Monday, October 6

ahwahnee adventures

Centuries ago, small bands of people lived sprinkled throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sierra Miwok were traditional hunter-gatherers with a temperament like the placid, meandering foothills of the western Sierra Nevada. The Mono Paiute, the aggressive neighbors of the Miwok, inhabited the Sierra high country and its rugged eastern escarpment. Years of warfare led renegades from both groups to settle in a valley among the mountains. Protected by an edifice of granite, this new tribe subsisted primarily on acorns and practiced controlled fire techniques to maintain healthy forest growth and protect meadows. The tribe referred to their home as Ahwahnee (place like a gaping mouth) and themselves as Ahwahnechee (dwellers of Ahwahnee). The Ahwahnechee's reputation for violence, however, earned them a name that in Southern Miwok translates to "they are killers": Yohhe'meti.

In the mid-19th century, the Ahwahnechee, led by Chief Tenaya, engaged in bloody territorial disputes with the Miwoks and white settlers who were drawn west by the California Gold Rush. Conflict with miners reached a climax in 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion, led by Major Jim Savage, chased the Ahwahnechee up the Merced River. Upon reaching the western entrance of the valley where the Ahwahnechee sought refuge, a member of the battalion, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, wrote:
The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley--light as gossamer--and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.
What the Mariposa Battalion saw in 1851

In "honor" of the Ahwahnechee, who were about to be captured and driven from their home, Dr. Bunnell decided to call this place "Yosemite" (which had been mistaken as "grizzly bear" during translation).

More than 150 years later, my modest existence briefly coincided with that of an epic landscape sculpted by erosion and the words of men.

Beginning in Los Angeles, the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park can be reached in just under four hours (assuming no traffic and a cruise control set to 80 mph). I arrived at the ranger station around five, just as the sun's power began to dissipate.

Whether climbing the slopes of Mount Whitney along the Mountaineer's Route or gazing upon the gentle inclines of Little Lakes Valley from my high camp on the rocky shore of Dade Lake, I am familiar with and find comfort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The initial drive from the entrance, characterized by towering evergreens and the fresh smell of a pine forest, brought to mind images of the campgrounds at the Whitney Portal. Yet when I drove around a corner and saw Yosemite Valley, I could easily have been in a different world.

In the waning light the valley was resplendent. Waves of green lapped against sheer granite cliffs that rose 3,000 feet above the valley floor before abruptly giving way to a vast expanse of blue unblemished by clouds. In the distance, Half Dome rested at the tip of the valley like a king whose subjects knelt in homage before him.

I felt as though I had been taken from the real world and placed within one of the fantastical landscapes I had read about in fantasy novels as a child. I half expected to see dragons battling in the skies above as I journeyed to some legendary valley to complete my quest.

If there is a point at which superlatives lose the ability to convey additional meaning and simply become tiresome, Yosemite refuses to acknowledge such a meddlesome constraint.

My daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the need to continue driving and avoid taking myself, and any other drivers, off a cliff. I arrived in Curry Village just before dark and checked in.

Curry Village is essentially a motel comprised of canvas tents, each with two cots, a bear box and a locking screen door. I found the village to be quite charming, though I hear that during the high season the crowds render the area intolerable. The amenities I've grown accustomed to on camping trips include wag bags and contaminated mountain streams, so restrooms, running water and electricity are a four-star luxury. I was also very impressed by a dining facility with not one, but three restaurants: a cafe, a pizza shop, and an all-you-can-eat buffet for $12.

Following a carb-packed dinner at the buffet, I promptly hit the sack. The next morning I planned to day hike Half Dome and I needed to get an early start. I'll post the the remainder of the trip report later.

Saturday, August 16

great falls national park

Editor's note: I am going to take a different approach to this trip report. The idea is to present a shorter description, but with more details on logistics and trail suggestions, as opposed to my earlier post on Old Rag which was a pseudo-article. After reading the following post, take a moment to read Part I and Part II of my Old Rag trip report. I am curious as to which style you prefer (maybe a toss-up of the two, or maybe I should just stop writing).

Great Falls (click for bigger image)

Weekend escapes: Great Falls National Park
Great Falls NP is an 800-acre park encompassing a section of the Potomac River that advertises both jarring waterfalls and the river's deepest gorge, all within 15 miles of Washington, DC. Great Falls Park actually straddles the Potomac, splitting the park into both a Virginia side and a Maryland side (each state argues its side is the best). Regardless, either side allows access to rugged banks and rapids you would never expect from a relatively calm river that winds its way from West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay.

