I ain’t afraid of no heights?! Half Dome (PCT Days 68-70)

20140617-082511-30311374.jpg

Half dome loomed in the distance. It was beautiful and I was excited about climbing it, but I was also a bit nervous… I have a fear of heights.

From a couple of miles away I could just make out the cables and the tiny ant-like forms ascending them… “Holy sh**” I mumbled to myself… “I’m going to go up that?!” I looked up at the cables again and it seemed like they went straight up the face of the cliff. I had a moment of near panic thinking about the height and exposure along those cables, but took a deep breath and quelled it. Things like that never look as scary when you’re right up next to them… I’d be fine… No problem… I’d deal with the cables when I got to them… Right now all I needed to do was hike, and I definitely could do that!

It was nearing 6 am when I got to the 2 mile side trail that would lead me to the summit of half dome… I’d been hiking with a full pack, but there was no reason for me to bring everything up to the summit with me so I detoured into the bushes and hid my bear can (and a bag with my tent and the other things I wasn’t going to need) 100 or so feet off trail.

With my pack nearly empty it felt almost like I floated up the first mile of the trail to half dome… My body had forgotten what it felt like to climb when it wasn’t weighted down with a full pack… I was really enjoying it.

“It’s awesome up there,” said the first person I encountered as he descended from half dome. “The cables aren’t too bad. It’s the endless stairs of Moria… That’s the hard part.” Stairs? I didn’t know that there were stairs as well as cables. Stairs are not my favorite hiking terrain, so I wasn’t entirely sure that I appreciated news, even though I did like the Lord of the Rings reference.

20140617-090741-32861450.jpg

Sure enough, as I rounded the next corner I got to the base of the stairs… They wound their way up and around the face of the granite outcropping and disappeared somewhere skyward. As I began climbing the stairs of Moria I felt the familiar tingle of anxiety that I associate with my fear of heights… The early morning view from the stairs was incredible, but it felt very exposed… The fact that my senses were tingling already and I hadn’t even gotten to the infamous cables yet wasn’t reassuring.

20140617-092123-33683476.jpg

In the blink of an eye I was done with the stairs and standing at the base of the cables. Other than the mild fear of heights, the stairs hadn’t been any problem at all… That wasn’t very surprising though, I had been hiking (and at pretty high elevations) with a full pack for most of the last two months, I was in pretty good shape.

20140617-100055-36055446.jpg

I looked up at the cables… They didn’t seem any less intimidating now that I was up close. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “300 people a day climb this… That’s just crazy.”

A group of four people was standing at the base of the cables putting on gloves and preparing to ascend. “I’ve heard that it takes a lot more upper body strength than you’d think,” one of the women ahead of me warned. I nodded my head. I hadn’t thought about that, but looking at the cables and the steepness of the incline it made sense. I was going to have to pull myself up the cables. Did I have enough upper body strength to do that? I hoped so.

I waited for them to get partway up, donned my fingerless gloves, and then tested my grip on the cables. “Ow!” I felt the friction of the cable against my bare fingers. My gloves weren’t going to work. Luckily there was a large pile of discarded gloves at the base of the cables. I could try to find a more protective pair there.

20140617-155141-57101264.jpg

I felt like Goldilocks as I tried on gloves from the discard pile, “this pair is tooo big!”… “This pair is tooo small!” But I couldn’t seem to find a pair that was just right… After a couple of minutes I realized that I was just putting off facing the cables, I was never going to find a pair that was just right (even if that pair did exist somewhere in the pile). I just needed a pair that was good enough. I picked a pair that was a smidge too small, but that would allow me to have an excellent grip, and went back over to the cables.

Before going through the super gnarly sections of the high Sierra (where stumbling or misstepping might result in serious injury) I would stop, regroup, and go through a quick mental checklist to make sure that I was at the top of my game… Did I need water? Did I need food? Did I need to go to the bathroom? Did I need to rest? Sometimes consciously and deliberately going through that list would remind me that I hadn’t had any food or water etc in a while.

In my books the cables qualified as a place where screwing up could be potentially dangerous, and a place where stopping to eat, drink, or eliminate might be inconvenient to say the least. I had a quick snack and a sip of water (I’d taken care of the rest down below treeline) and was ready to stop procrastinating and climb.

