Sunday, August 14, 2011

Check out this video of Daisy. I think her 'venture to Yosemite has her convinced that she can do anything!

The Great American Roadtrip Part 5

The morning we woke up for the big hike, I was colder than I had been the first two nights. For all my worrying about Daisy suffocating in my sleeping bag, I was still actually getting a better night's sleep with her in there. Anyone who thinks letting two Cocker Spaniels sleep in your tent with you is a bad idea needs to keep in mind that's sixty pounds of personal space heater- and you don't even need a generator! So, without Gatsby and Daisy in the tent to warm us, the nights had definitely been chillier. Still, when Andy's rooster alarm clock went off, it took a minute to shirk off the desire to roll over and go back to sleep. This was our third morning waking up in camp, and each morning we'd had something that required us to rise early. Not much of a vacation, in some people's opinion (including my husband's, at times) but we both knew that in the long run, when we were taking in the views from the top of Half Dome, it would be worth it.

"Let's do this!" I said, and we both climbed out of the tent. We double checked our daypacks to make sure we had all that we needed for the day, filled up four water bottles and Andy's camelbak at the campground sink, and we were off. It was still fairly dark outside when we left camp. The guide books recommended leaving the Trailhead at 5 AM! Andy and I weren't that ambitious, but we had wanted to leave around 6. The trail from the Valley to the summit of Half Dome is an 8 mile hike, ascending 4000 vertical feet. We had timed ourselves on the McGurk Meadows trail and reasoned that we could travel about 1.5 to 2 miles an hour, which would put us at the summit right around lunchtime, leaving plenty of time to descend before it got dark.

We drove down to the Valley, and parked in the Trailhead Parking lot, which is just past Curry Village. It wasn't even 6:30 AM, and already the lot was almost full. People do park in the lot and take multiple day trips into the high country, so parking can be scarce anytime of day or night, really. We walked down to the Happy Isles information center/restroom. We decided a last minute pit stop wouldn't be a bad idea. While there, I noticed a big group stretching off to one side. I listened intently to their guide, who was like the Yosemite version of Bob Green (Oprah's personal trainer). He was talking to them about conserving energy and when to rest, etc. etc. and, I'll admit, I thought it was all really intense for a day hike. I haven't done much camping, but I have done my fair share of hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I'll admit that I think a part of me was like, "What's the big deal?" The trail maps and guidebooks all said that the trail up to Half Dome was not for those who were out of shape or afraid of heights- but, of course, that all depends on what your definition of "out of shape" and "afraid of heights" is. While on the trail, we encountered a number of people who did not look at all physically fit. In fact, that was my first assessment of some of the characters in the Bob Green group. But, to my surprise, they made it farther than I did! Which makes me believe that Half Dome is really more a summoning of the will than anything else. Still, those warnings proved to be accurate indeed, as Andy and I were soon to find out.

I think that God must have noticed my, "I've got this!" attitude right away, because soon after leaving the Happy Isles center, Andy and I embarked on our journey with confidence... on the wrong trail. Rather than starting on the Mist Trail, which would take us up a wet and precipitous route by Vernal and Nevada Falls, we walked in a circle around Happy Isles, a peninsula that doesn't lead to any other trails. When we recognized our error, I was appropriately humbled. We corrected ourselves, fortunately only having lost about ten minutes or so and got over to the correct trail just on the heel's of the big group.

If you really were very, very out of shape, you would figure out that the Mist Trail is not for you right away. The first half mile is a very steep grade of paved path that continues almost all the way to the base of Vernal Falls. I started out wearing soccer warm-ups, but after only a few hundred feet, my legs were burning, and I shed the cover and continued in shorts. We trudged up the paved pathway, not really pausing. I reasoned that I would take pictures on the way down, because there was really very little light at this early hour. After about a mile, we found ourselves face to face with Vernal Falls. Here's a picture of the falls (though it was taken in the afternoon, I figure you might want to see what it looks like)

Vernal Falls is captivating at any time, but I think the hikers on the trail on August 3, 2011 were maybe a little more in awe of its power, because as we all began the Mist Trail, we were met by these signs.

These three hikers were trying to take a photograph, while standing in the Merced River atop the falls. The two hikers being photographed lost their balance and were quickly swept into the flow that feeds the falls. The photographer tried to help his friends, and he too was caught up in the flow. All three went over the falls. Because of the heavy snows this past winter, the rivers and waterfalls are still flowing at a higher than average rate, so the park did not dispatch a search and rescue team, believing that more lives would be put at risk in the process. So these flyers are posted around the Vernal Falls area in case a hiker happens upon some trace of these three friends.

