Resurrection of the Dammed
Photos by Shawn Reeder
The forgotten and flooded Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is poised in the spotlight of a century-old environmental battle, while a small group of climbers continue to push lines above the water.
Sean Jones was working another project in the Fjord, which as usual for Sean meant juggling. His little family in El Portal, the center of his life. Their home, half rebuilt. Work, also construction. Climbing sponsors — after all those dirtbag years he finally had some. Running back out to the dam at twilight to make the government curfew. And this wall.
He was amazed that the line was coming together. But just. Linking up the crack systems was face climbing. Thin, but the holds kept appearing. Kept being just climbable. This was his third major climb in this strangely quiet valley — quiet except for the constant roar of Wapama Falls over his shoulder, a roar maybe even throatier than Yosemite Falls, itself not so distant. And Hetch Hetchy was Sean’s fourth major area for projects in the new millennium, after working forgotten corners of Yosemite Valley, the boldly featured walls of Shuteye Ridge, and a massive backcountry dome far up the great San Joaquin River Valley.
It always came down to the place itself. This valley everyone had heard of and no one knew. Because it had been filled with water. The water was making all the difference — making it noisy and keeping it quiet. Blinding with reflection, and scorching with reflected heat. The concrete plug in the throat of the valley was attracting a lot of political heat, too. Homeland Security was afraid someone would blow it up, and environmentalists were afraid no one ever would.
Reduced to comparisons, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir works the imagination southward, sending it a mere 15 miles, as the raven flies, to Yosemite Valley for bearings. The similarities are hard to ignore … as long as you keep your eyes above what is less than affectionately called the “bathtub ring,” beneath which the granite and talus have been mopped clean of life by the synthetic ebb and flow of water. (The water, circa 300 feet deep, is so pure it doesn’t need filtering when it issues from taps in San Francisco.)
The climbing here commands a certain respect. None of it easy, none likely to attract the weekend climber who can’t muster a thirst for the unknown — who isn’t comfortable with the stiff grades, or the curfew, or the camping ban, or rattlesnakes, or the mountain lions, or the poison oak, or long approaches, or lack of comforts, or the absence of spraylords who make the “other” valley so attractive and not so attractive at the same time.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
Of course, none of these similarities were lost on John Muir. Through three presidential administrations in the early 1900’s, the famed naturalist fought tooth, nail, and pen to keep Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed. “It is estimated that about 7,000 persons have seen Yosemite,” he wrote in 1893. “If this multitude were to be gathered again and set down in Hetch Hetchy, perhaps less then one percent of the whole number would doubt their being in Yosemite. They would see rocks and waterfalls, meadows and groves, of Yosemite size and kind. Amid so vast an assemblage of sublime mountain forms, only the more calm and careful observers would be able to fix upon the special differences.”
Nearly 100 years later, nobody has to be a “careful observer.” The differences between Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy are glaring. In fact, a 117-billion-gallon difference — the amount of water held in by O’Shaughnessy Dam — is readily apparent even before you set eyes on Hetch Hetchy. For one, you’ll likely be alone, save for a few tourists who have come to gawk at the dam or walk the trail to Wapama Falls (only about 50,000 people a year bother, whereas 3.5 million visitors choked Yosemite last year). By comparison, White Wolf, a single campground on the road to Tuolumne Meadows, gets more visitors — and is only open in the summer. Secondly, when you drive into Hetch Hetchy, your license plate number will be recorded for national security purposes, being that the dam is a potential post-9/11 terrorist target. And, you’ll be handed a brochure produced by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission espousing the breathtaking utility of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its dam. Stay too late and you will be towed — posthaste.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
On the one hand, the reservoir had spared Hetch Hetchy from becoming another Yosemite Valley. On the other, damming a valley in a national park was a colossal mistake, akin — as Rowell put it — to a Greek tragedy. The knotty ironies and questions go even deeper. Did cutting off the valley at the knees, so to speak, with an ever-present flood make Hetch Hetchy more of a wilderness setting? Had the dam’s waters destroyed the valley or were they actually preserving it for a time when we would have the better environmental sense to care for it?
Dams are not forever. Like scientists, climbers are well attuned to the differences between human time and geologic time. Mostly, we just try to avoid the intersection between the two, hollering down Rock! while enjoying our miniscule slice of time between epochs. Hetch Hetchy took millions of years of geologic engineering. The O’Shaughnessy Dam, a marvel of engineering in itself, took 20 years to complete. Do the math: Hetch Hetchy’s valley will one day return.
