Thursday, September 13, 2007

Half Dome, or How I discovered that Yosemite should really be named "Park with a Million Stairs"

Despite being a little bit sore from our hike the day before and not getting very much sleep on account of the noisiest neighbors in the world, Rene and I got up bright and early Sunday morning, 6 am to be exact, to begin our adventure! We are going to the top of Half Dome, damn it, and nothing is going to stop us! That trail is toast! 17 miles is nothing! Lack of sleep will make you feel giddy for no reason at all!

So when you get up that early a few things happen: (a) you are gung-ho and giddy for no reason at all, (b) you only do the absolutely necessary things, like put on your contacts and brush your teeth (screw the makeup bit! I look awesome!), (c) your hair sucks and you won’t care, (d) even though food is an important part of your day you will agree to only have two power bars to eat because you don’t want to carry any more extra crap in your backpack, and (e) shyness and decorum in a public toilet disappears. We got ready in 30 minutes and were walking the trail to Happy Isles to start our hike by 6:30 am.

So it turns out that the trailhead for Half Dome does not start until about a mile from Happy Isle, and due to the lack of signage Rene and I ended up taking the stock trail (horse trail) to the trail head. After about 20 minutes we felt like we were a lost because no one else was around except for a group of Japanese people up front, and why was there horse manure all over the place? Since we knew we had to go up, and the starting point was Happy Isle, we soldiered on and hoped for the best. After 20 more minutes we were at the trailhead to Half Dome, yay! The hike officially begins!

There are actually two ways to get to Half Dome: one way is to go through the Mist Trail and Vernal Falls, which is the shorter of the two but steeper (read: granite stairway for about a mile uphill), and the other way (the route we took) was to go through the Nevada Falls trail. The Nevada Falls trail was approximately one mile longer but not as steep, and although the terrain is still uphill the ground is packed dirt, which is easier on the knees. Rene and I had agreed to take a break once per hour, lasting from 10-15 minutes, so that we could make it to the top by the middle of the day. Our first break would last 15-30 minutes though because we were going to have breakfast and admire Nevada Falls.

After hiking two plus miles uphill we were rewarded with a great view of Nevada Falls, and we took our longest break of the day. We ate our power bars while looking at the waterfall then made our way to the lookout point about half a mile away. We stopped for a few minutes to take pictures and admire the view. Yosemite is breathtaking. It’s still a little cold up in the mountains but the sun is up and warm on your back, and you can see the rays spreading throughout the valley full of cedar and pine trees. It was nice to take a moment and marvel at the beauty of Yosemite. I hope that many more generations after me will enjoy the same view.

I wished I could marvel at the view all day, but as it was we needed to get back on the trail to make it to our destination. We spotted a mama dear and her baby crossing the trail soon after Nevada Falls and snapped a picture with them in the background. What’s unfortunate about that picture is that I looked crazy with my hat turned up and a stupid smile on my face. Rene had to take the picture quickly and I didn’t have time to react – that’s my excuse! But isn’t the little baby cute? Awww! You can barely make them out but they're on the right side of the picture, near the boulder in the back.

The next three hours I will gloss over – it was all about hiking hiking hiking. Sometimes we were hiking a nice flat shaded area, and other times I thought I was going to need an ambulance. Actually, I only bonked once during a steep switchback because my backpack was beginning to get heavy and I need a break. I think it had to do with the altitude and being tired, because you ascend almost 5,000 feet on your way up to Half Dome. Before we took a break I was taking deep breaths (but still breathing hard like a crazy stalker) and was moving so SLOW. And I was really hungry. Rene relented and gave me a ten minute break, took my backpack (which really didn’t have a lot in there, just some water, a sweater, sunblock, and a power bar but it seemed to weigh a ton), and we were jamming from there. We didn’t stop until we reached the beginning of the last two stages: the really steep stairs and the cables.

Before we ascended the really steep stairs we took a 20-minute break and ate our lunch, another power bar. We sat on this gigantic log and kept having to shoo away these crazy squirrels. No matter how much we yelled or stamped our feet or threw pebbles at them they kept coming back. They are probably accustomed to tourists feeding them, thus taking away their fear of humans. I normally don’t mind squirrels but I am used to having them keep their distance. I used to have a dog called Squirrel Master (Princess). Princess, er Squirrel Master, really, really hated squirrels, and back when we used to have a yard she would spend the whole day plotting a way to get those damned rats with cool outfits. She would literally sit under a tree and watch them, then pounce and go after them if they ever set foot in our yard. Those squirrels were marked for death! I miss my girl Princess and hope she was watching us from above, probably freaking out about those damn squirrels bothering Rene and I.

