Face of Half Dome to the end of the maintained trail at a footbridge, then continued on the south side following a slowly diminishing use trail. After the first hour we were scrambling across the creek up the first serious obstacle, a series of huge, slick boulders and granite slabs that follow the cascading course of the creek. We tried to climb the route alongside the creek but got stymied within about 30 feet of clearing the top. The rock was just too slick, and we'd already gotten more than we bargained for on some of the rock immediately prior. We backed off of this and found a drier route around to the right, bypassing the place we'd gotten stuck. We probably spent 30 minutes on this 100 yard section that was completely unnecessary. As we were to find out, this whole section can be bypassed by following a use trail on the north side of the creek, starting just on the other side of the footbridge we had passed. Oh well, next time I'll now how to shave some time off.

We continued up the creekbed for several more hundred yards before discovering the aforementioned use trail north of Tenaya Creek. This leaf-strewn path we followed for well over a mile under the oak canopy, bypassing much of the boulder-hopping in the creekbed that we'd done the previous time below the Inner Gorge. Despite our hang-up back at the first obstacle, we made good time, reaching the start of the Inner Gorge at 8:15a. Now the real fun would begin. We passed delightful pools, some with six inch fish that darted from view the moment they spotted us. Climbing around these pools was great fun over a variety of short bouldering problems. At the memorable toilet bowl pitch (rappel bolts are found above here, used by those heading downstream and utilzing a rope), we found the conditions slightly more difficult than the previous year. There was just a bit more water coming down the granite slope to make crossing the creek and climbing the steep bank on the south side a tad trickier. I crossed first and set up to photograph the others, particularly if someone should slip and end up in the pool a short distance below. Daniel crossed second without incident. Sam inspected the place where we'd stepped across the stream and decided to place a hankerchief on the landing for additional traction. Matthew came last, the least comfortable on the rock of the four of us, and studied the rock a long, long while. He was a bit shakey, but made it across without slipping.

We climbed on. Some sections had natural staircases we put to good use. Though mostly a boulder-strewn canyon carved between monstrous granite walls, there was some shrubs, flowers, and even ferns growing in the shady, mist-laden (when the water is higher) nooks along side the creek. Though it had been less than a year since my last visit, some of the memory was fading. I recalled most of the rock problems and how to solve them, but took one wrong turn that led to some serious bush-whacking on a steep hillside about 100 yards above the creek on the north side. I apologized several times even as I plunged head-on into the thick brush, trying to get us out of the uncomfortable mess. We made it back to the canyon floor after about 30 minutes of this, and since we didn't lose anyone along the way we were no worse for the wear. In all we spent about an hour and a half climbing up the Inner Gorge, the most enjoyable part of the whole route.

Before we reached the top of the Inner Gorge where I knew the trail to dead end, we considered our escape options. Previous parties report, and Secor describes following a route about a hundred feet high on the north side. This looked to involve a bit of bushwhacking up some steep hillside and then some traversing on ledges along a route we couldn't quite make out from below. I had expected us to take this route, but once we were there I became interested in a route that would climb up and traverse on the south side. With little effort I was able to talk the others into giving that a try. We figured we might lose an hour or so if that way didn't go, but it seemed worth a try.

We climbed south up and out of the canyon, following broken slabs along a steep route that was our only real option up the cliff-lined canyon wall. We climbed up two or three hundred feet before we could traverse left. We didn't avoid bushwhacking, but the thickest sections were thankfully short. We traversed the granite slabs along the bushline for a few hundred yards until we were above the top of the Inner Gorge. Here we were presented with a quarter mile-long section of steeply sloping class 3 granite to get down to the bottom of Lost Valley below. We followed a long, diagonal tack that had us wondering if we wouldn't run into a cliff at the very end up until the last 100 yards or so. Daniel was ahead forging the way followed by Sam and myself. Three of us reached Lost Valley and took a break while we waited for Matthew to join us. After a potty break, a snack, and more waiting, there was still no sign of Matthew. "What could have happened to him?", we wondered. Daniel went back along the stream a few hundred yards to check. He came back and reported seeing Matthew on the lower sections of the slabs. We waited a good deal more, and finally, 45 minutes into our break Matthew came up to join us. He'd gotten a bit concerned on the sloping granite, and stopped to change into his rock shoes he was carrying with him. But he didn't find these any more comforting when he tried them, and ended up switching back to his regular shoes. Matthew commented more than once that he really didn't like friction climbing. The rest of us would grow weary of this by the end of the day as well.

