While climbing some routes near the main visitor center and general store, we looked up at the awe-inspiring sight of Half Dome and decided that we should try it out. The rock climbing guidebook outlined the Snake Dike Route, which seemed to be doable at our skill level. I had never done a multi-pitch climb or belayed, and Jenny had done one three-pitch climb before. The other two in our party felt like staying in the valley the next day so opted out of the climb.
Being relatively inexperienced and having made the impulsive decision to climb eight hours earlier, I became worried and had trouble building an appetite that evening. In addition, a bear that had snuck into our camp woke us up around midnight. Somehow, someone didn’t close the bear box so we lost some of our food. After about four hours of sleep, we woke up and headed out for the trailhead around 3:30 am. Route-finding was a bit of a challenge due to some trail closures in the network of trails in the valley, but we eventually made it through. We got to the top of Nevada Falls as the sky began to brighten. We continued on the main trail until we chose to cut across a ridge several hundred yards past the clearing near Nevada Falls. We traversed the ridge and began our descent along a faint trail to a boggy clearing that seemed to be Lost Lake.
The climb up the granite slabs to the base of Snake Dike was a bit tricky. Each time we penetrated a cluster of bushes, we didn’t know if there would be a navigable route on the other side.
Eventually, after several occasions of back-tracking and slightly unnerving smearing on high, we made it to the western side of Half Dome.
The drawing in the guidebook we checked out from the local library in Portland was a little unclear so we took a good guess as to where the climb began. Unfortunately, we were wrong. After a hundred and twenty feet of climbing, Jenny decided the route we were on was too difficult to be the one we were looking for. We packed up and searched some more before we found a distinct cluster of pines drawn in the guidebook that marked the beginning of the climb.
The first pitch was fairly easy with a slope we might have been able to run up. Yet, we chose to go by the book and play it safe. The second and third pitches were the most challenging. I believe they were rated at 5.7. They were made more difficult because of the crap-ass, used pair of shoes I was rocking. The grip was nearly gone and I had to tense up to keep from slipping off the rock.
Jenny was leading like an all-star and did a wonderful job teaching me as we went. I felt like a young chick being forced to fly before I had the chance to practice flapping my wings. I had no choice but to stay focused and do what was necessary. It was slow going after the fourth pitch as a little fatigue set in. The lack of a good meal the night before, and just being plain out of shape, forced us to take longer breaks between pitches than was desired.
The route was amazing. It was akin to climbing the vertebrate of a gigantic sauropod with the most incredible views. I only wish I knew the names of the rock monuments that were within our sight.
All the bolts were solid and we had no real problems the whole way. However, as we finished up the last pitch, we realized how much time we had taken. The sun was already setting and we still had the last 1,000 feet of slab to get up. We hauled ass up that slope and reached the top. We changed into our hiking gear and put on our coats.
Spending the Night
We walked briskly to the summit bulge and searched for the cables as the last light of day faded into night. We couldn’t find them so I pulled out my phone and tried calling the other two in the valley. No answer. I tried calling my friend and housemate in Ashland, Oregon. No answer. The battery was running low. I dialed up my pal Jay in Albuquerque.
I explained as quickly and clearly as possible: “Hey Jay, my friend and I are on top of Half Dome and we can’t get down. We can’t find the cables and I don’t think we have enough clothing to last the night if it should get much colder.”
He paused a second, “okay…um, what can I do?”
“Are the cables still up? Check on the cables. They might have taken them down since the summer season ended.”
He answered immediately, “Okay, I look into it and call you back.”
I hung up and 30 seconds later, my phone died.
Jenny and I set off to work. We found a spot on the edge of the cliff very near the summit. It was most sheltered with multiple boulders positioned in a circle. The space was about 7 feet by 4 feet with two windows out into the open air off the cliff. I gathered rocks to plug up the holes as well as pine needles to insulate us from the ground. She positioned the backpack to cover one of the windows. We also stuffed our jackets with pine needles for extra insulation. We huddled together beneath the bluish black sky littered with brilliant points of light. The temperature dropped to near freezing in the valley that night. I had no way to gauge the temperature 5,000 feet up on top of the dome, but I can say for sure that it was cold.
We shivered together in the nest we had built for a couple of hours. Around 1:30 am, we heard the sound of a whistle and voices calling our names. It was the rescue rangers coming up from the cables. Half asleep and a bit dazed, we greeted them cheerfully. They supplied us with prusik knots, leather gloves, headlamps, extra clothing, and sports drinks. We followed them down the cables and over the following ridge. I realized that even if we had found the cables, we had no knowledge of where to go from there; it was another potentially fatal mistake on our parts. We followed the two rangers down as fast as we could go, but kept slipping behind. Our conversation revealed how fast they had come up the trail. They left around 10 pm and made it to the summit by 1:30 am. It took them an amazing 3 hours to travel nearly 9 miles up 5,000 feet. No wonder we had trouble keeping up on the way down.
At one point, we split up to get the cache of water we left near Nevada Falls. I kept one step behind the ranger the whole time. It was intense flying through the misty darkness. We made it down to the car park by 4:45 am. After a quick chat about how they raise the funding for search and rescue in Yosemite, I promised to thank them properly with a financial contribution.
What Happened Off the Mountain
Jenny and I arrived back at camp around 5:15 am smelly, exhausted, and soaked with sweat. The other two woke up from their sleep and greeted us. They didn’t get the voice messages and assumed we were just taking a long time to get down. I elected to go to the lodge so I could change and clean up. I called Jay from the couches near the main fireplace. He explained everything that had transpired since the call nearly 12 hours earlier.
He had to get all his housemates together and figure out the conditions of the cables. Apparently, the cable supports had been taken down that very week, but the cables stay there year-round. He and his housemates discovered the valley temperature and became a little worried. They decided to phone for help after they failed to reach me. He called 911 and explained the situation to them. The emergency operator then patched him through to the switchboard in California. He had to tell them the story and get connected to the Sheriff’s Department of Mariposa County, which hooked him up with the National Park Service in Yosemite. They then got him to the Search and Rescue. They asked him a load of questions pertaining to a host of issues including our psychiatric states. The person on the phone said that we should be okay spending the night up there, which was probably true. Yet, Jay became increasingly worried and called his dad who was good friends with my dad. They finally called up my dad who was in Salt Lake City visiting family. My dad ended up calling search and rescue and convinced them to send someone up to get us. When Jay told me my dad got involved, I had to cut the call short and ring my pops. He and my family in Utah, none of whom had experience climbing stayed up all night waiting for a call from me. I thought my dad would be pissed, but he was more relieved than anything.
In retrospect, I think we could have made it through the night. We hadn’t tried jumping jacks or other methods to burn calories for heat, which I believe would have proven enough.
A review of lessons from the trip is in order. We shouldn’t have decided on a whim to do such a demanding climb with such little experience. We also were not in the best physical shape to be going on such an adventure (I also didn’t mention my busted left knee and left shoulder). We should have checked on the state of the cables and made sure we knew the route back. There should have been safety plan that included our other party members. The cell phone should have been kept out of the elements as well because the temperature may have had a significant impact on the longevity of the battery. There was a host of things that we did wrong. I’m just glad we made it back.
I’d like to say thank you to the Yosemite Search and Rescue. You all are total badasses.