Sunday, September 23, 2007

West Coast Trip - Part II

Whew, finally got around to finishing this...

June 19, 2007

A lazy day walking around San Francisco following the Barbary Coast Trail. We did manage to get over the Haight-Ashbury (what do you mean there is a Gap in the Haight Ashbury!?). Drinks at the Tornado with some amazing sausages from next door. We're tired and head back to Jen & Howard's early to watch TV and pass out.

June 20, 2007

We spent the morning driving to the Tenaya Lodge, just south of Yosemite National Park. Nothing exciting to report. After dinner with the HFD teams from around the US and a meeting with our trail guides, we head to bed. Early.

June 21, 2007

3:00 AM — Yes, that's a wake up call. Oh hell its early. I have to meet the team in the lobby for a departure at 3:30 AM to head into the park. Its an hour long drive to the trail head. A few more hours of sleep would be quite welcome.

Steph's first view of Half Dome from the Panorama Trail
We're on the trailhead at dawn's first light. For this trip we're hiking up the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls and Nevada falls and then meeting the Half Dome trail for the remainder of the outbound leg. The Mist Trail is a steeper ascent than the John Muir Trail, but it shaves off more than a mile of hiking. The first major climb of the day is at Vernal Falls where we ascend a few hundred stone steps to the top of the falls. The trail is pretty steep and one of my teammates was having trouble on this first climb. I handed her a Hammer Gel (energy gel) which she promptly slurped down and kicked her butt back into gear for the rest of the day.

Climbing Nevada Falls

After Vernal Falls the trail continues along the river toward Nevada Falls. More. Stone. Steps. Yuck. The morning is uneventful as we reach the top of the falls, stop a short break at the restrooms and a bit to eat. So far, the views have beeb incredible. As the sun rises higher in the sky and the clouds burn off it turns into a really nice morning. For the next 2 miles or so the trail is on pretty level ground, but it has become quite sandy, making the hiking a little more challenging. We stop at the final "bathroom" of the hike outbound, its little more than some eco-friendly portapotties built in the woods. I'm feeling great and ready to tackle the rest of the hike up to Half Dome.
Or maybe not. 20 minutes more hiking and I'm sick. Wanting to puke on the side of the trail sick. After an extended rest out in the woods, a few hundred feet off the trail I get my shit together and start hiking again. Slowly. John, one of my teammates, and Sam, our guide, walk with me as I slowly get myself back together. I'm not sure why I'm having issues today, but its definitely not making this section of the hike pleasant. As we approach mid-day, the elevation increases and we become more exposed to the sun as the trees thin and we start to get a good view of Half Dome. Holy crap, I can't believe I am about to climb this thing.

Quarter Dome (forground)
Half Dome (background)
Note the people walking up the switchbacks on Quarter Dome

When people discuss hiking Half Dome there are really two things that stand out: The switchbacks up to the top of Quarter Dome and the cables up to the top of Half Dome. The cables were nerve wracking, this is before I even saw them up close. Switchbacks are just something to climb. But I've never seen switchbacks like these. Carved into the side of Quarter Dome, the switchbacks cling to the side of the rock, snaking up above most of the trees, covered in small pieces of granite that has come off Quarter Dome. These little pebbles are like ball bearings under foot. Be careful...

John, coming up the switchbacks
I'm afraid of heights, but I usually manage to keep it under control. Not today. Just climbing the switchbacks, crowded with people in both directions, I was getting nervous. I kept thinking, "How in the hell am I going to manage to climb DOWN this stupid thing?!" Every time I looked back down the stairs toward my teammates I realized how quickly we were ascending. My heart was racing, a combination of altitude — I was at sea level ~24 hours ago and we're hiking at over 8000' MSL — and my own fears being tweaked. Hard. I don't think I'd have been so concerned if I knew and trusted everyone in my general vicinity. But all these strangers moving around me made me nervous... I couldn't wait to get to the top for a quick lunch break before tackling the final climb...

Finally! We get to the top of Quarter Dome, just below the cables and the peak of Half Dome. Hell yeah! Time for food, at least whatever I can force myself to eat. Nothing in the pack is looking good right now, so I stick to a protein shake — I mixed up the powder into a spare Nalgene bottle — and some trail mix. The whole team is here, ready to make the final climb, so we head over to the cables.

HOLY SHIT! There is no way I am climbing up THAT!

