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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



May 10th.

The owners of the sure-footed horses of the valley pride themselves on the fact that there has never yet been an accident, though hundreds of tourists, who look as if they had lived all their lives in paved cities, and are wholly guiltless of any notion of riding, annually deliver themselves over to the guides, who place them on the backs of unknown ponies, arrange them in Indian file, and adroitly steer them up and down most fearfully dangerous trails, where one false step or stumble would probably land pony and rider right down in the valley, in the form of a jelly.

I had a very near shave myself to-day, and rather wonder at finding myself here in safety. Early this morning we started with our two English friends to scale the precipitous rock-walk, on the opposite side of

Glacier Point.
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan
[click to enlarge]
the valley from the Great Falls. The place we wished to reach is called Glacier Point, and forms a grand headland 3200 feet above this house.

It is apparently inaccessible, but by going some way down the valley, you strike a skilfully contrived trail, which starts backwards and forwards in about sixty zigzags, passing right along the base of the Sentinel—that stupendous rock-needle which towers 3000 feet above the valley.

You must always remember that the valley itself is 4060 feet above the sea, and the height of all these crags and waterfalls is only reckoned from this level; so, to estimate their true height, you must always add on 4000 feet.

We found the snow lying pretty thick on the upper trail, and in some places passed through cuttings where it lay ten feet deep on either side. It had been cleared by men who are building a wooden rest-house on the summit, for the comfort of summer travellers. It is a promising-looking place, perched like an eagle’s eyrie, on a very commanding crag.

As we were toiling along one of the steepest and most dangerous bits of the ascent, I suddenly became aware that my saddle-girths had slipped, and that the saddle was in the act of sliding round, and in another moment should inevitably have come to most frightful grief, had not Mr Glazebrook, who was riding behind me, perceived the position of affairs; and in one second, before I had time to realise what had happened, he leaped from his horse, and caught me in the act of falling, thereby certainly saving me a broken neck, and sparing the valley a tradition which would for ever have pointed the moral of the advantages of Mexican saddles versus English.

It was rather a risky moment for my rescuer as well as for myself. Happily both our beasts behaved splendidly, and stood stock-still till the saddle was safely replaced. They certainly are excellent animals, sturdy and intelligent, and seem rather to enjoy climbing trails steep as ladders, or a headlong scramble over rocks and rivers, fallen timber, or whatever comes in the way. Sometimes they have to clamber up a sort of stairway formed by the twisted roots of trees—paths which would make the hair of a low-country horse stand on end!

Having scaled the walls of the valley, we found ourselves in a pine-forest, where the snow lay pure and deep, and the breeze sweeping across the broad snow-fields of the Sierras was piercingly chilly. The sun, however, was shining brightly, and the views looking down to the valley were beautiful beyond description; while in every other direction they were stern and wild—a bleak, cold expanse of grey granite ridges and snow and dark pine-forests.

Here and there, like crested waves on a grey billowy ocean, rose a cluster of snowy peaks, such as the Obelisk or Merced group, at least five of which are upwards of 13,000 feet in height. One of these (originally called the Obelisk, but now Mount Clark) is so sharp a pinnacle of granite, that the few adventurous climbers who have scaled it, say they felt as if poised in mid-air.

This is a side-range running parallel with the main crest of the Sierras, where a grand regiment of peaks, also rising to upwards of 13,000 feet, are known as the Mount Lyell group. Hundreds of points along this crest exceed 12,000 feet. The actual summit of Mount Lyell is an inaccessible pinnacle. These two ridges are connected by a transverse range, which forms the divide between the head-waters of the Merced and San Joaquin rivers.

The former rises near the base of Mount Lyell,—between it and the five peaks of the Merced group. From that upper world it travels downward, hurrying as it draws near the valley. In the last two miles it descends 2000 feet by a series of rapids and cataracts, varied with two great leaps, forming, first the Nevada, and then the Vernal Falls.

