Thursday, September 09, 2010


Hey guys! It has been a while so here is an overly long post with lots and lots of un-edited words and photos. I wanted to say all of this using much prettier words but I am pretty sure if I wait for that, I will never get it all up. So you get it raw.

Pretty much exactly one week ago right now, this was me:
Notice the big smile? That comes from extended time out of the office away from computers and phones and email and all things work related. It comes from forgetting I'm a lawyer for a while. It also comes from admiring views like this:

And this:

It was my first time visiting Yosemite National Park and I tell you, I really hope it is not my last. My fascination with this beautiful place started when I was a freshman in college and started rock climbing. It seemed all of the climbers I knew had aspirations or dreams or just flat out admiration for the iconic granite structure rising above the Yosemite Valley known as El Capitan.
(El Cap is the prominent slab on the left and Half Dome is in the middle way in the distance)

Around that same time I also discovered the beautiful writing/philosophies of John Muir, who was practically Mr Yosemite. But for reasons I cannot explain or understand, I had never prioritized a trip there. And then a year or so ago PBS aired a Ken Burns documentary called "The National Parks: America's Best Idea". And if you have not seen this yet, I highly, highly recommend it. The documentary is beautifully done and since Yosemite was the first state park and essentially gave birth to the idea of preserving wilderness areas for public use, much of the documentary focuses on Yosemite. I could not believe I had never been!

Then, at the end of a terrible, terrible work week at the end of July when the weight of work was crushing, a friend sent me an email asking if I was interested in a trip to Yosemite. Coincidentally the dates for the trip were the exact dates I had informed my boss I had to be out of the office - I didn't know where I was going except away from work to reclaim my sanity. It was perfect, so I booked. I did not read the volumnious details of the trip, I did not fixate on packing lists or gear that needed to be purchased or where I would be staying or any of the other logistics I like to sort out. I just handed over my money and put it on my calendar. All I knew is the trip would be part river rafting, part hiking - culminating in hiking Half Dome. After informing various people of my plans I started to wonder about this Half Dome hike. I had heard of it before and knew it was intimidating and required a significant amount of endurance but I knew nothing else. After I received the reaction in a work meeting of "wow, don't you have to be in shape for that?" I decided it might be time to investigate.

Half Dome is a 15-17 mile hike from the Yosemite Valley floor with an altitude gain of over 4,000 feet. Yes, that pretty much means you go straight up and then straight down - neither of which is an easy task. So I started climbing stairs in my building, hoping the 2 weeks I had left before my trip were sufficient to prepare myself knowing full well that my sea-level accustomed, asthmatic lungs would struggle.

After some hasty last minute logistics planning with my co-traveler to secure a rental car and hotels, we met in San Francisco on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We stopped at REI to see if I could get the bladder in my camelback pack fixed to be given the pleasant surprise of an offer to get my money back. REI gave me $90 for a pack nearly 2 years old that looked like it had been dragged the dirt (uh, probably because it had)! I lucked out because we were there on a big sale day so I was only out $20 for a brand new better fitting, fancier pack! Now I was ready for some fun.

The next morning after a lengthier drive to the group meeting spot than expected (technology shouldn't always be trusted!) and after getting to know our fellow travelers a bit more when the ancient school bus to the river put-in broke down, we finally found ourselves here:

Paddling through Class IV rapids on the Tuolumne River! I'm the one in the front left with the giant smile!

The weather was much colder than expected (not to mention the water temps!), but I really didn't mind too much because the sun was shining and I was not at work - goosebumps were just a minor inconvenience. Another minor inconvenience? The fact that for some reason our guides weren't given enough tents for everyone in the group. Since Denise and I were the last to arrive that morning we were told they didn't have a tent for us . . . it was included in our price! One girl who was traveling solo offered to share her tent and I volunteered to sleep outside - problem solved. Denise and I quickly buddied up with the solo girl Tammy and actually I think one of the first things Tammy said to me after she offered to share her tent was during lunch when I expressed my bafflement over how the women were queing up to pee in the same general area of the river just beyond a giant boulder. I said I wasn't waiting and walked over and she said "I assume we'll be friends soon so we can pee together." Yup, that is just how things go on the river. Oh, and there was pleeeeeenty of room for everyone to do their own business without crowding, I just think women are used to waiting in line and hadn't been away from civilization long enough to realize that was ridiculous.

