Hiking Half Dome: Part 3 – The Descent

Before you read the final section of my Half Dome saga you should probably check out the first two parts.  Part One covers the majority of the ascent and Part Two is all about the infamous cable section and the summit.

After about an hour on the summit we figured we better head back down. When we arrived at the top of the cables I looked down. It looked as if the cables dropped off the side of the dome into thin air. I insisted that Joe and Kate lead down the cables, because I knew I’d slow them down. We put our gloves back on and started down.

Joe and Kate descended the thick steel cables with ease. I inched down behind them. I was very stressed. It looked and felt much steeper than on the way up. I was gripping the cables with all my might as I slowly and carefully walked down the steep slope. Facing forward, looking down as I walked was my biggest issue. It was driving me insane.

Then I noticed a couple people lower on the cables descending using a different method. They were gripping just one cable and walking backward. I was intrigued so I tried copying them. I turned around and gripped one cable with both hands. Then I kept my hands on the thick rough cable and slid them down towards me one at a time and followed with my feet. I quickly got the hang of it and moved swiftly down the cable section. I was glad I didn’t have to look down at the drop-off and going backwards was much easier on my knees.

I caught up with Joe and Kate lower on the cables where they were waiting for people to ascend. While waiting we talked to some other hikers waiting to move. Among them were the same people I saw on the way up, the carpenter and his son. They gave Joe and Kate an extra bottle of water to share. They were very thankful. I still had a little more left than them, but I couldn’t imagine a way that I wouldn’t run out before finishing the hike. I just hoped it wouldn’t be for a while.

The three of us safely stepped off the cable ladder and tossed our gloves back on the pile. Next up was the smooth saddle before the endless steps. Walking down the slope of the saddle was a little awkward. I felt unstable so I shortened my stride until we got to the other side of the saddle, which rose up to the top of Sub Dome.

nate odomes trip 060

I asked Joe and Kate to lead the way down the hundreds of granite steps of Sub Dome just like on the cables. The cables descent went much better than I expected once I turned around and went backwards, but I couldn’t imagine having similar success on the steps. I knew it would take me a long time to make it down and I didn’t want to slow down my friends. They didn’t share my fear of heights so Sub Dome wasn’t nearly as hard on them.

I walked down the numerous steep stone staircases one slow step at a time. The entire shoulder of Half Dome was very steep. Missing a step would mean falling a long way down onto a slab of granite. My pace was excruciatingly slow, but that was the only way I could manage. I carefully placed one foot in front of the other again and again and again.

Sometimes the steps were a couple feet high and I felt very unbalanced going from step to step. A few of those times I actually turned around, crouched down, and used my hands to basically crawl backwards. It was a little embarrassing, but I wasn’t the only one up there looking scared to death. Thankfully there weren’t too many instances when I had to descend in such a fashion.

Between the infinite steps and my trembling legs, my knees took an immense pounding. By the time I neared the bottom of the last rock staircase each step was like a bone-crushing blow to my knees. I was in complete agony. It was far worse than anything I felt on the long hike up. Both knees felt totally destroyed and I still had to hike almost eight more miles… all downhill. I realized then that the downhill portion of the hike was not going to be any easier than the initial climb. It still ended up being faster, but it was very difficult.

Joe and Kate were waiting for me at the bottom of the steps and we rested there for a few minutes. We then started down the two-mile Half Dome Trail toward Little Yosemite Valley.  Since I was down from the steps I reopened my hiking poles, which gave my knees some much-needed relief. However, it felt like the damage was already done.

Most of the trail went steeply downhill, but there weren’t many more steps so I moved better for a while. We hiked at a fairly good pace through the forest. Walking through the woods was a mindless task at that point. I was exhausted from being on the trail for hours in the heat. And I wasn’t prepared for how mentally drained I would be due to all the time spent on the cables and steps where I had to focus so hard to face my fear. Factor in the lack of water and I was marching through the woods like a zombie.

