Sunday, June 11, 2017


For Emily’s birthday this year we decided to take a trip to Yosemite National Park and attempt an early season climb of Half Dome with our friends Josh and Alina who now live in Santa Cruz.  The High Sierra’s had an epic snow year and most of the park was closed resulting in hoards of visitors and we got turned back just below the summit of Half Dome by high winds, hail, and ice but despite getting skunked on the climb we had an amazing time and came home with some great photos and even better memories.  Read on:

It was a quick early morning flight down to San Francisco where we picked up a rental at the airport and headed out of town towards the park a few hours away.  Our plan was to get there early and beg/plead/steal a camping spot in the park because Emily had forgotten to reserve one when she won the Half Dome Lottery permits.  We found out later that we could have simply secured a camp site and then tacked on the half dome climb to the camping permit without even entering the lottery… whoops!

After stopping for a quick breakfast we made it the park early afternoon and had a nice drive through the park from the Big Oak Entrance to the Arch Rock Entrance looking for open tent sites at campgrounds just outside the park.  No luck!  After stopping for some snacks and sandwiches for the evening and checking out the truly raging Merced River pouring out of Yosemite Valley, we headed back around and out through Big Oak to find a camping spot on National Forest Land where you can legally camp anywhere on the side of the road.  

Josh had sent us some gps coordinates a friend gave him of a sweet spot so we just headed there to set up our tent and wait for Josh and Alina to arrive as they had to finish up the workday first.  At about 9pm we saw car lights down the road and I quickly jumped in the Prius to go flag them down.  A few beers later and we were all headed to bed after a long day of driving for everyone.

Josh and Alina had brought a ton of food for us all.  We woke up early Saturday morning and had a big breakfast before heading towards the park for a leisurely day of touring around the sites.  Unfortunately, it seemed like the rest of the country had the same idea.  With the rest of the park closed due to thick snow in the passes everyone was funneled into Yosemite Valley which became an absolute mess.

Our first stop when we got into the park was a quick hike to see the base of Bridalveil Falls.  We barely found parking alongside the road and it was a quick hike to the base of the towering falls.  I of course came prepared with camera equipment but I didn’t dare take any of it out because standing below the falls, even several hundred feet from where the water was actually crashing down, was like walking into a field of sprinklers.  In about 10 seconds I was drenched trying to film upwards at the waterfall to no avail.  It was a wonderful experience for sure and everyone around me was soaked and laughing happily but no one was getting any photos, that’s for sure.  

We continued up the road a ways to a fantastic lookout called “Tunnel View” where you can see all the way up the valley past El Capitan to Half Dome which was just below a layer of clouds in the distance.  Bridalveil Falls could be seen pouring over a cliff edge plunging into the valley below and El Capitan was to the north standing guard over the valley below.  Shockingly, we were able to find a parking space in the lot so we took advantage of the spot by heading off up the hill for a short hike to the historic Inspiration Point for more views up the spectacular valley.  

Emily and I grew up on the East Coast.  When I was in my teens I ventured into the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY eventually climbing all the “High Peaks”.  Then I moved to the Northwest and Emily followed.  Suddenly the “High Peaks” of the Adirondacks paled in comparison to the enormity of the Cascade Volcanoes.  The white pines in the backyard of my childhood home suddenly felt like shrubs compared to the Douglas Firs and giant Redwoods.  Everything in the Northwest was big.. the mountains, the waterfalls, the cliffs… and yet standing at the entrance to Yosemite Valley I again felt that same feeling… that what I was now looking at was simply on a much larger scale than what I had become accustomed to in Oregon.  

Standing there, a thousand feet above the typical roadside tourists I understood why this place was a National Park.  It was on a whole different level.  I had been to Rainier a couple times, and driven through the Olympics but it had been over a decade since I had really explored a National Park so I made a vow to myself while staring into the painting in front of me that I would make a bigger effort with Emily to see more of the National Parks in this country.  We try to travel the world so much and forget how much unbelievable beauty we have in our own backyard… but will definitely do it in the off seasons or plan accordingly to avoid the crowds!