Hiking up the Mist Trail after viewing those flyers was very sobering. Vernal Falls roars to your left as you ascend some very steep steps to the top. And it's not called the Mist Trail for nothing. The cold spray almost completely soaks you, and by the time you get to the top, you look like this...

Andy has said multiple times that the trail "kicked his butt." Here he is, soaking from sweat and mist at the top of Vernal Falls. We stopped there for breakfast. Andy's not normally a breakfast eater, and when I packed up three breakfast tacos in our packs, I think he said something about, "I don't know if I'm going to want one of those." But after a mile uphill on the Mist Trail, I think he changed his tune just a bit.

I was pretty chipper for the whole way up, but don't worry, my butt (and all of the rest of me) got what was coming to it on the way down.

As we continued up the Mist Trail, I could never decide if I was hot or cold. The strenuous work of hiking up the trails made me sweat, but the mist and the shadows of the deep ravine kept the external temperature really cold. I was so grateful when the sun started to rise higher in the sky and warm things up a little bit!

The sun also made this beautiful rainbow at the base of Nevada Falls, our next sight to see on the Mist Trail.

Nevada falls, with its 500 ft drop, is even more impressive than Vernal Falls.

Even though there was a lot of physical work going on, the morning passed really quickly (in my opinion. Andy might have a different version of the story!) Before we knew it, we were at the point where the two trails (the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail) that reach the summit convene. My friend Danielle, who grew up in the San Francisco area and has been up the John Muir before, warned us to take the Mist Trail because the John Muir is an equine trail, and is therefore populated by piles of what horses make. But after ascending to the top of Nevada falls, the two trails meet, which does, like my friend said, make the trail a little less fragrant, but, on the other hand, the trail's grade evens out considerably, making each step a lot less work. By the time we stopped for lunch at this little stream you see here, I was feeling tired, but great. So great, in fact, that I felt like taking a little excursion off the beaten path. From where Andy and I lounged eating our turkey wraps, we could see, just on the other side of this stream, a granite rock face that slanted in our direction. From our vantage point across the stream, it looked like it would be perfectly easy to just crawl up the granite to its peak and take a look at the view. Andy, reluctantly, agreed to my hair-brained idea.

But, of course, once we started actually crawling up the rock wall, I realized that the grade was much steeper than I anticipated. I think that even Andy was a little surprised by how difficult it was to try to get to the top of the wall. About half way up, I realized I was way over my head and decided it was time to stop these shenanigans and get back to the trail. Andy agreed. The problem was- I didn't know how to get off the stinking wall. Fortunately, Andy has spent many years climbing rocks, and he instructed me over toward a big crack in the wall. Bu getting to the crack was a huge struggle. I don't even remember what happened, except that I began to get scared, really scared. I mentioned before that I am afraid of heights. Some people think that being afraid of heights is something you can just get over if you "face your fear" enough. I completely disagree. For one thing, I'm convinced this fear is genetic. My mom, her sister, and my brother are all completely terrified of heights- some of them more so than myself. This makes me think that the phobia is actually a physiological problem, probably affecting some part of the brain. So telling someone like me to just get over their fear of heights by facing it is like telling someone to get over their asthma by running a bunch of sprints. Most likely, their lungs will shut down and they'll be rushed to the hospital. And it's sort of the same thing with me and the heights. I'd LOVE to be able to ascend mountains and never have a problem, but the moment that I look out (not down, like people think) but out at all of that space around me, I begin to panic. This is what happened on the granite wall. Even though I knew I ought not to, I couldn't help but look out at the expanse around me. And, of course, I did this at a moment that I felt completely stuck on the wall. Fortunately, I have tried to conquer the height thing in the past- enough to have gone on several rock climbing trips when I was younger. From those trips, I remember one main thing- there is more on the wall to help you than you think. Immediately, I began to think of these excursions and Mr. Pinkston, the veteran (in more ways that one) climber who taught me this important lesson. Thinking about this helped me think a little more clearly and not want to just bolt from the panic. That's another misconception with acrophobia. People think that you're afraid you're going to fall. I don't think I've ever actually even thought about falling. It's way more simple than that. It's that you are afraid that you are here. Falling never enters the picture. Just being in a place so high creates an almost unstoppable desire to do whatever seems quickest to get back to solid ground. This is the part of the fear that you can at least learn to manage, and I have tried to manage that urge to flee over the years. Unfortunately, one of the outlets for that fear is tears. So, wouldn't you know it? I began to cry. I looked at Andy and said, "I'm scared," and then the tears came. Even so, tears are much better than hyperventilation, which is the other alternative. The tears helped, actually, and so did Andy. He said, "Look at me. Look at me and do what I tell you to do." I did, and he managed to instruct me over to the crack, where I was able to place my hands in a very comfortable holding position and shimmy my way down the wall, using the forces of nature. It wasn't pretty, but we ultimately arrived back on solid ground, and made our way to the trail. I told Andy I was really sorry for wasting so much time and energy on something so foolish, and he was really gracious about it. The one good thing that came of this ridiculous foray, I recognized my limitations early in the hike. That way, when we arrived at the cable route on Half Dome, I didn't endanger myself or others by trying to do something I really could not do.

