2007 July 1 to 3

Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley

Early in June Em and I drove down to Fresno and then east into the Sierras for a relaxing two-day trip to the Dinky Lake Wilderness. However, after bashing our car about its head and shoulders on the dirt road we were horrified to be viciously attacked by mosquitoes at the very dry, windy, and sunny trailhead. Deterred, we got back in the car and drove to my parent's house for a relaxing weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Fast forward to the beginning of July, Sunday the 1st to be specific and Em and I have driven to Yosemite Valley and taken the YARTS shuttle up to Tuolumne Meadows. Our adventure starts at the trailhead near the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

Note that the following Saturday after our trip the San Francisco Chronicle published a front page article about the increasing popularity of the Half Dome hike and recent deaths due to people falling from the cables. The article and photos are below the trip report.

The trip begins at 7 pm on Sunday, July 1st from the trailhead near the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Earlier in the day while obtaining our permit in the valley we were told that the quota had been met for the trail and we would have to go in the following morning. We hiked for about 90 minutes before camping and suffered as we were climbing and hadn't had time to acclimate.

Early the next morning, 7:29 am according to this picture, and we are almost ready to go. Amazingly, even though it dropped below freezing during the night we were already in shorts and tee-shirts.

After the initial climb out of Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8700 feet) last night the trail up to Tuolumne Pass (elevation 9992 feet) was gradual and spectacular. In this shot Em instructed me to spin like Julie Andrews in the helicopter shot in The Sound of Music.

At the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp I was disappointed that I didn't have the need to use the composting-solar toilets.

From the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp we had a short downhill stretch before entering another amazing meadow with a creek running through it. I took the opportunity to submerge myself while Em attacked the salami. We each enjoyed two large, guilt-free hunks.

Here is another shot of the same meadow mentioned in the previous photograph. At the end of the meadow an amazingly long and constant cascade begins. Vogelsang Peak rises up to an elevation of 11,493 feet to the right.

Vogelsang Peak is visible from the middle of this very long cascade. The trail is to the right, not visible in the photo. It was easier to walk adjacent to the water than to stay on the trail.

As you might guess by studying the time stamps, this photo was taken just after the one above but instead looks downstream.

Two and a half long hours after the previous shot we are almost to the Merced Lake Ranger Station. For the most part the trail had been rough and downhill, a bad combination for knees. However, this time it wasn't my joints but Em's left knee that gave us problems.

Luckily, swimming holes like this solve the problem pretty quickly. This is just upstream of Lake Merced and next to the High Sierra Camp. We spent at least 90 minutes here swimming, napping, and eating our dinner (beef stroganoff) for lunch. We considered spending the night but it's no fun roughing it next to people in canvas cabins with fireplaces.

Em and I both agree that this spot meets our strict requirements for a worthy swimming hole.

Downstream of Lake Merced the river and rock formed numerous swimming holes, this one in particular reminded both of us of the Stony Creek pools in the Sequoia National Forest.

An embarrassment of Lupin in Echo Valley. Here we encountered a junction where we could have continued to follow the Merced River to Little Yosemite Valley but instead opted for the more northerly route. For the most part it involved a lot of climbing and not so much in the way of scenery...

Except for this area here. The granite beyond fall smoothly away down the Merced River at least 1,000 feet below. I believe that the peak on the other side is Bunnell Point, elevation 8,193 feet.

Many hours after the previous photo was taken, a bit before 9 pm, we made camp at this spot. You'll have to wait a bit to see where we are.

Em gets an early morning smooch at our campsite. Note that my pillow consists of raingear stuffed in my underwear. Clearly I need to rethink the way in which I cushion my head.

We are standing on our campsite! Given the warm weather and full moon (still visible in the upper left corner) it was an amazing night. We didn't plan on getting up so early but the day hikers (they told us they left the valley around midnight) at the bottom of the cables woke us up. This shot was taken after I zipped up to the top and back; Em decided against attempting the cables.

