Sunday, August 14, 2011

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. :)

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