Berkeley parks

Can a climber help “restore” Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley?

On a sunny November morning, Lucho Rivera tiptoed along the edge of a granite bluff towering 1,800 feet above the flat, indigo surface of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. He checked that a pair of steel bolts he had driven into rock years before to anchor the climbing ropes were still intact. Then he and his fiancée Mecia Serafino set up their camp a few steps from the precipice for a weekend of climbing.

“We used to sleep on the edge, but we ended up backing up a bit,” Rivera said. “I’m not much of a sleepwalker but I wouldn’t want to start here.”

Rivera, a 41-year-old climber who grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco, has established dozens of expert-level climbing routes in this neglected part of Yosemite National Park for nearly 20 years. That makes him something of an anomaly in the climbing community, which for generations has focused its energy on the wealthier walls of Yosemite Valley to the south.

For nearly 100 years, since being dammed and flooded to provide a stable supply of drinking water to San Francisco residents, Hetch Hetchy Valley has been off-limits to campers, boaters, and anglers, and only accessible to visitors to a day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Only about 1% of the approximately 4.5 million annual visitors to Yosemite set foot in this area of ​​the park. Apart from a small parking lot for day use and a single path along the edge of the reservoir, infrastructure is scarce. There is no lodge, restaurant or gift shop.

But Rivera is one of a small group of intrepid climbers who have, at one point or another, favored climbing there as a more solitary and exploratory experience.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Mecia Serafino climb to the top of a granite wall above Wapama Falls on the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle

“It’s the MO of climbers with this place: let’s keep it to ourselves. Which is cool, and that’s part of what attracted me here. But I’ve changed my mind over the years, ”he said.

Rivera wants to open her eyes even more to Hetch Hetchy’s potential as a leisure destination. To that end, he and Serafino, a 41-year-old mountaineer from San Francisco, recently joined the board of directors of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a Berkeley nonprofit with a singular mission: to persuade the powers that be. to drain the valley and reopen it to visitors. In the scenario they propose, thirsty San Franciscans would not notice a change, as the reservoir water (up to 117 billion gallons at capacity) would be moved to downstream storage facilities. There is no cost estimate for such an idea.

It’s a radical proposition, and while it stirs the imaginations of enthusiastic outdoor enthusiasts opening up a new slice of the landscape to explore, it hasn’t gained much traction.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Timmy O'Neill explore the granite walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for a film project.  They hope to publicize a proposal to drain the tank and

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Timmy O’Neill explore the granite walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for a film project. They hope to raise public awareness of a proposal to drain the reservoir and “restore” the valley to its former wilderness state.

Chris Burkard / Restore Hetch Hetchy

Voters in San Francisco categorically rejected a 2012 election measure to remove the dam and empty the reservoir. A lawsuit brought against the city by Restore Hetch Hetchy was dismissed by the California Supreme Court in 2018. The San Francisco Utilities Commission, which manages the reservoir’s hydraulic infrastructure with the National Park Service, strongly denies that the concept either feasible or appropriate and says it could jeopardize a key source of drinking water.

“It was a bad idea in 2012, when voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly rejected it,” said John Coté, director of communications for the SFPUC. “It’s always a bad idea.”

But the setbacks have not dampened the enthusiasm of those who view Hetch Hetchy as a sunken natural treasure in need of a revival.

“We can fix this,” Serafino said. “How cool would it be to see this place in its natural state?” “

Hetch Hetchy was once a Sierra Valley with granite cliffs towering above.
Hetch Hetchy was once a Sierra Valley with granite cliffs towering above.Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle


Rivera and Serafino joined Restore Hetch Hetchy at a pivotal time for the organization. Following the group’s failures to force change through the ballot box and through the courts, public interest in the overall concept waned.

“Ultimately, we have to generate more political support for this,” said Spreck Rosekrans, executive director of the group. “We are about 20 years old and the dam is still there.

A spokesperson for Yosemite National Park said staff members “understand and respect” the Rosekrans group, but the park does not have the authority to green light such a proposal. The park works with the SFPUC to preserve water quality and protect the dam.

