Dana Felthauser is a rock climber, mountain biker, skier and an adventure photographer. He enjoys exploring the big walls, waterfalls and high country of Yosemite National Park where he lives when he’s not traveling in his converted GMC Safari van. This September he and three friends took a journey through the Middle Earth canyon of Yosemite Falls. Follow his adventures on instagram @danafelthauser.
Looking down past your toes, the water sparkles, reflecting light upon the canyon walls, dancing and playing in the shadows. Who knows how deep it is exactly. The green water goes dark in the middle, very dark. Like it would swallow anyone fool enough to jump in. Standing on the edge hesitating, not quite ready, you pause to guess how far it is to the pool. There’s not much except blank granite walls for reference, maybe 30? 40 feet? The rappel ropes have been pulled and there’s no way back. Committed.
Taking a few slow breaths to calm yourself…ok, you’re ready, this is it, time to jump. With a deep inhale you step forward off the rock tingling with sudden weightlessness and wait for the impact. It comes sooner than you think, you’re swallowed into the frigid black hole sinking, something primal in your brain screams to swim to the surface now! Clawing your way up toward the light you break the surface to the sounds of laughter and cheering and adding your own excited shout you swim to your friends at the far edge of the pool.
When people think of Yosemite they imagine climbers on huge granite walls or hiking on trails winding past thundering waterfalls. For the off the beaten path thrill seeker there is a little-known adventure that hides in the heart of Yosemite Falls. In the middle cascades between upper and lower Yosemite Falls there is a canyoneering route that is only accessible in the late summer and fall when the water is low. Locals call this place Middle Earth, perhaps because when you’re there it feels like you’re in another world.
My girlfriend Natasha and I get out of bed at 5 this morning, tired and annoyed. Why are we doing this to ourselves again? It’s hard to remember at this hour, or think at all for that matter. Oh yeah…we both have done this canyon before, and each time we have frozen ourselves half to death. The water is frigid and the high canyon walls only allow sunlight and warmth into the canyon for three hours a day. It’s important to time the swimming with the sunlight and that means starting the hike around 6:30am. We are also meeting two friends, Dillon and Ayla. Doing the canyon as a team of four could slow us down, so starting early is necessary.
Ayla, Dillon and I have Bedrock Cairn 3D PRO Adventure Sandals for the trip. Having worn Bedrocks for several years now, I enjoy converting friends and look forward to Dillon and Ayla testing their new sandals merits today in apt conditions of water and slab.
We drive into Yosemite Valley just before sunrise, pulling over briefly to soak in the view of Half Dome and El Capitan in the early morning light. No matter how many times you see this place it never loses its magic. In the valley Dillon is ready to go and we head out without delay.
The unmarked trail scrambles up through boulder field, exposed sandy ledges and up steep granite slabs to the base of the falls, it’s the perfect opportunity to put our new sandals’ sticky rubber to the test.
A climber, Dillon opts for an even steeper section of slab on our way up and really pushes the limit of what his sandals can do. He laughs after reaching the top, “they really are an approach sandal.”
At the base of the falls it’s easy to imagine the power of thousands of gallons of water falling 1,430 feet. The whole area is stripped clean of vegetation and polished to a shiny finish. We pass a pothole, the largest one any of us have ever seen. Potholes form when rocks, gravel and sand get stuck in one spot, the moving water swirls the debris in place like a drill-bit, boring a hole into the solid rock. This one is over 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep, carved from solid granite.
Standing here in the spring, the falls would tear you apart, now it’s a trickle you can shower in. So we do.
We only have a half-mile to travel, but that involves a 1,000-foot descent via rappelling, scrambling and cliff jumping. As planned we still have plenty of time, the sun has just started to light up the west canyon wall.
It’s Ayla and Dillon’s first time in Middle Earth and I’m excited for them, but personally a little nervous. We will be on our own from here on out. I take this fear and put it to the back of my mind, channeling the worry towards making sure we are being safe and careful with the ropes. We reach the first set of bolts and rappel over the edge.
The first couple rappels are small and go by quickly. We marvel at the views, shout “off rappel!” unnecessarily loudly to riotous laughter, enjoy the perfect warm weather. The Canyon Wrens seem to join in our laughter.
