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previously climbed Sat, Aug 1, 1998|
later climbed Fri, Feb 25, 2000
Half Dome is a strong magnet for visitors to Yosemite Valley. It is the most recognized and photographed landmark in the whole park (and possibly in all of the Sierra), visible from almost everywhere in Yosemite Valley. The trail from Happy Isle to the top of Half Dome is a long one. It's about 8 miles one-way, and 5000 feet vertically to the top, a tough hike indeed. It's also quite busy. On any summer day there are hundreds of hikers on the trail, most of them going to view Vernal and Nevada falls on the lower half of the trail. Still, many make the day-long trek to the top and back which for most is probably the hardest hike they will do in their lives. Why? Because it's Half Dome. It was the first Sierra peak I climbed back in 1985, and the only one I've repeated, going back twice since then. The last time was only a year ago in 1998, and I got on top early enough to have the top to myself. The views are outstanding and a peek down the North Face is unforgettable.
This time around, the plan was to take an entirely different route to the top. By way of Mirror Lake, one can climb up from the north side over class 3-4 rock, boulders, and scree to the base of the immense North Face, and then up to the east shoulder where the route meets up with the established Half Dome trail. The trick was going to be in the route finding, as it's described in the literature as class 3 to class 4-5 depending on who's describing it. The general plan was to climb up this alternative route and then free climb the last 500 feet to the summit just to the side of the cable route using our ropes and gear. I was particularly looking forward to this last part of the climb as it afforded extra coolness points to be able to brag we got to the top without using the cables.
I woke up at 7:30a in our tent cabin at Curry Village. John, Monty, and brother Tom were still soundly sleeping. It was going to be a long day, and I wanted to get as much daylight in as we could. I'd have gotten up earlier, but I was still tired from our adventure to Mt. Starr King the day before. It was going to be tough getting Tom and Monty up, as they had joined me on the hike the day before, and did not look at all like they were ready to have another go at it out there. I tried to make some excessive noise as I got up and dressed, but mostly I just got a few grunts back from under the covers. To give them a little more time to sleep, I figured I could go out and rack up the gear, which would take a little while and keep me out of their hair.
I came back about 30 minutes later figuring they'd had enough sleep. I roused them out of bed, and fortunately there was only a little grumbling this time, easily overcome. As they dressed and packed, I took the keys back to the reservation desk. By now the grocery store was open for business and we raided it for breakfast snacks and drinks. We then loaded Monty's car and drove it to the main Curry parking lot in the apple orchard where Tom's and John's cars were parked. My older brother Ron had considered joining us, but as usual he was pretty wishy-washy about saying he'd be there, and I really didn't expect he'd show up. So I was rather surprised when he drove in and found us finishing our preparations in the lot around 8:30a. He had brought neither climbing shoes nor harness, even though we had told him to do so. Oh well, we could make a harness from webbing we had with us, and he'd just have to struggle a bit more with the hiking shoes. It was another half-hour before we had finished our preparations and got off 9a.
Heading from the parking lot to Mirror Lake, there were five of us now. We brought two ropes and a bunch of climbing gear, split more or less evenly between three packs that John, Monty, and myself were carrying. Being the least experienced with the ropes, we left Tom and Ron to carry just their fanny packs which would be considerably easier when we got to the climbing portion. We followed the trail on the southeast side of Tenaya Creek for a mile or so through the oak and pine forest. Much of the area shows the scars from the torrential floods that came through a few years earlier. A series of warm storms caused a great deal of rain in early January, melting much of the snowpack and causing severe flooding (there was widespread flooding all over the Sierra and the Central Valley as a result). The bridge at the end of this trail had been wiped out and had yet to be rebuilt. Massive timbers were stranded high on the banks, evidence of how high the waters had risen. A great deal of rock and sand had been brought down from higher elevations and spread out all over the Mirror Lake (really Mirror Meadow - I've yet to ever see a lake here) area, widening the river banks and leaving tree branches and trunks intermixed with the sand and rock in a jumbled fashion.
It wasn't clear where we needed to head right, off the trail and towards Half Dome. I was hoping there was some sort of obvious use trail, but all we could see were rocks and shrubs and a whole lot of bushwhacking off to that side. I figured we should head for the center of the North Face, hoping that we could get a good vantage point from which to pick our route. We weren't really looking for a rock climbing route, we just wanted to take the easiest way up we could find and brought the rope along to cover contingencies. I'd have been happy to keep the ropes in the packs until we got to the cables, where I expected the exciting part to start. Ah, the excitement was but a short ways off, as it turned out.
We left the trail and headed up a dry side creek bed, and pushed our way through the scrub and oak until we came to a clearing that gave us a clear view of Half Dome towering almost 5,000 feet above us. The actual face of Half Dome is only something like 2,000 feet, so we had nearly 3,000 feet of climbing just to get to the base of the face. It was this 3,000 feet that had been described as an "interesting route", and piqued my interest to give it a go. To the left and right of center, there were trees and bushes that seemed to offer routes leading up to the center section just under the face. Up the middle was a series of ledges and rock walls that looked tougher, but possibly offering some fun rock climbing opportunities. Looking at the tree route to the far left a little closer, it appeared more difficult than it had first appeared. The far right route was hidden by trees somewhat, and it was unclear as to the difficulties we might find there. Feeling brave and confident, we decided instead to head right up the middle. There was a gully at the bottom that seemed to offer easier going class 2-3 climbing that might take us up a good part of the way.
