Monday, April 6, 2009

Half Dome In Winter (Part 1)

On the first weekend of April 2009, I went camping and hiking in Yosemite National Park. This trip was booked many months ago my my friend Aaron, but was organized in a very hectic last minute push due to him breaking a thumb which pulled his attention away from the trip.

In any case, we got together a small band of five people, me, my friend Aaron from work, my friend Felix from school who travelled with me to Morocco, France, and Spain, and two of Aaron's Portuguese roommates who were on an exchange program in the States. The night before, we had agreed that we'll be renting a car and preparing for a 17 mile hike up Half-Dome. I had also found out, just before going to bed, that the cables were down. The cables are part of a famous route up Half Dome where two cables on either side held up by poles are used as handrails in ascending the 60ยบ incline up a bare rock face where wooden steps for resting are bolted to the rock every few metres. However, with the cables down for the season, what this means is that there are no poles and no steps, just a pair of metal cables hanging off of a steep, slick rock slope. I ended up getting to bed late as I was excited. I decided I'll climb up Half Dome anyway. I'll just pick up a harness, some carabiners, and some rope to tie myself into the cables with a friction knot for safety.

The next day, our plan continued to get derailed and delayed. We heard from Aaron's roommates that they had decided to all pile us in to Aarons old car from the 1980s. After squeezing everything in the car, we left two hours behind schedule. We also took much longer to pick everyone up due to people showing up at the wrong train station, and people forgetting their flashlights among other things. We finally left the Bay Area at 7pm, three hours behind schedule, cramped in the car with our bags on our laps.

The drive was beautiful in the dark, and we can tell it would be even prettier in the daytime. We saw moonlit valleys, waterfalls, and the odd headlight in the distance. At one point, we were convinced we were being followed by a ghost motorcycle when the single strangely shaped headlight behind us disappeared. When we arrived after midnight, we hastily set up our campsites and went to sleep in the freezing night as we have plans to hit the trail at 6:30 the next morning.

We left camp at 7am, just as the sun was rising. Expecting a long hike, we brought copious amounts of food and water. After a short hike up a surprisingly steep and tiring section, we arrived at a junction. According to a map, one of the trails was shorter, but the other had a sign on it that said "Winter Trail." We looked at each other and chose the shorter Mist Trial. This turned out to be a mistake. As we approached the falls, the stairs turned to slippery ice cliffs above the roaring foaming waters below. After grabbing a few photos, we walked back to the fork and continue on the long trail, where we had to climb a ridge only to descend on the other side.

After a few switchbacks covered with some packed snow piles, which my friend referred to as "glaciers" to keep things exciting, we reached a clearing made of smooth rock near the top of the ridge. The Sun was shining bright now, and from the clearing, we can see three large peaks in front of us, one of them being half dome. On the way up, we were treated to a wonderful view of the valley filled with a lush, mature coniferous forest surrounded by tall cliff faces with the iconic two-tiered Yosemite Falls in the distance. These views perked us right up, and seeing our goal for the first time, I thought it didn't look far at all, until someone pointed to the valley below which made me realize we have to go all the way down and come back up again due to the detour. Here, we stopped for a quick breakfast of some sandwiches and granola.

After lunch, we made a discovery. There was a trail that was a bit longer, but didn't require us to make the descend and climb again. On the other hand, a gate was closed across it proclaiming it was closed for the winter. We talked to two individuals about the trails, one of whom later realized she had told us the wrong directions. As both strangers decided to wander into the closed trail for a walk, we decided to give it a try. Following the switchbacks uphill soon led us into snow, some of which was fresh and had only fallen during the night before. We soon caught up with the lady we talked to early and she mentioned that she heard some strange sounds which she was afraid was a bear so was heading back. But seeing that we were now a group of five, she decided to join us as we continued to gain more elevation.

After some time, we bumped into the man we had talked to earlier who told us that the trail was impassable up ahead, although it was only blocked for a distance of about ten feet. Seeing that we've gone so far already, we decided to press on to investigate, while he and the other lady headed back together. Soon, we started travelling on a ledge with a long drop to the left and a steep snow slope to the right. As we can see the bridge that will lead us to better trails only some tens of metres ahead, we pressed on. The trail deteriorated quickly and finally, only about ten metres from clear trails, we realized that there was going to be an unacceptable chance of us slipping off the cliff if we pressed any farther. Shaken, we slowly slinked back, with Nelson, one of the Portuguese friends staying back, standing on the edge of the cliff and leaning back toward the edge to take photos uphill. He claimed that he wasn't afraid of heights, but we thought perhaps he was a bit too confident in his abilities as he had not hiked in this kind of terrain before.

When we reached the clearing we had been at for breakfast, we realized that this diversion had set us back more than an hour and a half. This means that we have wasted well over two hours going down wrong trails and retracing our steps. Combined with the fact that we are taking two longer forks in snowy conditions, this means our hike will be much more intense than what we had been planning. Seeing that it is already considered a gruelling hike taking the short forks in summer when the trails are clear of snow and ice, we started having doubts about reaching the summit. With that, we proclaimed that we are going to travel faster, and faster we went.

During the descent into the valley, I had an interesting moment when I was jogging downhill, merging onto another trail. As I was taking a wide right turn to merge onto the trail, I brushed up against the widely spaced rocks marking the sides of the trail I was turning onto. All of a sudden, I saw right in front of me, where I was running, a drop of one or two hundred metres overlooking, yes, overlooking from far above, a large waterfall. I went "whoa...," turned and stopped quickly, somewhat dumbstruck. As I was still staring at the drop, I saw Felix jogging down behind me and about to pretend to bump into me. As I was about to warn Felix, I saw his eyes open wide, and he also said "woah...," turned, and slowed down. What a view! The people on the top of the waterfall were tiny from this height, and the rather large waterfall continued to gush down into a deep gorge below.

Seeing that we were already low on time and have wasted much energy, we decided to press on and skip investigating the waterfall below, as we were sure we would encounter many more waterfalls farther up the trail. Surly enough, some more hiking brought us to the base of another waterfall, where the mist had covered the rocks below and even the cliffs to the side in a sheet of glistening ice. Here, a series of long and steep switchbacks built of rock steps brought us up the side of the waterfall. At the top, we were finally back to the altitude we were at before we had to turn back. From here, we can see that we were painfully close to the clear trails, with only a thin but very steep pile of ice and snow blocking our way.

A bit farther up, we reached another rocky clearing. Hiking off the main trail for a few minutes led us to the top of the waterfall, to the bridge we saw from the first clearing and unsuccessfully tried to reach. Here, we explored the area. There was an unfenced section by the waterfall that led to a sheer drop below, with a few boulders and a tree by the edge which was arranged in a way that reminded me of a Zen garden. This was frightening even to stand close to. Another section right by the water was fenced off, and as there was a small opening in the fence, I sat for a while with my feet danging off the cliff, clutching the fence for comfort. From here, one can see the water fall off the cliff right beside you, tumbling down the cliff face and partially turning to mist before violently smashing at the rocks below.

After finding a nearly toilet, Aaron and Nelson decided to take it slower, while Felix, Ricardo, and I are going to continue as Felix and I were determined to give it all we have to reach the top. After working out a signalling system with rocks by the outhouses as we didn't have any cell phone reception, we ventured ahead with a much faster speed than before. We were going to press on full speed to the base of Half Dome and rest for lunch before attempting the ascent. We hoped that we would meet up with Aaron and Nelson again there.