“Yosemite and the Hike to Half Dome”
By Brian K. Brecht and Rico Prate
**Our Story Continues**
THE ASSENT – VERNAL AND NEVADA FALLS
Climbing… it seems like all we’ve been doing is climbing. We’re about 4500 feet above sea level, and I feel like my heart is about to beat out of my chest. I’m saying to myself, what in the world was I thinking!
But perhaps, I’m a little ahead of myself.
“Camping sleep is typically low quality sleep, and the first night in Yosemite was no exception, thanks to squawking ravens, owls, and many other birds not at all heard outside my apartment in Chicago. Predictably, Rick is up before Brian or me. He wanders around for who knows how long before running out of patience, returning to the tent, and waking the two of us up by saying, “We’ve got 8 hours of hiking to do today ladies – time to get up!”
Our goal from the beginning was to hike to the top of Half Dome. Again this is the part where one really needs to do some research before understanding what you’re getting yourself into. Rick kept saying “Are you sure we’re hiking the dome, do you know what’s actually involved?!” We knew we needed a permit and to that we didn’t have one. But we also knew people will hike to the base and see if there are any no-shows. So after series of conversations while driving, our goal was to see how far we could get. We’d shoot for Half Dome base camp, and if we made it, we’d assess if we could make it to the top. If we couldn’t so be it, it would provide an excuse to come back.
We shot back to the valley and took the drive as far in as we could, finding the parking lot that leads to the Happy Isles Trailhead. The trail started easily enough and meandered through the tall pines, and across the Merced River. Again due to the draught, the river was extremely low, so for some reason Rick felt we should walk through instead of over. No worries, jumping from boulder to boulder was pretty easy with just a small daypack. Rick on the other hand felt he needed to carry his full pack. Now he wasn’t carrying all his gear, but he had felt the need to push himself and at least know what it would be like to hike this volume under weight. So as Rick hurried across boulders, Rico and I gradually followed along.
Again the trail was paved and we assumed it would turn into a gravel trail soon enough, but what we weren’t expecting was the immediate and profound incline that started within the first few hundred feet of our hike.
“We start out from the trailhead, just off the parking lot at 10:40am. We hike about a half-mile through the nearby woods – on a paved trail – before we start gaining elevation. I should correct myself. The phrase “gaining elevation” does not nearly convey the physical struggle of what we are doing. “Locked in an all-out war against the evil and malevolent forces of gravity,” describes what it feels like much more accurately. I mean, this is no fucking joke. The climb, while still on a paved trail, and in the presence of many hundreds of others about, is absolutely grueling – particularly for three guys, pushing 50, who, as I just referred to, had done no physical training for such an endeavor, whatsoever.”
And now we come back to our first words, “Climbing, it seems like all we’ve been doing is climbing,”.
The first real milestone you encounter on the hike is Vernal Falls footbridge, but this alone is an elevation gain of 500 vertical feet over the course of only one mile. For us with the intent of getting as close to Half Dome as we can, that meant continuing to the top of Vernal falls which was another 500 vertical feet. From here we’d continued to climb to Nevada falls, making its base at approx. 5500 vertical feet. All this in only 3 miles horizontal distance.
I have gone from valley floor to the base of Nevada falls without much highlight, simply to point out this was a much tougher hike than what I had ever imagined. Granted I did it, and would definitely do it again, but for me it was a moment of realizing the sedentary nature of my office job is quickly becoming not for me. Not only do I long for the fresh air, but also the toll the lack of exercise it’s taking on me is staggering. I have to change my life and I need to do it before I find myself stuck this way.
So regarding the assent, to be honest words cannot truly describe my feeling at seeing the vistas that were put in front of us at each step. Climbing up the initial rise along the paved well-maintained path was tough. You’re climbing out of the valley and most of your views are of a thickly wooded landscape. But the higher you go, the grander it becomes. Sheer rock walls reach skyward; towering over the pines that I was sure couldn’t be topped.
When you arrive at the Vernal Falls Bridge, you’re met with an expanse of rock and mountain debris, having been forced down from above by the rushing water. At this time of year there was very little water and certainly no torrent of rapids, but with the exposed rock and riverbed, you could truly appreciate the force and power that must exhibit when the river and falls are in full flow.
From the bridge, the trail becomes mostly dirt and the climb a more severe. Now with the falls in plain sight you’re headed to their base. Again due to the season, there was much less activity to the falls than what we expected, but no less impressive as the water that is flowing, tumbles over it’s 300+ foot drop.