We headed off in single file up to the gully. As we got closer, it wasn't really much of a gully, but did offer us a start. Once we got off the last of the loose rock and onto the more solid granite we very quickly got a taste of what we were in for. The climbing was harder than it had looked, starting off with class 3 and within 20 yards there were some scarier moves that were more like class 4. Tom was the least comfortable on this rock despite (or maybe because of) his introduction to climbing the day before on Starr King. Ron and I climbed ahead to see if the way got more or less difficult, and found that it got worse before it got better. John was uneasy about having my two brothers with no training along, and possibly even more uncomfortable with me leading the way. We were quickly getting stuck, and to the casual observer, it wasn't at all obvious we knew what we were doing. There was much discussion, which soon led to the decision to break out the ropes. I would set up an anchor on a tree near where Ron stood, and belay the others over to a ledge to our right where we could regroup.
It seemed like such an easy, simple plan. The tree was a short squatty oak, branches low and spread all about. As I hunched under it and was attempting to loop some webbing around it, I became acutely aware of swarms of red ants that appeared out of nowhere to ambush me. After a few bites I quickly retreated from under the tree, brushing the ants off as fast as I could without tripping down the rock face. The others were amused for a short time, but then sobered when they realized they would have to sit in place awhile longer while I tried to find a new spot to set up an anchor. I climbed around above the others to the left of the tree looking for something I could get protection into, but it was all loose rock that wouldn't hold much of anything. Monty and Tom were getting uncomfortable sitting there, while John was beginning to believe this whole thing was a mistake. Frustrated, I had to admit that my current search for an anchor position was not panning out. It seemed the only place available was the tree. It took another 15 minutes to go back to the tree and fight the ants for a few inches of their tree branches. I have rarely seen so many ants in my life, and never this many red ones. Almost as soon as I had tied the webbing around a branch, the ants started climbing down the webbing towards the harness where I had attached it. I don't know if they were really that intelligent to figure out how to take advantage of this direct line to myself that I had created, or whether it was the sheer numbers of them that allowed them to quickly try all possible routes at random. They were all over my pack as I pulled gear out, as well as on my hat and shirt that was brushing up against the tree. I was convinced I was going to be eaten alive.
My mind raced as I tried to make sure I set up everything safely but quickly to keep the monsters from overwhelming me. I thought that perhaps my suffering would make my companions complain less about their own predicament, so I didn't hold back my screams when the carnivores bit into me. I decided I would not survive under the tree while I belayed the three below me (Ron was above the tree watching on, as amused as the others), so I needed a new plan. I used my belay device to lower myself down and out from the tree and over halfway towards the wide ledge that we were targeting to bring everyone to. I found a decent position from which I could belay them over on a traverse from where they were. I took a few minutes to shake as many of the ants off as I could and to regain my composure. It had been a near panic under there and I was feeling much better now that I could relax some and pay attention to the climbing. I belayed the others over to the ledge, collecting the rope and tossing it back with each crossing. Ron came over last, untying the tree anchor and bringing my pack which had been left under the tree. I dreaded the thought of how many ants would be inside when I opened it. By the time we were all safely collected on the ledge, over an hour had passed since we had started on the solid rock. And we were only about 30 yards above the boulder field below.
Taking a break, we discussed things in a more relaxed atmosphere. It looked like we had a bit of rope work ahead of us so we took the time to organize ourselves better. We decided to set up two ropes, two of us on the first, three on the second. Being the weakest, it was a no-brainer to put Tom in the middle of the three-person rope. I wanted to lead one rope and John decided he would lead the other. It seemed best to put Ron (with no climbing experience) as second on the two-person rope, as it would be trouble to have two novices on one rope. Not wanting to make John uncomfortable leading with Ron on belay, I teamed up with Ron while Monty and John hooked up with Tom. The last decision was which rope should go first. It seemed best to have my rope go first since it could move faster with only two people. Ron and I could then leave the protection in place to make it easier for John's team to follow behind us. We all felt much better after this discussion as it at least gave us the illusion of being organized and in charge of the situation.
The hardest part of the first pitch was making the first few moves to get off the ledge. Moving up to the right I was encouraged when I found an old piton and ring in a crack at my feet. I clipped into it right away, but found I couldn't make forward progress. The crack had muck and grass covering it as it went up, and the grass ripped out as I tried to grasp it to pull myself up. After a few minutes of looking around, I unclipped and came back down to the others. I went up by another crack to the left, which put me at the crux of the pitch about ten feet from the others. I put in a piece of protection before attempting the move (maybe 5.6?) which required me to bring my foot up to chest level and stick it in a small notch in the rock. My thigh muscles ached as they stretched beyond their normal range of motion, but I managed to push and pull myself up and over the obstacle. I climbed up maybe 40 yards before I heard a shout that I had only 10 yards remaining. There was no belay spots near where I clung to the rock, and above where it seemed to flatten some was too far for the rope to reach. Up and to my right was a narrow, diagonally shaped cave located at the base of a large vertical cliff. I could probably just reach it. It would be uncomfortable, but it would have to do.
I needed to plan ahead some to make sure we could get the others up and the second pitch started without tangling ropes and people in the process. At the top of the cave I set up one anchor which I would let Ron hook into when I brought him up. 10 feet further down I sat on the only flat hump in the whole cave and used the scraggly tree and some cracks around me to set up a second anchor. It was a good thing we had a lot of gear with us to support multiple anchors and ropes. By the time I got on the radio to tell the others I was ready for Ron to come up, they had been sitting around for quite a while. At least they had a group down there to make conversation. Ron came up, tentatively at first, particularly at the crux. He managed it without falling and was soon up at the first anchor position. John came up next, leading the second rope. After a short while, I could see him below us and he came up to join us. I had taken myself out from the first anchor spot and climbed up to where Ron was to make room for John to take over the belay seat. As John set himself down to the anchor position, I headed out and up on the next pitch.