As Em and I walked upright down the trail from Half Dome we encountered this father and daughter sitting on the rock. They asked us where the trail was and we said, in all sincerity, just the way we came. As Em's face shows, we were both quite shocked to see them head up the trail on all fours, a trail that we both just walked down without giving it a second thought. I wonder what they did when they reached the cables.

Down in Little Yosemite Valley Em points out the nub where we slept. Actually, the tip of her pole should be a bit higher.

Back in valley flashing gang signs. 4 for the approximate age of the baby (4.5 months to be specific) and 30 for the approximate number of miles we hiked (34.5 to be specific).

San Francisco Chronicle article on Half Dome: 7 July 2007 by Peter Fimrite

Yosemite National Park -- Scores of sweating hikers lugging backpacks and water bottles hung onto the cable handrails on the slope leading to the top of Half Dome, waiting for their turn to move.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" yelled one frustrated man, but the crowd on the cables didn't budge. It was midday on a Saturday, and the sun was beating down on the tired hikers, who were stalled in mid-climb.

The last 400 feet of the grueling 8.6-mile climb to the summit of the world-famous peak was like a holiday scene at a Disneyland ride -- a long line and a few thrills.

It was typical of a weekend summer day at the 8,842-foot top of Half Dome. Hikers wearing tennis shoes and sandals, city kids in baggy basketball garb, children, flabby tourists and the elderly were clambering around on the slick granite, where three people have tumbled to their death within the past year -- one of them just a few weeks ago.

The weekend menagerie at the top of Half Dome is a problem that many people believe is turning one of the world's signature hikes into a flirtation with death. Yosemite National Park officials acknowledge that the crowds are sometimes excessive but say there are no obvious solutions.

On this particular Saturday, two women panicked while trying to climb the cables and had to be helped down. A man suffering from dehydration was assisted down by a ranger, and a frightened, sobbing young boy was being urged on to the top by his father.

To bypass the crowd, one young man wearing Converse All Stars high tops began pulling himself up the 45- to 50-degree slope on the outside of the cables.

"I can't wear boots," replied the man after someone inside the cables questioned his sanity. "I get all clumsy in boots."

Some of the hikers had heard of the recent deaths on Half Dome, but few appeared to be concerned.

"Accidents happen," said Scott Mutch, 51, of Alta Loma (San Bernardino County), who climbed to the top with his 13-year-old son, Thomas, and 20 others in his Boy Scout troop. "You're in God's hands."

The trail to the summit of Half Dome is perhaps the most famous and scenic day hike in the United States. It gains 4,733 feet in elevation as it winds past two immense waterfalls, climbs steep switchbacks and teeters along 400 rock steps on a cliff to the backside of Half Dome. There, the final push up slippery smooth granite awaits, with only the cable handrails to prevent a slide into thin air.

The top of the climb scares plenty of people off the mountain. The immense summit looms above as hikers approach it; the people on the cables look like ants clinging to a vertical slope.

"Oh s -- ," said one hiker when he first glimpsed the dome. "You have to climb that?"

But the crowds keep coming. The number of weekend and holiday hikers on Half Dome has increased 30 percent since the mid-1990s, and concerns are mounting about frequent bottlenecks on the summit cables.

"I'm really surprised at the amount of people and the age groups that made it here," said Brian Floyd, 34, of Fresno as he waited at the bottom of the cables with dozens of others. "I've seen little kids and elderly people."

Blake Chapman of the West Marin hamlet of Woodacre said the cables, the crowd and his decision to wear Teva sandals instead of hiking boots had combined to make things very difficult.

"I'll never do this again, and I want to know whose idea it was," Chapman said only half-jokingly as he stood gasping with his friends on the top, his cowboy hat slightly askew. "I turned 61 yesterday, and this isn't a gift."

Some believe the bottleneck was at least partially responsible for the June 16 death of Hirofumi Nohara. The 37-year-old Japanese citizen lost his footing three-quarters of the way up the cables and slid off the side of Half Dome in front of dozens of horrified witnesses.

There was a 45-minute wait to ascend the cables at the time, and climbers going up and down were jostling past one another, according to witnesses.