Anyway, that evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner, listened to a couple of people play guitar and sing, were absolutely stumped by a crazy logic game one guy laid out in the sand in the middle of our circle of chairs (where a fire should have been if it hadn't been so dry) and just generally tried to get to know our fellow travelers while gazing up at the now innumerable stars.

The stars confirmed my decision to sleep on the beach. My only regret is that I had to remove my contacts and wear glasses and couldn't just stare at the stars until my eyes fell shut on their own. I woke up a few hours after drifting off under the bright glare of a three-quarter moon, my old friend. I smiled at him and rolled over. It was the perfect night for sleeping outside. The next morning I was among the first to rise - not my usual trait but somehow I'm different in the mountains. I pulled my things together and talked to other early risers and warmed myself up with a mug of hot chocolate. When I greeted one of the boys I'd met briefly the night before he focused on my mug and asked "where did you get the coffee?" Not exactly a morning person. He loved it later in the trip when I shared the espresso love flavored goo with him on our hike down Half Dome. Definitely the caffeine addict of the group - and not exactly a camper.

The day started with a breakfast of eggs benedict - seriously, eggs benedict! On the river! And they were delicious! We then paddled a couple of boats across the river for a short hike to an old miner's cave. A cave that was dug out during the gold rush years without the aid of dynamite or whatever other modern (or not so modern) tools are used to do such things.

We did a little exploring in the cave and I tried not to think about what else might be living in there or what might be lurking in the water that sometimes rose above my ankles. Mainly we just inspected the tiny little beginnings of stalactites:

Oh, and a couple of sleeping bats and a creepy millipede thing. We also, of course, once we were deep in the heart of the cave, turned off all of our lights and felt the darkness engulf us. If you have never stood in the center of a cave without any lights, you have never truly known darkness. I'm just happy I get to rely on something other than a flickering candle in that situation. Conversation naturally drifted toward those miners trapped down in Chile. Others were as ignorant as I am about how it happened and why it is so difficult to remove them but we were all of an empathetic mind after venturing just a short distance into a dark, dank cave.

Since the river water is on a timed dam release schedule, we still had some time to kill and we did so by continuing our hike straight up a dry, dusty mountainside trail which was originally made before anyone thought about how much simpler switchbacks are to climb. It gave me an opportunity to talk some more with my fellow travelers and for our guide to discuss riparian zones - a phrase I love to repeat outloud to feel how the word riparian rolls off the tongue. The discussion also made me think fondly of my desert hiking days when little creeks can be spotted by the seemingly out of nowhere placement of willows among the desert sage. Favorite ice-cream products were also discussed and the heat went a bit to some of our heads because when we returned to the boats someone suggested we swim across. With the stronger, brighter sun and the pull of competition, I jumped in the water right after the first guy. It felt exactly like jumping into a bucket of ice - like the ice pool I got in at that spa in Iceland, only this time there wasn't a hot tub to get in 30 seconds later. Nope, once in I was committed, time to swim all the way across the river, no time to dwell on the cold. A few others followed us in despite our shrieks upon impact. Tammy blamed me saying she could resist as long as another girl didn't do it. Once on the other side it didn't take long to warm up in the sun and soon we were back in the boats for a few more hours of rafting before the boats were hoisted out of the river and we were loaded back on the school bus.

We said goodbye to almost half our group who were only there for 2 days of rafting and continued our journey with a night at Lillaskog Lodge:

The lodge was beautiful and kitschy

and came with a beautiful view

Denise and I were some of the later arrivers and did not end up with the best room but it served its purpose and each room had its own private bathroom which felt very luxurious after a night of camping. The lodge also came with Jordy - a lab with whom I quickly became close friends as he transferred a good portion of his coat to my fleece:

The group got to know each other a bit more over dinner and discussed the hikes that were to come - especially Half Dome. We shocked our extremely laid-back guide who had insisted we all be ready with our stuff at the van by 8 am by actually being at the van with all of our stuff promptly at 8 am as he wandered out of the lodge still wearing an apron. You can't help but love this guy but organization and logistics were not really his thing. For example, a couple of people in the group opted to drive their cars into Yosemite while others of us left our cars at the lodge and rode in the van. When we reached the highway our guide suddenly realized he hadn't done his paperwork so with two cars following behind him he started scrambling around for a pen and did it right there at the stop sign.

Then there was the unnecessarily lengthy stop at the park entrance while our guide and the park ranger tried to sort out the entrance fee.

It all kind of added to his charm. Our first stop in Yosemite was Tuolumne Grove. For whatever reason most of us were expecting a hike, we were well rested and ready to tackle a trail. Instead, we got a nature walk with a naturalist I'd rather forget I ever met.

