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From every commanding eminence around the Yosemite no distant object rises with more inspiring greatness than the Obelisk of Mount Clark. Seen from the west it is a high, isolated peak, having a dome-like outline very much flattened upon its west side, the precipice sinking deeply down to an old glacier ravine. From the north this peak is a slender, single needle, jutting two thousand feet from a rough-hewn pedestal of rocks and snow-fields. Forest-covered heights rise to its base from east and west. To the south it falls into a deep saddle, which rises again, after a level outline of a mile, sweeping up in another noble granite peak. On the north the spur drops abruptly down, overhanging an edge of the great Merced gorge, its base buried beneath an accumulation of morainal matter deposited by ancient Merced glaciers. From the region of Mount Hoffmann, looming in most impressive isolation, its slender needle-like summit had long fired us with ambition; and, having finished my agreeable climb round the Yosemite walls, I concluded to visit the mountain with Cotter, and, if the weather should permit, to attempt a climb. We packed our two mules with a week’s provisions and a single blanket each, and on the tenth of November left our friends at the head-quarter’s camp in Yosemite Valley and rode out upon the Mariposa trail, reaching the plateau by noon. Having passed Meadow Brook, we left the path and bore off in the direction of Mount Clark, spending the afternoon in riding over granite ridges and open stretches of frozen meadow, where the ground was all hard, and the grass entirely cropped off by numerous herds of sheep that had ranged here during the summer. The whole earth was bare, and rang under our mules’ hoofs almost as clearly as the granite itself.
We camped for the night on one of the most eastern affluents of Bridal Veil Creek, and were careful to fill our canteens before the bitter night-chill should freeze it over. By our camp was a pile of pine logs swept together by some former tempest; we lighted them, and were quickly saluted by a magnificent bonfire. The animals were tied within its ring of warmth, and our beds laid where the rain of sparks could not reach. As we were just going to sleep, our mules pricked up their ears and looked into the forest. We sprang to our feet, picked up our pistols, expecting an Indian or a grizzly, but were surprised to see, riding out of the darkness, a lonely mountaineer, mounted upon a little mustang, carrying his long rifle across the saddle-bow. He came directly to our camp-fire, and, without uttering a word, slowly and with great effort swung himself out of his saddle and walked close to the flames, leaving his horse, which remained motionless, where he had reined him in. I saw that the man was nearly frozen to death, and immediately threw my blanket over his shoulders. The water in our camp kettle was still hot, and Cotter made haste to draw a pot of tea, while I broiled a slice of beef and pressed him to eat. He, however, shook his head and maintained a persistent silence, until at length, after turning round and round until I could have thought him done to a turn, in a very feeble, broken voice he ejaculated, “I was pretty near gone in, stranger!” Again I pressed him to drink a cup of tea, but he feebly answered, “Not yet.” After roasting for half an hour, in which I fully expected to see his coat-tail smoke, he sat down and drank about two quarts of tea. This had the effect of thawing him out, and he remembered that his horse was still saddled and very hungry. He told us that neither he nor the animal had had anything to eat for three days, and that he was pushing hopelessly westward, expecting either the giving out of his horse, or death by freezing. We took the saddle from his tired little mustang, spread the saddle-blanket over his back, and from the scanty supply of grain we had brought for our own animals gave him a tolerable supper. It is wonderful how in hours of danger and privation the horse clings to his human friend. Perfectly tame, perfectly trusting, he throws the responsibility of his care and life upon his rider; and it is not the least pathetic among our mountain experiences to see this patient confidence continue until death. Observing that the logs were likely to burn freely all night, we divided our blankets with the mountaineer, and Cotter and I turned in together. In the morning our new friend had entirely recovered from his numb, stupid condition. Recognizing at a glance his whereabouts, and thanking us feelingly for our rough hospitality, he headed toward the Mariposa trail, with quite an affecting good-by.