While Ron belayed me from below, I followed a nice crack in a left-facing open book for about a third of the pitch. It had some dirt and munge in, which I needed to clean out in the few spots I chose to place protection. From where Ron sat in the cave (really more of an overhang), he could not look up and around to see how I was doing. He had the tough job of deciphering my muffled calls amidst the chatter from John and the other two climbers below. The toughest part of this pitch was to extricate myself from the open book and climb up and over it to the right. Then it was up a series of short and narrow ledges until I came to a wider open area that had room easily for a dozen climbers. I was nearly at the end of the rope, so it made an excellent site for the next belay station. After setting up an anchor, Ron was quick to climb up the rope. He was climbing as well as any of us with more experience, and eager to keep moving. After he came up, I extricated myself from the anchor, leaving it in place for the second team. There was more climbing ahead of us and we were pretty much out of gear, so Ron and I could do little more than wait for the others who were out of sight below us on the second pitch. It would be a long wait before they came up, so we rested, had lunch, and enjoyed the first sunshine we'd had all day. It was 12:30p and a cloudless day, but we had spent the whole morning in the shade of Half Dome. From our new position we had a grand view of the meadow below us and the enormous walls on the north side of Tenaya Canyon. We could see upstream to Mt. Watkins, across to North Dome, and downstream into Yosemite Valley. Looking behind us, The North Face of Half Dome filled half the view to the south, towering straight up an immense height. We were still a good distance away from the base of it. It wasn't clear how much more climbing we had to do, but I was hoping it wasn't too many more pitches. Our incredibly slow pace was making it likely we wouldn't be returning before dark today.
Down on the second rope, Monty had gone third on the first pitch and then took over the lead for the second pitch. He was the first one we saw on the way up to our cushy belay spot. As I watched him work his way up, I could see a group of three or four hikers down below having lunch at the very spot we had started the climb. Occasionally they would look up to watch our progress, but probably decided it was much to slow to spend too much time observing us, as they left shortly after finishing their lunch. When Monty reached our location, he tied in to the anchor and went about belaying first Tom, then John, while Ron and I watched from above. It was nearly an hour before we were ready to start up the third pitch. Ron had tried to climb without a rope, but had retreated when it got a bit too dicey just a short distance from the belay spot. Since he was the only one without climbing shoes, it seemed a good test that if Ron should be able to go up without a rope, the rest of us should be able to follow.
I lead up the third pitch, the only really tough spot on it was where Ron had got stuck (probably class 5.4 or so). I placed a piece of protection just before it to prevent a 20 foot fall down a steep ramp, and moved on. From there it was pretty quick to get up to the next belay spot at the end of the rope, as it was mostly class 3-4 the rest of the way. Again it was a pretty roomy area, and I was no longer feeling like we might run into a dead-end and have to retreat. The way ahead seemed to be opening up more and offering several options, although it still wasn't clear that we could pack up the ropes yet. While I waited for the others, Ron decided to go ahead and see if the way was clear. On the second rope, John had to take some time down in the cave to disassemble the two anchors and rack all the equipment up. He was still not up the second pitch by the time I had brought Ron up the third. To save time, we decided to bring Tom up on our rope, so I tossed it down (it took two tries), Tom hooked on, and came up. He struggled a bit as he was getting tired, but did pretty well all things considered. While Ron was off ahead and out of sight who-knows-where, Tom and I joked and laughed while we waited for John and Monty. John had taken the lead on the second rope and apparently slipped on the difficult move, falling about 10 feet before the protection caught him. He got banged up a bit, nothing serious, and got back up and continued on. Still, he was pretty shaken by it. Tom and I were unaware of this as we jabbered away up above. When John was halfway up he was having trouble talking with his belayer below because of the noise Tom and I were making. He snapped at us to be quiet and take things more seriously. We shut up immediately as I whispered to Tom that he must have been spooked by something, so I switched gears to focusing on John and helping him. The remaining climb to our position above was not difficult really, but John had lost a good deal of his confidence, which can be crippling in a panic. I coached him up the final distance, helping point out a few hand placements where I could, and giving him additional encouragement. After he was done with the pitch he apologized for snapping at us, but I told him it was really our fault as we need to be careful not to take things too lightly.
While John prepared to bring Monty up the third pitch, I went ahead with Tom to check out the next section. Ron had climbed up the class 4 section about 20 yards up without protection earlier and was somewhere off ahead of us. I followed Ron's path up, but Tom did not feel up to doing likewise. At the top where I stood were some bushes that I used to set an anchor and belay Tom up. John and Monty followed a little while later. Since it was a short distance, I tossed my rope back down to them to keep them from having to lead up themselves, and Monty was soon up with Tom and myself. Monty took over belay duty, and John followed last, still tentative in his movements, but slowly regaining his confidence. It was 3:30p by the time we finished the fourth pitch and put the gear away. We had been on the ropes for 5 hours, much longer than any of us had expected. The sun was going to set shortly after 7p, and we still had several thousand vertical feet to climb just to reach the base of the North Face. We would have to put off any thoughts of climbing the cable route and concentrate on just getting to the trail before dark.
We headed up through brush, under low trees, and over granite rock and slabs, mostly class 2 stuff. Off we went, taking slightly different paths, as each person tried the route that seemed most suitable to himself. I was somewhere in the middle, trying to keep an eye on where everyone was in front and behind me, trying to make sure we didn't lose anybody. As I climbed through some sand, scree, and bushes to the right of the others, I pulled myself up to what looked like a regular trail. Looking down, I could see the trail zigzag down for at least a quarter mile before I lost sight of it. It was a well-traveled use trail, the very one I had hoped to find earlier in the morning. Had we known about it, we could have saved over four hours of time getting to where we were. (For others that may want to take this route up Half Dome, the use trail follows the far right-hand side looking from the bottom. You should cut off of Mirror Lake much earlier than we did, approaching from a WNW direction.) Oh well. At least I found the trail and could now start taking advantage of it.
