Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What If We Used Meters Instead of Feet? -- Colorado 2011 Wrap-Up

We did a couple of other climbs this year. We climbed Traver Peak, a fine 10 mile round trip day out – and also climbed Fletcher Mountain, an enjoyable short hike/scramble close to Breckenridge. Traver checks in at 13,852’ while Fletcher rises to an elevation of 13,951’. They are very solitary hike/climbs, both of them, just for the fact that they fall ever so short of the magical 14,000’ mark. Many places you must search out the route, or just go by your senses – (that high point over there is the summit, let’s head that way).

But they don’t count, do they?

For the last 5 summers Gina and I have been going to Colorado in order to achieve a goal of climbing all 58 of the Colorado 14ers, mountains over 14,000’. Well, some people say there are 58. By most lists, 54 of the peaks are considered “official” 14ers, and the other 4 are considered unofficial. Somebody decided that in order to qualify as an official 14er, a peak must have at least 300 feet of topographical prominence from any adjacent mountains. Otherwise, they are just considered a sub-peak of whatever mountain or peak is the more prominent of the formation. These rules are not always followed, and I’m left wondering how they came up with 300 feet (or 91.44 meters) in the first place. Why not 250 feet? Why not 500 feet? It seems pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it?

I always think about our project to climb these 14ers from my wife’s perspective. Of course, Gina is something of a celebrity in Costa Rica, a country that only recognizes meters. So Gina’s pursuit to climb all these peaks is really a pursuit to climb all the peaks in Colorado over 4267.2 meters high to her country. Is that as difficult to explain as I think it is?

We decided on the list of 58 mostly because of the peak North Maroon. I’m sure you’ve seen North Maroon Peak. In one of the most famous and common shots of Colorado mountains, there is North Maroon Peak as a part of the Maroon Bells towering above Maroon Lake near Aspen, the quintessential Colorado mountain photo. North Maroon Peak, however, is an unofficial Colorado 14er. It has only 234 feet of prominence (or 71 meters). We thought it would be a weird thing to say, though, if we said we had climbed all the 14ers in Colorado, and then have someone point out that photo of the Maroon Bells and go, “This one must have been an amazing climb.” And then have to explain to them that Maroon Peak, the one slightly in the background, is the only real 14 thousand foot peak, and that the peak that is most prominent in the photo (not the most prominent topographical to your mapper friends disappointment, but the most prominent in the photo) is but a sub-summit of the real summit. Seems like a pretty hollow statement.

But let’s get back to Traver Peak and Fletcher Mountain, shall we? They are not 14,000’ high – or 4267.2 meters high. So they are not qualified for this magical club. To the rest of the world, 4000 meters is seen as an important high point. I remember my friend from Australia, Tony, when he climbed Shasta with me. That was an epic day on its own and a completely separate story from this one, but I do remember how happy he was when he passed the 4000 meter mark. To me it was just an obscure random point somewhere on Misery Hill. Traver and Fletcher are well over the 4000 meter level, Traver is 222 meters over it (or 728 feet), and Fletcher 252 meters (or 826 feet). Fletcher is in fact just 49 feet shy of the magic number, or in other words, 15.2 meters.

Colorado has 550 peaks over 4000 meters. So if it weren’t for this thing called feet, which nobody else in the civilized world uses anymore except us, the goal of climbing all the mountains over a certain threshold would be next to impossible. Would Gina and I return again and again to Colorado to keep climbing to finish all 550 peaks? I can safely say there is most likely no possible way we would do this. So this outdated form of measurement is the only reason our goal exists. If not for measuring distance based on some haphazard system based on the size of a long dead King’s foot, we would have never visited every single mountain range in Colorado. We would have never visited almost every little corner and nook in one of the most beautiful states in America. I grew up in Wyoming and spent a great deal of time in Colorado, but I never imagined that some of the incredible sights I’ve seen in Colorado since embarking on our quest to climb the 14ers even existed. It has been an incredible, rewarding, and completely thorough exploration of a gorgeous state that would have never have happened if we were a metric based country. Traver and Fletcher were fun climbs though, and I definitely will cherish the memories we created there. So I guess we are on our way to climbing all the 4000 meter peaks in Colorado. (Oh, but Traver doesn’t have 91.44 meters of topographical prominence so maybe it doesn’t “count”…) Also some people have decided to classify these as “13ers” and make a list to climb all the 13ers. But peaks under 13,123.3 feet are not 4000 meters high… Uh-oh…

