TENAYA CANYON DESCENT – August, 2009
Celise and I descended Tenaya Canyon in 2006. It left a deep impression of adventure, unrivalled beauty, and solitude. Since then, we have been angling for a repeat, but have been thwarted by logistics or overwhelmed with other activities. This year all the pieces came together again. The trip actually began about a month before the actual outing, with rappel practice for our partners in crime, Alan and Rose, at a concrete stairwell along West Cliff in Santa Cruz. Kenneth from New York joined for this bit of fun.
Rose's first rappel - West Cliff, Santa Cruz
Tenaya Canyon Descent II
In an eco-friendly twist, we decided to pile 4 bodies into Alan’s car on Friday afternoon and leave a Santa Cruz shrouded in smoke from the Bonny Doon fire to drive to The Valley where we would camp and catch the 8AM Tuolomne Meadows Hikers Bus (who knew?), negating the need to set a shuttle and eliminating the 3 hours of extra driving on Sunday night to retrieve the shuttle car in Tuolomne. Smart!
How best to begin a weekend of hardship and privation? With Happy Hour at the Ahwhanee and a nice dinner at the Mountain Broiler Room (with a wonderful Wild Horse Pinot Noir) – don’t let the yelp.com snobs deter you! We did our usual late entry/overnight stay at the backpackers sites in North Pines with a planned early exit to catch the bus. A night of Turrets’-inspired outbursts from a neighboring camper (unheard by me, but reported by Alan and Rose) and a pot-clanging yell-fest by another neighbor to reclaim their cooler from a bear (unseen by me, but reported enthusiastically by all) had us up at 5:30 and back at the car to pack. Tents, bags, harnesses, rope, food…
Alan and Rose went to get coffee while Celise and I scouted the shuttle. We found the stop and learned that we needed tickets. We purchased the last four (!) tix at a nearby “Tours” kiosk…Yosemite! With 10 minutes to go, Alan and Rose were not back. A quick search found them near the front of a LONG line for coffee. Their persistence in the face of a departure deadline was admirable. We debated and figured that we had just enough time to get the coffees and catch the bus. As the line snaked forward …slowly… we counted down the minutes. Cups in hand, we filled, covered, and ran to the bus stop where Celise was panicking, sure she was going to have to lie in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving without us. We loaded our packs and boarded last, in smug anticipation of an imminent caffeine buzz.
“I bet you thought this was just a shuttle. Well you have all actually signed up for a tour, so I’m going to share some Yosemite history with you for the next 2 hours” came over the speakers as we started to drive. “Are you all aware of the connections between Yosemite and Woodstock?” began our revisionist history of Yosemite tour. And when he ran out of flashbacks, the driver regaled us with excerpts from “Death in Yosemite” – for Rose’s benefit, we’re sure.
After a few over-long & unnecessary stops (how else could it take 2+ hours to get to Tuolomne?), we disembarked at Sunrise trailhead and started toward Cloud’s Rest. Not having had breakfast, we decided on an early lunch. Sidling off-trail to a flat, sunny slab, Celise dug in her pack for the meticulously crafted food stash she had prepared for the trip – and came up empty. This is when it dawned on her, and then us, that all of our food was back in the car in The Valley. We shared a communal OH SHIT revelation as fleeting thoughts of beating a hasty retreat to the road crossed our minds. A quick survey of all caloric contents from the other packs yielded some baked potatoes & hard boiled eggs (breakfast?), some cheese and 6 sad corn tortillas (dinner quesadillas?) and enough random power/snack food that it appeared we would be able to continue. A quick vote settled it. I was swayed to vote Aye when a Peet’s bag and drip cones emerged from Rose’s pack. On we went.
The first time Celise and I did this hike, we had an excellent trail description. This time, we did the trip from memory (having neglected to bring the excellent trail description) and got it more or less exactly right. I will spare the details and focus on the highlights.
The “Certain Death” sign is very picture-worthy – and a sure-tell sign that you are on the right path. My favorite MadLib: Return to Tioga Road _____________. (While You Can! Before It’s Too Late! To Get More Food, Stupid!)
This sign inspires confidence at the very start!
The drop into the upper bowl is amazing and sets the tone for the remainder of the trip. Big features, killer views, amazing geology.
Amazing geology in the upper bowl
Miles of super-clean, polished granite
And a most perfect pool and dive platform!
It’s unanimous – the judges give Alan a “10” for this dive!