Then for a little space the weary waters have rest, after their wild, rushing, dashing, tumultuous race and headlong fall from their mountain birthplace to the quiet valley—a little rest, while the river of Mercy flows westward through the green meadows—truly green pastures beside still waters, for the silvery stream only descends thirty-five feet in the next eight miles! Then resuming its troubled journey, it suddenly disappears in the rocky canyon, and rushes downward to the thirsty plain.

All this lay outspread before us, as we stood on the giddy brink of a glacier-polished, pine-fringed1 precipice, of the very whitest granite; and right in front of us towered the Half-Dome, which certainly is an altogether unique creation—utterly unlike anything known in any other country. It is far more imposing as seen from this side of the valley than from the other, as you get it en profil, with the stupendous precipice facing the valley, and, on the other side, the wonderful curve of the dome from the crown to the base. I can see, however, that there are two points from which we should obtain still grander views of this gigantic rock-mass. One is the Sentinel Dome, very near Glacier Point, but 1000 feet higher. The other is the summit of Cloud’s Rest, which towers 6150 feet above the head of the valley; so, if we can get there, we shall see it to perfection. Next in steepness to the Half-Dome is that which bears the name of Starr King—a singularly smooth, bare, and inaccessible cone of granite, surrounded by a whole family of little cones.

[1Pinus Jeffreyi.]

A smaller dome of the same character, which the Indians called Mahta, is now known as the Cap of Liberty. It is a cap 3100 feet high, but is dwarfed by its great neighbour, and altogether is less worshipful.

The cold breeze was so biting that we were thankful to take refuge, with our luncheon-basket, in the newly built wooden house, and agreed that it would make delightful summer quarters. It provides a good kitchen and sitting-room, and several small bedrooms, and will be a grand place from which to study sunrise and sunset effects. Then only could one hope for rich colouring and broad shadows. But beneath these cloudless blue skies and bright noonday glare, the Sierras look unpleasantly cold and grey, and the scattered pines lie singly or in patches, giving the whole scene a speckled look, which is more wonderful than attractive to my eyes.

At the risk of heresy, I confess that to me the desolation of the scene is repellent. Those hard angular masses, which show no symtom of weathering—those jagged pinnacles, which cut so sharp and clean against the cold blue sky—and the endless ranges, all gashed and seamed,—are savagely grand, but most unlovable.

My eyes have not yet lost the memory of the fantastic peaks and rock-needles of the Society Isles—their rich basaltic colouring and wealth of tropical foliage,—and, by contrast, the South Seas appear more enticing than ever.

I felt glad when our faces were once more set towards the valley; for each step revealed it in some new aspect of beauty, with ever-varying foreground of great rock-boulders or sheer precipice, and gnarled weather-beaten pines with weird arms outstretched to the abyss. One foreground was so quaint, that I felt compelled to stop and sketch it,—a gigantic, somewhat oval boulder, poised on one end, so as to form a tall pillar. (I do not think it is really a boulder, but it looks like one.) In honour of Agassiz, it is called his Thumb.

Exactly facing me while at this point, although distant two miles, on the opposite side of the tremendous gorge, were the great Yō-semité Falls, visible from the very summit to the base; and a multitude of temporary falls, born of the melting snows, floated in silvery rills and clouds of white spray, at all manner of unaccustomed points. So through the great stillness of the upper world there floated faint murmurs from all these falling waters, mingling with the roar of the rivers rushing down the canyons, but all softened and blended to one harmonious undertone—

“The many mingling sounds of earth, which men call silence.”

On our way down through the snow-cuttings, we had rather an awkward meeting with a long file of mules heavily laden with furniture—or rather, portions of furniture—for the new house. There was some difficulty in backing to any spot where it might be possible to pass. However, this was safely accomplished. Futher difficulties awaited us at the zigzags, where we met a party upward-bound, and passed one another with many qualms. A skittish pony or mule would be fatal; but these are all apparently beyond suspicion of any such frivolity.