Ron and Monty were out in front when we came to a knotted rope hanging down about 20 feet over a granite ledge. They chose to leave the rope be, and climbed up a tree and scrub covered ridge to the left. I could see the two of them struggling to make progress through the bushes. John chose to climb up the rope, which seemed a shaky proposition, as the rope looked like it had been there for several seasons. The knots were intended to allow climbers to ascend hand over fist, no belayer, no safety protection of any kind. Tom didn't like the look of it and started up the route that Ron and Monty had pioneered. Climbing through the bushes on my hands and knees with a pack on did not seem like much fun to me, so I worked up enough trust in the rope to follow John. Since John weighs about 40 pounds more than me, I figured if the rope held him, it ought to do for me. Getting up it was tougher than I expected. Normally a rock climber on belay has both hands free to use in combination with the feet to scale the rock face. Holding on to the rope took the strength of both hands, which left only my feet to grasp onto the rock. If I didn't find a good foot position to put weight on my feet, my hands would end up holding most of my weight (plus 25 lbs in the pack) from the rope. Quite a struggle for a guy with no upper body strength, I found out (John is much stronger on top and had made this look deceptively easy).
Once up the rope, I looked over to see the other three struggling through the underbrush. Ron was recommending to Monty that he should not follow him. Monty was doing the same to Tom. Tom was continuing on, believing that the struggle was easier where Ron was, compared to the struggle Tom was currently in. From my vantage point it now seemed obvious that the rope was the better choice, and I was worried that Tom (being the weakest of the three) would climb himself into a jam. I suggested he should climb down the 20 feet he had done so far and come back to use the rope. Not wanting to lose any ground already gained, Tom indicated it looked like it got easier up ahead and he would continue his current direction. Meanwhile I could see both Monty and Ron struggling. I glanced at my watch and quickly calculated that which such progress there was zero chance of getting off this side of the mountain before midnight. Raising my voice a notch, I told Tom (I was no longer "suggesting") to turn around and use the rope. He stopped, taken aback by my sudden, serious tone, and followed orders. I hated to do that, but I felt it was in the best interest of all of us to do so. I was getting nervous now that we might not reach the trail by sunset. I dreaded the thought of bushwhacking at night with five people and three flashlights...
Tom came up the rope, struggling as I had, and then both of us followed John who had gone up a second rope a few feet away that lead up a 50 degree granite slope for about 30 feet. Two ropes had been tied together periodically for this section, the second rope was put in place to safeguard the original one that was aging with exposure to the elements. At the top it was clear why the second rope had been added, as the first rope's outer sheath had been worn away where it rubbed against the lip of the ledge, exposing the center fibers. Looking over, I could see Ron emerging from his struggle in the bush, but Monty was nowhere in sight. He had heeded Ron's warning not to follow, and chosen another path around a rocky outcrop on the ridge. I called to him and he responded, something garbled about how he was still struggling. Ron, Tom, and John continued on, while I followed much more slowly, keeping an eye out for Monty. He finally emerged from the shrub across a small gully maybe 50 yards off. It seemed the best route was the right side of the gully where the rest of us were, so Monty had to descend some 30 yards or so to cross the gully and follow our route up the other side. Monty quickly conceded he had not made a wise choice in following Ron to begin with.
Further up, we ran into another difficult section. A large granite slab went up almost 50 yards, gradually getting steeper the further up one went. It started off gently enough that it deceptively lead one to believe you could walk right up it. When Monty and I got up to it, John and Tom were mulling around the bottom waiting for us. Ron had already climbed ahead and was out of sight. I was hoping to find him so I could give him John's pack to both help John out and slow Ron down in the process. It was hardly fair that he was running circles around the rest of us without the burden of a pack like three of us were carrying. I was surprised at first that Tom and John hadn't followed Ron up, but Tom said it was harder than it looked. I didn't believe him and promptly marched up the smooth granite until I could go no further. It was harder than it looked. I went back down to the bottom and tried the line that Tom indicated was taken by Ron. That too, was difficult going. Monty joined me, and the two of us struggled our way up, clinging to a flimsy bush in the middle, and using whatever small cracks and indentations we could find to get a grip on. When we got to the top of this section, Monty and I both agreed that it would be best if we used the ropes to bring Tom and John up. Tom and John were of the same opinion. Looking to our right (as we faced down), I saw two gentlemen carrying packs on their way down. They were taking a different way, about a hundred yards to the east. I could see a climbing rope that hung down a cliff that we had thought too difficult from below (we hadn't seen the rope). They obviously knew exactly where they were going, as they didn't hesitate as they approached the cliff, grabbed the rope, and used it to walk themselves down the fifty feet of cliff in less than a minute. It was pretty obvious they were on the "regular" route, and we were once again whacking it.
It took us a little while to unpack the gear, set up our anchors, and toss the ropes down. We decided to use two ropes simultaneously to help speed things along. Time was a very important factor now. It was a pretty tough distance to throw it since much of it was horizontal, and I failed to get it down within Tom's grasp. Using Monty's trick from Starr King, I rappelled a short distance down from the anchor to allow me to get a throw that could reach the two at the bottom. Once the ropes were down and they tied in, it was pretty quick bringing them up. I was expecting us to have troubles with the ropes tangling and crossing, but things went pretty smoothly. Once up, we told Tom and John to continue going up while Monty and I packed the rope and gear once more. Unfortunately, they didn't climb more than 20 yards before encountering another difficulty. This one required you to climb horizontally along a ledge about 12 inches wide for about 8 feet. Above, an overhang kept you from doing this standing up, and threatened to push you off even while crawling across. Below was a good drop of 8 feet that then sloped down another 10 feet or so, an unpleasant place to fall at best. At both the beginning and end of the crawl were shrubby oaks with branches that got in your face and hampered movement in general. Monty climbed through, followed by myself, then John. Tom started across, but got spooked and had to back up. While Monty and John went up ahead, I reluctantly unpacked the rope once more and belayed Tom across. I felt guilty for being impatient, as I knew the most important factor is safety and Tom had made the correct choice. At least I was getting lots of practice in setting anchors and belaying, and I was getting faster at it, too.
