The Mountains Are Calling: Yosemite, With Federal Judge as Guide

The critter that derailed plans to backpack with a federal judge in Yosemite’s backcountry. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

YOSEMITE VALLEY, Calif. (CN) – This feature was supposed to be about my backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park with a federal judge who has a deep and abiding love of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Instead, a juvenile rattlesnake intervened to make this tale about something else entirely – or almost entirely.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup has handed down some of the most important decisions and still presides over some of the most pivotal cases in America. He recently garnered headlines for tossing a potentially groundbreaking climate change case from Bay Area cities not because he doesn’t believe global warming exists, but because the issue must be confronted by the nation’s legislative and executive branches.

Alsup astounded court-watchers by learning enough computer coding to understand the nuances of the landmark Oracle v. Google, a test of computer programming and copyright law.

In 2014, he found the federal government compiled its no-fly list without sufficient due process protections in one of the first rulings on the controversial practice.

And this year, Alsup presided over the now-settled spat between Google-owned Waymo and Uber about the future of self-driving vehicles. This is where my colleague and friend, Bridget Clerkin, comes in.

A freelance journalist, Clerkin focuses on the automotive industry and emerging technologies like electric vehicles, connected cars, smart streets and self-driving cars.

When it became apparent Waymo v. Uber was headed to trial, she left San Diego where she is based and headed to Alsup’s courtroom in San Francisco.

During her six days of trial coverage before the parties abruptly settled, she compiled a feature on Alsup that included an interview with him about the Sierra. Judges are typically reluctant to talk to journalists, but Alsup and Bridget found they had a connection: extended backpacking journeys.

Bridget and I summited Mt. Whitney last September, camping overnight on the mountain’s shoulder and rising predawn to tackle the last bit of trail to the top of the famed 14,505-foot mountain that is the highest point in the Sierra Nevada and the lower 48 states.

But our experience in the Sierra pales in comparison to the judge’s.

“Name a place in the Sierra and I’ll tell you what I know about,” Alsup says at one point, smiling gamely. And it’s true.

After 150 backpacking adventures throughout the range (he has a list), Alsup can tell you with alarming specificity about a secluded campsite with good access to water below The Minarets near Mammoth Lakes, or the best place to camp above Guitar Lake in the shadow of Whitney.

But his knowledge isn’t relegated to terrain; Alsup possesses a comprehensive understanding of Sierra history too – from the dispute between Josiah Whitney and John Muir over the geologic causes of the enormous domes and other wondrous granite formations of the range to a detailed rundown of the creation and management of Yosemite National Park.

Alsup knows and loves the Sierra. And when he got wind of Bridget’s Whitney ascent, they started talking more about the mountains. In the end, the judge invited Bridget on a two-night backpacking trip to begin in the famed Yosemite Valley.

And when another member of the party dropped out, I was invited. I said yes, packed my backpack, tent, sleeping bag and equipment and headed for the Sierra foothills where Alsup owns a ranch surrounded by grassland, oak and vast tracts of solitude.

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U.S. District Judge William Alsup, Bridget Clerkin, Matthew Renda and Joe Garrett pose for a photo near Inspiration Point in Yosemite National Park. (Bridget Clerkin)

Bridget and I and the judge’s hiking pal Joe Garrett – a lawyer, entrepreneur and former deputy director of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park – convened at Alsup’s ranch on a Tuesday.

Alsup was born in Mississippi, and along with a southern accent he has retained the region’s flair for hospitality. A consummate host, he supplied us with victuals and libations while we went over the itinerary.

Leaving from Inspiration Point at western end of the Yosemite Valley, we planned to hike from valley floor to rim, ascending 2,800 feet up the steep Pohono Trail. We’d camp near Crocker Point on Wednesday night, execute a series of day hikes Thursday and hike out Friday.

The judge knew the camp at Crocker Point. Located a half mile from water isn’t ideal, but it’s offset by the single best view on the Yosemite rim, he told us.