So now we have climbed 40 of the 58 peaks in Colorado over 14,000’ – at least on our list. This year we did 4 more peaks – Blanca, Challenger, Castle and Conundrum. Not as many as we have done in past years, but to our defense the climbs are getting harder, and to do them as quickly as we have done the others is not as realistic. Weather, also, played a trickier than usual part in our itinerary. Still, I am happy with what we accomplished this year. Blanca was a difficult climb that we did as a day-climb, something that very few people can say they have done. We dipped our toes in the Elk Mountain range, perhaps the range with the most difficult to climb mountains in all of Colorado. Challenger Point left me slightly disappointed, mostly because I have the knowledge we will have to return there in future years to climb Kit Carson, and Challenger itself, well, is not a very enjoyable climb, honestly. Yet to climb KC, we will have to re-climb Challenger… yuck.

We hope to climb the remaining 18 in either the next 2 or 3 years, depending on how ambitious we get about finishing. When you get close to finishing a big project like this, you do get anxious to complete it. The obstacle in our way though is that now the peaks left are either – A. More tough to climb – B. Harder to access, requiring camping/backpacking in - or C. Both. So while we would like to get this thing wrapped up in the next 2 years, time may dictate a different timeline for our ending of the story. We talked about next year possibly flying out a couple of times in the summer, instead of one long driving vacation like we did this year. Hopefully we can make it work.

So here are the mountains we have left, and the ranges they belong to. I list the mountains left because the list is shorter than the ones we have already climbed and the ranges we are finished with, and I do this due to pride, because I’m really proud of what we have accomplished so far. So here are the ones we have remaining to do:

Front Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. We have climbed all the peaks in the Front Range.

Tenmile Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. Granted, Quandary Peak is the only 14er in the Tenmile Range, and we did that in the first year.

Sawatch Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. The place of the highest and most numerous 14ers in Colorado, we have climbed all of these mountains.

Elk Range (5 peaks remain) – We still have yet to climb Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak. So there are 5 mountains left to climb here, and with the exception of Snowmass all of them are class 4 climbs. So we will be visiting this range frequently in the next few years.

San Juan Range (7 peaks remain) – We have climbed many of the peaks in this range, but there are still many left. Four of them are only accessible via the Durango –Silverton train ride, and the other three are near Mt. Sneffels, my least favorite 14er so far. They are mostly class 3 climbs, with a couple of class 4 climbs thrown in. It will be a challenge to get them climbed. We have left Mt. Wilson, El Diente Peak, Mt. Eolus, Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, North Eolus and Wilson Peak (which is different than Mt. Wilson).

Sangre de Cristo Range (6 peaks remain) – A really rugged range of mountains, I think they might be my favorites, even though they are mountains who don't lend themselves to easy climbs. Unfortunately for Gina, there also seem to be many bear problems in this area. The peaks we have left are Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle – probably the 2 peaks I am looking forward to climbing the most – and also the aforementioned Kit Carson Peak. We also need to climb Ellingwood Point, (a very do-able climb we could have done instead of Blanca this year) and Little Bear Peak (a peak that with it’s icy covering looked very technical from our viewpoint at the summit of Blanca). There is finally Culebra Peak, the only privately owned 14er in Colorado, but one we will climb anyway, no matter if we have to pay or not. Culebra excepted, I expect our final climbs in this range to be some of the most exciting (and photogenic). Definitely something that will be fun to write about next year - or the year after.

That’s where we stand this year. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Castle & Conundrum Peaks - Introduction to Climbing The Elks

The mid-September storms in Colorado left our intended targets, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, highly technical rock/ice climbs, so we decided to change our plans and visit the Aspen area. We had passed through Aspen a couple of times, but never had really spent a good deal of time there. So we made a plan to visit for 3 nights, and explore, climb and reconnoiter the Elk mountain range, a range with some of the most magnificent (and hardest to climb) peaks in Colorado.

