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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



July 4th.

This has been a great day in the valley; it is the grand national holiday to celebrate the proclamation of American independence, and is observed throughout the States as a day of rejoicing. Unluckily for his neighbours, the owner of the hot-baths considered that as music is noise, all noise must be musical; so he made dawn hideous by turning on a shrieking steam-whistle, and when even his own ears could no longer endure the horrid din, the entertainment was varied by discharges of dynamite, in order to awaken the echoes.

This hotel and the wooden shanties were adorned with flags, and stars and stripes floated in every direction. The Indians and the guides ran pony-races, and a certain amount of feasting was managed. Then the dining-room was cleared for a grand ball, which is now in full swing. I sat for a long time in the verandah, watching the proceedings with great interest, and have rarely seen such precision anywhere, save in a dancing-school.

The good folk of the valley have already got up several balls for their own entertainment, so they are all in good practice. They appoint the best dancer present to be floor-master for the evening; and it is his duty to regulate the order of the dances, and to take the lead in each. This involves not only dancing as correctly as a dancing-master, but also calling out in a loud clear voice directions for each little bit of the figure in quadrille, lancers, or country-dance, as it begins. It does sound so curious, when you stand a little way from the house, to hear this ringing voice far above the feeble music of the fiddles!

Of course there is no excuse for not dancing accurately, and accordingly every one does so with the utmost gravity. All the men are dressed in most respectable black suits. I scarcely recognised our friendly horsekeepers and guides (whose ordinary garb is a most picturesque variety of coloured suits, with bright handkerchiefs and broad-brimmed hats) when they suddenly appeared in this serious garb, dancing with all the solemnity of dervishes, following the grave but graceful lead of the principal horsekeeper.

As I watched this unexpected display of elegance, I bethought me of the comment made by a Scotch coachman, as he gazed into a ball-room where “the quality” were disporting themselves. “Weel,” said he, “it really is a sight for the on-edicated, to see the deelicate way in which the gentry handle the weemen!”

I was the more astonished, because my preconceived ideas of a Californian ball-room had been rather rough, founded on tales from the mining districts. Some of the mining terms, which are very expressive in their ordinary application, are apt to be startling when applied to other subjects.

For instance, when a mine is fairly worked out, it is said to be “petered out”; and a thing which is complete, is said to be “plum.” So when a stranger chanced recently to enter a ball-room in a mining town, and asked a comely Californian girl to dance, he was slightly puzzled on her replying, “Well, young man, I’d like! you bet! But I guess my legs are just plum petered out!”

I guess some of my friends here will be pretty well petered out before morning, as they announce their intention of keeping up the ball till daylight; and I congratulate myself that my sleeping quarters in the other house are almost out of earshot of the floor-master’s concise words of command! How thankful I am that there can be no excuse for torturing the echoes tomorrow with that dreadful steam-whistle and thunderous explosives!

Yesterday a party of young men returned from a most successful camping-expedition in the High Sierras. It is about three weeks since they started from here, taking pack-mules to carry the very rudest of mountain-tents, blankets, cooking-pot and kettle, and as many stores as could be compressed into a very small compass. The Sierras supplied them with abundance of ice-cold water, and they were able occasionally to replenish the larder by a lucky shot. I think they bagged two deer and a bear, and found that steaks of the latter, grilled on a camp-fire, were not to be despised by hungry men. However, they award the palm to the good roast-mutton, fresh vegetables, and home-made bread, on which they supped last night.

They returned jubilant, having enjoyed every hour of their mountaineering, and they have acquired a sun-browned look of perfect health, very different to their colour when they came here from the Eastern States. I quite envy them their trip, though the condition of their garments, all tattered and torn, and especially of their once strong boots (now scarcely to be recognised as such), speaks volumes for the hard work they have accomplished in climbing and scrambling.

They say they have had no hardships to speak of, and have enjoyed uninterrupted fine weather. They camped some nights in grassy valleys, beside limpid streams, and at other times in magnificent forests, at a height of about 7000 feet above the sea (all coniferous, of course).

One of these gentlemen, who has travelled a good deal in the Swiss Alps, says there is no comparison between them and these Californian Alps in point of picturesque beauty, they are of such different types. The former are by far the most attractive. Their ice-fields and snows give them a character which is wholly lacking in the Sierras, where glaciers proper have long ceased to exist, though they have left abundant traces of their work in the mighty rocks, polished till they glisten in the light, and the great moraines, all strewn with the boulders and gravel deposited by the ice-rivers.

