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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



Saturday, 4th May.

No wonder the Indians reverence the beautiful Yō-semité Falls. Even the white settlers in the valley cannot resist their influence, but speak of them with an admiration that amounts to love. Some of them have spent the winter here, and seem almost to have enjoyed it!

They say that if I could see the falls in their winter robes, all fringed with icicles, I should gain a glimpse of fairyland. At the base of the great fall the fairies build a real ice-palace, something more than a hundred feet high. It is formed by the ever falling, freezing spray; and the bright sun gleams on this glittering palace of crystal, and the falling water, striking upon it, shoots off in showers like myriad opals and diamonds.

Now scarcely an icicle remains, and the falls are in their glory. I had never dreamt of anything so lovely. As you know, I am not a keen lover of waterfalls in general, and am sometimes inclined to vote them a bore, when enthusiastic people insist on leaving the blessed sunshine to go ever so far down a dank, damp ravine, to see some foolish dribblet.

But here we stand in the glorious sunlight, among pine-trees of a couple of hundred feet in height; and they are pigmies like ourselves in presence of even the lowest step of the stately fall, which leaps and dashes from so vast a height that it loses all semblance of water. It is a splendid bouquet of glistening rockets, which, instead of rushing heavenward, shoot down as if from the blue canopy, which seems to touch the brink nearly 2700 feet above us.

Like myriad falling stars they flash, each keeping its separate course for several hundred feet, till at length it blends with ten thousand more, in the grand avalanche of frothy, fleecy foam, which for ever and for ever falls, boiling and raging like a whirlpool, among the huge black boulders in the deep caldron below, and throwing back clouds of mist and vapour.

The most exquisite moment occurs when you reach some spot where the sun’s rays, streaming past you, transform the light vapour into brilliant rainbow-prisms, which gird the fall with vivid iris-bars. As the water-rockets flash through these radiant belts, they seem to carry the colour onwards as they fall; and sometimes it wavers and trembles in the breeze, so that the rainbow knows not where to rest, but forms a moving column of radiant tricolour.

The Yō-semité Fall.
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan
[click to enlarge]

So large a body of water rushing through the air, naturally produces a strong current, which, passing between the face of the rock and the fall, carries the latter well forward, so that it becomes the sport of every breeze that dances through the valley; hence this great column is for ever vibrating from side to side, and often it forms a semicircular curve.

The width of the stream at the summit is about twenty to thirty feet, but at the base of the upper fall it has expanded to a width of fully 300 feet; and, as the wind carries it to one side or the other, it plays over a space of fully 1000 feet in width, of a precipitous rock-face 1600 feet in depth. That is the height of the upper fall.

As seen from below, the Yō-semité, though divided into three distinct falls, is apparently all on one plane. It is only when you reach some point from which you see it sideways, that you realise that the great upper fall lies fully a quarter of a mile farther back than the middle and lower falls, and that it rushes down this space in boiling cascades, till it reaches a perpendicular rock, over which it leaps about 600 feet, and then gives a third and final plunge of about 500, making up a total of little under 2700 feet.

Now, if you can realise that the height of Niagara is 162-feet, you will perceive that if some potent magician could bring it into this valley, it would merely appear to be a low line of falling water, and would be effectually concealed by trees of fully its own height.1

[1Niagara, of course, makes up in width what she lacks in height. The height of the Horse-shoe or Canadian Fall is about 150 feet; its width is 2100 feet. The American Fall is about 160 feet in height, and 1100 in width. The total width, inclusive of Goat Island, is 4200 feet.
Niagara not only owes nothing to its accessories, but actually benefits by the total absence of any scenery. There is absolutely nothing in the very uninteresting level country around it, to distract the attention from the marvellous beauty of the majestic falls—from the indescribable loveliness of that heavy waving curtain of emerald-green water, and the ethereal clouds of misty foam, on which the rainbows never cease to play, whether in sunshine or moonlight.
Niagara is the type of force and irresistible might. Yō-semité is the emblem of purity and elegance.]

As yet, I have not attempted to reach the upper falls, but have had most enchanting scrambles through the pine-woods, and up a steep canyon, over piled-up fragments of rock, to the base of the lowest fall, or rather to a sheltered nook just to one side of it—a little oasis of green grass and ferns, whence I could get a view of the fall en profil, and watch it rushing past, forming a most beautiful and unusual foreground to the green valley seen far below, and the great granite mountains beyond.

