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Massi Falls: Part one, Of Torrents & Tests

Lenny La Rue, IPA

Sacramento, United States

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First, I am alive & deeply humbled. Second, Massi Falls shows how a waterfall can go from boring to unphotographic depending upon how much water is available. Third, I have reaffirmed my faith, in Him and in mankind. The following story is my attempt at depicting those subjects as accurately as possible. The differing text and punctuation is offered to make the three threads distinct yet interwoven.

’It’s off for today unless it’s just you and me’. I was disappointed and feeling it worse than usual because I really wanted to do the Massi Falls shoot with my first photography group. But it wasn’t long after that I decided to do the hike and shoot anyway. I checked the weather (clear to lightly cloudy), I checked my gear (Nikons D80 and D90 with extra SD cards, recharged spare batteries for both, tripod, hiking boots, bug spray, water, and high energy. Gas in the auto, food for before the hike, layers of clothing, and two fully-charged cell phones, one with GPS and detailed maps. The 2nd cell phone helped save my life.

There had been only one slight wrong turn driving to the locked vehicle gate marked Massi Falls and my GPS even then had confirmed what I’d already suspected. I hadn’t seen anything to ward me off along the 90 minute drive into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was one other vehicle parked by the gate, a small pick-up truck. I sprayed myself silly with DEET. I double checked to make sure the car wasn’t blocking the gate or on the roadway. I loaded up my camera backpack and easily hefted its 30 pounds on my back and started walking the road that was wider than a full-sized truck. On the maps it’s named Unnamed Road). The time was 10am exactly.

{Yes, keep going. See this and believe. Yes.}

I had walked so far it felt like the endless upward climb would never end. Temps were cool with a slight breeze but I was sweating hard: nothing unusual for my 96.9 degree body temperature. However, I was getting more winded with each passing minute, stopping frequently to rest, sometimes to sit down until my racing heart slowed to less than a dull machinegun pace.

The time I sat down and fell backwards onto my pack I asked Him what I didn’t want to ask: should I keep going. The {Yes, keep going} came in less than 2 seconds as a flash of text from my camera. I tried to visualize ‘no’ and couldn’t. Yet I couldn’t just blindly continue fighting my way along. I asked how {See this and believe.} and saw the most amazing vision with eyes closed: a river’s short fall upward and over rocks. It turned out to be exactly what I saw later at the bottom of the falls but flowing in the correct direction. I had never seen Massi Falls even remotely resembling that vision and still haven’t, even from my own perspective, regardless of the impossible nature of water cascading upward.

I was surprised I asked the next question and more surprised at the answer to “Can I die here today?” {Yes.} A quiet storm of questions drown my mind in an endless whirlpool of curiousity. I shut my mind down as fast as it could be refocuse,’ opening my eyes did that nicely. I saw the first of many clear creeks or streams, this one flowing under the trail seeming to indicate it was around longer than spring snow runoff and a pipe was placed to allow it to pass silently below. I took about 15 minutes to get the camera ready to shoot it correctly. The previous 14 were an exercise in embarrassing frustration I’m happy nobody witnessed. One of the slow shutter shots is in Red Bubble.

I re-hefted the camera pack but keep the tripod in my right hand and fixed into a monopod design. It became my walking stick.

He wasn’t even wearing a shirt over his shorts and tennis shoes but he was steadily talking on his cell phone. As he got closer my resolve wavered and I interrupted his call to ask, “How much further up this trail do I have to climb to even get NEAR Massi Falls?" He quite cheerfully paused his chat and told me he’d just spent 3 hours at the falls and shots dozens of pictures with his modest cell phone. The guy was thin but not skinny, young but not youthful, eager to encourage me but not giving me some ‘rah, rah!’ pitch. He said his resolve wavered on the climb as well but he passed an 80-year old woman who was coming back down. She told him it was beautiful and worth every bit of the effort. Her enthusiasm rejuvenated him as his did me but I wanted more details because I was neither mid20’s nor past 4 score years. ‘How far? How high? Is there anything I need to know?’ He took a look at my D90 and said he got fantastic shots with his cell phone so he was certain I’d get phenomenal images from my professional gear. I thanked him and checked my cell coverage. One got GPS and a detailed map of the trail. The other got nothing by Verison Wireless’ free emergency call service, tho I could have used their service for some obscene rate if I wanted to call home and hear the new owner of my old phone number. But this guy was chatting to a friend about what he saw, he didn’t look like a swimmer or suntaned, and he was nowhere near tired.

I did note the times I had between climbs were getting shorter. I noted I needed water and drank it. I also noted I wasn’t overheating to the point of heat exhaustion, much less sunstroke. During an extended rest I asked again.

{Yes, keep going. Here’s what you will see to get there. Yes.}

Eyes closed and praying, not for help or salvation. Not for redemption either. I prayed to ask what I should do. I could turn back, stop, or go forward…

Honestly, I can’t remember what I saw that time, if anything. I know it neither frightened nor surprised me this time. The last answer He gave was to my inquiry ‘will I make it to the end?’ I started picking out tiny milestones within sight of the last rest stop. Each one was a goal where I would reward myself with more minutes of rest. I didn’t quite make it to the last two. Didn’t matter by then. I was going to fight uphill until I made it.

