Hike09: Half Dome (Part 2)

Did you miss part one of this adventure? Check it out here.

It was starting to get seriously warm. Thankfully relief came from shade created by the biggest trees I'd see the entire hike. Beyond that, the next section wasn't particularly interesting compared to other sights on this hike. No waterfalls. No cliffs. No rocks. Just a walk through the forest. Well...a walk up through the forest.

I had a decent a pace going--passing small groups along the way. It was great! I'd be back to Liz in no time. The decent pace turned into a poorly planned one when the heat caught up with me on a sunny stretch about a mile up. My tongue could have been out panting for all I know. I took a seat, drank a few big gulps of water (still had 3L left, so far, so good), and continued just a wee bit slower.

I eventually reached a trail junction. The John Muir trail continued straight--only 200 miles or so to Mt. Whitney! I opted for the other way....

For the 8th time Mr. Sign, I don't need a permit on a Tuesday. But thank you, AGAIN, for the reminder. And what happens if after hiking 7 miles you notice this sign for the first time? "Oh forgot the permits, honey! Let me just run back to the car!" Maybe 'Don't LOSE your permit' would make for a better message at this point. With that word 'forget', it's almost as if Mr. Sign is laughing at the poor saps.

Walking on, things were much as they had been since I'd last seen Liz. More forest. More up. I saw a gathering of people on the side of the trail a mile or so from the summit. Turns out this is the last place to find water on the hike. This is how all those super athletic types carrying a single water bottle make it. Reminds me to take a sip. My bottle is almost out. Off comes my pack. Ahhhhhh. That felt nice.

I look at the "spring". It reminds me of the bubbling mudpot water hole from Survivor Africa. One guy has this filter pump contraption sucking precious liquid into his camelback. It's gross. I fumble with my bag as members of the Water Filter Clique ignore me. Out comes one of my untapped 1.5L arrowhead bottles. I transfer liquid into my drinking bottle, secretly wanting them to be jealous of my unmudded water. That feeling vanishes when I pick up my back again. Uhhhhg. Oh great, now they ALL look at me. Yes, I did make a grunting sound. I think I'll be hiking now. I continue up the hill secretly wishing I had a filter pump and less cargo. See what happened there?

The switchbacks ended as the trail made a straight, steady climb up through the last bit of forest. Is this the hard part? I stopped for a breather 2 or 3 or 10 times.

"You're almost there!" Oh good. Thank you! I smile. A couple hundred more yards and I still don't see "there". The panting picks up again. And another breather.

Again I hear..."You're almost there!" Yay! I want to be almost there! Another couple hundred yards...what the...

Yet again...this time from a man as old as my grandfather who looks like he just stepped out of a cabin for the first time today...."You're almost there!" "FRACK YOU, OLD MAN!"

But then finally, through the trees....there it is....

Here the trail left thick forest and wrapped up and over a broad granite ridge. Is this the much fabled sub-dome climb? The old man said I was close. But it was way too easy. Hmmm. In any case it gifted me the first fully breathtaking altitude view of the hike. A nice strong breeze also helped cancel the hot sun for the first time since leaving Liz. After a short and unchallenging climb past this scenic viewpoint the trail became fairly flat--weaving through a handful of scattered pine trees.

And then I hit a wall...

800 steps on the face of the sub-dome were all that remained between me and the half-dome cables. Eight. Hundred. Steps. In the sun. With no shade. Some small. Some a foot high. Deep breath. Time for energy beans.

I back-tracked to the last shaded area before the steps. It looked like the camp of broken dreams. Small groups of people napping--waiting for friends and family who continued on. Others chatting. A few seemed a bit impatient as they wondered aloud where their people were. I thought of Liz. I hoped she was OK. About 90 minutes had passed since I last saw her.

With the trees and the curve of the trail, you don't see the view in the image above until you've already climbed a few steps. It was amusing watching people make the 180. As I started to climb the steps, I actually heard a "Oh, hells no!"

"Oh, hells yes, sir. Oh, hells yes."

I took my time. Everyone did. Not that it was possible to progress too quickly. Precarious footing, exhaustion, and stand-aside pauses for those coming down kept things slow. Fortunately, I got to see this each time I took a breather break...

When I finally stepped up onto the top of the sub-dome I stopped in awe of the final challenge ahead. I'm sure I looked like a frozen jackass with my mouth open.

I composed myself and convinced someone to document the moment...

Yes, it really is as steep as it looks. That's not an optical illusion.  