After the relaxing hike we experienced the worst of Yosemite Valley… the slow crawl through it in Josh’s truck searching in vain for nearly 2 hours for a spot to park.  We dropped the ladies off at the park headquarters to figure out logistics for the Half Dome hike in the morning while Josh and I drove in circles around Yosemite Village losing our minds at all the lots with signs in front saying “full”.  Eventually I broke, jumping out of the truck with full intentions of just moving one of the signs out of the way for Josh to pull in but thankfully a parking Ranger beat me to it.  I raced into the parking lot sprinting to an open spot and stood there until Josh pulled in (he almost wasn’t allowed in).  How crazy is it that I experienced literally the same joy watching Josh pull into that spot that I had while looking down the valley hours before… something needs to change with park management… 

We ate some snacks and then headed across the valley to check out Yosemite Falls and go for a short loop hike around the lower falls.  Despite the crowds there was one huge advantage of visiting the park in June - the waterfalls!  With a record snow year and hot temperatures the volume of water pouring over every one in the park was astounding.  In the fall these turn to trickles after a dry summer but now they were at peak flow and soaking everyone who attempted to get near them!  As expected, when we approached the base of the lower falls we were quickly drenched before jogging back into the protection of the trees below.  

Instead of looping back the way we came we continued up the trail along the north side of the valley towards the base of Half Dome towering above us at the head of the valley.  It was a beautiful late afternoon and we had our fingers crossed that tomorrow would be the same.  Using my 600mm lens I could see climbers headed up the cables towards the top.

We returned to the truck and made it to the base of El Capitan just in time for sunset.  Looking up at the 3,000 foot vertical face from below was nuts.  Realizing that Alex Honnold just a week before on June 3rd had completed the first solo climb of the face without a rope was mind-blowing.  That is over half a mile of climbing straight up a face without any protection if you fall.  Looking up at it I would be terrified to climb 10 feet without a rope!  The amazing feats of strength, endurance, skill, and overcoming fear that athletes have accomplished during my lifetime has been amazing but I think this might top them all.  The route he climbed, called “Freerider” is a 5.13a on the Yosemite scale.  It has 33 pitches and is usually climbed in 3-5 days by only the most elite climbers.  Alex did it without a rope in 3 hours and 56 minutes.  Mic Drop.  

We stayed and watch the sun set over the shoulder of El Capitan plunging the climbers long its face into shadows as I assumed (hoped) they were preparing to tent up for the night.  Even at 900mm my lens could barely pick out the tiny climbers near the top of the face.  I climbed (hiked) up a short ways up the rocks to an overlook where I could get some shots across the valley then had a brief moment paying homage to the greatest big wall in the world with my hands flat against it before descending the trail back to the truck.  When I was younger I often told myself I would someday climb El Capitan.  At nearly 38 I can say comfortably now that will never happen! 

Back at camp we had a great evening sitting around campfire, drinking some cold brews and catching up on our different lives in Santa Cruz working for Apple and in Portland working for myself.  We updated each other on the steady exodus of skilled employees from Quantum Spatial and despite my begging I got few secrets about what Apple was cooking up.  Alina cooked us up a great pasta dinner and we were lit by a full moon above us.  

On Sunday I woke up to clear skies at our camp spot but by the time we were parked at the head of Yosemite Valley and on the trail towards Half Dome at 7:30am it had begun to cloud-over again…  The trail started off along the campground road, crossed the Merced River and then headed up into the woods, paved the entire way to the first crossing of the Merced River.  I thought this was fantastic as it would allow those who were handicapped to access some amazing views and even see the thundering Vernal Falls.  A great reason why we need to keep funding our National Park System!  

