Friday, June 19, 2009

Hiking Half Dome

The plan and the preparation

Though I do some physical activity to keep myself fit, I started hiking regularly only by end of this winter. Thanks to Rajesh for dragging me to the popular Mission Peak in Fremont to hike the not-so-easy 6 miles there on every Saturday morning that I used to spend clearing away the hang over from previous night's party.

And during some conversations during one of the hikes, I heard about his plan to hike Half Dome from Maneesh. Without researching anything on it, I signed up but soon I was told that it is one of the most grueling hike that you can do in California, and I need to get 'ready'. So, I bought a hiking boot, decided to buy a walking stick and tried to show up for the Mission Peak hike regularly. However when my hikes at Mission Peak got easier, I became complacent and assumed that Half Dome hike will be just a longer hike. Now I confess, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now, let me describe little bit about Half Dome it self. It is one of the well known dome-shaped peaks in the Sierra Nevada range. It is mainly accessible from Yosemite Valley via Mist Trail which is 14.2 miles round trip from the trailhead. If you walk to the trailhead from Yosemite Valley locations, the total distance will be about 16.2 miles.

Manoj E. booked the stay early in Curry Village in Yosemite Valley, which is about a mile from the Mist Trail trailhead. The plan was to travel to Curry Village on Jume 18th (Friday); hike next day and return to Bay Area on Sunday. That early setup by Manoj kind of made all those signed up for the hike to take the project seriously.

Except for a cheap hiking boot, I did not have anything specifically for hiking. So, I started acquiring few things needed for the hike about 2 weeks from the D-day: a backpack with straps to tie it to your body; a walking stick (not a pair); a waist-bag; and a hand glove for climbing the cables at Half Dome. Later, I realized that my gloves purchase was bad, as you need a full glove to cover your hand completly; typically a cheap cow hide glove you would use in garden is enough. On the last practice hike on Mission Peak, I took all the items that I was going to take to Half Dome. To simulate the weight of 3 liters of water and food items, I took few thick books including a dictionary in the backpack. Then I realized that a heavy backpack on your back will make the hike tougher, as the usually easy hike on Mission Peak turned out to be little bit exacting on that practice day.

Starting for Yosemite - the few uncertain days

I think, on Thursday, Ajith dug out this weather report that predicted bad weather in Yosemite during the weekend. There were exchanges of emails discussing the wisdom of going to Yosemite. Maneesh and Rajesh were keen on going to at least Yosemite whether or not the weather would be bad. I decided to go also as there was booking and it was a long time since I had been to that beautiful natural destination. If we would be confined to the tent by bad weather, drinking with friends in that cool climate wouldn't be a bad idea also, I calculated.

Anyway, I kept my backpack and other things ready on Thursday night. A list send out by Maneesh was very handy to make sure that all the necessary items were taken; these are the items I took with me for taking on the hike:

Hiking boot and socks with extra pairs
Water - 3 liters (After the hike, I think you need only 1.5 liters)
Gatorade - 2 bottles (20 oz. each)
Food for the day (dried fruits, energy bars) (After the hike, I think one should take some fruits and a sandwich and few energy bars)
Camera (optional)
Binoculars (optional. I didn't take it.)
Caps (baseball hat and woolen hat to cover head)
A hiking stick
Baby wipes in a plastic bag (I didn't take these, but very useful)
Anti-bacterial lotion, small bottle (I didn't take this, but very useful)
Warm jacket/fleece (lighter the better)
Hand gloves for cold weather
Extra T-Shirt (lighter the better)
First-Aid kit (Bengay,Gauss, Neosporin, Tylenol/Mortrin, Anti-diarhoea tablets etc.)
Sun screen
Plastic bag for trash
Kitchen Towels/Napkins in a Ziploc bag
Swiss Knife
Leather gloves that covers your hand fully, for climbing cables
Flash light
Sun glasses

During the hike, these items will be hauled in the backpack and the waist bag. Items that need to be used frequently and that may have to be taken quickly like camera, 2 Gatorade bottles, Swiss knife etc can be kept handy in the waist bag. All other items can go in the backpack. The waist bag had 2 bottles and holders, and the gatorage could be kept in those.

