Part III – Rest Days and Half Dome [See Part I here]

Yosemite National Park. Day 4. “Rest” Day

The concept of a rest day during a climbing trip is that you rest your body so that you can continue to climb and so that you don’t injure yourself.

Michael, Kelly and I were thinking we’d like to get one more more big climb in during our trip but we were a little tired from the climbing we had already done. Calculating our days, we decided to do a rest day before whichever multipitch climb we were going to tackle next (we hadn’t decided on what that was yet).

We weren’t too keen on driving around (since we’d had had to drive to a new campsite after winning the campsite lottery again) so we decided to hike up the Mist Trail since it would mean we could walk from our campsite and Michael had never done it. When we got to the first steep part I realized I had forgotten that this trail is labeled as “Strenuous” by most guides. It only got steeper of course. It was still beautiful to see Vernal Falls and the rainbow filled mist it creates. The guys got to the top of Vernal Falls before I did. When I got there I didn’t see them. A stranger approached me and said, “Are you looking for K?”

Vernal Falls tunnel“Yes,” I said wondering about the stranger’s mysterious air. I recognized this stranger as an athletic 50 something year old man I had leap frogged a bit on the trail up before he passed me as I took some photos.

Turns out the stranger had shown K and Michael a secret way to get closer to the falls. Quite a bit closer. I went to check it out with the guys.

After we got back to the trailhead we started walking further. I thought we were only going to the top of Vernal, when K continued I thought he just wanted to look at the river more, but we soon went beyond it and started going uphill again. I called out that I was going to head back to camp and turned around, mindful that I wanted to save my legs for whatever climb we were going to do as our last multipitch of the trip.

Then I ended up taking the wrong fork back. I was hiking along, watching my steps when I realized that I had been going up hill for awhile. I looked to my right and suddenly saw I was high above Vernal Falls. Oops. I was on the John Muir Trail! I had a great view though, so I took a moment to get a few shots before I headed back towards Vernal, worried that the guys might have gotten ahead of me, and would therefore be worried if I they got back to camp and I wasn’t there.

I kept a good pace going all the way down the Mist Trail because of this worry, but it turned out to be unfounded and instead the guys found me relaxing back at camp when they returned.

K brought news, apparently they had run into some climbers who had just done Snake Dike, a climb K had wanted to do forever and I had promised to climb with him since I had already done it before. The climbers had told K that though the cables were down, there wasn’t any snow on the route itself nor the approach hike so K was fired up to do it.

Michael wasn’t interested in doing it this trip so K and I set about strategizing for the climb. We definitely didn’t want to be doing any more strenuous hikes before the climb.

Day 5. Real Rest Day.

Collecting water from Fern SpringMichael and K were feeling the effects of their hike to the top of Nevada Falls (and to a lesser extent I was feeling the effects of my Vernal Falls with detour hike as well) so after we took care of getting a campsite which fortunately we were able to get for two nights in a row (crucial for our Snake Dike plans) we decided to have a real rest day and do a mellow hike to Bridal Veil Falls. We also stopped by an honest to goodness mountain spring and filled our water bottles after seeing a cyclist who looked like a regular there, do it. The water tasted great.

Day 6. May 9, 2012. Snake Dike

Since I’d climbed Snake Dike before several years ago, I was not that worried about the famous run outs on the climb itself, in fact I offered to lead them, since K doesn’t like run outs. What I was worried about was getting to the base of the climb. Doing a strenuous hike two days before  is not the best way to prepare for this famous climb which I’ve heard other climbers call “Snake Hike”. Climbing Snake Dike from the Valley floor involves a 6 mile approach hike to Snake Dike, 8 or so pitches of the climb itself before you hit the 3rd class “forever” part to the top of Half Dome and then an 8 mile descent hike out. You start at about 4000 feet elevation from the Valley floor, hit 8,842 at the summit of Half Dome and then have to come back down again on the Mist Trail.

