by Peter Holleran
While driving home after my first trip to Mt. Whitney I stopped to stretch my legs on Tioga Pass (9945') at the eastern gateway of Yosemite. On the spur of the moment I decided to climb nearby Mt. Dana, at 13053' the most prominent peak in sight and the second highest in the park. After summitting Whitney it appeared like a relatively easy climb, whereas ordinarily, because of the elevation and steepness, it should deserve a little more respect. Eliminating the flat initial half-mile and a level plateau up above, the trail rises 3100' in just two miles. That would rival Mt. Marathon in Seward, Alaska, site of a short but brutal annual hill climb.
The trail starts directly across from the park entrance. After a small descent it meanders lazily through meadow and woods to the base of the mountain. The ascent begins gradually, then steepens over more exposed terrain to a saddle and a stone marker at the approximate half way point, where the stark upper slopes finally come into view (earlier one is teased with a false summit). If the weather is frightening one should turn back here. Once on top it is difficult to get down in a hurry because of the loose and uneven rocks. The remaining 1600' is totally exposed to the elements and goes more or less straight up over boulders and scree with the minimal trail disappearing again and again. There are actually multiple routes over the open rock field. Care is required as many of the large rocks move under foot and I could imagine one might get caught between them if they shifted a certain way. Moving at a steady pace, with legs still heavy from the previous day's run up Mt. Whitney, it took me two hours to the barren summit. The peak is shaped like a cone and the slopes drop off rapidly on all sides, which, in the thin air invites more than a touch of vertigo. There I met two marmets whom I fed pieces of an energy bar. They must wait for the occasional hiker as otherwise there is absolutely nothing to eat up there.
On the way up the rock strewn slope I had met a student from the Czech Republic who was working for the summer in Yosemite Valley. He was in year five of a six year medical program and said tuition was free. (It doesn't seem possible that a poor country like that could collect enough in taxes to offer free schooling. On the other hand he said he wouldn't make that much as a doctor there either). At the top I pointed out to him that on the shores of Mono Lake far below (6000 vertical feet!) actor Clint Eastwood starred in the movie High Plains Drifter. That sparked a sign of recognition in him despite his rudimentary English skills. We enjoyed the comradery and spectacular views for a while and then, storm clouds gathering, I made my way back down, the descent taking one hour. Those who are not mountain goats will take considerably longer picking their way through the boulder field. My new friend was held back by his two companions who, at less than half my age, took TWICE as long to get to the top - and were not much faster going down. Fast food junkies, no doubt. Hey dudes, super-size this!
Mt. Dana is a challenging day-hike that seemingly begs to be climbed. Indeed, one can not drive over Tioga Pass without imagining what it would be like to be high up on its forbidding, lonely summit. Just make sure to keep an eye out for changes in the weather, and when climbing alone, don't be like me - let someone know you are up there, or at least carry a cell phone!
The Tioga Pass/Tuolumne Meadows area offer many outstanding outdoor adventure possibilities. A climb up scenic Lembert Dome, either straight up the rock face or by trail from the back, is very popular. One can also start a terrific hike or run to Yosemite Valley on the John Muir Trail that is downhill most of the way.
For a more harrowing trip report than mine, with photos and info on other nearby hikes, click here. For another, click here.