It was full of drama on Friday. There was not much change in the weather forecast and it loomed large through out the proceedings of that day. Maneesh was going to Yosemite with his family in the morning and he was open to postpone the hike to some other day if the weather gods will play havoc on Saturday. I didn't have that option, and even it was hard for me to get out early on Friday from work. So, I decided to start around 5p.m. Vinaya was working that day until 7p.m. and I had to pick up kids from the daycare, put them with Nishi and then start the trip to Yosemite. That was very ambitious and therefore it was very attractive to cancel hike blaming the weather. But Ajith, Manu and Manoj TN were going with me and that kind of deterred me from calling it off. Little past noon, the first team that had Rajesh, Manoj E. and Jose headed to Yosemite. They picked up Anoop on the way from Tracy. At work I could see Manoj E. and Jose were updating their statuses on Facebook. They indicated that the weather en route was very pleasant and they seemed to have been enjoying. Meanwhile, Ajith became really concerned about the bad weather and he even pointed out his vulnerability to sinus attack in such a bad weather. But, I assured him that I would stay with him in the tent if it would rain on Saturday morning. To me it was too late to backtrack though by doing that I could avoid all the troubles on that Friday evening and continue to enjoy the sunny Bay Area weather during weekend. Now I am so glad that I persisted over my own doubts as hiking Half Dome was one of the best things I did in my life. I could get out from work only by 4p.m., as somebody tried to get something started on a late Friday afternoon, but I could convince him that it can wait up until Monday morning.

The road trip to Curry Village

By the time I reached Ajith's home after picking up Amala and Sony, it was already 5.15p.m. Ajith and Manu were waiting there. We quickly loaded the car and headed to Manoj TN's place. Meanwhile, Jose was calling everybody to bring lemon pickle. Ajith and I thought that they had already started drinking in the tent and lemon pickle was the only thing missing for them to have full joy. So, we only did a feeble attempt to get it and took some mango pickle instead ;-)

When Manoj TN was told that we might not hike next day if the weather would be bad, he acted reluctant to go with us. But with little persuasion, we were at last ready to take the highway. I think, it was already around 6p.m. then.

There were few traffic choke points on I-680 and I-580,but once we passed the Livermore area, the drive was pretty smooth. It never used to be like that on a Friday evening, thanks to the bad economy. We were riding in my 10 years old Bimmer (323I sedan). Though its trunk was too small to store all our luggage, I preferred it over a minivan as it could handle the winding Sierra High roads much better.

Once we got off I-580 and entered the state road CA-120, we simply couldn't escape the vast stretch of agrarian Central Valley that was spreaded all around us seamless. Fruit picking seems to have been started (which reminded me about my family's annual ritual of cherry picking in Brentwood) and signs of that and fruit stands were plenty on the way. Our concerns about weather slowly dissipated as there was no sign of bad weather on the way, though on KGO radio, I had heard about snow fall in the high altitudes of Sierras.

We started looking for food by the time we reached Manteca. Somehow, we couldn't spot anything good in that city from the road, and finally we stopped in Oakdale, which looked like a big town, complete with all the standard fares for a traveler, though I never heard about this city before. When we got to the GPS suggested Mexican restaurant, we found that there was still a Mexican restaurant but its name was different. It was around 8p.m. and the night was yet to set in. There were not many patrons in the restaurant. We got lightly intoxicated and ate some good Mexican food which tasted more like home-made food. Some of us tasted wine-margarita (yes, without Tequila) for the first time. It was little weird to learn that a Mexican restaurant didn't have Tequila.

We were constantly in touch with the advance team and Maneesh. The plan was slightly changed and it was decided to start the hike at 6a.m. instead of the earlier plan to begin it at 5a.m. It had been raining in the area; and the hour delay was for the terrain, especially the Half Dome cables, to get dry. To us, it was one extra hour of sleep as we were running late.

