Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Half Dome hike at Yosemite

My girlfriend and I spent three days with her father and brother in a camper in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Mammoth, Calif. Her father is an experienced outdoorsman who asked us to pick our activities upon arrival. We hiked to the modest waterfall near our campsite, visited a vacant bear den, watched a couple movies, drove to the many mile-high lakes and more impressive falls, observed a boiling hot creek from an elevated cliff and hiked into the snowy-bottomed San Andreas fault and one of its dark caves.

All this sounds post-your-pictures worthy, but none of it compared to what we barely accomplished on our last full day in the Sierras.

"We could hike Half Dome at Yosemite," her dad suggested on our first day in the mountains. "But I'm not going to lie to you; it's an intense, 12-to-14 hour hike."

My girlfriend and I glanced at each other for less than a second. "Sure."

I had never heard of Half Dome since it is a continent away from where I live, so I judged it as easy. It was not even a whole dome by name. I should have researched Half Dome on my phone after my blind consent for reasons you will learn. Here are two of the least compelling reasons: The Half Dome hike is 8.6 miles one-way with a 4,800-foot ascent.

"We'll have to get rolling at 5 a.m." he said. We did exactly that 36 hours later. The truck ride to the hike's launching point lasted a bit more than two hours. We slept most of the way.

The first part of the hike was a steep, paved trail along a whitewater. My girlfriend struggled with altitude after a matter of minutes. I was worried. We stopped for a snack break at a bathroom with running water and drinking fountains. Energized and optimistic, we chose to start on a set of mountain switchbacks instead of taking the shorter but steeper Mist Trail, a path that sprayed mist onto hikers from the majestic Vernal and Nevada Falls.

Park officials had posted sad reminders of three hikers' deaths from one week earlier around the bathrooms. The hikers took the Mist Trail and swam between the two falls in the Merced River, which had unusually dangerous currents because of extensive winter snowfall. They went over Vernal Fall.

Despite our more distant approach to the top of the higher Nevada Fall, we still got a great view at the end of several switchbacks. Here is one of them.

Here is another looking down from the top of Nevada Fall.

The trail eased into a flat, sandy path after the top of the fall until we reached a sign that advised hikers on bear encounters. The bears that inhabit Yosemite and most of the 48 states are black bears, the kind you would most like to have visit your campsite. Black bears are only interested in hikers and campers for the food they carry or store. A mother black bear is also mean if you get near her cub. Besides these instances, they would rather avoid the hassle of a human encounter. Hikers are supposed to hold hands and act ferocious if they see a black bear. I was not worried about bears, but I should have been worried about something else.

The hike's incline increased until we reached the base of a rock dome just below Half Dome. Several hikers on their way down told us the smaller rock dome's stone steps were the hardest part of the hike. We were woefully behind pace to make it back to the truck with daylight, so we had to decide whether we would continue to the summit or safely retreat.

"I am not going this far without making it to the top," my girlfriend said. I agreed.

The steps themselves were not difficult for me, but I did feel afraid of height for the first time in my life. The steps were secure enough, but a dehydrated hiker could easily slip and slide down the smooth rock face for hundreds of feet on either side. My girlfriend lost her breath in the middle of this smaller dome, but we were fortunate to sit and collect ourselves for a few minutes before reaching the base of Half Dome.

Seeing the final 400-foot rock climb in a glance was more terrifying than gratifying. The summit was deemed impossible in the 1870s. Somebody must have hiked it because the park drilled two lines of poles into the rock dome and threaded parallel cables through these poles so that lay hikers could use four contact points during their ascent. Traffic between the cables always goes both ways, so hikers' lives depend on communicating with each other. Many hikers get this close only to turn around because of height, steepness and traffic. Not seeing this arrangement until I was there was a mistake.

I would have turned around like so many do, but the descending hikers insisted the cable ascent was easier than the stair climb. So up I went with my girlfriend 15 feet in front of me.

This final climb up Half Dome is squeezed on either side by a 4,800-foot drop to the Yosemite Valley floor. I wisely decided not to look and kept my eyes directed at my feet and hands. I figured I could not fall if I moved one limb at a time and avoided panic. I missed a right-hand reach for a cable but maintained my balance. I waited a few minutes to collect myself and continued to the top. I laughed at myself for thinking an hour before that I could focus on my girlfriend's progress in addition to my own.

I felt lucky to be at the top for a spectacular view but unlucky to have to go back down. Half Dome is named for the way it looks. Those who reach the summit can crawl to the edge and stare straight down to the valley nearly a mile below. I would have tried to capture that image, but either my phone or myself might have gone over the edge.

Our summit rest was short because we wanted to cover as much ground in daylight as possible. I quickly discerned that descending the Half Dome cables was almost twice as difficult as ascending them. I chose to go with my ass facing the valley floor. My girlfriend followed me in similar fashion. I thought I would warn her of cracks and other rock oddities before she reached them, but I quickly found that I needed to handle myself.

My shoes were not fit for the descent. Instead of firmly placing my toes into the rock, my shoes helplessly slid down Half Dome while my knuckles whitened with importance. My girlfriend saw this but maintained her composure for me. I rested on the two-by-fours that connected each pair of poles between each shoe slide. I prayed a little.

"Try leaning back a little and using your arms more," she suggested. Leaning back did not sound like a healthy choice, but I trusted her. I stood more perpendicular to the rock instead of leaning into it and pulled hard on the cables. My shoes stopped sliding. My fear of heights might be talking, but she might have saved my life.

The hike down the stone steps was easy. We knew we needed to hurry to use the daylight. We leapfrogged back and forth with a man and his young son who had climbed the cables ahead of us. Darkness fell when we reached the top of Nevada Fall. We waited for the man and his son to get better numbers. Using two flashlights and two headlights, our group of six followed the beaten switchback path looking for bears, cliff edges and misplaced rocks in no particular order.

We made it back with nothing worse than sore knees and blisters. The man's wife was waiting for us with SUV headlights shining. We had almost agreed that one of us would ride in the family's SUV to our truck and return to pick up the other three when the man's wife interrupted us.

"The ranger and I saw a bear walk in my headlights across the road."

So in we piled, the man's son in his lap and my girlfriend in mine. A vehicle transfer, one missed turn and two hours later, we arrived back to our camp at 4 a.m.

We are proud we hiked Half Dome. We will never hike Half Dome again.

Note: Yosemite reports that "relatively few" people have fallen from the cables and died since 1919. Most deaths occur during or after inclement weather when the rock face is wet. Californian Hayley LaFlamme fell from the cables and died on the day I started writing this post, Aug. 1, 2011, less than one week after my own Half Dome hike. Four have died on the Half Dome rock climb since 2006.

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