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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


CHAPTER XIX
THE HIGH SIERRA: GEM LAKE TO THE LITTLE YOSEMITE

The morning dawned propitiously for a move over the Donohue Pass to the Lyell Fork; but while we were in the act of packing, clouds again came driving up from the south; the mountains became grey and veiled; and in a few minutes rain was falling heavily. For myself, I wanted nothing better than a long rainy day in such a spot. Promptly unpacking, we raised our canvas shelter, and, seated on our bedding rolls, settled down to enjoy ourselves with the virtuous feeling of having been willing to be energetic but denied the opportunity.

It was very, very lovely. The lake was silent, drifting toward me and meeting the grey margin with a mysterious soundlessness. A solitary water-bird flew with sharp, curving wings over the water, and the sound of the creek running into the lake beyond the stony point, where the ripples spread in shining arcs, was mixed with its own echoes. The clouds gathered and parted, ever pouring up from beyond the southern mountains. Is there no end, dark angels? On the soft wet green of the hills sudden shifting gleams were cast from a sky broken by wan, trou bled lights. Black slate glistened on the mountain-sides, and the long screes plunged into the water in purple avalanches. It was Scotland or Dartmoor.

The tamaracks’ dark foliage glowed unwontedly bright against the sodden black of their bark, and the little tufts of alpine phlox growing matted among the upturned slates waited with half-opened blossoms in patient shyness. Lichens and mosses, yellow, grey-green, and Indian red, touched the cold stones with disks of strongest color. The red twigs and sallow leafage of the willows twinkled with diamond lights when a beam of pallid sunlight struck athwart them. Where a two-minute shower fell between me and the hazy sun, a silent dance came on the surface of the lake, like the short second movement of the Moon-light Sonata, and beginning and ending as suddenly. On the wet wind came the distant sound of the sheep-bell and the far-off, dreamy cry of the sheep. I could see them streaming endlessly over a pine-clad shoulder of the mountain half-a-mile away, making to the next valley.

The weather clearing somewhat by the middle of the morning, we packed again and started for the pass, leaving the lake and its lonely grave desolate under brooding clouds. Farewell, unknown friend; sometimes I shall revisit in memory your quiet place of rest. Farewell! farewell!

We now started westward through tamarack forest, following generally the course of the stream. Rising rapidly, and skirting two or three lakelets, we entered a wild and rocky gorge. The trail, poorly blazed and showing no sign of having been travelled that year, taxed all Bodie’s trail-craft to follow it. As we reached the first divide a glorious sight burst upon us. Right ahead rose Mount Lyell and his fellows, — McClure, Ritter, Kellogg, Banner, and half-a-score beside of the giants of the range, more clustered and heaped together than at any other point of the whole chain. Over the majestic prospect was poured a tumult of light and shade that raised it from a landscape to a pageant.

The storm-clouds that wrapped the peaks revealed every moment, as they changed and parted, black crags and high-flung summits, or snow-fields massed in unbroken sheets of gleaming white. The unusual quietude of the river, which here, moving through level meadows, reflected the mountains in its dark waters, enhanced the dreamlike feeling of the place; and the silence, in contrast with the impetuous movement of the clouds, seemed a fine summary of the eloquence and power of Nature.

At this spot it began again to rain upon us, and the immediate prospects were for more. So we went early into camp beside the creek, rather than cross the pass in the face of a possible heavy storm, which at nearly eleven thousand feet might prove a severe experience. We had heard at Mono that a party of people who had tried to cross a few days before had been forced to abandon the attempt through stress of weather and the difficulty of crossing the treacherous snow. Thunder boomed among the peaks and the rain thrashed down in staggering drifts, setting a thousand rills coursing among the channels of the granite.

Bodie somehow accomplished a loaf of bread, under circumstances which he truly said “gave him no show”; and we sat snugly dining, smoking, and congratulating ourselves under our improvised shelter. The afternoon passed in alternate rain and clear, but without any glimpse of the sun. It was dismally cold. The mountains changed and changed, from glorious gloom to gloomy glory; the river swirled and roared along; and the clouds trooped sullenly past, like that line of kings that frighted Macbeth.

