The longest hike I have ever taken summarized in the longest blog entry I've ever written
Sat 26 May 2012 - Sun 27 May 2012 70 °F
Our Memorial Day Weekend trip to Yosemite began with one of those I-know-this-will-be-a-funny-story-later goddamnit events.
After driving about thirty miles into the park around winding mountain S-curves, we entered a long, straight tunnel. We both like driving through lit tunnels. There's something very THX 1138 about them. But neither the thrill of the tunnel, nor the previous eye-popping sights witnessed on our roadtrop, nor our combined 65 years of lifetime visual experience could possibly prepare us for our emergence on the other side of the hill. Behold, the appropriately named Tunnel View:
Cue: Oh my holy wowwwwwwww.
The large bald cliff face on the left is El Capitan. The waterfall you can see is Bridalveil Falls. And if you look closely, peeking its famous profile out from behind clouds is Half Dome. You might recognize it from the Sierra Online logo or perhaps identify a stylized version of it in the North Face logo. We had permits to climb that sucker.
After staring breathlessly at the view for a while, we turned back to our car in the convenient parking lot behind the lookout ... to find our driver's side rear tire as flat as a pancake.
"No problem! Where's the Fix-A-Flat?" asked Matt.
"We were supposed to have Fix-A-Flat? That definitely wasn't on the packing list."
Well, let's see what happens when we try to pump it up with our 12V compressor.
At this point, we were thirty miles or an hour's drive into the park on Memorial Day weekend, so AAA was not really an option. It was time to unpack half the car so we could get to the jack and the donut tire, while other park visitors looked at us with pity and made predictable noises of commiseration. I tried to take photos to commemorate the event, but only snapped one before I started to feel a bit weird watching my husband change a tire while I stood aside and took pictures like an insensitive tourist.
Then I noticed a few other tourists taking pictures of us. Those insensitive clods! I was all ready to make withering comments and chase them off, when I realized they weren't looking at our pneumatic misfortune, but at the magnets attached to the hatch. It seems our burgeoning collection had finally reached the tipping point at which they began to draw attention, comments, and yes, people asking to take pictures of the back of our car. This is from a couple of days earlier when we were in Area 51 (and before getting a car wash in Fresno). You can see we had to start a second row:
The other amusing interest we drew was from a German tourist, who, after Matt had already changed the tire and we were getting ready to pull away, felt the need to inform us several times in a very German way that our donut tire was only rated for 40mph. Uh, yes, the park speed limit is 35mph, so that shouldn't be a problem. "You can go no more zan forty miles per hour. Do you know how zis vorks?" Yes, sir. Yes, we do.
Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at the Upper Pines Campground, which we had to book months in advance in a process that resembled scrambling for rock show tickets. Unfortunately, the looming cliff faces that surround the location didn't quite make up for the overall crowdedness of the campground, which meant loud children and nauseatingly revolting bathrooms. Also, we didn't have any firewood, and we were too tired to go scouting for some. At least our neighbors were friendly - they were camping in Upper Pines for seven weeks in their RV, and on Memorial Day Weekend, their grandkids were visiting. When they heard we planned to hike Half Dome the next day, they advised us to start early. "That's a long hike. You want to be back before dark." Gulp. As we prepared for bed, we listened to the family jam out campside tunes on a ukulele; if I weren't so keen to rest before our giant hike, I totally would have busted out my mando and joined them.
Sunday, May 27, 2012, 5:00AM. Our cell phone alarms took turns interrupting our snoozing. We had wisely forced ourselves to do all our packing and preparation the night before, so we rolled out of the Magnum, threw on our packs, and set off to hike Half Dome, a rock that, until about 1870, was considered insurmountable.
The dome of the rock itself is 1,360 feet tall, but that's not taking into account the altitude. Hiking in high altitude is a good way to make unfit people feel even more unfit. I am the first person to admit that I live a basically sedentary lifestyle. I probably normally spend between eight and twelve hours of each day sitting in front of a computer screen. I don't exercise. Ever. I get puffed climbing a flight of stairs. But, with the low oxygen at high altitudes, even people who run every day feel their chests heaving with little exertion. What possessed me to attempt this challange I will never understand.
So, Upper Pines Campground is already at 4,000 feet above sea level. Just to get to the base of Half Dome, you have to climb about 3,500 feet straight up over an 8.5-mile hike from the valley; many people take two days just to hike there, camping halfway. Not us! The hike includes the 600 treacherously slippery granite stairs of the Mist Trail. Last year, at least four people died on the Mist Trail alone: three were swept over Vernal Falls, and one slipped on the steps and died of head injuries. Then, before you get to the infamous Half Dome cables, the Sub Dome must be scaled via yet another excruciating round of 442 switchback stairs hewn into the granite rock, and 600 yards of perilous sloped trail that looks impossible to scale from below. By the time you reach the top of Half Dome, your elevation is 8,835 feet above sea level.