We stop and sit, now having climbed all of those 600 steps, and take in the full picture of the falls. Rick has been steadily marching ahead of us, at some points as much as a half-mile ahead. Rico, in his mercy, is hanging back with me as he realizes how badly I’m struggling. This is frustrating to me in so many ways. The hike is tough, no doubt, but as a little girl bounds past me practically running up the stairs, I realize this is pathetic. I have no intension of stopping.
We catch up with Rick half way up the elevation of Vernal falls. At this point most people have the discussion of sitting, enjoying the view, and then turning back. Or you have the option of continuing on, up even steeper stairs, to reach the very top, the crest of the falls itself.
As I said, I was tired and sore, but more frustrated and there was no way I was going to stop now. We sit for a spell breaking out some of our modest rations, some water, a granola bar and some of the trail mix I packed. One of the things that you don’t hear about until you’re in the park is the squirrel and marmot population has become quite adapted to the human visitors. They are fearless and don’t think twice about running up to you when they see and smell food available. Rick messes with one for a bit but given the signs through out, asking to not feed them (which is practically impossible) we try to shoo them away as best we can.
We eventually get up, put packs back on and started back with our climb. We were now probably 90 minutes into our assent.
There is a section almost at the very top of the assent where you climb some extremely rough stairs and the path narrows to about a couple feet. There is happily a large metal guardrail but it was stunning how limited you were in available room in order to reach the summit.
Climb, climb, and suddenly you crest the top of the huge granite slab that you’ve been ascending, the backside gently sloping into the woods and the top of the Merced River. The brink of the falls is again railed off, and you are warned by the increasingly abundant signs in the area, that going past the rail is deadly. Each sign highlights victims of recent death as adults and children at one time or another, have gotten too close to the water, fallen in, and once in the grab of the current, find themselves pulled through the water, and over the falls. A terrifying death for all involved.
The Emerald Pool sits at the top of Vernal Falls and is fed by yet a still higher waterfall, that of the Nevada falls. But here there is a tranquil setting as a 20 degree slope called the apron gently washes into the Emerald pool. Again the scenery is majestic with massive granite formations shadowing above. We spend a faire amount of time here and though careful not to go IN the water, I can’t resist getting my hands in it and splashing some on my overheated face. Its exhilarating and its here I realize I’ll be taking a swim when all this is over.
Rico skips rocks, Rick closes his eyes for just a few, but we all take some time to recharge, because we all feel, we’re still not done.
“Once on top of the falls, we get a chance to pause, take some pictures, and become energized by the stunning scenery surrounding us. We choose to continue ascending. The next stop was to proceed to the top of Nevada Falls. Before we continued, however, we were able to enjoy the calmness and tranquility of the Emerald Pool. Fed by the cascading waters of Nevada Falls, the Emerald Pool is about 30 yards across, by about 150 yards wide. Perfectly constructed by God for skipping stones, we spent a good half hour climbing the big rocks that border the pool, relaxing, and enjoying the view. Newly refreshed, and ready for more, we begin, once again, to climb.
As I mentioned above Vernal Falls is Nevada Falls. The falls itself is just less than 600 feet as far as its vertical drop, and the hike here is not as bad as the climb to Vernal. Nonetheless it continues to climb and challenge you. And it was that challenge that finally did me in. We made it just pass the bass of the falls, climbing another (approx.) 500 vertical feet, but it was the remaining 500 feet to the crest I knew I wasn’t going to make. So after three and a half hours, I threw in the towel. Again I was proud of how far I had climbed, but also disappointed that I was the one who called the stop.
Rick again had gotten a bit ahead of us and Rico still staying with me, said he’d run in ahead to catch rick. I waited patiently and after some time, they both came back down.
Again it was time for a break. We moved down to the base of the falls and watched the flowing water. Looking at the map when we had gotten back to camp, made it even more frustrating. Assessing the elevation gain from the top of Nevada to the Half Dome bass, it would have only been a gain of another 200 feet. But I knew I just wasn’t going to make that last climb no matter how hard I tried.
So it was back down. What took us three and a half hours up, took us just under 2 hours to get down. It was over five hours of hiking and we were all spent.