As seen from this point, this fall is magnificent—complete in itself. Yet from a little distance it appears only an insignificant appendage to the great fall—and its base is altogether hidden by the trees. (It struck me as a nature-parable of human rank—the magnates of the county finding their level in the great world, their social size dwarfed in the presence of taller giants!) I sat for hours watching these falling waters, and attempting to sketch the unsketchable, till I was fairly bewildered by the deep-toned voice of many waters, and the rushing spray, and was glad to return to the quiet green meadows.

The snows on the Sierras are melting rapidly, and the streams are already overflowing their accustomed channels. Several pleasant paths which we explored the day after our arrival are now flooded; for the Yō-semité is in spate—a boisterous, whirling cataract, thundering and chafing among the boulders. Its waters have now divided into a dozen branches, each a foaming torrent, which wears a channel for itself as it rushes headlong through the pine-woods, seeking the placid Merced river, which glides on a dead level from the moment it enters the valley till it departs thence.

Tuesday, 7th.

I cannot sufficiently congratulate myself on having brought my excellent English side-saddle. Those provided by the horsekeepers of the valley are horribly uncomfortable. They object exceedingly to mine, as being a good deal heavier, but the difference of fatigue on a long day’s expedition is not to be told; so I resolutely refuse to use any but my own. Some ladies, I believe, adopt a neat sort of bloomer dress, and ride men’s saddles—a practice highly recommended by the guides, who call it “riding straddle-legs.” They say it is infinitely safer on these dangerous precipitous trails, as it ensures a good balance. I believe they are right, but nevertheless, have no intention of taking their advice!1

[1In olden days it seems to have been optional for the ladies of Britain either to ride astride or sideways. Chaucer describes the Wife of Bath as wearing on her feet a pair of spurs, sharp. In the ‘Domestic Manners of the Middle Ages,’ illustrations taken from very old drawings show ladies riding, sometimes sideways, sometimes à califourchon; and it is stated that the former manner was considered the more courtly, but that in the chase it was deemed safer to ride astride.]

There are no end of animals for hire, chiefly sturdy ponies and mules, very sure-footed, as they would need to be. The charge for pony ride is exorbitant. I am paying five dollars a-day (£1) for the use of a very commonplace beast. The owners justify the charge, on the plea of the expense of keeping horses in the valley during the winter, when they require hay and barley imported from the plains at very heavy freight.1

[1Later in the season the guardians of the valley issued a fixed tariff, which reduced horse-hires to, I think, three dollars a-day for moderate distances, and five dollars only for what are called double rides. But as the owners refuse to let any beast go out unless accompanied by a mountain guide, the traffic in horse-flesh continues remunerative.]

To any but a first-rate walker, a beast of some sort is a downright necessity here, if you wish to see anything beyond the valley itself, as it holds you fairly imprisoned till you can scale its walls. Not till then do you gain any idea of the vast expanse of alpine scenery which lies beyond—range beyond range,—a world of grey granite and snow, relieved by tracts of dark pine-forest.

When we first arrived, we really felt as if we never could escape from the valley, there seemed no possible means for any but winged creatures to reach the upper world; but soon we learnt that patient men had devised cunningly contrived zigzag trails, taking advantage of every little ledge and crevice, of rock-blasting here and building there, till they had engineered excellent paths at a safe gradient along the face of what appear to be perpendicular walls of granite; and so, winding to and fro, here following the course of some deep gulch, there taking advantage of a patch of forest, they finally reached the summit, and could look down on the valley as on a green and silver ribbon, lying far below them.

Though the valley is reserved by the State as a national park, all these trails have been made by private enterprise, at a considerable outlay of labour, time, and money. So the proprietor of each is allowed to levy a toll of from one to two dollars on each passenger. Having paid once, you are free for the season; but few indeed are the travellers who ever allow themselves time to go over any of these grand scenes more than once, and then at railroad speed.

I am determined to be one of those few, and allow myself time to know the valley. One great inducement to remain is the prospect of the azaleas. The first morning we started to explore, we passed through thickets of leafless shrubs, which instantly caught my attention, as being assuredly the fragrant pale-yellow azalea of our shrubberies. My companions thought it was impossible; but, on inquiry, we learn that it is so, and that a month hence the whole air will be perfumed by them. That of itself would be worth waiting for; for though I have wandered through groves of scarlet tree-rhododendrons in the Himalayas and in Ceylon, I have never yet been in a land of wild azalea, and there are few flowers I love so well.

