Quarter Domes North
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It was 1:20a when I cruised through the Yosemite entrance station on SR120, and 2a before I had parked in the JMT lot between Curry Village and Happy Isle. There were actually several other cars I saw active in the valley as I was driving through, including a ranger vehicle exiting the parking lot just as I was entering. If he had any curiosity as to what I was doing at that hour, he didn't show it by coming back to check things out. I was left to my own devices, and was quickly heading east towards Happy Isle.
Near the start of the JMT I noted new signs reminding folks that permits are now required for climbing Half Dome. Of course I didn't have one, but figured I could probably climb it in the early morning hours before a ranger might show up. To be honest, I was ambivalent about the idea since for this trip Half Dome was low on the list of the points I was interested in. There were no other parties found on my way to Happy Isle. Though the park was full with visitors, it was simply too early for most of them. I imagined that in a few short hours the trail would be bristling with activity and was glad to have it all to myself at the moment. It took about 25 minutes to hike the paved trail to the first bridge over the Merced River. Along the way I paused to photograph Glacier Point glowing in the light of a half moon, and the silvery reflection of the river at the bridge. (the photos didn't do the scenes justice). The restrooms on the other side of the bridge had an alluring yellow glow from the lights kept burning through the darkness. The stonework building looked like something from one of Grimm's fairy tales.
It was 3a when I started up the Mist Trail, and shortly after emerging from the forest and onto the beginning of the intricately laid stepwork, I was able to turn off the headlamp and navigate soley by the moon overhead. There was a surprising amount of water flowing over the falls given it was mid-September and there was a fine mist floating around the canyon and making things ever so slightly damp. It was a sublime image and I wished it could have gone on for hours despite the steepness of the climb and the exertion required.
Somewhere between Vernal and Nevada, on the steps leading up near the top of Nevada Fall, I spotted headlamps above me and soon came across a pair of European hikers on their way to Half Dome, presumeably. I startled the female who I had encountered first because I didn't have my headlamp on, though I did get out a "Good Morning!" before I got too close and would likely have made her jump off the trail. Ten minutes later I was at the top of the Mist Trail, encountering another hiker just emerging from the bathroom. From this point on I would run into occasional hikers, most coming from an overnight stay at Little Yosemite Valley or somewhere else higher along the trail.
Another hour passed as I made the gradual climb away from the Merced River, up the north side of the broad canyon. The moon continued to do a fine job of illuminating the terrain, though forest and shadows grew thicker and required some use of the headlamp. By 5a I reached the split of the Half Dome Trail and the JMT. A group of four or five were taking a break just ahead on the Half Dome Trail, but as I turned onto the JMT I didn't pass by them or speak with them. Another small party was shortly coming down the JMT having camped about a quarter mile further up the trail. Many folks were converging on Half Dome from different directions it would seem.
It was still dark out an hour later when the trail began to switchback up the southwest flank of Clouds Rest. I was nearly at the elevation of Half Dome's summit and was suddenly treated to an open view of it from the east. I could see lights moving ever so slowly along the route up its shoulder and the cables, with several lights visible on the summit. It soon after began to grow light out with the coming day. I thought myself somewhat clever for thinking to go to Clouds Rest for sunrise, knowing it to be 1,000ft higher and having it all to myself. When I reached the top just after 6:35a I was only fifteen minutes from sunrise, having timed my arrival well. I went about taking a whole bunch of predawn photos of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, Mt. Hoffmann to the north, Echo Peaks to the northeast, Lyell and Maclure to the southeast and the Clark Range to the south. All of it made for spectacular scenery but I was in for disappointment having hoped to have the place to myself. It didn't occur to me that it would be nearly as popular as Half Dome at this time of day, but it most certainly was. There were a dozen folks there ahead of me, most of them having camped at the summit. They were mostly standing around in small groups, trying to stay warm in the chill air that was hovering in the high 30s, some taking photos and others discussing various topics while waiting for the sun to rise.
First light came to the north where Mts. Hoffmann and Tuolumne received the first rays coming in through Tioga Pass. A minute later sunlight came to Mts. Clark and Gray to the south, followed two minutes later by the sun on Clouds Rest itself. I stayed only a few more minutes before starting off from the summit - I didn't care all that much for the various conversations that were going on and decided to get back to my happy place and my own thoughts by myself again. The trees on the southwest flanks of Clouds Rest were lit up by the sunshine as though on fire in comparison to the gray surroundings that were still in shadow, including Half Dome. Within 15 minutes all of Half Dome was in the sun as the whole park came alive with the new day.