After breakfast we ourselves mounted and rode up a long, forest-covered spur leading to the summit of a granite divide, which we crossed at a narrow pass between two steep cliffs, and descended its eastern slope in full view of the whole Merced group. This long abrupt descent in front of us led to the Illilluette Creek, and directly opposite, on the other side of the trough-like valley, rose the high sharp summit of Mount Clark. We were all day in crossing and riding up the crest of a sharply curved medial moraine which traced itself from the mountain south of Mount Clark in a long, parabolic curve, dying out at last in the bottom of the Illilluette basin. The moraine was one of the most perfect I have ever seen; its smooth, graded summit rose as regularly as a railway embankment, and seemed to be formed altogether of irregular bowlders piled securely together and cemented by a thick deposit of granitic glacier-dust. Late in the afternoon we had reached its head, where the two converging glaciers of Mount Clark and Mount Kyle [Editor’s note: probably Mount Lyell] had joined, clasping a rugged promontory of granite. To our left, in a depression of the forest-covered basin, lay a little patch of meadow wholly surrounded by dense groups of alpine trees, which grew in clusters of five and six, apparently from one root. A little stream from the Obelisk snows fell in a series of shallow cascades by the meadow’s margin. We jumped across the brook and went into camp, tethering the mules close by us. One of the great charms of high mountain camps is their very domestic nature. Your animals are picketed close by the kitchen, your beds are between the two, and the water and the wood are always in most comfortable apposition.
For the first time in many months a mild, moist wind sprang up from the south, and with it came slowly creeping over the sky a dull, leaden bank of ominous-looking cloud. Since April we had had no storm. The perpetually cloudless sky had banished all thought, almost memory, of foul weather; but winter tempests had already held off remarkably, and we knew that at any moment they might set in, and in twenty-four hours render the plateaus impassable. It was with some anxiety that I closed my eyes that night, and, sleeping lightly, often awoke as a freshening wind moved the pines. At dawn we were up, and observed that a dark, heavy mass of storm-cloud covered the whole sky, and had settled down over the Obelisk, wrapping even the snow-fields at its base in gray folds. The entire peak was lost, except now and then, when the torn vapors parted for a few moments and disclosed its sharp summit, whitened by new-fallen snow. A strange moan filled the air. The winds howled pitilessly over the rocks, and swept in deafening blasts through the pines. It was my duty to saddle up directly and flee for the Yosemite; but I am naturally an optimist, a sort of geological Micawber, so I dodged my duty, and determined to give the weather every opportunity for a clear-off. Accordingly, we remained in camp all day, studying the minerals of the granite as the thickly strewn bowlders gave us material. At nightfall I climbed a little rise back of our meadow, and looked out over the basin of Illilluette and up in the direction of the Obelisk. Now and then the parting clouds opened a glimpse of the mountain, and occasionally an unusual blast of wind blew away the deeply settled vapors from the cañon to westward; but each time they closed in more threateningly, and before I descended to camp the whole land was obscured in the cloud which settled densely down.
The mules had made themselves comfortable with a repast of rich mountain-grasses, which, though slightly frosted, still retained much of their original juice and nutriment. We ourselves made a deep inroad on the supply of provisions, and, after chatting awhile by the firelight, went to bed, taking the precaution to pile our effects carefully together, covering them with an india-rubber blanket. Our bivouac was in the middle of a cluster of firs, quite well protected overhead, but open to the sudden gusts which blew roughly hither and thither. By nine o’clock the wind died away altogether, and in a few moments a thick cloud of snow was falling. We had gone to bed together, pulled the blankets as a cover over our heads, and in a few moments fell into a heavy sleep. Once or twice in the night I woke with a slight sense of suffocation, and cautiously lifted the blanket over my head, but each time found it growing heavier and heavier with a freight of snow. In the morning we awoke quite early, and, pushing back the blanket, found that we had been covered by about a foot and a half of snow. The poor mules had approached us to the limit of their rope, and stood within a few feet of our beds, anxiously waiting our first signs of life.
We hurried to breakfast, and hastily putting on the saddles, and wrapping ourselves from head to foot in our blankets, mounted and started for the crest of the moraine. I had taken the precaution to make a little sketch-map in my note-book, with the compass directions of our march from the Yosemite, and we had now the difficult task of retracing our steps in a storm so blinding and fierce that we could never see more than a rod in advance. But for the regular form of the moraine, with whose curve we were already familiar, I fear we must have lost our way in the real labyrinth of glaciated rocks which covered the whole Illilluette basin. Snow blew in every direction, filling our eyes and blinding the poor mules, who often turned quickly from some sudden gust, and refused to go on. It was a cruel necessity, but we spurred them inexorably forward, guiding them to the right and left to avoid rocks and trees which, in their blindness, they were constantly threatening to strike. Warmly rolled in our blankets, we suffered little from cold, but the driving sleet and hail very soon bruised our cheeks and eyelids most painfully. It required real effort of will to face the storm, and we very soon learned to take turns in breaking trail. The snow constantly balled upon our animals’ feet, and they slid in every direction. Now and then, in descending a sharp slope of granite, the poor creatures would get sliding, and rush to the bottom, their legs stiffened out, and their heads thrust forward in fear. After crossing the Illilluette, which we did at our old ford, we found it very difficult to climb the long, steep hillside; for the mules were quite unable to carry us, obliging us to lead them, and to throw ourselves upon the snow-drifts to break a pathway.
