Prologue: Boy Scout Troop 259 in Sacramento, CA goes out camping or backpacking usually once a month to give our Scouts an opportunity to experience the great outdoors. California has a wealth of natural beauty within a few hours of almost any place in the state. This month, a small group made a trip to Yosemite National Park. The following account documents the trip for the record and to help inform the Troop's planning for future such trips. For the Half Dome portion, here is a link to an informative video to help prepare for the hike:
August 20, 2010: We got a late start departing Sacramento at 1:30 in two groups---one group of nine campers bound for Crane Flat campground in Yosemite Valley and the second group of four backpackers bound for Half Dome. The two groups would be separated by several miles between our camps save for a brief encounter along the trail en route Vernal Falls on August 21.
The backpacker group arrived in Yosemite Valley too late to pick up our wilderness permit and tickets for Little Yosemite Valley (LYV) camping and climbing Half Dome. We found our overnight spot in North Pines backpacker campground and set up camp for a short stay---sack dinners followed by turning in early and sleeping under the stars to save time breaking down camp the next morning. Notably, at about 8:30 that evening, park rangers made their appointed rounds to alert all the campers to the possibility of bear visits, usually between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m.
At 4,000 feet, the night was not cold (low 50s) but cool enough that my fleece bag was not quite sufficient for a deep sleep. The boys slept well in their down bags. But tossing and turning was my lot until 4:00 a.m. when a 400 pound black bear wandered into camp as if on schedule, to snack on food in an unclosed bear box and bear cannister left unsecured in another part of the camp. The bear stayed 15-20 minutes before leaving camp, despite the clanging pots and shouts from several campers. Not much chance for sleep after that.
August 21, 2010: We were up for good by 5:30 a.m. for story swapping about the bear and a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate/coffee. I walked one mile to the Yosemite Wilderness Center to pick up our wilderness permit. The four of us in the backpacker party finally got underway by 10:30 a.m. after tying up loose ends and a few false starts. By the time we headed up the three-mile trail from Happy Isles toward Vernal Fall (5,044 feet), there was already a crowd on the trail. Most were day hikers with no more than fanny packs and water bottles and an occasional day pack. The true backpackers on the trail were easily identifiable.
Each of us carried two-to-three full liters of water. And between us we had three water filters to pump water along the trail if needed. It was a steady uphill, 1.3 mile climb between Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. Our 40-pound packs made for slow going, particularly on the long series of steps leading up to Vernal Falls and steep trail up to Nevada Fall (5,907 feet). The "up" was relentless and brief "catch your breath" stops were essential. After a 15-minute layover at Nevada Fall to rest legs and check for hot spots and blisters, we continued toward LYV, pulling off the trail one time along the way to pump water from the Merced River, which was running serenely this time of year.
It was an uphill 1.4 mile hike from Nevada Fall to LYV. But the broad trail made it manageable despite the loose sand in places. Walking sticks were definitely helpful on the steep trails. Once at LYV (6,100 feet), we dropped our gear and set up camp by 3:30 p.m. in anticipation of a late afternoon climb up Half Dome (8,836 feet). After leaving Nevada Fall, the crowds on the trail had thinned out, although there were plenty of day hikers who continued to Half Dome. However, most of those on the trail by mid-afternoon was returning from their Half Dome climb earlier in the day and were on the way down to camp or homeward bound. Only the backpackers were overnighting at LYV.
Despite our fatigue and the lateness of the day, we decided to press on toward Half Dome the same day rather than wait until the next morning. In retrospect, that decision was a good one. Our group felt we might not have it in us to complete the 3.2 mile hike and climb up Half Dome the next morning, then hike all the way back to the valley floor. However, by way of lessons learned, we should have pumped water at the river before leaving LYV for Half Dome. Yes, we still had water from our earlier filtering stop. Just not enough.
Knowing it would be a late return to camp for the night, we packed our day packs with jackets, gloves, flashlights, first aid kit, snacks, water and our dinner supplies (stove, fuel, matches, dehydrated meals). We knew we would likely have to cook dinner on the way down to replace the calories we had used on the trail.
Almost immediately after finding the trail out of camp toward Half Dome, the level terrain around the LYV backpacker campsite once again changed to steady uphill. We proceeded northerly for 1.2 miles. Even without our heavy backpacks, the trail was not easy---perhaps a measure of the fatigue in our legs at that point.
As we switched to a westwardly direction for the final two miles, a quick assessment of our available water supplies illuminated our failure to account for the demands of the 6.5 mile round trip late in the day. Fortunately, and totally unexpectedly, we encountered a very small muddy patch of ground on the side of the trail. To us thirsty hikers, that wet spot looked really good. It turned out to be a surface pop-out of a small underground stream or the exit of a tiny spring.
Although at first the water appeared not much more than a mud hole, we detected a definite flow to the water and clean sand which had collected in the bottom of a four-inch depression. That small water source became cause for celebration as we filtered enough to refill several bottles for the rest of the hike. Admittedly, we got some odd stares from hikers as we tapped our dubious water supply.
It took us three hours to hike the steep trail from LYV to the sub-dome, get up and over the sub-dome and reach the bottom of the cables. By that time all of us were experiencing mixed emotions as we stood depleted at the base of the granite mass above us. Did our legs have one more steep climb in them? Could we push ahead into the 40 mph cross winds, chilling us through our sweat-soaked shirts and jackets? Did we have time to make the ascent, then get off the rock before night fall? We had one hour on the clock to make it to the top, spend a few minutes getting our eyes full, then make it back down. Were we to take longer than that, we knew we would no longer be able to see where our foot strikes would land.
Silently, we voted with our feet and started the ascent, reluctantly at first, then with determination. Each of us had brought ropes and carabiners to thether ourselves to the half-inch steel cables if necessary. That's how it started. Moving step by step on the steep granite face, we pulled ourselves up the cables with gloved hands, clipping and unclipping the carabiners until we no longer felt the need.
Leaning into the wind, progress was slow between the parallel pairs of heavy cable supports placed about 15 feet apart up the rock wall. At last, we reached the top, where we allowed ourselves a "Yes!" moment before contemplating how we were going to get back down. I must admit, a helicopter rescue did cross my mind more than once as we watched the sun setting beyond the distant horizon.
Indeed we did just make it back down at dusk. Darkness overtook us as we arrived at the tree line below the granite subdome base. All four of us were famished and totally spent. Without hesitation, we broke out our dinner supplies and ate our fill by flashlight before our two-hour return hike in the dark to LYV. At 10:30 p.m. we were down for the count until morning.
August 22, 2010: We slept in until 6:00 a.m. (the boys until 8:00) and took our time breaking camp, anticipating an easy five-mile downhill return hike to Happy Isles and our drive home. Indeed, the return hike was easier and we were happy to take an alternate route along a portion of the John Muir Trail out of Nevada Fall. However, by the time we had hit the flats at Happy Isles, we were glad even the downhills were over. Our quads were trashed from steadily putting on the brakes for nearly five miles. After a four-hour ride home, including a stop at In-and-Out Burger, we pulled into the Elks Lodge parking lot at 5:30 p.m. A good time was had by all.
Epilogue: After climbing up Half Dome, I know why I'm not a rock climber. There's something about holding on for dear life that I would just as soon leave to others. Granted, fatigue was clearly a factor in the feelings of being on the edge of my physical capabilities. Nonetheless, making it all the way up and back down was a thrill and I'm glad I did it. At the very least, I can say it's off my bucket list.
And though I suppose it could happen, I'd wait a few days before asking me if I'll be going back to Half Dome....