• Yosemite Falls from the Meadow

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite gets its own post simply because it’s one of the best places on earth. Its granite walls have inspired people like Alex Hannold (CLICK THIS!) and Ansel Adams, climbing and photography legends respectively. There’s a risk that watching Alex’s exploits in Yosemite will make our little adventure shrink into tedium. Even so, the footage will be helpful in understanding why this place is so great and why I’m going to waffle on about it. Starting. Now!

Having spent a lot of time driving through southern California, Nevada, Arizona and southern Utah, we’d become accustomed to dry, desolate landscapes. From here, northern California’s lush wooded, and in April, snow covered landscape couldn’t sneak up on us. It was a stark and welcome change of scenery but for what was to be the climax of our national park circuit, it presented some problems. The flat, dry roads so far had been pretty stress free in the 27 foot juggernaut that was Caroline the RV. The Sierra Nevada presented us with undulating, winding roads which were still being closed intermittently with snow fall and black ice. It is illegal to drive under potential snow-chain conditions without carrying snow chains (should the conditions mean compulsory snow chains). To those from cold climates this will all seem pretty banal, but 3 Queenslanders piloting an unwieldy RV were in new territory. Opinions were split. I was strongly advocating we push on until we found something impassable, but then, I wasn’t doing the driving. Vaughan was very apprehensive and Darcy was uncharacteristically the swinging vote on this one occasion. I decided to catalyse the situation by offering to float the non-refundable (for obvious reasons) snow-chain purchase – 170 USD – but we’d come a long way and paid for a lot of fuel to get this close. Also I was confident the store would give me a partial refund on a return of an unused set – free money for them in the end. In the end we tossed a coin…

Spurred on by the irrefutable decision of a coin and equipped with chains, we randomly cued the iPod as always and set off. From the tens of thousands of possibilities it dished up an appropriately brooding number from Them Crooked Vultures – Spinning in Daffodils. This was met by nervous laughter. There was the odd section of road that warranted concern; some corners which combined with black ice would have been disastrous. For the most part however it was all benign and we were unanimously glad we’d pushed on. Highway 140 is a nice drive in itself, giving a drip feed of the kind of scenery Yosemite holds ahead. From memory the Highway 41 entrance was closed, which was a shame as we missed the rite of passage shot at Tunnel View – easily the most recognisable view in the park.

Being April meant there were torrents of snow melt fuelling the many falls of Yosmite. It also meant plenty of snow on the trails. Aware that some trails would be closed (notably the Half Dome walk), we asked for a 2-day plan at the Rangers’ office. We must have captured this ranger’s imagination. He tasked us with the 890 m (vertical elevation) ascent of the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail and the 7 mile round trip Mist Trail the day after. The Upper Falls trail started off stodgily but not uninterestingly, with the promise of great views growing as we rose above the tree line of the valley floor and on to steeper ground. Less positively, our Goretex boots were being put to the test as the trail increasingly became an icy water way. Reaching the point at which the falls first come in to view after the trail head we got our first clue that we’d been sent on a fool’s errand. Half a dozen people taking in the view but resigned to the impassable trail that lay ahead. We scoped it out and saw that the trail disappeared into a snow-covered, steeply off-camber slope. To the casual walker (which is what we basically were) it wasn’t particularly welcoming. We decided to see how far we could push on, but were entirely alone in this enthusiasm for now. We were also entirely alone in our choice of shorts, which added to the fun later on.

Above the snow line now, it was clear that snow wasn’t melting up here all that much. Soft snow is a serious slog without snow shoes as it turns out. At best you waste most of your energy lifting your weight as you simultaneously sink into your new foot print. At worst the snow hid the fact you were off the trail and were about to step onto nothing at all. Persevering, as always, we found ourselves trudging through knee-deep snow but making decent progress on the many, many switchbacks. The arrival of a lone walker in snow shoes buoyed our spirits and with him leading, compressing the snow we were now back to plunging shin deep into the snow. A promising development. He was undoubtedly confused that we’d pushed on so far in shorts and hiking boots but he seemed happy to have some company. The top was pretty close when conditions turned to a white-out. Now stood thigh-deep in snow (wearing shorts), realising we wouldn’t be able to see a thing from the top of the trail we decided it was time to divest. It was disappointing, and secretly we were bitter at the prospect of our new friend making it without us. The way down was a treacherous stumble; not at all helped by the fact that I was relying on about a dozen ibuprofen a day to quell bursitis in both knees. We passed a well-equiped Italian man on our way down who looked like he’d probably make it and he clarified his intention was certainly to do so regardless of conditions. This heightened our sense of regret for turning back but we were pretty stuffed and continuing down it would always be. We reached the village, soaked from head to shorts (and toe) as the snow that had collected on us melted. This dampened our spirits but the sight of 3 guys in shorts seemed to have the opposite effect on almost every group we encountered. After acquiring a hot-chocolate we spotted our Italian friend from earlier. I ran over and enquired as to whether he’d made the top and was it worth it. He clarified that he hadn’t made it to the end of our foot prints. Victory! A hollow one.

The next day we thought it best to reassess our plan and returned to the Rangers’ office to retell our misadventure and clarify the feasibility of part 2. This ranger had a great laugh upon hearing what we’d tried to do and how far we’d trudged in vain. He also got a kick out of the subsequent prospect of the Mist Trail, which he laughingly explained was in the shade all day and would have twice the snow depth of the Upper Falls Trail. We resigned to a relaxed day walking around the valley floor. Photographically this was advantageous. As with the Grand Canyon ordeal before this, when times got tough, snowy and wet, cameras were unwaveringly stowed and things went unrecorded.

The gallery above has the good ones from Yosemite. Overall we saw a lot of overcast weather which made life difficult. There were a few hours worth of midnight intervalometer star trail shots that were unknowingly (until viewed on a monitor) destroyed by a band of thin fog which blew in halfway through. It was a bit of a tease but we’ll undoubtedly be back.

Yosemite National ParkBenjamin Hall