It felt warm and comfortable coming back to the sheltered valley; and the loveliness of the evening tempted me to a stroll along the flooded river, which now forms wide pools, in which the stately pines and the tall poplars lie mirrored, framing the reflections of the great mountains—a series of beautiful pictures, solemn and still.

Gradually, as the evening crept on, the blues in the valley intensified. The grey granite crags were flushed with warm rosy light, deepening till, for a few short moments, they seemed ablaze, while the grey clouds above them were fringed with floating films, fire-tinted; then suddenly the red glow died away, to be replaced by a pale ashen-grey, and the deepening gloom of twilight.

The green spires towered darker and darker against the glittering golden sky, till that too became darkened, and gradually assumed that rich velvety blue which is so marked a characteristic of a Californian night, and seems to intensify the radiance of the brilliant moon.

It is full moon just now, and the nights are so beautiful, that after the table d’hôte dinner, most people are beguiled to forget their weariness and take a turn, ere the final “toasting” by the log-fire. The effect of pallid moonlight on these white cliffs is most poetic. Every hard line is softened, and an even, dreamy tone pervades the whole, though one side of the valley lies in deep blue-grey shadow, and the other in clear white light; and above the dark precipitous cliffs tower the silvery-grey domes, meet thrones for the moonbeams.

Now that the annual May floods have transformed a large part of the meadows into a clear calm lake, we understand what at first seemed an inexplicable mystery—namely, why a raised wooden pathway has been built right across the meadows, between the two hotels. If the waters go on rising, it will soon be a necessary bridge. The considerate guardians of the valley have placed wooden seats at intervals all along this half-mile bridge; and here, on these lovely evenings, we rest in pleasant knots, and listen to the chorus of innumerable frogs, which seem to have suddenly awakened from their winter sleep, or, at any rate, to have recovered their voices. The gentlemen declare that they are classic frogs, singing a Greek chorus after Aristophanes, and that the oft-repeated burden of their song is—

Brek kek kek kex! coax! coax!

May 15th.

We have been away for two days on an expedition to the upper valley, passing from one glory to another.

Our Anglo-Mexican friends preceded us, and finding quarters at a rough-and-ready, but very clean, little wooden rest-house, sent us back a message to say we must follow immediately with the sketching-blocks and plenty of warm clothes, as it was very cold, but indescribably beautiful.

So at 6 a.m. we started, by a path leading along the base of the cliffs, among ferny, moss-grown boulders, where grand old oaks outstretch gnarled boughs, to frame dreamy pictures of rock and river. At this early hour the giant crags seem robed in purple; you can scarcely realise that they are the same, which an hour later will be transformed to creamy-white granite. And the Glacier Point, which faces the rising sun, shone like polished alabaster as we passed up the valley; but as we looked back to it when the sun was westering, it presented one of the grandest pictures of mountain gloom that could possibly be imagined.

How you would rejoice in the exhilarating freshness of these early mornings! With every breath you literally

The May floods in the Valley.
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan

[click to enlarge]
seem to be taking a new lease of life, and to develop energies undreamt of. The air is so keen and sparkling that it seems to brace you up and give you new physical and mental strength, it is so elastic and invigorating.

When we came to the head of the valley, whence diverge the three rocky canyons, we bade adieu to the green meadows, and passing up a most exquisite gorge, crossed the Illillouette by a wooden bridge, and followed the main fork of the Merced, up the central canyon. I do not anywhere know a lovelier mile of river scenery than on this tumultous rushing stream, leaping from rock to rock, sweeping round mossy boulders, and falling in crystalline cascades—the whole fringed with glittering icicles, and over-shadowed by tall pine-trees,1 whose feathery branches fringe the steep cliffs and wave in the breeze.

[1Chiefly Pinus Douglasii.]

