Yosemite Fall 2013 Field Report: Fire on the mountain, rain in the clouds

commuting chronicles, photo essay, states

I’d been traveling for half a day by Amtrak, YARTS (Yosemite Area Rapid Transit Service), and foot from Sacramento, before I finally reached Yosemite via the West entrance at  13:00 hours on Tuesday, September 10th. By this time, although 80% contained, what was being called ‘The Rim Fire’ had burned over 250,000 acres making it the 3rd largest wildfire in Californian history. As a result, a closure on Tioga Pass (Hwy 120) from Crane Flat to White Wolf, prevented any through traffic from the Eastern Sierra’s to the Western Valleys. Like many others in the vicinity my journey to Yosemite Valley took numerous detours because of this closure. Allison and I, a college friend and federal lands employee, had started our 8.5 day tour in Sacramento, driven south to Kings Canyon, then Bakersfield, cut east, and then north to Bishop, Mammoth, and Tahoe, and finally, heading back into Sacramento via Truckee, completing a circle. Back at our arrival point, Allison departed to Wyoming by plane and I continued to the West entrance solo. To estimate how many individuals might have experienced similar detours, in summers passed, Yosemite visitor numbers have averaged 1 million for August and September combined. This estimate doesn’t even begin to account for employees who were evacuated, through traffic that doesn’t stop in the park, or the many dirt bag climbers who sneak into Yosemite annually because of the strictly enforced one-week-per-summer rule prohibiting lengthy stays.

Allison and I had a chance to visit with some individuals effected by The Rim Fire and associated closure of Tioga, folks who started out as strangers and quickly became friends through the shared experience of a Central California detour. We first encountered the rag-tag crew of 8-10 evacuees from Evergreen (a lodge just outside the west entrance Yosemite boundaries), in the Buttermilks, a crag near Bishop, CA. They had crammed into two cars when at a moments noticed they were directed to exit the park for an unknown and unpaid duration of time. Despite the hazard of unpredictable evacuations, the lodge still sounded like an interesting employment opportunity. Others I encountered in Tahoe had been preparing to hike the John Muir Trial and were anticipating what obstacles the inferno might have left behind, terrestrial and aerial. Finally, on the last stretch, now aboard Yosemite Area Rapid Transit Shuttle, my driver, who accessed the park daily through out the largest advancement of the fire, filled me in on ‘locals knowledge’. He explained how the inferno had ignited from an illegal camp fire a hunter lit in the back country. He also explained that he had been the only person to drive on Tiago pass since it’s closure to transport a government official and film crew. Apparently, the fire had spread up to the road as evidenced by severely charred and still smoldering debris blanketing the pavement and hillsides.

Surprisingly, the first signs of forest fire our road trip witnessed weren’t evident until a few miles from the East gate closure on Tioga pass at White Wolf. In Kings Canyon the rangers explained that, although less than 100 miles from Yosemite, air quality wasn’t noticeably effected by the Rim Fire due to wind direction and atmospheric signs of fire would be observable just north of the East gate. As these rangers estimated, baring the billowing smoke lining the horizon inside the East gate of the park, near Tuolumne Meadows, the first signs of air quality change were along scenic route 89, just shy of Tahoe.

Speculation and fact coalesced into a strong desire to see the park from inside the valley. Sitting on the bus, driving the final stretch of HWY 140, talk of what Yosemite looked like just before evacuations, the hype surrounding the closure, the haze that was building on the horizon as we drove due northwest, all danced like sugar plums in my head. I imagined the combination of low-lying valley geography, smoke settling from the fire, and world class glacially carved granite faces to be the makings of an amazing landscape photograph. I had two goals: 1. Obtain the most epic shot of the valley ever (accented by a shroud of smoke form The Rim Fire), 2. Secure a permit to hike half dome (18 miles round trip) to get additional shots. Half dome would be the ideal vantage point for photos because of the high perspective looking over White Wolf, the burn area. What I wasn’t thinking about, what I wasn’t considering, was the tent I had allowed Allison to take back to Wyoming. It hadn’t rained a significant amount in the Yosemite Valley vicinity for over 75 days (according to NOAA). I made a calculated decision that a tent wouldn’t be necessary.

