The barren summit of Yosemite's Half Dome is 8,836 feet above sea level, more than 4,700 feet higher than Yosemite Valley directly below. In 1868 Josiah Whitney, the noted geologist for whom the highest peak in the continental United States is named, said this about Half Dome, “Never has been, and never will be, trodden by human feet.”
Never lasted seven years. A Scotsman named George Anderson working in Yosemite Valley used his spare time to drill holes in the granite backside of Half Dome, inserting bolts and pegs as he ascended. Standing on each newly fastened bolt he drilled the next one until he reached the top in the middle of the afternoon on October 12, 1875. A couple of days later Anderson climbed to the summit with a tremendous load of coiled rope on his back. He knotted an end of that rope to a bolt at the top then tied the remaining rope to each of his bolts as he descended. Within a week several other intrepid outdoor enthusiasts climbed Anderson's rope and bolt ladder, including John Muir and the first woman to the top of Half Dome, Sally Dutcher.
Today, steel cables assist hikers making the slow ascent. The cable system was constructed in 1919 by members of the Sierra Club. Without it only serious mountaineers would be able to climb to the top.
There are more encumbrances to reaching Half Dome's summit. Those difficulties dovetail into route selection in hiking or backpacking the John Muir Trail (JMT). The entire 220 mile long JMT entails a wilderness trip from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney or vice versa. Those who begin the JMT at Yosemite Valley face a daunting steep, uphill slog for a dozen miles before leveling off near Sunrise Camp. If there are readers out there contemplating backpacking the JMT, let me advise you now, do not start from Yosemite Valley. Even for day hikers to Half Dome it is a seven or eight mile walk to the base of the cable system. Many hikers are so exhausted they give up before getting to the famous rock. Day hikers also need to recognize that it is another seven to eight miles back to Yosemite Valley to your car, tent, or hotel room. Some try to break the trip into two parts, hiking to Little Yosemite campground, which is approximately half way from Yosemite Valley to Half Dome. They camp there and make the day trip to Half Dome's summit the second day of their trip. Of course, such a plan requires you to essentially tote a backpack full of overnight camping supplies up to Little Yosemite.
Last summer Steven Steelrod, his son, known as Sherpa Boy, E.B. Goldman, and yours truly approached Half Dome from the easiest access. Hiking the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows we ascended the relatively short upslope to Cathedral Lakes. After a brief side trip to those lakes we pressed on to Sunrise, one of the High Sierra camps that more or less encircle Tuolumne Meadows. Glen Aulin, May Lake, Merced Lake and Vogelsang being the other High Sierra camps. To some degree these are "sissy" campgrounds, where higher end hikers only have to walk in. They sleep in already constructed tent cabins and eat pretty much the same foods you could buy outside of Yosemite, prepared for them by High Sierra camp employees. The food and supplies are packed in by horses and mules. To the rear of each of these High Sierra campgrounds, a certain amount of space is set aside for average backpackers.
If one arrives early enough, and sufficient food is in supply, the everyday backpacker can pay for a meal at one of these camps. Thanks to the generosity of Steelrod himself, our foursome dined on a fair amount of Sunrise camp stove eggs, sausage, and home fries before we headed out the next morning, a Friday. The large meal tumbled a bit when we started downhill several miles above Half Dome because before long we were walking through a blackened, apocalyptic landscape left by forest fire a couple years back. Then the rains hit, followed by a dash of hail. We made camp mid-afternoon about a half mile east of the cut-off trail to Half Dome. From that junction it is only two miles of uphill hiking to the cables. A much more reasonable day trip than hiking/packing up eight super steep miles from Yosemite Valley.
