Yosemite Falls YVF

Sat, Feb 26, 2000

With: Michael Golden

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Fri, Feb 7, 2003


Saturday was a gorgeous day in Yosemite, sunny and warm (for February). We didn't get as early a start as we had the previous day for our trip to Half Dome, but then we hadn't planned anything quite as ambitious. Still, it turned out to be a busy day, and even more fun than we'd had the previous day.

We spent the morning doing a trip to the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. There is a cone of ice that forms at the base of the upper falls, first described by John Muir in The Yosemite in 1912, later collected in a book, The Wild Muir, published by the Yosemite Association. This excerpt from the book was my inspiration for this excursion:

"Every clear, frosty morning loud sounds are heard booming and reverberating from side to side of the Valley at intervals of a few minutes, beginning soon after sunrise and continuing an hour or two like a thunderstorm. In my first winter in theValley I could not make out the source of this noise. I thought of falling boulders, rock-blasting, etc. Not till I saw what looked like hoarfrost dropping from the side of the Fall was the problem explained. The strange thunder is made by the fall of sections of ice formed of spray that is frozen on the face of the cliff along the sides of the Upper Yosemite Fall - a sort of crystal plaster, a foot or two thick, cracked off by the sunbeams, awakening all the Valley like cock-crowing announcing the finest weather, shouting aloud Nature's infinite industry and love of hard work in creating beauty.

This frozen spray gives rise to one of the most interesting winter features of the Valley - a cone of ice at the foot of the fall, four or five hundred feet high. From the Fern Ledge standpoint its crater- like throat is seen, down which the fall plunges with deep, gasping explosions of compressed air, and, after being well churned in the stormy interior, the water bursts forth through arched openings at its base, apparently scourged and weary and glad to escape, while belching spray, spouted up out of the throat past the descending current, is wafted away in irised drifts to the adjacent rocks and groves. It is built during the night and early hours of the morning; only in spells of exceptionally cold and cloudy weather is the work continued through the day. The greater part of the spray material falls in crystalline showers direct to its place, something like a small local snowstorm; but a considerable portion is first frozen on the face of the cliff along the sides of the fall and stays there until expanded and cracked off in irregular masses, some of them tons in weight, to be built into the walls of the cone; while in windy, frosty weather, when the fall is swayed from side to side, the cone is well drenched and the loose ice masses and spray-dust are firmly welded and frozen together. Thus the finest of the downy wafts and curls of spray-dust, which in mild nights fall about as silently as dew, are held back until sunrise to make a store of heavy ice to reinforce the waterfalls thunder- tones.

While the cone is in the process of formation, growing higher and wider in the frosty weather, it looks like a beautiful smooth, pure-white hill; but when it is wasting and breaking up in the spring its surface is strewn with leaves, pine branches, stones, sand, etc., that have been brought over the fall, making it look like a heap of avalanche detritus.

Anxious to learn what I could about the structure of this curious hill I often approached it in calm weather and tried to climb it, carrying an ax to cut steps. Once I nearly succeeded in gaining the summit. At the base I was met by a current of spray and wind that made seeing and breathing difficult. I pushed on backward, however, and soon gained the slope of the hill, where by creeping close to the surface most of the choking blast passed over me and I managed to crawl up with but little difficulty. Thus I made my way nearly to the summit, halting at times to peer up through the wild whirls of spray at the veiled grandeur of the fall, or to listen to the thunder beneath me; the whole hill was sounding as if it were a huge, bellowing drum. I hoped that by waiting until the fall was blown aslant I should be able to climb to the lip of the crater and get a view of the interior; but a suffocating blast, half air, half water, followed by the fall of an enormous mass of frozen spray from a spot high up on the wall, quickly discouraged me. The whole cone was jarred by the blow and some fragments of the mass sped past me dangerously near; so I beat a hasty retreat, chilled and drenched, and lay down on a sunny rock to dry."

Later, when the wind had shifted the fall line of the water off the cone, Muir was able to climb the cone and peer down inside:

"The mouth into which the fall pours was, as near as I could guess, about one hundred feet in diameter north and south and about two hundred feet east and west, which is about the shape and size of the fall at its best in its normal condition at this season.

The crater-like opening was not a true oval, but more like a huge coarse mouth. I could see down the throat about one hundred feet or perhaps farther.

The fall precipice overhangs from a height of 400 feet above the base; therefore the water strikes some distance from the base of the cliff, allowing space for the accumulation of a considerable mass of ice between the fall and the wall."

