Photographing the Firefall: Horsetail Fall, Yosemite 2016

Too early for the Fire effect but still so beautiful!
Getting closer…
Firefall!

 In late February, Horsetail Fall is directly struck by the setting sun leading to the Firefall effect.  For half an hour, the surrounding rock and waterfall have an orange glow that makes it look like magma is flowing off the cliff.  The effect is slightly more dramatic on camera than to the naked eye but either way, it’s very cool to see.

Firefall 2016 on Sat 2/13, Sun 2/14 and Mon 2/15
We were there for three nights, each with a completely different look.  Saturday was the best night.  The absolute key was that there was not a cloud in the sky.  Almost as important, a high wind blew mist against the cliff and into the air which led to increased light dispersion.  It was absolutely stunning.  On Sunday, the Firefall effect did not occur because there were clouds to the West which blocked the sun too much.  Overall, it was clear but the clouds were in the worst spot for those hoping to see the Firefall.  Monday was a pretty good day, but not as spectacular as Saturday.  The skies were clear but the difference was the lack of wind so the cliff was more dry and the mist spray more muted.   

Monday was the day we took a film photo with some settings assistance from our little digital camera.  Sunset was at 5:36 and SMS took his picture at 5:34.  At that point, the light had narrowed onto the Falls alone which really highlighted the Firewater effect.  The key window was 5:27-5:34 on a day where the official sunset time was 5:36.  Shooting earlier allowed for highlighting the brighter cliffs, which is beautiful but slightly decreases the contrast of the water.  It really depends on the effect a photographer is going for.  On Saturday, the cliffs were gorgeous because the moisture created an incredible luminance that looked like the inside of an abalone shell.   

An excellent article goes into extensive detail about the effect for those who are interested but there were a few key takeaways for me.  First, where to photograph? People set-up near the Cathedral Peak picnic area, parking areas just before the El Capitan Picnic Area or the El Capitan Picnic area itself.  My preference is the slightly oblique view from the El Capitan Picnic Area.  The two pullouts before the picnic area give a more oblique view/profile shot of the fall, which is also stunning.  This is where a local photo academy set up.  The Cathedral Beach Picnic area is more en face and gives a longer view of the Fall since the bottom portion is less blocked by the cliff to the right of the fall.  Really, I don’t think you can go wrong.

Parking-wise, the Park Service allows parking by blocking the left lane to traffic on Southside Dr. for the Cathedral Peak site.  On the El Capitan side, the two parking pullouts have limited parking.  The second pullout (right before the picnic area) has a deep lot that people can double park without blocking in the front row of cars.  The picnic area has a lot of parking, designated and self-made.  
Just a bunch of people, hanging out in the woods
There are a lot of photographers at all these spots!  Our last night, we showed up at 5:15 and still got a spot in the El Capitan picnic area.  We had been climbing there earlier and saw people setting up at 3:30!  Unless that’s fun for you and you’re making an afternoon out of it with a hammock and a picnic (which some people did), there’s really no need to stake out a place that early.   Everyone’s camera is pointed up at a pretty steep angle so you can get very close to a person without ruining his/her shot.  To be polite, we did ask the people around us if it was ok to set up where we did.  They were there first and even though we didn’t impact their set-up at all, I wanted to acknowledge that they had the right to tell us to move.

It’s a pretty cool sight to both see and to photograph.  It’s a well-known event and it won’t result in a world-wide exclusive photo but it’s ok!  Seeing it in person is well worth it.

  

Nutcracker: Multi-pitch Yosemite Climbing!

President’s Day started off with another delicious breakfast.  After packing up, we said good-bye to Ron and Liz and headed out.  Unless it’s Summer and we’re camping, I would definitely love to stay at the Blue Butterfly again.  It was a great experience.
We went through the Rock Arch gate and this time, took a couple of minutes to stage a photo of SMS driving the Prius through the Arch.  Maybe it’s a little corny, but I thought the rock arch was really cool.
Go on with your bad self, lil’ Prius along with your incredible MPGs!

SMS and I headed straight to the Manure Pile Buttress to climb the Nutcracker, a 5 star, 5 pitch crack heavy route.  We started at the 5.9 alternative start, which was the most difficult pitch of the day.  I had a little trouble there but managed to work my way through the climbing problem and we were off!

Relaxing on the Ledge, Half Dome in the background
And then we slowed down.  The whole time we were there, only two pairs were climbing- us and the people we were directly behind.  Climbing can be a little tricky because you never know who’s going to show up and when.  As a result, we wanted to start climbing right away because we didn’t know if anyone else would show up.  In retrospect, maybe we should have chilled on the ground for about 45 minutes so we could have just kept climbing without long breaks but really, there was no way to know.
On the ledge

But it wasn’t that big a deal.  The weather was gorgeous and our longest wait was on a really comfortable wide ledge.