This slope almost wore us out, and when at last we reached its summit, we threw ourselves upon the snow for a rest, but were in such a profuse perspiration that I deemed it unsafe to lie there for a moment, and, getting up again, we mounted the mules and rode slowly on toward open plateaus near great meadows. The snow gradually decreased in depth as we descended upon the plain directly south of the Yosemite. The wind abated somewhat, and there were only occasional snow flurries, between half-hours of tolerable comfort. Constant use of the compass and reference to my little map at length brought us to the Mariposa trail, but not until after eight hours of anxious, exhaustive labor—anxious from the constant dread of losing our way in the blinding confusion of storm; exhausting, for we had more than half of the way acted as trail-breakers, dragging our frightened and tired brutes after us. The poor creatures instantly recognized the trail, and started in a brisk trot toward Inspiration Point. Suddenly an icy wind swept up the valley, carrying with it a storm of snow and hail. The wind blew with such violence that the whole freight of sleet and ice was carried horizontally with fearful swiftness, cutting the bruised faces of the mules, and giving our own eyelids exquisite torture. The brutes refused to carry us farther. We were obliged to dismount and drive them before us, beating them constantly with clubs.
Fighting our way against this bitter blast, halfblinded by hard, wind-driven snow-crystals, we at last gave up and took refuge in a dense clump of firs which crown the spur by Inspiration Point. Our poor mules cowered under shelter with us, and turned tail to the storm. The fir-trees were solid cones of snow, which now and then unloaded themselves when severely bent by a sudden gust, half burying us in dry, white powder. Wind roared below us in the Yosemite gorge; it blew from the west, rolling up in waves which smote the cliffs, and surged on up the valley. While we sat still the drifts began to pile up at our backs; the mules were belly-deep, and our situation began to be serious.
Looking over the cliff-brink we saw but the hurrying snow, and only heard a confused tumult of wind. A steady increase in the severity of the gale made us fear that the trees might crash down over us; so we left the mules and crept cautiously over the edge of the cliff, and ensconced ourselves in a sheltered nook, protected by walls of rock which rose at our back.
We were on the brink of the Yosemite, and but for snow might have looked down three thousand feet. The storm eddied below us, sucking down whirlwinds of snow, and sometimes opening deep rifts,—never enough, however, to disclose more than a few hundred feet of cliffs.
We had been in this position about an hour, half frozen and soaked through, when I at length gathered conscience enough to climb back and take a look at our brutes. The forlorn pair were frosted over with a thick coating, their pitiful eyes staring eagerly at me. I had half a mind to turn them loose, but, considering that their obstinate nature might lead them back to our Obelisk camp, I patted their noses, and climbed back to the shelf by Cotter, determined to try it for a quarter of an hour more, when, if the tempest did not lull, I thought we must press on and face the snow for an hour more, while we tramped down to the valley.
Suddenly there came a lull in the storm; its blinding fury of snow and wind ceased. Overhead, still hurrying eastward, the white bank drove on, unveiling, as it fled, the Yosemite walls, plateau, and every object to the eastward as far as Mount Clark. As yet the valley bottom was obscured by a layer of mist and cloud, which rose to the height of about a thousand feet, submerging cliff-foot and débris pile. Between these strata, the cloud above and the cloud below, every object was in clear, distinct view; the sharp, terrible fronts of precipices, capped with a fresh cover of white, plunged down into the still, gray river of cloud below, their stony surfaces clouded with purple, salmon-color, and bandings of brown,—all hues unnoticeable in every-day lights. Forest, and crag, and plateau, and distant mountain were snow-covered to a uniform whiteness; only the dark gorge beneath us showed the least traces of color. There all was rich, deep, gloomy. Even over the snowy surfaces above there prevailed an almost ashen gray, which reflected itself from the dull, drifting sky. A few torn locks of vapor poured over the cliff-edge at intervals, and crawled down like wreaths of smoke, floating gracefully and losing themselves at last in the bank of cloud which lay upon the bottom of the valley.