As I looked up at the cables I suddenly thought, “damn, that would be a really inconvenient place to have an asthma attack”… I needed to add another thing to that mental checklist. Did I need to use my inhaler? The elevation of halfdome is 8,839 ft, is below the altitude at which my asthma is typically problem… I hadn’t needed my inhaler at all that morning or the previous day. How confident was I that 9,000 feet was below the trigger altitude, especially with the kind of exertion necessary to haul myself up the cables? I was fairly sure, but not 100% sure… Were there any downsides to using my inhaler now, just in case the cables changed things? I thought about how the inhalers sometimes make my hands shake… Any kind of upper body tremor seemed like a fairly undesirable side effect on the cables… hmmm… I decided to administer my asthma self test… Could I take a complete, full, lung expanding breath and let it out again without triggering an asthma attack? For years I’d failed this little asthma self test, but today, despite all the stair climbing and elevation, I passed the test with flying colors… My chest didn’t feel tight at all and there wasn’t even a catch or a hint of a wheeze when I inhaled or exhaled. I decided that I didn’t need to use my inhaler.

20140617-222236-80556379.jpg

Finished with my self-safety checks and my attempts to procrastinate, there was nothing left to do but do it. I started up the cables. I could do this, I was doing it. One hand after another, one foot after another, and with my gaze steadily fixed on the granite in front of me.

I quickly gained on the group of four ahead of me… I was a thru-hiker, and I was stronger than I thought I was. The granite of half dome’s face reminded me of the granite at the top of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, just steeper. Actually it was more like one of the multi-pitch rock climbs on White Horse (also in New Hampshire)… maybe steeper… Except there I had at least been roped in!

I was about half-way up the cables and the granite was getting steeper… Much steeper. I’d also just about caught up to the person ahead of me. I didn’t want to get too close, so I stopped and rested for a second at one of the 2×4 cross-braces… The guy ahead of me was clearly even more afraid of heights than I was! I couldn’t hear the words of encouragement that his friends were giving him, but he was crouching as low to the rock as he could, his arms and legs spread out with his knees and elbows bent, muscles tense, and already getting a little shaky. Just watching him made me nervous… Shaky, scissoring muscles use up a lot of energy and make you burn out much more quickly… The last thing you want if you’re trying to conserve energy so that you can make it all the way to the top!

After he’d made it up another 20 feet or so, I started to climb upwards again, figuring when I caught up to them again I’d just stop and wait at another one of the cross braces.

This section seemed almost impossibly steep! My arms started getting tired, and this, the steepest section of the climb, was missing four of the wooden cross-braces… The tingle of anxiety I associate with heights and exposure was getting stronger… And I’d caught up with the incredibly nervous hiker in front of me… I was going to have to wait there…. Hanging off the cables… Until he could move forward a bit.

My rational mind started to check out, and pure panic elbowed it’s way to the surface… This was phobia… I wanted out! I wanted out now! I wanted to be anywhere but here! I looked down at my only escape route… Oh god, oh god, what had I done… I couldn’t go up, I couldn’t go down… Oh god… Fight or Flight, Fight or Flight, fight or flight… Fight… or… Flight… I couldn’t fly, so Fight… Fight damnit! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight? My rational mind started to check back in. Hah! I knew it, I knew how to get my rational mind to check back in… Make it a fight, make it a challenge… I knew I’d have trouble backing down from a challenge… I could beat this damn phobia, I could make it to the top of this mountain… 300 people a day made it to the top of this mountain, I would make it to the top of this mountain. I made it up Mount Whitney and I made it through the snow-covered passes of the high Sierra, I could make it up Half Dome! I was a thru-hiker and I was strong. The strongest I’ve ever been in my life. If the guy in front of me could make it to the top of this mountain, so could I. I was stronger than he was. Sure, my arms were getting tired, but they weren’t shaky yet, neither were my legs. If he could do it, I definitely could do it!

