There are two great river-arteries that flow into the heart of the Valley. The steeper, deeper one is the Tenaya Creek canyon.
Escaping the fun-house, claustrophobic Valley floor on a hot August weekend, we leave the shuttle car in the JMT parking lot. The “soft, succulent” people John Muir spoke about a century ago are all about, parading around the Valley in skimpy bathing suits far too small for their Dorito-enhanced forms.
We spend about a half-hour in a late afternoon Valley traffic jam. I expect the circus elephants to cross the road any minute.
Finally we reach the Tioga Road, headed for cooler climbs and wilderness adventure. Mike and I leave the cares and worries of civilization behind. Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, Tioga Pass, and finally Lee Vining Canyon pass by as we head to our east-side camp.
Early next morning, we drive back up to the Sunrise trailhead. Tenaya Creek is barely a trickle out of Tenaya Lake. No clouds and hot weather in the forecast. Perfect.
We rock hop across the gentle brook and follow the trail for a while. After about 20 minutes or so, we arbitrarily leave the trail to follow the creek in the gentle Tuolumne pine forests.
Multiple crossings later, we arrive at a magnificent, ice carved white rock bowl. Every bit of soil and vegetation has been scoured clean by the ice-rivers of eons past. Tenaya Creek, which has gained a little more flow, rumbles and tumbles right down the rock, oblivious to the fact that creeks are supposed to flow in defined channels. How impressive it would be at high water!
We descend to the bottom of the low-angle bowl and follow the creek for a while longer, arriving at a pool just above the gnarly drops of the Pywiack Cascade. Wildflowers rim the southern edge of the pool, with the precipitous face of Mount Watkins setting the background to the northwest. Small rainbow trout rise to the early morning hatch.
Up more slabs on the dome shaped ridge, to avoid the Cascades. I arrive at the top of the gentle ridge, which a peculiar round boulder meets me, a sentinel to remind me that we are on route. Half Dome commands undivided attention, as usual. Nothing but downhill to go.
The slabs quickly become steep. Not fun, the thought of tumbling and bouncing into Yosemite’s own Bermuda Triangle. Frequent detours through alder-thicket brush, to avoid ever steeper drops, slows our progress. We labor on. Mike wonders aloud when the fun is supposed to begin.
Near the bottom Mike utters a stream of obscenities. He has run into a true hornet’s nest, and has the battle scars to prove it. After he takes some aloe and antihistamine, we continue on. Both of us, especially him, are grateful he is not allergic to bees.
Finally, the last of the slabs are passed and we reach the bottom of the “Lost Valley.” I will not be planning my next vacation to this place, the antithesis of Shangri-La. It is nothing but a thicket of dense brush, interrupted occasionally by loose and difficult to navigate boulder-talus. At times, the two combine forces to combat our progress.
After a spirited fight through several hundred feet of yet another willow-alder gauntlet, we reach the streambed of Tenaya Creek, its flows buffered by a collection of small seeps and springs. Travel down the creek is easy, for a while, as we wade down the creek.
We arrive at the head of the Inner Gorge. An emerald pool shimmers below the waterfall at our feet. I search in vain for the bolts of the “Initial Ledge.” Should we go on or head back? Finally, I take a closer look. A large boulder at the top of the falls will make a suitable anchor. Today, the whole of the Inner Gorge experience will be ours.
We rap down the waterfall. Exhilarating. Refreshing. The warm weather and low flows ensures that the water remains cool, and not spring runoff cold.
I reach the bottom of the falls and lower into the emerald pool, which is deep, endlessly deep. I swim to the pool’s edge. Mike follows shortly afterward. Lush ferns sway along the vertical rock walls, which reach as high as 4,000 feet to the lofty, isolated summit of the Cloud’s Rest.
The next few hours are spent wading, swimming, rock hopping, and enjoying this amazing, isolated place. Truly wild, this watery artery linking the Valley and the Tuolumne High Country, remains. Rainbow trout, which have never seen a fly, bait, or lure in there lifetimes, occasionally rise to take a mayfly dancing on the water. From time to time, this steeply tilted chasm narrows precipitously, forcing us into yet more rappelling down the massive boulders.
In the late afternoon. we reach an impasse. It seems like there is no way down – are we going to be stuck here for the evening. I see a sand-ramp leading up to a seemingly blank rock wall. I investigate and find the Inner Gorge’s “keyhole”, a 3-foot per side equilateral triangle shaped hole that provides passage through an otherwise blank, steep, smooth wall.
Bodies first, then packs later, we squish through the keyhole. Now, we need to find a way to get back down to the creek. No anchors for help, dead ends abound. The only path of forward progress is an endless, rubble strewn ledge – thankfully it is pretty wide.
Finally, at the end of the ledge is the bomb two-bolt anchor for a 70-foot or so rappel, the solution to the last real obstacle of the Inner Gorge. The Gorge is now entirely cast in shadows. Not much further to go though.
We find a few more rappel anchors shortly after. One last rappel-swim brings us to the mouth of the Inner Gorge. We are warmed by the late evening sun.
Only the lower, easier non-technical portion of the lower Gorge remains. However, the long light that lingers on the high peaks is not one shared by deep river valleys, and we are tired, the many obstacles of the day have taken their toll. The ever-thickening forest and the frequently disappearing Tenaya Creek blot out the moonlight.
Even our headlamps cannot guide us through. That means lowest bivy ever, with Mike’s altimeter reading a less than alpine 5,400 feet. To prospective California canyoneers, Secor’s advice to take two days is not bad to heed.
Mike is rightfully pissed as I did not promise this much water-logged adventure and suffering, but as we are lifelong friends those thoughts will easily pass in the months ahead.
In Muir-like fashion we find a bed of leaves to allow the warm summer night to pass. That’s what emergency blankets – thankfully I brought 3 - are for anyway. The night is not so bad. Cell coverage is good, so I let the wife and the office know that Monday will not be a work day as planned.
The walk out the next day is equally mild, although as the car approaches I am very happy to see the Valley, which two days ago all I wanted to do was escape.