My brush with panic occurred about a mile or so from the Half Dome Trail. When we reached the sign for Half Dome trail, we had six miles behind us, two miles ahead and a lot of will to persevere. We wanted to make it to the top! But, I admit, as I began to get clearer views of the summit, I began to realize how daunting a task that would be. Because I looked up and this is what I saw...

The trail leads up to a place where two rangers are stationed. The rangers check each hiker for their Half Dome cable permit before allowing them to continue on the trail. After having ours checked, Andy and I moved forward on the "trail," which quickly evolves into a very steep ascent up some crudely carved steps. They are so steep and narrow that only one hiker can pass at a time, which means you have to step aside and allow others to pass. Fortunately, I'd learned my lesson about looking around on our misadventure on the granite wall, so I kept my head down and focused on each step. Fortunately, I was able to ascend this section of the summit trail without incident. That, in itself, was really an accomplishment for someone scared of heights. I heard many people say that they thought the steps harder than the cables. I, however, completely disagree. And here's why...

This picture was taken at the top of the "stairs" leading up to Half Dome. The little line you see cutting through the middle of the granite wall are people on the cables that lead to the summit. This was the point where I said to Andy, "I'm not going to be able to do that," and, thankfully, he didn't pressure me. Of course, I did have to walk closer and at least see what these cables were all about.

At the base of the cables, there's a pile of gloves (which I wish I had taken a picture of!) The gloves are for people like me, who have no idea what they're doing. The metal cables basically have to be ascended with gloves that have a rubber grip. Andy had brought some leather work gloves for himself, but even those were too slick for the cables. Up the wall, metal rods have been drilled into the rock in parallel. Wooden slats are laid across the rock, between the metal rods, making a "stair," if you can even call it that. The trick to ascending the cable route, is to hold onto the cable with your hands and walk your feet up the rock from wooden slat to wooden slat. The bottom few integrals didn't look too daunting, so I decided that I needed to at least experience a few steps of the Half Dome cable route. Actually, I made it up twelve (out of sixty) of the steps, before I began to breathe really heavily and I knew it was time for me to stop. I went down on the left (as you're supposed to) with Andy helping me from behind. Even though I wish I could have seen the top of Half Dome, I don't regret turning back at this point. The reason is because people do panic in the middle of the cable route and get stuck there for quite some time. This endangers everyone else on the route. Some climbers get frustrated and ascend or descend on the outside of the cable route (which I saw Andy do on a couple of steps, and I was scared for him!) in order to bypass the frozen climbers. There were many people who came off the cable route voicing their frustration over those climbers. I decided not to add to the number of already-panicked people on the cables, so I found a good place to sit in the sun while Andy, my brave husband, went all the way to the top. He took all of these shots from the summit and then on his descent. So proud of you, baby!

This is one of my favorite pics from the whole trip.

Yosemite Valley from the top.

Andy said that even though he complained a lot about the hike, once he got to the top, it was all worth it!

I was one of the those little dots down there, waiting for Andy to come back down. I had binoculars with me, so I saw his descent from there. It's really interesting, though, to see his perspective...

Andy kept our "foot picture" thing going on his own. :)

Victorious! (And you can see the glove pile!)

It took Andy a little over and hour to get to the summit and back. I watched the majority of the time through my little binoculars. Something about watching your husband dangle from the side of a mountain makes you really happy to see him when he gets back!

After conquering Half Dome, we stopped and finished our turkey wraps and took a few more pics before heading back down.

This is kind of a "profile" of Half Dome, if you will. The ascent to the far right is the "step" part of the trail, which I made it up, then the "dip" in the middle is where the cable route begins (and where I stopped). Andy climbed to the top left part of the mountain.

One last shot with the Half Dome trail sign and we were on our way.

On the way down, my knees started to ache with a fierceness. Also, my blood sugar took a plunge. We had already eaten all of our turkey wraps and most of our summer sausage and cheese. For a quick boost, Andy made me eat one of his Powerbar gels, which tasted so gross, but it got the job done.