Presently a louder roar of falling waters told us that we were nearing the Vernal Falls, and through a frame of dark pines we caught a glimpse of the white spirit-like spray-cloud. Tying up my pony, we crept to the foot of the falls, whence a steep flight of wooden steps has been constructed, by which a pedestrian can ascend about 400 feet to the summit, and thence resume his way, thus saving a very long round. But of course four-footed creatures must be content to go by the mountain; and so the pony settled our route, greatly to our advantage, for the view thence, looking down the canyon and across to Glacier Point, proved to be about the finest thing we have seen, as an effect of mountain gloom.

At the foot of the pass we met an English lady and gentleman on foot. Un-British like, we actually exchanged greetings! Two keen fishermen met on common ground; then we discovered such home-links as determined us to meet again; but having made no definite tryst, we missed one another in each attempt, and I have just received a note of farewell as they leave the valley.1

[1A year later we met in Japan, and ascended Fuji-yama together.]

Just above the Vernal Falls comes a reach of the river known as “The Diamond Race,”—a stream so rapid and so glittering, that it seems like a shower of sparkling crystals, each drop a separate gem. I have never seen a race which, for speed and dazzling light, could compare with these musical, glancing waters.

For half a mile above it, the river is a tumultuous raging flood, rushing at headlong speed down a boulder-strewn channel. At the most beautiful point it is crossed by a light wooden bridge; and on the green mountain-meadow just beyond, stands the wooden home, to which a kindly landlord gave us a cheery, hearty welcome.

Here the lullaby for the weary is the ceaseless roar of the mighty Nevada Falls, which come thundering down the cliffs in a sheer leap of 700 feet, losing themselves in a deep rock-pool fringed with tall pines, which loom ghostly and solemn through the ever-floating tremulous mists of fine spray.

It is a fall so beautiful as fairly to divide one’s allegiance to Yō-semité, especially as we first beheld it at about three in the afternoon, when the western rays of the

The Nevada and Vernal Falls.
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan

[click to enlarge]
lowering sun lighted up the dark firs with a golden glow, and dim rainbows played on the spray-clouds. It was as if fairy weavers had woven borders of purple and blue, green and gold, orange and delicate rose-colour, on a tissue of silvery gauze; and each dewy drop that rested on the fir-needles caught the glorious light, and became a separate prism, as though the trees were sprinkled with liquid radiant gems.

When hunger drove us from the worship of the ethereal, and a vulgar craving for the flesh-pots of the valley drew us back to the little inn, we were delighted and considerably astonished at the excellence of the abundant meal that awaited us, and felt as deeply humiliated as Sunday-school children at the end of a tea-fight, when we were compelled to hurt the feelings of our hospitable and highly conversational landlady by the assurance that we really were unable to do further justice to her apple-pies, hominy-cakes, turnovers, and concluding trifles.

Thus refreshed, we were again irresistibly attracted to the river, and stood on the wooden bridge in the brilliant moonlight, watching the impetuous rushing and wrestling of the raging waters—a wonderful and most fascinating sight. But I have so long revelled in the soft balmy moonlight of the tropics that I could not endure the cold at this high level, and was thankful to return to the blazing fire of pine-logs, which crackled so invitingly on the wide hearth.

Next morning we breakfasted soon after five, and then started for Cloud’s Rest, taking the pony to help me where it was possible. First we had to climb a steep zigzag trail, cut partly in the face of the rock, and up the canyon, till we reached the summit of the Nevada Falls, which, when thus seen en profil, are beautiful beyond description. The rocks are so tumbled about, that instead of falling quite straight, the river plunges at several angles, forming magnificent curves, and separate showers of water-rockets; while below, all blend in a chaos of dazzling whiteness, which loses itself in the spray-clouds. Now that the river is in flood by the tribute of countless snow-streams, it is simply a mad torrent, bewildering to gaze upon, although so beautiful.