 

Taking a selfie from the hanging belay, right before starting Pitch 3

For the third pitch, SMS had to set up a hanging belay, which is a little scary if I overthought it so I tried to ignore the fact that two pieces of equipment and a really thick webbing was all that was keeping me from falling to the ground.  Instead, I just focused on happy thoughts and all the amazing beauty around me.  Cheesy but better than “Ohmygodimgoingtodie!!!!”

SMS climbing Pitch 3

The climbing conditions were spectacular.  There was a small trickle of water down one of the cracks on the third pitch, which is known to happen in the Winter.  It wasn’t too hard to deal with since there were multiple alternate dry footholds.  I personally struggled at the mantle crux, mostly because I was pretty tired at that point and it took me a few minutes to gather up the strength to pull and push over the top (that and a really good belay- thanks SMS!).

Panorama from the Top: Half Dome on the Left and the Sentinel behind, slightly to the left

We hung out for a minute or two at the top, admiring the view.  We didn’t hang around too long though because we had slightly underestimated our water needs.  As a result, we really wanted to get back to the car and the full water bottles inside.

We did it!

After the climb, we headed up the road to see the Tunnel View.  It was amazing!  I had actually told SMS we could skip it and just go get food, but he had said it was close.  I’m so glad he encouraged us to go because it was so much cooler in person.  I’ve seen some incredible photos of this view but it only imparts a fraction of the grandeur.  One of my favorite parts is seeing Bridalveil Falls in the right mid-ground because really, it’s so majestic it almost seems like a film set but then the continually moving water over the Falls made it look more “real.”

This made me flash back to a college religion class, Sacred Geographies

There were so many people taking pictures and we found someone kind enough to take our picture.

Re-hydrated but a little hungry!
We went to Yosemite Lodge and split a cheeseburger and fries.  We were planning on going to Commonwealth later so we didn’t want to eat too big a meal.  You know, a modicum of restraint a few hours before a cheesy delicious nacho feast!
When we were done with our tide-us-over snack, it was almost time for the Firefall.  We pulled into the El Capitan picnic area lot where we had parked for our Nutcracker climb earlier that day.  There were so many photographers in that area!  While the effect wasn’t quite as intense as Saturday’s, it was still pretty awesome and we were glad we stayed.  It was a great ending for our Yosemite trip!
Getting closer!
Firefall!  It’s a little hard to see in this photo but really, the water looks like magna!

We drove home.  On the way home, we stopped at Commonwealth and ordered the nachos and hush puppies-breaded corn dogs.  Both were delicious.  Not the healthiest but we were happy to have eaten from the snack menu.  The rest of the ride home wasn’t bad.  We got home a little on the late side, but we didn’t care.  The weekend was so amazing!

Jam Crack, Lemon, Pine Line: Day Climbing in Yosemite

I woke up really early on Saturday :/ and read for a bit outside on the deck.  It was beautiful but I got pretty cold.  I went back inside to warm up and then SMS and I headed downstairs for breakfast.
Breakfast consisted of a gluten-free quiche, gluten-filled seedy toast, fruit and yogurt, orange juice, coffee and tea.  It was delicious and filling.  We spoke with two fellow travellers who are roomates from Pasadena.  They were fun to talk to.  Ron and SMS spoke for a bit and I think they were starting to become BFFs!
Pine Line, El Capitan

We decided to head back to the climbing routes near the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.  The climbing area is known as Sunnyside Bench.  Our target: Jam Crack, a 2 pitch 5.7/5.9 crack climb.  We beat two other climbers to the base by about 5 minutes (yay!), so we started out unimpeded.  It was a really nice climb and I was surprised how well I did in the cracks.  In the past, I haven’t liked them too much because I hate the foot pinching that can happen when jamming feet into the cracks.  To imagine the pain, picture wearing really uncomfortable high heels for a few hours and then on top of that discomfort, occasionally trying to bend your foot in half length-wise.  Blech, no thank you!  But, even though there were a few of those moments, it was worth it to make the climb.  The view from the top was so beautiful.  It was a mental snapshot view since neither one of us had a camera but that’s totally ok.

