Half Dome ……The Conclusion

Part Eight: Kathryn and I had been on top no more than ten minutes, when there was John coming off the cables and over the crest. True to my daughter’s character, once she and John had returned to the saddle, Bailey told him he needed to finish. In fact she INSISTED that he go back up.

They say it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. We spent the next half hour exploring the dome and savoring the view but it really was the journey that we were savoring. We had put forth a great deal of effort and determination to get where we were, and in reality, that was the accomplishment we were proud of. Don’t misunderstand me, the view was worth the climb, but the climb was worth the effort.

Half dome beak

It was still relatively early, but even so, we couldn’t spend a lot of time on top. Besides the fact that the cables were now becoming congested, we wanted to complete the Half Dome challenge of up and back in 12 hours or less. Since we had hit the trailhead at 4:00 am, we wanted to be back down no later than 4:00 pm. It was almost noon, so we knew we needed to start back down the cables.

The descent down the cables was almost as difficult as the climb up. The cable route was now jammed with people and the progress was slow as we would be forced to squeeze alongside and then slide around one climber after another. At one point, we reached a women, frozen with fear, unable to go up or back down. We had to ease ourselves around her and with some encouragement, eventually helped her to start moving back up. With effort, we got back down to the saddle and after a quick snack and unfortunately, the last of our water, headed back for the return trail.

We had been back on the downslope trail for about an hour, aching knees, hot and thirsty. The next area where we would be able to get water would be back down in Little Yosemite Valley. There we could filter some water from the Merced River. We had been deliberate about keeping our backpacks light, that meant only what we needed to carry. Bailey figured it out. She knew John well enough to know he would not have been able to resist his one weakness, Mountain Dew. We relished those 16 ounces between us and Bailey quickly forgave John his crime of smuggling. By the time we reached the Merced, we death marched straight through some poor campers’ site just to reach the river as quickly as possible. No drink ever tasted as great as the water did at that point.

Refreshed, we soon reached the top of Nevada Falls and with another hour of hiking, finally reached the trailhead. The time, just before 4:00 pm. We had done it, 17 miles, nearly a mile of elevation and all within 12 hours. We had intended to walk the remaining mile back to camp and to then treat ourselves to ice cold drinks, pizza and ice cream. The reality, we took the first shuttle back to camp and collapsed on our cots. Kathryn said it best, as great as the adventure had been, we were so spent that she was sure we would never do that again…… It wasn’t a week later, the pain and fatigue behind us, and she was asking when would we consider a repeat. Fortunately memories of pain fade quickly but great adventures create memories that last.

Half Dome 2

Epilog: I always wanted to do a piece like this, so I took the editorial freedom and wrote it. I want to dedicate the retelling of this story to several people who made it possible.

First would be my sister Kay. Without her to have shown me Yosemite that very first time, I may never had gotten the urge to do the climb. My second dedication, would be to my brother-in-law Horst. We would not have been as prepared as we were if it hadn’t been for his help. Without his encouragement and planning, we might never have accomplished it. I only wish Horst were still here to have read the recounting of that adventure.

Finally, I want to dedicate this to my daughters, Bailey and Kathryn. They have always been my inspiration for creating and pursuing adventures. With their interest and energy, this one became a reality. With their encouragement, my retelling of it. They have kept me young and adventuresome every time I thought of growing old. It is for them that I tell the stories, so that one day they will share new adventures with my grandchildren and tell the stories of the adventures they shared with me.

Half dome 1

Thanks for taking the time to read this…..now go find your peak to climb.

Half Dome …… Pressing On

Part Seven: This next part of the story is the most difficult for me to tell. We had already hiked over eight miles, climbed over 4000 feet and been at it for going on eight hours. As much as it took courage to climb this last 1000 feet, clinging to a one inch cable at almost vertical, it took more courage to know you had to call it quits. That to ignore the vertigo gripping you, at this height, would not only be a bad decision but a dangerous one. To this day, I am as proud of Bailey for turning back as I was for Kathryn struggling on.

As Bailey asked to be let down, I had to make a decision. We still had Kathryn hanging above us needing help. Fortunately, I caught John’s eyes and without a single word spoken, he let me know he was going to go back down with Bailey and that I needed to go up to release Kathryn’s carabiner. We were a true team at that point, willing to make decisions as a team and not as individuals. The move was tricky, but Bailey eased down alongside as I climbed up past. I scrambled up the space between us and reached Kathryn about thirty feet above. We were both disappointed but we climbed on.

Kathryn and I were now about three quarters of the way to the summit and still hanging at nearly vertical, when our third issue arose. As I was looking straight up at Kathryn some 20 feet above me, I saw her boot lace dangling as her boot had become untied. Fearing she would lose the boot or catch the lace under it as she climbed, I knew I had to get her to stop and somehow tie her boot. Kathryn pulled a maneuver I still see in my minds eye. She swung around, sat down on a small 2×4 stretched on the rock between the stanchions on her left and right, and reached down to retie her boot. To do this, she had unclipped and was now looking down between her knees at her feet and not coincidentally at the great void stretching out below us.