I had chosen to wear a new pair of ON trail shoes that Eric’s girlfriend Athena had given me.  These were great shoes but were not waterproof by any means.  As we climbed up the trail approaching Vernal Falls I suddenly realized this would be a pretty big issue.  The trail wound it’s way up a series of moss-covered switchbacks that were getting absolutely pounded by spray from the gushing waterfall.  At first I tried recording the experience with my Sony action camera but then began to feel my shirt and shoes begin to soak through sparking a full on sprint up the rocks!  Emily, Josh and Alina had better footwear but had also become soaked above the waist…. a little worrying in the cool temps of the morning on our way up to a windy, cold summit… 

When we got to the top of the falls we took some time to wring out our clothes and re-organize before continuing up the trail.  The river was so wide that it was actually flowing beyond the protection of the metal guard-rail that had plenty of signs warning of death for tourists should they stupidly decide to wade into it.  Looking over the edge we could see many more climbers behind us braving the mist blasting them in the face.  Shortly up the trail we came across several areas listed as “pools” on the map but were instead churning torrents of water and large timber that were clearly not safe to cool off in!

Soon we were approaching a huge granite cliff face called “Liberty Cap” and below it Nevada Falls.  We prepared for another soaking but thankfully the trail steered us up and around it to the north giving us spectacular views instead of another spectacular drenching.  I can’t describe how mesmerizing it was to stop for a break and watch the water explode over the edge of the cliff into the valley below.  

We continued up the well-maintained trail pas massive trees and up switchbacks of rock stairs to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail and a very convenient outhouse with fat squirrels running around everywhere looking for gullible tourists.  We stopped briefly here for a rest and decided that on the way down we would probably follow the John Muir Trail on the other side of the valley to avoid another drenching on the way out.  

We had reached the Little Yosemite Valley and had a pleasant hike in front of us with somewhat clearing skies through a beautiful forest of Sierra Nevada Evergreens with their bright red bark and brilliant green needles.  Occasionally we would come across one with green moss on it still rich in color from the wet spring.  We began to get glimpses of the backside of Half Dome in the distance and we could see climbers high up on the cable system that had probably gotten an earlier start from their campsites.  

We passed by a curious deer who was hanging out along the trail probably looking for handouts from the hikers and Alina spotted an amazing plant called a “Snow Plant” which looked like a bright red fungus growing up from the valley floor.  Something we had not seen in the Pacific Northwest.  Trail signs warned us about making sure we had our permits but it would ultimately not matter as the weather soon began to turn on us…

As we approached the base of sub-dome, the lower summit of Half Dome it began to hail on us… It was enough hail to cover the ground in a sheet of white and darker clouds began to move in.  Josh wanted to quickly push on but remembering the day before I suggested we take an extended lunch and hope that the sun would win out the battle against the building clouds.  As we ate climbers passed us on the way down with stories… and they weren’t good stories….

Climbers were apparently trapped at the summit because the clouds had iced up the cable systems and they couldn’t down climb.  Others, younger and looking more fit than us, had tried to climb the cables and told us simply “forget about it”.  The situation was not looking good for us but after sandwiches and snacks we pressed onward up the switchbacks to the top of sub-dome, passing defeated-looking climbers on our way up.

We reached the top of sub-dome in a complete white out.  We were engulfed by clouds and it took some convincing on my part to get us to the base of the cable to “just check it out”.  We arrived to see a well worn pile of gloves left for people to wear while climbing the steel cables up the steep face.  How they didn’t blow away boggles my mind.  With my trusty new shoes on I boasted to the group that I was “going for it”, but on my first step on the icy rock I nearly fell on my face.  

Nope.. game over… Time for some fun photos of the cables and then turn around.  I looked at our friends and declared “I promise that by 3pm the summit will be clear!” On the way back over sub-dome the mountain teased us, opening to blue skies above for some amazing shots of the cable system and granite summit draped in a coat of clouds.  But, almost as quickly as the summit appeared it was again swallowed by waves of clouds.  

At the base of the sub-dome we found a downed tree to eat some snacks on and drink our not-to-be summit beers.  Again, the summit opened up and this time it looked like it might be for good.  In all my years in the mountains I’ve never had one tease me this hard.  It even got a little warmer out under the sun peaking through the clouds.  I was leaning towards running up again while the others waited but then took a step back to think about the timetable.  It was already 2pm and we had been climbing for 7 hours.  This left only 4 hours left to get out by dark and Josh and Alina had a long drive home.  It was not in the cards… so we gave her the bird and bailed.