We divvied up equipment and food and prepared for an early rise. Before calling it a night, Bridget and I went to my truck to retrieve some items for the next day’s adventure and to go for a walk. It was dark, my headlamp needed new batteries and offered a weak beam.

Abruptly, Bridget yelled out. “Something bit me,” she howled, going down and holding her foot. I thought it was a bee or wasp though they’re rarely out after dark.

I shone a light on the side of her foot and there were two perfect little circles, little dots with blooms of blood, toward her big toe. Fang marks. We swung the light backwards and sure enough, a two-foot snake slithered toward the wood pile at the edge of the driveway.

“That snake bit me,” she said. I followed as it retreated, looking at its tail and noticing it did not have a rattle. A good sign to be sure, offset by the fact that it was clearly a juvenile and had the distinctive markings of a rattlesnake.

Despite just being bit in the foot by a possibly venomous snake, Bridget had the presence of mind to order me to take a photo of the creature. Using the headlight as a makeshift flash, I followed the snake more closely than was wise and managed a clear shot.

I helped Bridget into the house, where we woke the judge and let him know what happened. Alsup looked at the wound, which had started to bleed profusely in the minutes since the bite, then looked at the picture I had taken and declared: “It looks like a rattlesnake.”

Bridget replied, “My mouth is starting to tingle.”

Alsup called the hospital, then 911, telling the dispatcher it would be far quicker for us to take Bridget to the hospital ourselves rather than wait for an ambulance.

I picked up my phone, entered “rattlesnake bite webmd” in a search engine and began to frantically scroll. While not eager, I was willing to suck the venom out of the wound if so instructed. Turns out doing so isn’t the best idea, as it can cause infection and introduce venom into the mouth of whomever is doing the sucking.

Bridget said the tingling and numbness in her mouth had spread to her face and throughout her body. If there was any lingering doubt the offending snake was indeed of the rattler variety, it vanished.

While Alsup was on the phone, Bridget passed out: she did the accordion fold while standing next to me and lost consciousness – with her eyes open. I threw her over my shoulder and carried her to my truck in the driveway.

Alsup, preternaturally calm, came out and noted it would be better for us to take Joe’s car, which had room for four people.

The judge and I helped Bridget – once again conscious – over to Joe’s car, packed her in and the four of us sped off to the nearest hospital 15 minutes away.

The ensuing medical odyssey, much of which I witnessed, is Bridget’s story to tell and since she is a capable journalist and storyteller, I will let her tell it. After about 24 hours in the hospital, several rounds of antivenom, an IV serum and a foot swollen to proportions I wouldn’t have thought possible, Bridget was released only a little the worse for wear and with a very good prognosis of a swift and full recovery.

Alsup and I, between taking turns attending Bridget in the hospital, discussed delaying our backpacking trip by a day or two. That idea was dashed when it became clear Bridget would be on crutches and was advised to not put too much pressure on the foot.

“I think we’re going to have to call it off,” Alsup said outside the hospital just before Bridget was released.

And we did.

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Bridget and I both keenly felt the disappointment over scuttling our backcountry plans, Bridget especially so.

A recent New Jersey transplant, Bridget’s adventures in the Sierra were limited to Mt. Whitney. She’d never been to Yosemite and the opportunity to do so with someone steeped in the geographic and human history of the place was unique and exciting. To be robbed of such an opportunity by a rattlesnake had to be gutting.

But Bridget, displaying the chutzpah and aplomb that was quickly becoming a calling card, rallied and we hatched a plan to execute what Bridget would later call the American with Disabilities Act tour of Yosemite Valley.