A very disgusting pile of used gloves is available at the bottom for those who neglected to bring their own. The long armed dish gloves are my favorite. Who packs dish gloves for something like this? I guess it's better than bare hands, but still.

In case you thought holding on to metal anchored into rock on one of the highest points in the area during a thunder storm was a good idea...

I didn't end up taking out a camera while hanging for my life on the traffic-jammed walk up...so this is the last shot before the summit. That's a lot of people. And none of them were moving. The problem is that there's barely enough space for one person to pass through each set of poles. Factor in those coming down and the packs most people were wearing and it's a tight squeeze. When someone going up freaks out and can't move--or more likely--becomes totally and completely exhausted, there's no way to go around. You just have to wait. Everyone has to wait.

It was almost exactly noon when I touched the cable for the first time. Feels like 5:30 rush on the 405 with a jackknifed tractor trailer. Would have been nice to arrive earlier, but what can you do? Well, wait. You can wait. The climb gets really steep really fast and before long you're figuring out the best way to stand to conserve energy between short bursts when the pack moves. I tried the side stand. I tried the lean forward. I tried the two hands on one cable. I tried the stand backwards. None of it works. It's not easy to hold yourself up on a 45 degree rock face. Making matters more frustrating are the occasional superstars who think they're special and show off by climbing up the outside of the cables. To return to our freeway analogy, it's the jackass in the Escalade speeding past traffic in the break down lane. Yes, I know that's legal in MA, but this highway has no guardrail.

I noticed gaps between people higher up the cables. Why aren't those people moving!? Oh wait....I see.... Stand on one of the wood planks between the poles and wait before you can advance to the next one. Much better..for a minute.

The higher you climb, the steeper it gets. What was an easier technique closer to the bottom becomes a downright single option necessity by halfway up. Even with the rickety pieces of wood to stand on, it's insanely tiring as the strength needed to pull myself to the next pole become increasingly difficult to find.

At a few spots you climb over ledges in the otherwise smooth rock.

About 75% of the way up, I hit empty. I did not have the gas to move another step. Just my luck...some large person higher up was having a 100% freak out. Thank god (for me, not her). I closed my eyes and tried to draw energy from somewhere in my body to make this final stretch. Deep breath.

Rat tat tata tatat tat tat rrrat tata tat tat...

I open my eyes. A water bottle bounces down the dome along the edge of the cables. It hits a bump in the granite and flies away from us--rolling very fast to the sheer face of half dome and then....it was gone. Somewhere, almost 5,000 feet below, there must be a big pile of water bottles. I thought back to the people climbing up outside the cables. Is that what happens to a body that falls? Gulp. Another big breath. And off I go...

It's clear ahead. Non-stop. Pull. Pull. Pull. Gasping for air. Gasping. Pulling. It's leveling out! Finally! I made it! Yay! Ugh! Tired! Heart attack! No, I'm just being dramatic. Tired. Never been this spent. I stumble through the pair of poles and through the points where the cables bolt into the granite. I lean on a rock and ignore the majestic beauty around me to let my body catch up to my heart beat. Or is it vice versa? My head is spinning. I have no idea.

In a few minutes I felt normal again. I checked the time--1PM. An hour just to get up the cables. Yikes. I don't think I'll be back by 2.

And then it hit me. I made it!

Time to explore. This is what I saw...

Looking east...

Looking down into Yosemite Valley to the west. Just left of center is El Capitan. Yosemite Fall can be seen in the distance center right. The rounded formation on the center left is Glacier Point.

We drove up to Glacier Point (7.214 ft) the day before hiking. Here's a reverse angle... Rock climbers go up the sheer face. While sitting for a snack break, I watched a few climb up over the ledge. It took them about six hours to make the climb...so just a wee bit faster than me.

Again facing west but behind the Diving Board. Apparently the big thing to do is climb out to the very edge for the super dramatic photo almost 5000 feet above the valley floor. I'll get mine when Liz and I complete the trek together next time.

A clearer view to the east. The high point nearly touching the clouds on the top right is appropriately named Cloud's Rest (9,926 ft). Somewhere in the mess of rock in the far left is an overlook on Tioga Road called Olmsted Point.

We drove Tioga Road into Yosemite two days earlier. Here's the reverse view from the 8300 ft overlook--just a bit lower than the Half Dome summit. This gives a better angle of the sub-dome in the foreground than the Glacier Point perspective. From where we parked for our hike to this overlook, it's almost 40 miles. By hot air balloon it's probably less than ten.

The summit was much broader than I expected.

