The peak, the canyon, the lake
By Leonie Sherman
Sometimes you need more than vague plans to galvanize your Tuolumne weekend, lest you find yourself huddled in a parking lot talking more than you climb. For a three-day weekend, my partner and I chose a simple focal point: Tenaya. It’s a peak, it’s a canyon, it’s a lake. We set out to do it up, down and sideways.
UP: The Peak
An apron of steepening slab rises almost directly out of the southern shore of Lake Tenaya. The summit is not quite visible to the thousands of tourists who drive the Tioga Road each year. This is Tenaya Peak, a moderate technical climb and a fine place to put your slab skills and sticky rubber to the test.
The peak figures at around 14 pitches of climbing. A year ago, with an unfamiliar climbing partner, we pitched out every tedious length; it took forever and seemed sort of silly. Most people simul-climb the route, but a friend of mine had an even better idea.
“Just free solo as much as you’re comfortable with,” she said. “Bring a rope, but only pull it out when you need to.”
Risky advice. It’s just so easy to get over your head and into quick trouble on a long stretch of slab. One moment you’re cruising along, enjoying your sticky rubber and the minuscule holds to which it will adhere. Then you pause to glance around and see nothing but a sea of smooth granite.
Soon you’re whimpering like a treed kitten. You can’t fathom further upward progress, downward resembles a death slide, and there’s nothing to grab onto. I know three excellent climbers who have required rescues from what they intended to be a causal day of slab cruising.
I am not super comfortable climbing slick surfaces devoid of handholds, so I brought along slabmaster Steve. He placed one piece of gear the entire climb (for an anchor when I needed a top rope) and basically strolled up Tenaya Peak with his hands in his pockets. Whenever I paused unduly long or started emitting strange whining noises he would point out infinitesimal flakes and crystals I hadn’t seen.
Several hundred feet up I swapped my approach shoes for climbing shoes and the party began. First we ran into the free-soloing Outward Bound instructor and his two simul-climbing East Coast buddies. Cresting a small ledge we came upon a lounging free-soloer, awaiting her friends. Two guys were pitching it out 40 ft. to our right. Then we passed two young women from “an adventure-based ministry.” We dubbed them Climbers for Christ.
A couple hundred feet from the summit we found a family trio from Ohio, all tied into one rope, struggling with a pitch about 20 ft away.
“Are we going the right way?” one of them asked as we neared his level.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Are you having fun?”
“Yeah!” All three chorused enthusiastically.
“Well, then you’re going the right way!”
With all this traffic, you might suspect the climb would develop epic traffic jams, but that’s not the case. A moderate slab climb means you can cruise any which way you want.
Twenty minutes later, as I was leading, my rope got caught on Ohio Dad’s shoulder. Normally this climbing infraction might lead to creative cursing of me, my partner, our general ignorance, and our lack of finesse. Instead, Ohio Dad grinned and casually flicked the rope over his head before I could even apologize.
Tenaya is truly a party peak. Everyone was having fun. Everyone was friendly. I wanted to have them all over for dinner after the climb. But instead we jumped in the lake and enjoyed fries at the Tuolumne Grill.
DOWN: The Canyon
An anonymous ranger told me Tenaya Canyon is an “adventure hike”. But when your day starts with a sign imploring you to turn back, ends with a sign warning of annual fatalities and includes hanging from a thin rope in the middle of a waterfall, I reckon you can forget the “hike” part and just call it an adventure.
John Muir, the first person to pass through this gorge, warned “… the canyon is accessible only to mountaineers, and it is so dangerous in some places that I hesitate to advise even good climbers anxious to test their nerve and skill to pass through it.” In the same 1890 article, he goes on to describe conditions: “…everywhere the surface of the granite has a smooth-wiped appearance, and in many places, reflecting the sunbeams, shines like glass…”
Of course, he didn’t have sticky rubber or a rope, but still, when the original hardman of the Sierra Nevada demands your attention, you best sit up and take notes. In case his dire warnings are ignored, the Park Service has thoughtfully installed a sign at the entrance to Tenaya Canyon.
“THIS IS NOT A TRAIL,” the sign reads. “GOING FURTHER IS DANGEROUS WITHOUT PROPER CLIMBING EQUIPMENT. RETURN TO THE TIOGA RD.”
My partner and I each had 80 ft of 8mm rope, a harness, belay device and a locking carabiner. Between us we had 65 years of climbing and mountain rambling experience. We had interrogated a friend who descended the canyon as a three day backpacking trip. Excellent beta and lots of experience are the most over-looked and also the most critical climbing equipment.
What follows is not intended as solid beta. If you want to go down Tenaya Canyon, please consult a guidebook or a reliable friend who has completed the descent. Do not trust your life to a magazine article. I only want to share highlights of the next exciting ten hours.
