Half Dome P1K SPS / WSC

Fri, Feb 25, 2000

With: Michael Golden

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Sun, Sep 12, 1999
later climbed Tue, Dec 18, 2001

Winter in Yosemite is rather different than the experience visitors get at other times of the year. Much of the park lies above 6000 ft and is buried under many feet of snow from December until May. Yosemite Valley is the primary destination of visitors to the park in winter, as in other seasons. Since it lies at only 4000 ft, much of the winter precipitation comes as rain, and the snow that does fall usually melts in a few weeks at most (there's always some snow to be found where it is plowed or otherwise piles up in sheltered locations). The road to Glacier Point is plowed as far as the Badger Pass ski area, and is a popular day stop for cross-country and downhill skiers, snowshoeing, and sledding.

When Michael and I decided to visit at the end of February, we didn't really have a concrete plan on what we would do there. To cover all our bases, we brought hiking boots, snowshoes, running shoes, and climbing gear. We figured we'd see how snow conditions were when we got there, and make plans accordingly. It had been snowing on and off (mostly on) during the previous week, and there was 4-12 inches on the ground in the Valley. We had to put on chains to get over the pass on hwy 120, but there was no snow or ice left on the roads lower down in the Valley. On the drive up we had settled on a hike/snowshoe up to Half Dome for Friday. The information we had gathered beforehand suggested there was a winter route open to Little Yosemite Valley. I had no real expectations that we would actually get to the top of Half Dome, but it would be an adventure even if we only made it as far as Little Yosemite Valley at the top of Nevada Falls. We arrived in the valley on Thursday night around 10:30p, checked into the Yosemite Lodge (reservations almost always required), and made ourselves at home. Our accommodations were quite luxurious compared to the spartan tent cabins that we usually use, and I have to confess that I'm partial to the extra pampering when temperatures fall below freezing outside. I went to sleep shortly after we found our room, in the expectation that we would need an early start to utilize the maximum possible amount of daylight. Michael stayed up till nearly midnight reading and unwinding from the long drive.

I awoke numerous times during the night, around 3, 4, and 5a. It was perfectly dark outside and the thought of waking to prepare for a hike seemed absurdly insane while so comfortably snuggled under the blankets. Later it occurred to me that it would probably be best to sleep cold and uncomfortably if I was going to get my body to move at such an early hour. At 6a my body finally relented control to my brain, and I got out of bed. I woke up Michael (who surprisingly offered no objection to getting up). I showered, we ate breakfast, and packed up our things.

We had less experience with winter outings, and consequently weren't quite sure which items to bring with us, and debated the merits of most of the items. In the end we brought just about everything except the crampons. We had warm sweats, rain gear, hats, several pairs of mittens, ice axes, snowshoes, ski poles, gaiters, flashlights, and shovels (in case one of us got buried in an avalanche and the other wanted to make it look like he tried to dig him out). There was also the usual assortment of food, water, sunscreen, first-aid kit, etc., that we bring along on. We also had our harnesses, a few slings, and a couple carabiners at the bottom of our packs in case we happen to reach the cables on Half Dome. Michael had been told by a friend that they don't actually take the cables down in winter, simply the poles, with the cables left lying against the rock. This seemed plausible enough (and never proved or disproved) so we brought the last three items to aid as a safety mechanism to hold us as we climbed up the cables. Once everything was packed, we loaded the car and drove to the eastern end of the valley and parked in the lot at the stables around 7:30a.

It's about 1/2 a mile to Happy Isle and the start of the John Muir Trail (JMT). The trail was well packed so we carried our snowshoes strapped to our packs. We stopped briefly at Happy Isle to take off some of our warmer clothes. It looked like things would warm up sooner than we had expected. All the trees were covered with the 4-6 inches of snow they had received the previous day, giving everything a colorless appearance with shades of black and white - mostly white. Standing at the bridge at Happy Isle, one could look upstream or downstream and get similar winter wonderland views. If the snow started to melt and fall off the trees onto our heads, I'm sure our impression of "wonderland" would change soon enough.