By evening the weather cleared, and I wandered in the gathering dusk about the neighborhood of our camp, smelling the vigorous piny essences poured out from rain-soaked bark and foliage, and feeling the thrill of intense life in the hardy dwarf pines and tamaracks. I am constantly surprised, in spite of experience, at the flowery and luxuriant vegetation which one meets in these high places. Exploring up a little creek that entered the main stream beside the camp, I found myself among cyclamens, columbines, daisies of wonderful size, and many other delicate and beautiful flowers, growing with long waving grasses in gardens set among a tumble of granite boulders. Here, at the end of July, a Californian would think himself in April or May. It is like the quick summer of Arctic latitudes, sudden, vivid, and brief. It is hardly a month since winter ended, and six weeks hence the snows may again be falling. A few miles away, and but two or three thousand feet above, are glaciers, and snow-drifts fifty feet deep. (Bodie says a hundred, and perhaps one may as well guess generously; it is stimulating and yet harmless, which is unusual.) Even the sturdy dwarf pines hereabout are close upon their last straggling verge. Yet in this little sheltered cañon early summer is in full career, rank and riotous.

It is this peculiarity which gives to the High Sierra its most unique charm. It may be that in the Himalayas, or the Mountains of the Moon, or some other such place of legendary import to most of us, the same condition might be met with; but it is a constant delight and surprise to encounter this rare conjunction in our own friendly mountains.

The next morning dawned heavy and rainy-looking, with the fiery sunrise that an old rhyme, by which I used to divine the weather prospects of school holidays, declares to be the shepherd’s warning. However, by the time breakfast was over it looked more promising, so we hurriedly packed and started for the pass. The trail here is the mere ghost of a track, the shadow of a shade, and Bodie, who had covered the ground before, took the lead. A perpendicular ridge pinnacled with seven sharp spires shot up superbly on our right, and I passed it with regret; but in view of the weather, time was just now an important consideration, and the snowy monsters ahead, growing every moment nearer, consoled me, and we pushed rapidly forward.

The way led alternately through masses of piled and shattered granite and brilliant little meadow-patches, sparkling with rain and starred with hosts of flowers. At last the sun shone weakly, but we rejoiced with trembling, for July here is as changeful as April on the plains. Over broad areas of glacial rock, strewn with boulders and laced with gushes of snow-water, we picked our way with the precarious aid of so-called monuments, hardly discernible in the general wreck and shatter.

We were here at timber-line, where only the dwarf pines, tough as whip-cord, can endure the winter’s rage, and even they are beaten and felted down into mere rugs that spread horizontally a foot or so above the ground. The flowers that grow in these highest meadows are astonishingly rich in color. Lupines of the bluest, and daisies of a deep lavender approaching purple, mingle with glistening buttercups, and castilleias of scarlet at its highest power. I have hitherto refrained from mentioning the last-named flower (generally called Indian paint-brush), having conceived something of an aversion to it at the outset. Its construction is peculiar and unflowerlike, and it is somehow uncongenial to me; while the astonishing profusion of the plant, which accompanied us everywhere in our wanderings, high and low, irritated me with a sense of almost persecution. But I am compelled at last to do justice to its color-power, in which regard it outdoes even the geranium and nasturtium. It was here of a red so fierce and refulgent as to really require a new word to express it. The red poppy is a pale invalid beside this roistering gypsy. It pours out color, throbs with it, seems to shed it off like something palpable; and I can imagine that an essence or sublimation, too fine for our senses to perceive, goes up from each of these myriad blossoms which could be kindled into flame,—the essential, elemental Red.

Passing through a turfy valley, where the stream widened into still pools, clear as air, we were in full view of the great cluster of mountains known as the Lyell group. A solemn and magnificent company they were, and I felt much as if I looked upon a gathering of the kings and emperors of olden history, — Charlemagne, the Great Rameses, the greatest of the Caesars, Alexander, Sardanapalus. Farthest to the south one splendid peak ran up in a steep, swinging curve that, as the eye followed it, seemed to overbalance, like a toppling volcano. It was Black Ritter.

Close behind us stood the seven-pinnacled ridge, and to the right, knife-like edges of granite gleamed hard and clear against a darker sky. On every side there was nothing but rock, water, snow, and sky, nothing but the wild, savage, stern.

