7.22.2010

Hike09: Half Dome (Part 1)

4AM is early.  Even when you know you need to get up, it's early.  Even when you're excited for the day ahead, it's early.  Damn early.  Bleary-eyed doesn't quite grasp the visual of the two of us stumbling around a dark, unfamiliar cabin at that hour.  Yet we still managed to get our pre-packed gear into the car.


No McMuffin stop would be available this morning, so we made our own breakfast sandwiches the prior night--easy to heat quickly right before running out the door.  An hour after rising we were in the car driving to the trailhead about 40 minutes down a curvy mountain park road that at times (thanks to construction) became gravel.   As we reached the trailhead parking, our first moment of concern hit us.  The roadblocked lot was full--ALREADY!--at quarter to 6AM.  We U-turned and found a spot along a road half a mile away. With this minor glitch, we'd already extended our journey by a mile before taking a single step.

We left the car and started our bonus road hike to the trailhead (Elevation 4093).  There were plenty of people out and about.  Judging by the sizes (or lack) of packs, some were clearly embarking on much longer treks with others just on a morning stroll.  We found the Happy Isles trailhead and stopped for a bathroom break and confirmed to each other a plan that had been decided a few days earlier.

Liz wasn't going to summit today.  A couple nights earlier she re-stressed the ever-troubling hip in Mammoth.  It sucked.  The disappointment was overbearing but after a long conversation, we couldn't talk ourselves into making it a realistic option. So the plan was Liz would hike to the top of Nevada Fall and hang out there and in Little Yosemite Valley while I continued on the second half of the hike.  We knew her part of the trek would be no walk in the park...it's quite the climb itself so getting there would still be an accomplishment--but resting for a few hours would give her hip time to relax without stressing it into any danger zone.   She brought a journal and a book to pass the time--not that the views and nature couldn't cut it alone.  Did I say a "few" hours?  Heh...well, more on that later.


Off we went, up the trail--or path at this point as the first mile is paved.  Paved might sound nice in theory but I'd almost rather walk up steep dirt over steep pavement.  You can dig into dirt and earth with each step.  (I didn't say loose talus--that stuff blows.)   Apparently it was paved for access well before I was born, although pushing someone in a wheelchair up this hill would be a nightmare. 


The sheer glacier carved cliffs around us looked gorgeous at this hour with long shadows and a very early morning yellow hue painting the walls.  Didn't see many animals but heard a symphony of various birds making sure the world knew they were awake.




We climbed along the edge of the Merced river for a mile that felt like two until a break point came at a bridge (elevation 4464) down river from 350 ft Vernal Fall.   A great place for a breather, this bridge is probably the stopping point for a good number of people exploring this corner of Yosemite valley.  




At this hour though, no one around us seemed to be up for such a short trip.  (From experience with my parents when they visit, I'm sure a few east coast early birds who hadn't adjusted to the time difference were in the mix too.  "It's 9AM, my time!")  



Across the bridge is the last potable water on the trail.  I refilled my water bottle--14 miles of hiking remained between now and when we'd reach the water again.  We--of course--used the bathroom and started up the Mist Trail.  The pavement ended and before we knew what was happening we were walking up a trail of constructed steps along the edge of a granite cliff with a raging river below and a massive waterfall ahead.



A little side bar---we originally planned to hike a day earlier on our first full day in the park, but Yosemite valley was a scorching 98!!!! degrees.  Zoinks, that's hot (and it felt it.)  So we spent the day checking out sites that didn't require strenuous effort and had a few afternoon drinks at the Ahwahnee hotel bar.  It wasn't supposed to be quite as hot today, but 90 or a bit more wasn't out of the question.  The higher country where we'd be mid-day is about 10 degrees cooler, so a bit more manageable.  This day started out cool.  As we started this section of the trail around 7AM it couldn't have been more than 65 degrees with a crisp breeze helping to make it feel even cooler than that.  They call it the Mist Trail for a reason as we very quickly discovered.