Nevada Falls was really beautiful on the way back down in the afternoon light.

Vernal Falls

View of the Mist Trail from the top of Vernal Falls

Heading back down the Mist Trail.

Andy, already weary, and about to get wet.

Double rainbow all the way!

Surprisingly, as tired as we were, it only took us about three and a half hours to arrive back at Camp Curry, where we showered and feasted on cheeseburgers before returning back to our campground. We were so exhausted that when I was standing in line for the cheeseburgers, I thought my legs might collapse. But the 'venture was well worth it! I hope you agree. :)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Great American Roadtrip Part 4

When we woke up on Tuesday morning, we wasted no time. After Andy's long wait in line at the Mountaineering and Backcountry permit office on Monday, we knew there were lots of vacationers who were anxious to obtain Half Dome permits. But, I did pause long enough to look at my sleepy-haired husband and announce "It's your birthday!" which I followed with a big hug. But then, I think I said something like, "Now, we gotta get going!" The birthday boy moved pretty quickly. We had packed up all of our necessaries the night before, so all we had to do was grab the doggies and jump in the car. We wanted to be in Curry Village around 6:30 AM.

We succeeded in arriving with plenty of time, and while Andy went into the visitor's lounge to get logged into the correct website with his Droid, I got us some coffee at the coffee bar. Curry Village was just waking up, but there were enough early birds for there to be a line at the coffee bar and for space in the lounge to be just a little bit scarce- already at this early hour a handful of visitors were logging into cyberspace in the rustic-looking lounge, which is reminiscent of an 80's movie about summer camp.

Andy kept refreshing the screen on his Droid, waiting patiently for the clock to strike 7 so that he could pounce on the correct link and get us a couple of Half Dome permits. But as soon as 7 came, the permits were unavailable. Within milliseconds, it seemed, the fifty permits were completely gone! Andy hadn't even had a chance to click on the link that would have allowed us to register. We were dumbfounded. How could they have possibly gone so fast!? In less than a minute it seemed! Disappointed, Andy stepped out onto the lounge's large porch and paced back and forth between the rocking chairs, trying to reach the Mountaineering Office on the phone.

I sat inside waiting, more shocked than sulking, barely able to process what had just happened. A moment later, a man sitting to my left (whom I had not even noticed before now) let out an excited shout!. Another man (also unnoticed until this point) responded to the gleeful cry with, "Have you got a permit, then?" in some sort of European accent that I never could place. The guy was beaming, "Yep!" I just stared at them for a long time, half-jealous, half-happy that someone was able to log in to get permits. The guys conversed about how tedious the online sign-up is, and then they told me about the permits getting taken early on, just to be sold on ebay. At some point in their conversation, I chimed in- I don't remember about what exactly, but apparently, I conveyed our predicament clearly enough for the American guy to respond by shoving his own smartphone into my my hands. "Here," he said, "my phone is already logged into the registration page on the site. Maybe it will let you register your info, too. That way, at least your information is in there, so if you try to do it tomorrow, you can get in a little faster." I was tempted to just say, "no." Anyone who knows me well knows that technology and I are reluctant friends. I can hardly operate my own smartphone, much less a total strangers. But, before I even realized it, I was poking at his digital keyboard, entering Andy's information into the registration page on the National Parks Service website. Meanwhile, Andy was out on the phone, finding out the cold hard facts from the Mountaineering Office. He came back into the lodge while I was entering email address, phone number, zip code, etc. into the site, still using my new friend's cellular device.
"No permits. Already completely gone," he said.
"That's incredible," I said, still punching keys.
But what I was realizing, while I was punching said keys was that the site was going to let me register for permits. I was very wary about the situation. It seemed too good to be true. At least ten minutes had gone by since Andy had last refreshed the webpage on his Droid and received the bad news that all the permits were already gone. How could I possibly be able to register for permits so many minutes later? Unless...
The American guy had said something to the European about needing to go ahead and log into the registration page before the permits became available. Apparently, that's what he had done and he was able to successfully obtain four permits right off the bat. The thing was, he had never logged out of the registration page, but had just passed the phone off to me and allowed me to clear out his info and enter in Andy's. My heart started pounding faster and somewhere around me I could hear Andy conversing with the two guys, but I was zeroed in on what I was beginning to think was a tiny birthday miracle. With another couple of clicks, I completed the transaction- it worked! Somehow, by God's amazing planning, we had permits! I still don't quite understand how this happened. Apparently, the website only allowed a certain number of visitors to access the registration page at 7AM, but, once logged into the registration page, visitors could register for multiple permits at a time. In any event, at least fifteen minutes after being told that there were no permits available, Andy received a confirmation email on his Droid. We were going up Half Dome on Wednesday. We were pretty sure it was God's way of saying, "Happy Birthday, Andy!"