I had been up the Yosemite Fall Trail once before in winter and had a grand view of the cone. The trail was closed beyond a locked gate then, presumably due to rock and avalanche dangers further ahead. I turned around then, but the thought of the ice cone had stayed with me ever since.

Hiking up the lower portion of the trail, there was no need for the snowshoes as the trail had been well-packed by previous hikers (we never did make use of the snowshoes). There was lots of snow on the cliffs on either side of the Valley, although plenty more on the south walls (north-facing). Michael and I continued up uneventfully for most of the climb, enjoying the wonderful winter views of the Valley, the surrounding cliffs, and Half Dome to the east. At Fern Ledge Point, the trail turns left around the cliff and one gets the first views of Yosemite Falls from the top to bottom, the ice cone clearly visible at the base of the falls. While Muir described it as 300-400 feet tall, it was only about 100 feet tall, much as it looked the previous time I had viewed it. I doubt that it ever reached the height he described, as it would reach nearly 1/4 of the way to the top of the wall, and require an enormous amount of snow and ice to support. I think Muir exagerated a good deal in describing the dimensions of the ice cone.

The trail was closed beyond this point, by the same gate I had remembered previously. In Michael White's Snowshoe Trails of Yosemite, it is claimed: "The trail to the top of Yosemite Falls is one of the few trails climbing out of the Valley that the Park Service keeps open during the winter." Nowhere in the book is there mention of the gate or the possibility of it closing. This was a decision point for Michael and I. Do we go past the closed gate and risk unknown penalties should we be caught, or turn around and call it a day? We still planned to go rock climbing in the afternoon, so we had a good backup plan to occupy ourselves for the rest of the day. Still, we were both quite curious, so with Michael's irreverence for inspiration, we bypassed the gate and went on our merry way.

We continued to follow the trail, still packed down from previous hikers, but much fewer since passing the gate. Eventually, we got to where the trail begins a series of steep switchbacks as it climbs the southeast wall, and left it to contour over towards the base of the falls. The terrain was very challenging, essentially a huge boulder field covered with 6-12 inches of snow. We had to carefully consider almost every step, lest we would plunge through a small snow-bridge between boulders, or slip off a sloped rock. We aimed for the cliff, to the left (west) of the ice cone, where a large cave seemed to provide a measure of protection from whatever might fall from above.

As we approached closer, we had to consider the dangers of ice, rock, and debris falling from the cliffs above. Although most everything falls down close to the direct line of the falls, the rest of the cliff is not free from dangers. In winter, the cliff above oozes water from a variety of locations which tends to freeze at night, and then peel off as the sun works to melt it throughout the day. In addition, water spray from the falls blows over a wide area and adds to the ice that forms at night. Luckily, it had been a warm night and the water did not freeze as it usually does. Had it been peeling off at regular intervals we would have had to end the adventure there since we didn't bring helmets with us (highly recommended for any thinking of doing this). It was relatively easy for us to reach the cave and assess the situation further. Just outside the cave, a grand view of the water coming over the top impressed me greatly.

The cave offers a great amount of safety, and lots of dry area to boot. The ice cone was only about 100 yards east of our location, and the cave provided safety for about half that distance. We dropped our packs, took photographs, donned our rain gear, and prepared for the assault. As we traversed along the cave, we noticed evidence of campers (I doubt the Park Service approves, but this would be a cool campsite) in various spots as expressed by leveled sleeping pads and ritual rock arrangements (possibly satanic cult related, or just bored campers). As we got closer to the falls, it became wetter and wetter, and soon there was a pervasive mist that kept everything foggy and wet. We exited the cave and headed for the back of the ice cone. The wall behind the falls overhangs up some 300-400 feet, and the water (and presumeably other stuff that falls down) lands about 30 feet out from the base of the wall. This provides a relatively safe approach path that we used to get close. Ice axes in hand (but not really needed - and we had no crampons either), we scaled the 15-20 feet pile of ice/snow up to the wall directly behind the falls. Not knowing what to expect here, I was surprised that it was no different than a typical spring snow slope with perhaps a 30-degree incline. The snow/ice had an excellent consistency for stepping - not icy, not slushy.