We really weren’t expecting much. The guidebooks say that Castle and Conundrum are the easiest of the Elk climbs. While this may be true, however, much to our enjoyment the snow left on their flanks by the September storms surely made these peaks a little more difficult and a lot more FUN.

We didn’t hit the road quite as early for this one. Our Aspen hotel’s central location had us just a short drive from the “trailhead”. Sometimes in Colorado, the trailhead isn’t a true trailhead, it’s just the spot in the 4wd road where there is a little more parking, just before the road becomes unmanageable for stock vehicles. This “trailhead” was meant to start at 3 miles up the rough road. We managed to make it 2.8 miles up before the obstacle in our way convinced us our trailhead was right where we were. It always amazes me, later in the day after the hike, the kind of jagged, jumbled, chaotic mess of a “road” that we are able to overcome with our trusty 4-Runner in the early morning hours. Maybe it’s a lack of coffee that I don’t realize how severe of four wheel driving we are doing. This was a good spot though, and left us a short hike shy of where the recognized “route” starts.

The road continues up to 12,800’, but our starting point was right around 11,000’. I like our truck too much to take it up “roads” like this, plus getting at least 3,000’ of elevation gain makes a climb feel more like a climb. We followed the road until it petered out at the old mining site in the Montezuma basin. From there we spied one of the few permanent snowfields in Colorado. Perfect. Since we spend so much time on Mt. Shasta, snowfields are second nature to us, and we were prepared, Gina with crampons and me with Yak Trax. We made good progress up the snowfield, much easier to climb than the talus and scree on either side of us.

Reaching the large basin at 13,300’, we saw to the south of us the steep trail up to reach the northeast ridge. It didn’t look good, at first glance. We’ve been on plenty of these scree tragedies that Coloradans call trails, and they aren’t very pleasurable. Much to our delight, though, we found this one frozen solid. Where there was scree, it was hard as concrete, and a good deal of frozen snow and ice still covering the rest. We made steady progress up the slope in these great climbing conditions.

The top of the ridge afforded us awesome views all the way around. The recent snow had decorated all the surrounding peaks and ridgelines splendidly. Below us, a saw first one, then another vehicle crawling up the road we had hiked. “Cheaters!” We said to each other jokingly. Oh well, if they wanted to abuse their trucks like that then so be it. It did feel a little better to know we would not be the only ones on the mountain today. Just in case - you never know. The snow and ice had the climb before us feeling a little more serious than the “difficult class 2” the guidebooks described the climb as being.

Almost immediately after gaining the ridge we ran into some class 3 hand over hand scrambling. Although this slowed our progress somewhat, it worried us not at all as the weather for the day was perfect and we had plenty of time. Very shortly we started having a great time, filming videos of each other and solving the puzzle of the ridge. Once, while I was leading, I followed a line out to a sheer drop-off. “This is NOT the way!” I shouted to Gina, and I retreated to scramble up a class 3 obstacle instead – just plain good times.

We reached the white-capped summit of Castle Peak and all around us was snowy goodness. To the north of us were the Maroon Bells, jutting out of the rest the surrounding mountains with their jagged tops and reddish colors. We took our summit photos on a picture perfect day.

Soon we made our way down the ridge to Con undrum Peak. We got a good look at the sac between the two mountains and decided we could indeed descend here, it certainly looked better than re-summitting Castle and going back down some of the 3rd class rocks on the ridge. After a little elevation gain, loss, then gain again, we summited Conundrum Peak, the 40th Colorado 14er out of 58 that we have now climbed.

Just before reaching the sac for our descent we ran into two other climbers behind us. They were nice guys and we wished them well on their climb, as they continued up Conundrum. Downclimbing the sac was very steep and loose at first. I kicked a few rocks down, had there been other climbers below this would have been a problem. Soon we were high-stepping down the slope, and a little while later I went for a nice, enjoyable glissade.