On a sudden the whole gray roof rolled away like a scroll, leaving the heavens from west to far east one expanse of pure, warm blue. Setting sunlight smote full upon the stony walls below, and shot over the plateau country, gilding here a snowy forest group, and there a wave-crest of whitened ridge. The whole air sparkled with diamond particles; red light streamed in through the open Yosemite gateway, brightening those vast, solemn faces of stone, and intensifying the deep neutral blue of shadowed alcoves.
The luminous cloud-bank in the east rolled from the last Sierra summit, leaving the whole chain of peaks in broad light, each rocky crest strongly red, the newly fallen snow marbling it over with a soft, deep rose; and wherever a cañon carved itself down the rocky fronts its course was traceable by a shadowy band of blue. The middle distance glowed with a tint of golden yellow; the broken heights along the cañon-brinks and edges of the cliff in front were of an intense, spotless white. Far below us the cloud stratum melted away, revealing the floor of the valley, whose russet and emerald and brown and red burned in the broad evening sun. It was a marvellous piece of contrasted lights,—the distance so pure, so soft in its rosy warmth, so cool in the depth of its shadowy blue; the foreground strong in fiery orange, or sparkling in absolute whiteness. I enjoyed, too, looking up at the pure, unclouded sky, which now wore an aspect of intense serenity. For half an hour nature seemed in entire repose; not a breath of wind stirred the white, snow-laden shafts of the trees; not a sound of animate creature or the most distant reverberation of waterfall reached us; no film of vapor moved across the tranquil, sapphire sky; absolute quiet reigned until a loud roar proceeding from Capitan turned our eyes in that direction. From the round, dome-like cap of its summit there moved down an avalanche, gathering volume and swiftness as it rushed to the brink, and then, leaping out two or three hundred feet into space, fell, slowly filtering down through the lighted air, like a silver cloud, until within a thousand feet of the earth it floated into the shadow of the cliff and sank to the ground as a faint blue mist. Next the Cathedral snow poured from its lighted summit in resounding avalanches; then the Three Brothers shot off their loads, and afar from the east a deep roar reached us as the whole snow-cover thundered down the flank of Cloud’s Rest.
We were warned by the hour to make all haste, and, driving the poor brutes before us, worked our way down the trail as fast as possible. The light, already pale, left the distant heights in still more glorious contrast. A zone of amber sky rose behind the glowing peaks, and a cold steel-blue plain of snow skirted their bases. Mist slowly gathered again in the gorge below us and overspread the valley floor, shutting it out from our view.
We ran down the zigzag trail until we came to that shelf of bare granite immediately below the final descent into the valley. Here we paused just above the surface of the clouds, which, swept by fitful breezes, rose in swells, floating up and sinking again like waves of the sea. Intense light, more glowing than ever, streamed in upon the upper half of the cliffs, their bases sunken in the purple mist. As the cloud-waves crawled upward in the breeze they here and there touched a red-purple light and fell back again into the shadow.
We watched these effects with greatest interest, and, just as we were about moving on again, a loud burst as of heavy thunder arrested us, sounding as if the very walls were crashing in. We looked, and from the whole brow of Capitan rushed over one huge avalanche, breaking into the finest powder and floating down through orange light, disappearing in the sea of purple cloud beneath us.
We soon mounted and pressed up the valley to our camp, where our anxious friends greeted us with enthusiastic welcome and never-to-be-forgotten beans. We fed our exhausted animals a full ration of barley, and turned them out to shelter themselves as best they might under friendly oaks or among young pines. In anticipation of our return the party had gotten up a capital supper, to which we first administered justice, then punishment, and finally annihilation. Brief starvation and a healthy combat for life with the elements lent a most marvellous zest to the appetite. Under the subtle influences of a free circulation and a stinging cold night, I perceived a region of the taste which answers to those most refined blue waves of the spectrum.
