After talking about it for a couple years and aborting one attempt due to excessive water flow, we were back to the Yosemite Falls Middle Tier on 9/22/12 for some Yosemite style canyoneering.
The morning began with stuffing ourselves at the Curry Village buffet and pounding coffee/tea till we were suitably amped. Our leisurely pace was designed to put us in the water once the day had warmed to an acceptable level. As it turned out, starting a little after 8:00 AM meant that it was pretty hot on the approach, and near perfect for the decent of the middle tier (afternoon temps in the Valley were in the low-mid 80’s).
After topping out on Sunnyside Bench Regular Route, head upslope for 100’ or so, then work up and left to a groove with a slightly exposed bouldery 5th class start. We’ve been up this approach twice and got sucked up a false trail to the right both times and ended up back-tracking to the left.
After the groove, work up and generally right on slabs for a few hundred feet until you start to see cairns leading to the right around a short steep section guarding the tree/brush slope below the Lost Arrow Chimney. Despite appearances in the prior photo, we didn’t do anything that I’d classify as even minor bush whacking.
Once you enter the tree/brush slope there is a fairly distinct trail with cairns. Follow this trail for a couple hundred feet until it becomes a little like a shallow gully. Don’t go too far. Look for breaks through the trees and trend left and slightly up until you drop down and left past cairns to slabs leading to the base of the upper falls.
Hike the slabs to very near the base of the wall before heading left/down toward the middle tier. You can scramble/butt slide (or possible rap if wet) directly down some steep steps towards the first rappel, or go right and down through boulders before cutting left to the first rappel.
The first anchor is on broad slabs to the right of the entry to the middle tier proper.
From the first anchor onward it would be very hard to get lost as the terrain funnels you where you need to go and there aren’t many options. All the anchors were bomber and fairly easy to locate.
The first two raps are short with a bit of scrambling, and the third rap was a full 60 meters. Use a bit of caution when approaching the third rap anchor as there was a bit of slime on the slab and the edge was near. For the water level we had the third rap ended at a slot/stance at the waters edge with a bit of waist deep wading around the left to the other side. With higher water level you might end the rap by treading water as you pull the ropes.
After exiting the water at the third rap stay to the left through boulders and descend a couple knotted ropes over short steep bits. The first mandatory swim for us came with a choice to jump from a boulder 20+ feet into the water, or as we did it, down climb to the right (it’s easier than it looks, 4th class) until you slide on you but off a slab into the water for maybe 100’ of swimming.
After the first swim another long rap left us at the waters edge for another short swim to boulders. Once again, with higher water level you might end the rap by treading water as you pull the ropes. We were able to avoid a final swim by scrambling up a short 4th/easy 5th class step to the right and down to the top of the lower falls.
Rapping the lower falls is definitely quicker than the standard descent from Sunnyside Bench. There is a hand line over to the anchor which is a little exposed but no big deal. With 60 meter ropes you rap, with 25-30’ of rope to spare, to a good stance for two that could accommodate four in a pinch. A second rap takes you a full 60 meters to boulders at the base of the lower falls.
Take a couple heavy duty garbage bags or dry bags so you can do the swims without getting all your stuff totally soaked. We had very fresh 8/8.1 mill dry ropes which got a little wet but not too bad. If you have old, fuzzy, non-dry, fat ropes, be prepared to soak up some H2O. If you go with skinny ropes like we did you’ll be happy to have gloves on a couple of the raps. Once you get to the top of the third rap you’ll be happy to descend in Tevas (or neoprene booties if you’re a wimp about cold feet like I am).
We took our time drying/soaking up sun after the swims but otherwise mostly cruised and spent just under 8 hours car to car. For comparison I think we spent about 12 hours doing Tenaya Canyon.
If (when!) we do this again we might opt for some water flow to ratchet up the adventure level and freshen up the swimming holes (very little flow would go a long way) though my more cautious(sane?) spouse might not agree that any extra adventure is called for. The swimming holes weren’t rank by any measure, but it definitely wasn’t crystal clear either. For the temperatures we had the swimming was brisk but not frigid, and there was plenty of sun to bask in after each water session.