A long expanse of soaking bog kept my eyes unwillingly on the ground. It required the greatest care to find safe footing for the animals, especially the pack-mules and burros. Nothing is so demoralizing to a pack-animal as a stretch of boggy country, with its risk of miring down, and a detour, however wide, is apt to be the best of policy. With extraordinary squelchings and snortings we picked our way through half-a-mile of the greenest of turf which turned to blackest ooze at every step. The lovely cassiope, somewhat rare in general, grew here in abundance, but was not yet in flower; nor was the bryanthus, which two thousand feet lower down had been withered for a month past.

Mile after mile the trail climbed over barren granite, sometimes hard and polished, sometimes disintegrated on the surface to a coarse sand as large in grain as peas. At last we stood at the top of the Donohue Pass, at eleven thousand feet altitude. Below and near us lay several small lakes, half frozen over, into which snow-fields plunged steeply; and crossing a wide stretch of softened snow we rounded Mount Lyell in full view of and close under the glacier which lies as in a great shell all along the mountain’s northern face. From the foot of the glacier the water ran in a fair-sized creek, which, gathering force from its rapid fall and the accretion of innumerable rills, raced away northward to become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne.

Bursts of dazzling sunshine alternated with gloomy shadow as masses of cloud rolled up from the south. The last tree-life was left behind. The arms of the glacier ran up into the cañons and draws of the mountain like surf of the ocean surging into a rocky bay. I felt a strong temptation to make at least a partial exploration of the glacier; but the threatening weather put it out of the question at the moment, and the complete absence of forage for the animals forbade our making camp in this wild spot. Reluctantly I turned my back upon Lyell for this time, with the hope of revisiting the noble mountain another year and making the ascent.

The trail from the Donohue Pass to the Lyell Cañon offers the hardest piece of work that I know of in this part of the mountains. In two miles it drops two thousand feet, and, being but little used, each traveller finds its passage much the same thing as breaking a trail through new country. The famous Bloody Cañon Pass, by which we had gone over to Mono Lake, is tame in comparison. We tumbled and stumbled our way down somewhat recklessly; but by good fortune and good packing we made the descent without disaster, and by noon came, breathless and perspiring violently, to the head of the remarkably long and level cañon which debouches ten miles to the northwest at the Tuolumne Meadows.

The eastern wall of this cañon is formed by the long, barren ridge of Kuna Crest, under whose other slope we had camped a week before. It here rose in an unbroken rampart from the nine-thousand-foot level of the cañon to twelve thousand feet at the ridge. The west wall is somewhat less high but more broken and timbered. The river was already a handsome stream, winding and looping about in a

MT LYELL WITH ITS GLACIER
[click to enlarge]
MT LYELL WITH ITS GLACIER
manner suggestive of a deputy sheriff earning mileage; and the fords were sufficiently wide, deep, and rapid.

Flowers of a score of kinds blossomed about us, the castilleias in particular being of giant size and astonishing brilliance of color. I notice that having at last brought myself to speak of this plant, I am beginning to find excellences in it hitherto unknown. Probably it is often so; half of our antipathies might be likings if we would, and half of the rest mild appreciations. Still, I do not really care for this flower, any more than I should care for Carmen; but I cannot refuse my admiration.

Steady travelling for several miles brought us to the mouth of Ireland Creek, where we proposed to take a new trail to the southwest over the Tuolumne Pass; and we went into camp by mid-afternoon. The stream looked ideally fishable, and Field and I revelled in the experience, new to both of us, and of which I had felt doubts of the possibility, of catching trout by twos and threes, for there were candidates for as many flies as we chose to put on our leaders. Certainly the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne is the heaven of the not-too-skilful fisherman;—as such, that is to say; for I must add that our trout-supper was embittered by a constant skirmish with the mosquitoes. They rushed upon us in such numbers and with such diabolical audacity that I found it necessary to force a passage for each morsel as it approached my mouth by gyratory manoeuvres with my left hand, and even then one or two grey imps, I suspect, penetrated my guard and by an unwilling act of justice were miserably incorporated with the food they defiled.