We hiked up through the mile-long Lost Valley, but found it disappointing. Aside from a lone duck in one of the pools, there was very little else of interest. From the name I had expected some exotic hideaway with grassy meadows and hidden swimming holes, but it was really just a boulder and bushwhack slog we were happy to dispense with. We heard voices and then spied a party of four ahead of us heading downstream on the other side of the creek. We passed by them without being noticed. We neared the upper reaches of Lost Valley and began climbing more steep slabs. To the north I spotted another exit route that leads up to Olmstead Point - I would have to check that route out at some future date. Our route, the standard exit (or entrance, for most parties), followed increasingly steep slabs alongside a shrub-covered boulder/talus fan. Again Matthew found the slabs a bit daunting, preferring to stay in the nearby shrubs for safety. We gave him a hard time for his thrashing, cutting him no slack and deriving a good deal of pleasure at his expense. What else are friends for? The shrubs eventually ended and there was nothing but ever-increasing steep slabs above. A party of ten hikers on there way down formed a dotted line of bodies down the steepest section above us. It helped confirm we were on route. The group seemed to have one or two experienced leaders, the rest dutifully following along, perhaps unsure what they had gotten themselves in for. They looked to be in their twenties, all of them, and they were having a great time, yakking it up with each other. This seemed to offer Matthew more comfort that the slabs really could be climbed in ordinary shoes by mere mortals. I greeted the other party members as I passed them on my way up. Daniel and Sam came up and continued past me as I waited for Matthew at the top of the steepest section, where the bushes again grew and offered additional security. We followed some ducks through a maze of passages through the bush, over rock, and up much talus. We regrouped at the top of a small ridge with an unusually spherical erratic topping it. While we took a break here I took the opportunity to boulder up the 10-foot diameter rock (it is about 5.5 by the easiest route on the northeast side).

The ridge lies a few hundred feet above Tenaya Creek on the southwest side. After our break we hiked down the easy slabs (I have never hiked so many slabs in my life as we did this day) to the creek, just above where it begins dropping steeply to Pywiack Cascade. At this juncture we had climbed all the difficult sections of the canyon. The remaining three miles to Tenaya Lake follow the gentler grade of the upper part of Tenaya Creek. Matthew left us at this point and continued up the creek to where we'd left his car at Tenaya Lake the other day. He then drove to the TH at Twin Lakes where he did a 40mi hike to Piute Mtn the next day. Matthew seems to enjoy suffering even more than myself. Daniel, Sam, and I went up the northwest side of the canyon across (more) granite slabs. We started heading up the ridgeline going north for a couple hundred feet until it looked like we could contour around to our left in a sweeping arc heading west for a shortcut to the Snow Creek Trail. Our plan was to do a bit more cross-country in order to reach the Snow Creek Trail which we could then follow back down to Yosemite Valley. We could see a trail cutting the hillside far in the distance to the west, and at first we mistook this for a trail beyond the Snow Creek Trail. It looked too far off to be the shortcut we were looking for. It was a mile and half off to be precise, but it seemed much further at the time. Our map was a 15-minute version that just didn't show enough clarity of the surrounding terrain to identify it properly. After traversing nearly a half mile on granite slabs with a significant downward slope, our ankles and feet were nearing the breaking point from having them canted at such an angle for so long. We got off the slabs as we reached a creek originating from near Olmstead Point, the same one that had the interesting route down to Lost Lake I had seen earlier. After some easy walking along gentler slopes and through some forest, we emerged on a hillside covered in thick manzanita. This began about a quarter mile of truly grueling bushwhacking. Manzanita is one of the most inflexible of the scrub bushes, and plying one's way through it for any length of time requires both determination and patience. Determination not to retreat when the path in front is more of the same as far as you can see, patience to look for the weaknesses in the route and trying different tacks when the way is forcibly blocked. The slope we were tackling was a south-facing one, too dry to support a mature forest, and I was wishing I had lead us along a lower route further down in the forest. But in the interest of not losing more elevation than necessary I had chosen this bushwhack. It lasted about 20minutes, and then almost suddenly the scrub was broken by poor soil and granite slabs that opened our route to easy travel. We hiked down to a second creek and then up the other side, finding the Snow Creek Trail at 2p, an hour after we'd first spied it.