Yet, even now there is a groundswell of interest in speeding up the process. As we speak, California “governorator” Arnold Schwarzenegger is looking at recent studies by the University of California at Davis, as well as Environmental Defense and Restore Hetch Hetchy. All three studies offer a workable alternative to unplugging the dam without adverse loss of water or power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. The City, despite its otherwise green record of recycling programs and plans to turn restaurant grease into biofuel for municipal buses, strongly opposes the plan.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
“The naysayers say we have a mountain to climb,” says Ron Good, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy (hetchhetchy.org). “I respond by saying we have some of the best climbers in the world on our team. [Yvon Chouinard is on their advisory committee, and the late climber, conservationist, and former Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower was on the founding board of directors.] People ask me if I think it’s a radical idea to tear down the dam and restore Hetch Hetchy. Well, wasn’t it a radical idea to put a dam within a national park?”
In a nutshell, the idea would be to enlarge the existing downstream dam on the Tuolumne River, the Don Pedro Reservoir, and the Calaveras Reservoir in the Bay Area. As San Francisco prepares to spend $4.5 billion for capital improvements on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir’s 162 miles of leaky old pipeline and infrastructure in the near future, advocates for tearing down the dam say the time to start acting on a restoration project is now.
Good and others believe that when the dam is unplugged, Hetch Hetchy can be brought back to life in a responsible manner, without the lodges, cabins, tours buses, curio shops, and overcrowded campgrounds that plague Yosemite. There’s no doubt a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley would attract thousands of tourists, taking some of the heat off that overcrowded other valley. Ultimately, the park service would be charged with creating and maintaining a re-established Hetch Hetchy, but Good believes the valley can be restored with a 21st century environmental lens rather than the late-nineteenth and early 20th century mindset that created modern Yosemite.
Restore Hetch Hetchy’s feasibility study offers two visions for how to turn the reservoir “back to nature.” One would be simply to let nature take its course. The other is to encourage the growth of native grasses, shrubs, trees, and even lichen on the granite based on early photographs and Muir’s extensive writings.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
Well, the millennium has already yielded “dozens of new climbing routes.” And, who knows what still lies below the water line? Then, there’s the valley floor. Would there be a Camp 4 counterpart — a walk-in campground — as the study suggests? Are a Hetchy Nutcracker, Swan Slab, and Sunnyside Benchdrowned in the depths? Who knows? In Hetch Hetchy, imagination floats free.If there is a Hetch Hetchy testpiece to come, it will probably be Resurrection (V 5.12c). The name defies the obvious metaphors while clueing into them at the same time. Sean Jones called this, his and Brian Ketron’s first big-wall climb in Hetch Hetchy, two years ago, Resurrection, because, as Jones puts it, it caught a bit of Rowell’s line while going in a more direct — and, more importantly, free — line up the 1,800-foot face of Hetch Hetchy Dome. Old school meeting the new millennium. “The name was also inspired by a Rob Halford Judas Priest album,” admits Jones.
Nearby, someone else had been working the same wall, the only evidence some bloody fixed lines hanging on what would later be called Zeus. Not bloody as in British-profanity “bloody,” but bloody as in blood — real blood — on the ropes. It gave Sean pause. Later, the story would unfold at the Evergreen Lodge bar, where Sean and the mystery climber, Tim Tuomey, met. It would take a few beers just to be told. And another pitcher to digest.
Tuomey is an ex-Marine with a high-tech career in San Francisco; he drives a classic VW van with a Grateful Dead sticker in the rear window. He first came to Hetch Hetchy in 1998 and by 2000 became a regular, putting up 20-plus routes with various partners, including Nick Simon, who just happened to be tending the bar at Evergreen the day Jones and Tuomey met. If there’s such a thing as a Hetch Hetchy local, Tim is it. In half jest, half deep appreciation of the place, he’s taken to calling the Reservoir the “Fjord.” Being from the Big City, he also drinks the water.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
While the rope burned through his arms and hands, Tim fell. Guided by the grace of “the great Miwok Spirit,” as he credits it, Tim crash-landed on a 4x4 platform on the wall, now more than aptly dubbed Savior Ledge. Crumbled and broken, but alive, Tim yelled up to Cummings, at the top of the lines above him, that he didn’t need any help. In fact, in his adrenalized state, Tim had become so concerned about the two of them rapping off a still-
unfinished anchor that he insisted Clint keep drilling. Tim settled in with burned paws for a long wait, then hobbled out of the Fjord to recover, leaving the ropes for Sean to discover. Resurrection had taken on yet another meaning.
Still, Sean found the line on Resurrection to be “as clean as anything I’ve ever been on.” It provided the motivation to return westward across the falls to the Nose of Wapama Rock. Tim and others had already put up a few routes on the wall, most notably their proudest line, Photomultiplier, in 2005 — a VI 5.9 A3 featuring Cummings, Joel Ager, and Chris Chan.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
“It’s shattered,” Sean says of Wapama, “with things ready to peel off all over the place. It’s ridiculous. Then, you get higher, and everything gets sheer, sweet, way cleaner, but again really ominous. There are bigger cleaner panels and blocks, but you know all those want to leave and will be leaving soon.” (Tim has seen similar rockfall in person — alone. While climbing last year on Hetch Hetchy Dome, he heard what he thought was thunder in the distance, then, he turned toward Kolana, witnessing a huge block of granite tumble into the water. It created a most impressive tidal wave that fanned out to the dam.)