Once up this last part, the way to the base of the North Face was clear, and the ropes would no longer be needed. We still had almost 1000 ft of climbing to do, and about an hour and a half before sunset. We might be bushwhacking in the dark, but at least we weren't going to be climbing on ropes. We finally caught up with Ron, and got him to take John's pack. John was running out of steam, and the weight of the pack off his shoulders gave him a much-needed boost. During the exchange we took a water break, giving us a change to catch our breath. Ron was slowed down only moderately, as he still kept out in front of the group, blazing the way. Relieved of the extra 15lbs, John was appeared reinvigorated, if only momentarily. Tom was behind me by a few minutes when I caught up with Monty taking a rest. Monty had been carrying a pack all day, and was still going pretty strongly. I asked him to keep Tom in his sights on his way up to make sure we didn't lose Tom, to which Monty happily agreed. I went on ahead after John and Ron, who were a ways in front still. We were now back on the regular use trail, so there wasn't any need to spend time scouting out our route. It was just a class 2 hike now, but quite steep in places. The trail was heavily eroded because of both the steepness and the high usage it received. For the first time in the day I was free to cruise along at a pretty good clip without interruptions.
The closer I got to the North Face, the more impressive and imposing it became. Looking up to the top of it, I would get vertigo and have to catch myself before falling down backwards. The trail goes right up to the base before turning left and heading towards the east shoulder. From here the trail still goes for over a mile and perhaps 500 feet more elevation. It wasn't as steep as previously, but it went through and under plenty of dry, scratchy shrubs. I passed John who was slowing down now even without the pack. It was a pretty tough hike, and likely the toughest John had done, so it was hardly surprising that he was running out of juice. Ron had been telling John earlier about an even tougher hike that he had done with me some years ago to North Dome on the other side of Tenaya Canyon. That had been a classic "death march", a grand loop starting at the base of Yosemite falls and circling some 22 miles up to North Dome and back down through Mirror Lake. Of 16 of us that had started, only 5 completed the full hike, the others turning back at various points (several walked out to highway 120 and thumbed a ride back). The biggest problem had been the lack of preparedness. Five of the group had brought no water at all (although they brought the weed to get high along the way), and others had brought insufficient quantities for a hot summer day. Having to share with the ill-prepared, we collectively ran out of water only half way through the hike, and resorted to drinking untreated water out of the creeks along the way. Even then, there were only a few creeks that had water in them at that time, and we were bone dry each time we reached the next creek. Despite all, I think Ron was mistaken in thinking that other hike was tougher than this one, but then we weren't done yet. Ron was up ahead, tired but still going strong.
The route out to the east shoulder is deceptive, in that it takes a slowly curving path preventing you from seeing the whole route at once. As you round a small bend or get above one point, it's disappointing to find it just keeps going and going. I caught up to Ron around the time we ran into some climbers who had come down the North Face. Five of them were lounging around waiting for their companions to finish. One had his sleeping bag out as a cushion to sit on, so it appeared they had been waiting for some time. They were speaking French to each other, so I guessed they were likely French climbers (pretty brilliant deduction, eh?). We exchanged minimal greetings as we walked by, but I did stop long enough to capture a few photos of them. At first I was rather impressed, having climbed down a real wall, not the stuff we were playing on. But then I was thinking if they were REALLY good, wouldn't they be climbing up rather than up? Oh well, it was still a hell of a lot tougher than what we did. Looking up, I couldn't see the companions they were waiting for, although I could see a few pieces of protection and a stuff sack hanging from the wall. Their route was up an irregular pillar that clung to the wall, towering up hundreds of feet, beyond which I couldn't see over it (and why I couldn't see the others coming down). Serious vertigo, staring up that wall.
Around 6:30p Ron and I came to the edge of the forest where I expected we'd shortly meet up with the main trail. Alas, we were fooled again, and still had almost another mile and several hundred feet of climbing. I lost the trail briefly before deciding it more or less peters out around this point. I backtracked and wandered up the rubble field that was strewn about on the northeast side here. There was much evidence of previous travel, but no main trail that wound up the steep hillside. It was nearly 7p when I reached the Half Dome Trail. The sun was blocked by Half Dome now, just about to set, and it was getting decidedly chillier. Ron followed a few minutes behind and we had another 15 minutes to wait for John. While we waited we took stock of our remaining provisions and made plans for our return in the dark. Mostly what we were interested in was getting dinner, for which we were relying completely on the food services provided by the Yosemite concessionaire. The grocery store in Curry Village was scheduled to close at 8:30 or 9:00p, and it seemed impossible at this point that we could get back by then. From the previous night, we knew that the pizza place was open until 9:30p. Maybe, just maybe, if we went really fast, we might get back in time before they closed. To make it in time would require more than just a fast hike. We had something like 8 miles to cover in 2 1/2 hours. The plan that came out of our discussions was for Ron and I to go ahead, running as much as we could while we still had daylight, and try to get some dinner saved for our companions. If the grocery store was open we would be in heaven, and be able to buy more than enough for everyone. If we didn't make that in time, at least we could have cold pizza waiting for them when they joined us. None of us had much in the way of food back at the cars, so it'd be a hungry, tired, and grouchy crowd going to bed that night if we didn't make it by 9:30p.
