I think if I had known that the name Yosemite means — “those who kill” in the Native American tongue of Miwok — I would have declined the invitation.
Additionally, the friends who invited me had the last name of “Hazard.” However, the thought that I could drop the fact that I had been rock climbing in Yosemite into casual conversations for the rest of my life allowed the braggart in me to hush my cowardly side.
In truth, my kind friends, Nancy and Greg Hazard, knew that our outing would be an exercise in patience and a tame adventure for them.
The Yosemite Valley boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, but much of it in the most tourist dense Yosemite Valley is in the form of terrifyingly sheer cliffs. They are scaled only by the elite of the elite rock climbers, but there are plenty of tame little cliffs that are just right for beginners.
The name “Those Who Kill” was not meant to refer to the soaring cliffs and roaring waterfalls but rather to the band of renegade outcasts, particularly from Paiute tribes, who lived there. The peaceful Miwoks and the warrior Paiutes were traditional enemies.
L.H. Bunnell, of the Mariposa Battalion, named the valley, but he thought the Native word meant grizzly bear. The mistake stemmed from using too much sign language as the natives tried to convey that the looming cliffs encircle the valley like the jaws of the grizzly bear.
Bunnell claimed he chose the name because the astonishing beauty of the place defied description with any European language. He decided to use the Native American name for a uniquely American place.
I suppose that regardless of the accuracy of the name, the most powerful tribes got first choice of where to live.
There’s a reason they chose Yosemite Valley. Not only is there plenty of game, an old-fashioned word for “wildlife,” but the icy, clear Merced River rushes through the valley. Though very prone to fires in recent decades, there was plenty of timber.
Strategically, with towering cliffs ringing the valley, any enemy attack must come through the narrow valley mouth, and there was not much chance of a surprise attack.
I’ve been to Yosemite many times. In ordinary years, it’s crowded with visitors snapping pictures. Laughing streams gurgle like happy infants until they pitch over deathly precipices. One of the fish native to Yosemite has the practical name of “hardhead.” I suppose those floating upside down are called “Not-Hard-Enough-Head.”
The most famous sites in Yosemite are El Capitan and Half Dome. The day we went to climb, the famous precipices were dotted with climbers, like flecks of pepper on a vertical snow field.
Climbing partners take turns belaying each other up level after level. Expert climbers on multi-day climbs link hammocks to the rock faces for a peaceful night’s sleep dangling a thousand feet above the valley floor.
Rappelling may sound like a description of the opposite political party, but it means walking backward off a cliff while attached to ropes, which are in turn anchored at the clifftop.
Our host explained that he was not qualified to climb one of the famous rock faces in Yosemite. I didn’t mind.
The valley floor is strewn with giant boulders, left like the tail of a comet by receding glaciers. Our host, Greg, picked out a likely spot, away from the parts teeming with tourists.
From the top of the rock, I could see the Merced River falling all over itself on its way to the sea. The sun warmed the Ponderosa pines, releasing their sweet vanilla scent.
Funny thing, 20 feet above terra firma seems a lot higher looking down than looking up.
Social pressure won out. My friends had driven a long way to provide this experience, and I didn’t want them to think I was ungrateful.
I backed off the edge, feeling the rope take my weight. I pushed off the rock with my feet, letting a little rope slide through my fingers. It took less than half a minute. It was incredibly easy. I glanced at the famous, soaring cliffs with new appreciation.
Yosemite may be misnamed, but it’s a natural national treasure.
Only in America, God bless it.