I have not seen any indication of rhododendrons in this part of California, but I am told that in the north-west, in Humboldt county and its surroundings, there are great districts gorgeous with these gay shrubs where the hill-sides are clothed with a dense mass of rich colour, but of course lack the enchanting fragrance of the azalea-thickets, which extend far to the southward.

Our chief expedition hitherto has been to the summit of the Great Yo-semité Fall. The only practicable route by which to reach the foot of the upper fall is a very circuitous one, retracing the valley till you ascend zigzaging through a belt of beautiful pines, and so gradually gain the high level. The views at every turn were magnificent; each fresh aspect of the wonderful falls helped us more and more to realise their might and majesty. Can you picture them ever so faintly?—the flashing, foaming cataract, tumbling almost perpendicularly for half a mile from the brink to the base; first the wild leap of 1500 feet, dashing headlong into the cup worn by its own action in the hard granite rock, then chafing madly among the fallen boulders ere it rushes to the second ledge, ready to repeat the leap.

You look up at the never-ceasing shower of water-rockets, till your eyes are dazzled with their gleaming white, and rest thankfully on the pure blue heaven from which they seem to fall; and the floating spray makes mist among the dark pines, till a gleam of sunlight transforms it to a glittering shower of shattered diamonds.

When we reached the base of the upper fall we dismounted, and scrambling over masses of rock, piled in chaos as they fell from the upper crags, we reached a great boulder, just beyond reach of the spray, and there sat gazing up at the living waters, ever falling, falling, in thousands of separate tongues of foam. Some say it is like a waving plume of snowy feathers, but to me the form of inverted fire-rockets is the only one really descriptive. Sometimes each rushes singly, preserving its perfect form, while others are dispersed in mid-career by the rushing breeze.

In presence of that rocket-shower, falling from a height of 1600 feet, what dainty miniatures our favourite British waterfalls do seem! I suppose lovely Foyers is our finest fall in Scotland; but when reduced to figures, its height is only 212 feet. The falls of Bruar are 200 feet. The falls of the Rhine, 100 feet. And even the far-famed Staubbach only attains 900 feet.

You do not realise the full majesty of this most worshipful monarch of the water-gods till you have crept meekly to his feet, as we did, and there remain spellbound, over-awed by the glory of the scene, the sense of the irresistible power of that headlong rush of bright gleaming waters. The utter restlessness of their ceaseless motion, and their thunderous roar as they strike the rocky basin far below, soon become overpowering—eyes and brain are alike bewildered; and besides the direct downward movement, spirit-like clouds of spray float around, drifting with every current of wind, softening the too dazzling brightness of the white foam, but adding to the giddy, complex motion of the whole.

The face of the great crag overhangs a little, so that, as the waters are thrown forward, they leave a dry space behind the fall at the base of the cliff—a long broad passage, where those who are so inclined can enter, and standing behind the curtain of falling waters, can listen to the rushing wind, and try how near danger they can venture without accident. When only a light summer stream is falling, and the sun shining on it, the effect produced is that of a shimmering shower of diamonds. Now, however, when the snow-flood is so heavy, a visit to this strange spot would be risky, and the approach to it would involve a drenching from the heavy spray, so we were nowise tempted; but tearing ourselves away from this beautiful and most fascinating spot, we commenced the steep ascent through Comimi Canyon.

The trail is led up by such innumerable zigzags, that a tolerably easy grade has been attained, and my sturdy and heavily weighted pony climbed up without the slightest hesitation. What with excavations in some places, and building up rock foundation in others, the tracing and making of such a trail, and then the constant repairs consequent on falling rocks or melting snows, imply both genius and ceaseless care.

The canyon heads actually at the summit of the falls, and there seems no sort of reason why the Yō-semité Creek should not have rushed down the slope, instead of selecting the headlong course which it has adopted—for which, however, we are all most deeply grateful to it.