Horst had warned us of the effect of dehydration. He used the term “talking like a doughboy” and Kathryn was definitely sounding like a doughboy as she told me she thought she was going to throw up. Interestingly, it would be throwing down not up and on me. I scrambled up to her position, grab water and a candy bar from my pack and made her eat and drink. I could only hope this would help her. After about five minutes, I had my answer. She regained her color, turned around, grabbed the cables above her and started to climb.

We were now with in striking distance of the summit and the slope was coming down to a reasonable angle. As we walked the remaining distance to the crest, Kathryn turned to me and said “I’ll never call you an old man again. My response, “Of course you will, but thanks for the sentiment.” We had made it. We were on the summit of Half Dome! We had reached the top and our sense of accomplishment was unbounded. I will admit, there was still that reverse back down the cables to be dealt with, but for now, we were celebrating.

To be Continued ………….

Half Dome ……Trouble

Part Six: Bailey was just above me and Kathryn above her. Suddenly Kathryn was asking Bailey to climb up behind her and unhook her carabiner. The angle had become so steep that Kathryn could not reach it and was unable to get around the next stanchion unless she could unhook the carabiner from the cable and make the switch. At this point, vertigo was setting in for Bailey. She was near her limit and was now being asked to perform this task for Kathryn. When you reach this point, even the slightest issue can push you over the edge, and that issue was on its way down the dome.

We had gotten to the cables early enough to have only a few groups ahead of us. One of those groups was made up of three frenchmen who were well seasoned climbers, having probably climbed in the Alps and considered this climb a walk in the park. They had already been to the summit and were on their way down when they had to pass us coming up. As fate would have it, they met at Bailey’s moment of decision.They stepped out of the cables and literally hopped around and down around us. In any other situation, this would have appeared comical, but not so from our vantage point. Simultaneously, from somewhere high above us, a climber had dropped their Nalgene water bottle. As it bounced and clatter down the dome, it passed right between the frenchman, dancing on the sheer edge, and Bailey clinging to the cables. That bottle never stopped its drop but simply disappeared as it fell the thousand or more feet through empty space, crashing against the rocks far below. And that was it. Bailey made her decision.

To be continued ……..

Half Dome ……. The Cables

Part Five: Kathryn made the first move. As we sat there contemplating those cables, Kathryn exclaimed that having come this far and covered so much ground already, she was not turning around without at least touching them. As she headed across the saddle toward the cables, Bailey spoke next. “You know she isn’t going to stop there so I guess this means we’re going.” And that was that. By the time we reached the cables, Kathryn was already climbing. We pulled on our gloves, grabbed our backpacks and followed; Bailey went first, then me and John right behind us.

It was then that the first mistake was committed. For whatever reason, Kathryn decided to leave her backpack on the saddle. This included her water bottle. By now, we had been walking for nearly seven hours. We were tired, hot, and though we had been trying to stay hydrated, this was not the time to leave behind such a precious commodity. But, already almost 100 feet above us, Kathryn was not coming back down. And so we climbed.

The first hundred or so feet were reasonable. The angle of climb was near 45 degrees but doable. We were getting comfortable with the cables and proficient at switching our carabiner each time we reached one of the stanchions, but that didn’t last long. At around 150 feet, the pitch increased to over 60 degrees. At this point, it was like climbing a ladder. The carabiner switch became more and more difficult. We were now reaching behind us to unhook and then re-hook on the other side of the stanchion. Every time we reached back, we got to look straight down, not just the 200 feet of cables, but all the way down the sides of the dome to the valley over 2000 feet below. And that is when our next problem arose.

To be continued ………

Half Dome ….. The Ascent

Part Four: 3:15 am, time to get ourselves going. The sun would not be up for another two hours, but we were, and with good progress, we might get to see sunrise from the top of Nevada Falls.

man standing on brown rock cliff in front of waterfalls photography

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Pexels.com

We set out from camp by 3:30 as planned. We had put on rain slickers and donned our head lamps so we would be able to see our way as we followed the trail up the falls, but we still had close to a half hour walk to get to the trailhead. From there we would take the Mist Trail, aptly name as it follows up the south side of Vernal Falls and is blanketed with mist floating off the thundering cascade. Cut into the rock wall that created Vernal Falls, we would follow the steps of the trail up the side of the falls to a crossover point midway between the top of Vernal Falls and the spillway for Nevada Falls.

Half Dome 7

Everything was going as planned. We hit the trailhead at 4:00 am and with some degree of effort, managed the climb through the maze of rock steps in the predawn darkness. The mist would shimmer off the light from our head lamps as we negotiated the trail and then bounce back of the wet granite walls. The saying, it’s always darkest just before the dawn, was taking on a very literal interpretation. We eventually crested the top of Nevada Falls just before sunlight began to creep over the peaks and gently spill over the valley now two thousand feet below us. We took a well earned break and ate our first snacks of the day as we watched the sunrise display its artwork on the peaks around us.

