Friday, October 29, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part IV)

**UPDATED new pic added 10-30-04**

Go Climb a Rock
That’s what it said — in big white letters across the back of Ron’s slightly faded red t-shirt. “Go Climb a Rock.” And that’s just what we were setting out to do.

Ron’s t-shirt was a popular one in those days; maybe it still is. It advertised the Yosemite Mountaineering School, a park-run service that offered instruction in backpacking, rock climbing and cross-country skiing. He had actually gone through the backpacking and rock climbing courses a year or so earlier to our making this trip, which is probably where he learned that nifty-dandy “bear befuddler” method of hanging up food from a tree that I mentioned earlier.

We set off from our camp in Little Yosemite Valley at about eight in the morning. The wimming stayed behind and took the day to relax after five pretty tough days of backpacking.

I remember the mountain air being so crisp that it almost crackled against my cheeks as we turned our faces into the breeze jetting through the mixture of fragrant pine and cedar trees that lined the trail.

The 1.5 mile hike to the east shoulder of Half Dome involved an extensive number of steep switchback trails along the way, making the altitude gain faster, but also giving my quads quite a workout in the process. However I really don’t remember being tired at all. I was so excited. This was the first time I’d done anything like this before. Ron had made the Half Dome climb previously, which also made me feel a little easier — easier that is, until we got to ‘The Saddle,’ the area between another small dome and HD’s eastern shoulder; the base of that huge, naked hunk-a, hunk-a plutonic granite.

If I’d been thinking, I probably would have taken this picture.* This is a great shot of the base of Half Dome, at the beginning of the cable climb. And no, that isn’t an optical illusion — it really is that steep. The cable climb from bottom to top is 900 feet over a 45-degree pitch of slick granite.

“Okay, AJ,” I thought to myself. “You’re really gonna do this?” Before I could answer, I was grasping the cables. I’m not sure if I decided to go first or if Ron told me to, but I lead the way. Fortunately there were no large groups, and very little traffic on the cables that day. I only remember having to stop a couple of times to allow descenders to pass by on there way down from the top, as is always the etiquette of climbing HD.

You can probably see it from the pictures, but allow me to describe the climbing cable setup. The cable assembly is composed of a series of waist-high metal pipes, placed every five to six feet apart into shafts drilled into the granite. I don’t know how deep the holes are, but they are just that — holes. You could pull a pole out if you wanted to. But not to worry, for the most part the poles are very secure and obviously strong enough to support the weight of the average would-be mountaineer. Half Dome is closed for climbing from Columbus Day through Memorial Day Weekend each year and the poles are taken down through that period to avoid damage from the severe winter weather.

Threaded metal caps top the support poles, sealing the “U”-shaped cups of the poles upper end. Through this "eye-of-the needle" opening, a sturdy, one half-to-three-quarter-inch diameter braided steel cable is threaded, interconnecting all of the poles on either side, from the bottom to the summit.

Additionally, there are three-foot wide 2" x 4"s, bolted into the base of the rock, resting against the uphill side of each pair of support poles, providing surer footing for the climber on the slick granite.

“Hey baby, let’s get perpendicular!”
It is truly an amazing feeling to come to the realization that one simple move, such as letting go would mean almost certain death. But there I was, scaling Half Dome, at one point, nearly perpendicular to the mountain, with only my grip on those cables separating me from life and being a greasy spot on the granite below. What a rush!

Now lest someone think I need to be given some kind of award for courage, I need to tell you, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. That’s not to say the climb isn’t a daunting one if you have the slightest fear of heights. But if you don’t, it’s easily the coolest experience short of real mountain climbing that one can have in my opinion. The secret is to keep moving, grasping the cables hand by hand, alternately, left and right, and taking as large of a stride forward as your legs will allow.

It seemed as though the climb took an hour, but in reality it was about 25 minutes. There were a few times I briefly paused to look around at where I was, and when I looked down, it was in wonder, not fear. It was truly one of those life-defining events that I will never forget, and hope to do again some day, hopefully next summer.