Then these valleys, beautiful though they be, are sunk so deep between precipitous gorges, as to produce little effect in a general view from any high point; and the vast ranges of cold grey granite, only relieved by the sombre green of pine-forests, becomes somewhat monotonous, however grand.

From my own experience of mountains, I should say that the Sierras are seen at a disadvantage, from the very circumstance which renders travelling here so delightful—namely, the unvarying fine weather of the summer months. All mountain scenery owes so much of its glory to the gloom which is only born of stormy skies; and here even a passing thunder-shower is a rare event during the glorious summer months.

These gentlemen scaled the prison walls (in other words, got out of the valley) by the zigzag trail which leads to the Yō-semitÚ Falls, thus reaching an upper world about 7000 feet above the sea-level. There they struck an Indian trail which brought them to Porcupine Flat, a grassy plateau, where they camped for the night, and next day ascended Mount Hoffmann, a bare mass of granite towering upwards of 10,000 feet above the sea, and terminating in a mighty precipice.

It is the crowning-point of a range dividing the streams which feed the Yō-semitÚ from those which flow to the Tenaya. The former spring from a group of small lakes which lie just at the foot of the mountain.

The ascent of Mount Hoffmann was an easy matter, and the view from the summit was very striking, owing to the number of ridges and peaks visible from thence, especially the beautiful group known as the Merced, because the River of Mercy has its sources among these cold mountains.

Descending from Mount Hoffmann, the camping-party very soon made their way to beautiful Lake Tenaya—a quiet mountain-tarn about a mile in length. They found delightful night-quarters beneath a group of pines at the head of the lake, and there made as cheery a camp as heart could desire. From here they looked across a valley glittering with beautiful little lakes, each surrounded by quaint granite pyramids and spires, to a very wonderful square-cut granite mass, apparently measuring about a thousand feet in every direction, and crowned at one end by a cluster of pinnacles towering several hundred feet higher. This is very appropriately named the Cathedral Peak; and, as seen from Lake Tenaya, the likeness to a grand Gothic cathedral is most remarkable.

Still following the trail by which the Indians annually travel to Mono Lake, the travellers next found themselves in the Tuolumne meadows, which are watered by a clear sparkling river. They lie in a most picturesque valley fully 9000 feet above the sea, and surrounded by peaks and ranges of from 12,000 to 13,000 feet in height. On the north side, about forty feet above the river, there are some chalybeate waters, called the Soda Springs, rather pleasant to drink. Near these they pitched their little tents, and indulged in soda-water to any amount.

Their next object was to reach the summit of Mount Dana, upwards of 13,000 feet. This also was accomplished without difficulty, and the climbers were rewarded with a magnificent view. On the one side, 7000 feet below them, and at a distance of six miles, lay the great Mono Lake—the Dead Sea of California—the waters of which are so strongly charged with mineral salts that no living thing can there exist, except the larvŠ of a small fly, which contrives to thrive and multiply to a very unpleasant extent.

Beyond this lake lies the barren desolate wilderness of snow-clad ranges and naked granite-peaks which compose the region known as the Grand Basin—a tract so dry and sterile that it has offered small temptation to encroaching white men. So here many Indians, original owners of fertile lands to the south, have been driven, to work out hard problems of existence on the hungry desert.

In the opposite direction lies Mount Lyell, which disputes supremacy with Mount Dana.1 The former is crowned by a sharp granite pinnacle which towers from a crest of eternal snow, and its base presents vast faces of precipice. The high snow-fields thereabouts bristle with hundreds of jagged granite-peaks and rock-needles averaging 12,000 feet.

[1The height of Mount Dana is said to be 13,227 feet; that of Mount Lyell is 13,217.]

Mount Dana, on the other hand, is a great mass of slate of a reddish-brown and green colour.

Beyond Mount Lyell they saw a magnificent peak, which they supposed to be Mount Ritter; and a little farther on the same mighty ridge, a series of majestic pinnacles of glittering white granite. They are known as the Minarets. All these peaks and minarets are considered inaccessible, which, I should think, was the sole reason which could possibly inspire any one with a wish to climb them.

The travellers did not seek a nearer acquaintance with the Lyell and Merced groups, though somewhat tempted by hearing that that region is accounted one of the wildest and grandest in the Sierras; but their chief anxiety was to visit a beautiful valley of the same character as this, called the Hetch-Hetchy Valley. It has only recently been discovered, having been one of the sanctuaries of the Pah-ute Indians, who reckon on always finding there an abundant acorn-harvest.

This valley is quite easy of access from the lower end, a trail having been made the whole way from Big Oak Flat. From the upper end, it is a difficult but very beautiful expedition; and this was the route naturally preferred by these young men, to whom a little extra climbing was no objection.