Clouds which had enfolded the heavens rolled off to the east in torn fillets of gold. The stars came out full and flashing in the darkling sky of evening. We left our cabins and grouped ourselves round a loquacious camp-fire, which prattled incessantly and distilled volumes of that mild stimulant, pyroligneous acid—an ill-savored gas which seems to have inspired much domestic poetry, however it may have affected the New England olfactory nerves.
The vast valley-walls, light in contrast with the deep nocturnal violet heavens, rose far into the night, apparently holding up a roof of stars whose brilliancy faded quite rapidly, until finally the last blinking points of light died out, and cold, hard gray stretched from cliff to cliff. Far up cañons and in the heart of the mountains we could hear terrible tempest-gusts crashing among the trees, and breaking in deep, long surges against faces of granite; coming nearer and nearer, they swept down the gorges, with volume increasing every moment, until they poured into the upper end of the valley and fell upon its groves with terrible fury. The wind shrieked wild and high among the summit crags, it tore through the pinebelts, and now and then a sudden, sharp crash resounded through the valley as, one after another, old, infirm pines were hurled down before its blast. The very walls seemed to tremble; the air was thick with flying leaves and dead branches; the snow of the summits, hard frozen by a sudden chill, was blown from the walls, and filled the air with its keen, cutting crystals. At last the very clouds, torn into wild flocks, were swept down into the valley, filling it with opaque, hurrying vapors. Rocks, loosening themselves from the plateau, came thundering down precipice-faces, crashing upon débris piles and forest groups below. Sleet and snow and rain fell fast, and the boom of falling trees and crashing avalanches followed one another in an almost uninterrupted roar. In the Sentinel gorge, back of our camp, an avalanche of rock was suddenly let loose, and came down with a harsh rattle, the bowlders bounding over débris piles and tearing through the trees by our camp. A vivid belt of blue lightning flashed down through the blackness, and for a moment every outline of cliff and forest forms, and the rushing clouds of snow and sleet, were lighted up with a cold, pallid gleam. The burst of thunder which followed rolled but for a moment, and was silenced by the furious storm. In the moment of lightning I saw that the Yosemite Fall, which had been dry for a month, had suddenly sprung into life again. Vast volumes of water and ice were pouring over and beating like sea-waves upon the granite below. Our mules came up to the cabin, and stood on its lee side trembling, and uttering suppressed moans.
After hours the fitfulness of the tempest passed away, leaving a grand, monotonous roar. It had torn off all the rotten branches of the year, and prostrated every decrepit tree, and at last settled down to a continous gale, laden with torrents of rain. We lay down upon our bunks in our clothes, watching and listening through all the first hours of the night. Sleep was impossible; angry winds and the fury of drifting rain shook our little shelters, and kept us wide awake. Toward morning a second thunderstorm burst, and by the light of its flashes I saw that the river had risen nearly to our cabin door, covering the broad valley in front of us with a sheet of flood. Gradually the sound of Yosemite Fall grew louder and stronger, the throbs, as it beat upon the rocks, rising higher and higher till the whole valley rung with its pulsations. By dawn the storm had spent its fury, rain ceased, and around us the air was perfectly still; but aloft, among cliffs and walls, the gale might still be heard sweeping across the forest and tearing itself among granite needles. Fearing that so continuous a storm might block up our mountain trails, Hyde and Cotter and Wilmer, with instruments and pack-animals, started early and went out to Clark’s Ranch.
So dense and impenetrable a fog overhung us that daylight came with extreme slowness, and it was nine o’clock before we rose for breakfast, and at ten a gloomy sea of mist still hung over the valley. The Merced had overflowed its banks, and ran wild. Toward noon the mist began to draw down the valley, and finally all drifted away, leaving us shut in by a gray canopy of cloud which stretched from wall to wall, hanging down here and there in deep blue sags. In this stratum of gray were lost many higher summits, but the whole form of valley and cliff could be seen with terrible distinctness, the walls apparently drawn together, their bases at one or two points pushed into yellow floods of water which lay like lakes upon the level expanse. The whole lip of Yosemite was filled to the brim, and through it there poured a broad, full torrent of white. Shortly after noon a few rifts opened overhead, showing a far sky, from which poured gushes of strong, yellow sunlight, touching here and there upon sombre faces of cliff, and occasionally gilding the falling torrent. A wind still blew, smiting the Yosemite precipice, and playing strangest games with the fall itself. At one time a gust rushed upon the lip of the fall with such violence as to dam back all its waters. We could see its white pile in the lip mounting higher and higher, still held back by the wind, until there must have been a front of from a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet of boiling white water. For a whole minute not a drop poured down the wall; but, gathering strength, the torrent overcame the wind, rushed out with tremendous violence, leaped one hundred and fifty feet straight out into air, and fell clear to the rocks below, dashing high and white again, and breaking into a cloud of spray that filled the lower air of the valley for a mile.
