We planned to hike down Tenaya Creek canyon in Yosemite, from Tenaya Lake to Yosemite valley. The plan had generated some concern a few weeks into August, when we’d picked up a map of Yosemite as we were driving through. It was a big map, with all the hotspots marked — Yosemite Falls, Half-Dome, the works. It includes some of the greatest, most challenging climbing spots in the world. But there is one and only one spot on the map marked in large, red letters: “Hiking in this area is extremely dangerous and highly discouraged”. That’s where Rob proposed to take us. This is when we became familiar with Rob’s “but they don’t mean me” philosophy, which has worked so well for him for the last 70 years. The intended audience for that remark, he explained, was your casual day-hiker who thought it might be fun to wander down the river canyon. They just mean, he said, that you need equipment and experience. We pointed out that we had neither. But he felt that his equipment and experience still brought us way above average. The fact that no scarlet letters decorated Half Dome on the map left him unimpressed, since, he maintained, only a maniac would try to climb Half Dome unprepared. So he talked us back into it. Having had a few near-death experiences with Rob on various kayaking trips, we figured, what could really go wrong on dry land?
Rob has an unusual camping philosophy, as even a casual glance at his 40-, 50-year-old (?) backpack makes clear. He’s unimpressed by equipment. He doesn’t like to carry stuff. And he doesn’t care much about food, either. So there were a lot of things we didn’t take with us on this trip. First of all we didn’t take our oldest child, Ellie, because she left for college before the weekend, possibly because she has some sense of self-preservation. Here’s a list of other things we didn’t take:
- Change of clothes (not even underwear)
- Bathing suits (even though we had to swim)
- Bear-proof container
Here are things we insisted on taking that Rob thought frivolous:
- Sleeping bags
- Long underwear
- Bug repellent
My attitude, after we’d decided to go on what was clearly a loony expedition, was fatalistic; I decided we probably would all live, and just be acutely uncomfortable, by mostly following Rob’s advice (except about the sleeping bags). Anyway the laws of probability were clearly in our favor — not too many people die in Yosemite each year.
We set off after dinner on Friday.
Rob’s plan for a place to sleep Friday night (of Labor Day weekend, remember, so it’s not like there were going to be empty hotel rooms if this didn’t work):
Drive almost to the park entrance. Pull off on a little side road in the National Forest. Sleep on the ground, testing our sleeping equipment.
The people going on this trip, aside from Rob, age 67, wereand me, ages 50 and 48, and Lucy and Benjy, ages 10 and 15. As a scheme for accommodating a party of five, Rob’s pre-trip sleeping plan struck me as implausible, but sure enough, at about 10:30 Friday night, we just threw our sleeping bags (wimps) and pads on the ground off the main road into Yosemite. Lucy and I spent some time discussing the bats sweeping through the air between the pines, and whether or not they were likely to come tangle in our hair, but then we fell asleep, not waking up until dawn Saturday morning.
A little disheveled, we drove to the park entrance, where Rob waved his “Golden Age” passport to get us in for free. It violates some kind of fairness doctrine that Rob should have a Golden Age passport. A person less in need of one would be hard to find, but anyway he’s got one. We stopped for a last fine meal of glazed donut holes and coffee at the mini-mart, and then at the information station for a final flush toilet experience. Amazingly, there Rob went to register for a wilderness permit (I had pictured us sliding past eagle-eyed rangers on our way in). He got the permit, even saying where we were going, and only omitting the key information that we had two children with us. The mandatory bear canister (which the kids kept calling the “bear trap”) was tossed unceremoniously into the back of the car. “There are,” said Rob, “no bears in this canyon. You’ll see; they can’t get in, it’s too steep.”
An hour later we were at Tenaya Lake, and in another half hour we were dressed, packed and walking. The trip was supposed to take two and a half days. The packs were suspiciously light. We’d brought enough food for about ten minutes.