We waited for Monty and Tom to join us some 15 to 20 minutes later. We expected to see Monty first, but were surprised when Tom came up, moaning and dragging his butt.
"Hey, where's Monty?" I asked.
"Ahead of me", was Tom's reply.
"Uh, he's not with us..."
Then John chimed in, "Oh, I think he got lost back there, I saw him off through the bushes a ways back. I yelled to him and he responded."
Fortunately Monty showed up a few minutes later. He had indeed gotten lost (where I had earlier) and wandered a bit too far down the ridge. We explained the plan and divvied up the remaining supplies. We had three flashlights among the five of us (Ron and Tom failed to follow the required items list). Ron and I would make due with my MiniMagLite and leave the other three with the remaining two lights. Water was also of short supply. We had been pretty good about bringing a lot of water, but it had been a long day. I had about 1/4 of a quart remaining and was sure I'd be out before we got to the bottom. Ron and the others didn't have much more. At least it was enough to get down to the creek. I would take my chances with Giardia if necessary. There was no food left, but that seemed a secondary issue at this point. Monty was most kind to take the climbing gear from me (giving him the gear AND a rope to haul back) to allow me to run down the trail with Ron (John took the pack back from Ron). Monty got major hero points from me for that one.
It was after 7p when we took off down the trail. Near the top (where folks camp just below Half Dome) was the easiest as the forest was sparse (maximum lighting, good visibility), the trail wide, few rocks, and the slope gentle. We were going at a moderate run, something like 9 minute miles, I'd guess, and as one might imagine our bodies were not too happy with the workout after an already strenuous day. As the trail curves south and heads down a steeper grade, the forest gets slowly more dense blocking out the already failing light. Eyes are an amazingly adjusting organ, and they were able to slowly adjust to the twilight. We got to the Clouds Rest trail junction and noted 5.6 miles to Happy Isles. We had run 1 1/2 miles so far, and had another 1 1/2 miles until Little Yosemite (where at least we could get some water). I was getting quite thirsty and in another 1/2 mile had finished off what remained of my water. Still we kept running, thighs hurting, sides cramping, and now a dry parched throat to take my mind off lesser problems. I often go long distances with little water, but rarely do I get to the point where it hurts to swallow. I now had to consciously force some saliva (this was tough to conjure up, too) into the back of my throat before I swallowed to prevent that harsh, dry choking pain that felt like I had just swallowed a nail. The running was causing me to breath rapidly through my mouth, drying it out quickly, and my thinking about it made me need to swallow all the more. If I didn't think about, I didn't need to swallow, and could avoid the pain, but it was a Catch 22 in painful sort of way.
It grew darker, and the trail became more difficult to navigate. This required close vigilance, which had some benefit in that it would take my mind off my parched throat momentarily. When we got down to Little Yosemite, it was growing darker still, but the trees were sparser allowing us to see a while longer. The trail flattens for a good stretch here and is quite sandy, giving us a double whammy to slow us down. Just before I thought I'd had enough, Ron called uncle first. His side was killing him and he had to stop running. I was only too glad to stop and keep him company. At the same time, Ron started up a steady series of groans and complaints of ailments affecting his knees, thighs, feet, just about everything below the waist. He no longer thought the North Dome hike had been the toughest ever. We were a short distance from the top of Nevada Falls, perhaps half a mile when we started to walk. We came to the trail junction where the Mist Trail meets the JMT, close by the river. My throat was rather painful and I decided I'd rather risk Giardia than trashing my throat. We still had another 4 1/2 miles to go, and the pain in my throat was driving me nuts. Ron watched as I drank with abandon directly from the creek, but he was not tempted to join me. I don't think his thirst was any less severe than mine, but his fear of The Disease was certainly greater. After I had slaked my thirst I filled one of my water bottles, more than sufficient for my needs. I planned to drink as little as possible, knowing the Giardia game is a matter of percentages. The more I drink, the more likely I am to contract it. But it was nice to have a supply of water again, if only to lend moral support.
Back on the trail, I decided we'd gone far enough without a flashlight. It was nearly 8p, and our chosen route down the Mist trail (we didn't really have a choice - the JMT was still closed from a huge rockfall earlier in the season) was heavily covered by forest, and steep to boot. We passed a group of 8 or so backpackers on their way up shortly after beginning the descent. I kept the flashlight pointed at the ground as they went by, but several of them looked rather offended as they shielded their eyes with their hands and turned their faces to the side. I briefly thought about deliberately shining it in their eyes to see if they screamed in agony. They might have been vampires, and it would have been a good thing to know if we needed to watch our backsides more closely. Down we continued, step after step of the amazing granite stairway, doing our best not to trip over the rock or ourselves. I was in front with the flashlight, but I would swing it back and forth in a wide arc to let Ron and myself alternately see where we were going. We weren't running anymore, but we were keeping up a pretty good pace probably close to 4mi/hr. If we could keep this up, we might make it back by 9p, I was almost convinced.
Ten minutes from the last group, we ran into two guys who were in the dark, heading down, but had wandered off the trail. They begged for assistance to help lead them down as they had no flashlight of their own. They had started at Tuolumne Meadows early in the morning, but had not managed to reach the Valley before nightfall. Unprepared as they were, I wasn't about to lecture them when Ron and I were coming down ourselves with only a single miniature flashlight between us. I wanted to turn down their pleas for help, as it would surely squash our chances of getting dinner that night. I even started to go into an explanation about our tired and hungry friends some distance behind us, but I cut myself off about 10 words into it. They needed help, and yes, we would provide it. Before we got started again, I decided to change the batteries as I thought the original ones were getting weak. We would need all the light we could muster with four of us now. As luck would have it, I managed to drop the small spring that holds the back of the batteries in. Wonderful. Fortunately Ron had a Bic lighter to help us find the silly thing. Unfortunately, it proved both useless and annoying as it repeatedly failed to light. After a minute or so of trying, I rummaged through my pack and found another lighter I keep with my toilet paper. After much cursing and searching (and more cursing) I managed to find the spring and reassemble the flashlight. The new batteries weren't any better. I don't know if they were weak to start with, or whether the old ones hadn't really grown dim, but in either case, this was all the light were going to have to get us down.