We eventually reached Little Yosemite Valley. It was a long 3.5 miles, but it was a relief to encounter level terrain for a change. My tender knees thoroughly enjoyed their brief respite. We ran into a park ranger and asked about water. He said there was no potable (drinkable) water there. The river obviously supplied plenty of water, but we had no way to treat it. Discouraged, we moved on.

I found the music of the nearby Merced River comforting in my depleted state. I was walking slower again. In fact, on several occasions I suddenly realized I had fallen behind Joe and Kate.

Soon after leaving Little Yosemite Valley my forehead felt like it was on fire. I had a pounding headache. I think it was a combination of the heat and dehydration. I was trying hard to conserve my water supply, which consisted of only a few ounces at that point.

After another twenty minutes we neared Nevada Fall. I cautiously approached the Merced River a ways back from the waterfall. I wasn’t thirsty enough to drink the untreated water, but I figured the cool water could still help me. I knelt down beside the river and filled my hat with water. Then I decided to take things a step farther and lowered my face into the water. The cold water was incredibly refreshing. I instantly felt much better. I was still extremely sore and thirsty, but at least I managed to cool off.

We took a long break beside the river. We were all seriously low on water. I was trying to conserve my shrinking supply, but as a result I was dehydrating myself in the meantime. Even with the cool water on my face my headache came back quickly. I was certain it was due to dehydration. I had other symptoms, too. My mouth and lips were dry, and swallowing hurt. When I thought about it, I realized I hadn’t had to urinate in hours. I was also feeling very lethargic.

Joe wanted to descend from Nevada Fall down the Mist Trail. We had hiked that trail on our previous visit, but Joe thought Kate should see it. It is a very scenic hike, and one of my all-time favorites. However, my knees were far too sore to handle the rocky steps that lead down the trail. And while the Mist Trail is shorter than the John Muir Trail I knew the latter option would be much easier from past experience. Factoring in my dehydration, I wanted to get down to the water fountain at Vernal Fall Bridge as fast as possible. I knew I could get down the John Muir Trail faster, so I told Joe and Kate to head down the Mist Trail without me. I said I would meet them at the bridge a couple miles down the trail, just past where the two paths meet. We wished each other luck and then they took off down the trail.

I stayed by the water a few minutes longer, continually wetting my face. Right before I started off again a trio of college girls stopped by the river. One of them offered me a couple swigs of her water. I was forever grateful. It was 6:50 p.m. when I departed Nevada Fall and started down the John Muir Trail.

Great Western Sojourn 158

I soon encountered a burly man wearing an enormous backpack. The man looked to be in his 50’s and, by my guess, headed to the campground in Little Yosemite Valley. I asked him if he could spare any water. I had just over two fluid ounces remaining and was trying to make it last. He didn’t have enough water to share, but he said he was going to filter some water up near the waterfall and that I could have some then if I wanted to go with him. I considered it, because it certainly was a nice offer and I could come away with a full bottle of clean water. But I also wanted to get down the mountain as fast as possible. It was going to get dark soon and I was hoping to make it to the rendezvous point at Vernal Fall Bridge before Joe and Kate. So, I said no thank you and carried on.

I sped off down the trail, quickly making my way across the ledge clinging to the mountainside. Then came the many switchbacks of the John Muir Trail. My knees ached, but thankfully the switchbacks were not too steep. The zigzagging stretches of trail subtly lost elevation as I descended. I was feeling more and more dehydrated the farther down I went.

I stopped to take an apple out of my pack. I craved it for its juice. I devoured the apple while I marched down the path. Once I finished it I felt a little better. I was ready to make the final push to the bridge. It was far from easy, but I was able to force the pain in my knees, head, and all the other smaller aches and pains piling up to the side. I was totally focused on reaching the water fountain beside the bridge.

With my apple done and both hands free again I grabbed both my trekking poles and really picked up speed. I made a deal with myself not to finish my water until I reached the Mist Trail Junction. I still had about a mile to go, but I thought I could make it last.

Each segment of trail made me thirstier and more tired. But I liked that I was able to see tangible progress as I descended. Every switchback completed meant one less to reach my goal.

That agreement I made with myself became very important and it really motivated me on my journey down the switchbacking pathway. I didn’t have too much farther to go, but not finishing my final fluid ounce of water became a sort of mantra for me. It kept me focused and driven to reach my destination.