I had planned to head directly to Quarter Domes lower on the way to Half Dome, but my GPS showed another feature named The Pinnacles on my way. Not labeled on the 7.5' topo map, this feature was nonetheless named back in 1907 and had found their way to the database on the GPS. They comprise a pair of pinnacles about a quarter mile from Clouds Rest's summit. There are actually several other shorter pinnacles just east of these two, but they looked less interesting and I concentrated on seeing if I could surmount one or both of the taller ones. The highest was the more formidable one and first in line on the descent. A pile of rocks on the east side allows one to climb most of the way up, but the final 30ft from a small notch were most intimidating and definitely in the class 5 range. As luck would have it, some thin ledges lead out onto the exposed North Face whose slope is less intimidating than that from the notch. Excellent holds, some of them large and juggy, make for a class 3 route up what would otherwise be a frighteningly exposed class 4-5 slab.
I was somewhat sad to find no register - I thought this would be a good place for one with few entries in an otherwise very busy part of Yosemite. Rather than return the way I came, I continued southwest along the top of the pinnacle looking for a more direct way down. More class 3 downclimbing got me to a notch that looked to have ways down on either the north or south side. Exploring first the north side, I found I couldn't negotiate the last 15 feet to safer ground below and had to go back up. The south side looked more promising and I figured it would certainly go with a bit of care and patience. Again I got within about 15 feet of easier terrain but could not see a way to safely make the last distance. So with some frustration but determined not to take unnecessary risk, I climbed back up to the notch for a second time and reversed the route all the way back to the east side of the higher pinnacle.
Traversing around the south side of the east pinnacle I then tackled the easier west pinnacle. Unlike the east one, the west pinnacle had a small cairn at the top. It too, was class 3 though much easier because of the lack of significant exposure. I continued west off the summit where it rolls off in huge slab sheets that have enough gradient to make it most interesting, but not enough to make me fearful of slipping off. The slabs gave way to easier ground lower down, making for a mellow transition to Quarter Domes a short distance further along the ridge.
Quarter Domes were also named by the same E.M. Douglas in 1907. The two features very much resemble their names, both facing out over Tenaya Canyon. They are a trivial class 1-2 hike from the Half Dome Trail and of only modest interest. The highest is the easternmost one, affording a very good view of Upper Tenaya Canyon. Both summits have a good view of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Mt. Watkins, the latter north across the canyon. I visited both summits in succession, found no registers on either, and then continued west towards Half Dome.
I picked up the Half Dome Trail about ten minutes after leaving Quarter Domes, hearing voices and seeing folks through the trees well before I got on the trail. The trail was alive with the crowd making its way to the iconic Half Dome. Though I was only on the trail about a mile, I must have come across at least three dozen hikers. And these were among the early arrivals, those that had gotten up before dark to start from the Valley or camped somewhere along the way higher up. At the base of the shoulder where the travel restriction begins, there was a ranger not only checking permits, but checking them against a list of names she had on a clipboard in front of her. I had thought I might just ask to borrow a permit from one of those already returning, but the Park Service had already considered this scheme and rendered it moot. My interest in climbing Half Dome on this trip was only mild, so I simply left the trail and continued west, heading for the NW Face of Half Dome.
I half expected to hear the ranger call me back to grill me on what I was doing, but she was preoccupied with a short queue of folks waiting to start up and I don't think she even noticed me. Besides, I hadn't done anything wrong, as so far there isn't a permit required to climb on The Slabs. A series of ducks leads one along a use trail that threads its way through the forest, traversing across the slope and against the near-vertical walls of the shoulder and the NW Face. I noticed that there were class 3 options just out of view from the ranger to the west that one might use to gain access to the cable route, illegally of course. As I reached the base of the NW Face and the start of the big wall routes, I came across a number of trash items that had been dropped from above, mostly some plastic water bottles that I stuffed into my pack. Oddly, I found a leather glove that exactly matched the pair I was wearing - and though it had weathered for a year or two and grown quite stiff, it was in better shape than my own. I saved this for future use when mine might need replacing.