Off again, we tried a number of positions to allow four of us to hike down this tricky trail without killing ourselves. We tried single file close together, and two by two. Neither worked very well. It was hard enough to concentrate on each step to keep from tripping, without having to try to match the pace of someone right in front of you or right beside you. To be certain, we could have gone very slowly and safely descended had we chosen to. But this was an engineering problem that begged for a solution to allow a maximum number of hikers to descend at the maximum allowable pace with a fixed amount of available light. After about 20 minutes we hit on the best solution (take note for future use, fellow unprepared hikers) which was to have the last person (me, in this case) man the flashlight, holding it at waist level in a nearly horizontal position facing forward. The others hiked in single file, and I would shine the light to the side (always the inside edge on a curve) of all of us making sure the person in front could see where to go. It wasn't a perfect arrangement as we missed the trail a few times, and I had to be rather vigilant as to where I was pointing the light in order to keep the lot of us moving. But we were able to keep up a pace of almost 3mi/hr.
We chatted some with our new friends as we descended, and it helped to wile the time away. Ron was still groaning and complaining, but less so, as he found things to talk about to keep his mind off his discomforts. Ron was even discussing business with them, and I thought he was going to work out some sort of trade arrangements with them before we got to the bottom. They told us they had tried to buy a flashlight for $20 from the large group of backpackers that we had met earlier, but were told they had none. This was undoubtedly not true, as it was impossible to imagine a group of eight backpackers starting out on a trail at night with nary a flashlight among them. More likely, it was punishment (probably deserved) for being unprepared. I think they just didn't offer enough money for one, but then who carries $100 with them on a hike? I talked less than the others, mostly keeping my concentration on what the flashlight was doing. Just before Vernal Falls, we lost the trail altogether. Ron and our two companions had never even been on this trail before, so they had no idea which way to go. Luckily, I'd been on this trail a half dozen times previously and knew exactly where to find the beginning of the handrails that lead us down the last steep section.
It was just after 9p when we reached the bathroom at the bridge, about a mile from Happy Isle. We all stopped here to drink water (our companions had run out of water too) and rest a moment. We drank up greedily, but the water tasted terrible to me. It was probably as good as any other, but when I reach exhaustion I notice that water begins to taste awful to me. I think my body is telling me it wants to taste something more substantial like sugar or salt, anything more than plain water. On we went. We kept up a pretty good pace, even though we were sure to miss our deadline. Our companions were looking forward to the bar at the Ahwahnee Hotel. They were certain to be able to drink their discomforts away, and held out hope that they could get food there as well. I was less sure that this was the case, but didn't want to dampen their enthusiasm. Anything that could motivate us to keep going was a good thing. Ron had been complaining about his pain now for over an hour. I had mixed feelings of being somewhat responsible for his pain as group leader (getting us into this epic) on one hand, and getting annoyed at with complainting on the other. I wasn't sure if he was really in such a great deal of discomfort or if he was being overly dramatic. There wasn't much we could do about it anyhow, so complaining couldn't really help matters unless it simply made him feel better to do so. Ron also talked about how he had thought he was in better shape. He thought it would be much easier and was disappointed somewhat in his performance. The total mileage wasn't that great, but it's deceptive since much of it is off-trail and over difficult ground. I thought he was in pretty damn good shape myself. Ron was having doubts about his planned day hike of Mt. Whitney in a month's time. I had climbed Whitney before and knew it was much easier by comparison. He would have no problem (and didn't, managing the roundtrip in 8.5 hrs).
When we got to Happy Isle, it was 9:20p. We still had a mile to go to Curry Village, a little known fact that I hadn't made clear to Ron earlier. We hobbled down the road. My legs were preparing to give up the ghost now that they could smell the end of the trail. I had felt blisters forming about an hour earlier, but didn't bother to do anything about them. I doubted there was any adjustment I could have made anyway. My muscles were quite tired, but still had some left in them. My joints on the other hand were screaming to stop. In particular, my knees had decided to make things difficult, and out of protest they forced me to walk with a limp now. Just before Curry Village Ron and I said goodbye to our new friends. It had been quite a group effort. Ron and I made our way directly to Monty's Trooper in the Curry parking lot. It was 9:40p. We missed dinner and were sorely disappointed. Ron felt we should at least try to see if we could get them to make an exception, so we marched the few hundred yards over to the pizza place on the outside deck. There was still a crowd at the tables enjoying their beer and pizza, but as expected, the order window was closed. Being tenacious, Ron pleaded with the workers cleaning up inside. He got a woman to open a window, at which he then poured out our hard luck story to her. I stood away from him as I found this groveling embarrassing (although I'd have joined him in a second if he was successful), and I suspected they must hear stories like this on a daily basis. She listened empathetically, but shook her head explaining it was out of her control - the registers and ovens were shut down. Good answer, I thought. As we walked away dejected, I looked around for abandoned pizzas on the tables. I had no doubt I would have commandeered any I found, regardless of the looks others gave me, but alas, there was none to be had.
