Thursday, May 28, 2009

Eagle Peak (with light show)

Up early again after a days rest we had plans to hike the Yosemite Falls Trail up to the north rim. We wanted to visit the top of the falls, but our real destination was Eagle Peak, and time permitting, on to El Capitan. Eagle Peak is part of the jagged formation probably better know as the Three Brothers. At least that’s what the tour guides call it. To hikers, Eagle is the highest of the three spires situated just above and to the west of Yosemite Falls, and the summit is accessable by trail. I’ve done this hike before, but like so many of the hikes inside Yosemite’s granite cathedral, it’s always worth doing again if an opportunity presents itself. Sue has hiked the north rim on many occasions, but we were both looking forward to getting back up there.

The trail head is right behind Camp 4. As you walk out there from Upper Pines you pass right by Yosemite Lodge, and that’s always a huge temptation for me to stop off and pig-out on breakfast at the cafeteria. Kind of a guy thing I guess, but I resisted and hung with our hiking plans. Actually I wouldn’t have wanted to get loaded down with a heavy meal anyway. Just don't let me smell those hot pancakes after instant oatmeal and yogurt in camp.

Starting up the trail we both took out or trekking poles to help out on the gnarly rock trail tread. This trail has over 100 switchbacks from bottom to top. The lower section climbs up to a rocky ledge along the north wall. This part is mostly shaded, but once we were above the tree tops we could see over to the Sentinel Fall, and out over the valley. Soon the trail begins heading east and still climbing along the ledge or “bench” as John Muir called them. We saw a few wild flowers along here. Lupine, Paintbrush, and Pussy-paws mostly. After passing Columbia Point, the trail climbs a little more and bends around conforming to the cliff. Soon the low rumble of the falls can be heard. Coming into view the upper fall section dominated our view straight ahead, the mist and rumbling sounds becoming more intense. As we got closer, the air currents were swirling around carrying the spray like rain. More rough hewn switchbacks began bringing us higher. There wasn’t much sunshine, but on previous hikes up this trail I have seen many rainbows in the spray through here.

Climbing higher, the trail enters a little crevasse-like talus slope where you can no longer see the fall. In summer this is a really hot and dry section. The cliffs are imposing looming above on one side and you can study the granite layers while watching for raptors. The views to the east open up along here, and soon the snowy high Sierra peaks began to reveal themselves above the rim. Many switchbacks later, at the top we were greeted by dense mixed conifer forest and shade. Up on the cliffs are unusual areas with isolated pine trees that seem to be growing out of solid rock. We took the opportunity to filter drinking water, and hiked over to see the top of the falls. There is a railing and some stairs to an overlook that provides dizzying views over the brink of the upper fall and down to the cascade section 1700 feet below, Yosemite Creek meandering outward another 1600 feet below that. Not recommended if you’re afraid of heights. We skipped the 1-mile hike up to Yosemite Point which provides a higher view with more range of vision.

Off we went on the El Capitan Trail heading for Eagle. There was still a lot of melting snow on the trail up here, and standing water backed up among the fallen debris. The snow melt was running down the trail making it seem like more of a creek. In some sections, standing snow made the trail hard to follow, and we hiked over top of some snowy sections, some of which were quite unstable. When we reached the junction for Eagle the trail signs were almost buried in snow. At this point it was apparent that hiking on to El Cap might not be a good idea. The trail was not in good shape, and I did not have GPS. The trail to Eagle looked clear though. We climbed up the trail and out along the rock ridge leading to some rock formations. Some really nice views open up between the rocks. A short scramble up to the top of the highest rock formation and there you are at the precipice of Eagle at 7779 feet. The views from this point seem that much more spectacular because of the sheer drop off. I could imagine an eagle would feel at home here. Takes the breath away. Eagle Peak is named for the Eagles that once inhabited this place. James Hutchings reportedly saw seven at once out here in the early days when Yosemite was truely wild.

It was fantastic for us to be completely alone amongst the grandeur of this towering jagged pinnacle and decided to take a break and have some lunch. As we sat there I noticed a funny looking kind of rainbow effect in the sky to the southeast, and the sky began looking grey. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then we saw some very noticeable dark clouds forming to the east. Soon the weird upward sort of bell shape began to appear, and I remembered something I read about thunder heads. A great read is the book “Shattered Air” by Bob Madgic. The book recounts a fateful and tragic night when some hikers were hit by lightning on Half Dome. Just when the story begins building, right in the middle of the book, he suddenly devotes a whole chapter to the meteorology and formation of Sierra thunder heads. It seemed like an unwanted sidetrack at the time, but I plowed through the chapter resisting the temptation to skip forward. This chapter came to mind while looking out across the valley to the activity in the sky I was seeing. I then (slowly) realized that those very conditions were happening before my eyes. We watched for awhile, and soon it became obvious to us that a thunder storm was headed straight our way moving in from the high peaks to the east. We began hiking down the trail fully expecting to witness a display of Mother Nature's darker side first hand. We reached the junction at the falls and headed down the falls trail and soon the first lightning flashes flickered. The distance was still very far, over 18 seconds. For awhile it looked like maybe the storm was moving across and not coming closer. About the time we were about half way down the upper section we felt the first kisses of raindrops. By the time we were reaching the bottom of the upper falls where all the spray is we were getting pelted with hail and rain, and the thunder was about 6 seconds. The darkened sky was flashing brownish yellow so closely now that we couldn’t even tell which thunder clap was from which lighting flash. We got treated to a great light show. And did we ever get wet! Between the swirling spray from the fall and the rain and hail, we were totally wet. Sue loved it. She kept saying how much fun it was to be seeing this. I think she felt privileged. What a blast! We reached a point where some other people were huddled under a rock overhang. They asked if we wanted to join them, but we didn’t. We were already totally wet and just wanted to keep going and get off the trail. It was a great experience which I was happy to have had, but I did want to get out of the wet as soon as possible. I had this happen to me on Little Baldy in Sequoia once, but that was an easy return to my parked car. This time it lasted over 3 hours. We had a good laugh about it, but wondered about our campsite. All our gear was trashed and wet, but we made the best of it. Proper tent placement had been a very worthwhile forethought.

Click here to see the photos on flickr
Click here to see my 2005 photos which include Eagle Peak and El Capitan

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