Half Dome P1K SPS / WSC

Tue, Dec 18, 2001
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Feb 25, 2000
later climbed Sat, May 18, 2002

I had arranged with my wife Max to let me take a few days before Christmas to go do something in the mountains. Exactly what I hadn't yet determined, but with the two little ones to consider in planning trips away, it helps to provide as much notice as possible. The Mon-Tues before Christmas seemed to work best with her schedule, so we set that up two weeks in advance. I wasn't very good about looking for a partner to join me, and after a few rejections (this is a common problem with having friends that have jobs), I more or less gave up looking. The day before I didn't yet know where I would go, though without any significant new snow in the last few days I decided against a Tahoe ski resort. Mostly I wanted a really good workout on at least one of the days, so it ocurred to me to attempt another winter climb of Half Dome. Two seasons ago in February, Michael and I had made our first attempt. Though we started out early enough, we didn't move fast enough to make it in the available daylight, and were hampered by a good deal of fresh powder that we encountered above Nevada Falls.

I left San Jose around 9a after dropping my 2yr old off at daycare. It took about 3 1/2 hours to reach the park entrance on Highway 120, where I found to my dismay that chain controls were in effect starting at that point. It wasn't snowing, actually drizzling slightly, but there was some snow on the road here, and likely more higher up. At least I was prepared, having brought chains with me, and I dutifully went about putting them on the back wheels of my Miata. I had never had this car in the snow before, so this was the first time putting the cable-type chains on this vehicle, and I found that the low-profile tires made the fit somewhat loose, and the clearance around the wheelwell rather tight. I began driving up the hill and quickly found that if I exceeded 20mph the loose ends of the cables would begin to bang on something as the wheels rotated. If that wasn't annoying enough, I found the traction with the chains to feel poor, as though the tires were slipping inside the chains. After fish-tailing a few time in the first two miles or so, I got out to inspect the chains to find that I'd lost one. Argh. I turned around and drove slowly back down towards the station, intently looking for the missing chain. After a quarter mile a snow plow came up the opposite side, clearing the slush from the road, and likely shoving my chain into the snow piled up at the edge or possibly out of sight over the several feet of snow built up along the edge. Argh, again. Now I would have to look even more closely. Driving all the way back down to the entrance station, I was dismayed to not find my missing chain, and considered that my little snow adventure might be just about over as I was quickly losing enthusiasm. Fortunately I found the chain in the parking lot not 5 feet from where I installed it. It had apparently fallen off as I backed out of the space and then changed directions to go forward. I reunited the chain with my tire, securing it more tightly this time. I still had the problem of the ends knocking against the undercarraige if I went too fast, and after about 20 minutes of that frustration, I finally got out and managed to tuck the ends under the cables to let me go a more reasonable speed. After this I had no more troubles as I cruised into Yosemite Valley.

I was an hour later than I had hoped for earlier, reaching Curry Village around 2:30p. There was only a few hours of daylight left, but I was determined to make the most of them, driving directly to the parking lot by the stables. It took only ten minutes to change my clothes and strap on the snowshoes. Off I went. It was lightly raining, with varying layers of cloud cover. The cliffs on either side and Half Dome to the east were mostly obscurred though small windows through the clouds would open now and then. I had a rain jacket and pants on, but figured I'd still get somewhat wet before I was done. This didn't bother me though since I had no plans to camp outside and would have plenty of time to dry everything out indoors overnight.

I decided to head out towards Mirror Lake and then up towards the Northwest Face of Half Dome. This had three advantages: it was short, it would involve some elevation gain (to maximize workout), and I could scout out the elusive start of the class 3 route up this side of Half Dome for some future summer adventure. Several years ago I had taken a group up this way, but we didn't find the correct start and quickly found ourselves climbing class 5 rock (we had ropes and climbing gear, to be sure). There is a road that heads out towards Mirror Lake that is unplowed but heavily packed by the numerous winter visitors to this area. I decided to forgo the easy approach and crossed into the untracked snow on the other side and headed out throught the woods. This turned out to be very slow going. Much of the ground was a jumble of boulders covered with a foot of snow, and I wandered back in forth, up and over dozens of obstacles to make short headway.

Because of the heavy clouds, I was unable to get my bearings very easily, and I managed to head off towards Happy Isle at one point early on before correcting my mistake. After wandering through the boulder fields for a half mile or so, enjoying the challenge all the while, I happened upon the narrow trail that follows the south side of Tenaya Creek. The trail was well-packed and easy to follow, and I took it until I was just short of Mirror Lake. Half Dome loomed large above me to the left, and I scanned the length of its lower reaches to see if I could see the class 3 access through the initial cliffs. It isn't at all obvious, and the hazy, low-hanging clouds weren't helping any. I left the trail and headed through the forested slopes heading south. I climbed through more boulders and under trees, sometimes with scant snow cover such that I was walking on leaves and mud. I climbed for about half and hour until I reached the face of the lower cliffs. I scanned the walls but could see no class 3 route around me. I contoured to the right to see if a route could be found there, but to no avail. I climbed a 50-foot pile of ice and snow up against the rock faces, where a natural funnel brought a large amount of stuff down from 500 feet above. I could see large chucks of ice embedded in the snow-pile around me, obviously not the safest place to be standing. The overcast skies and cold weather kept the rock walls pretty quiet though, as I heard nothing come down anywhere the whole time I was climbing around.