I'm not going to lie: that hike was killer. At times it felt like a death march. By the third waterfall, I really didn't care about waterfalls anymore; I could only think of my aching calves and quads. I imagined Pai Mei waiting for me at the top somewhere.
After 8.5 miles of uphill walking, which took six or seven hours, we finally arrived at the Stairmaster. I mean, the Sub Dome. The process of moving at this point went something like this: 1. Ascend five to eight stairs. 2. Sit down exhausted and catch breath. 3. Repeat about 75 times.
By this point, there was no turning back. We had invested too much. We had to attempt the infamous cables.
The Half Dome cables have a reputation for being scary and dangerous, which is not unjustly earned. Last July, a 26-year-old woman plummeted 600 feet to her death after slipping and falling from the ropes. The next month, a man fell 4,000 feet from the top of the rock down the sheer cliff face. Perhaps the most terrifying Half Dome story is that of a group of climbers in 1985 who were subjected to a thunderstorm when they reached the top. When the next group of hikers ascended, they were met with a horrifying sight: all five of the hikers had been struck by lightning, killing two of them. I was probably wise not to read the book about the disaster before attempting the climb myself, though I think I'm going to pick it up when I get home.
A note on acrophobia: when I was a kid, my parents would call me "Monkey" for my tendency and ability to skinny up poles -- including one outside our house that was at least 25 feet tall -- but I stopped that well before I reached my adult weight. As a grown-up, I can absolutely understand why my parents were always freaking out and yelling at me to come down, though at the time I felt completely secure gripping a pole between my feet. I've found that as I get older, I become more afraid of heights. Partly I think it's because I've seen more people fall. In particular, my dad fell off a roof in 2003 -- I ran outside to find him lying in a spreading pool of blood (he was fine after some stitches to his scalp) -- which scared the hell out of me. Partly, it's because I have more to lose now. And partly, it's because when you're a kid you think you're immortal, and the older you get, the more you realize how untrue that assumption is.
Where was I? Oh yes, climbing Half Dome. I figured before the trip that, given my worsening vertigo, the greatest hurdle of the climb would not be physical, but psychological. And so, I decided to take the fear factor completely out of the picture by getting both of us climbing harnesses and via ferrata carabiner sets. With these sets, you hook yourself to the cable as you climb it using carabiners at the ends of two lines with suspension systems. When you get to a rope support pole, you move the carabiners over to the other side of the rope one at a time, so you are always connected to the rope by at least one line. I remember using sets like these at school camp in grade ten on some crazy high rope course, and wasn't even slightly scared.
It totally worked. While other people were overcome by vertigo and turned back, or froze on the way up or down, paralyzed by fear, Matt and I powered up that rock like it was nothing. Well, our arms and legs were tired, but we weren't afraid of falling off the ropes and splattering our brains and other organs over Yosemite Valley for helicopters to locate.
We were accompanied by a girl we met on the Sub Dome, Laura. Laura and her sister Hope leapfrogged us (and vice versa) several times on the trail, but when they got to the Sub Dome, Hope decided she didn't want to try the cables, so she kindly agreed to look after our gear so we'd have less encumbrances.
At the top, being from Philly, we kind of had to do the Rocky pose. Oh, so Rocky ran up the Museum steps? What a pansy. Try climbing Half Dome, you weakling.
We also met a marmot (ahhh so cute!) who had zero fear of humans.
The human in that shot was another friend we met on the hike, Sandy, who along with her buddy Nelly accompanied us for the entire hike back. They were great company, and hiking downhill was a huge relief after all that climbing, so that I barely noticed the time and effort it took to return. It only took about four hours to get back to the Valley.
When we finally arrived at camp, our limbs aching and our bodies covered in sweat, dirt, scrapes, and blisters, we made an executive decision that the Upper Pines Campgound just wouldn't cut it tonight. At that point, we would have given up our freedom and dignity for a proper hot shower and a hot dinner with plenty of protein, so we packed up and headed out of Yosemite for civilization in the form of an America's Best Value Inn and Taco Bell (nothing else was open, dammit). The motel was too expensive, but it was so worth it.
For the next two and a half days, we could barely move. Every time we came to a set of stairs, we turned into arthritic ninety-year-olds, creaking slowly and with much groaning. But we carried on!