We reached the 4wd road and started walking the long walk back to our 4Runner. After about 45 minutes or so, the other two climbers caught up with us – already driving their 4Runner. They offered us a ride, and since the climbing part was really done we accepted. Talking to them, we learned that the other group (of two) who had been slightly ahead of them in the morning, had turned around. At the point where the climb started getting 3rd class, one of them had gotten a little freaked out and told them that it was “not worth it”. Well, it had been surely worth it to us. A great, fun climb that was a great way to end our 14er climbs for 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Challenging Day Out

It was really just a continuation of my “day-hike is better than overnight backpack hike” theory - that we would attempt to summit both Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak in our quest to climb all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000’ peaks. Although my theory had suffered a hard blow 2 days before, climbing Blanca Peak but abandoning an attempt at Ellingwood Point, I still felt that we could ascend the 14 miles round trip required to do both Challenger and Kit Carson. By the end of this day, however, the realization of why an overnight base camp at Willow Lake is necessary would be all too apparent.

We left our hotel in Alamosa at 3am, and arrived at the trailhead shortly after 4am. The road to the Willow Lake/South Crestone trailhead is a piece of cake compared to Lake Como, but there are more than a few unmarked side roads that make the journey a bit of a maze. I just stayed to the right the whole way, on what I was thinking was the main road, and luckily I turned out to be right. By 4:40 we were hiking the well-defined trail.

Just like the road to Blanca, the elevation gain is pretty extreme on this trail, starting out at the floor of the San Luis Valley and rising to 14er height. This trail is not a road like that one is, though, and the switchbacks start right away and sharply. We were feeling a little bit drained from the marathon up Blanca just 2 days earlier, and our progress was somewhat slow to Willow Lake, arriving there after approximately 3 1/2 hours of hiking. We were treated to an appearance by some bighorn sheep, but thankfully no bears.

The sun was shining straight onto the lake, making photo taking a little problematic – too much brightness, but the lake is surely a strikingly beautiful spot. We made the short hike up to above the waterfall, where we stopped and had a snack and surveyed the route ahead. The route calls to ascend to the right of the obvious couloir on Challenger – but sitting there we were shocked just how much more steep the couloir was in real life than in the route photos. The upper part of the slope was also enveloped in a good deal of snow still, from the storm a few days before.

Through the lower half of the slope, we could still follow the trail and cairns fairly well, but as we gained altitude, the snow obscured what signs of a trail we could find, and the puzzle solving began. Most route descriptions I’ve read rate this route as “difficult class 2” but we found the climbing we were doing as solid class 3 climbing. The going was slow – from Willow Lake to the summit is about 3,000’, and the steepness was much more than I expected. Were we off route? I’m not sure. We did see footprints here and there, what looked like a party of two that had probably climbed the day before. We could follow them for a few minutes, than rock outcropping s would appear and the steps we were following would seem to disintegrate before our eyes. The maze of the 4wd road this morning had carried over to the climb, and the enigma had our feet crawling through molasses.

Finally, we popped up on the top of the couloir. From here, the actual summit could finally be seen. Gina remarked to me that it was still far away. Ever the optimist, I told her “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s closer than it appears”. We got ourselves up onto the ridge and began the rock hop to the top. As I was all too much lately, my instinct was completely off. The summit did not get any closer very fast. Just after 12:35pm, we reached the summit of Challenger Point, our 38th Colorado 14er summit.

The summit of Challenger is one of the most emotional summits I’ve ever been on. I still remember walking into Mrs. Bartley’s 11th grade journalism class, as she told us the news that the space shuttle Challenger had just blown up. Challenger Point, which was once considered a “non-official” 14er, was only given its name in 1987 in honor of the fallen shuttle crew. In that same year, a climbing party placed the plaque on top. The Latin phrase included translates to "To the stars through adversity."

We surveyed the scene in front of us. To climb Kit Carson, we would have to descend to the sac between the two mountains, walk up then down the section known as Kit Carson Avenue before reaching the gully we could ascend to the summit, which is class 3 climbing. (This gully cannot be seen from the summit of Challenger) By the time we had finished our summit photos, the time was well past 1pm. After much discussion, we reluctantly reached the conclusion that a summit attempt at Kit Carson would be unwise, considering we still had to descend back to the truck today. I had wanted to push on, to avoid returning someday to re-climb Challenger. It turned out that Gina overruling me was the best decision we could make that day.

