Not living in the place where you spend most of your free time can be tricky. You spend a lot of money on gas getting back and forth, and finding a place to set up camp can prove to be implausibly difficult... Even for the expert-level dirtbag. Unless you book your campsite 6 moths in advance, you'll need to get in line at Camp 4 (the only first-come, first-served campsite on the Valley Floor) at about 4 o'clock in the morning the day of your arrival to secure yourself a spot. Now you're legal, but even then the trials persist: Setting up your tent in the ONE site that has a river running through it during a super rainy fall, getting your sleeping pad to settle in between the two rocks that are just high enough to sit at an inconvenient place in your middle back but just low enough to not be wrenched out of the dirt easily, escaping the trails of super-sized ants that, no matter what you do, always seem to find their way through the tiny hole that was ripped in your mesh screen when the tent blew away last spring, and of course the never ending battle of children playing hide-and-seek behind your temporary home at 11:45 pm while the parents down a mid-season case of Budweiser. Ah... the good life.
I spend a lot of time in Yosemite as a wannabe resident and it never ceases to amaze me how stressed I get about finding a good place to rest my head, so when my family informed me that they decided to come visit and had booked a spot in the relatively bourgeois Upper Pines Campground I was ecstatic. Not only did I have a legal place to stay, but I would be able to stay in my Tepui which made quite a number of issues fade into nihility. We were booked for early November, so when the time came I restocked my truck with whatever supplies were missing and took off again to meet up with the parents and show them around town...
The initial plan was to ride a bike around "The Loop" (the road that circles underneath the valley walls) and show them the different rock formations to explain a little bit more about what I do as a rock climber and relax in the meadow/lounge around at the Ahwahnee. (Having had major reconstructive knee surgery in July I was still on doctor's orders to take it easy, so I didn't plan on much beyond minimal activity)
The night I arrived was beautiful, so I quickly set up my Autana, then hopped on my bike in the moonlight to go stare at El Capitan and point out the climbers' headllamps to my friend Stan who had tagged along with my parents, but on the way back to camp I cot a call from a local resident with an interesting proposal. He asked if I would be interested in hiking to the top of Half Dome to drop off a load of gear for a film crew that was shooting some buddies of ours climbing the face on a "practice" run. The team who was climbing was, in a few days time, attempting to climb El Capitan and Half Dome in 24 hours without "aiding" their way up (using gear to assist their ascent). There have only been two teams to complete it in the history of Yosemite, so it was a pretty big deal. I was stoked he asked me to participate. My family, enthusiastic as well, wanted in but when I asked if they could go, but the response was a solid NO. We were going up the Death Slabs which are part of a sketchy climber's trail just under the face of the formation... Mom probably wasn't going to make it. I wasn't even sure if I was in any shape to try, but I said yes anyways and early the next morning we took off with packs full of camera equipment and a load of overnight gear to drop off for our friends that would top out at midnight on Monday.
The route we took was washed out, full of talus, snowy in places and sandy slab in others. Slick wet rock stood in my way as I prayed for my ACL to survive in one piece and hand-over-handing fixed lines for 120 feet made me and my meniscus miss the ground. Scared half to death, I scaled the side of Half Dome where the cables had been laid down for the season and now sat in my hands like pathetic spaghetti noodles in the sun. The only thing keeping me on the mountain anymore was my understanding of friction physics, grip strength and forearm stamina. I stopped on a small ledge halfway up and laughed at myself as I looked at the sides of the mountain to either side of me... There's no coming back from a fall, and here I was inching my way along under the assumption that my shoes weren't going to slip and my unstable knee wouldn't fail. "Isn't there something in 'The Four Agreements' about never making assumptions?" I quickly shoved that to the back of my mind and kept going.
View halfway up.
The summit was amazing. I've seen Yosemite from quite a few different vantage points, but nothing has offered quite what Half Dome did. The better part of two hours was spent laying around in the sunshine with Erik while the videographer captured what he could of the last few pitches being climbed. We came around to discussing the human position within the scheme of the Sierras and ultimately landed on the same conclusion that we'd come to many times before in similar conversations. We still just felt small. On a personal level, the stoicism of giant rocks has always forced me to face how insignificant my life is... But I suppose it has that effect on most people.
Erik on the descent
Eventually we made our way back down and stopped at the base of the cables to watch the sun slip into the horizon, but soon regretted having gawked or so long as we began the descent of the Death Slabs... in the dark. My anxiety spiked and I said to Erik, "You know, it's nice not to be able to see exactly how far you have to fall..." I wish I had been joking.