We couldn’t have asked for two better guides than Alsup and Garrett.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup points to southern rim of Yosemite Valley and Crocker Point, where the judge had planned to camp for two nights. (Bridget Clerkin)

At one point, with Garrett driving us early in the morning before the glut of tourists make navigating the valley an exercise in patience, Alsup pointed out the meadow where famed naturalist John Muir camped with then-president Teddy Roosevelt. Minutes later, Garrett identified shaggy shrubs along the Merced River, running clean and clear through the valley, as wild azaleas and noted how the foxglove was in full bloom weeks before.

Between the two men, the natural and historical are covered.

Alsup’s avocation as a historian of the Sierra Nevada isn’t just of the casual amateur variety, either.

In the 1990’s, he wrote a book, “Missing in the Minarets,” about prominent San Francisco-based attorney Peter Starr, who mysteriously disappeared while hiking in the Minaret region of the Sierra just outside of Mammoth Lakes in 1933. After a series of failed search-and-rescue missions, famed mountaineer Norman Clyde, was able to succeed where others had fallen short.

But Alsup’s historical reach isn’t confined to that episode.

“You know Josiah Whitney and John Muir had quite the ongoing debate over the subject of glaciation,” Alsup said at one point.

Whitney, from whom Mt. Whitney got its name, thought the formation of the Yosemite Valley stemmed from cataclysmic earthquakes, with the valley floor falling hundreds of feet in an instant.

Muir believed glaciers sculpted the valley – a theory now accepted by present-day geologists.

But Whitney, who ran the first geological survey of California and the Sierra Nevada, graduated from Harvard and made no bones about the fact that he considered Muir – a college dropout – an intellectual inferior, amateur and “mere sheepherder.”

It’s clear that from Alsup’s recounting of the dispute that he favors Muir over his fellow Harvard alum.

“Whitney didn’t leave his office much, which helps explain why he held some questionable theories,” Alsup says.

But while the judge is happy to plumb the history of the Sierra, he has a particular soft spot for Yosemite National Park.

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Yosemite’s sheer beauty and unique grandeur led early visitors to the valley to dub it “nature’s cathedral.” But beyond that, the approximately 748,000 acres in the heart of the Sierra Nevada provided the template for the preservation and management of America’s public lands.

It is America’s second national park, officially formed in 1890 about 18 years after Yellowstone, with a dedication signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.

But eight years before Yellowstone’s designation, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant – the first instance of the federal government setting aside land for the purpose of natural preservation. The grant was intended to cut down on the land claims, hotels and stores popping up in the valley.

As Alsup noted on our tour, California originally maintained jurisdiction over Yosemite Valley and the famed Mariposa Grove of majestic sequoia trees. But Muir met with Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 and made the case for federal intervention, which Roosevelt granted by signing a bill in 1906.

Muir’s advocacy at the turn of the century, his role in the foundation of the Sierra Club, his mission to preserve the Yosemite Valley from development, grazing, mining and other economic interests, all played an instrumental role in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

Our humble party of four traveled through a place so patently awe-inspiring, for its natural elements and because it’s a cradle for the conservation and approach to preservation of natural spaces that makes up the modern environmental movement.

In late June and swollen with snowmelt, Yosemite Falls plunges a total of 2,425 feet to the valley floor. (Bridget Clerkin)

As we picked our way across the meadow toward Yosemite Falls, bursting with snowmelt that late June morning – it will be a trickle by late July and all but dry come August – the judge pointed to a spot that once boasted a sawmill where Muir worked to support his forays into the high country.

As Upper Yosemite Falls plunges 1,430 feet, one of the highest waterfalls in the world, Alsup noted a spot at the bottom where a hidden cave lies that is accessible in winter.

“In December or January, when the falls are faint, you can access that cave and actually get behind the falls,” Alsup said with barely concealed enthusiasm.

Taking the trail to the top of the falls opens up some good backcountry camping spots, he said while pointing to the rim. You can use Yosemite Creek as a water source and carry out a couple of day hikes, including one that winds along the valley rim before ending atop El Capitan – the largest exposed granite monolith on Earth.