The weather soon turned windy and cold as we descended. Coming down that couloir a few hours later, as we would have had we continued, would have been a nightmare. It was bad enough with the energy reserves we still had, and a class 3 climb to the top of Carson would have exacerbated our condition to the point of danger. Exhausted, we trudged down the trail back to our truck. On the way down, we passed a group of 4 with loaded backpacks. Definitely they had the right idea, to camp overnight at the splendid Willow Lake, then climb the peaks in the morning. I did think they were headed up to the lake rather late, if it were me I’d want to get up earlier in the day and set up, giving us enough time to recuperate before the climbing begins. Maybe 20 minutes after we passed them, we also discovered a major problem for them. We found their cord for hanging food away from bears and marmots, left carelessly along the trail. We could only imagine the trouble this must have caused them.

And so we arrived back at the 4-Runner just before dark, about an hour less than what it took us to climb Blanca. My day-hike theory in ruins, we will return to Willow Lake in years to come, so that we may check Kit Carson off our list. With just a few exceptions, most of the climbs left on our list require camping, and in the future we will come more prepared for this contingency. Our original plan had been to climb these peaks, then round the Sangre de Cristo range to climb Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. After viewing the Crestones from the summit of Challenger, and seeing the significant snow and ice still on the summits, we had to change our plans and head to Aspen. Definitely we will end up with less summit climbs this year than previous years, but we still had Castle Peak and Conundrum left to climb, as well as some valuable reconnaissance for future years and future climbs in the Elks. Chalk some of this year up to experience, I guess.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Blanca Day on Blanca

Most of the stuff I had read about Blanca Peak had people climbing it in a multi-day adventure, setting up camp at Lake Como. There were a couple of reasons I wasn't really too into this. The biggest was that I have been reading all summer about bear problems at Lake Como. I'm not big into camping in bear country, and neither is my wife, Gina. I also couldn't get over that the entire hike is about 15 miles. Although there is almost 6,000' elevation gain, that didn't strike me as an impossible task, to do the climb as a day-climb.

What a crazy long day. Gina had asked me in the morning what I thought it would be like. I told her, “It will be similar to climbing Shasta all in one day.” I was thinking more of the altitude gain, not really the climb. She looked at me rather dejectedly, and said “You didn’t have to tell me that.” We have climbed Shasta all in one day a few times – and it sucks. I really didn’t expect Blanca to be that bad, but I had no idea. Our original idea was to climb both Blanca and Ellingwood Point, but the conditions of the day would have their say so.

We managed to drive 3.4 miles up the Lake Como Road – considered one of the worst roads in Colorado – and started hiking at 4:30am. It was about 4 miles to the actual Lake Como up the road, which is well deserving of its notorious reputation. We had thought about stopping at the lake to eat, but neither of us wanted to stop and get cold, so we just pushed on.

We were following the footsteps of some other climbers through the snow, as the road petered out above the upper, smaller lakes. Soon we could see a party of three on the upper part of Blanca. They must have stayed overnight at the lake, and had left much earlier this morning. They were definitely much colder than we were.

They had broken trail for us though, and we followed their footsteps up the ledges above Crater Lake. There were some fantastic looking icicle formations here. The wind was blowing the snow though, and soon we were breaking our own trail, through some heavy drifts. It was hard, tiring work and my feet were getting very cold. I just had my regular hiking boots, and with no ice axe I felt utterly unprepared for winter conditions climbing. Gina was having more trouble than me, as following my larger footsteps she ended up postholing a lot more. As we reached above the ledges I made a bee-line for the snow that was in the sun. Up to this point, our whole climb had been in either the darkness or the shade, and we were feeling very chilly.

We stopped and rested as the sun finally hit us. Gina was having a big problem with her toes being cold. As we rested, a solo climber from below passed us by. I jealousy noticed he had an ice axe. We also noticed the party of three we had seen had turned around unsuccessful, and were now descending past us. We seriously thought about throwing in the towel. I was quite concerned about Gina’s toes, thinking that only by descending she would be able to warm them up. But my wife is quite a fighter, and didn’t want to give up just yet. We stayed and waited, and soon the sun was hitting us and warming us. There was one small last hill before us, until you get to the point where you have to decide to climb either Ellingwood or Blanca. Gina convinced me to keep going, just to see what it would look like when we got there. She wasn’t ready to quit.