Also, shout-out to the best rock climbing partner, SMS!  Obviously, I have a huge bias, but I think he’s amazing.  He’s also very kind and patient, which is a big deal.  I’m a far weaker climber than he is but he makes the day really fun and helps me out a lot.  An ideal rock climbing partner team would be closer in ability so that the two can swap leads, which is a faster way of going and gives the leader a little mental break between pitches.  Also, if I were better, I’d have more skills that would be a more secure back-up if we ever ran into a problem.  But, for some reason, SMS still likes climbing with me even though it’s more work for him.   Thank you SMS!
After Jam Crack, we climbed a flake layback which was tough.  SMS just told me its name is Lemon, which I get.  I basically “fell up the route” but overall, I’m glad that I tried it even though I lost my temper at one point since I was scared that I would fall and break my ankle(s).  Not the highlight of the day but SMS didn’t hold too much of a grudge (see!  Amazing!).
After Sunnyside Bench, we headed over to Camp 4 and the nearby Swan Slabs.  It was a little busier here with a few small groups and after pacing back and forth along the rock for a bit, we decided not to wait and to head over to El Capitan instead.
Pine Line, El Capitan

We hiked in and up to a ledge where we climbed Pine Line, a pretty fun crack that is an alternate start for The Nose.  We saw a few climbers high up on the nose, but still with a ways to go given the time of day.  No matter, we did our own thing.  There were two nice guys practicing their aid climbing but otherwise, we had little company.

Looking up The Nose.  Our rope for Pine Line is to the right.

We finished up and started packing up.  We headed over to the Cathedral Peak area to check out the view of Horsetail Falls.  I decided I liked being closer better but it didn’t really matter since clouds blocked the Firefall effect that night.

No Firefall tonight!

I wanted to see if we could get into the Ahwannee for a light dinner at the lounge that, unfortunately, is currently closed for renovation.  We tried to leave but traffic was terrible.  We parked in the Village Store parking lot and shared some chips and dip to wait out the traffic.

We headed back to the B&B and ate leftover pizza (glamorous!).  Then we planned out our next day.  Based on how (surprisingly to both of us) well I climbed that day, SMS felt good about going up the Nutcracker the next day.   Exciting!  A multi-pitch route in Yosemite!

Yosemite Weekend Getaway!

Half Dome
SMS and I had an amazing weekend!  Our initial motivation was a little sluggish since it was a last minute trip planned during the workweek but I’m so glad we pushed through and made it happen.  We went to Yosemite for the holiday weekend.  The weather was perfect.  We had the best time exploring, rock climbing and enjoying our unique experience at our bed and breakfast.

We decided to take the mellow approach and leave on Saturday morning rather than feel rushed on Friday night.  This decision was also helped by the fact that we couldn’t check into our bed and breakfast after 9 p.m. and there was really no way we would make it to Yosemite by that time on Friday.  I was also able to get in a 6 mile run on Saturday morning, which was great since I didn’t want to go three days without running.
Commonwealth Beer Sampler
At 9:45 we left and headed East.  We stopped for lunch in Modesto at Commonwealth, a gastropub with a large tap list and delicious food.  I went with a Chicken and Waffle from their brunch menu and SMS got a chicken club.  Although they had great-sounding salads, SMS and I clearly decided to stick with their Un-diet menu.  We were a little disappointed that their snacks menu wasn’t served until 3 since the reason we stopped there was for the potato chip nachos but what we had was tasty.  We decided we would try to stop on our way back from our Yosemite trip.

We took the 140 into the Park, arriving around 2:30.  Driving through the Valley was pretty spectacular.  It was crowded but manageable.   All of the off-season lodging options in the Valley were full by the time I had booked our trip so I was expecting that we would be sharing our experience with others.  
Lower Yosemite Falls with friends

First, we went to the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.  The Upper Falls were my favorite because there is so much water and parts of it slam into little outcroppings making the most gorgeous, turbulent spray.  It’s amazing.  We also walked over to the climbing routes a little to the right of the path to the Lower Falls.  There’s a route named Jam Crack that SMS really wanted to do so we put it on our TTD (Things to Do!) list for the next day or two.  

We also climbed a very small boulder and I gamba’d my best to climb it and conquer my fear.  I did it!  I was very happy and had SMS take a photo of the (small) triumph!
Horsetail Falls, a little early in the Firefall Effect (not very orange-y yet)
Then we headed towards El Capitan and parked in one of the turnoff parking lots to watch the sunset on Horsetail Falls.  I’ve written a separate post about the Firefall effect.  We went each night to check it out and Saturday was the most spectacular.  The sky was perfectly clear so the setting sun light was undiminished.  The spray against the cliffs and the spray upwards created an intense light scattering effect that was incredible to see.  We took pictures and just took in the scene.  I’m really glad that we sought the experience out.  
Morning View from our room’s deck

Next it was off to the B&B.  I highly, highly recommend the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn.  Ron and Liz are the most gracious hosts and full of information about the Valley.  Ron has an incredible climbing background and was really helpful in giving us route advice in addition to several back stories about the history of Yosemite rock climbing.  We stayed in the Lotus Room, which was very spacious and had a balcony overlooking the Merced River, which had a great water flow level.  We could even hear it (slightly) through our closed windows.  The room had its own bathroom and the bed was very comfortable.  The room was decorated in an Art Deco style, which was pretty cool.  I’m not completely familiar with the style and it was great to see a whole room decorated that way to get a cohesive overview of Art Deco décor and furnishings.