13:00 hours:

Stepping out of the shuttle, even in the awe of the legendary Yosemite Valley, lethargy of ambient transit encouraged me to meet my basic needs before I could accomplish the two objectives I’d set for the trip. My basic needs at this time included finding a plot to set my bed roll (remember I’d been cocky enough to for-go the necessity of a tent), eating an instant bowl of rice and revealing myself in the lavatory.

Approaching the camping office at curry village a gentleman with slick Oakleys’ and sleeves stopped me, told me he had been riding the same bus as I into the park and inquired as to my campsite needs? ‘Perfect’ I thought to myself and followed him to the sight he’d been assigned on the furthest nether reaches of the shuttle line. On the walk to our site two things were increasingly obvious, signs of the fire were barely present in the valley, it really was condensed to the rim, and the bartender gone rouge I would be sharing a site with had never spent a night outside in his life. If the untarnished back pack and associated polished gear wasn’t indication of his novice, the story he recited was. He said he’d journeyed from a far off land called ‘San Diago’, sold nearly everything owned and hoped to start a back country adventure. The only reason he’d reserved a campsite, lucky for me, was at his mother’s bequest. She insisted he get his barrings before heading ‘Into the Wild’. I’d never been so grateful for a mothers over protection.

14:00 hours:

Upon arrival to site 52, I shoved my 80L Dana Designs pack in to the bear box, engaged the combination lock I’d purchased at CVS pharmacy the night before, and loaded my 30L Tatanka day pack with my Canon 60D, tripod, notebook, and instant rice bowl. Lastly, I bid my new plot mate, dude from San Diago, adu as he awkwardly attempted to pitch a none-free standing tent. I remember thinking the stakes were arranged in such a way that the fly wasn’t nearly taught enough to keep him dry if it rained, but it wasn’t going to rain right?

Aboard the free valley floor shuttle I reached my destination, Yosemite Village to poach some hot water for my rice bowl, in no time. On the way, I dropped in Ansel Adams gallery and received bata from the curator that Tunnel View would be the ideal location to capture the shot I coveted, El Cap in the foreground, Half Dome in the background, big wall shoulders cloaked in a sepia haze. The down side was no public passenger service ventured to this portion of the park, where all roads leading into Yosemite merged. I considered a bike rental but after $23 on the train ticket and $13 on the bus, $25 dollars for a bike was going to break the bank. Besides I still had to shell out for half the camp site and a back country permit for half dome. This is where shamelessness came in handy. I am glad inviting myself to sit with strangers when all tables are filled at any given eatery isn’t something I shy away from or I mightn’t have met the gorgeous Kiwi who offered to drive me to Tunnel View.

16:00 hours:

Atop Tunnel View, after a brief drive that would have taken me hours walking, I was standing before of the most exquisite shot. There, El Cap and Cathedral Rocks faced each other like guardians of a sacred, deeply cut U shaped valley, the gate way to the glorious Half Dome, who delicately peaked out from behind the haze in the distance. The Kiwi told me I was lucky for the visibility because the day before it wouldn’t have been clear enough to see Half Dome at this distance. Although I was taken captive by the dramatic fixtures before me, if not as a fascinated geologist and mediocre climber, than as a innocent bystander, my awe was short lived realizing how little time I had before the evening closure of the back country ranger station which issued permits to climb Half Dome.

16:30 hours:

I was at the permit issuing station in no time. After clarifying with the ranger what permits were available, I immediately new I would have to ‘pretend’ I was spending the night in the back country that evening because there were no longer single day use passes available, only over night access. I was relieved to be staying at site 52, off the grid. Permit in hand, I headed to the meadow adjacent to Yosemite Village where I had cased a great sun set shot of half dome. Victory appeared eminent on all objectives.