The first big rappel is a short rappel to an anchor and then a sheer 150’ drop into a pool. Conveniently there is a rock peeking above the pool for us to stand on. Dillon uses the rope to pull us over to him.
We squeeze through narrow gaps in the rocks passing gear through to each other and find another short rappel, this time off a single janky looking bolt. Thankfully it’s only 10’ down.
We come to a big rock that fills the canyon wall-to-wall, the cliff jump with the deep green pool below.
I offer to rappel, take the ropes, and shoot pictures of everyone else jumping. Freezing in the watery cave below the rock I shout up that I’m ready. Dillon seems nervous, claiming that he’s not a good swimmer. We are all surprised when he throws a gainer. I guess being scared doesn’t mean you can’t still send it.
Then Natasha takes the plunge from the higher rock, doing a starfish for style points.
As Ayla lingers alone on the rock, staring down at the water I remember the feeling from last time, the dark of the pool, the feeling of isolation and excitement of doing something risky with only your friends to save you. She doesn’t wait long though, bubbling to the surface with a big smile she swims to us.
The water was numbing and we luxuriate in the sun, soaking up the heat like lizards, enjoying sips of cinnamon whiskey from a flask. Thoroughly rejuvenated we take turns doing the next rappel. A short swim through the pool below and we come to the last cliff jump in the canyon
Here it’s either a short rappel into a deep pool or a 30-foot jump, however this pool leads right over the 350-foot Lower Yosemite Falls. I want to photograph it from the cave below so I go first. With camera and towel packed into a dry bag I find a stance about waist deep, but water is pouring from the ceiling, bouncing off the walls and I’m drenched. I shelter my camera under a microfiber towel. Natasha and Ayla both rappel into the pool and swim across to the far edge while I snap photos and decide I want to be lower, just above the water. I re-adjust, stemming my feet underwater between the walls, trying not to slip in, camera and all. I can’t believe my sandals are maintaining a hold in this precarious situation. Dillon counts down and jumps, I hold down the shutter button and he plummets through the frame.
We all warm up and as I look through the images my heart does a little jump. There it is, perfectly timed, Dillon, hair flying framed between the rock above and Ayla standing below with Sentinel Rock in the distance.
It’s the excitement of seeing images like this for the first time that made me fall in love with photography. It’s is a vehicle for adventure. Taking pictures is the perfect excuse to explore, do something new, and find a new way of looking at things, it has become a way of life for me.
Last up is the two-stage rappel down the face of Lower Yosemite Falls. Dillon rappels down first but it seems like he’s having some trouble at the middle rappel station. Suddenly 10 feet of rope suddenly zips through the anchor. What the hell? I try to ask Dillon what’s going on and he shouts something up but it’s lost in the wind. We can’t hear each other at all, or at least I can’t hear him. Another group of climbers at the crag below try to shout the messages back and forth for us but I still can’t hear. We are quickly becoming a shit-show.
Looking down I realize that he doesn’t have the ends of either rope; they’re out of reach to his left. So if we bail and walk down he won’t be able to rappel, at least one of us will have to go to him.
I start down and soon see the problem. The green rope is just barely too short to reach the anchor and now dangled below me…without a knot.
I continue down to Dillon. As I get closer, my weight stretches the ropes to within reach of him, and he quickly ties a knot in the end of the green line.
Quite literally at the end of my rope I pass my personal anchor to Dillon and he clips me in to the anchor. Untying the knot in the end, I hold on tight above the ATC, pull the green line through and retie the knot before letting go. Then I down-climb a couple moves and arrive safe-ishly to the ledge.
Now with knots in both ends of the rappel lines it is safe for Natasha and Ayla to rappel to us. As they come down one by one we help them to the ledge in the same fashion that I had arrived. Not at all by the book, but we all make it unharmed to the ledge. With just one last rappel to the ground we pause to take a group shot of all of our feet looking down onto the pool below. When the last of us makes it down I feel an internal sigh of relief and also a healthy amount of embarrassment over causing such a spectacle. Know your ropes, lesson learned
As we walk to the store for beer and ice cream we reminisce about what a great trip it had been despite the mishap at the end. In Yosemite often times your life is very much in your own hands, the hands of your friends and your ability to make good decisions together. I’m glad I was with such a great crew today; they are people that I trust to look out for each other and get it figured out when things don’t go as planned.
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