The walk was beautiful

And we saw some massive sequioas

And I even got to crawl through a dead one!

(Seriously, as a kid I could have spent hours playing in/on/around this thing!)

But ultimately, the "hike" was too short and the naturalist was obnoxious and did not take well to questions he perceived as challenging. I was trying to have a conversation about controlled burn fire policies and beatles and he chose to be condescending so I chose to stop talking to him and may have joined the conspirators who were plotting to cut off his ratted, too-long braid. Maybe. The other hiking guide was fantastic though and I think I just don't like people who introduce themselves (or their books) as the "pre-eminent guide" to anything. It is just conceited and self-absorbed. I see enough of that in NYC, I don't need it in the mountains too.

Our main guide had been warning us and fretting over the logistics of checking into our tent-cabins at Curry Village since the night before and after our brief walk offered to take us to see Tuolumne Meadows rather than heading straight to Curry Village where it was likely too early to check in. On that amount of information - plus an indicatation that our destination was "just up the road", we all agreed. What we didn't realize is we were agreeing to run away from the most dreaded part of his job by driving for hours and hours and staring out the window of the van as pretty things flew by.

At one point I saw a giant slab of granite the road curved around and I told my seat companion that I wanted to just run up it. Not too much later the van stopped across the street from this:

This was my chance. There is just something in my blood that compels me to scramble up/on/around rocks. It cheers my soul.

Plus, I got others to follow me:

And it allows us to get our first real look at Half Dome:

But soon Craig ran out of patience and started revving the van and even started to drive away, so we ran back down and shoved our way to the back of the van which didn't even have those little pop-out windows for ventilation.

There was more and more driving and very little explanation. All we knew is that we were supposed to go to some fancy restaurant for dinner at 6 but wouldn't be able to check in until after 5 and Craig did not see the challenge. Those among us who may or may not have control issues consulted the park map and realized we'd be lucky to have an hour to get ready for dinner.

Soon we all came to understand why the process was so dreaded. There was a lengthy line at the front check in and when it was finally our guide's turn he was told they had no record of our reservation! Here he was responsible for 9 other people's rooms and he was learning that once again the main office had not sent the check to the right place and no one knew if there were rooms for us. We all backed off and shook our heads as it dawned on us why he dreaded this so much and focused on the beautiful view around us:

We also started joking about how the restaurant probably didn't have any record of our 6 pm reservation either . . . hahaha. Until we found out that was actually true! The good news was we eventually all received rooms and were given an 8 pm dinner reservation - plenty of time to check in and clean up. Oh, and search for Tammy's lost key in the women's showers . . . .

Dinner was a lot of fun. Everyone was loosened up and gelling in a positive way to the point where we could mock a certain member of our group for the absolutely perfectly pressed and starched (!) shirt he was wearing! No joke, not a single fold line - unlike my dress that was all kinds of rumpled. Who ever heard of eating at a nice restaurant while camping anyway?

This particular boy also had an obsession with chips and when he saw a couple of plates being delivered to another table with potato chips he asked why he didn't see them on the menu. After they were delivered to children, I said that should answer his question. A short time later our wonderful waitress who put up with all of our loud and obnoxious questions and requests returned to the table with a small plate of chips which made Z ridiculously happy. I made the mistake of leaving my camera on the table when I stepped away to the restroom and returned to find a photo of the last chip:

And a group photo taken in my absence:

Of course, I actually love surprise photos. And after that dinner, these two were my buddies:

The next morning we finally got to go on a real hike! We started at the May Lake trail head by making sandwiches and lathering up on sunscreen.

The hike reminded me a lot of hiking in the Uinta mountains at home.

Here I am happily hiking along just before I was told the banadana look was preferred over the hat . . . I see nothing wrong with my hat!

Our first destination was a beautiful view of May Lake with the tiniest sliver of moon still in the deep blue sky above it:

More prettiness:

Oh, and this is our know-it-all naturalist guy with the braid . . . you can see it snaking down his pack.

Lovely views everywhere:

Next stop: Raisin Lake

A little lunch and sunscreen reapplication mixed with nap time for some:

After lunch we voted in favor of extending the hike to get a broader view of the Park and our stopping point was at the foot of this pile of boulders:

I passed off my camera and scrambled up a few to get a photo and then the hiking guide asked if I wanted to run up to the top. When I said yes, he said drop your pack and took off. And I followed.