On the way down the weather briefly lifted for a period… possibly enough to have gotten me to the top… possibly not.  We had views up the Half Dome Valley towards more big cliffs and thundering waterfalls and we could even see snow in the distance reaches of the park that were still closed.  Back down the trail through the towering red trees we went until we encountered a very still couple in the trail ahead of us just before the junction of the John Muir Trail.   

A bear!  Later there would be heated debate on Facebook about what species this bear was.  Some would argue grizzly, some would argue black, but I believe it was a decent-sized brown bear with a bright orange tag on it’s ear.  It was a couple hundred yards away digging up grubs so it couldn’t care less about us.  We only had a brief glimpse of it before it continued on into some brush and disappeared.  

We reached the top of Nevada Falls at about 5pm and I took probably more time than I should have filming it and running around grabbing photos.  I figured it would be one of the last great views of the hike so I wanted to capture it all.  Framing everything around us in one photo was of course impossible.  We had Liberty Cap towering above us standing as sentinel over the Merced River pouring over the cliff below.  I did my best to hang myself over the railing to capture the torrent of water crashing into the valley below but it doesn’t do justice for what it was like standing there immersed in the thundering noise of it all.

Emily ushered me back and we headed down the beautiful John Muir Trail into the valley with expansive views across the valley towards Half-Dome opening up along the way.  The clouds had lifted and it probably would have been just fine to climb at that point but it would have meant a long walk out in the dark without a nearby campsite.  I guess we will know how to do it properly in the future!  

It was a long hike out along the John Muir trail and more descending (5,100ft) than I had remembered climbing up. By the time we reached the valley floor and were hiking back along the campground road it was 6:45pm.  I had made the right choice not to extend the hike by another hour trying to reach the summit alone.  Just before we reached the truck I came across a family of pileated woodpeckers!  There were 3 young ones flying around the trees surrounding the trail and unlike other’s I’d seen growing up these weren’t easily spooked by people nearby!  It was pleasant surprise to end the hike.  

We were back at the campsite by 8pm and had just enough time to collapse the tent and throw gear in the trunk of the rental before the skies opened up on us.  What a crazy day of weather!  We said a frantic goodbye to Josh and Alina, thanked them for all the help with food and driving us around and hit the road looking for a possible hotel to stay in for the night.  

On the way out we were treated to a double rainbow and we were able to get a table at the nearby Buck Meadows Restaurant for a hot meal after the 21 mile hike we had just finished!  Emily and I toasted our skunked climb with two big mugs of ice-cold beer and stuffed ourselves with pasta before heading out of the woods to a Best Western in Sonora, CA.  We had checked the weather on the way out and things were turning for the worst so we decided to end our time in the Park and head to Silicon Valley on Monday to explore.  

On Monday we wrapped up our trip by exploring “The Valley”.  After a fulfilling breakfast we drove out to the new Apple “Spaceship” campus but it was closed to visitors and we equally got skunked at Google which didn’t even have a visitor center.  Instead we did an hour long tour of the bat-shit-crazy Sarah Winchester House which was grossly over-priced and ended up in the much cooler San Pedro Market of San Jose.  We treated ourselves to some great beer, an amazing bowl of poke and some delicious ice cream before heading to the airport for our quick flight home.  

Despite being skunked on Half-Dome by weather moving in we had a great time.  We made it out just before a snowstorm blew into the park for several days!  All in all, it wasn’t too expensive of a trip to come down to Yosemite and I think we’ll try it again during an off season, perhaps going on a longer overnight hike to avoid driving around with all the tourists in the valley.  Looking up from the base of El Capitan was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget the sheer power of nature watching the Merced River boil over cliffs and tear through the valley.  Plus I came home with a bunch of great photographs that I hope you enjoyed while reading this!

No comments: