Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Half Dome is Better Than No Dome

There is this concept of a “life list” – things to experience, places to go, or things to do before you die. I can’t say that I have a formal list, but it seems that once we do something really neat, I realize it was on my “list”. Retire in my forties – check; ride my bike over 100 miles in a day – check; experience deep and everlasting love – check. Last week we did another life list experience – climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

If there is any image that is iconic of Yosemite, it is Half Dome. It is also a symbol of California itself, its likeness printed on special license plates throughout the state. A rounded batholith with half of it broken off, hanging 5,000 feet over Yosemite Valley. Visitors can see it from many angles, from Glacier Point to the southwest, from Olmsted Point to the east, and straight up from the valley floor. If you possess great athletic ability and advanced rock climbing skills you can scale it straight up that vertical fractured north face. Having neither, the only way I was going to get to the top was via the cables the National Park Service installs each spring up the east face.

Strung something like 300 yards along the shoulder of the dome, the cables allow hikers to ascend the 50 degree slope to the top. There is a pair of cables, held up by metal posts spaced at about 120 foot intervals. Wooden slats rest against the uphill side of each pair of posts, and provide a relatively secure footing compared to the granitic surface polished by thousands of hikers. At the base of the cables is a pile of dozens of pairs of work gloves, left behind for the benefit of those of us who did not even think to bring some, to better get a grip on the smooth metal in those places where it literally required pulling you body weight up to the next step.

And all this after hiking eight miles. We got an early start and were hoisting ourselves up by just after noon for lunch at the top. The day we went was the first day the cables were up – they are removed from the posts and left on the ground during the winter. There were only a few people ascending and descending when we started up. Looking up before we started, it seemed those on the line were stopped, not moving. After going a hundred feet or so, I realized why – it was very tiring, and I was sucking wind, even with frequent rests. I liked the feeling of having hands on cables at all times, spread-eagle with one hand on a cable on each side, which of course had to be compromised when passing others on their way down.

Reaching the top was exhilarating. The top was broad, the size of several football fields. We munched our lunch on the edge of the north face, looking down on the pastoral green of Yosemite Valley. Littered about were the bodies of our fellow hikers in horizontal repose, napping in the sun after the exertion required to get to the top. This hike seems to be a rite of passage for many, and the lack of experience, equipment, and training were evident. But at least for the people we talked to, they were thrilled to get up, and even more thrilled to be down. A man and his 8-year-old son followed me on the way down the cables. I climbed down ladder-style, looking up. They chose to come down facing down, with a death grip on the cables and equally clenched teeth. I would periodically hear a kind of sliding sound, which ended when they stopped up against the wood slat with a thud. I just hoped they wouldn’t gain more momentum than the wooden slats could bear. They were so excited when they reached the flats at the bottom, and the elder man stated “I did it, and I don’t ever have to do it again.”

After another eight miles back to the car, we got back just as evening shadows fell on the valley. A treat on this hike is that it passes Vernal Falls, probably the most popular hike in Yosemite. The trail is paved near the bottom because of the impact of hikers and pack animals. But it is beautiful place to see the Merced River cascading down on its way, like us, to the Yosemite Valley floor.

Top Photo: Stairway to Heaven
Second Photo: View looing east towards Olmsted Point from the top.
Third Photo: John beginning the descent.
Bottom Photo: Vernal Falls and Half Dome in the evening light.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Spring Thaw

Last Friday the western section of Highway 120, also known as the Tioga Road, opened to through traffic. Originating in the east near Lee Vining and leading to Yosemite Valley, it is one of those spectacular roads, where as a driver you envision a lapse in attention would catapult you over the edge. It is closed in winter, opening in the spring, usually before Memorial Day. This year, due to dry conditions, it opened a bit earlier than in recent years.

On the Thursday prior to the opening we drove up to the gate at the top of Tioga Pass, unloaded our bikes, and did a 36-mile round trip, passing through Tuolumne Meadows to Olmsted Point. Since it was closed to traffic, we only had to share the road with other cyclists and a few Park Service vehicles. Unfortunately, I forgot the camera, so there are no photos to prove it, and no blog entry dedicated to the ride.

We returned, however, on the following Saturday, the day after opening of the road. We accompanied our friends Dick and Judy on a hike that has become an annual event for them. Parking the car along the road across from Fairview Dome, we cross-country hiked until we met with the trail that drops down into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Along this trail the Tuolumne River drops dramatically in elevation over the slick batholithic rocks. The river was at full flow, fed by the melting snows in the watershed.

Our goal was Water Wheel Falls, but we passed a number of dramatic cascades along the way, with the names Tuolumne, California (top photo), and Le Conte. It was not hard to anticipate that they were near due to the roar in the distance. The power of the water created frothy foam that swirled in marbled patterns in calmer sections of the river (second photo). We paused at each of the falls along the way, mesmerized by the motion of surging water. Water Wheel Falls was by far the most dramatic, with rooster tails over 30 feet high…click here for a video of the action

We were racing the setting sun on our way back, the cost of gazing at flowing water for a bit too long. The mist of Tuolumne Falls created a faint rainbow as we passed it on our return home (bottom photo). What a nice transition from winter skiing to summer hiking and biking.

Thanks D and J for letting us come along!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Passionate Fishes

How one spends their free time often becomes a passion. For us, it is skiing, guitars, and artisan bread. For others it is fishing. And the third weekend in April is opening weekend for fishing here in the Eastern Sierra, and coming to June Lake is a pilgrimage for some. For 34 years, Ernie’s, the sport shop just steps from our front door, owned and operated by our landlord, has sponsored the Trout Derby. This contest adds the element of competition to a sport whose participants have already become heavily invested in rods, boats, and clothing dominated by a camouflage motif. These folks really love to fish. And apparently they love beer, too.

Our little town, sleepy all winter, has come alive. Motor homes and trucks towing boats were arriving into town as early as Thursday. The campgrounds, vacant all winter, were fully occupied. Neon lights of the local restaurants were lit, beaconing hungry sportsman. Friday morning we came home from a morning ski, to find a 10-foot pile of snow in our driveway. Posters and banners advertising things like Monster Bait were everywhere. Apparently snow is trucked to this spot every year for the Derby, and it is here that the contenders for Biggest Fish are stored until the awards ceremony on Saturday night.

All day on Saturday the pile of snow was the hub of activity. Country music blared from Ernie’s, and fishermen with cans of beer wrapped in neoprene sleeves milled about. We hid out until the evening festivities, and then joined the crowd for the prize giveaway. A raffle giving away fishing rods was held. I overheard one guy comment that he didn’t need to win one of those -- his wife counts the rods when he leaves the house, and counts them when he comes back, and if there are any extras she takes them to the curb on garbage day. The Derby awards were handed out. There were lots of categories – biggest fish from June Lake, biggest from Gull Lake, biggest caught by a kid, biggest caught by a local, etc. It took awhile. The biggest fish overall was something like 8 pounds, 5 ounces – that’s a big fish. The winner got the equivalent of $1,000 in certificates to spend at local businesses in June Lake – not bad.

Things have quieted down during the week, but weekends are still busy. Thanks to those folks who love to fish, the local economy has picked up, to the relief of the local business who suffered through one of the driest winters on record. We are just glad there isn’t a fish derby every weekend.

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