Sunday, June 15, 2014


Short story:
Four days in Yosemite Valley “backcountry."
Dave, Andrew, and James climbed Half Dome from the steep side (Northwest Regular route).
I climbed Half Dome from the still pretty darn steep side (cables route) on a four day solo backpacking trip.

Long story...

We showed up in the Valley around 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday in June. WORST TIME TO VISIT THE VALLEY – the place was crawling with tour buses and hordes of people. If Dave weren't meeting James and Andrew, I would have turned around and driven us right back out! Horrible first impression. 

My impression of the Valley did not improve, as we had multiple extremely rude encounters with tourons, plus had some of our stuff stolen (including my driver's license and anniversary present).  So, screw you Yosemite Valley, I'm glad you're off my life list and I never have to return.

Enough complaining!  

Getting a permit for Half Dome as part of a backcountry trip was easy. I chose the Pohono Trail – Panorama Trail, from the Valley entrance to the backcountry camp at the foot of Half Dome (Little Yosemite Valley).

I packed my backpack, and the guys laid out a mega-spread of climbing gear.

big wall rack
my complete gear spread, four days solo (unsupported)
Day 1

Next morning, Dave dropped me off at the Wawona Tunnel trailhead. We said “Happy Anniversary, see you in four days, love you!” and I started walking.

valley view from wawona tunnel trailhead: el cap on left, half dome distant. reminds me of a painting.
 The Pohono Trail is a nice walk through the woods. Nothing too exciting.

the pohono trail
There are a few viewpoints along the trail, each better than the last.

me and el cap
I made my one mistake of the trip, not paying attention to my water sources. Ran out of water mid-day and wanted to lunch at Dewey Point. I dropped my pack and ran ½ mile down the trail to a fetid pool. Score one for the Saywer Mini – filtered it perfectly!

who likes mosquito wings in their water?
I arrived at Bridalveil Creek around 3:00 p.m. after a short 8ish mile day. Camping isn't allowed within 4 miles of Valley development, so I couldn't go farther. I hung my hammock and moped around camp. I was super sad and lonely when I couldn't finish my dinner and didn't have Dave to eat my leftovers, but that was the only moment of the solo that I struggled with being alone.

sad, lonely anniversary dinner leftovers
Day 2

Big scenery day!

Hiked to Taft Point.

taft point
Then on to Glacier Point. Holy crowds – and what a great view of Half Dome!

actually from sentinel dome, but who's keeping track...
I chatted with an older man with binoculars. He mentioned that he was on the 14th ascent of NWRR and that he had seen 5 climbers total on the route. I hadn't looked at a topo before the trip, so I had no idea where to find Dave on the wall, but it was cool to know he was out there.

half dome, vernal falls, and nevada falls panorama
I left the Pohono Trail at Glacier Point and started on the Panorama Trail, which gives an awesome view of the profile of Half Dome.

half dome profile view
At Illilouette Falls, I met a family that needed map assistance and water. Happy to help!

The climb from Illoquette Falls up to Nevada Falls wasn't that bad, especially after the climb the first day.

top of nevada falls
I had a trail companion on the walk from Nevada Falls to LYV.

trail pal
 And after an enjoyable 13.5 mile day, I had the best backpacking dinner – pasta alfredo. Delicious!

three thumbs up!!
Day 3

Knowing that the guys wouldn't summit until later in the day, I slept in and took my time getting ready in the morning. To kill more time, I breathed only through my nose on the walk from LYV to the foot of the subdome. Still got there at 11:00 a.m. Darn.

I made friends with the ranger checking permits.

young 'un. actually a college student.
Next up: the subdome. Everyone knows about the famous cables, but not everyone knows that you need to climb up steep, sloping, gravel-covered stairs and steep slabs over the subdome. There is definitely exposure (especially on the way down), and I saw folks turn around on or just after the subdome. I thanked Gothics, Algonquin, and every other Adirondack slab I've climbed!

this part was interesting, too
At the top of the subdome, I was counting on finding a glove pile – no dice. Some good Samaritan cleaned it up, I guess. I found 3 (conveniently, one each) for the guys, and a girl who turned around after the subdome gave me hers. Thanks!

cables from the top of the subdome
The cables were steep. Often, someone will describe a trail as steep, and then when I climb it, yeah it's steep but it's not STEEP. This trail is STEEP. Plus that spicy sence of exposure you get from rock climbing. I'm sure that someone could walk up without touching the cables, but I found myself hauling myself up hand-over-hand. More of an upper body workout than I was expecting!

a taste of exposure
(Random aside: on the way up, I stopped to encourage and calm two different young woman, one going up the subdome, the other bailing on the cables. Both were being “helped” by their young, male partners. Having been in that situation many times myself, I found that I was able to give more effective “help” than the companions. I should really write about partner dynamics in the backcountry one of these days...)

smiling, in between gasps for air. it was STEEP.
At the top, I had lunch and enjoyed the views.

view from the top
Then I got a disturbing text message from Dave. 

Received at noon, it said that they were at Big Sandy (an iconic bivy ledge at the top of pitch 17 of 23), moving slowish, and expecting to top out between 5 and 10 p.m. 

