On December 9, 1976, hundreds of feet above the bone white monoliths and green forested troughs of Yosemite National Park, a federal crime was going horribly wrong. A twin-engine Howard 500 plane hurtled towards the earth. Inside were two Vietnam veterans, 1,500 pounds of high octane aviation fuel, and 6,000 pounds of smuggled Mexican red-haired weed destined for Washington State. The plane shattered through the winter ice covering of Lower Merced Pass Lake, a six acre puddle too insignificant to show up on the official park maps. Forty-pound bales of cannabis tumbled upward from the submerged hold. Wrapped in plastic and burlap sacks marked “Frijol” (Beans), an emerald treasure bobbed just below the frozen surface, waiting for whomever had the gear, know-how, and motivation to seek it.
Far below in the valley, a group of penniless, soon-to-be treasure hunters slept soundly next to their well worn climbing gear in canvas tents and bear caves. None of them could have dreamt that they were about to enter both climbing and weed history.
The Dirtbags of Camp 4
Since the end of World War II, a loose collection of broke outdoor lovers known as “Valley Rats” or “Dirtbags” had lived illegally and freely at Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley. They explored the trails, climbed its granite walls, swam in its lakes, and scrounged leftover food from its trash cans and restaurants. Adversarial park rangers would sometimes chase the Dirtbags off of Camp 4, so they’d live in the bear caves behind the tourist lodging before returning. As rock climbing took off in the 1970’s, the Dirtbag population swelled. This was climbing’s “Stonemaster” era, where free-climbing was born and hundreds of first ascents of now famous routes such as the Dawn Wall were achieved.
These early scavengers of the climbing world got stoned on whatever was around, ate whatever they could scrounge, and climbed with whatever gear they could afford. That is, until they learned of a big score floating in a tiny lake just 18 miles away off the Mono Meadows trail. The weed floating in “Dope Lake” would change the sport of climbing.
“Dope Lake” is Discovered
On January 25th, 1977, two waiters at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee hotel set off for an overnight snowshoeing trip. Two drought years meant low snow levels, allowing them to adventure far into the backcountry. From a high ridge above Lower Merced Pass Lake, one spotted an airplane wing suspended between two trees. They reported their find to the park rangers, who sent out their highly trained, armed “Danger Rangers” to investigate. They were quickly joined by four other federal agencies including the DEA and Customs, who’d been tracking this smuggling plane for years.
Over a week of search and rescue, they hauled 2,000 pounds of soggy, frozen weed from the lake.
The evidence was stored in the park’s jail cell, where it leaked spinach-green water across the cement floor, then through the ceiling of offices below. However, the lake was too icy and murky to recover the bodies, the plane, or the rest of the cargo. A winter storm was rolling in that was expected to shut down the backcountry for months, so recovery efforts were paused and the lake was abandoned. The lake’s next visitors would arrive in a much less “official” capacity, on a search and rescue — for thousands of dollars worth of weed.
A Green Gold Mine
There are several stories as to how news of Dope Lake arrived at Camp 4, either by overhearing park ranger radio chatter, the pilot’s lawyer clueing in the climbers, or some Dirtbags discovering the burlap sacks on a cross-country skiing trip. Either way, word got out at Camp 4 and dollar signs lit up their eyes. They collected their gear, as many backpacks as they could carry, and set out on the 18 mile hike up to the isolated Upper Merced Pass Lake, or as they’d know it for the next few months, Dope Lake.
At first, the Dirtbags were hacking away at the frozen surface with ice axes, but soon began using chainsaws stolen from the park service. An assembly line formed, with one person cutting, one removing the block of ice, and one fishing in the icy water for the bale using their hands, bent metal aircraft debris, or whatever they could find. A trail of discarded clothes led from the lake, discarded from backpacks to make more room for weed. At its height, about 20 of the Dirtbags were mining the lake frequently.
The weed had been wrapped in plastic, but water and jet fuel had found its way in. The Dirtbags had to dry out the soggy, diesel-tinged weed beneath sun lamps or by sunning it on rocks, but then it was ready for sale. Around the park, it was known as “Airplane” or “Crash Buds.” It was incredibly harsh, and had the tendency to sizzle, pop, or flare up when the airplane fuel soaked into the bud ignited. This led to some singed eyebrows and burnt faces. But it was still weed and it was the 1970’s. Quality mattered, but not nearly as much as availability. Once the park was saturated with bud, excess weed was driven out to the coast and money came flowing back.
Word began to spread both inside and outside the park of this bonanza. Park rangers noticed the formerly broke Dirtbags’ used cars, new gear, and massive tips at the Ahwahnee Hotel. There was an uptick of visitors in the off season and increased traffic heading into Mono Meadows. Rental shop owners were calling in, curious why suddenly everyone was so interested in diving equipment. But it was all about to come to an end.
The End of Dope Lake
On April 13th, 1977, known as Big Wednesday, six “Danger Rangers” descended in a Huey helicopter. The “mining camp” around the lake grabbed their gear and scattered. Two rangers stayed behind to set up a perimeter. Dope Lake was finished. Only two Dirtbags were ever arrested, but charges were dropped due to a legal technicality. Besides the two drug smugglers, everyone involved in Dope Lake got off scot free. The plane and bodies were recovered in the June thaw.
Weed and Climbing
In the end, one climber involved estimates that the Dirtbags removed 10,000 pounds of weed from Dope Lake, or 5 tons. Some Dirtbags came away with $20,000 in profit, which is over 6 figures in today's money. Most of the money was spent freely on climbing trips to Europe and other adventures, but other Dirtbags used it to change their futures. The money bought new gear and new homes. One used it for college, another bought a camera and became a professional nature photographer, and a third founded his own climbing gear company. According to the documentary Valley Uprising, which touches on the Dope Lake story, the money that flowed into Camp 4 helped to push the sport of climbing forward. From the depths of a small, hidden lake briefly brimming with bags of weed, the sport of climbing was able to reach new highs.
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