Today, the leaders of Restore Hetch Hetchy are rethinking their strategy and their message. Rosekrans wishes to clarify the group’s mission statement by specifying what a “restored” valley would look like. Would that include cycle paths? Hiking trails? Parking spaces? Hotel? Rosekrans had initially hoped to avoid fleshing out such details before gaining membership, but these are the kinds of questions people keep asking. No one wants to see another Yosemite Valley, overrun with crowds and choked with traffic.

At the heart of the group’s efforts is the attraction of a core of younger and diverse urban activists. This is where Rivera and Serafino come in. Rosekrans said he believes they could be important messengers for a rising generation of voters and activists.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Mecia Serafino climb to the top of a granite wall above Wapama Falls on the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Mecia Serafino climb to the top of a granite wall above Wapama Falls on the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle

“We’ve talked for a long time about the fact that our board is a bit too smooth – old, white,” Rosekrans said. “We really want Hetch Hetchy to be a more demographic place than the national parks have been. These people will have different views on what the restoration should look like. “

“Mecia and I have our ideas on how to expand their audience,” Rivera said. Like reaching out to members of the Bay Area’s growing gym climber community. He admits: “It will take time.

Rosekrans is also working to highlight Hetch Hetchy as a viable destination for visitors today. He’s working with park employees to extend gate hours, improve signage along Highway 120, and add campsites.

If more people visited the place, Rosekrans said, they could be drawn to support his cause.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Timmy O'Neill explore the granite walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for a film project.  They hope to publicize a proposal to drain the tank and

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Timmy O’Neill explore the granite walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for a film project. They hope to raise public awareness of a proposal to drain the reservoir and “restore” the valley to its former wilderness state.

Chris Burkard / Restore Hetch Hetchy


To demonstrate the beauty and possibilities of Hetch Hetchy, Rosekrans’s group commissioned a film crew to shoot a rock climbing film last spring on Hetch Hetchy Dome, a prominent feature above the tank. In the film, Rivera leads famous climber Timmy O’Neill on his first route through the valley and the two bivouac for the night halfway up the rock face on a portaledge, a suspended platform.

Like many climbers, O’Neill scaled the cliffs of Yosemite Valley for decades, but had never left Highway 120 towards Hetch Hetchy.

“For me, it has always been synonymous with the lost land,” he said.

In Yosemite Valley, visitors can easily get to the bases of its spectacular granite walls, park and hike, or start their climbs. At Hetch Hetchy, approaching a given part of the canyon involves its more strenuous rim trail. Plus, O’Neill said, the limited hours of operation hamper access.

“It’s a huge obstacle,” he said. “It’s very strange.”

Climbers Timmy O'Neill (left) and Lucho Rivera peer down the face of a granite wall in the Hetch Hetchy Valley from a portaledge overlooking the reservoir.

Climbers Timmy O’Neill (left) and Lucho Rivera peer down the face of a granite wall in the Hetch Hetchy Valley from a portaledge overlooking the reservoir.

James Q. Martin / Restore Hetch Hetchy

The film, which is around 12 minutes long, is due out on Restore Hetch Hetchy’s website shortly.

“The idea is to motivate people not only to climb, but also to visit Hetch Hetchy,” Rivera said. “It’s a hard place to get excited about unless you’ve spent time there, like me. “

Reflecting on her countless days hammering Hetch Hetchy granite, Rivera recognized that the roads there could be considered her life’s work. Selfishly, he would like to see more people climb and enjoy them.

“A lot of the roads that I have put in there have fallen into obscurity,” he said. “Of course I want recognition within my climbing community.”

When he imagines a Hetch Hetchy emptied of its water and returned to nature, what does he like to see?

“I always thought it would be cool to keep him totally wild,” Rivera said. “There would be no roads, just trails and a few campgrounds. This is my vision. It’s cool to dream about it and see where it could go one day.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Mecia Serafino climb to the top of a granite wall above Wapama Falls on the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Climbers Lucho Rivera and Mecia Serafino climb to the top of a granite wall above Wapama Falls on the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle

Gregory Thomas is the editor of the lifestyle & outdoor column of the Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas



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