The panic subsided, replaced with fierce determination… I was confident I was going to make it to the top of half dome. I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it down again, but I was absolutely sure that I was going to make it up… I just needed to focus on the granite in front of me and moving one hand and one foot at a time. Sure, I might be like a treed cat, stuck on top at the end, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

By the time I’d gained mastery over my phobia the guy in front of me had made it to the next wooden cross-brace and was moving forward again. Moving confidently and efficiently I followed him, resting at one 2×4 cross brace until he’d cleared the next one. I occasionally shouted up words of encouragement to him, “you’ve got this!”… “We’ve got this!” Our progress was slow, but eventually we triumphantly made it to the summit.

20140617-232637-84397561.jpg

I felt powerful, I felt triumphant, I felt strong, and the views from the top were spectacular! I relaxed, ate some food, and lounged in the sun at the summit. It was a gorgeous morning and despite all the rumors about crowds on half dome, there were only 7 of us at the summit.

I made friends with the four people that had been on the cables ahead of me and they coaxed me out onto the diving board… I even managed to dangle my feet over the edge for a few minutes (photo courtesy of my new friend Evan). I had no illusions that my fear of heights was dispelled… I still had no idea how I was going to get myself down from half dome… But I was happy to just live in the moment and enjoy the truly spectacular place that is half dome!

20140617-234351-85431931.jpg

What goes up must, eventually, come down. After thoroughly exploring the summit of half dome and lounging around for an hour or so I decided it was time to face the inevitable and headed back over towards the cables.

When I got to the cables there was no one else in sight. No one was coming up the cables, no one was going down the cables… It was just me. On the way up, having people ahead of me, even though I didn’t know them, had helped me face my fears and make it to the summit. I wasn’t going to have that advantage going down…

“Some fears you face with friends, and some fears you face alone,” I said outloud as I grabbed the cables and headed down, looking out at the impressive views in front of me. As the grade got steeper I decided that facing the view, as spectacular as it was, was the wrong decision for me and turned to face the granite, going down the cable like I would a ladder…

“How much do I trust my government,” I thought to myself as I slowly descended. Apparently I trusted the government with my life… If those cables didn’t hold, I was a goner… I laughed at the thought… Blind trust/faith in the government wasn’t always my strong suit.

As soon as I got down to the steeper sections I saw that even though there wasn’t anyone else going down the cables, there were a handful of people headed up the cables… I also realized that my arms were getting sore again… I was so nervous that I was clenching the cables as if my life depended on it (I mean, only because it did) and keeping my elbows bent to keep me as close to the cables as possible. Definitely the wrong strategy.

I knew how to descend cliff-faces… It was just like repelling, except that I had cables instead of a rope. For me, the hard part about repelling was trusting that the rope would hold as I took that first step over the edge of the cliff… That was the panic moment… The rest was fun… I had already passed that initial phase with the cables… I relaxed, straightened, my arms, and started descending much more quickly and confidently.

I was also really lucky, all of the people coming up were clearly less afraid of heights than I was… As I descended they offered to stop to let me go by, and all four of them sat down on the cliff face to enjoy the views as I passed, hanging onto one cable with just one hand. I was grateful that I didn’t have to navigate my way around more people.

As soon as I passed the last of the people headed up the cables I zipped the rest of the way down. It was actually really fun! It ended up being much easier going down than it had been going up (both physically and in terms of my fear of heights).

At the bottom of the cables I returned my borrowed gloves to the pile, sat down, and watched the people ascending and descending the cables… I’d done it and was glad that I had… It was awesome!

Sitting there, at the base of the cables, were a bunch of people that had decided the cables weren’t for them… they’d wait for their friends or partners right there…

One of them asked, “would you do it again?” My immediate response was, “not today!” I was definitely glad that I had done it, but would I do it again? Going up had been fairly gnarly and certainly had pushed me right up and over the edge of my comfort zone… I probably would be willing to do it again, but I wasn’t in any rush.

20140618-151332-54812552.jpg

(Though nobody was there checking permits when I went up Half Dome, when I came down there was a ranger standing at the bottom of the steps of Moria checking the permits of all of the people ascending and descending Half Dome. That was probably around 9:30 am. He also had an iPad he was using to verify that the names and dates on the permits were valid.)