We stayed on the trail for a bit, then appeared to start wandering aimlessly through the woods, although Rob seemed clear about where we were going. Ten more minutes of bushwhacking and Lucy said, a little panic-stricken, “Bear. Bear, bear bear.” The adults finally perked up their ears. Then, a little more hysterically, “Bear, there’s a bear!” and there was, sure enough. Big, too, and a little close. Rob, intrigued by an odd sound in the trees behind the bear, began walking towards it. Lucy, with more common sense, began backing away, holding tight to my hand (or I was holding tight to hers, it’s not so clear). The bear was not amused by Rob, and began walking towards him. At that moment he realized that the curious scrambling noises were coming from the two cubs high in the pines behind their mother. He, too, began backing away, as Joel got several pictures of a vast panorama of woodland with a tiny speck of brown in the middle, which may or may not have been the bear. It was an auspicious start to the trip. We complained about the bear to Rob, having, we felt, been promised a bear-free trip, but “You’ll see,” he said, “once we get to the granite slopes, there won’t be any.”
After the woods we come out into the first part of the river canyon, a gigantic bowl of polished granite. If we’d gone just this far, it would have been worth the trip. The creek threads through the slabs, and the light reflects off the mountains. It felt like there was no one for miles; just spectacularly beautiful. At one spot in the bowl there is a rock shelf the width of the canyon, about three feet high, and the water runs over the edge in multiple spots, pooling at the bottom. We sat there awhile, between the streams, admiring.
At the end of the bowl we climbed away from the river, across granite that felt like it was at a sixty-degree angle. It wasn’t; we didn’t use a rope, just our newly-bought “sticky shoes”, which fortunately were really sticky. It was nerve-wracking, but not nearly as nerve-wracking as climbing back down on the other side. Descending, you start looking at every bush critically, wondering if, in the event you fall into it, it and you will just tumble on down the hill. Cracks the width of a hand begin to look like stairs. The bushes, as we learned by in fact falling into a few, were both quite secure and quite prickly.
In the late afternoon a final steep slide took us back down into the river canyon, into the “Lost Valley”. We camped farther down the valley, on a wide shelf four feet above the river. The discovery of a large, fresh pile of bear scat on the shelf didn’t impress Rob at all. “Maybe,” he conceded, “there’s one bear in this valley. But that’s it, and, since it was here so recently, it surely won’t be back tonight. Bears move around a lot.”
With so little camping equipment, setting up camp took just minutes, most of it spent brushing the rock smooth for our sleeping pads. Dinner was salami and cheese and really terrible crackers, and then we were ready for bed. We only had to agree on the disposition of the food. Rob solved this using the following remarkable food storage system (which he obviously thought was pandering to our unreasonable paranoia): he tied the food into two big plastic garbage bags, one inside the other. He half-suspended it from a rope in the creek below our shelf. He ran the rope across the shelf, and attached it to a boulder. Then he put his sleeping pad on top of the rope. That way, he explained carefully, when the bear came to get the food, he, Rob, would be sure to wake up and scare it away. Since we were catatonic with exhaustion, and since the only person that seemed likely to suffer major injury in this scenario was Rob, or possibly the bear, we agreed. And we slept, like rocks. A bear could have been curled up with us all night for all we would’ve heard of him.
\[ \star\qquad\star\qquad\star \] All of the above was written in 2006, after we got (safely) home. We spent two more days in the canyon, rappelling into freezing pools, wondering at the incredible beauty, and getting thinner. Despite the somewhat contradictory information Rob had offered about bears, Lucy latched onto him as her greatest source of protection, and was seldom many paces behind him. She either thought he offered a better defense than her parents were likely to provide, or else just thought a bear would go for him first. The only time her faith in him was shaken was on our last day. We finally reached the valley floor, and began walking towards the main parking lot. After about a mile we came upon a café building with PIZZA in huge letters over the doorway. This brought both the kids to a dead stop, but Rob said, “No no, there is much better food another few miles down the road.” At that, Lucy sat down on the curb and burst into tears, the only tears on the whole trip. But the cloudburst was brief, and, after a few minutes, she and I trailed after the rest of them, heading for the better food. I can’t remember what the food was exactly, but it was sensational.
Abby Thompson was supported by Rob as a graduate student during a special year in low-dimensional topology at MSRI in 1984–85, and as a postdoc at Berkeley in 1987–88. Rob introduced her both to kayaking and to trisections of 4-manifolds.