While the water was held back in the gorge there was a moment of complete silence, but when it finally burst out again a crash as of sudden thunder shook the air. At times gusts of wind would drive upon the Three Brothers cliff, and be deflected toward the Yosemite, swinging the whole mighty cataract like a pendulum; and again, pouring upon the rocks at the bottom of the valley, it would gather up the whole fall in mid-air, whirl it in a festoon, and carry it back over the very summit of the walls. I got out the theodolite to measure the angle of its deflection, and, while watching, it swung over an entire semi-circle, now carried from the cliffs to the right, and then whirled back in a cloud of foam over the head of the Three Brothers. A very frequent prank was to loop the whole twenty-six hundred feet of cataract into a single, semi-circular festoon, which fell in the form of fine fringe.
Throughout the afternoon we did little else than watch these ever-changing forms of falling water, until toward evening, when we walked up to see the Merced. I never beheld such a rapid rise in any river; from a mere brook, hiding itself away under overhanging banks and among shrubby islands, it sprang in one night to the size of a full, large river, flowing with the rapidity of a torrent and whirling in its eddies huge trunks of storm-blown pines. As twilight gathered, the scene deepened into a most indescribable gloom; dark-blue shadows covered half the precipices, and sullen, unvaried sky stretched over us its implacable gray. There was something positively fearful in this color; such an impenetrable sky might overarch the Inferno. As we looked, it slowly sank, creeping down precipices, filling the whole gorge; coming down, down, and fitting the cliffs like the piston of an air-pump, till within a thousand feet of us it became stationary, and then slowly lifted again, clearing the summit and rising to an almost infinite remoteness. Slowly a few hard, sharp crystals of snow floated down.
Later the air became intensely chilly, and by dark was full of slowly falling snow, giving prospect of a great mountain storm which might close the Sierras. On the following morning we determined at all costs to pack our remaining instruments and escape. The ground was covered with snow to the depth of seven or eight inches, and through drifting fog-banks we could occasionally get glimpses and see that every cliff was deeply buried in snow. We had still a few barometrical observations along the Mariposa trail which were necessary to complete our series of altitudes; and I started in advance of Gardiner and Clark to break the trail, expecting that when I stopped to make readings they would easily overtake me. Two hours’ hard work was needed to reach the ascent. It was not until noon that I made Inspiration Point, snow having deepened to eighteen inches, entirely obliterating the trail, and had it not been for the extreme frequency of our journeys I should never have been able to follow it; as it was, with occasional mistakes which were soon remedied, I kept the way very well, and my tracks made it easy for the party behind. Having reached the plateau, I made my two barometrical stations, and then started alone through forests for Westfall’s cabin. Every fir-tree was a solid cone of white, and often clusters of five or six were buried together in one common pile. Now and then a little sunlight broke through the clouds, and in these intervals the scene was one of wonderful beauty. Tall shafts of fir, often one hundred and eighty feet high, trimmed with white branches, cast their blue shadows upon snowy ground.
At about four o’clock, after nine hours of hard tramping, I reached Westfall’s cabin, built a fire, and sat down to warm myself and wait for my friends. In half an hour they made their appearance, looking haggard and weary, declaring they would go no farther that night. They led their mule into the cabin, and unpacked, and began to make themselves comfortably at home.
About five the darkness of night had fairly settled down, and with it came a gentle but dense snow-storm. It seemed to me a terrible risk for us to remain in the mountains, and I felt it to be absolutely necessary that one, at least, should press on to Clark’s, so that, if a really great storm should come, he could bring up aid. Accordingly, I volunteered to go on myself, Clark and Gardiner expressing their determination to remain where they were at all costs.