After paying the $5 entrance fee, it's best to make a quick stop at the visitor center for a map and some history. Great Falls, along with other parks along the Potomac, is a historical site of colonial commerce. The Patowmack Canal, the remains of which are visible throughout the park, has the distinction of being the nation's first canal to use locks. In the early 20th century, an amusement park run by the W&OD Railway established picnic grounds on the Virginia side that are still used today.

The actual falls can be accessed near the visitor center. While several outlooks provide excellent picture opportunities, the only way to really experience the falls is to climb down to the riverbank for a close-up (do so with caution, an average of seven drownings occur per year).

The park is nestled in the country's eighth largest metropolitan area, which is reflected by the number of visitors. On the weekends, large groups with coolers, coals and meat, producing the sweet smell of BBQ, frequent the picnic grounds. Fortunately, the crowds can be left behind once on the trail. The River Trail is easily the most scenic and most popular of the approximately 15 miles of hiking trails within the park. The 3.3-mile (round trip) trail hugs the cliffs of Mather Gorge and offers magnificent views and excellent side trips down the cliffs to the river.

For those who seek a little more adventure than simply walking, Great Falls will not disappoint. Many of the trails permit mountain bikers looking for some action within riding distance of Washington. Kayaking is also very popular on the class 5-6 rapids at the falls and the class 2-3 rapids in Mather Gorge. And if that isn't enough, there are hundreds of routes along the gorge for rock climbing. Most of the climbs are about 50 feet and range in difficulty between 5.8 and 5.12 (the majority are 5.10 and higher). However, be ready to top-rope because trad climbing is not permitted for environmental reasons. In any case, many of the cliffs are relatively smooth and require crack climbing, always a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Friday, August 8

old and ragged (part II)

Editor's Note: I intended to post the rest of my Old Rag trip report this past weekend; however, I got distracted and nothing went according to plan, including a trip out to the mountains. I place the blame entirely on video games and a surprisingly delicious combination of pomegranate-flavored yogurt and vodka (no complaints here!). In any case, if you have not read part one and need some context, you can do so here. Otherwise, enjoy part two below.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a physiographic province of the Appalachians, but lie just east of the bulk of the larger mountain chain. Bordered on the east by the Piedmont and the Great Valley on the west, the Blue Ridge contains the tallest mountains in eastern North America, the highest point being Mount Mitchell in North Carolina at 6,684 feet. The Blue Ridge itself is defined by two physiographic sections, Southern and Northern. Each section contains a National Park and is connected by the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south and Shenandoah National Park in the north.

The Blue Ridge Mountains

The defining feature of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and consequently its namesake, is the bluish hue when seen from a distance. The blue glow of the gently rolling mountains, caused by the release of hydrocarbons, is a calming contrast to the sheerness of the eastern Sierra's escarpment or the breathtaking (literally) and deadly upper reaches of the Himalayas.

About two miles from the Old Rag parking lot, a discreet, obviously un-maintained trail casually breaks from the Old Rag Fire Road and disappears into the thick forest of Corbin Hollow. The Robertson Mountain Trail briefly parallels the Brokenback River before the river gradually ascends Corbin Hollow and the trail begins a rapid climb up the Eastern ridge of Robertson Mountain, one of Shenandoah's best kept secrets.

At 3,296 feet, Robertson Mountain is five feet higher than Old Rag and, fortunately, is devoid of hikers due to its more popular southern neighbor. While the summit can be reached from Skyline Drive on the west, the eastern trail is a worthwhile challenge: 1,700 feet of elevation gain in only a mile and a half. After three hours of hiking in hot, humid weather, a climb I normally would have sprinted became an exercise in dragging feet and taking quick breaks to catch my breath.

View from Robertson Mountain Summit

I reached the summit following a solid hour of hiking. Much to my dismay, the summit was covered in evergreens and every view was partially blocked by foliage. Not to be denied an overlook, I traipsed around the summit and found a small clearing that featured a rock outcropping looking over Weakley Hollow and Robinson River towards the south. Quite content with this find, I spent the next hour temporarily liberated from the chains of the real world, lying on the rocks and taking in the awesome expanse before me.

