July 25, 2015
5 miles + 8 miles to/from Half Dome, 5 JMT miles total
Happy Isles Trailhead to Little Yosemite Valley Campsite
Courtney and I rose early this morning, having not been able to sleep very well. It was like anticipating the first day of school: you spend the whole night dreaming about forgetting your locker combination, being late to all your classes, and showing up on campus without pants. Except when you dream about the wilderness, you dream about getting eaten by a bear. Without pants.
“Did you hear me get up to pee last night?” Courtney asked as we packed up for the day.
I vaguely remembered her tumbling out of the tent last night, when I was somewhere in between a bear dream and a broken ankle dream.
“I got lost on the way back,” she said.
“You got lost?!” I glanced out the tent flap, where, directly in my line of sight, was the backpacker’s restroom building.
“There are a LOT of people here!” Courtney said defensively, “and it was dark, and there was a lot of snoring, and I got disoriented! So I came out of the bathroom and took a wrong turn.”
“A wrong turn. We’re ten feet in front of the bathroom,” I said.
“Well, I DID,” she said, “and then I couldn’t find my way back, so I just started stumbling around at random people’s tents until I tripped over our tent ties.”
“God help us try to navigate 221 miles, much less ten feet!” I laughed.
When we were packed and ready to go, we hopped on the shuttle to the Happy Isles trailhead, where begins not only the John Muir Trail, but also the trail to Half Dome. Despite the early hour, there were already gaggles of day hikers making their way up the trail to get their chance to tackle the cables of Half Dome. I envied their tiny packs. Ours were fully loaded with four days worth of food and all our gear, weighing 40 pounds, at least. And the trail out of the Valley was unforgiving. Steep, rocky, slick, and steady. It gained 1,000 feet per mile as it crunched its way out of the Valley and up to Vernal Falls.
My pack was hot and heavy, and it dug awkwardly into my shoulders as I lumbered up the trail. I wasn’t accustomed to it, yet; it was an unwelcome guest hitching a ride, and I couldn’t get comfortable beneath it. But despite its burden, I was in high spirits, and the weather was cool and crisp for an early summer morning, so we made good time up the trail.
We soon reached Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls shortly after. Courtney and I stopped to put on sunscreen, eat a snack, and take pictures. The sun was growing hotter with each hour, and hiking beneath it more uncomfortable, so we hurried on our way. We only had five miles to our first night’s campground at Little Yosemite Valley, but it seemed much longer. Our permits dictated that we had to camp there our first night, and it was somewhat of a relief to stop early. But it was also only 11:30am, and after setting up our tent, having lunch, and storing our gear in the metal bear containers at the site, we grew bored. Half Dome was only four miles further, and since we had applied for permits to climb it, we decided to put them to use.
Courtney and I removed the tops of our backpacks to use as daypacks. We brought one liter of water each, and a couple of granola bars to eat on the way. I didn’t have any way to secure my pack lid to me, so I used a bit of rope and gear ties to lash it around my waist. Courtney clipped hers to her belt loops, but either way, they banged around uncomfortably as we walked.
The trail to Half Dome followed the JMT for another two miles before splitting off, and for some reason those two miles felt like death warmed over. The afternoon sun was beating down, the trail was rocky and harsh, and the altitude kept slamming me in the chest. We climbed from 6,000 feet to 8,000 feet, and my lungs – accustomed to the sea-level rich oxygen of Portland – gasped through the climb. It took three hours to go the four miles to Half Dome, climbing all the while. On the final ascent up to the sub-dome, my heart was hammering, partially with the altitude and partially in fear – I was not a fan of heights, and I knew the hype that surrounded Half Dome. Every person I passed I asked about the cables.
“Is it scary?” I said again to a hiker who was lounging peacefully against a tree, looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
“Stop asking everyone that,” Courtney groaned. “You’re just making it worse.”