17:00 hours:

I was so stoked to have a permit to climb Half Dome for the following morning, I was literally filming a summary monolog of the days events, sunset shadows cast upon Half Dome, when the first crashes of thunder hit my ear drums. Looking back, premature celebration isn’t a favorable choice in the eyes of the wise. Perhaps my purchase of celebratory turkey jerky and kettle chips encouraged the Yosemite Gods to follow through on the 20% chance of rain forecast. It was at this time that I realized the darkness encompassing the skyline was actually a gray cloud, ready to burst any second. With in minutes serious amounts of water were being released from the sky.

At this time, like most who cannot accept there own glaring lapses in judgment, I refused to accept that my plans would have to change. I hurriedly headed back towards site 52 where I planned to scout the trail head to Half Dome. I wanted to be prepared for my 4:30 am departure in the darkness. I also wanted to brain “storm” solutions to my ‘no tent’ dilemma. Dude from ‘San Diago’ had some ideas. He insisted that his 3.5 x 2 x 6 triangle-slung-crookedly-across-the-lowest-ground was of two person regulation. He even offered to show me the paper work. It was such a generous offer for such a modest space, call me a skeptic but one had to question the motivation. I thanked him politely and told him I would consider it.

18:30 hours:

While riding the shuttle over to scope the stables for an inconspicuous awning that one might huddle below during a midnight down pour, my driver offered a last minute resort. She could sneak me into the employee dorms as a contingency. We agreed that if I could find no other alternative, we would rendezvous just after 22:00 hours at the shuttle stop next to site 52. She instructed me to tell no one of the plan and not to board any other buses. It all seemed so forbidden. As they tend to, my ethical transgressions were beginning to pile.

19:00 hours:

Finally, with no awnings found, options exacerbated, facing a night in the not-so-two-man tent with dude form ‘San Diago’ or sneaking into employee dorms where arrest wouldn’t be a unlikely outcome, as the last minutes of twilight were slipping over the horizon, I accepted my laps in judgment. Perhaps it was a bit of a gamble to enter the valley without a tent after all. With the clarity that typically accompanies acceptance, I had two realizations. 1. It was highly unlikely Half Dome would be climb-able in the morning. Rangers have been known to shut the cables down for far less then a combination of thunder, lightning, and a torrential down pour. 2. There was one last shuttle leaving the park and heading back to Merced, and it left in 1 hour. To get on the shuttle, I needed to find a pay phone (no cell service) to call my cousin in Turlock (20 minutes from Merced) for a ride and then be at the bus stop by 20:00 hours. Somehow, in the rain, with 40 lbs of gear, I was able to walk the mile to the one pay phone in the park that I knew of. The real miracle happened when I was able to beg .50 cents change to call my cousin.

I am overwhelmed by a sense of irony at nearly every twist during this 7 hour period in Yosemite. The nature in which I obtained possession of the wilderness permit was ethically questionable at best. The permits are limited as a measure to protect Natural Resources and I supposed I allowed my intimate knowledge of ‘Leave No Trace’ and other such protective wilderness practices to be the reasons I wouldn’t “leave an impact” and therefore “didn’t need to follow the rules”. The reality is: there were no day permits for Half Dome on September 11th, ranger sanctioned or not, the climb got shut down for weather related reasons. The decision was made for me by the Yosemite Gods. Ethics aside, admission of a self jinx over early celebration is also in order.

In regards to not bringing a shelter, the irony is palpable. I could be annoyed that it rained on the one night I chose to stay over in Yosemite after 2.5 months of drought- but, how angry can I be? At some point we must afford inconvenience for a greater cause. If watering a fire that effects 250,000 acres of pristine wilderness isn’t a greater cause, I don’t know what is. In retrospect, the real epic would have happened if my cousin didn’t answer her phone. Would I have chosen a not-so-two-person-tent or sneaking into the dorms? I really can’t say. I am content with having met one goal, knowing there will be future opportunity to meet the second goal and conceding that epics don’t happen when things go according to the plan. I much prefer the fertile ground of reckless abandon to the sterile bedding of futile preparation.

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