We were just below 10,000 feet and the air was thin and cool so breathing became short quickly but I ran and ran as the guide called back to me that nope, this isn't the top yet, time after time. At one point when I stopped to catch my breath and take in my surroundings a red tailed hawk circled not too far above my head. I breathed in and basked in it, trying to lock in the scent of pine, the feel of my feet pressing onto the granite mixed with quartz, the blueness of the cloudless sky and the smattering of peaks and valleys and trees and hidden lakes scattering off in every direction around me. I just wanted to freeze time right there. Except, I also wanted to see the view from the top so I ran on, leaping from rock to rock, trusting my feet to find purchase on the sharp crystalized granite. Running along rocks is somehow one of my greatest forgotten joys.

Finally, gasping for air, I reached the top and looked off a short distance to Tuolumne Peak and let the guide orient me by pointing out Dana Peak off on the hazy horizon and the views of glaciers and Half Dome and other landmarks. I spotted Raisin Lake, our lunch spot and May Lake. I could not stop smiling. And a few minutes later we were joined by the two other guides on the hike (including the naturalist) and my buddy Z. Craig was the only one with a camera. Surprisingly he sent us this - which of course doesn't come close to capturing the moment but is beautiful nonetheless.

If you look closely you can see the nifty panoramic camera resulted in a bit of a Back to the Future effect with my right arm vanishing. . .

This moment and the top of Half Dome are actually very close contenders for best highlight of the trip. That night it was a cafeteria carb loading dinner followed by early to bed to prep for a 530 am breakfast call in the parking lot before the pinnacle of the trip - Half Dome.

For the two days leading up to the hike a couple of us had been bugging Craig to give us a motivational/inspirational pep talk before the hike and he simply grunted at us and after breakfast said "I'll steal from Nike and say 'Just Do It'." But our hiking guide John had other plans. He told our team of 9 (minus guides) that dropped to 7 almost immediately that he would be setting the pace and that sometimes he would be asking us to push ourselves harder than we knew how and he had planned breaks and that is the only time we should stop, etc. etc.

And I interrupted him. To point out a deer. It was crossing the road right behind him! And he grew stern and told me to pay attention because it was all very important. And then, in the woods across the street I saw a black bear rumbling along. Not wanting to get in trouble again I whispered very quietly "there's a bear". I was later told that yes, I could interrupt for a bear, just not a deer and then there were jokes about a zebra and a lion and an elephant walking behind him as I stared in silence, supressing my desire to point it out to everyone. But hey, at least I saw the bear!
Here is a little glimpse of the punch in the gut switch backs and stairs that greet you right off the bat:

Despite the fact that we were hiking at a higher altitude the day before and I had absolutely no asthma effects, those first hills sucker punched me and I was immediately wheezy and struggling for breath. Very frustrating but I just fell toward the back of the pack and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. In the rare flat sections (which were still difficult because they were covered in sand!), I moved up to the front and then fell behind again when things got steep. My friend Denise was at the back with the second hiking guide and we checked in with each other as we wheezed and I pushed past that bronchial cough and blamed the dusty air. After one of the longest, steepest hikes I think I've ever done, we arrived here:

The saddle between sub-dome and Half Dome. I was so excited to tackle the last challenge of the cables and get to the top. But I found Tammy crumpled in a ball scared to death. She had mentioned a fear of heights but I didn't realize how real her fear was until I saw her crying. I sat with her and talked her through it and between the persuasive and reassuring powers of our guide and me she agreed to go to the top with the guide in front/right next to her and me right behind. The guide provided a sort of webbing safety harness with a carabiner to clip into the cables but I found it annoying and didn't really need the primarily mental reassurance it offered. For whatever reason I thrive on heights. They give me an adrenaline rush. Besides, we weren't on a cliff's edge or anything, we were just scrambling up the middle of a 45 degree angled hunk of granite. It was crowded but not the legendary August crowds I was warned about. People squeezed past each other as one side went up, the other down and we inched our way up to the top.

It was amazing!

We had lunch - which included the Vosges chocolate bacon bar I brought to share, some mint Milano cookies and 4 - yes 4 - bags of Kettle potato chips. My favorite flavor? Spicy Thai. I love that I now have several flavors of chips that will forever be associated with the top of that rock. We had to turn back far sooner than I would have liked.

Afterall, walking down 4000+ feet of elevation is not exactly a simple task.

One thing I will say about whoever carved out these stairs for the trails, they really should travel back in time and have a chat with the Incans because these stairs don't hold a candle to those at Machu Piccu in terms of durability and uniformity of size and shape!