By its ceaseless friction, it has so polished the granite rock over which it falls, that to attempt a near approach is just like walking on ice. It is horribly dangerous, as the first slip would inevitably prove the last. Yet the fascination is irresistible, so I crawled to the brink on hands and knees, and there lay watching the curve of the glittering waters as they rushed past me on their headlong leap, down, down, down, till the abyss of white foam was merged in the ever-swaying, ever-varying cloud of spray, while a thousand mingling echoes rose from the rocky world below. It was awesome beyond all words. Far, far beneath us, faintly seen through the floating mists, the valley lay bathed in sunlight, like a dream of some other world.

The Yō-semité Creek is a snow-fed stream which rises on the west side of the alpine group, of which Mount Hoffmann is chief, lying about ten miles north-east of the valley. Its course lies over a bed of bare granite rock; and as it is fed exclusively by the melting snow, it follows that, as the season advances, it must shrink to a most insignificant rivulet.

At this high level the snow is still lying deep in the unsunned gorges. Yesterday there was a “flurry,” followed by a night of frost, and a light powdering of glittering snow-crystals still sparkles in the bright sunlight, marking the intricate tracery of the leafless boughs. Every grassy reed is snow-tipped, and snow-feathers lie softly on the drooping brambles and the rich brown tufts of lichen.

We were anxious to reach a high point known as Eagle’s Peak (4000 feet above the valley), which commands a magnificent view of the Sierras on every side. But as we ascended, the snow became deeper and deeper; so, as the ride was neither safe nor pleasant, we agreed to defer it till the season was further advanced.

As it was, we saw several fine snow-peaks in the distance, and gained a better idea of the relative size of the giant crags around us, especially of the stupendous granite Domes. This bird’s-eye view also enabled us to realise the true geological aspect of the valley itself,—as a huge sunken pit—no chasm, but the blank left by a portion of the earth’s surface having actually subsided.

I am told that several valleys have been discovered in these Sierras somewhat similar to this, so that the Yō-semité is only unique in point of size.

Indeed, such geological faults as have formed this very singular depression exist in many countries. We saw two notable examples in the Blue Mountains of Australia, where two gigantic pits occur, known as Govat’s Leap and the Weatherboard, at each of which we stood on the brink of a deep gorge enclosed by vertical cliffs as steep as these, and looked down on the crowns of giant ferns and trees, lying apparently 2000 feet below us, a sanctuary untrodden by human foot. But those cliffs of reddish sandstone do not give you the same feeling of solidity and strength as these granite crags, which fill you with ever-increasing wonder the longer you look upon them.

Mr John Muir describes several lovely valleys of the Yō-semité type farther to the south, in the heart of that “rugged wilderness of peaks and canyons, where the foaming tributaries of the San Joaquin and King’s rivers take their rise.” He found the most beautiful of them all near the source of the former—a canyon two miles long and half a mile broad, hemmed in by perpendicular granite crags, and the crystal river flowing through peaceful groves and meadows, haunted by deer and grouse and joyous singing-birds.

Thence he passed into a wilder, narrower gorge, with walls rising perpendicularly from 2000 to 4000 feet above the roaring river. “At the head of the valley the main canyon forks, as is found to be the case in all Yō-semités.”

Mr Muir, however, attributes the formation of that valley to the action of two vast ice-rivers in the glacial period. But now the free, beautiful San Joaquin river, new-born from its glacial fountain, enters the valley in a glorious cascade, its glad waters overleaping granite crags 2000 feet in height.

Truly these Californian Alps hold treasures of delight for lovers of all beautiful nature who, on their parts, can bring strength and energy for mountaineering—a sure foot, a steady head, and any amount of endurance.

With respect to the marvellous rounded Domes, I am told that there are dome-shaped masses in all regions where granite prevails, but that they are found in the Sierra Nevada on a grander scale than elsewhere. The only thing altogether unique is the Split Dome. The North Dome on the opposite side of the valley has many near relations. They are built up of thick layers of granite—huge concentric plates overlapping one another in some places, so as to render them inaccessible. Some of these granite flakes are about twenty feet thick, others only three or four feet, and they are curved much in the same way as the basaltic pillars in some of the caves in the Isle of Skye1 and on the Irish coast; but there is nothing columnar in their appearance, which is rather suggestive of armour-plating, and reminds me of the scales of the armadillo.

[1See illustration, ‘In the Hebrides’ (C. F. Gordon Cumming), p. 380.]

