(Please choose a number between 1 and 4. You'll need it later on in this post)
Friday had been a great day of recharging, and after some back-and-forth between us about avoiding crowds and what we wanted out of our time in Yosemite, we decided that climbing the fabled Half Dome on Saturday would be a fun and challenging way to cap off our time in the park. Half Dome is more rock than mountain, a granite formation rising up 4800 feet (1, 144 metres) from the valley floor to an elevation of 8,836 feet (2,693 metres). The summit of the rock is accessible without technical climbing gear, with fixed cables shepherding hikers up the last 400 feet (120 metres) of the steep climb. It's a grueling 15-mile round-trip, but something we were very much looking forward to as we packed up camp on Saturday morning and took the short drive to the trailhead.
There are other lookout points and waterfalls on the way up to the summit, so we were very much part of a thundering herd as we started the walk. I felt like a pilgrim heading to Mecca, only with more of a crowd. While the crowds would ebb and flow throughout the day, we never quite had the feeling that we were "getting away from it all," as we estimated at day's end that we spent less than ten percent of the day without other people in view or earshot. I shudder to think of the masses that flock to Half Dome at summer's peak.
The highlight of the early part of the hike is the misnomered "Mist Trail," a steep granite stair climb that has you walking along side a pumping waterfall (pumping in springtime, at least), while the mist from the falls gives you a thorough soaking. It wasn't a bad way to start the day, as the scenery was great and we knew that we were in for a hot day of hiking.
The walk levels off somewhat after the mist trail culminates with the thundering Nevada Falls four miles (about seven kilometers) in. After a flat, sandy section the trail climbs gradually toward the summit, with the final two miles being gnarly to say the least. There are dozens of steps seemingly carved right into the side of the rock, then some free scrambling up bare rock (nothing but the valley floor to stop a fall) which takes you to a false summit. From the false summit, you look straight up to the final 400 feet (120 meters) of climb: a seventy degree rock face where the only (sane) way up or down is to haul yourself up using the steel cables that are in place from May to October. It took me a long, hard look at the cables to figure whether or not I wanted to make the final push, but in the end...(kindly recall the number you chose at the beginning of the blog to complete this sentence. Let's all meet up again after number four.)
1. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The Maori people of New Zealand have asked climbers not to stand directly on the summit Aoraki/Mount Cook - that country's highest peak - out of respect for the mountain's sacred history. I thought the honourable thing to do would be to show the same respect to Half Dome.
2. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 200 feet. My mother is an avid knitter, and my untimely demise resulting from a potential misstep would have put her way behind on her Christmas socks for this year. I couldn't do that to her.
3. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. Sarah told me I was more of a man for not doing it than all of those who did it just for the sake of doing it. And besides, I haven't felt the need to prove anything to anyone since my second successful defence of the Camp Sheldrake 60-second burp record in 2003(120 burps in one minute, and it still stands to this day).
4. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The thought scared the living piss out of me.
So I didn't stand atop the absolute summit of Half Dome. But to let that detract from what was a near-idyllic day on the trails (save for the crowds) would be to miss the point of a day in the woods altogether. The lizards scampering below me, wild flowers in bloom beside me and snow-covered peaks in front of me were the stuff of a Planet Earth highlight reel, and to spend a day letting my senses feast in such a theater was a wonderful privilege. Summit or no summit, to be so blessed as to be wincing my way down the mountain in the relentless sun after walking on the shoulder of a giant was soul food of the highest nutritional content. I am grateful to Half Dome for letting me spend a blink of her eye alongside her, and have never had a shower so glorious as the waterfall mist on the descent.