We walked back to the Trooper and sat in the front seat to rest. We were both beginning to feel queasy. Ron, in the passenger seat, put his head between his legs. I would have done likewise if the steering wheel hadn't been in my way. Our bodies were beginning to shut down now that we weren't moving, and our heart rates decreased. We were starting to shiver, even though we had put our jackets on and the outside temperature was probably in the 50's. We shared an Odwalla berry drink Ron had gotten from his car, but it didn't sit well with me, tasting rather pasty. I was soon shivering uncontrollably and decided a hot shower (thank God the showers are open 24hrs) was what I needed to warm me up. It took me a good ten minutes to get a change of clothes and then change from my boots to my tennis shoes. While rummaging in the back for my stuff I got dizzy and lost a small quantity of my stomach contents, and just managed to keep from losing it completely. There wasn't much there besides water and some stomach acid. Back up front, I attempted to change shoes and could hardly tie the shoelaces with my hands shaking so. On top of that, most of my fingers had lost circulation and gone numb, making it difficult to pick things up or feel what my fingers were doing. I had to rest after each exertion to keep from throwing up further. A couple years earlier I had taken part in an organized marathon from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley via Cloud's Rest. It had taken me 4 1/2 hours to cover the 26 miles, and I threw up shortly after the completion, feeling much as I did at the moment. This was as vivid a flashback as I wanted. Before I left, I checked to see how Ron was doing, and he at least seemed to be stable. And he hadn't thrown up, bettering me on that count. I imagined how Monty, John, and Tom were probably fairing even worse at the moment, still out on the trail.
There were only a few others at the showers when I got there. Normally there is a line out the door, but at this hour most of the campers have turned in. The place looked like a sty with towels literally covering the floors, inside and out of the shower stalls. People had used towels on the floor to keep their feet from contacting the dirty water, which in time soaked and filthied the towels requiring new towels on top of the old ones. There was no one at the entrance to take my money or hand out towels. I hadn't brought one myself, so I had to take a used one from the discard bin inside the shower room. Finding the driest one I could, I found some soap as well and sought out the cleanest stall I could find. I was imagining myself as a homeless brethren. Once inside I showered first, and then sat down on the floor and let the hot water run over me for the next half -hour. Slowly, I felt my circulation return to my fingers and toes. My queasiness eased a great deal and I got sleepy. I actually fell asleep for brief periods lying there in the shower stall. I felt like I was in a trance. It wasn't really relaxing or enjoyable, but it seemed much better than life outside the shower. It was the best I could do at the moment. After my body temperature reached equilibrium with the hot water, I got up feeling much better. I was still quite tired and slow moving, but it was manageable now.
When I got back to the car, Ron was in the same position I had left him almost an hour earlier. I told him about the miraculous healing powers of the holy shower waters, and encouraged him to do likewise. A ranger stopped by and asked us if we would move our car. We had ignored the tag on the windshield we found earlier indicating all cars had to be moved from the lot. That seemed like so much Facist posturing that we felt compelled to ignore it. The ranger kindly took the time to explain that the cars needed to be moved so that the apples could be removed from the trees. Apparently, the bears were eating the apples, and were climbing onto the car roofs to get to them, damaging the cars in the process. That sounded pretty funny - a parking lot full of cars with the roofs dented in. We asked if we could wait a few hours until our friends returned, and he said that would be no problem as long as it was moved by morning when they planned to begin picking. He left us and I went about putting away dirty clothes and things. Not five minutes later we heard a loud thump on a car roof the next aisle over, and we both jumped out of our pants. There were no further sounds, however, as one would have expected if a bear was climbing on a car. After a few moments, Ron guessed that it was likely an apple dropping from a tree and hitting the car roof, and we went back to what we were doing, satisfied with the explanation.
I went off to the reservation desk to get us a couple of tent cabins for the night. Originally, we had planned to drive up to Tuolumne Meadows to meet a friend of Tom's and do some more climbing there the next day. That part of the plan would have to wait till morning, as I could now think only about sleep. Food no longer interested me. While getting the rooms, I rested my head on the counter waiting for the paperwork to be completed, and apologized to the clerk for my behavior. He could have charged me any price for all I cared at the moment, as clean sheets and a mattress sounded pretty much the same as heaven to me. Back at the Trooper again, Ron had gone. To the showers, no doubt. I started to write an elaborate note to Ron and the others with a key and directions to the cabins, complete with map. It was now 11:30p. Just before I finished, I heard voices behind me in the distance and heard my name mentioned. Up walked the other three, safely back. They were quite tired, but hardly in the poor shape I had expected. They found it rather humorous that I had actually barfed, and took smug pleasure in finding that Ron and I had fared worse than themselves. I was mostly relieved that they weren't cursing and swearing at me for leading them on this death march, and that everyone made it back without serious injury. They were disappointed that there was no food waiting for them upon their return, but they weren't really surprised either. Apparently, Ron and I had held greater expectations for our efforts than our companions did.
Despite my pleas, Tom was still committed to driving up to Tuolumne Meadows to find his friend Chris (who was the Jeep owner in the McGee Mtn adventure the previous month). I went back to the reservation desk to cancel one of the cabins since with four of us, we no longer needed a second one. Meanwhile, Ron had decided to join Tom in his search for Chris, so it would just be John, Monty, and myself staying in the cabin tonight. We would get up in the morning sometime and join the others at Tuolumne Meadows. There was more climbing and hiking to do, but that could have been 10 years in the future for all I cared at the moment. Damn, I was tired. I don't think I was in the sack longer than two or three minutes before losing consciousness. Oooooo, that mattress felt good....
Postscript: Monty pointed out several years later that I reversed the location of the two fixed rope sections. The longer section where we went to the right and used our own rope to belay Tom and John was actually below the section with the knotted rope. Doing this climb a second time in October of 2002 proved him right. However, when I went back to correct this in the story above, I couldn't figure out how to do so without messing up the story. So I'll just leave it as it is, and point out that not everything you read is true. :)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Half Dome
This page last updated: Wed Jun 20 11:15:45 2012
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