*** As I mentioned in a previous post, I haven’t been able to use my radio/mp3 player, so I’ve been making up songs as I hike. The following song was stuck in my head for days preceding and following my climb of half dome (to the tune of “Found a Peanut”):

Got a permit, got a permit
Got a permit right now,
Right now I’ve got a permit
Got a permit right now

Hiking yosemite, hiking yosemite
Hiking yosemite right now,
Right now I’m hiking yosemite
Hiking yosemite right now

Going up half dome, going up half dome
Going up half dome right now
Right now I’m going up half dome
Going up half dome right now

Found the cables, found the cables
Found the cables right now
Right now I found the cables
Found the cables right now

Scared shi*less, scared shi*less
Scared shi*less right now,
Right now I’m scared shi*less
Scared shi*less right now.

Climbing anyway, climbing anyway
Climbing anyway right now
Right now I’m climbing anyway
Climbing anyway right now.

Made it up there, made it up there
Made it up there to the top
Right now I made it up there
Made it up there to the top.

It was awesome, it was awesome
It was awesome right now,
Right now it was awesome
It was awesome right now!

It’s a trap! (PCT Day 67)

20140616-215355-78835627.jpg

“It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbar’s famous quote from Return of Jedi ran through my head as the dark gray, almost black clouds descended upon me from every direction. I was still in a pocket of sunshine but it was only a matter of time… the clouds (and rain) were coming for me.

Maybe this was why it had been so easy to get the Yosemite backcountry and half dome permits? I vaguely remembered the weather report from the info board at the ranger station that morning… Chance of thunderstorms 1pm to 9pm. I hadn’t worried much about it. I was in the mountains in the summertime, isn’t there always a chance of afternoon thunderstorms?

It was 3pm, so I tried to consider myself lucky… At least the thunderstorms hadn’t rolled in at 1pm. I eyed the sky again… I’m still getting used to California weather patterns, but this seemed pretty obvious… Thunderstorms were coming.

As if to emphasize my point I heard the distant rumbling of thunder. I was in Yosemite national park, above 9000ft, and hiking through a meadow… Not where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm… And even more annoyingly I’d just reached the turnoff for clouds rest. My plan had been to take this turn, climb clouds rest, and then cowboy camp at it’s summit. I’d envisioned laying there in my sleeping bag as I watched the sunset over half dome that night… The perfect prelude to the following mornings climb.

The trail to clouds rest would lead me up to higher elevations and even more exposed terrain. Even though I expected that the thunderstorms would pass before my dream sunset, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to avoid getting caught in the storm. The only choice I had was where the storm was going to catch me. I sighed and pulled out my map. At least it wasn’t raining… Yet.

Sure enough, the trail to clouds rest went up an exposed ridge… Definitely not the place to be in a thunderstorm. Alternatively, the JMT (John muir trail) continued to drop in elevation and descended towards Yosemite Valley and the trail for half dome. I sighed again and let go of my beautiful plan to climb clouds rest and watch the sunset. I couldn’t responsibly take that trail in this kind of weather.

For that matter, the spot Where
I was standing, in the meadow, the tallest thing around, wasn’t where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm either. I put the map away and hurried down the JMT figuring that as I descended I’d find more places where I could reasonably take cover from the oncoming storm.

Vacation, I was on vacation… And technically I was on vacation from my vacation. I wasn’t on the PCT, my trip into Yosemite Valley and to Half Dome was a side trip. I decided that this vacation idea meant that I definitely did not have to hike in the rain today.

As the remaining rays of sun were evicted from the sky and the only remaining colors were shades of gray, I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I would wait out the storm in my nice, dry tent… Maybe I’d even take a nap… That seemed like a good vacationy thing to do. If the storm didn’t last long, I could always keep hiking again later, but I didn’t have to. I was on vacation.

As the thunder grew louder I found a spot that would have been ok, but decided against it… It was too close to the trail, so I hurried on… I got another 50 feet down the trail and heard a loud thundering crack. I wasn’t getting rained on yet, but I got the message loud and clear… The storm was here.

No more excuses, the next suitable spot and I was going to stop and hunker down… Besides, I didn’t want to risk the trail dumping me out into another meadow.

At 3:15 I stopped, put up my tent, and crawled inside. By 3:30 it was pouring and not long after the thunder became deafening. I listened to it reverberate off of the granite cliff faces around me. I was sad to miss my idyllic sunset atop clouds rest, but felt somewhat vindicated, at least I’d been right about the weather.

