Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Epic hikes: Half Dome

The past year has not been a good year for hiking for me.  Other than a few quick trips up Monadnock with some colleagues and a hike up Moose Mountain to look for Moose I haven't done any good hikes since the big one to Bigelow just before we visited South Africa in 2008.

So when a business trip to San Jose was in the offing and my hiking colleague (who had planned the Bigelow trip) suggested that we stay a couple of days extra to visit Yosemite, it took very little to get me to agree.

Now I am not in great shape, unfortunately. The motivation to exercise has a very low pulse in me so when John described the hike (and sent me a video link) I thought it would be likely that I'd stop somewhere along the way and hang out to wait for him.

The trail guide describes it as an 8.2mi (13km) long hike to the top of Half Dome with an elevation gain of 5000ft (1542m).  Of course in my mental preparation I fixated on the 8.2 and the 5000ft and knew it would be tough - without really taking account of the fact that this is a there and back trail so the total distance is 16.4mi (with almost another mile added in for the walk from the car to the trailhead.  (John sent me this GPS elevation graph and the detailed trail after the trip).

The guidebook for the Appalachian trail on the East Coast has a rule of thumb for the distance that you can cover when you are hiking.  The rule is half an hour per mile and add half an hour per mile for each 1000 ft gain in elevation.  By this calculation the total hike is estimated at 10.5hours without stops.  The Yosemite guide book recommends 12hours.

We set off at 6am and made it to the trail head at 6:30.  It was still dark, but light enough by that time to see the trail.  The first 2 miles or so are more or less paved with tar and were pretty easy going.  What was astonishing about this trail was that every turn presented the most beautiful views of the monolithic granite extrusions and rock faces with amazing features.  It was hard not to stop every few feet to take a photograph and you can see right away how people were inspired to climb in this valley.

 The trail eases out of the valley and splits into two alternatives - a very steep "Misty Trail" which we fortunately only discovered on the way back and the "Nevada Falls" trail - both of which take you past the most spectacular falls. I say fortunately because I think we would have been tempted to go up that way if we knew that it is a shorter route to the Nevada Falls. The gradient is brutal and I appreciated going down it more than I would have going up.

The guide book warned us that some of the waterfalls along these trails are only really running strong in the spring and are a mere trickle at other times of the year. I don't think we found a fall that was not impressive. The Yosemite web site boasts that no other place on earth has as high a concentration of waterfalls as Yosemite does.

The Nevada falls are really impressive and visible from quite far off along the trail.  At the top of the falls is a wonderful pool which is apparently too tempting for some hikers.  Almost every year a hiker is swept over the falls.  A sign up there warns: "IF YOU SLIP AND GO OVER THE WATERFALL YOU WILL DIE"

These falls are half way to the top of the hike along this route and you can walk right to the edge and look down this impressive drop with a metal fence preventing you from teetering over the edge.

 Once you are over the falls you have a short climb to get past the Liberty Dome on the left and you are in Little Yosemite Valley - a relatively flat area in which Ponderosa Pines and these wonderful large Sequoia trees grow.  By the time you get here, you can see the rounded back of the Half Dome and it's partner Sub Dome through the trees.  The hike takes you all the way around these two rounded shoulders to the right and then up a surprisingly even trail to a flat-topped area below the two Domes.

The views from the top are breathtaking.  You can see the Sierra Nevada mountains and all of the prominent features of Yosemite valley from there, standing on this bald, rounded top.

The trail up Sub Dome begins with rocks hewn and stacked to form steps in the most impressive way.  At 8836ft above sea level, the effort required to move and stack rocks like this must be incredible.

After a 100 ft or so you scramble up slabs of rock at an angle steep enough to make your next footing a thoughtful exercise.  At this point I was tired enough that I really didn't trust my footing enough to move confidently forward.  John carried on until he reached the top of Sub Dome (a few hundred feet higher) and was able to survey the very steep stretch to the top.

In the summer, chains are erected with slats at even intervals to help hikers move up the steep terrain.  These chains are taken down in the Fall and left to lie flat on the dome.  When we arrived there, a French hiker was making his way down the mountain and told us exuberantly that the chains were still up there.  We discovered that he had used the "decoupled" chains as supports to help him make it to the summit.

The total hike was 17.2mi and we took 10 and a half hours all told.

If you haven't been to Yosemite - or any of the other National Parks, you may not be aware of how well equipped they are.  Yosemite Valley boasts a swimming pool and a big complex with a large barn-like eating hall where you can eat a buffet dinner for about $13.

We feasted that night and drank beer to celebrate.  Aching feet and joints that took me a couple of days to recover from reminding me of the day's effort.

What a cool trip!

No comments:

Post a Comment