It was little dark by the time we resumed the drive. The easy driving on the flat Central Valley roads gave away to climbing the altitude of the High Sierra. Though there were not many roads to change, the Magellan GPS helped immensely to locate Curry Village in Yosemite. There we reached around 11p.m. and it was very clear that it rained there heavy. Yet the parking lots were full. Manoj E. had already checked out the tent for us and we knew where to go. I parked the car in an unpaved area and we quickly located the tent and headed there.

Though Rajesh and team were already in bed, when we passed their tent (we had 2 adjacent tents), Rajesh recognized our chattering easily. We had taken sleeping bags and blankets with us on the assumption that the tent is not furnished. So,it was a pleasant surprise to see that it had bed and sheets, and even towels for each person.

We quickly slipped in to whatever warm objects we could gather around the bed and started sleeping. At least I was very tired and just wanted to rest whether or not I would go for the hike in the morning. And in the morning before on my cell phone went off, Rajesh's talk in the neighboring tent was enough to wake us all up fresh. I don't think anybody talked about bad weather in that fine morning; all the talk was about how to get ready for the hike. What a turnaround from yesterday when the gloomy talks dominated the day!

The hike

Everybody was ready by 6a.m. and we walked to the Happy Isles trailhead to Mist Trail which is about 3/4 miles from the tents in Curry Village. The shuttle service is not available that early; otherwise that is another option to get to the trailhead.

From the trailhead, Half Dome is 8.2 miles away on the Mist Trail. In between there are few landmarks that are famous by their own rights- Vernal Falls, Emerald Pool, Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. The Half Dome has two parts- the shoulder and the summit. The famous/infamous Half Dome Cables is used by the hikers to climb the last 400 feet from the shoulder to the summit. The hike starts at an elevation of 4000 feet and the Half Dome summit is at 8900 feet; so you will gain an elevation of 4900 feet during the hike.

Until we reached the Vernal Falls bridge (0.8 miles) where the ascend to the top of the falls begins, everybody was in picnic mood and we stopped at every thing that looked pretty to take pictures. However, Maneesh and Manu seemed to have gotten serious early and they broke away from the group.

The hike suddenly became difficult from that point. I broke away from the group after sometime and climbed the slippery steps drenched by the mist from falling water by myself. It was a beautiful scene to watch the water crashing onto the rocky bed below standing so close to it, though I was struggling to catch breath. I guess, the trail got its name from the misty conditions in this section of the trail. There was a constant stream of hikers and I had to go forward as there was very little space to let them pass you. 0.7 miles of grueling climbing in very wet and slippery conditions took me to the top of Vernal Falls. There I met Manoj TN who was climbing alone also. We rested there for sometime, took lots of pictures and continued on to the next section of the trail.

Next point was Nevada Falls which is 3.4 miles from the trailhead. The Nevada Falls is not exactly on the Mist Trail, but you can see it little far from the trail, and you can take a little detour to go near it and enjoy the scenery there. Manoj TN and I admired the fall only from the Mist Trail and continued with the hike. The climb in that area is also very steep, but not as difficult as it is not slippery. After we passed the Nevada Falls area, the hike became little easier though we continued to gain elevation.

Somebody brought a set of walkie-talkie to the hike. Such things can soon become a nuisance once the novelty of hearing the sounds of your buddies (and strangers who use the same channel) would wear down. And I don't think they are needed on a hike unless you would be taking a desolate route, which Mist Trail is not.

After hiking about 4.3 miles from the trailhead Manoj TN and I reached Little Yosemite Valley.This is a large campground on the side of Merced river, and from the trail you can hear it flowing loudly by the campground. This point has the last bathroom on the trail, and you can see lots of hikers taking longer breaks here. We stopped there for a snack and drink break and to go to the restroom. After sometime, Rajesh and Jose joined us, and later Ajith also. Another few minutes later Maneesh and Manu also got there; though they were far ahead of us in the beginning, they took the detour to go to the Nevada Falls and had fallen behind. Before getting to the top of Half Dome summit, this is the only other point where everybody remained on the hike met; Manoj E. and Anoop had returned after climbing to the top of the Vernal Falls- we were told.

