Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Diary of Yosemite: Day 4
Our fourth day at Yosemite begins at 5am. After a less than ideal night's sleep (the zipper on the tent had broken, and amid cries of "black bear!" a few hundred feet away and as a formation of six rangers marched through the grounds, we'd had to hurriedly fashion a half-assed door from the rain guard), we groggily fill our packs with granola bars, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, a couple apples and about six liters of water and head out for the foot of the trail to Half Dome.
It starts innocently enough. The trail begins going uphill immediately, but not so much that you wonder what you've gotten into. A couple miles in is Vernal Fall, and soon after comes a choice: continue along the John Muir Trail or take the so-called Mist Trail. On our first night, at the campsite outside the park, we'd been advised to take the longer, flatter Muir on the way up, then opt for the shorter, indeed mistier (when it runs along Vernal Fall) Mist on the way back for a bit of refreshment. Always two for listening to strangers, that's what we do.
We settle quickly into a routine: navigating the switchbacks, pausing for water (and for short-legged Kelley to catch up) and marveling at the ever-shrinking sights below. After about four miles we came upon Nevada Fall. We could hear the waterfall before arriving, but not until standing on the bridge just a few feet behind the crest do we fully grasp its force. Kelley and I step down to a lookout point for a different view, and others around us are lying on the rocks for a picnic or a nap. It's a gorgeous spot.
And it's there that the beauty seems to stay. The next few miles are more like a desert, schlepping through sand, and then a dilapidated forest. It's all very brown, and a small rattlesnake slithers across our path. We exchange small talk with fellow hikers and continue to take our water, and Kelley makes repeated trips behind a rock to pee. The last couple miles curve and climb until -- almost suddenly -- near-360-degree panorama of the Sierras unfold before our eyes. The only thing blocking the view is the back of mighty Half Dome.
It's almost noon, and we sit for lunch and to think about what is ahead of us. The ascent of Half Dome, we knew, is a two-parter: the first bit you climb unassisted, but the final 500 feet are too steep for that and require the use of cables as handholds. We chat with a woman in her 60s who says she made it as far as the cables before turning back. Kelley scurries off to pee for a fourth time; I've gone in my pants.
Before setting off, we reckoned there was a 40 percent chance we'd be courageous enough to do the cables. How little prepared we were for how harrowing the first bit was. The face of the rock is set at about a 45-degree angle, and a staircase etched into it has eroded some under all those hiking boots. After each switchback you can step off and lean back on the rock to rest -- and try to avoid the vertiginous views. Kelley is careful going up and I am absurdly deliberate, at times nearly crawling. There are people going up and down around us, and we are constantly shaking our heads at the speed with which they do so; kids all of 10 are doing it like they're playing hop-scotch. Unbelievable.
We continue to inch along, and then I hear someone say, "Here's where the stairs stop." Kelley and I look up and see that just to make it to the cables we would have to deal with a flat face of granite. In hind sight, it's not that terrifying; the surface was not slick. But at the time, it is final straw. We are a bit afraid of heights, and so remind ourselves we'd done well to get this far -- again, "close enough" -- and head back down the rock as carefully as we'd gone up.
The return leg of the trail is easier -- until the start of the Mist Trail. It may well be a mile or so shorter than the Muir, but it is much more vertical. First along Nevada Fall, then later Vernal, we have to descend almost straight down a pile of rocks. Early on a ranger came barreling past us, saying he had to get to someone who had broken their leg. Later, a couple told us they'd seen a man almost fall down the side of the waterfall. The scenery is beautiful, but the rocks are slippery from the misting and we are so focused on not falling that we can't fully appreciate it. (I am often nagging Kelley to go slow.) Not until the Mist rejoins the Muir, and we know there's just a mile or so to go, do we begin to reflect on what we've done and smile. True, we did not get to the top, but that doesn't much matter: the getting there was pleasure and achievement enough.
After 10 hours of hiking, we were filthy. We dumped our six empty water bottles, got back in the car and drove to Curry Village, where we paid $5 apiece for, it was decided afterward, the greatest shower of our lives. The day ended with dinner and beers and the two of us grinning ear to ear.
I used to sit in the cube behind you. Then I didn't. And then we fell in love.
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