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Yosemite's Silver Aprons

By: Caleb Izdepski + Save to a List

All this cold, clear water moving in a panic through the narrow granite conduits and falling from the cliffs has little impact on the monoliths. Over time rivers formed, but in person you see the rock that seems unmoved and calm as the water escapes in a frenzy to the pools on the valley floor. On the hike to see Vernal and Nevada Falls, the iconic falls of the Mist Trial, you will also see curtains of water falling to the trail and ephemeral falls who have been dormant and dry for many years. This past winter brought drought-ending precipitation to the High Sierra and it's finally awakened.  

The morning temperature was falling in the backpackers camp, twenty below the previous high. I was up making coffee with a french-press adapted Jetboil, packing bear canisters while tent fabric dried in the wind.  We were going up the Mist Trail. I had six wilderness permits (yes I woke early to send the first fax of my life) obtained in December and a branched route map of ridge line and river hikes, choices to be made at each junction. As I was finishing my coffee, debating on the last big sip of grinds, the rain and snow forecast came through calling for steady rain until the following dawn. 

The weather is a non-issue on the Mist Trail as Vernal Falls creates its own weather and you can't fully prepare for it, you just experience it.

The trailhead on a summer Sunday morning is a stampede.  We were packed and moving single file, generally faster than the meandering crowd. Along the path we overheard the usual "how much farther?" and "is it uphill the whole way?" as we went on. Crossing the first footbridge was like a shopping mall crowd before Christmas and this is where the trail begins to thin as down-hikers appeared contrastingly soaked to the core, wide-eyed like they had seen the supernatural. 

Approaching Vernal Falls, the river braids through massive boulders, the trail narrows and steepens. In an instant where I realized a fall would mean no second chance on life, I witnessed a woman accept an engagement ring. It was a surreal place. Water was moving up from below in gusting sheets, swirling visibly all around as the falls roared. It seemed like multiple overlapping rivers were struggling past one another over the falls then breaking apart in air. In lighter years, a mist. On this day, a cinematic masterpiece. I handed my camera to a stranger and asked eight times for him to click a picture or two which he simply could not translate the motor skills to his fingers and though english was his only langue he seemed to lose command of it. The next hiker managed an unobservable photo of a mass of water as if taken from within the falls. I took a shot of two from my party approaching and went on.

Above Vernal Falls was the first silver apron to the Emerald Pool. Each were particularly uninviting. We released the water we had inadvertently collected on ourselves and started up Nevada Falls. It was a relatively dry and quiet mile. Ninety percent of the crowds had been turned back and we regained the ability to interpret weather beyond the influence of the river.  Low, dark clouds were following us. We summited the falls at the feet of a ranger who appeared seven feet tall and somehow remained in sunlight. She carried an authority in her eyes that seemed to prove it was she who created the park. We were given advice on the flooded conditions ahead; we could expect our progress to suffer in the fens beyond the burn area of the Little Valley. As she left, the light left with her and it began to rain ice. As rain fell in the Valley below, the driest option was to move upward through the Little Valley into the snow.

The Little Valley was peaceful and green but divided in two as we entered the burn. An extensive fire in 2016 at the height of drought killed a mile of path into the Merced drainage. 

We explored the trail up beyond the burn into the lush scenery beyond Moraine Dome and settled to camp below another silver apron at the edge of the burn.

The night brought several inches of snow.  I woke with the calm impacts of snowflakes. I shook the ceiling and sloughed what had accumulated. The peaceful trickle of multiple brooks braiding through the camp, the wind swaying in the deadwood branches, the very black night...I couldn't help but sleep as if I was in a den.

The sights and sounds created an ease and lightness in our step the next day and we returned without effort to the Valley floor. Again, weaving like a six segment snake through the crowds ascending in the mist.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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