Inside my tent that August afternoon, as rain splattered outside, my mind raced through all the options available to our group. With a little rest I'd be ready to knock off the climb to Half Dome that very afternoon and evening; two miles each way could be walked with day packs in two or two and a half hours. Throw in another hour or two for the ascent and descent and we could be back in our camp by nightfall; worse case scenario, we all possessed head lamps if the hike back from Half Dome took us beyond dusk. Of course, not everybody would want to go this afternoon/evening. We had already backpacked about six and a half miles to our present camp. The steep granite of Half Dome is most dangerous when wet, nearly all accidents on the cables occur during wet conditions. It seemed like I'd read that very admonition on a map or park service website. It could still be very wet the following morning. We might not have any opportunity at all to climb Half Dome this trip.
My mind turned away from Half Dome to Yosemite Valley about six and a half downhill miles below us. I'd seen what a zoo of humanity swamped John Muir's old stomping grounds when we'd left an extra automobile there before the backpack sojourn began... and that was on a weekday. We'd made no plans for accomodations for the end of the trail. If we hiked out tommorow we'd be in the Valley on a Saturday evening in early August with nowhere to sleep.
Sometimes the calculating mind and the reserved brain diverge in the woods, and reserve gets left behind. Plenty of daylight left to get to Yosemite Valley if I "book" down alone at my speed, I thought, without having to wait for anyone. My cell phone caught enough signal just above our camp site. I could call one of the motels in Lee Vining, beyond the eastern side of Yosemite and be there in two hours after reaching Yosemite Valley and the extra car. From there I could reserve rooms for everybody for Saturday night in Lee Vining, June Lake, or Mammoth Lakes. What a hero I could be, the rest of them haven't even mentioned where we're going to sleep once we hit Yosemite Valley. What naive pie-in-the-sky-ers they all are to have their sights set on nothing beyond Half Dome. Somebody has to be practical here.
I discussed the matter with Steelrod, which meant he knew I was outta there. I took down my tent while Sherpa Boy filtered a clean bottle of water for me up trail. I remember muttering to Steve as I tugged my full pack on, "Don't kill E.B. on Half Dome."
I marched out from the secluded campsite to the JMT, collected the liter of water from Sherpa and said so long to E.B.. A few strides down the trail a broad opening allowed me to call a motel in Lee Vining we'd used the night before our trek began. With my one and only travel credit card at the ready (don't backpack far from home without a Visa because lots of places won't take American Express anymore), I stood stock still so I wouldn't lose reception. The woman at the motel desk assured me she'd stick the room key in an envelope and put it in a box near the office for my presumed late night arrival.
I set off at a brisk pace, noticing that it was already 6:30 p.m. by the time I'd made the room reservation. The cell phone got tucked into a zip pocket on my pack's waist band. Another held the headlamp, if I'd need it. E.B. had insisted I insert brand new batteries before leaving.
Little Yosemite was in my dust well before 8 o'clock. I figured if I could get down the steps alongside Nevada Falls before pitch dark I'd be home free.
Even writing this months later, goosebumps well up. At the bridge overlooking Nevada Falls dusk was coming on when I met a young Scandinavian couple who'd hiked the Panorama Point loop trail to the south and were now looking for a staircase down the northwest side of Nevada Falls to Yosemite Valley. I told them I was on the JMT, heading more southward, but pointed back across the bridge to the location of a park service restroom. They went on their way. I went mine for a few hundred feet, then the bugaboo of all hikers set in, hesitation. I pulled out my seemingly trusty, full-sized Nationl Geographic map of Yosemite. In the gloaming I assessed the Yosemite Valley insert. There indeed was a staircase on the northwest side of Nevada Falls, the upper part of the legendary "Mist Trail." I'd been here as a ten year old with my mother when we'd hiked up to at least somewhere near Nevada Falls.
Fifty year old memory won't due as dusk settles. The "Mist Trail" looked shorter than the JMT on the map. I backtracked across the bridge overlooking Nevada Falls, calculating the minutes I'd lost. Sure enough, alongside the restroom, uneven stone slabs provided a twisting stairway of switchbacks down... down... down. Even with the Falls providing less than its usual mist in the face, the granite steps proved slippery and, most crucially, slow going. I passed a family, seemingly a grandfather, father, and two girls, one of whom had ill-prepared footwear for a hike like this.