Before you have a chance to see the fall up close, you hear the roar and shortly after that the moisture starts to dance on your skin.  We took a moment to secure and seal our bags (including cameras--sorry for the lack of images on this section).  We had a few cheap ponchos with us but decided not to bother.  I thought it'd be a better plan to store my long sleeve in the bag and let my t-shirt (not cotton, thank god) get wet.  How wet could we get?



It should be called the monsoon trail.  After rounding a corner near the base of the falls the onslaught of drenching begins.  The rock steps are soaked.  Pools of water are everywhere.  We. Got. Wet.

At a halfway point, a little rock outcrop provides a bit of shelter.  We were both shivering worse than an alleycat in a hurricane.  On we forged through the second half and, as if turned off by magic, the waterfall rain comes to an abrupt end.  After a hundred or so mercifully bone-dry steps, we reached the top of Vernal Fall (Elevation 5062). Glorious.



Looking back down on the mist trail...





We took a short snack and camera break and plowed ahead. Still climbing, the grade wasn't too severe...calm before the storm of sorts.  By the time we got to the Silver Apron Bridge (elevation 5204) to carry us back over the Merced below Nevada Fall, we had completely dried off thanks to the rising and warming sun.  It wasn't yet what I'd call hot, but the sun--now rising above the ridges--was strong.  I put on my lightweight long sleeve for cover and protection.  (Today was the first time I'd worn long sleeves on a hot weather hike). Liz already had hers on.



As we got closer to Nevada Fall a bit of mist filled the air, but now being on the opposite side of the river, it was just a minor cooling vs the drenching earlier. After a short section we were out of the wet breeze--but caught an impressive double rainbow in the mist cloud.  This guy would have loved it.  







The next section carried us up a steep stretch of granite switchbacking steps up the cliff's edge next to Nevada Fall.  There was a lot of stop-and-go up this breathless section until we eventually huffed over the final ledge up to level ground.   A short 1/4 mile detour took us over to a fantastic view from the top of Nevada Fall and then we headed back to the trail to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley where there's a campground and plenty of open space.  







The campground was about a mile up the trail and the elevation gain isn't too severe.  Unfortunately the gain was condensed over the first 1/4 mile...so Liz's hip pain and exhaustion started to catch up. She told me to go on knowing that I needed to keep a good pace.  We kissed goodbye and off I went--expecting to see her again in a few hours.   (A few....riiiiiight.)






Approaching Little Yosemite Valley (elevation 6095), I passed a mule pack going the other direction.  I stepped aside as 10-15 mules with three riders passed me with a dusty wake.  I always wondered how they transported supplies up to the remote ranger stations and campgrounds.  And there was the answer, marching right by.  I stopped at the last bathroom on the trail.  The ranger was unloading toilet paper that I assumed were just delivered by the mule pack.  I'd never seen so much TP at a toilet.  Inside there must have been 25 rolls with another several dozen stowed in a riser up above.  And I was in only one room of this big four-seat composting commode.  Guess those deliveries don't come daily.



Back to the trail I went and just as I was about to begin the last 3.5 steep miles to half dome--lo-and-behold--there was Liz, approaching the campground behind a few slow hikers.  I smiled.  The chance for an additional goodbye was nice.  We kissed again.  "See you in a few hours for real this time," I said.  "Be safe and careful," she replied.  I nodded. "A few hours. If I'm not here, I'll be at the top of Nevada Fall."  And with that I was off.  I checked my phone....no signal.  She better be there when I get back. Doesn't look like I'll be able to call...or text...or anything.  The clock on my phone said 10AM.  Few hours?  We threw around 1PM as a possibility.  I said let's plan on 2.   


I wouldn't see Liz again for over six hours.  Did I just ruin the cliffhanger?   Or did I just tease the intensity that remains? 


Hiked so far...almost 6 miles up 2,000 feet.
Left til the summit....almost 3 miles and another 2,800 feet.
And then the fun hike down.

To be continued....




The adventure continues... Check out part 2 here.