I took a few photos of the Valley, Mirror Lake, and the surrounding cliffs. It was very still and very pretty. The drizzle had stopped some time earlier, but the clouds hung as heavy as before. I headed down after a snack of a few energy bars I had with me. It took only ten minutes to get back down, even though it's more awkward walking downhill in the snowshoes. I headed back on the trail I had taken out, and about 2 1/2 hours after starting out, I was back at the car around 5p. I changed clothes again and headed back to Curry Village, the daylight vanishing almost as fast as I could get back there. At the registration desk I was surprised to find that there were only 30 guests registered to stay for the evening. This had to be low-low season in Yosemite if there ever was one. The ice-rink was closed for the day due to the rain, so I had only so much I could do - a a shower, dinner, some reading. I ate at the buffet cafeteria in Curry Village, which had no more than 20 other people eating while I was there, half of them employees. I went back to my room and read about an hour's worth of Fast Food Nation. While its political views are hardly balanced, it does provide an educated look at the fast food industry, and as you might expect it's not pretty. I packed my stuff up for the big hike in the morning, set the alarm, and went to bed about 10p.

The alarm woke me promptly at 5a. I hadn't brought my usual cooler with milk to allow me to partake of my usual breakfast of cereal and cold milk. A few granola bars would have to do, and besides I was still pretty full from the previous evening's stuff-fest. Even with a shower it didn't take long to finish up, so I dropped my key off at the front desk, moved my car to the larger Curry parking lot, and headed out towards Happy Isle. I had most of my clothes on as the temperatures were in the twenties. I wore two pair of mittens, and on my head a warm winter hat and a headlamp to help me navigate in the darkness. My pack had a number of items that might be of use later, such as crampons, axe, shovel, map, GPS. My snowshoes were strapped to the pack's sides as I did not expect to need them until above Nevada Falls, but the poles I used to steady myself on the sometimes icy trail. This should not be confused with use as trekking poles for which I'm known to have an unnatural disdain for. :)

Unexpectedly the stars were out and it seemed the clouds had all but disappeared. This would portend of finer weather as the day progressed, but for now simply made it colder outside without the clouds to add some insulation. Cold as it was, I found myself warming up faster than I expected, and by the time I reached Happy Isle, I had to stop to remove my rain jacket, my warm hat, and the outer gloves. It was 6a when I left Happy Isle and headed up the John Muir Trail, and already it was starting to get perceptibly lighter out. By the time I had reached the bridge I was able to switch off the headlamp. The trail is well packed, and no need for snowshoes. The first part of the trail has a number of bare spots, many icy ones, and a few wet areas where streamlets are running across the trail. Past the bridge the bare spots are gone, replaced by a steady snow/ice pack underfoot. The Merced River churns violently in its channel along the trail and the water crashing over Vernal Falls is making quite a racket. It seems like a lot of water for so early in the winter season (actually late fall), but this has been an unusual December and much snow and rain has already fallen in the Sierra.

The Mist trail is closed during winter due to unsafe icy conditions so close to Vernal Falls. Fortunately the JMT offers an alternative route that heads right from the closed Mist Trail sign. It climbs up towards the cliffs on the south side of the canyon, and looking up one feels very vulnerable in this section. There is evidence all around of ice chunks that have broken from the cliffs above and fallen ten, a hundred, or a thousand feet from above. The trail switchbacks up the steep hillside here, and where the trail switches left it comes closest to the cliffs and is completely exposed. These switchback corners are covered deeply in snow and ice chunks, and despite the awkwardness in hiking the trail in these spots, I find myself moving as quickly as possible over the snow piles in the corners. Somewhere in here one gets the first view of Half Dome's backside, the sun had yet to reach its upper height. Elsewhere the travel is steep, but straightforward. I took a break to remove my light jacket, leaving just a T-shirt covering my upper body. The sun is not yet up, and I was surprised to find myself getting so warm. At the top of the switchbacks the trail tops out briefly providing the first views of Half Dome's backside, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap, lined up as three humps on the skyline. The sun has just made an appearance on the upper reaches of Half Dome. Nevada Falls is also wonderfully displayed, much of its sheer rock face covered in sheets of ice, the river thundering loudly down the center. At this point the trail has reached almost as high as the top of the falls, but that is soon to be wasted.