I curled up, happy to be warm and dry there inside my tent, and tried to take a nap. The rhythmic drumming of the rain on my tent lulled me to sleep… The thunder so constant that it stopped being startling. I woke up at around five to the sound of silence. No more rain, no more wind, no more sleet, no more thunder… Just complete silence. I listened for a few minutes… It certainly sounded like the storm had passed.

I popped my head out of the tent… The sky was a universally soft gray… I wasn’t sure wether or not it would rain again, but the thunderstorm was certainly done and over with, so I decided to pack up and keep on hiking… I wanted to be a bit closer to half dome if I could manage it.

20140616-235533-86133969.jpg

As I continued my hike, the skies cleared and I got my first glimpses of Yosemite Valley. It was already impressive and I hadn’t gotten within sight of any of the famous landmarks yet! I was definitely glad that I’d decided to take the two day detour into Yosemite valley.

About a mile from the side trail up to Half Dome I found the perfect campsite. It was on top of a little granite bald and had views of half dome and some other peaks whose names I don’t know. I hadn’t seen any other hikers since before the 3 o’clock thunderstorm so it felt like I had all of Yosemite to myself… It was a very nice feeling.

As I sat by my tent watching the sun go down and the stars come up I fell in love with my life all over again… I wasn’t sure what tomorrow and half dome would bring, but this moment… This moment was perfect.

20140617-000912-552023.jpg

Yosemite Permits (PCT Days 66-67)

“What?” I asked unable to contain my disbelief. After hiking 900 miles from the Mexican border to the edge of Yosemite National Park, I wasn’t going to be allowed to make the 20 mile detour down into Yosemite Valley to climb half dome. Apparently you need a different permit for that, the PCT permits don’t cover half dome or backpacking in Yosemite valley.

20140616-180101-64861934.jpg

“If I’d known that I’d needed special permits for Yosemite and half dome I would have gotten them when I applied for all the other permits that I needed for the PCT,” I grumbled. It never occurred to me that the PCT would take me so close to the natural wonders of Yosemite without allowing me to actually go and explore them.

“If you had a JMT (John Muir Trail) permit, that would cover you for climbing half dome,” said my oh so helpful friend. That just seemed like the epitome of unfairness to me… The JMTers got to climb half dome, but the PCTers didn’t? Maybe it was just the calorie deficit from hiking the high Sierras finally catching up with me, but I was definitely getting cranky.

I’d climbed Mt. Whitney and done the majority of the JMT at that point… I’d just done an extra 700 or so miles through the desert that the JMTers hadn’t… How come they got to climb half dome and I didn’t? (The answer is probably that the JMT goes into Yosemite Valley while the PCT skirts the Valley and continues northwards instead, but that wasn’t making me feel any better or less grumpy).

I had never been to Yosemite and I was suddenly determined to figure out a way to visit Yosemite Valley and climb half dome as a part of my thru-hike… The permitting system for half dome seemed overly complicated and the more I learned about it the more impossible my quest seemed to be.

The only way you can legally do a day hike of half dome is through a lottery system. You have to apply for the lottery in the spring, well in advance of your hike, or apply online (two days in advance) for one of the daily lottery spots. Without reliable cell phone or internet service on the trail the last minute lottery didn’t seem like it would be a viable option and I was way too late for the spring lottery.

As I looked for another way to legally climb half dome I discovered a more obvious solution: I should get a wilderness use permit and an associated half dome permit. A wilderness permit would allow me to do an overnight hike from the PCT down into Yosemite Valley with a climb of half dome anytime in between. That was exactly what I wanted to do. It would be perfect!!!

I called the Wilderness Info Hotline (209-372-0826) from Mammoth Lakes and explained to them that I was a PCT thru-hiker and that I’d like a permit so that I could descend into Yosemite Valley via half dome. They didn’t quite laugh at me, but they did tell me that I needed to have figured out that I needed a permit and applied for it much sooner. There was no way I could reserve a wilderness permit for an itinerary that would reasonably include half dome less than two weeks in advance. The only remaining option for me to legally climb half dome was the first-come first-served wilderness permit and half dome permit.

