Monday, June 14, 2010

Six days in Yosemite

The Miwok Indians, the original inhabitants of Yosemite, called the verdant valley Ahwahnee or "mouth" because of it's resemblance to a gaping bear's mouth. Once the home to grizzly bears and grey wolves, Yosemite now sees around 4 million visitors a year.

My first visit to the valley was facilitated by my friend Joody, who has spent the last six years in Yosemite as a park ranger. I felt very blessed to have someone who knew all the secret paths that led away from the swarms of overweight tourists in their rented RVs. We spent the majority of the week hiking off-trail to hidden swimming holes and remote waterfalls.

Every spring, the rivers and waterfalls surge with water as the snow melts from the high country. According to Joody's ranger friends, this spring has brought a particularly bountiful volume of snow melt, resulting in extremely turbulent rivers, swelling waterfalls, and flooding of usually dry meadows. Here I am swimming in the sun-warmed pools in El Cap meadow, which is normally covered only in grass.

You can see the blades of wild grass beneath the reflection of the granite cliffs... it was soft on the feet and tickled when you swam over it.

Another view from a dryer part of the meadow...

Here you can see the flooded meadows from the top of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, an eleven pitch 10c climb I did with two French men I fortuitously met, Julien and Xavier.

Here is Middle Cathedral, considered one of the 50 classic climbs in North America, as seen from across the valley on El Cap. The 1100 foot route goes up the mid-left section of the cliff, descending behind the mountain on several repels and a long, exhausting field of scree populated by aggressive mosquitoes.

Here is Julien starting the crux pitch- a sloping slab with microscopic holds- my favorite kind of climbing.

Here's a close up of the intricate beauty of the granite- something I spent a long time observing while hanging at belays.

Another phenomena I spent most of the day observing was the wild, anomalous clouds, including these radiating spires coming from behind El Cap, and this corkscrew cloud that appeared to be shooting out of a spire across the valley.

The climb was a success, so two days later we decided to try something much more challenging- a route called Free Blast, the first ten pitches on the Salathé Wall, one of the original technical climbing routes on El Cap. Royal Robbins referred to the Salathé Wall as "the greatest rock climb in the world;" it's also included in the 50 classic climbs of North America.

I hesitantly agreed to come along, knowing full well that I was signing up for a day of suffering, fear, and challenge.

We started climbing a little after 6 am, beginning the first pitch of 10c finger crack as the sun broke over the trees. A novice crack climber, I groveled my way up the first pitch, grunting and sweating as my anxiety about my ability to complete the climb grew from mild hesitation to intense preoccupation. When I reached the first belay, I asked as casually as possible, between panting breaths, if I could see the route description. What I thought was going to be a climb of six pitches of 10c was actually going to be ten pitches of 11b. Shit. That'll teach me to do my homework.

Determined not to make Free Blast the third multi-pitch route that I've had an emotional breakdown on, I kept my qualms to myself and endured the freezing wind intermingled with broiling sun on the 100-million-year-old rock. By the time we reached the eighth pitch, a supposedly 5.8 chimney that was one of the hardest pitches of climbing I've ever done due to my lack of chimney-know-how, I was falling asleep while hanging at the belay. Here is Xavier traversing the roof, about to begin the chimney of DOOM!!

Eventually, we finished the route as the sun descended behind the valley walls. Rather than using words to explain how I felt at the end of the day, I think these two intricately related images will suffice:

Battered and sore, the next day, Joody and I hiked on hidden trails through mist and moss to the prolific Yosemite falls...

...coming to the rainbow at the end of the trail, springing from the spray of the falls over the edge of the cliff.

At the end of the day, we descended into a secret cave, squeezing our way through the pitch black, muddy passages of rock and stone, and somehow spotting this snake eating a frog in the light of our headlamps on the way out. Whoo!!

Yesterday I said to farewell to the magical peaks of Yosemite, including Half Dome- the 87-million-year-old monolith of granite, which the Miwoks called T’ssiyakka, or crying girl, because of its resemblance to a weeping woman's profile.

Next stop... Los Angeles.

Friday, June 4, 2010

An afternoon in the Berkley Botanical Gardens

Upon arriving in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, my lovely friend Joody whisked me away to the UC Berkley Botanical Gardens. We spent the next few hours roaming around a spring paradise of flowers from around the world, taking the time to spot lizards and snakes darting into the foliage and to watch beetles and bees going about their business with the flowers.

The garden is separated into various world regions, like this lotus garden in the Asian section...

...or these rugged desert plants in the arid South American section.

Other beautiful sights included poppies before blooming...

and after.

Anyone who has ever walked past a floral section of a grocery store with me knows how much I love smelling flowers- I just can't resist the possibility of a sweet smelling bloom.

I was so pleased to discover that Joody shares my penchant for olfactory delights. She proved to be an enthusiastic participant in smelling every rose bush in sight, comparing the subtle differences in scents between the various varieties and colors- some with a hint of lemon, some with a splash of spice.

We wandered the ambrosial rose garden, filling our lungs with the literally intoxicating smell, fully enjoying the sensual experience.


We walked away from the roses a little dizzy and blissful, following the meandering stone paths through the Chinese medicinal plant garden, past the culinary herb section, right onto the edge of a private party. We peeked into the walled veranda bordered with palms, our eyes brimming with longing when we viewed the plates of cookies and glasses of white wine that the lucky party-goers were touting. Now suddenly very thirsty and hungry, we decided to crash the exclusive event- if only for a cold glass of chardonnay. With a few furtive glances, we snuck past the three piece latin band, straight to the bar. Success.

We eventually discerned that we were at a celebration for post-doc Berkley students, which explained the prevalence of glasses and the lack of suntans on the other attendants. Joody and I became acutely aware of our yoga pants and tank tops amidst the sea of khaki pants, collared shirts, and modestly tailored sun dresses- it was quite obvious we were crashers. With four glasses of wine and a pile of cookies in our stomachs, we decided to call it a victory and escape before being noticed.

We relocated to a giant rock overlooking the bay, watching the sunset while clouds like giant sea creatures migrated across the misty sky.