I was thinking it would be nice to climb Ellingwood, because it isn’t as high and we could get done sooner. But the climber in front of us was climbing Blanca, and we didn’t want to break our own trail up Ellingwood, which looked complicated without being able to see the trail. So we followed the steps up Blanca. Soon we were high up Blanca and we knew there would be no turning around until we got to the summit. The weather was tolerable, and although it was getting late in the day we felt safe. It would be just Blanca Peak today, no time for Ellingwood. We will have to return someday for that one.

We hit the ridge leading to Blanca’s summit and were afforded spectacular views. To the east we could see Mt. Lindsey, another 14er we had climbed last year. It too, looked much different covered in snow. We continued up the ridge, being very careful. The rocks were covered in just enough snow to hide openings between the rocks, and we didn’t want to step in a crack and fall through snow, resulting in a twisted ankle or worse. So we just followed our lead climbers steps higher and higher. Soon we saw that he was on the summit.

He passed us on his way down and I thanked him for breaking trail. We asked how much farther and he said it was about 200 more vertical feet. After chatting for a few minutes we wished him well and continued. His steps stayed close to the ridge and we very good. There were a couple of places with a little exposure, but by staying on the right side of the ridge we were able to feel safe. Right up to the very last section, where you must traverse the eastern side of the ridge and ascend the final section.

This was a very steep section, made much more difficult because I didn’t have an ice axe, and didn’t think that the crampons (which I had packed in my backpack) would really do much good. The snow was wispy and sugary, not good for feeling safe. I was using 4 points of contact as I went up the last tricky sections. I’m sure the first section would be pretty hard without snow, on scree, and the last little sections was difficult too, as a fall would have been a little catastrophic as there was a bit of exposure to both sides. We managed to ascend them though, (and captured them on my GoPro helmet cam!) and soon we were standing on the summit. Our 37th Colorado 14er successfully climbed. It was 2pm, the latest we have ever summited a 14er.

On the descent I was having so many problems staying comfortable. The sun would hit me and I would heat up, then a cloud would cover the sun and I would be shivering. It was just a hassle. Parts of the descent went actually a little faster, I was able to use snowclimbing high steps in sections which is much easier than going down scree, but by this point I was exhausted and we went somewhat slowly down. By the time we reached the smaller lakes above Como, the snow had melted off already and we were pounding our feet on rock. I recognized hardly anything from our ascent, everything appeared different without its white covering.

We hoped to reach our truck before sundown, but soon it was apparent that would not be possible. The road seemed like it stretched much longer on our descent than it had on our ascent. It seemed like we would never get back and drink the Pepsi’s we had in the cooler waiting for us. Darkness overtook the mountain and I even had to dig out my headlamp to light the way. Finally, at 8pm, we arrived to where we parked. In total, a 15 ½ hour day – pretty much the same time it takes as climbing Shasta all in one day. I don’t think I’m going to use that as a comparison again.

I do think we could climb Ellingwood Point as a day-climb as well, maybe even on this trip depending on how we are feeling. But to do the combo - definitely this was not possible with the snowy conditions we faced, and maybe even without snow it would have been very difficult. As for Little Bear, forget it. That will definitely require an overnight stay, and to be climbing also with someone experienced with this intimidating route.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hiking Half Dome

Always carry more than enough water. Every once in a while, we need a little reminder of why some outdoor rules are in place. Maybe we get a little complacent and wonder why we prepare the way we do. Then we get an experience that puts everything back to where it should be.

Getting the permits was an adventure in itself. This year, to control usage on the Half Dome cables, the National Park Service instituted a permit system. Unfortunately, the NPS workers are not terribly tech-savvy, and some wily entrepreneur broke their system. The idea was that 400 permits would be available every day and folks would have to reserve them ahead of time on the NPS recreation.gov website. The day the permits (which sell for $1.50 from the NPS) went on the site, all the permits for the entire season were sold out in 14 minutes. Later, on sites like Craigslist, the permits would reappear – this time sold by private individuals charging upwards of $60 per person. Capitalism is alive and well it seems.