**New pic added 10-30-04**

About a third of the way up on the cables. I believe I was sitting on one of the 2" x 4"s when I took this. You really need to click on this one and see the full-sized version to fully appreciate the perspective of our angle to the ground!

Ron makes his triumphant approach to the top. I sure had a great time doing this with him. What a big kid at heart that guy was!

Another borrowed shot. The view from the top. In the foreground, the end of the climbing cables, and Half Dome’s jaw-dropping northeastern vista on the horizon. Cloud’s Rest (near right-center), Cathedral Peak (distant center), and Tresidder Peak (distant left-center) are in clear view.*

When we reached the top of Half Dome there were only a few people already there. The top of this big rock is gently concave, like a saddle, and a about the size of a half a football field. This makes it a pretty comfortable experience from the top unless you venture too close to the edge, which, of course, we did!

Unintended Enlightenment
I had anticipated the opportunity to get some really great photos on this trip, and Yosemite didn’t let me down. Unfortunately, however, my camera did. Due to a light leak in my camera lens, a bunch of the breathtaking scenery shots I took ended up looking like a polar bear in a snowstorm.

My camera, a Canon AE-1 was a little over a year old at the time. It came with a versatile 28-80 mm macro-zoom lens that I really loved. However less than a month after receiving it as a birthday gift from Michelle in 1980, I had dropped it while we were walking on the beach in Santa Barbara. After the incident, the camera still seemed to work fine, but the zoom and focus rings on the lens were noticeably loose from that point on.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t become aware of how much the damaged lens would effect my pictures until this trip to Yosemite.

Previously, following my dribbling the camera, the exposure on my pictures seemed to be fine under normal or low-light conditions. But now in this high-light circumstance on Half Dome, with the bright sunlight reflecting off the granite, nearly every picture I took looked severely washed out. I was able to salvage some of them through heavy manipulation in Photoshop, but many were just too far-gone.

These were the ones I was able to save....

Staring down the face of Half Dome. Yeah I was crazy enough to step right up to the edge to snap a few pics. I can only remember one time looking down and getting slightly spooked.

Same position panning to the left toward Glacier Point and the southwest Valley.

Ron, sitting on top of the world.

Me, standing with my foot on the edge of "the diving board," the finger-like precipiece that projects out the furthest from the face of Half Dome. The view behind me looks back northward toward Tenaya Canyon..

After about 45 minutes to an hour up on the summit, it was time to head back for camp and the women folk. It was a lot more fun going down than coming up, and of course you could see the incredible view right before you. Here I stopped to turn and grab a quick shot of Ron about 50 yards into our decent. What an incredible adventure!

As I think about making a return trip to retrace the steps of this fantastic voyage, I’m quite sure that I’m underestimating the role of benefit that my being in such good shape as a gymnast played in my enjoyment of such a rigorous exercise. I remember being tired, but never exhausted; fatigued, but never sore. Never did I feel as though I wasn’t going to make it, or that my condition placed me in danger of falling of making errors in judgement that might place me in harm’s way.

However 23 years and more than a dozen extra pounds later, I have to remind myself that it most likely will not be half as easy for me the next time. I really have to seriously consider what I need to do in order to get ready to meet the challenge when it finally presents itself once again.

The hike back down the switchbacks were a lark for Ron and me as we excitedly talked about the exhilarating afternoon we had just spent ascending the landmark feature of grand old Yosemite. What a great time.

Take me to the River
When we made it back to our campground in Little Yosemite Valley, we were hot, sweaty, dirty and probably not too much fun to be close to. And while there were no showers for us to use, there was a river — the beautifully gentle Merced River which runs east/west through Little Yosemite.

There was a log floating in the river, so Ron and I took turns log rolling, with some pretty humorous results and plenty of wisecracks from the peanut gallery.

Everything was going pretty well until Ron let go of the log...

When the call of our bellies won out over our desire to play in the river, we cleaned up and headed back to camp. We were about finished for one very busy incredible day. I don’t remember what the wives prepared for dinner, but I know it tasted good. I remember that evening at the campfire just feeling blissful.

I still can feel it.

*Special thanks to Ryan Zurakowski.

Next: The trail home
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