Next morning we were once more climbing to the high levels. Our new trail led up through a forest of unusual density and stateliness, every opening in which was sprinkled with flowers, from the columbine of high degree to the lowly but best-beloved daisy. Giant lupines tumbled in big blue masses across the trail, and bryanthus grew in rounded bosses by every creek-side.

I was in the lead, and rode far ahead. The voices of my companions were wafted to me from time to time by the lazy forest breeze, usually in reprobation of the pack-animals, but otherwise in snatches of song attuned to a pensive minor key. It was one of those blessed mornings of long silences, when the trail is easy to keep and one’s thoughts turn inward and revolve upon themselves. One whistles, sotto voce, smokes with a deeper peace, notes a million things, infinitely small and precious, and receives freely those little clairvoyances of the past which shake the heart for the moment but leave it calmer. Precipitation takes place rapidly, and the mind is clear and cool like the wind. One praises God, but only occasionally becomes aware of it. The golden silence sings in one’s ears, and the inward symphony goes quietly on. P., old fellow, K., old man, I wish you were here; not to talk to, just to commune with at quarter-mile distances. Is that the wind, or the river, booming softly ten thousand miles away? or can it be, in truth, cosmic sound, the very sound of the earth? It might be, it might be.

Two hours had brought us again to timber-line, at between ten and eleven thousand feet. The view opened upon a boulder-strewn plateau rising in terraces to the summit of the divide, where we stood completely encircled by the mountains, with Lyell and McClure to the southeast. The glare of the sun on snow and rock was blinding, and we hastened on to where the low and matted dwarf pines offered some relief to the eyes. I cannot conceive of a more luxurious bed than one of these rugs of Pinus albicaulis would make. Beaten and flattened by snow and clipped by the wind as if by a mower, they are so thick and close and springy that they hardly yield to one’s weight. The rich, resinous smell of them rises like a spirit. It would be worth while coming to camp at this altitude just to sleep on such a bed.

Crossing the divide, a lakelet lay under a snowy ridge, which we skirted, and continued over a wide stretch of granite pavement. The scene here is wild enough to satisfy the most exacting taste for the savage and desolate; bare rock, terrified trees, air, and sky, these make up the whole prospect. Another and larger lake lay near the top of the pass, the crisp purple ripples travelling steadily across its surface with that unceasing but soundless motion which is one of the most attractive actions of Nature.

As I rode across a small meadow my attention was caught by what was to me a phenomenon in natural history,—a green butterfly, grass green from head to foot. I know nothing of entomology, to speak of: such insects may be common enough; but I am sure that I never encountered one before. I reined up and pondered. Was I missing the chance of my unentomological life? Was this some hitherto unknown species that should be captured at all hazards, and that would convey me safely down to posterity with a Latin termination? But while I debated he flew down the mountain and was gone, “and,” as Bunyan says, “I saw him no more.”

The trail here debouched into a broader meadow, scattered with slabs and boulders of granite, and with a circular lake lying close under a precipitous mountain with snow-drifts creeping in its gorges down to the water’s edge. To the north rose high peaks, the crests and ridges finely broken and piled in fantastic masses. Westward the view was bounded by timbered ridges fading into the distance, where the Yosemite gorge lay hidden. It was a delightful spot, wild, spacious and lonely; a blue, rippling lake with the purest of snow-water rushing into it in cataracts, snowy themselves, over gleaming rocks; cliffs scored black with shadow, white with snow, a fitting home for eagles; a wind as free and bold as the eagle, too; a meadow flowery and heathery to delight; and to crown all, sky scenery that day which was truly majestic in color, line, and motion.

My mind was exercising itself with conjectures as to the reason for the name of this peak and the lake lying under it,—Vogelsang. I was on the point of giving up the riddle when the strident voice of the Clarke crow, almost the only bird that inhabits these highest solitudes, gave me a clue, and I perceived that a spirit of irony had suggested the name.

Crossing the small creek that carries the water from this lake, we turned southward over a divide among a vast wreckage of débris. Far to the west could be seen the top of a huge split mountain; there was no mistaking that strangest of mountain shapes, the Half-Dome. Another lake lay close on the left, and a deep snow-bank ahead. Skirting these we crossed the head of the Tuolumne Pass at 10,700 feet, among a wild conglomeration of toppling, tottering, staggering rock-shapes piled against a sky across which great clouds were momentarily hurtling.

