Friday, August 19, 2011

Half Dome Hike: The Dissection

Warning: Long post ahead.

Saturday, Aug 6th 2011 will be etched in my memory forever. We hiked the Half Dome for the 2nd, and probably, for the last time on this day. I've never felt so strong and vulnerable at the same time. Strong, because I never thought I'd be able to make it to the top but I did. Vulnerable, because the grandeur of Yosemite reiterated the fact that we are all so small and feeble in the grand scheme of nature.

The story as it unraveled.

Climbing the Half Dome (HD) now requires a permit. And as expected, the permits are a hot commodity. We tried, unsuccessfully, to get permits for a day in May. Not getting permits in May turned out to be good, because the snow-pack in Yosemite had made the trails inaccessible, and the cables were not up until the beginning of June. Gini and I, targeted August as the month when we would hike the HD.

On May 1st, permits for August went on sale online at 7 AM. It was a scene out of the 'Situation Room' in our house that morning. Gini and I, were ready with 3 laptops, with credit cards, and with the calendar to get as many permits as we could for August dates. 7 AM, and boom! in a wild frenzy we snapped up 10 permits for 3 weekend dates in Aug. By 7:02 AM, all permits for August were taken. We were happy, we had a choice from 3 dates in Aug. We chose Aug 6th, with 4 permits. I gave away the rest of the permits on mrhalfdome's website.

The next hurdle to cross was getting accommodation inside the Yosemite park for those dates. Yosemite is crazy in summer, we'd have to be persistent in looking for cancellations for campsites. And persistence paid off. By end of June, I was able to get a campsite for Friday, Aug 5th. This was good, because we wanted to be inside the park on Friday so we could save time in getting to the trailhead on Saturday, Aug 6th. I kept looking for campsites everyday since then. And as luck would have it, I got the same campground and the same campsite for Aug 6th. We were now, in the true sense, all set for the hike!

We originally had plans to hike with Gini's sister and her husband. But they couldn't make it. We then asked a couple of other friends, who also were not able to make it. By July, we were pretty sure it was going to be just the 2 of us hiking. But then, our friends A+S, agreed to join us. Then C+A decided to join us as well. Together we were 6, and we had permits for 4. DANG! I was determined to get permits, so I posted notes on mrhalfdome's website and kept looking for 2 extra permits on the website. And voila! on Aug 2nd, I snapped up 2 permits that became available online. The stars had aligned. We had the campsite, the permits, and the dome awaiting us on Aug 6th!

With several sleeping bags and food in tow, we left bay area for Yosemite on Friday, Aug 5th at 4 PM. A 3 hour drive turned into a 5 hour nightmare because of traffic on 580 and 680. We reached the campsite at 9 PM. Pitched the tent and tried to sleep. The next day would be a LONG day!

Aug 6th. 5AM: Up from bed, everyone dressed up, drank coffee, bear-proofed the campsite, ate bagels+muffins for bf. We were delayed by an hour when we reached the Curry Village parking lot at 7:30 AM. We were still upbeat.

8AM: An ominous sign greeted us at the Mist Trail (MT)/ John Muir Trail (JMT) entrance. Two people were putting up the sign "Trail Closed". We couldn't believe what we were seeing. The people stationed at the trailhead explained, they had recovered the body of one of the 3 people who had fallen to their deaths earlier in July. A Search and Rescue team with a dog in tow had just left to search for the other 2 bodies. Having more people on the trail would mean more distraction for the dogs. And that's why they had decided to close the trail till noon. I felt like someone had just punched me in my stomach. Months of preparation and planning, and now this. Our heads were shaking in disbelief. "Let's hike the Sentinel Dome", "Let's do Cloud's Rest", "Let's hike tomorrow, oh, but we don't have permits for tomorrow", we said to each other in tandem. We were at Yosemite to hike the HD and "We are hiking the HD", we said to each other. Yes, we are doing it!

8:30 AM: Back at the Curry Village parking lot. Still confused and nervous about what was the alternate plan, we decided to not lose any more time and started driving towards Glacier Point (GP). Taking the Panorama Trail would mean adding 5 miles to the existing distance, but the Panorama Trail was mostly downhill, so we were cautiously optimistic of making it to the top of HD.

9:00 AM: We hit the Panorama Trail. True to it's name, the trail offers a gorgeous vista everywhere you look:

Noon: We passed Illilouette Fall and Illilouette River along the trail. By the time we reached the top of Nevada Fall, we had walked for ~5 miles. We were doing good on time. At this pace, we would make it to the top of HD by 4 PM. We were starting to get a little nervous about our hike back to GP. Hiking the Panorama Trail in the dark would be difficult, we were not very familiar with the trail and the hike would be mostly uphill. Gulp!

Half past Noon: We soaked in the gorgeous views from the Nevada Fall, took some pictures. Distance to HD from Nevada Fall: 4.5 miles.