For Sean, the missing block on Wapama gave pause to freeing the route. No more laybacking the deep corner — the rockfall forced them out onto the Nose proper. Sean is guessing, once he frees the Nose, that it will come in at 5.13a. That will come next season, though, four or so pitches later. Until then, he hopes other climbers will have the grace to leave it alone. It’s the same sentiment for which most of the climbers in Hetch Hetchy hope — to be left alone in their waterlogged wilderness. Keep it down to the dull roar of the falls. Climbing? As Nick says cryptically while serving a pint, “It’s been known to happen.”Doug Robinson, a Sierra pioneer and the progenitor of “clean climbing,” is a filmmaker living in the Bay Area. Bruce Willey is a climber, recovering surfer, and freelance writer living in Big Pine, California.
Photos by Shawn Reeder
Hetch Hetchy Be Dammed: Logistics
Season: Early spring through late fall, keeping in mind that the summer months, due to the "photomultiplier" (the reservoir, which reflects intense amounts of light and heat), can be brutally hot.
Camping: Diamond O, Car-camping sites with bathrooms; $16 a night. Visit reserveUSA.com.
Lodging, eats, and drinks: Evergreen Lodge (evergreenlodge.com), near the entrance to the Park, is the Hetch Hetchy's answer to the Mountain Room Bar in Yosemite. Full bar, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cabins run from $99 to $259 a night.
Climbing: Despite the similarities and comparisons to Yosemite Valley, climbing in Hetch Hetchy is more backcountry than front country. No guidebook yet exists, and the approaches are long. Also, factor in the hard facts and hassles of the mandatory curfew (9 p.m. in summer, 5 p.m. in winter) and the camping ban.
A Hetch Hetchy sampler, going from left to right around the reservoir as you stand up on the dam.
Hetch Hetchy Beach
After the long tunnel, on the far side of the dam (rainy-day bouldering anyone?), you'll find a talus slope that leads down to the beach. (That is, if the water is low, which is usually in the spring or fall.) Here, you'll find short, one-pitch warm-up routes created by Tim Tuomey and Nick Simon. The best are Arrrgh (5.7), Clown Mobile (5.10), Buried Treasure (5.11d), and the appropriately named A Day at the Beach (5.9). Not to mention the longer, overhanging 5.10 hand crack Atlantis, in the dam's direction.
Wapama Mama (VI 5.10 A3-), 12 pitches. FA: Charles "Footie" Field, Forrest Rade, 1986. (See supertopo.com for topo.)
Photomultiplier (VI, 5.9, A3), 12 pitches. FA: Clint Cummins, Joel Ager, Tim Tuomey, Chris Chan. So named for the famed reflection of reservoir water that bounces onto the walls from below, heating up the routes like a solar panel.
Nose (VI 5.13a project).
Zöe Temple Area
Zöe Temple (5.10c), two pitches. FA: Sean Jones. Splitter so clean and obvious that it looks like it was picked up and shipped from Indian Creek.
Hetch Hetchy Dome
South Face (VI 5.9 A2 or 5.12c). FA: (lower half, aka Inclement Buttress) Joe Faint, Chris Jones, Galen Rowell, 1970; FA (entire route): Galen Rowell, Chris Jones, 1970.
Zeus (V 5.10+ C4/A3), 9 pitches. FA: Tim Tuomey and Clint Cummins.
Resurrection (V 5.12c), 18 pitches. FA: Sean Jones and Brian Ketron
In Memoriam (V 5.11d), 14 pitches. FA: Sean Jones and Jake Jones.
The Shire (east of Hetchy Hetchy Dome)
Two Guys From Sacramento TR Area. Great for warm-ups; five single routes,
all to one anchor (5.7 to 5.10d).
Echoes (5.11c). Slab. FFA: Tim Tuomey and Nick Simon.
Lunar Landscape (5.11d). Hetchy Hetchy's answer to Oz, in Tuolumne Meadows.
FA: Tim Tuomey
Keverne and the Phoenix (5.10c), 7 pitches. FFA: Tim Tuomey and Clint
Blood and Fire (5.10+). FFA: Tim Tuomey.
North Face of Kolona (V 5.9 A3). On their third try, Harding and Rowell
climbed the 1,800-foot face of Kolona. Of the 16 pitches only, half were
freed. FA: Galen Rowell and Warren Harding, 1971.
West Face of Kolona (III 5.8), 7 pitches. Runs up the huge right-facing
dihedral splitting the center of the west face. FA: John Liebeskind and
Route information provided by Tim Tuomey and Sean Jones.