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.

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