So from Mount Dana they returned to their former camping-ground at Soda Springs, and thence started on a twenty-miles march down the Tuolumne canyon, a deep and narrow gorge, through which the river rushes between precipitous granite cliffs, over a bed of glacier-polished rocks, making a rapid descent without any great falls, but forming a succession of most beautiful shelving rapids and foaming cascades. There are two perpendicular falls, which in any other country would be accounted worth travelling far to see, one of them being upwards of 200 feet in height—no trifle when the river is full, and pours its flood of melted snow in a grand cataract. But here these low falls are scarcely considered worth noticing.

Of course, no quadruped could attempt such a scramble as this expedition involved, over rocks so smooth and polished as to make walking disagreeable and rather dangerous. So the pack-mules were led round by a trail which strikes off at Lake Tenaya, and enters the Tuolumne valley at a beautiful point just below the “White Cascades,” where the river falls rapidly in sheets of dazzling foam. A little farther down the canyon they found a lovely little meadow—green pastures beside still waters,—for the river here runs level for about a mile, and lies in quiet reaches as if resting after its feverish turmoil. Here they camped, greatly to the satisfaction of the mules, who revelled in the abundance of all good things. As they could not possibly be taken farther, they had the privilege of remaining in these pleasant pastures till the return of their masters, who, carrying with them only necessary food, dispensed with such superfluities as tents, and even blankets, and proceeded on their scramble down the canyon.

It varies greatly in width, being in some places simply a gorge, hemmed in by almost vertical cliffs, upwards of 100 feet in depth, seeming to touch the sky on either side, while the river rushes on in a succession of lovely cascades and rapids, similar to those which they had passed on the previous day.

At other points the canyon widens and forms a green valley, where pines and firs have found shelter, and grow in stately beauty. But in the narrower gorges there is not a vestige of soil—only the smooth shining slabs of granite, polished and scratched by the great glacier which once filled the valley to the depth of 800 or 1000 feet, up to which height its markings are clearly visible on the cliffs.

There are some beautiful falls, just where the Cathedral Creek (which has its source at the Cathedral Peak) joins the Tuolumne, and above these rises a stupendous mass of granite known as the Grand Mountain. It is a huge bare rock FOUR THOUSAND FEET in height. Just imagine what a great solid giant!—nearly 1000 feet higher than the mighty crag El Capitan, which guards the entrance of this valley!

Below this the gorge narrows, and the river flows between steep rock-walls, till it enters the Hetch-Hetchy valley, which is almost a counterpart of Yō-semitÚ on a smaller scale. It is a crescent-shaped valley, about three miles in length, and half a mile wide at the broadest part. It lies 3650 feet above the sea, and, like Yō-semitÚ, its level green meadows are sunk between high vertical granite crags. When the snows are melting in spring, one of these is almost a facsimile of El Capitan, but is only 1800 feet high. It has just such a fall as that which beautifies its great brother at the same season. There is also a huge rock 2270 feet high, which strongly resembles the Cathedral rock in the Yō-semitÚ.

Then the great Hetch-Hetchy Fall is almost a replica of the “Great Grizzly” in this valley. Certainly it is only 1700 feet high, and is less perpendicular than the Yō-semitÚ Fall; but it has a larger volume of water, and is exceedingly beautiful. In the spring-time many additional falls pour into the valley, which terminates in a gorge so narrow that the waters thus accumulated cannot escape, but form a large lake, flooding the meadows, which later in the season afford pasturage to the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle which are driven up from Big Oak Flat.

There is a good deal of fine timber in the valley,—in short, the exploring party all agree that it is a very grand spot, though by no means so stupendous as this valley. This verdict greatly consoles me, as I am not likely to visit it; and the few people who have previously described it to me have, I fancy, rather unduly extolled it, and made me feel as if I was bound to undergo any amount of fatigue rather than miss seeing it.

The fact is, I do feel very idle as regards making any effort to visit distant points. All my immediate surroundings here are so perfectly beautiful, and the views of the Sierras, from any of the near points, are so extensive and so grand, that I am satisfied, and feel no inclination to face the discomforts of camp-life. This green valley is my Capua; it holds me spellbound, and magnifies all the difficulties and fatigues involved in an expedition to the High Sierras: so you must rest content with a vague dream of interminable granite-ranges—a wilderness of bare ridges, with here and there a fantastic knob or pinnacle, and on every side dark-green pine-forests, so that the general effect of the landscape is that of a troubled grey sea, here and there tinged with dull green.