The first time I had climbed Snake Dike I hadn’t led any pitches, was wearing a pack that was too big for me and remembered being scared enough on the approach (on a part with granite slabs) that I put on my climbing shoes to do it. I also remembered fighting my way through many manzanita bushes. Oh, and the climb itself was awesome and went too fast. And my friend (who had hiked up to the top of it with a group) gave me a sandwich at the top.

I told K that we had to get up at 3am. The last time I had done Snake Dike we had gotten up at 2am (partly because we had given up on sleeping after a night of interruptions and partly because we were doing it on a Friday). And even then… a party had beaten us to the start.

So I figured a 3am start, even though it was a Wednesday, was a good idea for K and I, especially since I had only a very foggy memory of the approach hike and was worried even with the maps and beta we had gotten from others, that we might get lost finding the route.

Though K and I had not spent the night drinking, we didn’t get much sleep. We did manage to leave camp and get on the road sometime just past 4am though.

Me in my sassy pose on the approach hike to Snake DikeAt the Mist Trail trailhead I found a stick someone had leaned against the sign. It was a good size for me and I took it as a good omen. It said to me, “Don’t worry about the hike, I’ll back you up!”

So I went on my merry way. We saw no one on the trail (not surprising since it was before sunrise on a weekday). We stopped a few times. We filled up water at the convenient drinking fountains at the base bridge for Vernal Falls, another time we pulled out our rain protection for the passing by Vernal Falls. The “mist” was heavy enough to drench one’s clothing and backpack which we had fortunately found out during our “rest” day hike. Soon we got to the portion of the Mist Trail above Vernal Falls and close to Little Yosemite campground where our beta and my Spidey Sense told us that we should cut off to get to the base of Half Dome. This is where another good omen occurred… we found a small climber’s trail through the manzanita bushes. I was amazed it was so easy to find, and ecstatic I didn’t have to push my way through yards of skin tearing bushes like my first time doing Half Dome.

After getting up on the ridge above the Mist Trail. We had to cast about for cairns and likely trails but soon found our way around the Hidden Lake with only one minor backtrack where a cairn led us astray. Soon it was time to go up to the rocky base of Half Dome. I could see the slabs I had been dreading. And right around then, K found some cairns which led us to the right of them… a steep but less frightening approach. I was so relieved to not have to re-experience that first approach that I barely noticed when we had to traverse left on exposed slabs and ledges.

Soon we were at the base of Snake Dike itself. The sun felt fairly hot but the good news was that there was no one else at the base. In fact, we didn’t even see anyone on the route itself. We had it all to ourselves!

K leading Snake Dike on Half DomeK took the first pitch, which all beta we had gathered had said was the hardest pitch. I had no memory of doing the pitch, which my friend Greg (who has climbed Snake Dike five times) led easily. K went up, to an outcropping above a crack to place a piece and then left and over it. I followed and soon we were off.

K led again, I wanted to do the 3rd pitch, one of the runout pitches. However once K had done the pitch before this we had serious doubts about our topo and the beta we had. Anchor bolts didn’t seem to be where they were supposed to be and there was another dike off to our right. One drawback to having Snake Dike all to ourselves was we didn’t have the reassurance of seeing others going on the route. The bolts on the right sure looked shiny. And the dike there looked vaguely familiar. I declined a lead again, not sure if we were on the right route. Also, a wind had picked up and reminded us that the reason we hadn’t planned on Snake Dike during this trip was that rain and high winds in the higher elevations was possible (in fact a climber in the mountain shop had warned us about it).

Me leading Snake Dike on Half Dome, Yosemite National ParkAfter the next pitch though, we found the big hole in the Dike which reassured us we were on route. I took the next pitch at this point, a run out one. I found a few chicken heads to girth hitch and improvised pro in a few other spots, but pretty much just ran it out. I felt short roped at one point and later learned that K had been dealing with a bumble bee that was pestering him, and in fact ended up stinging him! Fortunately he’s not hypersensitive to insect bites/stings like I am and he belayed on.

