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foundation 21 January 2013; minor modification on 3 February 2013;
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Perhaps the most famous of all John Muir's wild adventures is his snow avalanche ride down a side canyon of Yosemite Valley. When did this dangerous and exhilarating ride take place? Where in Yosemite Valley did it occur? This essay examines both of these questions.
In all Muir's writing I find but three independent descriptions of the snow avalanche ride: The first is printed in Samuel Kneeland's 1872 book The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California (third edition, revised and enlarged; Boston: Alexander Moore. Lee & Shepard; New York: Lee, Shepard & Dillingham); the second is Muir's description in his 1901 essay "The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite National Park", which Muir reproduced exactly or with minor modifications three times in his later writings; the third is Muir's 10 December 1872 letter to J.B. McChesney.
I quote the first description:
This experienced mountain climber [Muir] finds the winter the most beautiful and most enjoyable period of the year. He glories in such exploits as ascending the Glacier Caņon in mid-winter. On one occasion, having safely passed through the dangers of falling rocks, avalanches, and icicles, he found himself near the top of the caņon, at a point where ten minutes in summer would have enabled him to reach the summit; but he could get no higher by wading, or swimming, in the mealy snow, which was like a quicksand under him; and, night coming on, he was forced to return, but by a kind of locomotion best described in his own words: "Hawthorne speaks of the railroad as a spiritualizer of travel; but, despite the springs and cushions that are slipped between our bodies and the iron wheels, modern travel is anything but spiritual; and since my Yosemite locomotion in the meal of Glacier Caņon, even the flapping progress of the birds seems coarse. I cast myself upon my back, feet foremost, and moved away through space, softly as a cloud. The snow gave no sound from pressure, and on I sailed, noiseless and effortless, over logs, and rocks, and woven chaparral, as unbruised and unjolted as a full-grown thistle-seed in a sunny wind. Let Hawthornes choose for spiritual travel their wheels, and cushions, and wheezing steam; my choice shall always be a slat of mountain snow." He gained the top on another trial, a week afterward, and beheld a scene of winter mountain magnificence rarely seen by mortal eyes.
(It is not clear exactly how Muir's writing fell into Kneeland's hands.)
The second description appears on page 561 of "The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite National Park" (The Atlantic Monthly, volume LXXXVII, number 519, January 1901, pages 556-565). This description is reproduced exactly in chapter 8 of Our National Parks (1901) and with minor modifications in "Three Adventures in the Yosemite" (Century Magazine, volume LXXXIII, number 5, March 1912, pages 656-661) and in chapter 3 of The Yosemite (1912). I quote from "The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite National Park":
Few mountaineers go far enough, during the snowy months, to see many avalanches, and fewer still know the thrilling exhilaration of riding on them. In all my wild mountaineering I have enjoyed only one avalanche ride; and the start was so sudden, and the end came so soon, I thought but little of the danger that goes with this sort of travel, though one thinks fast at such times. One calm, bright morning in Yosemite, after a hearty storm had given three or four feet of fresh snow to the mountains, being eager to see as many avalanches as possible, and gain wide views of the peaks and forests arrayed in their new robes, before the sunshine had time to change or rearrange them, I set out early to climb by a side caņon to the top of a commanding ridge a little over three thousand feet above the valley. On account of the looseness of the snow that blocked the caņon I knew the climb would be trying, and estimated it might require three or four hours. But it proved far more difficult than I had foreseen. Most of the way I sank waist-deep, in some places almost out of sight; and after spending the day to within half an hour of sundown in this loose, baffling snow work, I was still several hundred feet below the summit. Then my hopes were reduced to getting up in time for the sunset, and a quick, sparkling home-going beneath the stars. But I was not to get top views of any sort that day; for deep trampling near the caņon head; where the snow was strained, started an avalanche, and I was swished back down to the foot of the caņon as if by enchantment. The plodding, wallowing ascent of about a mile had taken all day, the undoing descent perhaps a minute. When the snow suddenly gave way, I instinctively threw myself on my back and spread my arms, to try to keep from sinking. Fortunately, though the grade of the caņon was steep, it was not interrupted by step levels or precipices big enough to cause outbounding or free plunging. On no part of the rush was I buried. I was only moderately imbedded on the surface or a little below it, and covered with a hissing back-streaming veil of dusty snow particles; and as the whole mass beneath or about me joined in the flight I felt no friction, though tossed here and there, and lurched from side to side. And when the torrent swedged and came to rest, I found myself on the top of the crumpled pile, without a single bruise or scar. Hawthorne says that stream has spiritualized travel, notwithstanding the smoke, friction, smells, and clatter of boat and rail riding. This flight in a milky way of snow flowers was the most spiritual of all my travels; and, after many years, the mere thought of it is still an exhilaration.The least poetic and most concrete description comes from Muir's 10 December 1872 letter to J.B. (Joseph Burwell) McChesney, which saw the light of print in chapter 10 of The Life and Letters of John Muir:
Yosemite, December 10th, 1872
... You have never seen our Valley with her jewels on, never seen her flowers of snow. A few days ago many a flower ripened in the fields of air and they have fallen to us. All the trees and the bushes are flowered beyond summer, bowed down in snow bloom and all the rocks are buried. The day after the "storm" (a most damnable name for the flowering of the clouds) I lay out on the meadow to eat a grand meal of new-made beauty, and about midday I suddenly wanted the outside mountains, and so cast off my coat and ran up towards Glacier Point. I soon was near top, and was very hungry for the view that was so grandly mingled and covered with snow and sky, but the snow was more than ten feet deep and dusty and light as winter fog. I tried to wallow and swim it, but the slope was so steep that I always fell back and sank out of sight, and I was fully baffled. I had a glorious slide downwards. Hawthorne speaks of the spirituality of locomotive railroad travel, but this balmy slide in the mealy snow out-spiritualized all other motions that I ever made in space.
