A trip report on the September 2001 CHAOS trip to Tenaya Canyon, by Mark Miller
So I finally got a chance to hike down Tenaya Canyon a few weekends ago, with consummate partners Chris Tuffley, Magdalen Normandeau, Scott Morrison, and Yossi Farjoun. We had a grand time; if anyone else would like to do a similar trip, following is some information on how we approached ours and what we found.
Yossi drove Friday afternoon to Yosemite valley and dropped a car at Curry village before hitching to Tuolumne meadows campground (there were vacancies, though he of course didn't pay). The rest of us left Berkeley around 7:30 and after NOT stopping at any of the In-n-Out en route, arrived in Tuolumne Meadows around 12:30am. We fought off frost that night in the campground (we hadn't expected to go all the way, so hadn't packed for a colder, higher elevation night than we thought we'd encounter at Hardin Flat) and after finding Yossi Saturday morning went to the Tuolumne wilderness office around 9:00 to get an overnight permit entering Sunrise trailhead and exiting Mirror Lake, presumably by hiking the Snow Creek trail. (Wilderness permits are issued on a entering/ exiting trailhead basis, not on actual route taken.)
A bit after 9:30 our happy lot headed up the trail from Sunrise toward Tenaya Lake for about 1/2 mile before breaking off toward Tenaya Canyon itself. After passing the
"Warning: This is not a trail. Proceeding beyond this point is dangerous without climbing equipment. Go back to Tioga Road"
sign and crossing a dry Tenaya creek bed, a vast bowl of shallow granite slabs invited us into the canyon proper.
About 1.5 hours of leisurely hiking along dry creek bed and slabs (which would have been fairly frustrating bushwhacking had the creek bed been full of water and unavailable for walking in) brought us to the top of Pywiack Cascade, which we down climbed on the slabs south of the flow (sometimes belayed by a body on a ledge) for about 100m until felt sufficiently sketched to setup a proper rap station. We did not find the bolts we were led to believe were there to be found. We did find the piton which Bryce and his troupe found and used last year, though we spurned it in favor of our own pro. A full length of rappel or down climbing brought us to a nice collection of ledges (where we did finally see a bolt that we used for tying in (but not for rappelling) from which a small amount of down climbing on the blocks or another half rope length rappel took us to shallower rock. We crossed unroped to the meager stream's north side and followed straightforward ramps to the base of what are normally falls but this time of this year were just wet rocks seeping into a beautiful and inviting pool.
This sounds pretty straightforward, but for a variety of reasons it took us an incredibly long to time to figure out and do. Apparently another option exists, less technical but also less engaging and direct: to not descend into the steeper slabs of the cascade at all, but to rather head up around to the south over a granite knoll on shallower slabs (no rope necessary), meeting up again with the canyon below the cascade. People not armed with rock shoes and/ or a bolt kit who wish to do this hike in a day may wish to take this higher route. Our approach was generally to have the first person downclimb on belay to check feasibility, then have three folks rap, and the last person downclimb on really run-out lead or solo. Between us all, someone had downclimbed every inch of the cascade, so it's certainly doable, especially with rock shoes (we all had boots or tennies), and if the water level was similar to when we went. Confident friction climbers could do it solo.
After the obligatory swim and a bit more straightforward down climbing we had about an hour's walk through what they call the lost valley, again on mostly dry creek bed or slabs. Practically no bushwhacking was necessary in our case, but in almost any other situation one should expect sometimes slow going through this area.
The creek exits the lost valley via a deep gorge (the inner gorge), which is exquisitely beautiful. We came to it on the north side of the creek and found a collection of pretty decent bolts (in our case with plenty of fresh slings) from which to rap (less than 1/2 rope length) into it. In times of high water I think people stay out of this gorge entirely in favor of some scree slopes Secor recommends, but in our situation it was grand, with cliffs flying up to either side, and the rock below shaped and colored by the water. It was mostly easy talus hoping (especially with our light packs, which after Yossi's and my Palisades trip we simply could not stop being giddy about, and which we most highly recommend to other parties who descend the canyon) with one notable exception.
A perhaps 25' high chock-stone, as Secor says, cleaves the canyon, at bottom of which is a pool which even in our low water conditions spanned the gorge. We descended to the south of the boulder, followed up a series of ramps to beyond the pool, then lowered packs and clothes down. Then we returned to water level just upstream of the pool and swam across to retrieve our stuffage. After this point came more easy creek bed walking, with three places where we managed to find ourselves getting out of the creek bed onto ledges to the north, and having to get back into it via steep and sometimes fairly dirty downclimbing (twice) or rappelling (once). In each case the raps is less than half a rope length, and there were rap bolts available, though on one occasion the bolts were in very bad shape.
By six or so at night we'd made it past all the technical sections, and almost out of the canyon into the wide valley and last few miles of legitimate trails leading to Yosemite City and our shuttle. That is, even with our late start and leisurely pace, this hike could have been done in a day. As we'd brought bivy gear, though, and we were in love with our canyon, we opted to spend the night there rather than with the tourists. Yossi found for us a little bolder-protected sandy spot in the middle of the creek bed, a darling place, all the more serendipitous by the chance meeting of fellow CHAOT Lukas Christowski and friend, traveling up the canyon scoping for routes.
Only a wee bit more class 2-3 talus until the gorge opens out into the Tenaya valley. We walked along the creek bed for perhaps 1/2 mile before meeting up with a faint use trail (on the north-west bank) which after perhaps a mile or so showed us our way to one last swimming hole ("Look at the wildlife, Ma!"), and the formal trail system. Paved trails and views of half dome and tourists for about a mile and we were at Mirror lake. Another mile or so and we were at Curry Village and Yossi's awaiting car. Pile in, have valley walls pointed out by Chris, drive to Tuolumne, separate into two cars, dinner at Two Guys Pizza, and head home, simple as pie.
Gear: We brought just hiking boots/ running shoes, which is probably sufficient at least in conditions approaching ours, and unless one hopes to do the descent unroped.
In addition to each person having a harness, prussik, and belay device, we had 25' of tech cord, 1/5 sets of nuts, four tri-cams, a few cams, and about 10 slings. Excluding our bear hang, we used two small nuts, and about three slings. We left some prussik cord for the last rappeller. As mentioned before, depending on one's plans, we might recommend a bolt kit. We also used one 60m X 8.5mm dynamic rope, though we certainly would have used a static one had one been available. A second rope would have shaved off time at the cascades, in exchange for more weight. I'm glad we did what we did, though others on the trip have argued elsewise.
Information: Secor's Peaks and Passes. Apparently Roper's guide also has an useful entry, though we didn't read it. Emails from Ky-Van and Bryce Nesbitt, and conversation with Dave Argento, regarding their trip to the canyon last year, proved to be invaluably helpful. In compiling this report, please note that any accuracy to be found in it is the fault of Magdalen and Yossi, you looked it over or made suggestions, generally reminding me that no, Mark didn't paraglide down the canyon and crash land into the Alpha alpha alpha sorority camp-out.
We highly recommend this hike. There are some technical sections, which we probably encountered when they are at their least hazardous. But mostly it's a beautiful walk in a bequiling and relatively untouched place.