We had now reached the Little Yō-semité, which lies 2000 feet above the Great Valley. It is a mountain-meadow, about a mile in depth, by four in length, enclosed by mighty rock-walls 3000 feet in height. Through these peaceful green pastures glide the still waters of the Upper Merced, clear as crystal.

Our path wound round the back of the Half-Dome, at which we gazed, lost in wonder. From this side you would never suspect the cleavage which has presented an absolutely vertical precipice to the valley. Here we see only an exceedingly steep and lofty dome, rounded at the summit, and taking a steeper and ever steeper curve as it descends. To me it is inconceivable that any one can ever find nerve or wish to ascend it. I have already told you how George Anderson accomplished this, but no one has yet made the ascent this year.

Every winter’s frost loosens some of the bolts, and only a cat-like climber, with careful and wary foot and hand, and steady head, can replace these missing links. This winter the rope itself has given way. Nevertheless our two friends were determined to attempt the ascent. As a matter of course they failed, and had the narrowest shave of falling right into the valley. So we may well congratulate them on having escaped with unbroken necks.

Still ascending, we passed through belts of dark pine-forest, and across open glades; then over great slabs of glacier-polished granite, thickly strewn with “perched blocks,” the boulders carried here by ice-rivers in bygone ages—a fitting foreground to the cheerless mountain-ranges beyond. Nowhere have I seen such granite slabs as these, nor such a multitude of ice-boulders as mark these ancient moraines. They are of all sizes—from that of a large cottage to a child’s head; while smaller fragments form a fine gravel.

In such a scene of cold desolation—“a barren land, and a poor”—it was pleasant to meet with one symptom of joyous life, in the merry little chip-munks, the most frolicsome of the squirrel family, almost as tame as the grey squirrel of India. They are for ever darting about the rocks and trees, chattering in the most confiding manner.

I also hailed with delight several flame-coloured spines of the strange Californian snow-plant, which I told you we found in the forest at Mariposa, and which, like our snowdrop, is the first blossom to tell of a coming spring—the first symptom that the newly thawed earth has begun to awaken from its winter sleep.

Leaving the pony in a sheltered nook, we made our way across the flank of Cloud’s Rest, till the snow became so deep that I could go no farther, so halted at the foot of the great summit-rock. But our friends were determined to scale that white world, which we knew could be done quite easily. Unfortunately, however, we had struck a wrong trail, and the point from which they started was inaccessible at all times, and doubly dangerous now, as the snow turned to ice under their feet. So they narrowly risked a rapid descent into the valley, which lay 6000 feet below them, with not a bush or tree or jutting rock to give them a chance of escape. I do think that, judging from our own experiences, the good angles whose charge it is to “bear us up, lest we dash our foot against a stone,”1 must have anxious work here in the tourist season!

[1Psalm xci. 11, 12.]

The actual height of Cloud’s Rest is 9950 feet. It forms the crowning point of the ridge from which the Half-Dome rises, and, like it, is built of huge overlying plates of granite of curious concentric structure, the whole welded into a gigantic mass of solid crag.

It is almost incomprehensible how any life, animal or vegetable, can exist on such inhospitable ground; but a considerable number of very old gnarled cedars have contrived to establish themselves so firmly, that not all the storms that sweep the Sierras have been able to uproot them. Their twisted, irregular boughs—bent and sometimes broken by the weight of snow and the fury of the wintry winds—tell their story as the rugged lines on an old weather-beaten face tell of the strifes of life which have engraven them.

These old-world trees are wonderfully picturesque. Many of them are merely huge shattered stumps, battered warriors, which have lost limb by limb in many a hard-fought battle with wind and tempest.