After our break, we took a deep breath and ascended the stairs. Now these stairs are made from a white granite-y material and are carved into the mountain. They are steep, and there are no railings to hold on to. Oh, and you have to share the stairs with other people going up and down, thus making it a wee bit dangerous for those who are inattentive or are afraid of heights. When you climb these stairs, make sure you are paying attention to not only what you are stepping on but also who is in front of you and behind you. The stairs are not very wide and sometimes you have to give way to others, especially if they are old Japanese people with ski poles practically breathing down your neck. Show-offs! Rene and I took a break going up the stairs even though our hour wasn’t up because I was getting tired and there was only one lick of shade on the way up to the cables, which is where we decide to stop. At some point the stairs end but you are not yet at the top of the hill – you have to climb up the hill itself to get to the cables.

Side note: If you are planning to go on this hike, make sure your shoes have adequate grip. I’m not saying to go out there and buy yourself a new pair of hiking shoes (I used a pair of trail running shoes myself), but make sure you can comfortably climb on rocks with the shoes you will be wearing. This means no basketball shoes, tennis shoes, Doc Martens, deck shoes, etc. Wearing these shoes will make you slip and put the fear of falling in you. When you are scaling the stairs and cables and don’t have enough grip in your shoe, you will force people to wait behind you and that will suck. Especially when climbing down the cables.

About the cables – man it looked bad. It looked scary, and not very secure, and tiring. Cables all the way up there! FOR REAL?! Climb up that thing! Do I look like I have a death wish?! Deep breaths, deep breaths, keep it together… After looking at the cables for a few minutes and thinking about how far I’d already gone I took the plunge and did it. JUST DO IT – if the old lady can do it so can you! Once I got on the cable I realized that it looked scarier than it was (but make sure to bring gloves for grip). Once you are on the cables it is not so bad – put all your focus on climbing up and the person in front of you. The steel poles that connect the cables are surprisingly sturdy. When stopping during your ascent try to stop by the poles and use the wooden planks placed between them as a ledge; it will help you rest your legs and arms. Most importantly, use only one side of the cables! Do not try to climb up using both cables – one is meant for people going up and one is meant for people doing down. Using both cables means screwing up both directions (and people will hate you and possibly push you down the mountain – just kidding! But really they will hate you so don’t do that) and in my opinion is not very safe. Also, when you are climbing up observe the people climbing down so you can start thinking about the best way to descend. And it is NOT by using both cables, ever, I will pretend not to know you and curse you along with the others if you do this. You will be dead to me.

See how easy it is? Just one step at a time...

After all that, we made it to the top! Yay! Happy happy joy joy happy happy joy! And you know what? The view was AWESOME! I think the pictures speak for themselves:

Rene and I stayed at the summit for an hour and took a little nap under a rock. We woke up feeling refreshed and ready for our descent.

So only one word sums up our descent – LONG. It took us an hour and a half to get down from the summit because some idiot decided to use both sides for the cable to descend. It caused a huge backlog and made everyone really, really mad. I understand that people have physical limitations and have to do things their way, I do, but making a line of people wait for an hour and a half while holding on to a steel cable is really not the right time to have this handicap. After we got down from the cables we were seriously tempted to tell him off or give him a hard shove but figured he already got some choice words from the people behind him. Whoever he is, I hope he learned his lesson! And the lesson is (everyone say it): DON’T USE BOTH SIDES OF THE CABLE! And face the mountain when descending!

Rene and I jammed on the way down – it was all downhill from there and we only stopped to chillax (chill + relax = chillax) by a creek and dip our toes in the water. Ah, it was a very refreshing 30 minute rest.

The part where we went wrong was when faced with the decision of going down through Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls – since we ascended through Nevada Falls, why not descend down Vernal and see another waterfall on the way down? Big mistake! So you know how going down stairs is hard on your knees? These stairs down to Vernal Falls killed ours. By the time we got to Vernal Falls we must have climbed down a million stairs (that’s what my knees told me and I’m sticking to it) and were really tired. Plus, it was beginning to get dark. We didn’t spend much time admiring the falls on account of darkness heading our way, not to mention those damn stairs. By the time we made it to the bus stop at Happy Isle it was full-on night fall. It was 8:30 pm folks, and we hiked for 14 hours.

Just to spice up our evening a black bear crossed the street and started checking out the trash cans by the bus stop. At first we thought it was a cute little bear but after shining a light on that thing we realized it was an adult bear trying to get some food. The people at the bus stop all banded together and were trying to make a lot of noise when the bus came. Oh the bus – I have never been happier to see the bus! Bus to the rescue!

What happened next was a blur. I think we ate pizza then crashed until morning. Actually I take that back – we slept when our neighbors would pipe down and let us, which didn’t make for many hours of sleep.

The next day we had breakfast with Erin and Jeff at the world famous Awahnee hotel, where they prepared individual omelets for us. We had delicious food, albeit not the Sunday brunch (apparently that only happens on, ahem, Sunday). Afterwards, when we were all stuffed we headed back home. On the road again, and back to life.

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