Such is the prosaic vision I conjure up whenever my locomotive demon bids me be up and away. But it really is no hardship to camp out in such a blessed climate as this,—a few carefully laid young boughs of red fir make a couch as fragrant and as springy as a closely packed bed of heather, with the blossoms set upright. And then the stillness of the great Sierras and the solemn gloom of the forest, canopied by the wondrously blue scarlet heavens, have an indescribable fascination, which often tempts me to go and camp out myself. But then comes the one grand argument which counteracts all romance, and decides me in favour of this pleasant little room upstairs; and the argument is summed up in one word—RATTLESNAKES!

July 12th.

Ever since the day in spring when the deep snow foiled our attempt to reach the summit of Cloud’s Rest, I have been purposing to make it out, but never did so till yesterday.

I arranged overnight to join the sisters at the cottage, and ride up together in the first gleam of dawn.

Something occurred to detain them, so I rode on alone up the dewy valley, through the azalea-thickets and the great clumps of dark pine, rejoicing in the sweet freshness of the morning air and the blessed silence. Only the faint breeze murmured melodiously as it rustled amid the pine-boughs, and the blue jays chattered to their mates.

Through the night there had been a soft summer shower, and now wreaths of slowly curling vapour floated among the crags, becoming ever thinner and more transparent, till there remained only a luminous haze, which magnified rocks and trees, transforming them to spectral giants.

The beautiful Illillouette canyon still lay in deep gloom as I crossed its crystal stream and began the steep ascent of the Merced canyon. Presently the pine-crested summits of the highest crags shone like rubies in the light of the rising sun, and a misty golden glow stole through the forest, and gleamed on the polished face of the great Glacier Point, while the pine-woods in the deep gulches assumed a bluer shade of purple.

I wonder if the remembrance of the loveliest expeditions you ever made in the Highlands will help your imagination to fill in this outline of an enchanting morning ride, throwing in wild flowers, and golden mosses, and squirrels, and notes of birds, and all manner of beautiful details.

On reaching the little rest-house at the foot of the Nevada Falls I found three very pleasant Anglo-Indians1 just starting thence for the same bourne, under the care of one of the guides—Murphy by name—a rugged old Californian of the ideal type. So, leaving a message for the sisters I joined these pilgrims from the Indian land, and we rode on together, toiling up the steep trail by the lovely Nevada Falls (which seem as full as ever, though the snow-fed Yō-semitÚ Falls have shrunk to a quarter of their spring volume, and all the temporary falls have quite dried up).

[1I may venture to name Mr and Mrs Ernest Birch and Sir John Campbell Brown as the companions of this delightful day.]

The mountain meadows near which, on our first visit, we gathered the crimson snow-flowers, are now transformed to fairy-like lawns of flowery pasture, where sheep are browsing contentedly, while here and there a solitary Indian wanders along the sparkling stream, thence alluring many a speckled trout.

Skirting the base of the huge Split Dome (which George Anderson, regarding the giant with all the pride of a conqueror, frequently invites me to ascend under his able guidance, but which I consider as a feat too dangerous to compensate for the risk), we gradually ascended into the higher forest, composed chiefly of Douglas spruce, yellow pine, and silver fir, with here and there open glades or “parks”— i.e., grassy slopes, dotted with clumps of aspen, and cotton-wood, and flowering dog-wood; green valleys, watered by clear rippling streamlets—most tempting feeding-ground for deer.

These forests are singularly open—no sombre gloom about them. Nowhere are the pines so crowded as to lose their individuality, even where they are most richly massed. Each solemn pyramid rises distinctly, preserving its own dignity, and allowing the sunlight to play freely on the flowers and mosses which carpet the ground below.

I am told by men who know the Sierras well, that each species of fir seems to prefer a special altitude, so that an experienced forester can form a fair estimate of the height to which he has climbed by observing what class of trees predominate, and their condition, whether flourishing, or dwarfed and poor. Of course the same species may clothe the mountains for a space of several thousand feet; but whereas on the lower levels only small pines stand singly or in scattered groups (their stunted growth telling of seasons of drought and scorching), an ascent of 4000 to 5000 feet brings him to the true pine-belt.

At this level all the loveliest species of the cone-bearing family grow in stately groups, like stanch clansmen ranged around their chief. The magnificent silver fir seems to prefer a somewhat higher level of this middle zone, in which alone the trees attain perfection, apparently finding the richest soil and most equable climate halfway between the thirsty foot-hills and the storm-swept summits.

The mountain-ridges are indeed sprinkled to a height of about 12,000 feet, with dwarfed, gnarled trees, that look as weather-beaten as the disintegrated rock to which they cling. They stand mute witnesses to the ceaseless battles which, through long years, they have waged with wintry winds, and frosts, and snows, in that hungry upper world, where these frugal hermits derive their sole nourishment from the dews of heaven and its sunlight.