Then a hike through a forest
Rose and Celise hike through ferns in the Upper Forest
More glaciated granite, pools, and slides, with a growing sense of a huge gravity-laden abyss up ahead.
Nature – the greatest landscape architect
Beautiful pools before “the abyss”
To Slide or Not to Slide? (They slid!)
Now the serious work begins: talus descent, chaparral crossing.
Boulder hopping to the slabs
Interminable STEEP slabs. Walkable in boots, just barely. Aim for the only big tree in the bowl below (missing its top 1/3 since ’06).
Overly-long (and steep) slab descent
Rewarded with the best swimming hole of the entire trip. Don’t miss this one. Sunny until about 5PM.
Note Celise and Rose creeping down slab to the right
Alan provided plenty of lively entertainment!
Next came scrambling along the river course through the Enchanted Forest with perfect views of the Quarter Domes.
Quarter Domes from Enchanted Forest
Quarter Domes and tree
And a great camp site. We considered several sites before this one, but kept going to the last sandy bar on the river, about 200 meters before the first gorge rappel. We leveled two spots by moving sand and pebbles around and then made the site memorable by topping with soft sand. We gathered wood and started a fire. We earned our Iron Chef credentials by figuring out how to make not-enough quesadillas with inappropriate cooking gear (delicious black bean soup HAD been on the original menu with accompanying cheese and tortillas!). We stoked the fire as it got dark and cool and talk of the Donner Party subsided when we discovered that we had 3 large dark chocolate bars to eat! And eat them we did!
Who ordered flowers?
Alan and Rose enjoy the campfire, wine tea, and chocolate!
It was a crystal clear night with a late-rising moon. Dark! It was all very Sagan-esque with billions and billions of stars and a shockingly obvious Milky Way. Others told of shooting stars and the sound of my snores 2 minutes after my head hit my pillow.
A small baked red potato and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast. Alan skewered his potato with a stick and roasted it marshmallow-style over the fire. Yum!
Let the games begin!
Leaving our perfect campsite
Almost immediately to the first rappel.
Ken – Fearless Leader
Celise – calm en rappell
Continued scrambling down the gorge, downclimbing as required.
The second rappel.
Alan Leads Off – Rappel #2
Rose is a Rap Artist!
More scrambling down, down, down…
Don’t Let Go!
To some beautiful pools and the last rappel.
The Last Rappel
The Final Swim!
And the end of the Gorge is near!
End of the Gorge – Half Dome view
The last of our food – we could have stayed another night!
The only reason to dissuade anyone from doing this hike is what happens to you when you exit the Gorge. Having just experienced the most amazing few miles of hiking anywhere on the planet, it is hard to mentally prepare yourself for what comes next. The first time Celise and I did the hike, we thought we were done at this point. We sunbathed and napped and hung out and started down somewhat late in the day. Big mistake!
The ’97 floods made a mess of the canyon here. There are many long, dry, boulder-and-tree-choked channels to follow. The first time down, we dutifully obeyed the topo and kept to the right, hoping for the trail. It took a long time to materialize and I felt that we had found it by luck. This time I walked more or less straight to it, but it was still miserable. And once you find the trail, you have a long way to go. The trail is incipient and easy to lose. Its upper stretches are now littered with downed trees and branches – this is new since ’06 (pine beetles?). It is time to turn off your brain and just walk…and walk…and walk. The trail descends steeply and you feel like you lose most of the hike’s 4,200 feet here as it goes on forever across steep slopes and rock fields. It has been washed out in places and it is inevitable that you will lose it many times. There is poison oak, gnats, mosquitoes… You get the picture.
Finally you emerge at a bridge on the trail above Mirror Lake, only to realize that you still have 2.0 miles to walk to Mirror Lake (with amazing views of the face of Half Dome on your left that you are too tired to properly appreciate – sorry, no pics!), another 1.5 miles to walk to the Shuttle Bus Stop and, when the Shuttle Bus is STUFFED FULL of clean, well-fed, unburdened people, 1 more mile to walk to the cool beer and forgotten food cache in the ice chest in Alan’s car parked at Curry Village.
We speculated why such an amazing hike attracted so few people. Because of the rappels, it would justifiably intimidate most hikers. And the lack of “climbing” would reduce interest by most rockclimbers. From the time we left the Cloud’s Rest Trail to the moment we joined the Mirror Lake Trail, we passed through indescribably beautiful, unspoiled terrain, thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company and saw exactly no one else. Not a soul. This was, we realized, the point of the whole adventure.