I staggered and almost did a facial in the dirt when I came upon snow on the path. I looked at it as a trapper would following game. ‘These are bootprints leading forward. They are the size of my own feet. They never push deeper than 6 inches into the crusted snow. The rivulet of water running under the snow is to my right; I need to avoid stepping thru the snow into cold water. Follow the footprints.’

The 3rd patch of snow wasn’t so good even tho I followed the footprints. I sunk deeper than before on two occasions but not deep enough to wet my ankles thru my socks above my lowtop walking boots. Certainly not deep enough to warn me I wouldn’t make it back the same way once the sun had softened the snow later in the day. Turned out I was correct on all counts yet it didn’t make the slightest difference.

{You are here.}

I almost laughed because it reminded me of “You have arrived” when my GPS tells me I have driven over the destination. And seconds later I was over the last rise, the sound of water much louder than the wind higher up in the trees than I could feel. My feeling of exhilaration may have lead to a decision I only now see as a mistake: I looked towards thousands of yards of smooth rock. Only a river could make that. It was to my right about 80 degrees and a trail led directly from where I was to where I wanted to go. This trail was smaller but no more than 50 feet long, completely straight. I looked at my watch, checked the sun. It was 12:45pm. I was appalled. I’d used the better part of 3 hours hiking, climbing approximately 600 feet at an elevation of 5000 plus feet. (I only now plotted the elevation using the Android’s GSP with Google Navigation/Maps and Google Earth. Didn’t matter tho: the resolution on all three is minimal at best. But I was certain I wasn’t higher than 2000 feet).

I drank more bottled water even tho I wasn’t thirsty and started across.

{It is beautiful} Oh yeah!

Here’s another mistake seen only in hindsight days later. Maybe 15 or 20 small bits of snow runoff crisscrossed the shelf and most took their time about it once the going got flat. They created either wide pools, stagnant ponds, or running water. Finding a place to cross most of it was a challenge and I had to do it with one camera strapped on, the tripod in hand, and the backpack perched on my back. A few were shallow and slow enough to simply walk thru without getting feet wet. Some were fast and deep but most of those were also skinny, easy to jump over. A couple had piles of three rocks next to them, the universal sign of a hiker passing before you. As long as you know which piles go together, you can use them like breadcrumbs to guide you both forward and back. If you don’t know, you can follow them in a circle forever. (When I got out of the forest and back to where the car was parked, I was told there were different coloured flags hanging off the trees, also marking the trail… more like a trail. I couldn’t tell what colour was what and none of them were looking anything I’d walked by on the way in). I didn’t pile my own rocks nor did I mark where other rocks were. I used my Android smart phone to ‘find my parked car’: leave a very firm GPS location for use on the way out. Funny about GPS signals. They work one second and don’t the next. In other words I can find my way out of the forest right now while the signal stays strong but just like in the mountains, a great signal can be worthless in 10 seconds. I knew that but I also knew I had phone signal the entire way from home to 2000 feet. More on that in a bit. Still with me? :-)

Two fairly hard stream crossings and I saw what obviously had to be the falls. It made a sound that was deafening even to me, water not cascading over rocks so much as water propelled into space and crash landing on them below. Water that was shot horizontally into boulders on the opposite side, bouncing off in every other direction before gravity dropped it in the midst of chaos below. More water moving faster than I’ve ever seen, including sitting by the Yuba River at its noisiest. This was more akin to using a firehose than a pitcher: white foam started before the top of the falls and it stayed white 80% of the way to the end of the main part fall. The air at the top of the falls was sometimes completely opaque with spray. The flow was so hard and fast I never caught a glimpse of the giant boulders that comprised the steps for maybe 100 feet. (I’ll have to look that one up because there was no way for me to judge size when something is huge, not right next to me, and has a changing height).

The sun hitting this created a whiteout as complete as a blizzard’s snow. When light clouds came overhead, the falls was simply a glaring, angry and wet paperclip bent out of shape with no definition of light and shadow whatsoever. When a rare dark cloud passed (as in the shot above), blocking all of the direct sunlight, you had a chance to shoot this beast as quickly as you could to beat the inevitable return of unmitigated illumination. That bottom 20% of the main falls provided some spectacular views, ones that are surely stunning all the way down Massi Falls when it isn’t running at flood stage. I take that back. With all the flat surface between the forest and the current river channel, this river had to have flowed 20 times wider for eons. If one could get out of the way of that, you might see a more even ”top” of a massive falls a half mile across. Maybe someone did. Maybe something grazed amidst the trees while its back was turned to the largest falls in Western North America.

Next time I’m up there I’ll ask God but He and I both know the punchline to that joke: “Never”.

I shot for less than two hours and used Nikons D80 & D90. I also did a movie clip with my Android before turning back at least 4 hours of good daylight and a long downhill walk that couldn’t take half the time it took to go uphill. Yet, after two hours of non-strenuous activity, I almost passed out climbing no more than 5 feet over the course of 50 feet. With people all around me (At least 10 or so were at the falls) and multiple teams hiking, some to the snowy summit in shorts and t-shirts, I set out on a wide and well maintained trail into nowhere.

This is the end of part one. Part two will be written and included with one of the future Massi Falls images. I didn’t delete them when I got home. I was pretty sure I would. Then again, I was prepared to die.

Artwork Comments

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