We thanked the American guy again and again for generously letting a total stranger who hadn't showered for two days use his cell phone. He was very gracious and said, "We'll see ya on the trail!" (Which, we actually did the next day!) Having given this kind stranger and the Lord plenty of thanks, we walked out stupefied at our birthday blessing!

We had planned ahead to clean up at the Curry Village shower house before making some more phone calls. So we got clean (the shower felt fantastic!) and then called a kennel that I had seen in a small town called Coursegold as we were heading toward the Park on Sunday. Now that we were definitely going to hike Half Dome, we would have to board Gatsby and Daisy overnight because dogs are not allowed on any hiking trails in Yosemite. They can walk around the Valley, and they are welcome in campsites, but any other trails are off-limits. So we called Graydon Kennels, and thankfully, they had available space for the dynamic duo. Andy and I decided we would take the doggies on a good walk around the Valley, though, before imprisoning them for almost two days. So off we went, for a nice morning walk on the Valley floor...

Andy and Gatsby walked down toward the Merced River for a few moments. Everything was still so quiet, like nature was still just waking up.

Our objective on this little excursion was the foot(ish) of El Capitan. Andy wants to someday climb "The Nose," a very difficult route on El Cap. Here, you can see El Capitan in the background. I guess this was just a time for them to get a little better acquainted with one another. :)

I'm completely in the shade, so not a great pic of me, but doesn't El Capitan look daunting in the background!? That's all you, Andy.

Andy wanted to get a closer look at The Captain, but...

Daisy had other plans for Daddy's attention.

But, it's Daisy, so she is easily distracted.

And Andy got a good look anyway.

In fact, I think he inspired Daisy to stare down the rock, too... or maybe she was sniffing out a squirrel. Who knows?

After a good walk, we drove the doggies out of the Park the hour-long drive to Coursegold. We ran a few errands while out of the Park, but wanted to head back and do a little hike before it got too late in the afternoon. We decided to hike a trail called McGurk Meadows, which was just down Glacier Point Road from our campground, but was absolutely beautiful in the late afternoon sun!

Lupine (which looks a lot like the Texas Bluebonnet) was blooming en masse on either side of the trail. The fragrance was incredible!

The birthday boy!!

Andy explored this little cabin while I stopped and smelled the everything...

Before too long, the trail opened up into this beautiful meadow.

We hung out on this little low water bridge for a moment or two.

We kept walking on toward Bridalveil Creek (which feeds the famous Bridalveil falls) and I gave Andy a birthday kiss!

After a little smooch, I led the way on toward Taft Point. We were hoping to make it all the way to this overlook, but knew we'd need to turn back, regardless of our position on the trail, around 6:30 so that we would have enough daylight to make it back to camp. We were moving quickly, so quickly, in fact, that I completely missed out on the fact that we had some company out in the woods. I was just trucking along when I heard Andy's voice behind me say, "Keep moving. There's a bear over there!" I looked to the left and saw a mass of brown fur about fifty feet away. I moved even faster after that, and kept my eyes wide open.

We didn't make it all the way to Taft Point, even though we were moving plenty fast after our bear encounter. But we did venture just slightly off-trail for a moment to this little spot, where we were reunited with our friend, The Captain, who was looking even more majestic in the fading sun than in the morning light we saw earlier that day.

It would have been cool to have dangled our legs over the edge for this foot picture, but, acrophobe that I am, I was not having it- it was a sheer drop from here. I was doing well to even walk out on this rock in the first place! But it was good practice because Wednesday's trip up Half Dome caused me more chills and thrills than this hike!

On the way back, Andy took this shot of moss growing on the North side of the trees. It almost looked like it was glowing.

We had a little more welcome company on the hike back to camp. We sang songs and said the 23rd Psalm out loud when passing through the place we saw the bear on the way out. People say black bears (which inhabit Yosemite and aren't always actually black in color) aren't all that bad. But I was freaked out anyway and needed to Psalms and verses to keep me calm.

We got back to camp with just enough daylight to get our daypacks ready for Wednesday's trek up Half Dome. We made sausage, egg and cheese breakfast tacos for dinner, then used the remaining tortillas to make some turkey and cheese wraps for the next day's lunch. I offered to make some sort of birthday dessert, but Andy declined, saying he wanted a Devil's Food Cake when we got back home (which I made earlier this week) But the day was plenty sweet anyway, and we went to sleep excited about the next day's journey up Half Dome.