Again the trail splits, this time the JMT trail that continues up and contours the cliffs to the top of Nevada Falls is closed. The open route descends 500 feet to the river, and I trudge down. The snow here tends to be very thick as it gets much shade from the winter sun, and I am quite thankful there were others to pack the trail for me. At the river the noise is deafening as the Merced crashes wildly through the trough in the rock below. Fantastic ice sculptures line either side, and it seems amazing the force of the river doesn't knock it free. Certainly the water must be very cold indeed. I crossed the bridge and continued on the trail which now climbs on the north side of the river. This offers some fine views of Nevada Falls to make up for the many, many steps to be climbed. As the trail comes close to the south side of Liberty Cap, I have to worry about icefall from the rock above. Again there is ample evidence of ice coming off the sheer faces, pock-mocked in the snow around the trail. It's still pretty early in the day, so the sun hasn't had a chance to warm things up, and once again I get away without having anything come down on me.

When the trail reaches the height of Nevada falls, the packed route goes off towards the top of the falls. I took a break at the fine restroom located here, placed a few years ago to reduce the environmental impact of the large number of visitors that come here in the summer. The JMT heads off on an untracked path which I tried to follow in my boots. I was soon knee deep and getting deeper, and only 50 yards in I had to switch to the snowshoes. Now the hard part began. On spring or well-packed snow the snowshoes aren't too hard to use (and might not even be needed!), but in the softer snow I was finding at this higher elevation, the work increases. Each step sinks my shoes six to nine inches into the snow. The surrounding snow caves in around the snowshoes, falling on the top surface of the shoes. Now I have to lift the weight of my feet, the snowshoes, and the snow on top of them high enough to clear the top of the snow, and then step in again. It can easily take 2-3 times the energy to travel a given distance versus a packed trail without need of snowshoes. From the top of Nevada Falls it's approximately four miles to Half Dome, so the energy to get there and back is considerable.

As I approached Little Yosemite Valley, the sun was shining low but warmly through the trees. The light danced on the flat snow surfaces, reflecting like so many diamonds embedded in the quietly settled snow. Though I had seen no one all morning, this was the first time I felt out in the wilderness, away from the trail more travelled. Aside from the heavy effort in snowshoeing, it was quite peaceful. At the second trail junction (one heading to the ranger station, the other towards Half Dome), I found myself on completely untracted snow. I had found the same on the previous trip with Michael - it seems that there are folks that head to Little Yosemite to camp overnight, but almost no one heading towards Half Dome. I did a much better job of following the trail than I did on my previous attempt, never wandering more than a few feet from the trail. There are several clues that help keep you on the trail when it is covered deeply in snow. Periodically there can be found old blazes on the trees that were used in years past to mark the routes in Yosemite and elsewhere in the Sierra. However, these aren't marked close enough together to allow navigation by these alone. I found that by keeping my eyes on the canopy above, I could often tell the route by the just-noticeable gaps in the trees. Only a few trees are missing from the otherwise random tree placements, but these few make enough of a difference to be discernable.

Climbing up, the trail isn't too steep, but it is consistent, and tiring in the fresh snow. It took several hours with a few rests sprinkled in to recharge the batteries, before I reached the very broad saddle between Clouds Rest and Half Dome. Here the views open up to some stunning sights, Clouds Rest to the east, Mt. Florence to the southeast, Mts. Clark and Starr King to the south, Tenaya Canyon to the north, and the impressive profile of Half Dome to the west, showing behind the East Shoulder. I continued hiking along the ridge towards my goal, though I had little idea how or if I might climb it. I approached the East Shoulder where I had stopped the previous winter and turned back after running out of time. Looking up at the steep slope I began to wonder if it was really time that had run out then or my nerve.

Somewhere around here is a sign warning hikers off of Half Dome in the event of thunderstorms, but I couldn't find it. I think I was still on the trail, but the sign may have been buried in the snow. Oh well, not important. More important was whether it was safe to climb up the shoulder. I studied it from below, looking carefully at the angle and fall line of the various slopes. While it seemed unlikely, I wasn't sure that the slope wouldn't avalanche out from under me. The shoulder isn't as rounded as it looks from a distance, but has a ridge running up the middle. Not a sharp ridge, the entire shoulder is covered in snow to an unknown depth. To the right the slope falls away for a great distance into Tenaya Canyon. To the left if falls away towards Little Yosemite, and though not as steep or far, it would not be a good place to fall or be swept down. I thus chose to follow a more or less direct line up the ridge, figuring if it slid I'd only go a few hundred feet back towards the trees on the shoulder. Hitting a tree wasn't a really a thrilling prospect, but it seemed better than going off into oblivion.