At this juncture Cotter’s well-known voice sounded through the woods as he approached the cabin. He had been all day climbing from Clark’s, and had come to lend a hand in getting the things down. He was of my opinion that it was absolutely necessary for one of us, at least, to go back to Clark’s, and offered, if I thought best, to try to accompany me. I had come from Yosemite and he from Clark’s, having travelled all day, and it was no slight task for us to face storm and darkness in the forest, and among complicated spurs of the Sierra.
We ate our lunch by the cabin fire, bade our friends good-night, and walked out together into the darkness. For the first mile there was no danger of missing our way,—even in the darkness of night Cotter’s tracks could be seen,—but after about half an hour it began to be very difficult to keep the trail. The storm increased to a tempest, and exhaustion compelled us to travel slower and slower. It was with intense anxiety that we searched for well-known blazed trees along the trail, often thrusting our arms down in the snow to feel for a blaze that we knew of. If it was not there we had for a moment an overpowering sense of being lost; but we were ordinarily rewarded after searching upon a few trees, and the blaze once found animated us with new courage. Hour after hour we travelled down the mountain, falling off high banks now and then, for in the dark all ideas of slope were lost. It must have been about midnight when we reached what seemed to be the verge of a precipice. If our calculations were right, we must have come to the edge of the South Fork Cañon. Here Cotter sank with exhaustion and declared that he must sleep. I rolled him over and implored him to get up and struggle on for a little while longer, when I felt sure that we must get down to the South Fork Cañon. He utterly refused, and lay there in a drowsy condition, fast giving up to the effects of fatigue and cold. I unbound a long scarf which was tied round his neck, put it under his arms like a harness, and, tying it round my body, started on, dragging him through the snow, to see if by that means I might not exasperate him to rise and labor on. In a few minutes it had its effect, and he sprang to his feet and fell upon me in a burst of indignation. A few words were enough to bring him to himself, when the old, calm courage was reasserted, and we started together to make our way down the cliff. Happily we at length found the right ridge, and rapidly descended through forest to the river side.
Believing that we must still be below the bridge, we walked rapidly up the bank until at last we found it, and came quickly to Clark’s. We pounded upon the cabin door, and waked up our friends, who received us with joy, and set about cooking us a supper.
It was two o’clock when we arrived, and by three we all went off again to our bunks. My anxiety about Gardiner and Clark prevented my sleeping. Every few minutes I went to the door.
Before dawn it had cleared again, and remained fair till the next noon, when the two made their appearance. No sooner were they quietly housed than the storm burst again with renewed strength, howling among the forest trees grandly. Snow drifted heavily all the afternoon, and through the night it still fell, reaching an average depth of about two feet by the following morning.
We were up early, and packed upon the animals our instruments, note-books, and personal effects, leaving all the blankets and heavy luggage to be gotten out in the following spring. We toiled slowly and heavily up Chowchilla trail. The branches of the great pines and firs were overloaded with snow, which now and then fell in small avalanches upon our heads. Here and there an old bough gave way under its weight, and fell with a soft thud into the snow. We took turns breaking trail, Napoleon, the one-eyed mule, distinguishing himself greatly by following its intricate crooks, while the bravest of us, by turns, held to his tail. There is something deeply humiliating in this process. All the domineering qualities of mankind vanished before the quick, subtle instinct of that noble animal, the mule, and his superior strength came out in magnificent style. With a sublime scorn of his former master, he started ahead, dragging me proudly after him. I had sometimes thrashed that mule with unsympathetic violence, and I fancied it was something very like poetic justice thus submissively to follow in his wake.
Midday found us upon the Chowchilla summit, following a trail deeply buried and often obliterated, and undiscoverable but for our long-eared leader. As we descended the west slope the snow grew more and more moist, less deep, and gradually turned into rain. An hour’s tramp found us upon bare ground, under the fiercely driving rain, which quickly soaked us to the bone. The streams, as we descended, were found to be more and more swollen, until at last it required some nerve to ford the little brooklets which the mule had drunk dry on our upward journey. The earth was thoroughly softened, and here and there the trail was filled with brimming brooks, which rapidly gullied it out.
