Tuesday, March 30, 2010
12.7 miles round trip, on trail moderate overnighter. Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite National Park.
As the storm first approached, and it’s intensity dictated I find a position of safety, my eyes hunted frantically for something to hide under, and it was then I noticed the wasteland the forest around me had become. Towering firs and pines once majestic in their reach to the sky, had been stricken down in the primes of their lives, reduced to barren sticks pointing feebly at the now lowering sky. It was quite obvious to me that these silent sentinels had one by one each been victim to the catastrophic force of lightning storms. Not finding much confidence after gazing at the landscape around me, nevertheless, I had to find a safe haven somewhere near at hand. The trees I knew for sure that could protect me would necessitate a climb up over a barren ridge, I would not be headed that way soon. Turning back towards another copse of trees, I realized would also dictate a climb up an exposed ridge. No other options presented themselves but the puny boulder barely shoulder high a few feet away. So I grabbed my pad to perch on, tossed my metal tent poles a safe distance away, and hunkered down next to it to wait out the worst of the storm hurling itself towards me.
Earlier that afternoon I had stood at my car going over a mental checklist to make sure I had everything I had wanted to pack in. I was quite anxious to begin the hiking season, and had set out in early May to hike in an area of Yosemite National Park called Hetch Hetchy. Checklist satisfied, and finally ready to undertake this solo journey, I hoisted my pack and headed for the tunnel. The tunnel is about 500 feet blasted out of the mountain on the eastern side of the dam built to serve the citizens of San Francisco City. The saunter across the dam and through the tunnel signifies the official start of this trek. So through the tunnel I went with pack fully loaded, and finally I stepped out onto the beginning of my trail.
The spotty clouds and sparkly clean air had me looking forward to an idyllic escape into the wilderness. I sauntered leisurely up the trail with camera in hand. Pictures of beautiful seasonal wildflowers and roaring waterfalls captured my attention and would fill empty spaces on the walls in my house someday. I passed chameleons and carpets of green lawn and glistening granite polished smooth by the eons of ice and later storms having graced their surfaces. By the time I got close to the first of the major waterfalls along my way, I noticed the sparkly fun sky was starting to darken and close around me. Add to that mildly distressing change, the roar of the waterfall ahead sounded like a freight train coming around the corner and straight for me!
I rounded the corner and stood gawking at the sight of the falls in front of me. The falls were in full snow melt, and they didn’t just drift gently to the ground. These falls leapt away from the cliff like buffalo being herded to their deaths. One hundred fireman standing with fire hoses at the top couldn’t have produced the display the snow running out of the mountains that early spring did. The well made bridge painstakingly crafted at the bottom of the falls to aid travelers across this stream suddenly looked woefully inadequate. And sure enough, as I drew slowly closer, I saw that the bridge in fact was inundated. At first glance it seemed it would be a near suicidal act to cross it’s once sturdy seeming beams. Trepidation gripped my soul and made me look frantically for other places to cross this raging water. Seeing no other choices however, I resolved to cross! A study of the terrain below the bridge allowed me to figure should I get swept off, I would not be plunged into the reservoir below after all, but could somehow stop my downward plunge by grabbing amidst the rocks that lay between the bridge and the cliff. So I put on my rain jacket and rain pants, pulled up the hood over my head cinching it down tight, and bravely put my foot on the first step of the bridge.
Spray showered over me and water slapped at my legs. I knew the best approach would be to just plunge headlong across the bridge to the other side, so that is what I did. Before I got to the other side though, water pushed and surged against my thighs and spray drenched my clothes and pack and made me grateful I had not forgotten my rain jacket. Half way across this recently and solidly constructed bridge built to see travelers safely past these horrendous skyscraper falls, I looked down to see one railing already knocked out and several bricks washed away. I stifled the fear that threatened to overwhelm me and pushed on against the force of the water. After an eternity, I finally reached the other side and grabbed the pack off my back and let it sink to the ground where I would follow suit. I splurged on my time with a short rest from my adrenaline pumping ordeal. I shook the loose water from my clothes and caught my breath. After a brief rest, I hefted my pack back onto my shoulders and headed back up the trail.