The trail gradually gains elevation from the Little Yosemite Valley until it reaches the bottom of Half Dome shoulder from where the ascend is extremely steep, like it is near the 2 falls. Maneesh and Manu pulled ahead as usual while the rest of the group was busy taking pictures and huffing and puffing. My stock of 3 liters of water in 2 bottles was still untouched; I had been drinking only Gatorade. Just to reduce the weight that we had been carrying, we left some water on the way, in unopened bottles. (Upon return, we realized that most of that abandoned water was salvaged by other hikers.) After sometime, Rajesh and Jose broke away leaving the last batch- Ajith, Manoj TN and I - behind. The hike at that point was more of the same thing- constant pain on your limbs, a heavy load on your back, and the anxiousness to get this ordeal over soon. But, we were thoroughly enjoying the grueling experience and the pristine beauty that nature presented to us on every inch we conquered with our tired legs. The large and majestic Sequoia trees simply stood there watching us stoickly.

The Half Dome shoulder is very steep, and climbing it was really tough as we were tired, but as our destination was very close and visible, at least, I felt rejuvenated. We took some pictures at the top of the shoulder before started climbing the cables.

Climbing cables

Climbing cables to Half Dome summit

We didn't leave our backpacks at the bottom before climbing the cables; leaving the heavy stuff at the bottom might have made the climbing easier. The cables is a rudimentary setup to help the hikers climb the last 400 feet of the Half Dome to reach the summit. Two parallel lines of cables are permanently fixed to the rock. Beginning May (late in Spring) through the summer, those cables will be put up on metal poles that are loosely put in holes drilled into the rock, to facilitate the climb. Falling from cables is rare, but that can be fatal. (Couple of hours after we left Half Dome, one woman had actually fallen from the cables, but she was lucky to survive. A week later a man from Bay Area had fallen to his death.) I encountered few scary moments while on the cables- one young woman got scary and was struggling to climb down. Since both ascent and descent have to be done on the same narrow space between the 2 cables, such panic can create chaos and stop the movement of people that can keep you up there on the cables for long time. Then I saw one water bottle falling from someone standing above me on the cables. Watching its falling trajectory down to the gorge on my right was very scary. (Later, I learned that the bottle actually dropped from Ajith's backpack.)

Though there were couple scary moments, the climbing cables was not that hard. When we reached the top around 1p.m., after about 6.5 hours of hiking, Maneesh, Manu, Rajesh and Jose were waiting for us. The Half Dome summit is a large rocky, flat area that provides beautiful 360 degree views of Sierra High. Though cell phone connection was not available on most part of the trail, signal was available on the summit. Though I couldn't get Vinaya on the phone, I could call Rajesh's home and we could talked to the spouses and kids camped there for the weekend while we were away.

Atop Half Dome summit

Half of the Half Dome hike was done, and we thought the return trip would be easier, as that is the case usually in a shorter hike. But, I started struggling from the moment I stepped on the cables to climb down the summit. Initially I tried to climb down with my frontal body leaning forward. That made the toes jammed against the shoes which caused extreme pain; may be because I was wearing wrong shoes or socks. Jose and Ajith could climb down like that easily. I had to change my climbing style by stepping down the cables backwards, and that made the task less stressful on the toes. I used my grip on the cables primarily as the very mild flurries that had been falling made the rocky surface little bit slippery.

I felt really relieved once I reached the bottom of the cables. There I realized that I just did something that had really risked my life. The big jolt was yet to come many hours later though.

Maneesh, Rajesh and Manu had already started the return trek. Rest of us, Jose, Manoj TN, Ajith and I hiked together slowly taking frequent rests. By the time we reached the half-way point at the Little Yosemite Valley, it started drizzling continuously, and we became slower. The slippery rocks on the switch-backs near the falls were the most risky things we encountered on the return trip. Our tired bodies could handle only short memories, it seemed then, as we wondered if we ever passed some of the sections of the trail while hiking to Half Dome in the morning. I think, we returned to the trailhead around 6.30p.m.,after hiking 5 hours from Half Dome. If you include the time to reach the tents in Curry Village, I took almost 12 hours to complete the hike.

