There are really two Yosemites. One involves bike-riding through the valley, rafting down the Merced River, or rubbernecking at the waterfalls. For others, there’s thrill-seeking: climbing the cables to 8,842-foot Half Dome, hiking the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls, or scaling the sheer walls of towering El Capitan. All can be fatal.
I’ve done both (except for El Cap), from the campfire nights with my little kids to backpacking with them as teens, and recently I’m back to rubbernecking. I’ve changed, but Yosemite hasn’t, except to get more crowded.
When we decided to hit the trail to Half Dome years ago, there were relatively few climbers on the cables; these days, you need to score on the Yosemite lottery. Only a few hundred permits are available. We’re talking a 14-mile roundtrip trek and 4,500-foot elevation gain via the Mist Trail. While sons Barclay and Kenneth remained on top for the night back then, slumbers atop the monolith are now banned. It’s a steep and strenuous climb up from the 4,000-foot-elevation valley floor just to get to the cables, which go up in spring and come back down in the fall. And if you slip on the smooth rock during wet weather, you can die. It’s happened, though rarely.
Another danger is lightning, according to the book Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Charles R. “Butch” Farabee Jr. If you’re up there and dark clouds approach, hit the cables and split.
My kids and I avoided the climb by driving up to Tuolumne Meadows, then backpacking down to the cables. Afterward, we hiked down to the valley, and retrieved the car later. Today, a shuttle bus serves Tuolumne from the valley.
When Sue and I were in Yosemite recently, a 19-year-old Sacramento man ignored warning signs and took a swim in the pool formed by the fast-flowing Merced above Nevada Fall, an arduous seven-mile roundtrip hike on the Mist trail, a gain of merely 1,900 feet. He was swept over the falls, a 600-foot drop, and at this writing, they’re still searching for his body.
The same weekend, we trained binoculars on climbers high on 3,593-foot-tall El Capitan. Sue snapped telephoto shots of several groups making their way up the big granite formation. Later we learned that a rock-climber from London was killed there when his partner, climbing above him, dislodged a block of rock that plummeted down and hit his companion on the head.
Sadly, a Santa Barbara friend, Jan Davis, 58, an experienced base jumper, was killed in a leap from El Capitan in 1999 when her chute didn’t open. It was a protest jump, with others, demonstrating against a Park Service ban on El Cap jumps. She wasn’t using her regular rigging to avoid having it confiscated.
Climbers tend to pitch tents at good old Camp 4, where for $5 you can be allotted space on a first-come, first-served basis, six to a space. Just the basics, but lots of climbing tales from your new mates.
But for the vast majority of Yosemite Valley visitors, the pleasures are plentiful and tame. You can catch the free shuttles to get around and take the popular walk to the Lower Falls, which thunder down in spring but later in the year dwindle to almost nothing or plain nothing. Yosemite’s a kids’ playground, too, complete with what mine used to call “Chipmunk Night” story sessions with rangers. One of the great pleasures of the valley is to rent a raft and drift down the river. I’m ready to return. But no thrill-seeking.