The trail was starting to get strenuous and steep now. And we were conscious of the time we had missed earlier in the day. We split up in groups of 2 depending on our pace, and C+A leading the pack, stopped to think aloud what we all were afraid to speak up. One of us should head back and retrieve the car from Glacier Point. We cannot hike all the way to the top of HD and then hike back uphill to GP. One of us will have to start back now, get the car, and wait for the rest of the gang at the Curry Village parking lot. C offered to hike back, "I have done this hike before", he said. But so had Gini and I. Discussions and strategies followed. We hike up fast, and try to get to GP to fetch the car before it gets too dark. The prospects of making it to the GP trailhead before it got too dark were looking dim already. We would have to share a ride with someone at the Curry Village Parking lot to our campsite. We were only ~2 miles away from the HD, it didn't make sense to turn back. So, up we went!

We reached the subdome around 3 PM. The ranger was lounging at the entrance of the subdome, he had a long list of the names of permit holders for that day, mostly unchecked. The Mist/ John Muir Trail closure had drastically altered everyone's plans.

The sub-dome is the most treacherous section of this extremely strenuous hike. By the time I reached the subdome, my energy reserves were near empty, my legs were shaking, and time was running out. Can't go down now, I could see the half dome! The cables looked daunting, my energy was low.

C, Gini and I reached the base of the HD close to 3:45 PM. Unlike 2006, when we had first climbed the dome, the scene at the base of the Dome was different. In 2006, the cables were full of people going up and down. In 2011, there were only a handful of people loitering at the base, and barely anyone on the cables. The permit system was working. The crowds had reduced. The closure of the Mist Trail earlier in the day, may have also caused some hikers to turn around and not attempt the hike.

With Gini behind me, I started climbing up the cables. The rock felt more slick and slippery this time compared to my last climb in 2006. My hiking boots were in a pretty good condition, and yet, I was struggling to find a good grip. Fortunately, Gini and I were the only ones climbing, so, I could take a lot of breaks. My arms were shaking, there was no way to rest between the rungs of the ladder. The rock was as smooth as a satin ribbon, no grip at all. It was scary! Can't go down though, I said, up we went!

The Dome flattens out towards the end, giving your arms the much needed relief. We made it to the top by 4 PM. It was ethereal. Yosemite never ceases to stun. Gini and I hike a trial at Yosemite almost every year, and each time we reach a summit, we see the grandiose vistas, we are SPELLBOUND! No words can describe the magnitude and vastness this place has to offer. Each time I see this view, I feel humbled and happy!

Our treat at the top of the HD: Methi Theplas+Mango Achaar. Best methi theplas EVAAA!

4:45 PM: Time to head down. Let's just say the hike down to the Valley, was not as much fun. My right knee has a propensity to flare up while hiking down. And it started right away. I had climbed up, that was the easy part.

5:30 PM: We took a break at the base of the subdome. Refueled the bodies. I taped up my knee and reinforced it with a knee brace. With a silent hope that my knee cooperate all the way down, I set out towards the Nevada Fall. I was going to slow down Gini, so I let him take a longer break. I could've used a longer break too, no time for it, I said!

We were losing daylight, we had to walk faster. By the time we hit the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail junction, the sun had already set. It was 7PM. I knew it would be dark when we were at the most difficult section of the Mist Trail, the steep steps along with the heavy mist from the waterfall. GULP! Keep walking, no time to think!

One step after another. The steep granite steps were killing my knee. No time to catch a breath, keep walking. Gini and I were the only ones on the trial by 7:30 PM. It was getting darker, what would we have done without the flashlights!

The Vernal Fall was even more majestic in the dark. Roaring, Grand, Surreal, Powerful! Soak up the moment, I told myself, this will never happen again. Being alone without the jostling crowds on the Mist Trail, never again!

The roaring sound of the waterfall gave us company till we reached the end of the steep steps. It was dark, very dark! If a bear was to cross our path, we wouldn't have known. GULP! I was scared. Needless to say, Gini was not. He is fearless. Fearless Gini. The trail was mostly downhill, my knee was better. We stepped up our pace. Our flashlights shone on the tiny creatures that had ventured out. It was their territory after all. The night belonged to them: the centipedes, the bats, the crickets, the frogs. At this hour, their attack on us would be justified. We had no reason to be there at such an hour. Never again!

We reached the Happy Isles trail head at 9 PM. The ordeal had come to an end. The Half Dome had conquered us. There was not an ounce of energy left in me. We made it to the Curry Village Pizza Parlor in time. An otherwise ordinary pizza tasted gourmet that night. An ordinary Bud tasted vintage beer that night. The rest of the gang felt like family that night. We had bonded with an experience that would be forever etched in our memories.

By the time we would lay our bodies to rest that night, it would be 3 AM. How we made it to Glacier Point from Curry Village, and from Glacier Point to Crane Flat Campground is a story better told in another post. Not to forget A's vomit marathon during the drive to GP and to Crane Flat, poor A! He is always the life of the group and his suffering made us all sad for him. He, and the rest of us, slept like logs that night.

Aug 6th had come to an end. It will be 2 weeks tomorrow since our hike, and I still vividly recall every event that unfurled on Aug 6th.

I end this post with a grand vista of the Yosemite valley as seen from the Sub Dome.

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