When we reached the trailhead, we saw a helicopter flying to the direction of Half Dome and an ambulance passed us. It was very clear that some accident happened somewhere, but we wouldn't know the details till the next morning.

We spotted a sandwich shop behind the bus stop near the Mist Trail trailhead. I was not feeling hungry though I was very tired. I got a shrink-wrapped cold turkey sandwich, and my first bite simply brought out a huge craving for something that looked like real food. I was actually very hungry, and in few big bites I gulped down that big, soggy sandwich which I wouldn't have touched in normal conditions. We ate the sandwiches sitting at the bus stop, and rested there for some more time while the shuttles came and went; we planned to walk to Curry Village anyway.

And then there was a big brown bear standing on the middle of the road that leads to Curry Village. I was seeing a wild bear for the first time and there was good photo opportunity, but none of us was in a mood to snap a picture. We just sat there and watched the curious and the bear getting scared by each other. And when the bear was hidden behind the vegetation on the road side, 2 guys were walking towards it, without knowing that the bear was standing few yards in front of them. When the verbal warnings went unheeded, Jose alerted them with his trademark huge whistle. It worked and the men saw the bear and all the parties involved got scared and tried to avoid each other awkwardly.

The celebration and the return trip

When we reached the tents, the first group had gone to have coffee and snacks. Manoj and Anoop had returned after climbing the Vernal Falls and they already had few beers and were resting in their tent; actually Manoj was tucked inside few layers of blankets and he was reluctant to come out of his cozy environment. We quickly set out to get ready for the celebrations. The hot shower was so soothing to the sore muscles and we all thanked Manoj one more time for the excellent arrangements.

Then we headed to the shopping area in Curry Village for food and drinks. The Curry Bar has excellent draft beers and cocktails. I had a large glass of IPA with lots of french fries and chicken wings. Maneesh couldn't join us as he was with his family, but he stopped by and we all could say hello to them. (The following weekend, we would have a family get-together of all the hikers at Rajesh's home.) After returning from the bar, the celebrations continued in the tent by downing Tequila and Whiskey shots, till the ranger reminded us that it was time for quiet hours that is effective from 10p.m. to 6a.m.

But Rajesh and the birds didn't adhere to the quiet hours etiquette. Rajesh talked and the birds chirped and that definitely woke us all up early. Someone in the group was so kind to buy coffees and bring them to the tents. That was a great incentive to get up from the bed, and surprisingly nobody complained of much body pain. The regular hikes at Mission Peak really helped, in keeping us from getting injured and pain.

At Curry Village Pavillion for breakfast (Photo by Manoj TN)

The breakfast buffet at Curry Village Pavilion was our next target. I ate most everything that I usually avoid in a typical American breakfast- sausage, egg, bacon, biscuit & gravy. I treated it more like a brunch and we had planned to drive home straight. After breakfast, we took lots pictures and bought memorabilia for families. By then all of us were eager to get back home. On Saturday, Jose was planning to spend some more time in Yosemite for sightseeing and taking pictures. But next day, he was found busy buying stuff for his sons in the souvenir shop; it seemed he became homesick in the morning.

While checking out at the souvenir shop, the clerk mentioned that somebody fatally fell from Half Dome the previous day. (Later we had confirmed that that person didn't actually die; but on the following Saturday one man from Bay Area would actually lose his life from another fall from Half Dome cables.) And that explained the sighting of ambulance on our hike back to Curry Village. We were all sad, and immediately realized the quantum of risk we actually took during the hike and how lucky we were to avoid any mishap.

On the way back, in Yosemite Valley (Photo by Manoj TN)

After reaching Bay Area late in the afternoon we started beating our chests like monkeys by posting our pictures in various poses on all the photo sharing sites and Facebook :-)

(Family get-together at Rajesh's home. Photo by Rajesh)

Maneesh and Manoj E. also described the hiking very well in their blogs. The links are here: By Maneesh By Manoj E.

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