The trek down took a while, but when we were safely back on the trail I sighed in relief as I realized that I was heading back to camp where my family had made a massive carb and calorie packed dinner of potatoes, steak, salad... oh, and a bottle of wine. Excellence in all forms. My legs couldn't have been happier as the mattress in my Autana offered a welcome reprieve from standing and my back appreciated the rest on something other than off-kilter stone. The next two days were spent recovering before I decided to try my luck again... I thought it might be fun to go at it by myself.
My friends were about to embark on a mission tantamount to a vertical Ironman with aspirations of taking first place, and I figured it might be nice to be there to greet them when they crossed their finish line. So, I grabbed my -40 sleeping bag and a jetboil, packed some cheese tortellinis and a couple of chocolate bars and made my way to the base of the Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail is the more traditional route to Half Dome and although it is longer in distance it isn't as dangerous as the Slabs. Since I was going solo it would be the best option. It winds upward past Nevada Falls and East behind Half Dome, then up a grueling set of stone switchbacks. I was out of shape on the first run a few days prior, but now I was sore on top of that. I struggled my way to the top, pausing to wonder how smart it was to do this by myself... It was too late to turn around, but getting to the top was gonna take a while. I guess I could have crashed on the side of the trail, but I didn't bring a bear can. Bummer. Keep hiking!
As I topped out I realized that every step I had gained was worth it. The sunset was even more intense than the first round, and the stars were starting to come out in the brilliance that only backcountry experiences can provide. As I rolled out my sleeping bag I wondered how much trouble I would get in if a ranger decided to come up and bust me... then decided it didn't matter. This was glorious, and everything I wanted it to be as I melted down snow for tea and unwrapped a chocolate bar. I laid back and took it all in, dozing in and out.
Heading up the Mist Trail
A few hours into the night I got a text message (which was stranger than anything in that moment) Informing me that the team wasn't going to make it. They had stashed water on their route on El Capitan during the practice run, but someone had sabotaged them by taking it ALL before the speed attempt (The real story has yet to come out as to who or why). The team was worked from dehydration needless to say, and decided that Half Dome wasn't in the cards so they bailed to try again next season... And I was sitting on top of a rock by myself with tortellini but nobody to feed it to... I was surprisingly not bummed out. I could have the whole place to myself and go to sleep early?!?! Dream come true, perhaps? Nope. Shortly after the initial text I was informed that one of the team members was coming up to meet me after all, despite his exhaustion. (I heard later on that he had finished half a bottle of scotch from out of the back of my truck before he made that decision...) Admittedly though, it was nice to see him when he arrived at around 10:00. I made dinner, we had some laughs and we passed out under the moon.
The night went by quietly with the exception of a rat, who was too bold for his own good as we battled over a Clif Bar that was hiding in my pack. Eventually I won and went back to sleep, and stayed asleep until long into the morning. The sun was already bright as it reflected off of the granite when I shimmied out of my bag and made coffee for my buddy. I downed the bar that I'd rescued from the rodent, finished off whatever had been brought up in my friend's flask the night before (a combination of what tasted like leftover scotch and moonshine) and gnawed on another chocolate bar. He left shortly after the coffee was gone (as he had a flight to catch out of LA later in the day) and I stayed to take in a little more of the view before starting my way down. It wasn't until I had finished packing up though, that I realized my logistical error. It was now 9:00, and I had to be back at my truck at 12:00 to get it out of the campsite in time. Oops.
I flew down the cables doing my best to be cautious and started my mad dash back to the valley floor. The next thing I knew, however, I was on the John Muir Trail. $#!%!!!!! I was in such a hurry that I walked right past my exit for Nevada Falls and was sent an extra mile and a half in the wrong direction before I realized it, so at this point I had no choice but to keep going as turning around would have ended up taking MORE time than hiking through would. In a panic, I started running (knee and all) down the trail, skipping over rocks and squeezing past day hikers. My knee hurt, but a tow-ticket would have hurt my bank account a lot more.
In miraculous timing I made it to my truck huffing and puffing with exactly 3 minutes to spare. Enough time to throw my pack onto the front seat, quickly close my Tepui (that I'd left open in my excitement to take off the afternoon before), get the cooler in the back of the truck and start the engine.
As I pulled out of the campgrounds I realized how EXHAUSTED I was. I was so sore I could barely apply the brakes, so I pulled over and hung around for a few hours to say hi to a friend and rest before cooking dinner on his tailgate and reluctantly taking off for home.
After taking about a week to recover, I looked at the trip as a whole and tried to figure out if there was anything other than elevation that I gained. I could say that I got some mushy amount of personal insight out of a contrived "opportunity to look introspectively", or maybe try to rephrase some profound thought that belongs to someone else. But let's be real: nobody cares about borrowed philosophy. Not even me. And so, I've decided that in this case it is what it is. I walked around on a big mound of rocks whose brilliant riposte was to make my legs hurt for days on end... #NBD.
Can't wait to do it again. See you soon, Yosemite.