The climbing was as I had remembered, easy, with breathtaking views. I may have been on a giant run out, but I felt controlled, though cautious.

We did have one surprise though, K led a part that supposedly had a 5.7 face transition. It looked a bit harder than that when he did, and he admitted it felt a bit dicey. I chose to go low and left and thought my way was probably where the rating came from. The end of that pitch meant it was my lead again, I needed to downclimb a little and then move off to our left before going up again. As I finished the downclimb bit, K and I were surprised to see another climber coming up. He was the first stranger we had seen all day and was soloing the route. I paused and motioned for him to continue. “Thanks,” he said.

“Hey, I’m leading but you’re soloing!”
He got to a nice ledge and said a few more words about the solitude and weather. You know, as if we were meeting on city sidewalk. Then he moved on.

I finished my lead in a spot I remembered as the last belay Greg and I had used. There wasn’t much to make an anchor on but the top of my pitch was very easy, in spite of a description I had read about a steep finger crack.

When K came up, he saw some roofs ahead and thought we should do one more roped pitch. So I took off once again, (having remembered where to go from that long ago time following it) and then we really were done. K saw that after the rooves – which you could pretty much just go around, it was truly the 3rd class “forever” to the summit part of the climb.

Me approaching the summit of Half DomeAnd yes, we did go up “forever” to the top. I remembered the first time I had climbed Snake Dike, I kept wanting to ask Greg if we were there yet. But I would stop myself, remembering the “forever” part of the description. I stopped myself 3 times. This time, I didn’t ask it at all, I just concentrated on my footwork and feeling the nice breeze which had failed to turn into the feared high winds.

At the summit we paused in celebration. The soloer was nowhere in sight. We had Half Dome to ourselves. Just us, rocks and a large snow patch which we dug into and filled a water bottle with snow. The weather was still perfect and the view was spectacular.

I don’t remember what time we started our descent, but it wasn’t that late. I do remember being grateful for the snow patch on top. I was aware that my water was low. We had brought gloves with us to go down the cables, we also kept our harnesses on and clipped and unclipped as we descended. Holding up the cabled away from the rock was tiring to me, especially if I didn’t keep close enough to K to benefit from the cable going up to him first. However, it was reassuring to feel the force of the cable pushing my feet into the granite. At the base I felt a sense of relief. In my estimation the hardest parts of the day in terms of potential injury were over.

Me on snow patch on Half DomeAbout 100 yards or so away from Little Yosemite we ran into a hiker. He was surprised to see us and was apparently planning on bivvying just in the general area for fun. He was only the second stranger we’d seen all day.

We were going a bit slower once we passed Little Yosemite campground. But it wasn’t until dark came and we were faced with the steep steps near the side of Vernal Falls that I felt a certain amount of danger in hiking. The Mist Trail as I had mentioned, was wet enough that you could easily get drenched. Many portions of it were large puddles. K’s legs were doing the backwards buckle thing every now and then and mine had done it once as well. I was in zombie hiking mode. K asked how I was doing every now and then, but I think he may have been more wiped out than I was since he’d hiked all the way to the top of Nevada Falls the other day, and was carrying more weight than I was.

By the time we got to camp, our friend Michael had been getting ready to turn in. K marched into the K at a resting spot on the Half Dome cablestent and didn’t emerge again. I managed to hang on long enough to tell Michael we had a great time and eat some canned fish.

Day 7

We grabbed showers, ate a junk breakfast since Curry Village’s breakfast buffet had closed, watched wildlife from the Curry patio, headed out to take photos in the meadow and at our last stop, at tunnel view lookout point before we finally headed towards home.

With the waterfalls all going off, Nutcracker, moonbows, Open Books, Church Bowl, hidden waterfall passages, real spring water, fun wildlife (both human and non), and the fulfillment of a long term goal to climb Half Dome together, it was, we all agreed, the best Yosemite Valley trip we had ever taken.

A slideshow of photographs from the trip: