I got up at 5 a.m. gripped with misgivings, doubts and fears about my plans for the day. I knew I was going to try to go up into real, significant snow for the first time this winter. Up on steep snow, frozen snow and melting snow, up in high country where one wrong step on ice and snow can cripple or kill you.
I’d been up to the same place plenty times before in wintry conditions. I’d been up there in running shoes, stepping into snow and ice up to my shins. I’d been up there when falling rocks were cannoning down on a traverse, and I’d hit the ground and covered my head with my hands. I’d been up there when the waterfall was roaring with freezing snowmelt and I needed a rainjacket and I still got soaked through completely to the skin. I’d been up there and warned people with me we were entering a rock-carpeted, 1,430-foot fall zone, where one more random speeding rock could kill any one of us.
But I’d never gone up there in conditions like this. The night before I’d checked photos and trail updates online. They showed I should expect falling ice and rock and debris on the exposed traverse, and I should expect to encounter snow way deeper than I’d seen up there before.
Things I had in my favor, to calm my nerves and stay focused on the tasks at hand, were ice axes, steel spikes to strap to my boots called crampons, snowshoes, and a helmet intended to protect me from falling rocks. And plenty of warm gear including two layers of gloves.
So I started driving at 6 a.m. and I was parked and walking toward the trailhead by 8 a.m. It was cold in the high 30s to low 40s. Few people were up and moving at this early hour.
To keep my head clear I kept reminding myself I would know when it’s too dicey, I would know when it was foolish to continue forward, I would know when to turn around.
The first hour of walking included a relentless series of ascending switchbacks. I walked slow because I was wearing heavy mountaineering boots with high ankles and stiff shanks, much heavier than I normally wear. I’d decided to leave behind my ice axes, crampons and helmet. Instead I carried trekking poles to help me keep balance and traction when I came to deep, steep snow.
Four or five people passed me. I caught up to a pair of them at an overlook. They were already descending, due to snow and ice on the trail higher up. I didn’t bother asking. Seeing is believing.
By 9:30 a.m. I could see my objective and it looked like there was more snow at the base of the waterfall than I’d seen in five consecutive winters I’ve been visiting this spot. By 10 a.m. I could see the exposed traverse covered with steep snow, bulging outward more vertical in places, blocking the only path to get where I intended to go. Anything coming down on this traverse could fall a thousand feet or more from rock walls towering above. Anything falling off the traverse was risking a steep, fast ride into trees or rocks below, or it could keep on going down into the granite chasm of the fall’s deadly middle cascades.
A few people with micro-spikes or crampons were continuing their way on the traverse, stepping fast and sure. Everyone else was stopped at what they felt was their last safe place to get a nice view and take photos. I looked and watched and listened. Thankfully, nothing whatsoever appeared to be falling onto the traverse from above. No falling ice. No falling rock. No falling trees.
I started out on the traverse, keeping three points firmly planted in whatever traction the snow and ice yielded. I’d have one boot deep in snow, and both pole points plunged deep in snow before I’d reach out to kick, scrape and feel with my other boot. Once I felt good about this next step forward I’d weight it, then slowly move each pole, one at a time, to keep three points of traction at all times.
It was slow work, but I felt good. The gear was working. My boots were so heavy I could kick decent steps in the hardest ice and snow. The poles were adequate support for my upper body. I felt strong and confident, not fatigued and weak. The morning sun was out and lighting up this steep, vertical, winter-gripped place.
I came to a tricky spot. I needed time to work out a sequence of moves. There was a lot more ice underfoot, and it was a lot more vertical. Just then here comes a young woman in a sports bra and tights and socks and strap-on surf sandals, with a wood walking pole longer than she was tall. She was moving fast but she stopped just above and behind me.
We chatted briefly and I told her to go ahead and pass me, I wouldn’t move. She took quick steps to get ahead, then she dropped her pole and it slid several feet out of reach down the snow slope below. Her companion, a young man in a T-shirt, shorts, long underwear and high-top training shoes, caught up and nimbly worked his way down to where his friend’s pole came to rest.
They carried on stepping further out on the traverse, moving at what seemed like a dead run, a sprint, compared to my efforts. Their relative speed and carefree attitude inspired me. If they can make it so easily, I told myself, surely I can do this.
Moments later the couple were coming back. I told them they looked fit and strong enough to continue, that they could join me on my off-trail quest to reach the base of the waterfall ahead of us. They said they had to get back to San Jose. They said they wanted to go to the place I was going and they’d like to connect in future, so we exchanged contact info and they left.
I kept inching my way across the traverse. I still felt good. I came to the last switchbacks I’d have to do to reach the spot where I’d go off-trail. Half the switchbacks were muddy and free of snow and ice. Half of them were coated with slippery, melting, freezing white stuff. I came to the turn-off and I felt euphoria.
The steep boulder staircase I usually scrambled down was now completely covered with gently sloping snow. The surface snow was soft enough to easily kick steps. I started down and every so often I’d step on snow so mushy and weak I’d sink to my crotch. This was no place to rush. One bad step into a hollow space filled with rocks could tear up an ankle or a knee.
Luck was with me. I made it to the base of the snow-covered boulder staircase, worked my way through some brush and across more snow-covered boulders, and stepped out into the vertical amphitheater at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall.
All the tension, anxiety and fear I’d felt the past 24 to 36 hours fell away. I’d made it far enough for the day. It was only 11 a.m. I spent the next 90 minutes soaking up my surroundings.
Clearly most of the prodigious snowpack in the watershed above was still up there locked cold in winter. Yosemite Creek was flowing but it was not roaring and raging. This was a hissing, misting, gently falling version of Upper Yosemite Fall, with chunks of ice peeling loose to fall and crash on the cone below.
The ice cone, the snow cone, the cone of frozen water and ice at the base of the fall was gigantic compared to what I’d seen before. Back in late 2014 and January 2015, in the midst of a multi-year drought with historically dry winters, the cone was tiny, less than 30 feet tall, melting and breaking up with cracks in it.
This time the cone looked 150 to 250 feet tall and it completely covered and blocked access to the horizontal cave behind and to one side of the waterfall. The cone was a sloping pyramid and people have climbed it to its summit.
I didn’t. I kept my distance. I took a few photos. I made a couple short video clips. I turned on a music app on my phone and it randomly played “Born on the Bayou.” I did a little jig and I tightened up my gear. I turned around and I headed on out. Amanda and Jorge, the couple I’d met from San jose, texted me “Safe travels.” I texted them a photo.
There were crowds of people stopped on the safe side of the traverse. They sat next to the trail, they stood on the trail, they sat eating their lunches in the middle of the trail. I walked very slowly all the way down, hoping my hard-sided boots would not rub my tender feet too hard on the descending switchbacks.
I finished the day with one blister on one toe. Before I made it to the bottom of the switchbacks Amanda texted me, “Sooo cool. Glad you made it alive lol.”
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere. This account is not to be taken as an endorsement or recommendation of any kind.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.