I wonder...who was the first person to stack rocks for absolutely no reason on the top of a mountain? If I Godzilla this tower, would the rocks be stacked up again tomorrow? But what if the stacker is up here now? I could be tossed over the ledge if I'm caught. Better just leave it be.

There wasn't much vegetation at the top but these wildflowers found a way to creep through a crack in the granite.

A better view of Upper Yosemite Fall...

After what felt like minutes, an hour had passed. Too easy to get sucked in. But I didn't need any more time. I had the chance to take it all in from all sides. I walked around a bit. I zoned out a bit. I had a few snacks. Liz was waiting. I needed to go. From the top it looked like traffic might have eased a bit...

Yeah...no. Not the case at all. Traffic was just as suck. Going down however, is a billion times easier than going up. At one point when I was stopped, a caravan of highly prepared Asian kids went down on the outside of the cables. They used this double carabiner technique to lock in and clip around the poles--never fully disconnecting from the cable. And they moved with this perfect precision....lock on, lock off, lock on, lock off, lock on, lock off. There were six or seven of them in a line and it was an almost zen-like contrast to the show-off assholes going up. I didn't see a tumbling bottle disaster in their future.

I passed an interesting college-aged couple going up. He was waring shorts and no shirt. Whatever. She was decked out in a full late 70's/early 80's red, white and blue bikini with some sort of bright colored headband. We were all logjammed at the same point and the guy in front of me asked if she was Danish. He said she sounded like she had an accent. I didn't hear one and she was borderline offended. "I'm American! What Dutch girl wears a patriotic bikini!?" I wanted to ask 'who dresses like an extra from a Sugar Ray video for a 17 mile hike?' but kept that one to myself since the clog was starting to clear.

After passing the Retro Beach Team, it was smooth sailing . 3PM now. These hours are falling off fast. And I still had at least 4 miles to Liz. It started with a stretch across the sub-dome and then back to the 800 steps down.

The sub-dome is much of the same going down. It's hard to pass people. The footing is tough. And if you don't like heights, you're screwed since there's no where to look but down.

After the sub-dome, I book it down the 3 miles of wooded trail that gave me heartburn going up--past the muddy watering hole, past the John Muir Trail junction. I picked it up to a jog in some places. Felt nice to let gravity pull me down. They say it's terrible for your knees but I didn't care...hopping around slow pokes with excuse-me and pardon-me yells half a dozen times. I had someone waiting for me, afterall.

On this section, a girl with a clipboard who I assumed to be a National Park Foundation volunteer was sitting on a boulder next to the trail--keeping notes on who was coming and going. 550 people had walked past her so far--already more than the 500 limit on the friday-sunday permit days. No wonder there was traffic on the cables. Last year they saw over 1200/day on a holiday weekend. Yikes. I couldn't even imagine. Looks like Mr. Sign might have value every day next season if they start requiring permits daily.

I hiked back into Little Yosemite Valley excited to see Liz again...only she wasn't there. No one was there. Hmmm....

Well...there was this deer...

I hiked another mile to the top of Nevada Fall...what would I do if Liz wasn't waiting. It was nearly 4PM at this point...six hours after I last saw her. Did something happen? Is she OK? Could she have walked back to the car?

I rounded a corner and there she was. Smiling and well rested.

I apologized for taking so long. And we shared tales of our adventures. For Liz that involved hanging out by the waterfall, writing, calling her mother--yes her phone worked--I looked at my brand new iPhone4 and saw that there continued to be no signal. She had tried to text me multiple times. I never received a single one. Odd.

At that we started the journey back down to our car, moving pretty fast the whole way. Liz annoyed an older woman who refused to let us pass and a family with six kids that walked at a snail's pace through the pouring rainy chaos below Vernal Fall.

With a mile to go on the last section of pavement to the trailhead, we looked like battle-worn refuges compared to the cleanly dressed families, elderly couples and running children scampering about. Liz's poles clanked the pavement with each step--drawing strange stares by those who were confused by the idea that people actually go hiking in a National Park.

Finally...we touched ground on the valley floor...

Our ride was still almost a mile away--a long, slog of a mile. The closed parking lot from the morning was now open and mostly empty. We reached the car at 6PM--12 hours after starting. According to the pedometer I had walked about 19 miles and I felt it. The car looked like an oasis--our chariot to a hot shower, a hot meal and a soft bed. As we loaded up, a couple passing us on bikes yelled over, "How was it?"

"Awesome. Perfect. Exhausting."