At this point, we were only about 30 feet from the mouth of the cone, and we quickly took some pictures of ourselves. It was impossible to keep water off the lens, so I have to apologize for the poor quality of the ones we took here. It was also loud as hell, with the water thundering down in such close proximity, and it was hard to hear each other as we tried to yell over the din. After about 3 or 4 minutes we headed back to the cave. I decided that I hadn't had quite enough, so after we reached our packs, I gave Michael the camera and ran back for more. Reaching the point of our previous excursion, I began walking away from the cliff towards the cone's mouth (I'm the little blip between the cliff and the falls). I was curious what the opening was like. Did it drop off sharply where the water hit it? How stable was the cone? I got to within 10 feet of the mouth and was surprised to find the lip of the cone has a gently sloping ridge that smoothly rolls off on the other side of the lip. I could not actually see more than about 10 feet down the cone as the water obscured my view. My progress was stopped as I reached a point of drenching (the water sways back and forth at irregular intervals), and I recognized that I had no protection should something more than water find its way to my noggin. Michael got a closeup of me being drenched, looking like a ghost through the mist. I retreated, and rejoined Michael. That was enough excitement for one morning (and we both agreed that it was highly fun excitement at that), so we packed up and retraced our steps.

We had a nice view of Mt. Starr King on the way out. As we reached the gate, there were others there who asked about the trail conditions beyond. One party recognized us as the yahoos climbing around the base of the falls, but fortunately, there were no rangers observing. About a mile from the trail head we ran into my brother, his wife, and their friend Chris who were on their way up to the top of Yosemite Falls. I have climbed with Tom and Chris before, and based on past experience (and the fact that he was already sweating profusely after only the first mile, loaded with a pack and three pairs of snowshoes), I didn't give Chris half a chance of reaching the top. They proved me wrong and made it not only to the top of the falls, but out to Yosemite Point where they had to track through deep powder to reach it.

After lunch, Michael and I drove out to El Capitan to do a climb on a nearby rock called Manure Pile Buttress (not nearly so impressive a name as El Capitan). It took us most of the afternoon to do two pitches, the first 5.7, the second 5.8. Michael led the more difficult second pitch after first trying to lead the first pitch, but, getting spooked, passed it to me. As I came up the second pitch, I was spooked myself by some hairy face climbing and a narrow ledge traverse, and I was rather impressed with Michael's efforts in leading it. There are some pictures for those interested in the second section of the thumbnails.

After our afternoon climb, it was about 5:15p as we headed back towards the car. Along the way we ran into several groups who were waiting for the sunset on Horsetail Falls that comes off the southeast ledge of El Capitan. They had been told by rangers that this was part of the two week period during which Horsetail Falls is illuminated in crimson red at sunset. Thinking about this, Michael and I found this completely plausible. The sun would have a similar angle for two weeks in the summer, but by then this weak fall is dry. We had about half an hour to wait, and as I was getting cold sitting around, I decided to climb up the debris field at the bottom of El Cap (just below and to the right of the North American Wall for those familiar with the area). It took less than 20 minutes to reach the top, and the view looking up almost 3000 feet was dizzying. It was overhung for hundreds of feet. Water was dripping off the cliff from high above, landing about 20 feet out from the cliff's base. There is a huge tree high on the face of the wall that looks tiny from the road, but is probably 150-200 feet high. I looked around to see if there was a relatively easy climbing route up to it (for future efforts), but alas it looked well beyond my capabilities. I stayed up there until sunset watching Horsetail Falls (I was a few hundred yards west of it, but could just see the gap between the wall and the falls), but alas the clouds right at sunset spoiled the expected display.

We met with the other three for dinner later that night before retreating to our room to call it a night. Michael fell asleep without even removing his clothes... All in all, one of the best days ever in Yosemite!

The next day, Sunday, we woke up to a snowstorm going on outside. No wind, but it was dumping snow at the rate of several inches per hour. We went for a hike out to Lower Yosemite Falls and as far as the stables before turning back. It stopped snowing after a few hours and it quickly started to melt again. We went to the Ahwanee Hotel for Sunday Brunch (Michael's near-favorite Yosemite activity) at 11a, where we met up with Tom, Joyce, and Chris. On our way out, we stopped to adjust the chains at the entrance to the Valley. We felt silly wearing chains on wet pavement (no snow), and couldn't for the life of us figure out why all the "Chains Required" signs were active. Eventually, we took them off just before reaching the pass out on HWY120. Then we ran into a snowstorm with snow all over the road from the pass down to the entrance station. Once again (we did the same thing on Thursday night coming in), we had the chains on when we didn't need them, and not on when we probably did. Life is like that sometimes...

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