Half Dome Dawn ... next chapter

Half Dome casts shadow on early morning Yosemite Valley

August 21, 2000
Half Dome to Happy Isles and Yosemite Valley
Last hurrah ... return to the "real" world

0600-0800 — Half Dome (58°F; calm, clear & cool)

          I wake Irene for her adventure. She is up and away on schedule at 0700. I loiter in bed and from the comfort of my sleeping bag I use the binoculars to follow Irene's progress as she climbs up the initial series of switchbacks. Once she is out of sight over the first hump I get up and break camp. I plan to spend this time filling in parts of my log but instead I make friends with an obese squirrel; and, I'm ashamed to say, I contribute to his condition. Have you ever seen a squirrel drag his stomach as he waddles? We have a jolly time together tasting the little bits of gorp I have left. He gets no jelly beans though, only nutritious gorp.

          Irene is now on the ladder and then at the top. It took her only forty-five minutes to climb the half mile thousand feet. She is only at the top shooting photos for about fifteen minutes (see above painting Half Dome Dawn) before she descends the cable stairs. She spends another half hour talking with the Welsh dude who had spent the night on top before returning to our camp. All in all, she had a wonderful climb and without the press of crowds.

          We head down from Half Dome ridge about 0930 just as the tourists are beginning to arrive. The lower we get on the trail toward the Valley the greater the number of people. I start to count them as I have for our entire trip, but soon abandon the endless chore. Much of this path is six feet wide. At times we wait at the narrow spots while groups of ten, twenty people stream by on their way to Half Dome. We pass park workers laying rock. I think the plan is to eventually have a solid rock path from Happy Isles to the top of Half Dome. I estimate 150-200 people pass us in the next hour on our way down to Merced River.

Top Of The World

View east from atop Half Dome

1100-1130 — Merced River

          We get out of the foot traffic for a little refreshment and blue jay entertainment. We are running low on gorp but the jays are such good beggars how can you resist sharing. We watch a few heavy laden backpackers pass headed into the wilderness and although we feel their pain, there is a little envy. We have come a long way and there is the anticipation of a soothing bath and tall-cold-one, but there is also a reluctance to let go of this experience more wonderful than can ever be described in words or pictures.

          Back on the "freeway" we are sure we stepped out of the wilderness right into Disneyland. We are happy that this is a Tuesday and not the weekend. At times you feel like you are going up stream against a river of human flesh (and we are actually going down). No question, the crowds now number in the thousands; I do not exaggerate. Most all are tourists of every nationality hiking up the grueling stairs of the Mist Falls Trail. Most don't seem too happy, some ask how much further, half are out here probably because the other half have dragged them out here and those folks are only out here because everybody else is out here.

          One threesome of backpackers we come upon descending are also concerned with the crowds because they need to get down and back to San Francisco to catch their flight to Florida tonight. They have been out in the Yosemite wilderness for four or five days. They are all quite dirty but the gal is an absolute mess. She is trying to apply a bandaid to a knee wound (bandaids don't stick to dirt very well). I ask the other two, "What have you guys been doing? Dragging her?" She literally looked like she had been in tow behind a stagecoach. They all assure us she is just clumsy and falls down a lot. We tell them where they can get a shower in the Valley if they have time. They are surprised how clean we look finding out we have been three weeks in the wilderness. I revealed to them that, "as you get older you learn some things."

          This is a toe jamming, ankle twisting, knee knocking, people dodging descent. Unrelenting DOWN. Probably, the primary reason not to start your JMT trek from Yosemite Valley. We now understand why so many JMTers begin in Tuolumne Meadows. We've been here before but it was not at peek season. We do remember the grueling climb and descent. A little past the point of "will this never end?" we emerge at the bottom and cross the bridge at Happy Isles exactly twenty days, twenty one hours and twenty minutes after departing Cottonwood Trailhead. I balance the camera for a photo of us at the bridge.

1415-2100 — Curry Village

          We make our way to Curry Village about another mile down the road. We verify we can catch a bus tomorrow morning and then head straight for the showers. The showers are closed for cleaning. Irene peeks inside to find out how long. We could use the showers at the pool but we decide to wait here. We have a half hour to wait so we organize our clothes and fend off cute but pesky squirrels trying to snatch a snack from our packs.