A more drowned and bedraggled set of fellows never walked out upon the wagon-road and turned toward Mariposa. Streams of water flowed from every fold of our garments, our soaked hats clung to our cheeks, the baggage was a mass of pulp, and the mules smelled violently of wet hide. Fortunately, our note-books, carefully strapped in oil-cloth, so far resisted wetting. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when we reached Dulong’s house, and were surprised to see the water flowing over the top of the bridge. In ordinary times a dry arroyo traverses this farm, and runs under a bridge in front of the house. Clark, our only mounted man, rode out, as he supposed, upon the bridge; but unfortunately it was gone, and he and his horse plunged splendidly into the stream. They came to the surface, Clark with a look of intense astonishment on his face, and the mare sputtering and striking out wildly for the other side. Being a strong swimmer, she reached the bank, climbed out, and Clark politely invited us to follow. The one-eyed Napoleon was brought to the brink and induced to plunge in by an application of fence-rails a tergo, his cyclopean organ piloting him safely across, when he was quickly followed by the other mules. We watched the load of instruments with some anxiety, and were not reassured when their heavy weight bore the mule quite under; but she climbed successfully out, and we ourselves, half swimming, half floundering, managed to cross.
A little way farther we came upon another stream rushing violently across the road, sweeping down logs and sections of fence. Here Clark dismounted, and we drove the whole train in. Three animals got safely over, but the instrument mule was swept down stream and badly snagged, lying upon one side with his head under water.
Cotter and Gardiner and Clark ran up stream and got across upon a log. I made a dash for the snagged mule, and by strong swimming managed to catch one of his feet, and then his tail, and worked myself toward the shore. It was something of a task to hold his head out of the water, but I was quickly joined by the others, and we managed to drag him out by the head and tail. There he lay upon the bank on his side, tired of life, utterly refusing to get upon his feet, the most abominable specimen of inertia and indifference. While I was pricking him vigorously with a tripod, the ground caved under my feet and I quickly sank. Cotter, who was standing close by, seized me by the cape of my soldier’s overcoat, and landed me as carefully as he would a fish. As we marched down the road, unconsciously keeping step, the sound of our boots had quite a symphonic effect; they were full of water, and with soft, melodious slushing acted as a calmer upon our spirits.
The road in some places was cut out many feet deep, and we were obliged to climb upon the wooded banks, and make laborious détours. At last we reached a branch of the Chowchilla, which was pouring in a flood between a man’s house and his barn. Here we formed a line, a mule between each two men. Our line was swept frightfully down stream, but the leader gained his feet, and we came out safe and dripping upon terra firma on the other side. A mile farther we came upon the main Chowchilla, which was running a perfect flood; from being a mere brooklet it had swollen to a considerable river, with waves five and six feet high sweeping down its centre. We formed our line and attempted the passage, but were thrown back. It would have been madness to try it again, and we turned sorrowfully back to the last ranch. Cotter and I piloted the animals over to the barn, and, upon returning, threw a rope to our friends upon the other side, and were drawn through the swift water.
In the ranch-house we found two bachelors, typical California partners, who were quietly partaking of their supper of bacon, fried onions, Japanese tea, and biscuits, which, like “Harry York’s,” had too much saleratus. We stood upon their threshold awhile and dripped, quite a rill descending over the two steps, trickling down the door-yard as a new fork of the Chowchilla.
We asked for supper and shelter, but were met with such a gruff, inhospitable reply that we lost all sense of modesty, and walked in with all our moisture. We stretched a rope across the middle of the sitting-room before a huge fire in an open chimney, then, stripping ourselves to the buff, we hung up our steaming clothes upon the line, and turned solemnly round and round before the fire, drying our persons.
In the meanwhile our inhospitable landlords made the best of the situation, and proceeded to achieve more onions and more saleratus biscuit for our entertainment. Upon our departure in the morning the generous rancher charged us first-class hotel prices.
The flood had utterly disappeared, and we passed over the Chowchilla with surprise and dry shoes.
At Mariposa we parted from Clark, and devoted two whole days to struggling through the mud of San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco, where we arrived, wet and exhausted, just in time to get on board the New York steamer.
On the morning of the twelfth day out Gardiner and I seated ourselves under the grateful shadow of palm-trees, a bewitching black-and-tan sister thrumming her guitar while the chocolate for our breakfast boiled. The slumberous haze of the tropics hung over Lake Nicaragua; but high above its indistinct, pearly vale rose the smooth cone of the volcano of Omatepec, robed in a cover of pale emerald green. Warmth, repose, the verdure of eternal spring, the poetical whisper of palms, the heavy odor of the tropical blooms, banished the grand, cold fury of the Sierra, which had left a permanent chill in our bones.
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