So when we planned our trip to Yosemite, this was definitely a discouraging development. The only other time we had tried to hike Half Dome, back about 8 or 9 years ago, we had made it all the way to the base of where the cables start before an oncoming thunderstorm had chased us off. The memories of that day still are a source of conversation, on the dangers of Half Dome during a storm. Like the book, Shattered Air, the explosions of the lightning hitting the rock behind us as we ran the 3 miles to the backpackers campground remind us that Half Dome is absolutely no place to be during a thunderstorm. We had not been able to return since then though, and of all the peaks that we have climbed in the years since, Half Dome remained unchecked on our list.

Certainly we weren’t paying $120 for the climb - that was out of the question. Thankfully, in mid-July, the NPS (finally!) discovered that the majority of its permits were going unused. To combat this, they started issuing 50 new permits every day, for the following day. So at exactly 7am, they would have 50 new spots open up. These too were snatched up fast, but since these permits were non-transferable – and with a much shorter time window between issuance and validity, the piracy has been negated. The not so great part is that Half Dome is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, and Yosemite being probably the most popular Park 50 permits is not a big number, and even those permits are bought out very quickly.

So the day before we planned our hike we got prepared. We have two laptops and a desktop, and some minutes before 7am I had them all dialed in and logged on to recreation.gov. I knew from watching the site for the last few weeks, that within the first 15 minutes all the permits would be gone, and that traffic on the site would be high, not allowing some folks to get through. At around 6:57, we started clicking “Book Permits” – I was clicking ambidextrously with a laptop mouse and the desktop mouse. At 7:02am the laptop went through – Success! We had our two permits for the hike. We were going to hike Half Dome the next day – we jumped for joy and high fived like we had just won the lottery. Only a few hours later did I realize that shoot, tomorrow we were going to have to go on a 14-mile hike.

We had made it down as far as Angels Camp the night before after work, and so we still had a piece to drive Friday morning. We woke up at 3am and assembled our gear after a coffee injection. Sometime just before 6am we drove through the entrance of the Park – the Rangers were not yet at the gate so there was just a sign to pay on your way out. We finally hit the Valley and the trailhead just before 7, and by 7:15 we were on our hike.

We had been up the trail before, but it is still a magnificent hike up through the Mist Trail, as the spray from Vernal Falls lightly wets all your camera lenses as you try to capture the beauty in a moment of time. This year of course has been a deadly one at Yosemite, and our thoughts never forgot that a 17-year old boy had fallen and hit his head, later dying, just a week before right on this trail. Also earlier in the summer, 3 young hikers had plunged off the top of Vernal Falls after crossing a barrier and getting swept away by the strong currents. I looked at the strangers around me and hoped they all had the message in their minds as well, just because it is a National Park does not mean you are not in the wilderness, and the first 4 letters of wilderness are wild. Luckily, this day, all would be safe.

The hike itself involves walking up many, many steps cut meticulously into the granite, which makes the trail somewhat different than an ordinary dirt trail. It’s like a stair-climber exercise machine, only with a 360 degree panorama of wonder around you. Once you reach the top of Nevada Falls, the second fall on the trail, the route changes to a sandy, beach-like consistency, which again tests your fitness level. By the time we had reached up here, it was starting to get hot. The trailhead begins at just 2000’ above sea level, and although the top of Half Dome is above 8,000’, you still are not out of the late summer California heat. The temperatures for most of the hike were right between 70-80 degrees, fairly warm for a strenuous hike.

We reached the top of the sub-dome right at lunch time. Sitting down at the top of the sub-dome to eat our sandwiches, we could see all the folks queuing up the cables, and hear their stories as they made it down. The people hiking Half Dome are not climbers like us, for the most part. They are just tourists who enjoy a great hike. There were many people remarking that the way down was scarier than the way up. There were folks who were so intimidated by the looks of the cables that they decided to sit it out, and wait for their hiking companions on the sub-dome. Still others bravely carried on up the cables, folks young and old, on the adventure of living life.

We finished our lunch and strapped on our helmet cams to video the ascent. I thought it was funny how many people asked me if we were taping this. “Uh yes, that is the reason I have a camera on my head” was what I felt like saying sometimes, but instead just nodded and smiled, enjoying the thrill of the moment. The climb up looks less steep on the helmet cams, in my opinion, than it really was. It was definitely a switching of gears too, as all day you are using your legs to power you up the trail, then for the cables you must rely on your arm strength to finish the climb to the top. Passing people who were going down was also a little cumbersome, as for a moment one has to switch to holding on to just one side of the cables, and hoping like heck your feet don’t slip until they get by.

