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219. Half Dome (07/01/01)

Hikers (9): Cynthia, Eugene, Jean, Miwako, Peter, Russ, Steve, Taylor, Wei-Kai
Distance: 16 miles
Rating: 5 difficulty, 10 beauty
Park info: Yosemite National Park

Write-up by Peter -- Pictures by Steve

As always, the highlight of any Yosemite trip is the hike up the mighty Half Dome. This was my third attempt at going all the way, and I was confident that I would finally be able to overcome my fear of heights and make it to the top.

We woke up early and dragged our tired butts out of bed. The cabins had been very hot and stuffy, so none of us had had a good night's sleep (Rusty's snoring had not helped matters). We groggily ate breakfast in the cafeteria, then headed to the store to pick up supplies for the trail. A few minutes later, we were on the shuttle bus to the trailhead at the Happy Isles Campground. Rusty and Jean had missed the bus, but they were both veterans of this hike, so we knew they'd be OK and we'd see them on the trail at some point.

1, 2, 3, ... INCH!

The morning air was nice and cool as we set out. In contrast to other hikes, there's usually not a lot of chit-chatting amongst the group on this one. Maybe it's because it's so early in the morning and people are sleepy, maybe it's because people know this is a tough hike and they're saving their energy, maybe it's because there's little extra focus and everyone's in the zone, maybe it's just the extra nervousness (at least for me) ... I don't know what it is, but it just feels different from all the rest.

The first leg up to Vernal Falls seemed a lot quicker than usual and we were there in two shakes of a lamb's tail without even breaking a sweat. We were in the zone today! The front four (Steve, Taylor, Cynthia, and myself) waited for the rest of the group to catch up, and then we continued on.

Unlike other trips, everyone decided to avoid the Mist Trail and head up to Nevada Falls on the longer, but less steep John Muir Trail. We began working our way up the switchbacks. By now, the sun had come out from behind the early morning clouds and things were starting to warm up. Eugene, Weikai, and Miwako started to slow down, but everyone kept going.

The front four made it all the way to the falls without stopping. We were on a roll! We stopped at the falls for a few minutes to take a couple of pictures, admire the view, and give the others time to catch up. Steve walked over to the overlook at the edge of the falls and dared me to join him. I was feeling cocky, so I practically ran over there. My confidence was short-lived. As I approached the edge, my knees turned to jello, my throat went completely dry, and I started to feel queasy. This was not a good omen. I was starting to shake like a leaf. Despite holding on to the railing drilled into the rock with one hand and Steve's elbow with the other, I could not look straight down and realized that it was time to beat a hasty retreat.

The view from Nevada Falls (it's much scarier in person!)

Back on safer ground, I began to gather myself. I sat under a small tree near the bridge and took a few deep breaths. I could see the mighty granite dome looming up overhead and I knew I would need to do better than this in order to make it up. I sat there a little longer until the fear finally subsided. By this time, the others (except Rusty and Jean) had showed up, so we all headed out together.

The next couple of miles were straightforward, comprising the flattest portion of the whole hike, and providing the softest footing (much appreciated). After this, we began heading up through the next set of switchbacks and the group began to spread out. As expected, Esty was out in front with a growing lead on the rest of us. Taylor and Cynthia were up ahead of me. I could see Eugene behind me, and I knew Weikai and Miwako were not too far away.

This portion is always a butt-kicker. I was exhausted by the time I made it to the marker showing Half Dome was two miles away. Even worse, my back was getting pretty sore because of all the water I was carrying. I had to stop and rest. I sat on a fallen tree trunk, gasping for air. I could see Taylor and Cynthia had stopped too. This hike was not going to be as easy as I had hoped.

The next mile and a half took forever, with all of us needing multiple breaks. My backpack felt heavier with each step and I was really hurting now. Did I mention that we hike for fun? I decided to stop taking little breaks and forced myself to keep going by promising myself that I would take a long break at the foot of the granite steps instead.

It took forever, but I finally made it. I flopped down on the ground under a big tree. I was hungry, but too tired to eat. I really just wanted to sleep there forever. I sat there motionless for about 10 minutes until Taylor and Cynthia showed up. After drinking some more water, I managed to summon up the energy to force down a mushy sandwich. A few minutes later, Eugene showed up.

After we had all sufficiently recovered, we picked ourselves up and began to prepare for the assault. I stashed a bottle of water under a tree in order to lighten my load. Onward!

As we began heading up the granite steps, I kept telling myself to not look up or down or to the side and just focus on the few steps in front of me. I even kept my dark shades on to act as blinders. The strategy worked. I found myself heading up the steps with virtually no problem. People had told me that this was the worst part, and it didn't seem so bad. Could this be the day???

A little way up, I saw Taylor sitting on the ground, frozen with fear. Uh-oh. I wanted to stop and comfort her, but I was afraid that if I did so, I would freeze up myself. I decided to lead by example. If she could see that I was able to make it, there's no way she couldn't do it too. By the way, I had bet Esty 20 bucks that Taylor would make it all the way this time. Go, baby!

Further up, the steps ended and it was just smooth granite from here on up. This is the part Taylor had warned me about, but for some reason, I was not scared. I even turned around and looked down. No problem! Bring it on! I could see Taylor had started walking up now, so she had also overcome her fear.

I kept going up ... this was nowhere near as bad as I had feared. I did slip a couple of times, but I was nowhere near the edge, so it was not a problem. I did appreciate the good grip of my hiking boots on the smooth granite. I was making good time, and had almost caught up to Eugene (he had headed out before me). He was surprised to see me up there! Before too long, I was at the top, overlooking the saddle that led over to the cables.

