Early Season Tuolomne

Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite NP. Cut by a lazy stream (uh, that would be the upper Tuolomne River) and surrounded by forest and granite. From here, it’s still 60 road miles to the Valley itself. (credit: Yosemite Association)

Here’s a short story about a sneaky pre-storm trip we made to Tuolomne Meadows for some midweek climbing. We’d planned to leave later in the week, but a cold storm forecast pushed the trip up. We drove 3-1/2 hours south to Mono Lake, and picked up “The Tioga Road” — Highway 120, the only route into Yosemite from the east. The road climbs steeply from 4000′ elevation up to Tioga Pass, at almost 10,000′; we spent the night at 8000′ to get a bit more used to the sudden altitude change.

Highway 120 goes right past beautiful Ellery Lake on the way to Tioga Pass. (credit: Yosemiteparks.com)

Late May is early to be visiting Yosemite but the extremely low-snow winter had prompted an earlier than usual opening to the Tioga Road. Although snow patches still lingered and most campgrounds remained closed, it was a great time to be in the park. No bugs, no crowds, and hopefully no lines of waiting climbers at the routes we wanted to get on!

Turns out it was plenty warm for climbing! Our first route of the day, West Country, on Stately Pleasure Dome. Tenaya Lake glitters below. (Sprinter for scale.)

The next day dawned sunny but chilly — the thermometer read 30° as we drove into frosty Tuolomne Meadows — and we began to think that wandering around on the glacier polished granite domes of Tuolomne might not be such a good idea. But, as we drove on to Tenaya Lake and stopped to look at our intended routes on Stately Pleasure Dome, we realized that here, on this sheltered, south-facing sunny dome, climbing would be quite pleasant — and temperatures were warming by the minute. Might as well head on up!

Mike gets ready to head up the big dihedral of another classic Stately route, the aptly named Great White Book.
View of Tenaya Lake and some of the famous domes of Tuolomne. Stately Pleasure Dome is at left. Some friends drove the amazingly-still-open Tioga Road up here last December to ice skate on snow-free Tenaya — a rare treat! (credit: Roy Tennant)

make mine reg’ler

Checking out the base of Fairview Dome and the Regular Route. The route goes up the prominent crack, staying left of the two giant roofs above, following more cracks, flakes, knobs and ledges to the summit. The hardest climbing is at the bottom, but gets easier as one ascends. It’s a classic!

After a mellow, pleasant day of three classic routes punctuated by leisurely coffee and snack breaks, we drove back to camp, but stopped to hike in to the base of Fairview Dome to see if it might be doable for a big route the next day.

At almost 1000′, Fairview is Tuolomne’s biggest dome, and the 12-pitch Regular Route is considered one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The route is very popular and anyone who wants to climb it once the season gets going is assured a wait in line.

We thought we’d take advantage of the lack of crowds, and after confirming that snow was gone enough and rock was dry enough, tackled it the next day.

It turned out to be a Big Day for us. We were challenged by cold temps, rock and feet at the bottom, but we moved slowly and steadily up through the hardest pitches and refueled with cheddar cheese and baked-potato snacks along the way. We were glad we’d brought extra warm clothes — as forecast, the weather remained sunny but the wind picked up a lot in the afternoon. This made communication difficult up high, but fortunately the climbing itself was easier. Never did remove those hats, hoods, and wind jackets, though …

We reached the summit about 8 hours after we started. After a brief view of the late-afternoon domes and peaks in the distance, we headed down and had some (well deserved) good German Ritter Sport Schokolade!

The Meadows at sunset, looking west over the upper Tuolomne toward the summit of Fairview Dome peeking out at left.  (credit: Wikipedia)

The walk off Fairview was a nice gift and a real treat after a long, hard day. As opposed to the steep north face we’d gone up, its southwestern slope is mellow, highly featured and easy to walk down. This contrasts with some of walk-offs around here, which often feel like tiptoeing down a glacier-polished basketball.

Yellow headed blackbirds are beautiful but their singing is … (credit: planetofbirds.com)

What a great day. We drove back down to Mono Lake and camped beside small ponds surrounded by sagebrush and filled with chattering, cronking, squeaking yellow-headed blackbirds as we made a big pasta dinner at sunset. Sure enough, the storm rolled in the next day, and we arrived in Reno to rain, wind, and snow. Mission accomplished!

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