Soon I descended the last bit of trail and arrived at the trail junction for the Mist Trail. I immediately downed the last few drops of water. I was exhausted, out of water, and very thirsty, but I was happy that I kept the agreement I made with myself. I was only a few hundred feet from the Vernal Fall Bridge.

A couple minutes later I reached the bridge and more importantly my salvation; cold, fresh water. I arrived at 7:45 p.m. That meant I made it all the way down the John Muir Trail from Nevada Fall in less than an hour. That was very fast and I was ecstatic, not because of the pace, but because I finally made it to water.

I immediately made my way to the water fountain and drank like my life depended on it. I stood at the fountain for a couple of minutes chugging away. Then I filled a water bottle and sat down on a large rock next to the bridge. I tossed my backpack on the ground to relieve my back and shoulders. Then I relaxed for a while guzzling water and watching the explosive rapids of the Merced River beside me.

The area between the bridge and the restrooms was virtually deserted. It is normally packed with hikers and photographers, but due to the late hour it was very quiet. Hikers would come down the trail every few minutes on their way back to the trailhead, but I was glad it was mostly empty. I was very fatigued and wanted nothing more than rest and water.

I wasn’t surprised that I beat Joe and Kate to the bridge, considering how fast I made it down the John Muir Trail. However, I didn’t think I would be waiting too long for them. I sat there resting and recuperating for 45 minutes and still hadn’t seen them. So, I filled a couple small water bottles to bring to Joe and Kate and headed up the Mist Trail.

I ran into a couple of hikers near the trail junction for the John Muir Trail. I tried to describe Joe and Kate to them and asked if they had seen them. They said they had, just a little ways up the Mist Trail.

I picked up my pace and headed up the trail. Fueled by rest and a substantial amount of water, I felt rejuvenated. My entire body ached, but at the moment I felt energized. After a few minutes of brisk uphill hiking I found my friends. I gave them each a bottle of water. They were very happy to see me and my water. They said they had run out a while ago.

I led them back to the bridge where we indulged in more water before moving on. It was less than a mile to the trailhead at Happy Isles from the bridge. We finished the home stretch in the dark. We were just behind the girls that gave me a little water up by Nevada Fall. They were all using headlamps and I had mine on, too.

Soon enough we were back at the trailhead. From there it was a quick jaunt to the parking lot. It was 8:45 p.m. and we were finally done. We had begun our hike almost twelve and a half hours earlier. Counting the walk to the parking lot we had traveled around seventeen miles with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gained and lost.

That was the hardest hike I have completed. It was longer and had a greater change in elevation than any other hike I have tackled. It was both physically and mentally exhausting. I had a headache that lasted the entire next day. Joe and I were still sore three days later while walking the streets of San Francisco. Going up and down stairs was hard on my legs for about a week.

I’m certain I’ll remember my hike up Half Dome for as long as I live. Most of my hiking memories revolve around the incredible sights I have seen, but with Half Dome it is a little different. Sure, there were stunning views, but it was more than that. I especially remember the feelings and emotions I felt along the way. They vary from the fear I felt on the cables, to jubilation upon reaching the summit, to the pain on the granite steps, and dehydration on the way down the John Muir Trail. There were many more, too. It all adds up to a very memorable experience while climbing to the top of a National Park icon.

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7 thoughts on “Hiking Half Dome: Part 3 – The Descent

Add yours

  1. Glad to learn that everyone made it down safely. It sounds like you had a once in a lifetime experience.

    Dehydration while hiking is a major concern and it’s easy to happen because no one likes carrying a heavy pack full of water. Other times it’s just not feasible. We started to bring a small water filter system with us for long hikes that we know there are water sources. It proved to be useful and worth carrying for us.

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  2. What an incredible adventure! Congratulations on completing that hike. I remember coming down the John Muir trail after only hiking to Nevada fall, and my knees were in such pain on the way down. I can only imagine how much worse it was for you. This was a very interesting read and I’m sure I won’t be attempting that hike any time soon. 😉

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