I stopped to catch my breath. The saddle made me a little nervous as it was not very wide and had sheer drops on both sides. This was not a good place to slip! I slowly made my way across it and touched the legendary cables. Eugene had already begun his climb up was calling out to me to hurry up. I knew he was trying to encourage me, but this was making me very nervous. I yelled out to him to shut up and leave me alone (drawing some strange looks from people).

Looking up, I could see him struggling up the cables, and I was concerned that I would freeze halfway up. I backtracked across the saddle and sat down to ponder what to do. The smart thing to do would have been to not think about it and just go for it, like the granite steps, but it was too late. The damage had been done. As they say, he who hesitates is lost.

Looking up the cables

By this time, Cynthia had made it up and also tried to give me encouragement, but I had already chickened out. Disappointed, I began to make my way down the rock. I stopped a couple of times and thought about turning back up, but just could not bring myself to do it. I decided to go down and see how Taylor was doing and maybe come back up with her.

I made it all the way back down to the top of steps, but did not run into Taylor. Had she turned back too? I saw Weikai and Miwako, but they had not seen Taylor either. Very strange. The three of us sat there for a while, trying to decide what to do. Weikai was very tired (he told me he had almost fainted earlier) and Miwako did not want to go on much further either. Since she was wearing sneakers without much grip, I did not think it was a good idea for her to attempt the granite slope anyway, so it was probably a wise decision.

I figured Taylor had probably turned back and somehow missed Weikai and Miwako on the trail. At this point, trying to go back up was not an option for me any longer. The three of us headed down the steps together. Weikai and Miwako stopped to rest for a while in the open area at the foot of the steps, but I wanted to find Taylor so I picked up the bottle of water I had stashed under the bush and headed out.

One of the marmot critters that lives at the top

Steve's on top of the world!

Looking down the cables

About half a mile down the trail, I met up with Rusty and Jean. The Man had cut off his sleeves and was wearing a bandana! He looked quite swashbuckling. All that was missing was the eyepatch and dagger (and maybe a parrot on his shoulder). Arrrrrrrr! Surprisingly, he seemed quite keen to turn back, but Jean talked him into going on. It was already mid-afternoon, so they would have to hurry in order to make it back before dark. I said goodbye and continued on.

I stumbled back down through the switchbacks. My back pain was getting worse, but I did not want to stop until I had caught up with Taylor. My knees and feet were starting to ache too. I'm just too damn old to be doing this stuff! After an eternity, I emerged back out onto the flat portion that leads to Nevada Falls. The footing here is much more forgiving (almost like walking along a sandy beach in spots), so I was a lot happier. I took off my backpack and carried it in my hands.

Back at Nevada Falls, there was still no sign of Taylor. I thought she must have taken the Mist Trail back down, so I would probably not be able to catch her. I needed to take a break. I threw down my backpack, peeled off my boots and socks, lay down on the warm rock, and submerged my swollen feet into the icy water. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh! That felt so good! The only thing missing was a nice cold beer.

Side view of Nevada Falls

I stayed in that position for a long time. I just wanted to lie there forever, but I knew it was time to go. Just as I was starting to head out, Weikai and Miwako showed up and also decided to ice down their tired feet. I waited for them to take their break, and then the three of us headed back down the John Muir Trail.

I wanted to ease the impact on my knees, so I was going down pretty slowly. I encouraged Weikai and Miwako to go ahead of me, so Weikai took the lead and he and Miwako forged ahead. They stopped a couple of times along the way, enabling me to catch up to them.

We kept walking and walking and walking .... something did not seem right. We should have been at Vernal Falls by now. I was pretty sure that I had heard the sound of the falls a while ago, but things were quiet now and the terrain had flattened out. This was definitely not the right trail. I figured that we had missed the turnoff and had taken an alternate route down to the valley floor and would eventually end up in the right place if we stayed on this trail, but the sun was going down (it was about 6 pm) and I did not want to be on a strange trail after dark.

I called out to Miwako and Weikai to turn back. Weikai did not think we should turn back, but Miwako managed to convince him that I was right. Reluctantly, we turned around and started heading back up the hill. I was out of water by now, and starting to feel very thirsty, but I knew there was a tap at Vernal Falls.

We backtracked for about a mile, and then I saw the turnoff. Thank God! We were back on familiar trail again. A few minutes later, we were at the falls. I made a beeline for the tap and started gulping down large amounts of water. I also found a map, and figured out where we had gone wrong. The trail we had taken down was the stock (horse) trail. If we had just kept going, we would have ended up at Happy Isles. Damn!

Well, after that extra 2-mile side trip, we finally got on the right trail and headed back down to the trailhead. The damn shuttle bus pulled away just as I got there, so I had to sit and wait a while for the next one. By the time the next one arrived, Esty and Cynthia had made it back down and we all rode back together in a nice cool air conditioned bus. I'm sure our stinkiness grossed out the rest of the passengers, but we were just too tired to care.

I found out from Steve that Taylor had made it all the way to the top and he'd had to cough up the 20 bucks. In fact, she and Eugene had taken the short way down and were already back at the cabin. Good job, baby! I still have no idea how she made it up without crossing paths with me, but some things are better left unanswered.

Rusty and Jean didn't make it back until about 10 o'clock (we even asked the ranger about sending out a search party, but he said there was nothing they could do until the morning). I was afraid The Man would freak out in the dark but he was cool as a cucumber (good thing they had a flashlight).

In summary, despite all the pain and suffering it was a great hike, but I was disappointed that I didn't go all the way. I really think that I could have done it and I guarantee I will do it next time -- you have it in writing!

Peter's 160th leaf

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