The Cables

The line is 100+ people deep to even approach the cables. On the cables there are probably 30 - 40 people climbing up the ~600' to the top of Half Dome. And its taking them each ~1 hour to make the climb, due to the traffic moving up and down. While I previously swore I was going to go it without any safety harness, my fears win out. I strap a harness around my waist to give me a little extra confidence... Of course, the harness is nothing more than some stout rope looped around my waist with a carabiner used to clip on to the cables as I go up the rock.

Unfortunately, the pictures don't really show the cables too well, so let me describe the scene. As you approach the base of the cables you'll see a pair of cables anchored to the granite with ~1 yard between them. Every 10 feet or so there is a pair of poles mounted perpendicular to the rock which supports the cables, holding them ~1 yard off the rock. Spanning between the gap horizontally between the poles is a 2X4 which provides solid footing as you reach each pole. The cable itself is approximately 1/2" in diameter made of twisted steel, much like what you'll see anchoring a telephone pole to the ground. This will hurt your hands if you don't have gloves, so most people climbing Half Dome bring gloves for the final ascent. (Honestly, even with gloves it was a painful experience). Generally people climb up in between the cables, ascending on the right and descending on the left, however, some people choose to climb on the outside of the cables which is reported to have better footing, due to the rock surface not being smoothed as much by people's boots.

Climbing the cables

I've been standing around for an hour or so watching people climb the cables ahead of me. My heart is racing. I've watched too many water bottles, cameras and all kinds of other crap fall from people's packs and bounce down hundreds of feet before falling out of sight and heading into the valley below. Holy shit.

I walk up to the cables and clip my carabiner on the cable. I'll do this another 50+ times each direction. Sam, one of our guides, is directly behind me, urging me on. Did I mention I really don't like heights? The fall off the face of Half Dome is quite a long way down and people have died doing this. In fact, someone died the weekend before. Why do people keep mentioning that?

We start walking up. I'm grabbing the cable with all of my might and trying to find good footing. Standing on the face of this rock, hanging on and trying not to slide downward is actually quite difficult when you may not move for minutes at a time. Especially with people descending the cable directly to my left, brushing past me, bumping backpacks and scaring the crap out of me each time. About 50 feet up the cables I quit. Well, I tried to. I turn back to Sam and tell her that there is no way I can do this. She tells me I can. Damn, if she can do this, so can I. Right? RIGHT? I "nut up" and keep heading up the cables. Every pole that I pass I need to stop and rest. My heart is racing, my adrenaline is pumping and I am starting to feel that we're at almost 9000' abouve sea level, making breathing more difficult than I'm used to. After almost an hour we have climbed the cables and walk on to the top of Half Dome. WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOO!

On Top!
I collapse on top of Half Dome, grab a drink and take a look around me. I don't want to talk to anyone. I just want to look at everything around me and put out of my mind the fact that in less than an hour I'm going to have to do it in reverse as I climb back down. Going up is optional. Going down is mandatory!

After lots of pictures we head down the cables and the switchbacks for the ~10 mile hike back to the trailhead. This par of the hike is uneventful, except for the searing pain in both of my big toes. Every step is painful for the last 4 of 5 miles, and I cannot wait to get back to the hotel. More than 12 hours after we began we return to the trailhead, hop on a bus and head back to Tenaya Lodge.

While I should be hungry, and I am certainly ready to drink to beers I picked up at Russian River a few days earlier, I find that my body refuses to allow me the pleasure of either. A few sips of beer. A few small bites of food. I can't put anything else in my body. Steph forces me to drink a protein shake — almost 20 miles of hiking and I've hardly eaten all day... this is not a good thing — and then we head to bed. Thankfully its over.

In retrospect, this was the dumbest thing I have ever done. Seriously crazy. Stupid. Possibly deadly, although not very likely. Exhausting. Painful.

I can't wait to do it again. When are we going back to Yosemite?

1 comment:

Rick Deutsch said...

Congrats on making it to the top!

A couple clarifying points. The rock climb just before the cables is called Sub Dome, not Quarter Dome. The ascent is actually 425 vertical feet - the cable run is 900' (at 45 degrees). Your home-made harness could kill you. If you suddenly fall it will spin you over and "choke" your gut. Not advised. Only 1 person has ever fallen off the cables when they are up for the summer. One since 1919. And he reportedly had on sneakers and an oversized pack.

Congrats again and I applaud the Hike for Discovery - a great cause.

San Jose
"One best hike: Yosemite's Half Dome"