Packed up once again, we headed up the trail to the Vernal Falls viewpoint. Past this point, the trail was less traveled, but still packed down pretty well, so we kept on hiking just in our boots. We would slip a bit now and then, but the snow gave pretty decent traction, not having been made into ice the previous night. Not far past the bridge, we came to the junction of the JMT and the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail was closed due to dangerous rockfall conditions, a precaution taken each winter. The JMT turns steep at this point, as we followed a series of switchbacks that took us up the southern side of the Merced Canyon. Looking back, we had a nice view up towards Glacier Point and the Illilouette Canyon where the snow looked to be considerably deeper. The snow around us was getting steadily deeper as well, although the trail itself was nicely packed with a width of about a foot - just fine for walking. The switchbacks continued up until we had reached the base of the high cliffs on the southern side of the canyon, where the trail takes a left turn to follow a more easterly direction upward. At one point it opens up to a grand view looking down the Merced Canyon. The snow was noticeably fresher as we reached a point that had received more consistent snowfall the day before (lower, it appeared that early rain had turned to snow, and therefore less accumulation). The trees were heavy with snow and the cliffs about us were plastered in snow and ice.

We came to another junction on the JMT. To the left was a spur that connected lower down with the Mist Trail. To the right, the trail follows the cliffs to the top of Nevada Falls (where it rejoins the Mist Trail). We were halfway up the height of Nevada Falls where we stood, but the easier trail to the right was closed for the winter (following along the cliffs would expose us to rock and ice falling off from high above and potentially serious head-bonking). Instead, we had to follow the left fork down for 400 feet before resuming the upward climb. As we headed down, it became obvious that the trail had fewer visitors here, for the snow on the trail was no longer nicely packed as it had been previously. We reached the bridge crossing the Merced River above Vernal Falls and took a short break. The river brought life to an otherwise quiet winter scene, rushing loudly and wildly beneath us. Michael was looking quite dapper in his winter sporting attire, although much of it had been packed away as the sun came out and the day grew warmer.

Our way lead up the Mist Trail towards Liberty Cap, which rises high above the north side between Half Dome and Nevada Falls. We skirted close to the lower portion of the falls, where we had a good view of the upper section as well, the whole Nevada Falls looking almost gothic - hiding in the dark shade, surrounded by snow, ice, and rock; thundering at high volume over the precipice. We continued up the switchbacks to the base of Liberty Cap (this picture was taken from above Nevada Falls). The southern side was fully exposed in the morning sun now, and the ice that had formedon the cliffs the night before was coming off at intervals and crashing to the base below. While this was impressive to watch, it was also a little unnerving as some of the ice chunks fell onto the trail, not far from where we were standing, gaping up at the spectacle.

At the top of Nevada Falls we rested for snacks, before heading on towards Little Yosemite Valley. Here the trail is mostly flat, and our pace improved, raising our hopes that we might actually reach Half Dome. Unfortunately, these expectations didn't last long as we got to Little Yosemite Valley. The trail beyond this point was completely untracked. Several steps into the snow brought us thigh- deep. The good news was that we hadn't hauled the snowshoes up here for nothing, the bad news of course was now we had to actually use them. Snowshoeing on a packed trail is little more than learning to walk awkwardly. In deep snow, it is a whole different experience, and an exhausting one at that. There are a whole host of interesting snow mechanics that work against you. As you step into fresh snow, you must compress the snow beneath you before transferring your weight. This is similar to using a StairMaster - not as hard as actually climbing stairs, but more difficult than a level walk. Secondly, as you pull your foot out of the hole behind you, you inevitably bring up a load of snow that has caved in over the top of the snowshoe and is scattered as you bring your foot forward for the next step. This is roughly equivalent to set of 2 lb. ankle weights (varying of course with snow conditions). Thirdly, you have to high-step as you walk, requiring you to lift the weight of your leg (and boot, snowshoe, and accumulated snow) in an exaggerated fashion to clear the snow surface before taking the next step. An alternative method in lighter snow is to "plow" your feet through the snow, but this too, requires additional exertion to push all the snow aside. All of this is most difficult on the person breaking the trail, getting progressively easier the more the trail gets packed.

I took the lead for the first part as we left the valley and headed uphill again. It was difficult at times to tell which way the trail headed, but the blazes on the trees helped keep us on track 4 out of 5 times. I'm not sure how important it was to follow the trail precisely in any event, as we knew the general direction we needed to go - up - and our tracks would make it quite easy to find our way back no matter which way we went. After about 3/4 mi. I had to stop to attend to my left heel which was in the beginning phases of blister formation. Michael continued ahead, breaking trail, with the expectation that I'd catch up shortly. I tried rearranging the sock, then moleskin, then finally ditching the gator-sock I was wearing (it was bunching up under the heel, irritating it) before I was ready to go on. It was nice to have the trail broken ahead of me, and I made swift progress. I kept expecting to see Michael around the next bend, but didn't find him until I had gone 1/2 mile. He was chugging along, sweating profusely (this is really hard work), but seeming to relish in it. This was his first snowshoe experience, and as a first one it had all the best ingredients - remote wilderness, nice weather, tons of snow, and an exhausting workout. I took over the trail breaking duty, and had my pace reduced commensurately. Ugh.