We were on the main line of watershed of this part of the Sierra. To the north a hundred streams ran toward the deep gorge of the Tuolumne, while southward all drained to the Merced and the San Joaquin. The outlook here again was superb. To the west that fine group of mountains of which Clark is the centre lay under a brooding sky. In the near south and east rose the great barrier which sweeps up to Mounts Florence, Lyell, and McClure. On a shelf of this wall of mountains lay a strangely beautiful lake. Broad snow-fields swept gloriously into it on the south: a fringe of torn pines drew around its northern and western margins. It was my ideal lake, and I then and there marked it for my own, setting it deep in my affections as a lake of lakes, by which some future time I hope to camp for days and nights of pure Sierra delight.

The trail now descended steeply to the McClure Fork of the Merced, which flows through a long flowery cañon. We had not seen much sign of game of late, but here again tracks of deer were plentiful. The cañon narrowed to a gorge, and scattered tamaracks gave place to a fine forest of hemlock. Among these noble and beautiful but mournful trees a heavy stillness reigned. The great plushy fans of foliage, almost black in the gloomy air, but fringed with grey silver, were indescribably rich and sumptuous. The walls closed in, dark and high. Thunder rolled along the northern heights, where twisted junipers clung upon the ledges, and a few drops of rain fell.

The river rushed whitely far below, where the forest swept steep and black to the bottom of the gorge. It grew darker, and still darker. The trees stood listening and longing for the rain, and the meek flowers looked timidly up. Black thunder crackled and roared, and in its pauses the raving of the river as it rushed wildly over boulders and slides of granite rose loud and fearful, like a cry. Still the rain withheld: is it sparing us? I wish that it would not; I love not to be made a weakling by my mother: and, Spartan-like, I grudge that I should not be scourged. But so it proved: the thunder continued, the great clouds met and parted, but no rain came.

Again the cañon widened, and a change came over the spirit of the scenery. We were once more in the Yosemite region, surrounded by domes and ice-planed mountains. To the north was a rounded cone of bare granite with a white cascade clasping its base. Every ledge and buttress of every mountain was rounded and polished like a woman’s shoulder. Half-Dome was again in view, and again I wondered at him, as I never tire of doing. Far ahead lay a steely sheet of water into which granite slopes plunged steeply: it was Lake Merced.

The miles strung out. Forest alternated with rock and rock with forest. We entered a pretty grove of aspens, mixed with saddle-high lupines and bracken. Then we came to the lake, a lovely piece of water lying at seven thousand feet, fringed with forest, but with slopes and domes rising two thousand feet higher, except where, to the west, the Merced River flowed out in a wide cascade of whirling foam.

We made camp on the edge of the lake, among aspens, with a fir or two for love; and had hardly finished unpacking when the delayed storm broke. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed continuously, and the quiet little lake was struck into sudden panic. Up went our shelter, and we sat on our bedding and watched the pots boiling over the hissing fire just outside, while the rain poured merrily off the canvas and the trees rocked and strained in the gale. It was twelve hours since breakfast, and our meal was extended to the proportions of a banquet. Not even dessert was beyond our resources when Bodie produced from some unsuspected cache of his own a handful of dried apricots.

The storm passed away and the evening was a pastoral of quiet beauty. The last shreds of cloud drifted in films and smirches of gold and rose in a steel-blue sky. A family of wild ducks paddled about in the middle of the lake, quacking happily. Birds chirped and bustled in the wet brush. The earth had been visited and watered, and it was as when one saunters in his garden at home while the scents and the colors sink deeply in, and do their peaceful work.

The next day’s travel was to be the last of our trip, for it would bring us to the Little Yosemite. Breaking camp early, we followed the trail along the northern side of the lake, passing over a sheet of polished rock which slopes to the river and rises beyond, forming a narrow trough through which the stream rushes at terrific speed in vertical wheels of white water. These great slopes that slant away steeply from many of the domes are very impressive in their fine simplicity of line. For hundreds of feet they sweep down smooth and unbroken, with something the same suggestion of powerful ease and steadiness that one receives in watching the sailing flight of eagles.

