… but the flesh is weak.
A familiar saying, and one which I just lived recently.
A while back, friend and fellow photography enthusiast Steve Alexander suggested that one day we needed to go together to Yosemite National Park with our cameras. Steve and I have enjoyed several trips together over the years, including a great trip to Greece where I took several shots I consider some of my best.
I love the U.S. National Park system — heck, I met my wife while we were both living and working at the Grand Canyon — so I always told Steve that I would love to figure out a trip someday. Of course, the real world gets in the way sometimes, things like losing my job, losing my Mom, and then having my home burn down were reasonable excuses not to expend the time, energy and expense of a trip to Yosemite.
But 2010 is a different year, I’ve got a job I love, a new home being built, and some actual paid time off to use. So off to Yosemite it was — for Steve, me and two other buddies of his.
At first glance, Yosemite is everything you imagine. Soaring cliffs of granite. Gigantic pine trees. Roaring, majestic waterfalls. Seriously, the place is a naturist’s dream, well worthy of its status as a national park. Not 30 minutes into our initial visit to the park we saw a large brown bear foraging in an open meadow. It was an incredible rush.
We spent three days hiking, in the valley and up the mountains. The first inclination that I may have overstepped my personal fitness boundaries came after the first of our “training hikes”. We had decided to don full packs and do some shorter hikes to try and acclimate to the elevation and the rigors of hiking before taking on our monster trek to Half Dome and back.
After the initial training hike, I found my shoulders sore from the pack, my feet aching from the walk, and my lungs seared from gasping for air. An ominous start, for sure. We hiked about 7 miles through the valley first, marveling at Lower Yosemite Fall. Mirror Lake, so well documented in photos, was a minor disappointment because it was more of a swamp, and not able to mirror any of its majestic surroundings. Still beautiful, though,
The next day’s hike was much shorter in length, only about 5 miles, but about 800 feet of elevation, up to just over 8000 feet. Sentinel Dome offered a 360 degree view of Yosemite Valley, including Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Fall and much more. Absolutely stunning vista, something I’ll never forget.
But then it was time for the big hike, from the valley floor to Half Dome, and hopefully up the famous cables to the top. We decided to take the longer John Muir Trail rather than the more popular, shorter Mist Trail, mostly because of the very steep steps which highlight the Mist Trail. Taking the Muir Trail meant a 9 mile hike, pretty much consistently involving elevation, and then of course the 9 miles back down later. Having hiked the Grand Canyon several times, I knew that the journey down was harder on the knees and feet than the way up, and I kept that in mind as we began our ascent.
Boots on the trail at 7 a.m., we started our journey. The trailhead sits somewhere around 4,500 feet above sea level, so it didn’t take long for us to start to need to pause at the end of switchbacks to get our breath. From the moment we started, we were hiking up, each step bringing with it thinner air. We walked steadily, however, leap-frogging other groups continuously as we all struggled to make it up.
At about mile 7, I stepped awkwardly on some rocky steps, and felt a sharp pain in the front of my right knee. I was able to avoid further pain by being more careful about my steps and relying on my left leg for the unavoidable big step increases the remainder of the way up. We arrived at the base of Little Dome dead tired, sore and exhilarated.
One look at Little Dome, however, made me realize that while I may be able to make it up there to the cables on Half Dome, i was worried about the 9 mile journey back down if I pushed my right knee further. Little Dome isn’t a particularly long distance but it’s fairly straight up, a series of stairs on an extreme grade. I thought it over, and discussed with my climbing partners, and decided to forgo the final ascent. In actuality, I’m not sure any of us could have made it up if I had not decided to stay at the base of Little Dome. Steve A and Steve S were able to shed their packs and leave them with me, and Steve S had actually forgotten one component of his harness and was able to use mine. They lightened their loads and headed up the stairs of Little Dome while I made a comfortable nesting spot and rested my legs.
They returned about three hours later, full of excitement about finally being on top of one of the iconic images in our country. They got their photo taken standing on “the visor” which in effect makes it appear that you’re standing practically out in thin air. Honestly, I had already felt bad about not making the final push to the cables, and seeing their excitement only heightened my disappointment. I laughed to myself about my particular mentality that allowed me to feel bad about myself even though I had just completed 9 miles of intense elevated climbing which would put many people to the test.
We began our hike down almost immediately, wanting to make sure we were back in the valley before dark. The journey down was eventful for one reason, and not a good one. At one part of the hike right after Nevada Fall, the trail is wet and a steady stream of melting snow pelts you as you walk. Steve A slipped on the wet rocky path, and immediately knew he had broken his left wrist. He rigged a makeshift sling from a bandanna, and continued down the mountain, gutting out the pain.
When we had all regrouped at the valley floor, we took Steve A to the park hospital, where they x-rayed and confirmed the break, and put it into a cast. We were all exhausted and sore and hungry.
As I sit here less than a week from the hike, I still feel bad about not getting up to the top of Half Dome. I think about the preparation required for me to think about doing it in the future, and doubt my resolve to adequately prepare. It would take not only getting into better overall shape, but also working specifically on climbing stairs and potentially having my knees looked at to see if there was some mitigating treatments I could find to better suit them for such an ordeal. I know it just won’t happen, and that my one shot at being on top of Half Dome most likely just came and went.
Still, Yosemite was breathtakingly beautiful, my love for our National Parks is further cemented, and I’m determined to find a way to visit more.
Half Dome, pictured on the left at sunset, got the better of me, but I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom that’s the case. I’ll have to take solace in the fact that even at 50 years old I could hike 20 miles of extremely difficult trails with very high elevation, and I got to experience one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
That’s plenty for now.