          We are the first into the showers. As it turns out while there were big lines of people over at the pool showers, Irene has the women's showers all to herself and I alone in the men's. The water is super soft. I think I took a half hour "double" scrubbing. When I was done Irene was already waiting for me. I am so happy to be clean I look for someone to pay but there are no attendants and Irene assures me the maintenance fellow said it was free. It is not supposed to be free for trekkers.

          Next order of business is a brew. We find a table on the outdoor deck of the popular pizza counter and relax. Irene heads to the bar to get the beer. A lady at the bar says to her, "I'm gonna look like you in three weeks." Irene surprised says, "What do you mean? Where do you think I've been for three weeks?" She replies with authority, "Well, you've been out on the Trail ... right? Irene admits "We have been twenty days on the John Muir Trail." "Oh, wow," she exclaims "you see, I knew I was gonna look like you. We are leaving for three-weeks on the JMT tomorrow morning at 5:30. Let me buy you a beer." Seems the lady knew something just by looking at Irene but we still don't know exactly what she saw. I suspect it is the JMT aura. So our first microbrew was courtesy of Janet Toon.

          Irene spends the next few hours talking with Janet and Jim and their two companions. Stories and pointers, some of our experiences, things to watch out for, stuff we'd leave behind next time, and then a little about the Northwest, the Toon's home turf. I give them a card and they insist they will write when they get back after their trek (the Toons do write us but unfortunately their trip did not go quite as planned and they were unable to complete the entire trail although they were still able to climb Mt. Whitney). While Irene continues the briefing, I call Mom & Dad to announce our safe arrival in Yosemite Valley and expected departure by bus tomorrow morning.

          We grab a pizza and a couple more beers before the place is really happenin'. Finally more than satisfied, we waddle over to the lounge across the way where people hang out and read or play cards. Irene composes postcards and I tank up on rootbeer to replenish fluids. I grab a rocker on the porch to feel my age and enjoy the view of Half Dome at dusk. "out of all the cold darkness and glacial crushing and grinding comes this warm, abounding beauty ... " — JM

Glacier Point

View of Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls from Glacier Pt.

2130 — Backpackers Camp, Yosemite Valley

          It is quite dark by the time we head for the backpackers camp. It is a shuttle bus ride down the road a ways and then a little hike through North Pines Campground. The bus ride is a hoot; a real party atmosphere, mainly youngsters "out on the town" after dark in the National Park. We get off at our stop with a hearty "goodnight" from all the kids and wander off into the void. We wander around for a while in the North Pines campground because I have forgotten how to get to the backpackers camp tucked away off in the corner of the Valley. Anyway, everybody is out gathered around their campfires, one on top of another, no vacancies; it is loud with music, singing, shrieking, yakking and laughing; the air is thick with smoke and we are pretty damn lost ... until a sign.

          The sign points off into the woods which are pitch black. I have poor night vision but I am sure it is pitch black. We now really need the assistance of our one headlamp (before while touring North Pines, the ambient light of all the fires and RVs was sufficient to light our way). We stumble down a pseudo path and come upon the bridge, which I do remember. Across the bridge is the backpackers camp of individually numbered sites each with a picnic table and bear box. They share a community restroom. We weave through the grounds looking for a vacant spot. None found, we decide any flat spot will do and we stop and plop. Care must be taken to avoid stumbling over other folks bivied in the area.

          It is 2130, dark and most people are settled in. A few stragglers come and go. Close by is a dad and kids. The dad is reading to them from a book. Can't tell if it is a horror story; probably not, he seems like the nurturing type. He chides them if they want a big breakfast of waffles and bacon in the morning they must get up when he says. The kids are piled in the tent and dad will bivy outside. They fuss a while. Somebody was kicking somebody else. I think Irene is already asleep.

          As per regulations, at 2200 it is finally quiet and peaceful in Yosemite Valley. We lie surrounded by a grove of gigantic towering pines. These silhouetted forms are so grand and statuesque, they shoot up in foreshortened perspective framing the radiant night sky, so perfect, so wondrous, so meaningful; I know we are in God's house.

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