The person on the phone explained to me that there were 25 half dome permits set aside to go with the first-come first-served backcountry wilderness permits and that they were distributed across the Yosemite wilderness offices. I could try to get one of those. “Half dome and the trails going into Yosemite are the most popular trails in the country, so it’s really hard to get those permits. Good luck,” she said apologetically as she hung up the phone. My odds for success weren’t sounding very good.

20140616-185821-68301146.jpg

As I hiked over Donahue Pass and what I hoped were the last large snowfields of the Sierra I formulated a plan. There is a Wilderness Office at Tuolomme Meadows… I would get to Tuolomme and camp out at the Wilderness Office… Eventually I would be one of the first 25 people in the first-come, first-served queue. Based on the rumors about how crowded and crazy Yosemite was, I wasn’t sure how long it would take to make it to the front of that queue, but as a thru-hiker with no fixed schedule, I defiantly decided that I would just stay there as long as it took!

20140616-185739-68259428.jpg

When I got to Tuolomme Meadows late on Thursday evening I was surprised to find the area nearly vacant. The campground wasn’t open for the season yet, and neither were the grill, the lodge, or the visitor’s center. The shuttles weren’t running yet either. The only things open were the wilderness office, the store, and the post office.

I woke up at dawn the next morning, like I usually do, and decided I might as well begin my siege of the wilderness office… I grabbed plenty of food, water, and warm clothes and headed up the road. When I got to the Wilderness Office I found a nice sign in the parking lot showing me exactly where the first-come, first-served line should form. There was no one else there.

I plunked down in front of the sign and settled in… It was going to be two hours before the wilderness office opened and five hours before first-come first-served permits would be released, but I didn’t have any other place I needed to be. I was a thru-hiker and I had a bag of food, fresh food that I’d gotten at the store and in the maildrop that had been waiting for me at the post office (including my grandma’s homemade donuts)… I was perfectly happy to just sit there and nap in the sun and eat.

I laughed as I thought about people that camp outside of stores waiting for Black Friday deals, or concert tickets, or autographs… That’s essentially what I was doing, except I was camping out waiting for permission to hike a trail. It seemed kind of absurd.

Eventually 8 am rolled around and the wilderness office opened for the day. I didn’t think there was any chance of getting a permit until 11, but I figured I might as well go in and talk to the rangers about what my best bet was in terms of trail heads and timing for the wilderness permit. I’d heard that if you start from some of the less popular trail heads you have a better chance of getting a permit.

Inside the permit office I explained to the ranger that I was a PCT thru-hiker, I wanted to hike into Yosemite Valley and climb half-dome, and that I could be flexible about all of the other details.

“When would you like to go?” He asked. “Anytime I can,” I replied hopefully… Not wanting to eliminate any potential options.

“Well, would you like to go today or tomorrow?” He asked patiently. “Ideally today,” I replied incredulously… Today was an option?! I hadn’t even dared to hope to get a permit to head out into the valley today.

“Which trailhead would you like to start from?” He continued. “Well, ideally I’d like to start from here,” I said, and then clarified, “from cathedral lakes, but I can be flexible.”

“No problem, leaving today, from cathedral lakes and ending in Yosemite valley. One night or two?” I thought about it for minute, “just one night, I’ll hike in over clouds rest today, climb half dome tomorrow morning, and then head out Yosemite valley tomorrow afternoon.” I may have intentionally emphasized half dome to make sure there was no ambiguity… My itinerary included half dome.

He nodded, “What kind of bear canister do you have?” I told him about my bear vault. “Where do you plan on camping?” I showed him the general area on the map between the trail coming down from clouds rest and the trail going up to half-dome… “Hopefully somewhere in there.”

“You know, that is the most problematic bear area in the park, and maybe in the entire country.” I asked if he had a recommendation for a different area to camp given my goals. “No,” he shook his head, “that’s a good launching point for half-dome, just be really careful about getting all your scented items into the bear canister for the night.”

He then asked me for my ID, my PCT permit, and $8 for the Half dome permit. I couldn’t believe it… After hearing over and over again that it was nearly impossible to get permits for half dome I was going to get one… And one that allowed me to climb half dome either later that same day or the following day, whichever I felt like!!!

20140616-202309-73389466.jpg

I left the wilderness office, permit in hand and headed off into Yosemite… Now that I’d gotten the permit, the only thing I had left to tackle on my trip to the summit of half dome was my fear of heights…