Eventually we made the summit and took our photos. The summit plateau is huge, and the drop off below is incredible and far. We had picked a perfect day for our hike, not a cloud in the sky. There was a little smoke in the valley, which clouded the view of El Capitan, from management fires burning in the distance, but even still the view was breathtaking. Relaxing in the sunshine, we had fun spying a marmot get into a fellow hikers backpack. A whole family of marmots, we could pick out the baby Marmot, the Momma Marmot, and the big Fat Daddy Marmot. The unsuspecting hiker would have a surprise when he returned to his pack! We spent about an hour on top and finally started on our way down.

The way down wasn’t as bad as some folks had been saying, at least to me. Yes, you are sliding down, so good shoes are essential. We had chosen to bring our own gloves from home, these were good mountain biking gloves. They had a pile of work gloves available at the base of the cables for hikers who hadn’t brought their own, though. Definitely, you would not want to be on the cables bare-handed. Three-fourths of the way down the cables our progress was stopped, however. A young man was having a “panic attack” and stopping people from passing him by. This caused a bit of a traffic jam, which finally resolved itself as the people coming up took turns letting people go down around him, as he sat on the rock unable to move. When asked if he needed help, by the time we got to him he just cheerfully said no, he was just going to wait there a while, and we passed by. I found it odd that he had gone up and 3/4 of the way down before the panic hit him, but you never know I guess. That’s what happens when a route is open to people with no experience requirement.

When we finally got down, we packed in the helmet cams and took a quick inventory of our water supply. Both of us had carried 1 liter of water and 1 liter of Gatorade at the beginning of the day. Now, with still 7 miles to go back to the trailhead, we had just 500 milliliters between the two of us! We were going to have to ration, and it was blazing hot. With still 5 miles of hiking to go, our life giving liquid was gone, leaving us to survive in the 80 degree day. The streams aren’t right there beside the trail. Finally we got down to the backpacker camp, where shortly after is a slow moving part of the stream. I wasn’t too forward to take as big of a drink as I wanted to though. We are still in the Sierras after all. While I don’t hesitate to drink water from a stream in some parts of the world, I know that in the Sierras giardia is a real risk. We had some iodine tabs with us, but those of course take 30 minutes to take effect. I took a small drink, nowhere near enough. There were drinking fountains down at the bottom of the Mist Trail, still miles away, and over the next hours all I could think of was getting down to those fountains and drinking water, lots of water. My brain was dominated by thoughts of water. Water was all around me, the cooling sprays of the Mist Trail as we bounded down the numerous steps, but none of it to drink. When I finally did reach those fountains I filled up my Nalgene just like I had imagined I would, and greedily chugged down some pure H2O. Nothing tastes as good as water when you are really, really, really thirsty. Finally, I could be happy, we did it. We had finally climbed to the top of Half Dome!

We had slowed down considerably at the end because we had sore feet, but still managed to complete the hike in 11 hours, including the hour spent on the summit. We drove the short distance to the Yosemite Village, where I ate a reasonably priced medium pizza by myself. By the time we left the park it was past 8pm – and the rangers had already closed up shop on the exit gate – this trip to Yosemite was for free.

As far as the permits system goes, the experience did change my opinion of it. Before the climb, I was really resentful that there needed to be permits. How dare they limit my access to this natural resource! But having done it, there is a great danger with overuse. When we were there years before, the trail had been extremely crowded. There are still a good number of people on the trail today, but nothing like what it was before. Also, the people on the cables were fairly well spread out. It was sketchy enough as it was, I can’t imagine how bad they could have been with a crush of humanity on them. So yes, the idea of a permit system is a very good one. The NPS just needs to work on the delivery of the idea, so that others do not have to re-create the day before 3-computer click frenzy that we had to go through in coming years. But I’m very happy we did it, and very happy the weather smiled upon us and we were able to complete our hike, finally checking Half Dome off our list. Of all the National Parks I’ve ever been to, Yosemite is the most beautiful, and Half Dome is its most recognizable icon. It was all worth it.