Thursday, July 17

old and ragged (part I)

Editor's Note: This past weekend a group of friends and I climbed Old Rag out in Shenandoah National Park. The climb was relatively uneventful (other than 90-degree temperatures and suffocating humidity), but in the spirit of kicking things off, below I have included the first part of a trip report I wrote for Old Rag back in April.

Old Rag on the approach

Sitting atop a lone rock outcropping amid an otherwise tree-covered summit, I notice the remnants of white chalk, a sort of territorial marker for climbers. Glancing over the side of the nearly 60-foot drop in an attempt to find any leftover “bootie” (gear left behind by a climbing party), the only information I can discern is that climbers were here between now and the last time it rained. Otherwise I am alone on Robertson Mountain, a nondescript peak tucked into a small slice of Appalachia. Solitude is my only companion, as I have not seen a human since leaving the fire road an hour earlier and 1,700 feet closer to sea level. Returning my gaze towards Robinson River meandering slowly through the valley below me, I am amazed by how such sheer beauty and complete privacy may be found a mere 75 miles from Washington, D.C.

Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is Virginia’s most notable federally protected wilderness, if not one of the most popular national parks in the East (aside from Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Authorized in 1926, SNP owes its fame to the spectacular vistas seen along Skyline Drive. The 105-mile New Deal-built road stretches from the town of Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south, snaking across ridges, overlooking canyons and vast expanses of farmland in the Shenandoah Valley. On any given summer weekend, Skyline Drive crawls with tourist-packed cars searching for the most scenic overlook, the largest cascading waterfall, or any other superlative-laden nature-inspired object. While the popular trails are easily accessible from the road and feature hemlock forests, crumbling frontier-era home sites and even former President Herbert Hoover’s summer home, Rapidan Camp, the trail traveled most frequently bags the summit of Old Rag Mountain.

As you approach the Old Rag trailhead from the east, the mountain looms at the vanguard of the Blue Ridge mountains, its boulder-strewn summit stands in rugged contrast to the smooth waves of green that characterize the Appalachians. The bald (exposed) summit and Northeastern ridge are Old Rag’s defining features. Covered in large granite boulders, Old Rag might belong in California’s Sierra Nevadas, if only Nature’s scythe had not reduced towering peaks and spires into a humble 3,291-foot mountain. On an unseasonably warm day in April, the well-worn Old Rag ridge trail is the first leg of my hike.

While an excellent trail in its own right, the similarities make Old Rag an adequate Eastern training ground for more advanced climbs in the West. The trail begins with a series of switchbacks through typical mid-Atlantic woodland. After a couple of miles, the forest slowly fades among boulders that make the final stretch of the ridge climb an exciting, and sometimes exposed, rock scramble. Several chutes with few solid holds add to the challenge, and the reward at the end. The biggest drawback to the scramble is made apparent when amateur hikers are bewildered by the moderate difficulty involved in navigating the boulders. It is not unusual to see a queue of hikers—up to twenty deep—waiting to move through some of the spicier spots.

This particular weekend, school buses full of hikers were swarming up the ridge trail (I wish this were an exaggeration, but there were actually several school buses in the parking lot). Throughout nearly a dozen summit hikes I have discovered alternative routes that avoid a majority of the crowds. Unfortunately, the last serious obstacle confounded me; a 15-foot chute interrupted by an enormous boulder wedged halfway up, forcing one to squeeze through a small gap with no obvious holds other than one rock to serve as a foothold. On busy days the chute never ceases to cause traffic jams. You would think people were waiting to climb the Hillary Step on Everest.
Summit, looking out over SNP

Growing increasingly frustrated by the seemingly endless sea of people ahead of me (at least thirty), I anxiously looked about, searching for a way to quickly bypass the chute. An older man, who appeared to be the leader of a Boy Scout troop, invited me to pass because I was a solo hiker. Gladly accepting his offer, I jumped ahead only to see a dozen people hardly moving in the middle of the chute, signaling an immediate stop to my ascent. I noticed a steep slab of granite to the left of the chute, offering a more direct route to the top, but also a 100-foot drop should I slip. Hoping my boots would stick on the very smooth, precipitous slab, I asked one of the Boy Scouts to give me a boost.

My left boot slipped an inch or two before I caught myself and quickly friction climbed to the top. It took approximately twenty seconds to pass the chute and the traffic jam, opening a clear trail to the summit. Upon reaching the summit, I dropped my pack for a short break; this was only my first summit of the day. After some Gatorade and a Clif Bar, I started down the trail towards the Old Rag fire road and the second leg of my hike, Robertson Mountain.