Celebratio Mathematica

Robion C. Kirby

Labor Day weekend 2006: hiking with Rob

by Abigail Thompson

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:

  • Tents
  • Stove
  • Map
  • Pa­ja­mas
  • Change of clothes (not even un­der­wear)
  • De­odor­ant
  • Bathing suits (even though we had to swim)
  • Bear-proof con­tain­er

Here are things we in­sisted on tak­ing that Rob thought frivol­ous:

  • Sleep­ing bags
  • Flash­lights
  • Long un­der­wear
  • Wind­break­ers
  • 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, were Joel and 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.