Sunday, July 26, 2009

Half Dome In Winter (Part 2)

Speeding up, we crossed a campsite surrounded by giant sequoias, with views of beautiful snowy slopes dotted densely with tall conifers. As we continued up some switchbacks on the dirt trail through the forest after the campsite, we met two guys heading the other way. They told us that Half Dome is not accessible due to snow and ice, but we decided that since we've gone this far, we might as well give it a try! Shortly after, we reached a sign pointing at a small trail branching off to the left of the main trail, indicating that Half Dome was 2.0 miles away. Turning onto the trail, conditions deteriorated quickly.

The trial was soon covered in deep snow, although some previous footprints helped to compact the snow a bit and made it easier to walk on. From time to time however, a heavy step would still send us through the snow, filling our shoes with icy slush and water. After some distance, the trees started thinning out and the glare of sunlight from the snow became blinding. The surrounding peaks became increasingly visible, and I was becoming aware of the size of the empty expanse around us. There was absolutely no one else around, and we did not see another person for the rest of the day until we descended back below the waterfall in the evening. The silence was beautiful, albeit somewhat haunting, as I came to realize that if we ran into any kind of danger, there would be no one around to help us.

Soon, we started to head uphill again. At this point, we could only follow the vague path made of a series of footsteps worn into the snow. Everything around us had a strange hollow quality to it, as the trees and the deep snow absorbed the sounds and echoes around us. It took a lot of effort to continue the upward climb through the snow especially after what we had been through earlier in the day, and the subtle but still noticeable effect of being above 7000 feet did not help.

As we reached the crest of the hill, we saw ahead of us a very well defined steep dome, and just beyond it, Half Dome, which from this vantage point was an enormous curved feature rising from the left, which is cut short by a magnificent rock cliff on the right. After some further investigation, we were unhappy to discover that we had not yet reached the base of Half Dome yet. What we had hoped was that the extremely steep bulge just before Half Dome on the map was the steep hill that we had just climbed, but alas it was actually the hill what we had just approaching now.

The final hill before the base of Half Dome looked unbelievably steep. It was covered in ice and snow, with a long steep drop on both sides. The height was accentuated by the vast expanses of snow covered peaks, valleys, and steep smooth rock features below, surrounding us in all directions. There was a few strings of footsteps in the snow going up the hill, following some rocky outcroppings on the left which separated the snow from a steep smooth cliff. My first reaction was "Oh, H***.... no." At the same time, Felix disapprovingly said something to me about how some people would do anything, no matter now stupid, just to prove they can. Seeing that we're not going to be able to get any farther, we sat against a tree where some dry gravel was exposed, and had a few snacks. We heard the strange grunting noises again, seemingly very close to us, which startled me quite a bit. As the noise did not come any closer, we decided that it was not a threat, and eventually it disappeared.

After the snacks, we walked up to the base of the hill to investigate. I followed Felix as he started up the extremely steep snowy hill just to test it. Ricardo decided to wait at the base of the hill where there was a grove of pine trees. Felix continued to climb higher and higher. I considered going back many times, but each time, I decided to go just a few steps farther to get just every so slightly a better view. As we cleared the treetops, an unobstructed view of the vast wild expanse was revealed to us. There would be no more trees above us except for a few weathered and twisted branches clinging to the rock, beaten by the wind and the snow. At this point, Felix decided to trudge on, and I decided that I needed to challenge myself and my fear of heights, which has added both anxiety and excitement to all of my hiking trips.

I slowly inched up in the snow, taking care not to slide, as if I slid a few feet to one side, it would mean falling hundreds, if not thousands of feet off the steep rock face. I was thankful whenever I reached a tree or some exposed rocks which formed the walls of switchbacks covered by the snow, as I felt that I could sit and rest for a few moments without the fear of sliding on the snow off the cliff. With each passing moment, the grove of trees at the base of the hill became smaller and farther away, when eventually I could see that the grove was a patch of trees on the crest of a hill above rocky features towering above a thick forested valley.

When I finally made my way to the top of this hill, I was only a short walk over some rocks to the base of Half Dome. It was very serene up here, painfully quiet other than the wind. Felix was walking toward me, as it turns out he had already tried to ascend the cables lying flat against the rock face. He told me that near the top, the cables disappear under a thick sheet of ice and snow so that the top was inaccessible. He said that his arms were shaking by the time he came down, as the cables were quite heavy and he was holding on for his life!

Although it was getting quite late and it was time for us to start heading back, I decided to give the cables a quick try anyway since I was curious if my plan with the harness would have worked. I hooked up my newly bought harness to the cables to make me more comfortable and make the ascent quicker as I would be able to use the tension in the ropes to help me. After tying the prussic knot which I looked up the day before, I hooked myself up to the cable and sat back. Amazingly, it held my weight! And so, I started going up. I only went up about a third of the way when I encountered a bolt holding the cables against the rock that would have required me to un-tie and re-tie. Seeing that the sun was getting dangerously low in the sky, that I would not be able to make it to the top anyway due to the ice, and that I had satisfactorily tested out the harness and knots, I decided to call it a day and head back. I tried rappelling down a section of the cable and walked down the rest when it became to shallow to rappel.

After packing everything back up, I took a moment to admire the scenery. We were on a rocky ledge overlooking densely forested valleys on both sides, and I walked close to the edge to look down a bit. I was very careful not to step on the snow near the edge as I kept getting mental images of me stepping on an overhanging snow shelf that would collapse under my weight! After taking a few photos, some with my face in the scene, I quickly slid down the snowy hill to find Felix by himself at the bottom. We decided that Ricardo must have left, so we started back immediately. As it was getting dangerously late, we ran downhill for nearly three miles, two of them over snow, taking only short stops for a rest or a snack. We finally ran into Ricardo, and quickly descended together back down to the waterfall meeting point after getting lost once in an area with prickly bushes and rocks by a river.

The rocks which we agreed to use as signal rocks were in their original positions, one against the outhouse and one placed away from the wall, but we noticed that one of them had been turned 90º. We earlier agreed that the rocks would be left in their original positions if Aaron and Nelson are between the waterfall and Half Dome, and the rocks would be both moved away from the wall if they were waiting by the waterfall. Stupidly, we did not agree on a signal for if they decided to head back. After a search of the area turned out empty, we decided that they must have headed back as it was getting very late. I wondered why they would have turned one of the rocks 90º instead of using what would have been the more obvious signal of moving both rocks against the wall, but I suppose they thought it was obvious enough.

The hike back was tiring and fast. Luckily, we didn't have to take that detour up and down the ridge as we did earlier as I had noticed that the ice by the upper waterfall had melted by now, and decided to take a risk on the Mist Trail which was impassible in the morning. Although we did run into a small icy section, the rest of the trial was ice-free, although wet from the mist from the Bridal Veil Falls. We were glad we took this path, as in addition to being much shorter, it was very scenic hiking along the dripping rock walls by the waterfall and through a small damp cave, especially against the backdrop of dramatically lighted peaks surrounding the area during sunset.

The last portion of the hike was the hardest. We finally reached camp about an hour after sunset, when the sky was dark and filled with stars. What a day! Felix, Ricardo and I agreed that this was probably the longest hike we had all been on. We started hiking before sunrise, and returned an hour after sunset, taking only brief rests during the day. I was exhausted. After a well deserved meal over a campfire with everyone, we crawled into our tents and dozed off, looking forward to a relaxing day of short scenic walks and the long drive back to San Francisco.

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