“I want to know,” I said. Knowledge made me feel like I had power. Maybe, the more opinions I digested, the more I could wrap my head around the ascent.
“Not so scary,” the hiker responded.
“Are you afraid of heights?” This seemed a critical nuance.
“Yes,” he said. “Are you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But what about heights scares you?” he asked.
“Umm… the height part?”
“That is to say,” he mused, “I’m scared of the falling part. Heights make me scared that I will fall and brutally maim myself so that I will never walk again.”
“Well that’s…. descriptive,” I said.
“But,” he continued, “Half Dome doesn’t scare me because I know if I slip, I will be instantly killed from the fall. There’s comfort in that.”
I stared at him as he closed his eyes again, settling his hat over his eyes.
“Right,” I grumbled. “Thanks for the advice.”
“See?” Courtney said, as we left him napping in our wake, “that’s what happens when you ask people.”
We crawled up the slick scree to the granite-smooth top of sub-dome, and Half Dome itself suddenly loomed in our view. The cables cut a harsh line down the natural curved slope, and a row of people moved like ants up the line. There was a pile of raggedy gloves at the base of the cables, and I grabbed a warm pair from the stack. Courtney went ahead of me, grasping the twisted metal and hauling herself up the line. I followed slowly behind, testing the grip of my shoes against the smooth granite. At each of the cable’s posts was a slat of wood, balanced precariously between them, used as stepping stones on the way up. Frightened people clung to the posts at each stop, bracing themselves against the slats. They blocked the route and made it harder to ascend, particularly for someone afraid of heights. Stopping at each post only made the ascent that much harder; better to go quickly, like ripping off a bandaid. Courtney saw this was the case, so she powered up the cables, weaving in between the frozen people without stopping, trying not to look down. I followed step by step, trying to keep my breathing steady as the cables lurched higher. I moved confidently up the line until I reached halfway, when I ran into a man and woman clinging to both sides of the posts. There was hardly a good way to go between them, and I didn’t want to let go of my death-grip on the cables.
“Going up first?” the man asked, “or should we come down first?”
“You… you come down,” I said.
I waited until they passed me, delicately, like a dance, and then scooted up further on the line. But the momentary pause had broken my rhythm. The edges of the climb loomed up around me. Someone at the top of the cables dropped their water bottle. I heard it clink, clink, clink, all the way down the ridge until it disappeared into the abyss. Suddenly I felt like all the others: frozen on the wooden slats. I peeked up to see Courtney disappearing over the ridge. The cables suddenly curved higher, almost 90 degrees straight up the face of Half Dome for the final ascent. I took a breath and a step – and slipped.
My feet fell from under me and my hands felt sweaty inside the gloves that wrapped tightly around the cables – the only thing keeping me from following the water bottle down the ridge. I found my footing again and clung to the post, looking up and down, deciding which way to go. There were people at the next post, waiting for me to ascend. But my terror had won out, and I slowly turned myself around, scooting back down the cables.
It was a strange sensation, going down. I had read somewhere that it was easier to go face-first, which seemed counter-intuitive. But by bracing my arms in front of me along the cables, I was able to let my feet follow slowly after, and I felt like I had more control that way.
By the time I reached the bottom again, my legs and arms had turned to jelly. I collapsed on one of the rocks of sub-dome, and admired the view from there, which was stunning in its own right. I was down to my last few drops of water, and my tongue felt huge in my throat, dry and thirsty.
The sun was starting to set when Courtney came back down, praising the view from the top. We ate our snacks and downed the last of our water. We still had four miles back to camp.
When we reached our tent, we were exhausted, physically and emotionally spent. Everything in my body hurt in one way or another. Courtney and I cooked a warm dinner and then walked down to the Merced River to fill up our reservoirs. The river was crisp and clear and inviting, so we stripped to our underwear and waded in, feeling the cold water puddle around us. We washed off the dust of a long day and were asleep by 8:00pm in our tent.