It was the third fatal fall from the cables within the past year, but the crowds were clearly not a factor in the other two deaths, which occurred during off-peak months.

On April 19, Jennie Bettles, a 43-year-old businesswoman from Oakland, fell to her death while trying to descend during wet weather. Emily Sandall, 25, of New Mexico, died Nov. 10, 2006, after slipping on the wet granite. In both cases, the handrail supports and wooden foot planks had been taken out, and the cables were lying flat on the granite, standard practice during the off-season.

Last October, Scott Clancy of Fresno fell when he slipped on the wet granite and lost his hold on the cables, but his pants caught on something before he could plummet off the cliff, and he was saved.

The incidents have prompted calls for Yosemite to make the cables safer, either by regulating who goes up, requiring safety harnesses or adding a third cable. Park officials say no significant change can be made without a great deal of study, public hearings and evidence that spending the money would make the climb safer.

"We've only had the one fatality where other factors like bad weather didn't play a part, so there's no pattern," said ranger Adrienne Freeman, a park spokeswoman.

An average of about 12 people die in Yosemite each year, but the three people who died within the past year were the only ones to simply slip off the rocks at Half Dome in decades, Freeman said. Other deaths have been blamed on heart attacks, lightning strikes and parachute accidents.

In fact, more people have died being swept over Vernal and Nevada falls on the Mist Trail leading up to Half Dome. Drownings in the Merced River next to the trail also outnumber fatal falls from the iconic hunk of rock.

Still, it takes only one climb up the cables on a weekend to see what concerns people.

Planks are spaced about 12 feet apart underneath the cables, and on most weekend afternoons two people are standing on each one. The gridlock is especially hard on the unfortunate folks stranded on the steepest 50-yard section of the route, where getting caught between planks means holding onto the cables for dear life while trying to find a crack in which to wedge one's feet.

This is the spot where people regularly freeze up.

"I had vertigo," said Shea Keane, 31, of Vacaville, who climbed the cables with five friends. "Everything in my body was shaking. I felt like I was going to vomit."

Jen Zuzak, 34, of Berkeley, was so dizzy she had to sit down on one of the planks halfway up. She made it, she said, only because others on the cables encouraged her to continue.

Amal Mehta, 7, of San Jose, had a stunned look as he descended from the top with help from his father, Huzefa, and a climbing harness.

"I wasn't scared," he said, but his father quickly shot back, "Yes you were. I was scared."

"OK," Amal conceded. "A little bit."

As the logjam increased on the cables that Saturday, so did the chatter, mostly out of necessity as people negotiated which side to pass on while moving from plank to plank.

At one point a dropped water bottle bounced on the granite with a loud bop-bop. The hillside went silent as the hikers listened to it bounce and skitter for several hundred feet before going over a ledge into space.

"What surprises me is the lack of concern for safety," said Alan Henderson, a 40-year-old native of Scotland, who wore a harness and clipped himself onto the cable using metal hooks. "There are people up here with just tennis shoes. If you slip, you are a goner."

The colossal, rounded backside of Half Dome is not exactly vertical, but scaling it unaided would be impossible for anyone who is not an experienced rock climber. The summit was considered totally inaccessible until Oct. 12, 1875, when George Anderson drilled his way to the top, fastening his rope to iron eyebolts.

A few days later, Sally Dutcher became the first woman to climb Half Dome, using Anderson's fixed ropes. She was wearing a long dress, according to historians.

In 1919, the Sierra Club installed the steel cables. Scaling them has become almost a rite of passage for Yosemite visitors from around the world.

Royal Robbins, a legend among climbers and part of the team that made the first ascent of Half Dome's 2,000-foot northwest face in 1957, once descended the back side of the rock next to the cables without using his hands.

"One can, if you are careful, stick to that particular surface with good rubber," Robbins said this week of his gravity-defying feat on June 24, 1961.

It is perhaps because of stories like that, and a general impression that scaling Half Dome is not overly difficult, that so many people come ill-prepared for the rigors of the climb.

There are signs about the dangers along the trail. But there are almost always people at the top who have run out of water, are too exhausted to continue, lack proper footwear or are simply paralyzed with fear.