Once we were off the sub-dome I pulled out my trekking poles and for whatever reason allowed Z to take over my camera again:

That hook sticking out of my pack held my poles together and for reasons I can't explain other than leaving my cabin just after 5 am, I forgot to take it off before attaching them to my pack.

Ummmm, yeah. More surprise photos!

I have to say, this was a great group to hike with overall. There were two women who did not end up making the hike but everyone else seemed to be in pretty good sync and no one seemed annoyed by those of us who were a little slower. Except maybe this guy - he mocked me for falling to the back of the pack.

But I forgave him in the end. Everything was too beautiful to have anything but positive feelings - even when your knees are screaming and all you can think about is pizza at the bottom of the trail.

I don't think my poor knees could have done the down portion without my poles.

Just add them to my pile of nerd gear along with my inhaler, knee brace and glasses. Overall I estimate that I drank at least 5 liters of water on the hike plus 2 Gatorades. I didn't have much of an appetite for real food other than the salty chips at the top and the occasional handful of trail mix so goos were actually the best fuel. I packed two sandwiches and didn't finish one. Ginger chews were satisfying as were Werther's soft caramels but I had no desire to open any of the other bits of candy and food I packed. Although I'm sure I ate a Cliff bar or two as well. We were told we burned between 5 and 6,000 calories overall. I think one of the hardest parts of the whole trail was the last half an hour or so of downhill when my right foot was just tired of being slammed against the ground - especially now that it was steeply down hill and paved. When we reached the restrooms just past the trail head (where I saw the bear that morning) we were greeted by the two women who didn't make the hike. They were a great finishing line reception and told us the very wonderful news that Craig was ordering pizzas and they would be ready at 730. It was 7 pm and we had left that spot at 630 am. We did it in 12.5 hours. We could have done it faster had we not had to cycle through several people at a couple of restrooms, or lingered over a few breaks or had we not spent that full hour on the top or stopped for so long at the river to filter water but I thought 12.5 hours for a group of 9, including guides was legit.

We dragged ourselves that extra seemingly endless 1/2 mile or so walk along the road to our tents and split up to dump our packs before heading for pizza. I shed my hiking boots and dusty socks filled with dirt and pebbles in favor of chaco's and wondered if the sock line was from dirt or if I had actually gotten some sun. As it turns out, it was a little of both and now I think I'm stuck with a sock line heading into fall/winter. I also found some monster blisters that I didn't even notice until I took off my shoes (which had never previously caused blisters).

Craig's timing was impeccable and we found him holding down a few tables with several hot pizzas and cold beer and soda. I ate 4 large slices before I stopped to even think about it. I was exhausted but Z and John insisted we all get together in their tent-cabin for a last night hurrah after showers. Of course, once everyone showered I couldn't convince the girls to go with me so our big hurrah ended up being the three of us stretched out on their cots listening to a comedien on John's ipod and chatting about the day and the group and the trip and first impressions that were formed way back on Sunday before we got on the river. The big party was over before 10 and I stumbled back to my own cot where Denise and I talked some more with our legs raised up against the wall to fight the crazy swelling/cankle effect that had grabbed them.

The next morning I was sad. Vacation was ending and it was time to say goodbye to new friends.

And although Denise and I still had another day together, our time was nearing its end as well.

Plus, I was one of the few who really liked staying in this Curry Village place:

Everywhere you looked it was beautiful:

And the place had what I would imagine as a summer camp feel a la Parent Trap. And that movie (the original one) always made me want to go to summer camp!

Although the food in the cafeteria was not the greatest. But I guess that would probably remind people of camp days as well.

It was a really amazing trip and I highly recommend a trip to Yosemite and a trek up to Half Dome. And if you need someone to go with you - I'm definitely up for going back!


Mary said...

Holy cow, the pictures are amazing! Glad you were able to get away.

michele said...

looks awesome. i'm jealous as usual. glad you had a fun time.

Tiffany said...

I'm so glad you had a chance to get away! The photos are amazing. I'm still stunned by the giant fallen sequoia. Whoa.

Glad you're back!

katie said...

Your pictures are amazing!

Ali said...

That sounds like a great trip. The part about the bear made me laugh out loud. I don't know if I could have done the hike back down - even looking at the pictures made me nervous! Hope you're settling in back in NYC. Let's catch up soon!

Jessica said...

Where do you find the guided tours? Is there a company you recommend? A website would be awesome! Thanks for sharing. You don't know me, but I love your blog.

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