I slid the headlamp out of the backpack waist band, clutched it in one hand, vowing not to switch it on until absolutely necessary. The crash of Nevada Falls dissipated above as the rush of Vernal Falls grew louder and louder below. Switch on the headlamp, you idiot, before you hurt yourself. I did and was gratified by the bright beam of new batteries.
At Vernal Falls full dark descended just before I came upon the young Scandinavians again. They posssessed only one head lamp between them. We crossed the bridge as a trio, yours truly in the lead. The "trail" turned to nothing more than sloping granite with a waist high iron fence alongside. I shortened my strides to a standstill when the fence squared off into a dead end. The falls could be plainly heard roaring only a matter of feet off to the side in the pitch black. I walked slowly away, ascending the granite one timid step at a time to a metal sign warning of the danger all around, with specific information concerning three people who fell off said granite slab to their deaths during the summer of 2011 as well as another young man who died after falling from the steps of the Mist Trail that same year.
Somewhere inside a little panic welled up because I couldn't find where the trail continued. There was just this giant slab of granite with a relatively flimsy fence around it. Moreover, I sensed even more dismay from the one-light Scandinavians.
Just when I thought the best advice for them might be to stay still on a safe spot until more light appeared (which could be eight or more hours away at daylight) another headlamp bobbed into sight. I walked carefully toward it, striding farther upward.
You had to climb up a short distance of stone steps to continue the overall downward trail. Meeting two folks ( I think they were both men, but who knows in the dark), I stepped down a few granite slabs below them and asked how much more of the stone stairs there would be. One of them replied, "Oh, about 200."
That seemed easily do-able as the fenced in trail swung back parallel to the swift river beneath Vernal Falls. The Scandinavians appeared to stop for a longer conversation, but this was no time for stopping in my mind, no time t ask why the ascending pair were out here in the dark. I didn't care if they were headed for Little Yosemite or what. I wanted to get to the Valley, preferably unscathed and alive.
The head lamp remained in my right fist, closer to the ground rather than banded around my head. One step at a time I descended, both feet painstakingly reaching the next step before moving on to another. Occasionally I let the lamp swing to the side. Rushing water... and I jerked the light back to my waist. I stopped shining it any farther than a couple of slippery, wet steps ahead. I turned sideways when the trail felt too narrow. One step at a time.
I reached a flat spot on the trail and sighed. Within a few strides it gave way to another steep stone staircase, and the river raged on beside me and my closest friends, the steps. I didn't count, but that 200 estimate was woefully lacking. Everytime it felt like I must certainly have reached the bottom, a new rock stairway awaited after a few feet of glorious flat. Eventually, one of the flats felt undeniably like asphalt beneath my boots. Gotta be close to the Valley now, but why can't I see any lights from the campgrounds, from Yosemite Village?
Onward on the asphalt trail, the river widened, its descent more gradual. Then a bridge back across to the other side. I stopped at a drinking fountain before crossing the footbridge wide enough for a pickup truck. Still no lights in the distance. Had I somehow turned off the main trail and into some side gorge.
There it was again. Doubt... in the dark. To add to that, as I started across the bridge, the distinct aroma of cigarette smoke. I didn't slow down to investigate, but I had the impression someone was silently surveying my passing in the night.
On the other side of the bridge the asphalt trail turned upward. I chugged along to a level turn, but the turn felt like it could be the wrong direction. Uh-oh, if you lose your sense of direction in the dark, your goose is cooked.
I spun about and marched back to the bridge; the dim light of a cigarette tip visible on the other side. Yosemite Ripper be damned. I had enough adrenaline to deal with any night stalker. More or less stomping across the bridge, I drew myself as upright as possible under a forty pound pack.
A man, maybe in his late twenties, reclined on the stone block that marked the corner of the footbridge. He didn't budge when I pointed back over my shoulder, "This the way to the Valley?"
"Yep." He tapped the cigarette on the stone beneath him. "It twists around, but you're headed the right way." Then he queried me. "Did you see a group of four coming down?"
"Two girls and two men?"