It’s evident Alsup loves the thrill and sense of accomplishment that comes with planning and executing backcountry trips. His associates call him “Trail Boss,” a fact that had me worried I would be hiking with a stern martinet.

But my worry was unfounded. He’s organized, exacting and plots his trips with the same meticulous approach he takes in the courtroom, but he also likes a good time.

In his vast repertory of backpacking equipment, Alsup retains one maroon-colored fuel bottle, shaped like the ones that attach to the old MSR stoves. But gas has never grazed the inside of this bottle – it’s reserved for happy hour in the backcountry.

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Bridget’s first tour of Yosemite was splendid.

She saw all the sights. Half Dome as it towers 4,800 feet above the valley floor in its stately gray at the east end of the valley. El Capitan with the inimitable Sierra light casting shadows as the day advances. The pristine Merced River. Bridalveil Falls ripped apart by the wind. The thunder of Yosemite Falls.

We even managed lunch in the old Ahwahnee.

But Bridget noticed the other inescapable part of Yosemite on display: massive crowds, traffic congestion, too many cars contending for a limited number of parking spaces. Yosemite is being loved to death.

When Alsup first visited the Yosemite Valley in 1973, about 2.25 million visitors flocked to Yosemite National Park, mostly by car. Few made it past the valley floor.

By 2016, the number of visitors had doubled.

“The park cannot continue to handle the amount of people, but especially the amount of cars,” Alsup said.

Various solutions have been suggested. The Trump administration recently floated raising the vehicle entrance fee from $40 to $70. The theory is two-pronged: additional revenue will address a maintenance backlog at Yosemite and other parks caused in part by heavy visitation, and fewer people will want to pay that kind of money to spend a day in the park.

But the proposal found little favor in our group. Garrett said it reeks of economic elitism that betrays the spirit of dedicating and maintaining national parks for all people, regardless of income.

Half Dome (left) looms above the Yosemite Valley on a bright June day. (Bridget Clerkin)

During his time on the board of the Yosemite Restoration Trust, Alsup suggested having motorists park outside the park and shuttling them inside to reduce traffic.

The trust was formed in 1990 to promote the comprehensive “de-urbanization” of the Yosemite Valley, restricting new development and taking over concessions to run them with a more environment-oriented approach that doesn’t put as much emphasis on profit.

“The concessionaire in many ways holds more sway than even the park service,” Alsup said. “The people making money in the valley are always going to oppose a shuttle system because it will dent their bottom line.”

Alsup said the visitation problems that plague Yosemite will continue as long as incentive exists for concessionaires to pursue profit.

“It’s a shame, but there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of momentum for environmental issues these days,” he said.

The trust has since dissolved. While it was successful in prompting the park service to reinstate a management plan toward a less motorist-centric experience in the park, the plan is currently dormant without an organized advocacy group to move it forward.

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Our weary band returned to Alsup’s ranch after lunch, content to avoid the glut of crowds descending into the valley while riding out the evening in the Sierra foothills.

Bridget’s foot was on the mend, and we all felt enlivened by the sights of the day. The conviviality at dinner and afterward dispelled any lingering dismay over missing out on the Yosemite trails and getting to set up camp in Alsup’s secluded glade.

For me, the disappointment was allayed by the fact that my wife Jessica was on the way to the ranch, from whence we would head to the Tuolumne Meadows campground.

Over the course of the weekend, Jessica and I poked our heads into Lyell Canyon and walked around the larger Cathedral Lake – both spectacular and far enough off the main thoroughfares to afford shreds of solitude.

Before we left the ranch, Alsup climbed into Bridget’s car and rode around with her long enough to be sure her foot could endure the long drive back to San Diego. The four of us pledged to reconvene, hopefully soon, and give our backcountry adventure another try.

“Have a good time in Tuolumne,” Alsup said as we set off. “I expect a full report.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

I look forward to offering it.

 

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