“Something that actually does go as expected is that the trip down goes faster than the trip up did. This is aided by three factors: Familiarity, anxiousness to get back, and, the biggest reason: Gravity. At one point, I turn to Brian and remark that I am fucking sick and tired of fighting gravity. First, of course, we fought it while we were ascending. And now, we are fighting it tooth and nail as we descend – gravity wants to pull us off this mountain quicker than our legs are able to navigate.”
As we reached the truck and drove out of the valley I remembered my thought at the Emerald pool of taking a swim.
“On the way, Brian is determined to take a dip in the nearby Merced River and “wash the stink” off of him. Since he is the driver, he is in control off that. He spies a suitable placed to do so, pulls over, and we head toward the shin deep water. We all take off our shoes and socks and wade into the water. Two ducks swim within a few feet of us, neither of which are the least bit concerned or intimidated. Brian does us all one better and goes to the extreme measure of actually sitting down in the middle of the river and completely immersing himself in the 50-55 degree water – not once, but twice. We spend 20-30 minutes in and around the river, skipping stones and generally horsing around before heading toward the campsite once again.”
The water was almost painful but there was exhilaration to it that leads me to drop myself under for a second time. I think it was less I got used to the water and more I was numb head to toe. So soaking wet, it was back to Crain Flats and some dry and warm clothes.
“We arrive just past 6:00pm. Rick builds a fire, and Brian and I indulge in a nip from the Bar of Love as I get some journaling done. It isn’t too long at all before night falls. Like last night, a dizzying tapestry of stars appear above the very tall pines, and helps the three of us to quietly, and wearily, enjoy the Yosemite evening”.
In the end, this was Yosemite for us. We woke the next morning, each complaining how bad the OTHER two guys had snored, no one acknowledging we’re not 22 any more. Rick again was up first and had stoked the fire back to life while Rico and I dressed and wandered out of the tent.
All joking aside, this was a fantastic experience. Sure, a little more planning or training would have been nice, but this was a trip where we would be able to say we had done it. We at least made the attempt. As for Half Dome, the best part, is that it’s continued to push the three of us to saying “We have to go back, we have to make it to the top”. We know we can do it; this time we’ll make the plans. In the weeks that have followed I’ve already gotten emails from Rick asking, “When are we going back”.
The trip home was uneventful. We made a few stops at some local sites, but we were all spent, and looking forward to some downtime at the house with the family. We had a funny moment just outside of the park when we stopped for breakfast at the Buckmeadow Restaurant. During the week, Rick and I had fallen into a quest for the perfect slice of pie. We had pie in Shasta, we had pie in Monterey, and we even had pie inside the park at the Ahwahnee Hotel. And now we found pie in Groveland for breakfast.
“Toward the end of the meal, Rick sees a menu for “Aunt Betty’s Homemade Pies”. Uh oh… Rick immediately asks the waitress which pies are the freshest – seriously – twice in less than 24 hours. Our waitress goes in the back and brings out Aunt Janette, wearing a flour stained apron – who tells us Aunt Betty retired last year, but she knows all her secrets. After a rundown of, basically, the entire pie menu, we buy an entire “cherry-berry” pie, since we are too full to eat pie right now. $16 for an entire homemade pie – very nice.”
Its not a true road trip unless Rick is harassing a waitress, and this one took it all in sport.
This trip rounded out a couple things for me. Of course it’s always fantastic to do an adventure with the boys from Chicago. And getting some road time takes us back to our early adventuring days. But for the GAC, it was fulfilling to set a goal at the beginning of the year and realize that goal as intended. Certainly the shape and form changed as it became reality, but we felt that’s the making of a great adventure. Somewhere there’s a balance between it all being planned out, and the spur of the moment inspiration, as the adventure unfolds. I think Rico summed up this trip the best when he said:
“This trip ranks up there with New Orleans, London, and Route 66 (insert background angelic-like chanting here) as one of the great road trips we have ever done. Come to think of it, it is unfair to really categorize this as a road trip. Compared to other road trips, this one was much more centered on one location than most of the others. This trip was more about activity and accomplishment as opposed to miles under the wheels.
At this time in my life, and hopefully the others as well, this kind of trip is much more satisfying. Last year’s Lake Michigan Loop trip taught me that spending hour after hour in the car without a lot of activity to balance it out is no longer of much interest to me. This trip was perfect: Active, beautiful, challenging, not overly planned, limitless possibilities, a campfire, with a little road time sprinkled in. And who knows? We may come back for more next year…