Farewell, write again. I am lonely.
The story is also mentioned in passing in a letter from Muir to Annie Bidwell dated 19 December 1901.
Muir's first winter in Yosemite Valley was 1869-70. He spent much of the winter of 1870-71 and all of the winter of 1871-72 there. His fourth and final overwinter in Yosemite came in 1872-73.
The first two sources are vague as to date, but the third is concrete: it happened "a few days" before 10 December 1872.
The Kneeland excerpt places the avalanche ride at a side-canyon to Yosemite Valley called "Glacier Caņon". This locale is not referenced anywhere else in Kneeland's book, nor is it commonly used in any other book or map. However, the letter to McChesney places it on the route "towards Glacier Point".
There are two routes from the Yosmite Valley floor toward Glacier Point: the easterly route of the now-abandoned "Ledge Trail" and the westerly route of the "Four Mile Trail". Which of these two candidates fits the circumstances of Muir's avalanche ride?
To make further progress, one must know where Muir spent the winter of 1872-73. In November 1871 Muir moved into Black's "New Sentinel Hotel" in Yosemite Valley as winter caretaker, and as far as I can determine he lived there between rambles until he left Yosemite Valley in November 1873. Black's Hotel was located (using today's landmarks) south of Southside Drive just east of the footbridge at Leidig Meadow, near the foot of the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. (See "Yosemite Valley as a State Grant", chapter 2 of Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene.) And it helps to remember two facts: The ride occurred on a day of difficult travel with "three or four feet of fresh snow [on] the mountains", and Muir's objective was to quickly "gain wide views of the peaks and forests arrayed in their new robes".
From a personal perspective, I can say this: If I woke up at Black's Hotel, on a day of difficult travel, and was "eager" to reach a valley rim point with good mountain views, "before the sunshine had time to change or rearrange them", then I would not traipse two miles to the base of the difficult Ledge Trail. No. I would head right out my back door and walk up to Glacier Point along the general route taken today by the Four Mile Trail.
Furthermore, I suspect that anyone taking an avalanche ride down the site of the Ledge Trail would end up dead after "outbounding" -- flying free of the rock face.
For all these reasons, I surmise that Muir's snow avalanche ride probably happened between the Sentinel and Glacier Point, the general route taken today by the Four Mile Trail.
On 4 November 1870, Muir wrote to Jeanne C. Carr, saying that:
"Hawthorne says that steam spiritualizes travel but I think that it squarely degrades & materializes travel."
Indeed, in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) Nathaniel Hawthorne's character Clifford Pyncheon says "These railroads ... are positively the greatest blessing that the ages have wrought out for us. They give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimages; they spiritualize travel!" However it is not clear that author Hawthorne shared his character's enthusiasm: his 1843 short story "The Celestial Railroad" imbues the ease of steam travel with satanic overtones.
What's in a Name?
Muir's 1912 book The Yosemite (chapter 12, "How Best to Spend One's Yosemite Time," subsection on 'Other Trips from the Valley') says that
Another fine trip was up, bright and early, by Avalanche Caņon to Glacier Point, [then] along the rugged south wall, tracing all its far outs and ins to the head of the Bridal Veil Fall, thence back home, bright and late, by a brushy, bouldery slope between Cathedral rocks and Cathedral spires and along the level Valley floor. This was one of my long, bright-day and bright-night walks thirty or forty years ago when, like river and ocean currents, time flowed undivided, uncounted -- a fine free, sauntery, scrambly, botanical, beauty-filled ramble. The walk up the Valley was made glorious by the marvelous brightness of the morning star. So great was her light, she made every tree cast a well-defined shadow on the smooth sandy ground.
This is the only use I can find of the name "Avalanche Canyon," as a side canyon of Yosemite Valley. But the context suggests that Avalanche Canyon is between the Sentinel and Glacier Point. And perhaps Muir named this side canyon after his avalanche ride.