I am told that this peculiar formation is due to the combined work of fire and frost, and that the granite layers were curved by the vast weight of ice as the glaciers passed over them. Some one else tells me that the granite took these curves during the process of cooling, and that the glaciers merely polished the outer surface as they passed over the mountains, grinding and furrowing them with deep seams, caused by the gravel and rocks they carried with them—a remarkably coarse form of sand-paper, applied with a very heavy hand! I believe the latter is the most generally accepted theory.

The North Dome is lower by 1000 feet than its vis-à-vis. Its actual height above the valley is 3725 feet. It is built up on the summit of “The Royal Arches,” and the whole is quite suggestive of the great marble archway and silvery-grey cupola of some vast Eastern shrine. On the side facing the valley, the great flakes so overhang one another, that this mountain, though apparently forming an easy curve, is practically inaccessible from that direction; but on the north side it slopes away easily in a long ridge, easy of ascent.

But the Split Dome is a very different matter. While the side facing the valley is, as I have told you, absolutely vertical, showing where the massive mountain of rock was cleft in twain, the remaining half presents a rounded summit, sloping downward at a very steep incline, which becomes steeper and steeper as it descends, till at the base it becomes quite precipitous.

For many years it was considered altogether inaccessible; but about eighteen months ago it was scaled by an energetic, determined Scotchman, George Anderson by name. He hails from Montrose, but has taken up his abode in this beautiful valley; and now he looks on the Half-Dome with such mingled pride and veneration, that I should think he will never leave it.

It was in 1875 that he determined to reach the summit, if mortal man could accomplish the feat. Climbing goat-like along dizzy ledges, and clinging like a fly to every crevice that could afford him foothold, he reached the point where hitherto the boldest cragsman had been foiled. Here he halted till he had drilled a hole in the rock and securely fixed an iron stanchion with an eye-bolt, through which he passed a strong rope. Then resting on this frail support, he was able to reach farther, and to drill a second hole and fix another eye-bolt. From this point of vantage he could secure a third, carrying the rope through every bolt, and always securing it at the upper end.

Thus step by step he crept upward, till at last he had drilled holes and driven in iron stanchions right up the vast granite slab, securing 1100 feet of rope. Then rounding the mighty shoulder, he stood triumphant on the summit, and there to his amazement he found a level space of about seven acres, where not only grasses have spread a green carpet, but seven gnarled and stunted old pines, of three different kinds, have contrived to take root, and, defying storms and tempests, maintain their existence on this bleak bare summit.

Having thus made the ascent a possibility, Anderson’s delight now is to induce enterprising climbers to draw themselves up by his rope ferry, the manner of proceeding being to keep one foot on either side of the rope, and, retaining a good grip of the rope itself, gradually to haul one’s self up to the summit, there remain for a while lost in wonder at the grand bird’s-eye view, and then climb down backwards.

It is all right so long as most of the stanchions stand firm and the rope does not break; but should this simple accident occur, there would not be the faintest possibility of rescue,—indeed it would be no easy task to recover the battered and mutilated remains of any poor wretch who might fall from that majestic dome. A leap from the summit of St Paul’s would be child’s-play in comparison. A man troubled with suicidal mania would find it hard to look down from a precipice a sheer fall of 5000 feet, and resist the temptation to cast himself down.

I give you the altitude of all these grand crags and mountains, because I know no better way of conveying to you some standard of their glory; and yet, how utterly useless figures really are to enable any one to realise such subjects! A quaint American writer1 remarks, that “it is much as if, when the three angels made a call at Abraham’s tent on the plains of Mamre, the patriarch had whipped out a two-foot rule, and measured and written down the length of their wings!!”

[1Benjamin F. Taylor.]

The same writer makes short work of all learned theories concerning this grand valley. He says: “As for the three great geological theories of this cleft’s formation,—1st, that the bottom fell out and let things down; 2d, that earthquakes and volcanic fires melted the crags and rent them asunder; 3d, that the softer and more edible parts of rock and mountain were eaten out by rains and frosts and rivers, leaving the stupendous bones bleaching through the centuries,—you would not toss coppers for the choice of them. All you know is, that you are in a tremendous rock-jawed yawn of the globe; and the most you hope is, that it will keep on yawning till you are safely out of its mouth!”

In describing the South Dome, he compares it to a sugar-loaf-shaped human head: “Its organ of veneration is tremendous; there are six or eight acres of it, 6000 feet high, and solid rock through and through!”

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