Every year, people have to be taken out by helicopter, rescue workers say.

"We are seeing a change in the pattern of visitor behavior up there," Freeman said. "What this tells us is that we have to start asking some questions. Are more people driving to Yosemite in the morning and trying to climb Half Dome in a day? Are people coming prepared? Are they acclimated? Are they rushing because of time limitations?"

Next year, Yosemite plans to start collecting data on the various impacts, including crowding, on the Merced River corridor, which includes Half Dome and the trail leading to it. That could lead to new policies, but any major changes would have to be accompanied by legislation. That could very well face opposition from environmental groups, climbers, naturalists or wilderness advocates, Freeman said.

In the meantime, park visitors will have to get up extremely early or endure the crowds if they want a transcendent view from the top of Half Dome of the cathedral of nature that is Yosemite Valley.

"I'm not real big on heights," said Shelly Jones, a 28-year-old geography teacher from Virginia, as she looked out wide-eyed from the peak. "But this is about the biggest rush I've ever had."

Making the trip

Besides good physical condition, the day hike to Half Dome requires preparation and equipment. Here are some tips on what to bring:

  • Water bottles or canteens and plenty of water. Backpackers recommend bringing half a gallon to a gallon.
  • Water purifier pills or a water filter so you can refill empty water bottles with stream water.
  • Lunch food, energy bars, trail mix.
  • Gloves made of leather or with dimples on the palms for a good grip on the summit cables.
  • Small first-aid kit.
  • Bandanna to wet face in streams and soak up sweat.
  • Sunscreen and hat.
  • Small flashlight in case it gets dark.
  • Lightweight hiking boots with rugged soles that will stick on granite.
  • Lightweight windbreaker.
  • Small backpack or waist pack to carry everything.

Deaths on Half Dome

  1. June 16, 2007: Hirofumi Nohara, a 37-year-old Japanese citizen, lost his footing three-quarters of the way up the summit cables, slid off the side of Half Dome and tumbled 300 feet to a ledge.
  2. April 19, 2007: Jennie Bettles, a 43-year-old businesswoman from Oakland, fell to her death while trying to descend during wet weather while the cables were down.
  3. Nov. 10, 2006: Emily Sandall, 25, of New Mexico, slipped on the wet granite while the cables were down, lost her grip on the cables and fell 300 feet to her death.
  4. June 23, 2004: Donald Cochrane, 48, of Saratoga, was hiking down from Half Dome on the rock steps when he complained of chest pain and fell, tumbling 300 feet on granite slabs to his death.
  5. Aug. 29, 1995: Michael Gerde, 57, of Huntington Beach (Orange County), collapsed of heart failure while ascending the cables, lost his grip and fell.
  6. Oct. 23, 1988: Mitchell Reno, 35, of Antioch, base-jumped off the top of Half Dome, but his parachute did not open until a split second before he hit, 2,000 feet below.
  7. July 27, 1985: Brian Jordan, 16, of Hayward, and Robert Frith, 25, of Mountain View, and two others were struck by lightning as they sought shelter from a sudden storm on the summit. Jordan was killed instantly, but Frith, who was hit in the forehead, went into convulsions and rolled off the summit, falling 1,800 feet.
  8. Aug. 4, 1982: James Tyler, 35, a professional stunt parachutist from La Puente (Los Angeles County), jumped from the top of Half Dome, but his parachute cartwheeled, slamming him repeatedly into the cliff face before his canopy caught on a ledge and folded, sending him plummeting 600 feet to the talus.
  9. Aug. 27, 1972: Edward Willems, 19, of Greenbrae, sought cover from the rain under an overhanging rock on the summit of Half Dome and was struck by lightning.
  10. Sept. 15, 1948: Paul Garinger, 41, of Burlingame, toppled 1,000 feet while trying to descend the cables.
  11. July 9, 1948: Chalmers Groff, 19, of Washington, D.C., slipped while trying to climb down mossy rocks below the face of Half Dome.

Most of information from "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite," by Michael Ghiglieri and Charles Farabee Jr.