Hiking along the trail was too easy after our arduous cross-country stint, and I started to plot another diversion on our way back. It didn't take much to talk the others into a visit to Mt. Watkins, commanding the highpoint on the northwest side of Tenaya Canyon and what should be excellent views into the canyon below. There was little elevation gain once we left the trail, the gentlest of gradients rising to one of the most rounded summits I've been on. For over a mile we kept wondering when we'd reach the top, it just seemed to go on for ever. We even walked to what we thought was the highpoint before looking further to the southwest and seeing yet higher ground. The view to Half Dome opened up as we climbed up near the top, but though it was a short distance away, smoke from a controlled fire blurred what would otherwise be a great view of the famous monument. We had better views of Clouds Rest directly across the canyon and portions of the canyon below and sections of the route we had taken. We could barely make out Mirror Meadow through the smoke and the Valley itself was hidden almost completely by the haze. We continued hiking down the southwest side from the summit for maybe three quarters of a mile, hoping we might reach the top of Watkins Pinnacle. We found some rock outcroppings that had a good perch and and nice views, a swell spot for a short break. We never made it to the pinnacle, not really sure of its location.

After gathering up our less-than-willing bodies to continue on, we struck off northwest, diagonally down on another quarter mile of yet more granite slabs. There was just no getting enough of this terrain on this hike it would seem. We lost 1400ft going down to Snow Creek, finding the trail again about a hundred yards north of the footbridge across the creek. Shortly before we reached the trail we took another break - we were getting pretty beat. Sam and I seemed to show the most wear, and I commented to Daniel that he just seemed to take all the miles and elevation in stride, few comments, no complaints, and he looked like he could go on for another 20 miles if needed. Daniel merely smiled and acknowledge that he was indeed pretty exhausted. I didn't believe him. We had another 2600ft of elevation to lose in about two miles, a tediously switching back trail down to the Valley that was only made more tolerable by the sight of several backpackers sweating profusely as they grunted their way up. Seeing them made our bodies just a little more appreciative, and maybe just a bit less pained. We gauged our progress in elevation loss by watching ourselves drop lower relative to Half Dome, a prominent fixture in our view nearly the whole way down. By the time we were back to the Valley, the road, civilization, and our cars, it was after 5:30p, just shy of a 12hr outing.

Unloading our gear to our cars at the stables we were all beat, perhaps more than I would have liked. We had planned to climb Grizzly Peak the next day, but both Daniel and Sam were having second thoughts. Daniel decided to go home that evening, which made Sam hesitate in doing the same. Being a very good sport, he didn't want to leave me in the lurch and would have probably climbed the next day with almost no begging. But I let him off easy, saying it would be climbed another day, and I think that was a pretty good indication that I was tired myself and didn't really mind. So we concluded our adventure with a round of hearty handshakes and general praise for each other. It had been a very tough day with only short breaks and I couldn't have found a greater group of companions to join me for it. Then off we drove into the sunset (literally), heading for the Bay Area after another enjoyable weekend (even if it was cut short by a day).

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