"I passed them somewhere below Nevada Falls, going slow, but they were coming along."
"Thanks," he said without a movement.
I turned and headed acrooss the footbridge one more time, headed uphill on the asphalt that seemed to be turning the wrong way until it twisted back 'round again and I recognized the broadening river walk E.B. and I had scouted when we left the extra car.
When I hit the main Yosemite Valley road and one of the last buses of the night pulled up simultaneously, delivering me within a few hundred feet of our car, you'd think the tale would be over.
Of course, I didn't ask the smoker by the bridge if his compatriots had a headlamp or two with them. I was a little trepidatious about hearing a negative answer. While I drove the two hours over winding Yosemite highways to Lee Vining, the Scandinavians fate crossed my mind as well.
I made it to Lee Vining and Murphey's Motel at 11:40 p.m. Only problem: no envelope, no key in the box by the front door. A sign on that darkened door read: In case of emergency, press the red button. I pressed, but no one came. I called the motel's phone number and listened to it quietly ringing inside the office, but no answer.
Even on a Friday in early August Lee Vining is totally shut down at a quarter to midnight. Back in the car, I let it creep down Highway 395 hoping for a vacancy light on one of the motels.
No such luck. I started to drive south toward the larger town of Mammoth Lakes. As the Highway turned into more of a freeway, I possessed one more lick of good sense. I had literally been down this road before and knew that cell phone coverage disappeared quickly south of Lee Vining. A dirt road appeared out of the darkness to my right. Braking the Honda off the freeway, I pulled over and shut off the headlights. Rotator cuff problems be damned, I twisted my right arm behind to the back seat to snatch up the AAA guide book.
The first motel number I called in Mammoth picked up, with a real woman's voice to boot. "We're all booked, but three guys didn't show and I'll be darned if I'll hold my last two rooms for three guys heading to the Blues and Beer Festival. I had a drunk pass out on our front steps the moment I arrived at work this afternoon."
By the time I reached Mammoth Lakes and officially checked in I learned even more about the motel desk lady's disgust at Blues and Beer Fest drunks and that "the whole darn town is pret near booked solid for the weekend."
I toted the backpack to the room, showered off some of the thirteen or fourteen miles of trail dirt I'd accumulated that day. Thanked goodness for the big breakfast at Sunrise and hit the proverbial hay well after one a.m.
Remember the phone in the backpack's waist band. Well, by beddy-bye it was on the nightstand, but turning it to silent mode was long forgotten. It went off at full ring somewhere just past dawn. I said, "Screw it," to myself and rolled over.
Then the beep of a message coming in overwhelmed my conscience. It wasn't Steelrod or Sherpa Boy or E.B., but the clerk from Murphey's Motel apolgizing about some foreigner who misunderstood the process and latched onto the key in the box, thinking it would be a good deed to rescue it for the motel manager.
Wide awake, a new day had dawned. Yes, the Murphey's Motel clerk said, nearly everybody was booked for the Blues and Beer Festival, but she was going to comp me a room for Saturday. By the time I ate breakfast in Mammoth and drove back to Lee Vining under clearing skies, the good folks at Murphey's not only had a free room for me, a cancellation had come in, so I was able to book a room for E.B. at a reduced rate. I hit the mocha stand in Lee Vining and by phone finagled a two bedroom suite alongside June Lake for Steelrod and son.
After laundry and lunch I motored the two hours back to Yosemite Valley, getting there just in time to find Sherpa Boy at the same trail's end where I'd caught the bus the night before. Some minutes later, as another evening descended, Steve and E.B. straggled in. We gunned it back to Lee Vining to catch the last serving at the Whoa Nellie Deli. It doesn't sound like much, but even without a climb to the top of Half Dome and a descent of the stone steps it is one delicious eatery.
One gratifying night of motel rest later E.B. headed home while Steelrod, Sherpa and I toted our packs once more for a trek into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. No accidents were reported near the Falls or the Mist Trail, so presumably the Scandinavians and the family of four made it out alive.