Ted lured me into a hike to the base of El Capitan with tales of the alcove rope swing. I'm no climber, but swinging on a rope over the expanse of Yosemite Valley? I can do that, I thought. I looked at videos on the web and decided swinging was within my skill set. Little did I know how far up it's actually based and how steep the granite is below. But well before we caught sight of the swing, we hiked up the talus slope at the base of El Cap near Horsetail Fall. Spring is here, the waterfalls are huge and Horsetail is ephemeral (seasonal) so the view is spectacular. You can see Horsetail clearly from the Valley but the cascade of water at the base is quite a sight. Horsetail Fall is most famous for a winter phenomenon where the angle of the setting winter sun lights the fall as if on fire for one short week each February. The fall dries up as summer approaches and the snow in the high country has melted away. We had two crazy winter storms in early April that actually closed the park for a week, so there is still plenty of snow up top.
Climbers approach the base in several ways and we elected to hike up the talus slope between the "nose" of El Cap and Horsetail Fall, walk the trail that follows the base and then descend where the trail that parallels the nose until you reach the Valley floor. Talus is comprised of rock and boulders that have fallen from the cliffs above over time, creating a pile at the base. Hiking on talus requires both hands and feet, also known as scrambling, a mild form of climbing. Hiking on talus also requires caution as plenty of boulders are loosely piled and will move from time to time, so watch where you place those feet and hands. Finally, hiking on talus requires sunscreen because the granite boulders are great reflectors on a sunny day.
As you reach the base of El Cap, two things are immediately apparent: here there be rockclimbers and the view of the Valley below was worth the climb. Climbing detritus like ropes and suspended packs litter the base (to be retrieved after the climb by all those climbers with a good conscience and solid investment in their gear). The Merced River meanders through Yosemite Valley, green in the sunlight and at this height, you no longer notice the cars on the road. We took time for refreshment and picked our way along the base toward the fall, watching the spray from the fall at the top.
The base of a waterfall is usually an active pool of water feeding a stream or river, but water behaves differently on El Cap. Most of the water is blown away as spray at 7500 feet, and some of the water cascades down the granite face randomly with no true course. It still reaches the river below, just not in one thundering drop. However, Ted said he had never seen so much water coming from Horsetail.
After the refreshing water break, we headed for the rope swing. Along the way, Ted pointed out where Chongo used to hang out and was pleased to find a toy airplane. We walked in the shade as the sun had disappeared behind the mass of El Cap. Scranmbling over more talus, we located the alcove where the rope swing is installed. The alcove rope swing on El Cap is installed, ridiculed, enthused about, derided and removed by climbers on a regular basis. A fixed rope attached to a bolt in the rock allows you to swing out over a granite apron using a climbing harness and piece of climbing equipment known as a gri-gri (belay device to adjust the rope connected to your harness). No climbing skills are required beyond basic working knowledge of your harness. However, the granite underneath is much steeper than it looks on video and I spied a worrisome knot in the middle of the rope so I had to pass. Instead we sat in the alcove and listened to the mating calls of Mountain Chickadees and ate potato chips. Ted inspected the rope but was chased away by a climber dude in a huff who wanted to connect his Port-a-Ledge to the bolt holding the rope at the base. Huh?
Our friend Dalius has a great video of his encounter on the swing. Ted says we'll be back and I think next time I'll be ready.
P.S. The name of the belay device, gri-gri, is also spelled gris-gris and is a term from the practice of voodoo. "The gris-gris are both the physical objects that used (such as gris-gris bags, Voodoo dolls, love potions, etc.) and the verbal invocations that are made to effect the magical properties of Voodoo." I wonder if the inventor of the gri-gri knew? Are you wondering how I know about Voodoo? I'll never tell. But I am from Louisiana.