I was finally starting on the whole raison d'etre, Ahwiyah Point. From above, the peaklet is not at all visible and most difficult to figure where to start down for it. Luckily the GPS proved most useful in pointing out the direction for that which I could not see, and I left the use trail along the NW Face to start down some easy (at first) bushwhacking. This soon became thicker, slower, and not all that much fun, so I moved right and found easier ground on the east side of the subsidiary ridgeline I was following down to Ahwiyah Point. Less than ten minutes after leaving the use trail I came across a plastic tarp and some rope tied to a tree, looking like a setup for hanging food away from bears. The gear was all quite old and worn and looks to have been there for some years. A couple of old caribiners were attached to the ropes but I was able to retrieve only the one nearest the ground. After this minor distraction I turned to continue down, only to find a stash of even more gear. Someone had set up camp here, enough for many days, but left for some reason and never came back. There were several sleeping bags, more tarps, several bags of clothes, several bear canisters filled with slowly rotting foods as well as non-perishables, a portable stove, fuel, tent, bags of rope, a pair of climbing shoes, a couple dozen carabiners, helmet, reading material and smoking equipment. The ropes were old and stiff and there was no expensive gear such as cams to be found among the cache. Evidently it was stuff that someone didn't mind leaving and didn't care enough to come back for it. One of the T-shirts put the lower limit on the age at 1996, but I'd guess the stuff had been abandoned somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago. I took the helmet and carabiners for booty which was about all that my pack could carry anyway. The stove appeared to be in good working order and some of the other gear might still be usable, but I'll leave that for future treasure hunters.
Below the cache the scrambling suddenly became much more difficult, class 3 bushwhacking down steeper slopes leading to the notch just south of Ahwiyah Point. It took almost half an hour to negotiate these last few hundred yards, carefully making my way over some slabs, using brush for holds and trying not to slip in this isolated area where few might think to look for me. I was at the notch by 10:50a, the highpoint now visible in the sunshine. It took only ten minutes to make the final climb, but it was far from trivial. Most of the route was along granite blocks and slabs, some terribly exposed as they drop off to Tenaya Canyon far below. At one place where I debating which way to go, I noticed what looked like an arrow constructed of small stones on the ledge I was occupying. I went that way, but ended up confronting a rounded knife-edge that could have been negotiated with some difficulty, but didn't need to be. From my perch I could see the rest of the alternate way and it looked much easier on knobby slabs and less vertical terrain. So I went back down to take the other way. The arrow, I concluded, was of natural origins.
There was a small cairn of stones atop the highest boulder on Ahwiyah Point. I walked out along the ridge heading northeast where the views were better to the canyon below. In addition to fine views of Tenaya Canyon to the east and Yosemite Valley to the west, there is a grand view of Half Dome's NW Face behind me and North Dome / Basket Dome on the opposite side of the canyon. Again, no register to be found. I returned to the notch and started looking for an alternate way to return to the use trail on The Slabs.
I certainly didn't want to head up via the way I came as much of that would be even harder with gravity working against me. A sloping, very brushy ledge led horizontally across a cliff area towards the NW Face, and it was this I settled on. It may have been possible to drop down more directly off the west side of the notch, but I was afraid I was going to find large cliff sections at the bottom for my trouble. The safer route I took was by no means easy - lush, green, and very thick bushes and plants made things slippery in places and very slow overall, but at least it worked. By 11:45 I was back on the use trail and almost immediately came across a couple of packs near a tent with two sleeping bags inside. This stuff was obviously fresh so I left it undisturbed. It was at the base of the standard route up the NW Face and though I could see some rap slings above me, I saw no signs and heard no sounds of climbers on the route.
I continued down The Slabs, noting that the massive rockfall that had blasted the route earlier in the year had left visible signs, but did not alter the route significantly. The use trail sections either survived or were slightly rerouted to make it once again usable. About halfway down I heard voices and soon spied a climber using one of the fixed ropes to traverse across a steep slab section. The braid of trail I followed led down to another pair of fixed ropes on the west side of this glacial cirque. I descended the rope hand over hand, thankful to have the gloves that grew warm with the friction of the rope sliding through them. At the bottom of the rope I noted the ropes on the east side that the other climbers had used, along with another just to the right of middle that I recall having used in the past. If coming from below, I believe the middle rope is the least technical, but brushiest option. The left or east side rope is the next best, climbing a class 3-4 crack section before transistioning to easier ground, followed by the rope traverse I had seen the other climber on. The right, or west side rope is the most difficult, but once at the top it is an easy use trail the rest of the way.
Continuing down I could hear voices coming from far below and see a few folks playing in Tenaya Creek. The use trail led to the lower, easier pair of ropes just before reaching the talus/boulder field below. I descended these in the same manner, then down through the last steep section before emerging on the talus. By 1p I was back on the trail near Mirror Lake, once again in the midst of civilization with many people on the trail and around the river on a very warm Sunday afternoon. I followed the trail west and then southwest to Happy Isle, and before 2p I was back the JMT parking lot. The outing ended up coming in at less than 12hrs, a very comfortable number without the extra exhaustion I'd had on the previous outing. A very fine day indeed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Clouds Rest
This page last updated: Wed May 1 17:14:15 2013
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