I headed up. The snow was too soft for crampons, so I left the snowshoes on. It was a bit awkward climbing in them, but I was afraid it would have been more work without them. I went slowly, pausing to both rest and re-evaluate the slope as I went up. I kept looking back to check the fall line and adjusted my route accordingly. Now and then I could see the switchbacks where the trail zig-zagged up those amazing granite steps, though they were buried in snow now. The slope grew steeper about halfway up, and Mt. Starr King provided a background to capture the perspective of the slope I was climbing. It took about 20 minutes to climb the shoulder where I topped out on the treeless and shrubless rounded knob. I now had a spectacular view of Half Dome's east slope and it looked positively frightening. I could see the cables lying under the snow, though only in a few of the more exposed areas. When the Park Service says the cables are "taken down" in the fall, they just remove the posts that hold them up as handrails and let the cables lie on the rock. In most places the snow covers them so that they are not visible. Beforehand, I had this crazy notion that I might use the cables to climb up to the summit, but it was clear now that that would not be possible. It only took a few minutes of examination to give up any hope I might have of reaching the summit. It was 1:30p now and getting late, but it was the steepness of that final slope that made me shy away. I imagined that with crampons and axe I could have climbed, but it looked like only a thin veneer of ice and snow was sticking to the rocks and I was terrified I would peel off the slope with the sheets of hard packed snow/ice still sticking to the points of my crampons. I was convinced it would be suicidal and crazy to try. It was only after I got back a few days later that I found that not only has Half Dome been climbed by this route in winter, but it has been skied and recently snowboarded. But not by me. :)

I hung out atop the shoulder there to have a snack and drink in the view. I imagined a future winter trek to Mt. Starr King, thinking the regular south slope might be free of snow most of the season. Maybe not. But it seemed worth a try. I also looked to Clouds Rest, though farther, should be technically much easier than Half Dome. It would certainly be a very long dayhike. Further away, Mt. Clark looked more impressive, but out of my league for a winter foray. After my short rest I strapped the snowshoes back on and reshouldered my small load. The crampons and axe would merely be along for the ride today.

I retraced my steps on the way down the shoulder, feeling much more confident that the snow wasn't going anywhere. Three quarters of the way down, I decided that a glissade was in order for the remaining slope, and sitting down with my shoes tucked under me, it took about 20 seconds to cover what had taken 5 minutes on the way up. The slope ran out bringing me to a stop, I stood up, shook the snow off my underside and out from around my pack, and continued down. It was so much easier going back down than it had been on the way up - that isn't any sort of revelation, though. In addition to the fact that gravity was now on my side, I could use my previous footsteps saving energy by not having to compress the snow as much. What was nice was that even though I was fairly beat by the time I had gotten up to the shoulder it wasn't too exhausting on the return. In fact it was fairly pleasant. At the turnoff to Clouds Rest on the way down I noted that it was over four miles to the summit, which is a thousand feet higher than Half Dome's summit. It would be very, very long dayhike. Back at Little Yosemite Valley, I enjoyed the views of the Merced River which travels under much snow and ice above Nevada Falls.

I took a break once I got back to the top of Nevada Falls. That nifty outhouse they have there at the top proved to make a convenient stop for both changing out of my snowshoes and for, well, using it for what it was intended. I couldn't see at all inside with the door closed, and had to leave the door propped open with one of my ski poles. As I sat there, um, pondering the universe and the wonders of creation, I also wondered how people use this thing in the summer when there's a regular stream of people going by. Seems even a small window would have made a big difference. Back outside I restrapped my snowshoes and poles to my pack and headed down the steps below Nevada Falls. The sun was getting lower now, just over Glacier Point. It was getting cooler now which was a good thing as it kept ice from falling down on the trail from the slopes of nearby Liberty Cap. As on the way up, Nevada Falls were in the shade again, which gave the scene a very frigid look. Falling from the top, I wondered, would one die from the cold before hitting the bottom?

Crossing the bridge across the Merced, I had the last tough part, climbing 500 feet back up to the JMT. Ugh. This isn't much fun late in the day, and as before it seems to take twice as long as it should. Once over the hump it was all downhill and I made steady progress towards Happy Isle. Only a few hundred yards from the lowest bridge I came across a couple of teenagers who were heading down in the same direction. My axe and snowshoes strapped to my pack must have looked like a hardware overkill, and they asked where'd I'd been. I had only said "Half Dome" when one of two replied, "Cool," and immediately went on to tell me how he had climbed it several years ago during the summer and how it was one the most awesome experiences ever. "Cool." I replied when he ran out of gas, and I wished them luck as I passed them. There were a few other parties that I came across before reaching Happy Isle around 4:30p. Another 20 minutes and I was back in the very empty Curry Lot. A long, but most satisfying 11 hours, capped by some Alpen Glow on Half Dome's summit, just before sunset. It was a long 4 hours of driving back to San Jose, and a very satisfying sleep that night...


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