The next leg of the ascent was the easiest as we hiked the three miles on a nearly flat trail snaking alongside the Merced River. This area is called the Little Yosemite Valley and for many climbers it is where they spend the night before summiting. This cuts two to three hours off the climb and allows for an earlier summiting. We simply trudged on and actually made good time through this section all the while knowing that the next section of trail would be much more difficult.

Once you leave Little Yosemite Valley, the trail links up with the John Muir Trail and the ascent up to and around the backside of Half Dome starts testing the legs. Through what seemed like a never ending series of switchbacks, the trail rose steeply for another two or three miles and twenty-five hundred feet of elevation. Eventually the trail reaches the lower part of Half Dome where another set of switchbacks awaits, this time above the tree line and set on the granite of the lower dome. It seemed to us that this leg of the climb from Little Yosemite Valley to this spot at the lower dome actually required the most encouragement. With each switchback, we would expect to see Half Dome just ahead. The reality was, more trail, more climb, and another switchback. When we finally reached the lower dome, we were near exhaustion, but at least feeling like we were getting close. Five hundred more feet of elevation and we arrived at the saddle.

A saddle is the connecting ridge between the two halves of a mountain. It is often called the false peak due to the real peak being obscured by the lower half of the face. Reaching the top of the saddle, we got our first views of the three thousand foot drops on either side of the saddle and, straight ahead and above us, the cable route. No picture can do it justice. The summit is just over six hundred feet above you at this point, but it’s the steep incline that grabs you, close to 60 degrees for over two-thirds of the route. The cables are strung about four feet apart and pass through stanchions hammered into the granite at six to eight foot intervals. Though not required, most climbers use carabiners to clip onto the cables for some sense of safety and gloves to deal with the rough steel braid of the cable itself. Both the view and the task ahead is daunting.

Half Dome 4

We are here, but our apprehension level just went off the chart. As we sit on the rocks, staring up at the challenge of the cable climb, we are asking ourselves some fairly serious questions. Are we ready to make the next move? Are we ready to clip on?

To be continued………..

Half Dome …….. Anticipation

Part Three: We arrived in California on July 6th, 2009 seemingly ready, excited and a little apprehensive. We had decided to spend several days with my sister and brother-in-law in Bishop. Bishop is located on the northern end of Owens Valley, situated between the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains to the east. Our stay here would give us time to visit but also time to get acclimated to the altitude and to get some last minute advice on our climb. During our stay, we planned on quizzing both my sister Kay and her husband, Horst, about the times that they had lived in Yosemite and more specifically about when they had made this climb we were about to attempt.

Kay and Horst were able to give us much better descriptions of the route. In our pre-planning, we had intended to hit the trailhead by no later than 6:30 am, but Horst suggested that we plan on leaving from our encampment by 4:30 am so as to reach the trailhead by 5:00 am. In the meantime, a friend of Horst was called in for more up to date info as he had recently been to Yosemite. He informed us that at this time of year the route was getting crowded and there were actually log jams on the cables making them slow but also more dangerous. His suggestion was to be at the trailhead no later than 4:00 am to beat the crowds. This meant a 3:30 am start. It was starting to look like we might as well skip sleeping all together.

On our second day in Bishop, Horst, as mentioned previously, agreed to hike us up on Mt Tom where we could get up to some higher elevations. This would test our legs, lungs and our mettle. What ensued was a great chance to not only see some incredible scenery, but the opportunity to test out our gear and our hiking ability as we continuously climbed on the trail eventually reaching the glacier at 10,000 feet of elevation. Hike accomplished, now we were really ready and chomping at the bit to get going.

Day three found us entering the park and taking the two hour drive across Tuolumne Meadows and eventually down to the Valley Floor. Our entrance to the Valley did not disappoint. There was Half Dome looming high above us, just daring us to try. After longing glances at its huge granite half dome features and Half Dome’s prominent beak like overhang, we headed to our encampment in Yosemite Village.

trees under white cliff

Photo by William Brand on Pexels.com

Our accommodations consisted of a canvas tent placed on a raised deck. We had cots to sleep on, but that was the extent of the amenities. In a way this was okay. Considering our wake up time would be around 3:15 am, we at least wouldn’t be giving up a comfortable bed begging us to keep sleeping.

five green plastic armchairs near canopy tents

Photo by Vikas Sawant on Pexels.com

Before hitting our cots, we packed all our gear and food into the bear box situated just outside of our tent. This necessity only added to our anxiety, all we would need is to be raided by a bear if not eaten by one sometime in the night. This thought alone was enough to keep us awake but we were given even more to think about when just about the time we were dozing off, a family noisily passed near our tent. As fate would have it, or stupidity, we clearly heard them drop their cooler of food only to hear the father say, “just leave it, we can’t eat it now anyway.” Oh, but we were sure the bears would be interested. Needless to say, between the anticipation, the uncomfortable cots, and every little noise that for sure had to be a bear, 3:15 am rolled around without a whole lot of sleep having been accomplished.

To be continued…………