Confident my biggest hurdle was out of the way, I looked forward to an uneventful stroll into camp. I enjoyed the green grasses of spring, and the sporadic seasonal waterways running in every crease and crevice. Wildflowers were starting to pop up in an unending array of colors, and the afternoon wore on pleasantly during my stroll south along the reservoir. I was having such a pleasant walk that it was quite some time before I noticed the sun had evaporated completely while clouds now covered the spaces above me. Suddenly realizing I needed to hurry to camp and batten down the hatches before the storm hit, I put away my camera and stepped up my pace. It was on my approach to the final climb before camp that the storm caught up to me. The few stray drops that had threatened and laughed at me, turned suddenly into raging, pounding and angry hail. I started hurrying up the hill and was almost to the top when rounding a corner I ran right into a fresh mud slide. The slide would probably have not even slowed my pace, but there was the most gigantic car sized boulder sitting smack dab in the middle of the slide blocking the whole trail. And, the muddy slick trail traversed a steep hillside. I stood for a moment wondering how in the world I could get around it when I realized finally the only way around it was over. Very gently I started to climb. I slipped in the slick mud and grabbed at the now exposed tree roots in the hillside to keep me from sliding down the hill. I managed finally to clamber over the top of the boulder and while trying to keep my now muddy hands from sabatoging my clothes, I hurried once again to the top of the incline and hopefully camp! A few minutes later a huge sigh of relief slipped past my lips as I reached the top and came out on the flats. Now looking around for a place to set up my tent and crawl in, I got a terrible sinking feeling when I saw that not a fraction of a piece of ground was dry. Not only was the ground saturated with rain, but every inch of the surface around me was a streaming torrent of water. The storm was much more intense now, and water was coming out of the sky in much heavier volume than I had realized. Between the gray skies, the streaming wet ground and the fear that the falls a couple of hours behind me would be too heavy to cross if I waited til the next day to try, I turned tail to run back the way I came to try and get back over the bridge before that treacherous crossing trapped me and kept me away from my family and friends.
Down the hill and over the car sized boulder I went once again, past the ankle and arm grabbing newly exposed roots I ran. It was at the bottom of that hill and before the next climb, that the head pounding hail and slashing lightning finally caught me. Hail the size of marbles pummeled my head making me sure my scalp was turning into a mass of welts. Lightning seared the sky, torturing me with the knowledge that any moment now it would quit playing with me and send a bolt straight at me! Thunder clapped my ears deafeningly, and seemingly damaged my ear drums. Nevertheless, here is where I had to make my stand. At this spot is where I saw all the previous lightning storms victims standing with tortured bare outstretched limbs. Here is where I realized any way out for me would be up exposed ridgelines. And here, is where I tossed my metal tent poles away from me, grabbed my rubber sleeping pad to insulate me from the dangerously wet lightning charged ground, and hunkered down to wait out the worst of it.
After a few minutes, my legs were burning from crouching, and the cold was starting to chill straight through to my bones. I was more or less dry as I had my rain jacket back on by this time, but my fleece sweater was tucked safely away inside my pack where it would stay dry, yet would do me good as I grew more and more chilled by the minute. Finally in desparation, I managed to pull out the sweater and exposed myself by pulling off my jacket to put on the sweater and then put the jacket back on again. This all seemed to take an eternity as I accomplished it all while crouching next to the boulder and trying to keep my head low. Now I was warmer, but my legs began to cramp from crouching. How long could I stay like this? Lightning continued to strike 360 degrees around me and the bolts were in ones and twos and threes and even sheets all around me. Eventually though, the hail started to slack off and become smaller pea sized bullets, and the thunder and lightning started to distance themselves so that there was actually a delay between the strikes of lightning and the crashing of the thunder. The fear that had a death grip on my heart gradually started to loosen it’s stranglehold. I was done for the day though and thoughts of camping were long gone. All I wanted to do now was get back to my car and head for the safety of the low lying valley! Finally I picked up my ejected tent poles and shoving them back under my pack flap, I headed back up the trail retracing the steps I had made only hours earlier. Though it seemed like days, I made record time back to the tunnel, the dam and the parking lot. Not even the falls and their staggering amount of water stopped me. When a bit later I reached the civilization of a pay phone, I stopped to call my honey and let him know my change in plans. It was at this point that Gary told me this storm was so violent that it had produced tornados…one of which had torn the roof off of a nearby barn. Hearing this news, I stopped trying to lick my wounds so hard and contented myself with the knowledge that I had just done two days worth of miles in one day through hail, lightning and mudslides…and lived to tell the tale!
There is a reason I chose this hike...my tale not doing it justice! Check your weather forecast and head out to view two of Yosemite's premier falls, Wapama and Tueeulala Falls along the way to Rancheria Falls. Not many places as beautiful as this are available in the spring to hikers, when the high country lays under snow. But, Hetch Hetchy displays it's magical waterfalls and colorful wildflowers early in the spring...don't miss them!