First, the epic slab descent. Some call it a 2000 ft descent, some call it 700 ft; everyone calls it intense. It could be a 40 degree angle, it might be only 30. I’ll never know the exact numbers; I just know it felt like we were walking down Tenaya Peak. Without a rope.
Fortunately the slabmaster was at my side.
“Just keep moving your feet, keep moving your feet,” he coached as I tightened my death grip on his hand and shuffled my way towards the willows at the base. Clouds Rest loomed above us and the U-shaped valley stretched before us, but I could barely appreciate the view, engaged with the impending doom below me.
Relief flooded my nerves when we reached the snarl of willows, but after a whirlwind romance we backed out onto the slabs with bleeding shins and skirted the edge as long as possible. Eventually circumstances required re-entry. The next installment in our descent featured a stretch of vicious bush-whacking, resulting in shredded calves and copious blood on our socks.
We enjoyed some sweet down climbing, jumped into gleaming emerald pools and met a quartet of friends from Yosemite Valley. They warned us of a dire 15 yard mandatory swim in our near future, but we were more curious about the legendary Let’s-Get-It-On waterfall rappel.
At breakfast that morning, a friend had cautioned us about the gnarly rappels, of which he’d heard only tall tales.
“There’s this one section where you have to rappel right into a waterfall. If you make it, apparently, you are guaranteed to get laid.”
This was not a sunlit turquoise postcard water chute. It was a freezing, algae-slick desperate slide directly into a torrent of glacial run off. Water funnels onto your chest, your feet slip, one hand holds the rock at bay, the other clings to a sodden rope and you land in a pool of ice water. The mandatory swim was actually a chest-deep wade.
Only moments after pulling the rope, Steve was sunning himself on a boulder, clad in his favorite ensemble of sunglasses and a smile.
“I guess the rumor makes some sense,” he mused. “You share this intense trauma with someone, you get super cold and wet and then you have to take your clothes off.”
The next morning on the western shore of Lake Tenaya, I watched Steve try to sell two old friends on our day of scenic splendor.
“You have to try this thing,” he gushed. “I’d definitely recommend it to anyone.” He paused to survey the mist rising off the lake and recall our day of struggle and fun. “I mean, unless they don’t like slab descents. Or talus hopping. Or bush-whacking. Or river cobbles. Or poison oak. Or…”
SIDEWAYS: The Lake
Stand up paddling is an express ticket to awe and humility. Broad open vistas inspire contemplation and walking on water provides one. As soon as I step onto a board the mechanized world and social chatter drops away and I am left with my thoughts, the gentle lapping of waves against my board and a calm that spreads like the ripples from my paddle.
Some people call stand up paddling a workout; they go for distance and speed or surf gnarly waves. I call it a moving meditation. Paddling Lake Tenaya I was entranced by glistening shores, gleaming granite, the dappling of sun on water, the startling shades of emerald and cobalt, the distant ant-like cars, the ripples of wind on the lake.
I put in at the western end and paddled to the east shore. As I veered away from the forest edge, the hues of the water deepened. My thoughts shifted from the present to the past, from modern tourists to the Chief whose name this lake bears, whose people once called this place home.
Chief Tenaya grew up among Mono and Paiute Natives in the Eastern Sierra. Encouraged by a medicine man, he returned to his father’s land in Yosemite Valley, with a loyal band of followers. Chief Tenaya is sometimes called the original chief of Yosemite Valley. In 1851, fleeing the Mariposa Battalion, he and his band escaped to the high country.
According to Yosemite Place Names by Peter Browning, Lafayette Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion, named the lake after Chief Tenaya on May 22, 1851. The Battalion had spent the night on the shores of the lake and were watching Chief Tenaya approach their group, when Bunnell suggested they name the lake after the old chief.
Chief Tenaya protested, saying the lake already had a name: “Py-we-ack” or the place of glittering rocks. Bunnell explained, “It was upon the shores of the lake we had found his people, who would never return to it to live.” Two troubled years later Chief Tenaya was dead. There is no trace of his people left in Yosemite National Park and he is not mentioned in the Valley’s Indian Village.
A month ago a dear friend of mine died. I wasn’t at her memorial. But at the start of her service, I, along with others who could not attend, held ten minutes of silence for her. I sat on a lonesome point high above the Kern River and remembered my brave friend. Then I went out and paddled in an alpine lake and rambled rocky ridges in the mountains she loved so much.
Maybe that’s the best we can do for Chief Tenaya and his tenacious band. Enjoy, share and preserve the place of glittering rocks they called home, carry the meaning of what it means to live with the land. And every once in a while, on some spectacular summit, deep in some polished canyon, on the shores of a shining lake, hold a moment of reverent silence.