Turning northward the trail followed the west bank of a pretty, brown stream, and climbed over a high ridge, finely timbered, at nine thousand feet. Little scraps of meadow hung here and there on the steep side of the mountain, and here I first found the Alpine lily (Lilium parvum), swinging its campanile of tawny-ruby bells. The mountain pine attains in this region its noblest growth, its sturdy red trunk and powerful arms showing finely against the slender symmetry of the firs.

I was partly glad and partly sorry to find again the ceanothus, manzanita, and chinquapin growing thick and high as we neared the valley, betokening a milder soil and climate than that of the inner Sierra which we were leaving.

At a pretty meadow which keeps alive the memory of some departed worthy of the name of Hopkins, Field and I left Bodie to take the animals on to camp in the Little Yosemite, while we diverged to ascend Clouds’ Rest, two or three miles to the west. An easy climb through a forest of fir and mountain pine took us to the summit at 9925 feet, and from this admirable standpoint we were able to review as on a relief map the wanderings of the past month. To the northwest lay the Hetch-Hetchy country and Lake Eleanor, where the long folds of timbered mountain faded into dreamy distance. Straight northward the Matterhorns rose like the peaks of the Enchanted Mountains of our childhood. Farther to the east was Mount Dana, and beyond, the far Mono country with its grey volcanoes and beautiful, deadly lake: I seemed to feel again the shimmering heat, and see the pallid desert sky.

Yonder, where the mountains were clustered most thickly, stood Lyell and his great brethren, the kings of the mid-Sierra. To the west lay the gorge of Yosemite. Sunk in the summer mist, her majestic walls and precipices, washed in pale amethyst, were airy and unsubstantial as a fairy vision: but close beside us stood like a solemn hooded figure the Mysterious Mountain, great Half-Dome. From this point the mountain is in profile, and the splendid line of the southern side rises unbroken in its grandeur and severity; while from its nearness, the huge bulk of that mass of solid granite overpowers one with an almost nightmare feeling of vastness and oppression.

The top of Clouds’ Rest itself is built up of weather-worn slabs of granite laid one on another in steps and ledges. The mountain is heavily forested on its whole southern side, the conifers rising in well-marked belts, ending with a few dwarf pines at the summit. The northern slope is barren, sweeping down in one long, unbroken wall to the Tenaya Cañon, with Tenaya Lake in plain view at its head. There is something of an anomaly in the distribution of timber on this mountain, for it is an almost invariable rule that the northern slopes are forested while the southern, more exposed to the sun, are comparatively barren.

A swift downward march of two hours brought us to the Little Yosemite, where we found Bodie already camped, and mighty preparations going forward for a meal worthy of the occasion. The sinkienon, standing like an obese martyr among the glowing coals, was almost ready to deliver a fragrant loaf; beans, the perfect gold of whose hue equalled but could never surpass in charm the melting smoothness of their flavor, smoked on a carefully contrived hob, and even a scratch “mulligan” was in process of concoction.

Sitting that evening by our last camp-fire, I passed in pleasant review the experiences of our expedition: mornings of heavenly freshness on the trail; cañons on cations, peaks beyond peaks, ridges beyond ridges; sweet scents of balsam and pine; stormy sunrises and wistful sunsets; heat and dust; luxurious turnings-in by firelight, and reluctant turnings-out by moonlight; lakes round, lakes long, lakes little and big of every shape and no shape, lying blue in hidden hollows or trembling to sudden silver as the wind went by; breathless climbs and clattering descents; cheerful pipings of early birds and sleepy twitterings of late ones; conundrums of trails mysteriously vanished from the face of the earth; silent hours of camp-fire meditation; loquacious hours over errors of the trail; pleasantries of Field and Bodie; unaccountable aberrations of pack-animals; exultations at new discoveries; daisies; mosquitoes; quiet lyings awake by night; solemn glories of sunset

peaks; communions with friendly trees; chatterings of brooks, singings of creeks, and roarings of rivers; dim alleys of forest and aching white rock-highways; ghostly snow-glimmer by starlight; peaks in solemn rank against the sky . . . The next morning we went down to the valley.


Yosemite National Park and Adjacent Territory (1911)
[click to enlarge]
Yosemite National Park and Adjacent Territory


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