Michael had been going at a pace faster than could be sustained for the long haul. Sensing that he was near that fine line between enjoying the workout and enduring the pain, he called a halt. We were about 1/4 mile from the junction of the Half Dome and JMT Trails. It was about 12:30p, and there was still plenty of daylight. Michael encouraged me to continue on while he sat, rested, and enjoyed his lunch. In turn, I encouraged him to follow up after his rest, perhaps at least to the ridge where he could enjoy the views of Tenaya Canyon and the high country. I expected that we weren't far from the ridge, perhaps another mile, and still entertained hopes of getting up to Half Dome. Onward I went. I shortly came to the trail junction where the JMT turns right towards Clouds Rest. The sign indicated Half Dome was only two miles further. How hard could it be? Very, as it turned out. I still had the hardest and steepest climbing ahead of me. The snow was getting progressively deeper. With each step I was now sinking in over a foot, almost to my knees. I lost the trail altogether, but had little trouble navigating up to the ridge and along it as I headed west towards Half Dome. Climbing up a treeless hump about a mile past the trail junction, I reached the spot that is commonly used as a campsite in other seasons by backpackers wanting to camp below Half Dome. It was 1:30p, my designated turnaround time. Since I had a flashlight with me, I could have picked a latter time to return, but I had to admit to myself that I was thoroughly exhausted, and I still had to return over 7 miles.

The views of course, were grand. I've had plenty of great winter views from the top of chairlifts at ski resorts around the western U.S., but these views were so much better because of the effort required to earn them. Looking east, and moving clockwise, I had views of Mt. Florence, the Clark Range (with Mt. Clark, Gray Peak, and Red Peak most easily identifiable), Little Yosemite Valley to the south with Mt. Starr King behind it. To the west, Half Dome with a few clouds climbing its southern face. Looking to the northeast I could see down into upper Tenaya Canyon, flanked on the north by Mt. Hoffmann and the south by Clouds Rest. I wandered around for 20 minutes or so taking pictures of the surrounding peaks and myself (to help in the identification of my remains should I not return), and enjoying a few granola bars.

From my vantage point, I couldn't see the saddle on the northeast side of Half Dome where the cables start. What I could see of Half Dome suggested that the cable, if they were there, were buried under a good deal of snow. Finding them under such conditions might be a tough job in itself, and actually scaling them a whole other matter. I could imagine one might poke around in the snow until a cable is located, but then what? You can't just pull the cable up and shake the snow off it. The best I could imagine would be to keep plunging a glove into the snow hand over hand to grab the cable below the surface. And how would one anchor himself to the cable? I can't imagine that you could tie a sling around it and simply slide it along as you progressed upward. Additionally, the angle is probably perfect for avalanches, and it seems likely that it could be easy to bring a huge slab of snow sweeping down onto oneself. All of this piqued my interest of course, but there was no way I was going to go investigate further today.

Heading back down was much easier since I had gravity and a partially-packed trail now working in my favor. The exhausted feeling I had a short time ago had left me, as I moved downhill at a steady pace. I reached the trail junction in about 20 minutes, 1/3 the time it took me going up. I wondered how long ago Michael had left his resting spot and whether I would be able to catch up to him before I got to the bottom. Below the point where I had left Michael, the trail was even more packed as there were now three previous excursions on the trail, and it felt like a regular highway. I stopped only briefly on the way down, removing my snowshoes at Little Yosemite, and taking pictures of the snow covered rocks in the Merced River and the clouds that had begun to envelope Half Dome. The 400 feet of uphill after recrossing the bridge below Nevada Falls were especially trying, as I my legs protested each step. Again, ugh. I reached Happy Isle shortly before 5p, having missed Michael by about 15 minutes. I was never so happy to take the Yosemite shuttle, and didn't mind at all that it took 45 minutes to meander through the Curry Village, Ahwahnee, and Yosemite Village stops before returning to Yosemite Lodge at the end of the run. Hot shower...ahhhhhh.

Continued...


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