They are the sturdiest, stumpiest, most determined, and most enduring of trees—thick-set, with gnarled, contorted branches, that have braved the tempests of a thousand years or more—and still contrive to clothe themselves with close patches of rich, cool green foliage, rendered doubly valuable by its contrast with the warm cinnamon-colour and deep red-browns of the stem and boughs and rugged bark, and with the cold grey of the dead branches, and the granite world around. They form the only points of positive colour in all the bleak, vast landscape—the patches of lichen on their deeply furrowed bark, gleaming like flecks of mellow sunlight.

Even in death, the red cedar1 will not yield, but holds its grip of the rock so firmly that the wildest wintry gales cannot dislodge it; and so the stanch old veteran remains in its place, stretching out weird, white, ghostly arms, and yielding to the weathering influences of sun and frost as slowly and as unwillingly as the granite crag to which it clings. Each rugged tree is a study for an artist; and the specimens scattered along some of these high rock-ledges would make the fortune of the man who could paint them faithfully.

[1Juniperus occidentalis.]

It was a wonderful scene that lay outspread around us. Serrated ridges, separated by awful chasms, whose sunless gloom was intensified by the sombre blue-black foliage of the pine-forests—those in the distance assuming a purple hue. On every side uprose snow-streaked pinnacles, cold and grey, the highest ranges glistening in unsullied light against the clear blue sky.

On the right, the boulder-strewn slopes of granite swept down to the valley, of which we commanded a magnificent view. It seemed narrowed to a mere canyon—each mighty crag, to which from the valley we are wont to look up with reverence, seeming dwarfed as we looked down on its summit. Only the Split Dome remained undwarfed, unrivalled—wonderful!

Returning to the pony and the luncheon-basket, we found creature comforts, which enabled us to face the descent cheerily. Of course, going up a valley in the morning, with the light from the east, gives such totally different effects to descending the same path in the afternoon, with all the lights reversed, that it is like two different expeditions. What most delights you in morning gloom, looks garish in the full glare of sunlight, and vice versâ. But to-day, evening and morning were alike grand.

A halt at the inn for a cup of hot tea, and then once more under way, as we had decided to return here that evening. Mr David, with unvarying kindness, went all the way round by the road to lead the pony, leaving the rest of the party free to take the short cut by the river. Anything more wonderful than the beauty of the Diamond Race in the evening light, I never dreamt of. It is like a river in a fairy tale, all turned to spray—jewelled, glittering spray—rubies, diamonds, and emeralds, all dancing and glancing in the sunlight.

Just below this comes a little reach of the smoothest, clearest water, which seems to calm and collect itself ere gliding over the edge of a great square-hewn mass of granite 400 feet deep, forming the Vernal Falls. Along the summit of this rock there runs a very remarkable natural ledge about four feet in height, so exactly like the stone parapet of a cyclopean rampart that it is scarcely possible to believe it is not artifical. Here you can lean safely within a few feet of the fall, looking straight down the perpendicular crag. But for this ledge, it would be dangerous even to set foot on that smooth, polished rock, which is slippery as ice.

Descending by the long steep flight of wooden steps, we paused to notice a fernery, doubtless tended by the fairies, in the cool shade of a damp grotto, safe beyond reach of thievish human hands.

From the falls being so full, the spray-clouds were so dense that we were thoroughly drenched; but as compensation, we each saw ourselves—not our shadows, but our actual selves—encompassed by a perfect miniature rainbow. I suppose this is the form under which good guardian spirits of the falls reveal themselves to mortals,—and radiant, lovely spirits they assuredly are, though, it must be confessed, somewhat damp!

We really required their aid, for these spray-clouds are tenfold more bewildering than the densest mist, and I felt quite stupefied while picking my way among the broken fragments of rock at the base of the cliff.

A little farther down we found the pony and its leader—a welcome sight, for even in this exhilarating climate such a day’s work is tolerably fatiguing, to say nothing of the exhaustion of seeing so much that is new and beautiful. There still remained the lovely sunset ride down the valley, followed by the heartiest welcome back from our friends here. And then, after dinner, the usual frogs’ concert in the moonlight.

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