At Big Sandy at noon? They were supposed to sleep at Big Sandy the night before! Seemed that they were seriously behind schedule, with the hardest aid climbing still ahead of them. There was no way they could cover the last 6 pitches in 5 hours if they had gotten to Big Sandy 16 hours late. I wondered if they were getting dehydrated.

I couldn't wait at the top that long, so I joined a group to descent the cables. My mind was nervous for Dave, and I felt that the presence of other people would keep me focused.

walking the cables
At the bottom of the subdome, I was sad to leave Dave on the mountain. I had imagined giving him a big hug and a bottle of water when he topped out. Now I had no idea when I would see him next.

Back at camp, I knew that sitting alone in my hammock, imagining the worst, was not productive. I had tea with a French guy, then joined the communal campfire with my rice & beans dinner.

my camp

As the last of the daylight faded from the sky, I looked toward Half Dome and saw headlamps on the cables. Headlamps on the cables! It must be Dave and party! I flashed my headlamp – one two, one two. From two miles away, the headlamp flashed back – one two, one two. I watched them descend to the col between the cables and the subdome.

Then they disappeared. I watched for a while longer, growing more concerned that they hadn't found the right descent route and had slipped into the abyss. Again, that thinking isn't productive, so I forced myself to my hammock and to sleep.

Plan for the next day:
  • Wake up early. Search camp. If they are not in camp,
  • Fill up as much water as I can carry, bring extra food, start hiking toward Half Dome again. If they are not along the trail,
  • Wait at the base of the subdome until mid-morning. If they don't descend from the base of the subdome by mid-morning,
  • Ask ranger at base of subdome to contact YOSAR (search and rescue).

Day 4

Up early. Guys are not in camp.

first morning sunlight. gahhh it's cold.
Start walking. Reach first trail junction. Asked a few descending hikers whether they have seen any rock climbers. Nope.

About 1.5 miles up the trail, there they are. Whew! I was so happy, annoyed, and relieved all at once!

cool, they're not dead, i can stop worrying
Turns out that the text message had actually been sent around 9:00 a.m. when they were *leaving* Big Sandy. While everything took longer than expected (they didn't get to their bivy until 5:00 a.m. and slept until only 7:00 a.m.), they did follow their climbing plan.

We relaxed at the Merced River outside of LYV.

merced river
We relaxed again at Nevada Falls.

nevada falls
And again at Vernal Falls. The guys were REALLY tired.

vernal falls
And then we were done!

After the Trip

First, you should really go read Dave's account of his time on the wall at Total crazy pants.

walking the thank god ledge 1800' off the deck (photo credit james)
Over the next two days, we took a lot of river baths (Valley = hot).

bath time
Climbed a few climbs.

bishop's terrace - 5.8 hand crack
Stayed at Camp 4.

camp 4 - midnight lightning
I really enjoyed my solo experience. It wasn't that hard, and next time, I would like to try something more challenging.

I'm glad I visited the Valley and can check that life list box, but I wouldn't return. It's like a shopping mall on Black Friday. People were surprisingly rude and rushed. The wildlife is sadly addicted to human food. It's not what I enjoy in a wilderness experience.

Trip Beta for Yosemite

(1) Only a certain number of permits are available for each trailhead per day to limit the number of hikers along popular routes. Some trailhead will always have space though (might not be the one you want, but you can always find some trip).

(2) You can get a Half Dome permit if your backpacking route “reasonably includes Half Dome.” LYV will fill up, but if you can do a >2 day trip, this is the (physically) easiest, most relaxed way to climb it.

(3) Last-minute, legal camping in the Valley is impossible with two exceptions:
(a) Backpacker's camp the night after a backcountry trip. Wilderness permit required. This option is not advertised, I think because the park doesn't want people requesting permits just to have a place to camp in the Valley. The camp is located in the North Pines campground. Follow the loop around and you'll see a 15 minute parking zone for unloading; follow the little trail over a bridge and you're there. No potable water (creek nearby), but there are vault toilets.
(b) Camp 4. Get up early and stand in line at the camp kiosk. If it's a weekend, we're talking 4:00 a.m. If it's a weekday... well, we were there a 6:15 a.m. on a Thursday and we were 40th in line (there were 55 spaces, so we got in, but not everyone did). Ranger hands out permits starting around 8:30 a.m.

(4) You really want gloves for the cables. Really. You can do it without gloves, but it's way more comfortable and secure. Gardening or baseball gloves will work fine. Don't count on finding a glove pile; there wasn't one when I was there.

(5) Go down the cables backwards. It's way easier.

(6) Think twice about clipping in to the cables.  My reasoning: it's psychological safety but probably not too much physical safety. During a fall, you'd hit the metal post, which simply sits in a hole in the rock. The post would probably pop, and you'd continue to fall, taking out other climbers in your path, many of whom are not tied in. Bottom line: please don't slip.

(6) In retrospect, I really should have done the Cathedral Lakes trail to be up in the mountains and to have different views each day. I avoided it because I thought it would be crowded, but the Panorama Trail/ LYV was so crowded anyway. And it's basically the same view up the valley, changing only a little as you progress.  Oh well.

(7)  Overall, try to spend as little time in the Valley as possible. We didn't visit Tuolumne or Hetch Hetchy, and I think I would have a higher opinion of Yosemite if we had.

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