Following a very circuitous route, we eventually found ourselves at the back of Cloud’s Rest, which we then ascended by so gentle a gradient that we were able to ride almost to the summit. There we found the sisters quietly seated at luncheon—Manuel, the Spanish guide, having brought them up by a very dangerous short cut, where one of the horses had fallen backward, but, wonderful to relate, had not seriously damaged either himself or his rider.

Never was luncheon more acceptable; but mine was hurried over, to allow time for a careful bird’s-eye drawing from this high point, 10,000 feet above the sea. Just in front of us, but 1000 feet lower, rose the Split Dome—the strangest, ghostliest-looking crag in all creation.

We had left the valley all aglow with rich colour—greenest meadows and foliage, in which gold and russet, with touches of crimson, mingled with the dark hue of the pine-woods. Here we suddenly found ourselves on a bare granite summit, overlooking a world of white granite domes and ledges and crags—a pale spirit-world in which all is colourless—spectral even in the sunlight; and how weird it must be in the moonlight!

Here and there huge rock-masses stand prominent, suggesting ancient keeps; but the general effect is rather that of a boundless ocean of motionless waves—range beyond range of undulating, arid ridges extending in grand sweeps to the farthest horizon,—a vast expanse of white and grey and green—quiet harmonious greys and sober greens. Overhead a canopy of clear cold blue and floating clouds, white and dazzling as the snow on the distant peaks, but casting light drifting shadows on the pale world below.

A deathlike stillness pervades the scene—not a cry of beast nor voice of bird breaks the deep silence which reigns in this high wilderness.

Overlooking this wide expanse of billowy mountain-ranges, we could trace the course of ancient glaciers by the tinge of green, telling of distant forests that have sprung up wherever the ice-rivers once flowed (bearing on their smooth surface the boulders loosened by the action of frost from the great domes and pinnacles), crushing and grinding the rock-pavement, and at last depositing the crumbling rocks and boulders, and so forming moraines—virgin soil, on which vegetation mush have seemed to spring up by magic, clothing that gravelly bed with tender green.

Then, as the soil deepened with the decay of successive ages, the forests came into being, growing year by year more luxuriantly wherever the deposit of the moraines gave them a chance, and skirting the pavements of smooth granite so highly polished by the Ice-king that no crumbling soil could there find a resting-place, and not even the humblest moss could grow, or has been able to do so to the present day. So the forest-robes of the Grey Giants act the part of skirts rather than of mantle, since the bare shoulders remain exposed and cold.

To the right we looked down a steep slope of 6000 feet of the barest granite slabs, into the vast chasm, wherein the valley lies in green repose, half in light and half in shadow, and a wavering line of blue and silver marks the course of the River of Mercy.

We lingered so long on the summit that the day was far gone ere we commenced the descent; and as we rode through the forest glades, we caught lovely vistas of the distant hills, no longer grey and ghastly, but etherealised by the golden rays of a level sun—a mellow glow, blending all harsh lines in a flood of glory, and changing the sombre hues of the pine-forests to a rich velvety golden green.

Presently the gold changed to a flush of crimson, and this to ethereal amethyst, lighting up the summits of the Sierras with glittering pinnacles. Range beyond range seemed to blend in that rosy light, while the pine-clad valleys lay steeped in varying shades of purply blue. Every tint of rose and violet, deepening to purple and indigo, was successively thrown on the landscape, as if the sinking sun were trying a series of effects with coloured fire.

When the sunset light seemed to have quite died away, and all our world lay in shadow, then commenced an after-glow, in which colour seemed to run riot—blue-grey clouds were fringed with orange and vermilion, while dove-colour became crimson.

Leaving the Anglo-Indians at the Nevada Falls resthouse, I followed the river with the sisters, taking the short cut down the wooden ladders, while Manuel led the horses round by the long trail. It was pitch-dark ere he rejoined us, and, tired as I was, I preferred walking down the canyon to trusting the chances of a fall among the boulders, though in truth the beasts were surer of foot than any human being.

So I was not sorry when, at 10 p.m., we saw the lights of the village, and were welcomed back with Californian heartiness. The great feature of the scratch supper that awaited us was a large basket of splendid ripe blackberries from the low country, where they are grown for the market as we grow raspberries. They lose the wild gamey flavour which makes our blackberry rank above other fruits, as grouse above other birds; but they are nevertheless excellent, especially when accompanied by a good bowl of rich cream.

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