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.
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.
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.
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………..