The next morning, she dropped me off at Curry Village campground (the very same campground where 3 people recently died from the Han-tu virus contracted from mice urine in tents) just before 5 AM. We were meeting friends in Napa Valley for the balance of our vacation that afternoon, and I had a limited time window to get to the top. The guidebooks and online info, all said it is a full day hike, 10-12 hours at a minimum, But I had also found that the all-time record is under 3 hours. I figured I would try to do it in 5-6 hours, with 3+ up and 2+ coming down. I told Sandra I would be back by 11 AM at the latest and would meet her at Ahwahnee lodge where we had dinner the night before. I fretted over my supplies, making sure everything was just so; until Sandra pointed out that several people had gone by on the trail and were building a lead on me. I had vowed to be the first person at the cables that morning, and now that was in jeopardy. Sandra's prompt worked, and off I went.
The first mile up to Happy Isles is a gentle incline and I trotted along at a slow pace. But the trail turned steeply uphill after that, and I was reduced to walking for much of the climb. Yosemite Valley itself is around 4,000 feet in elevation, and the 8 mile climb to Half-Dome ascends 4,800 feet to 8,800. I tried to balance giddy exuberance against relentless forward progress. Just a couple miles up the trail, it splits. You can take the longer, but less steep John Muir Trail, or proceed on the shorter, steeper Mist Trail, which as the name implies, takes you through the shadow of two waterfalls. I took the Mist Trail as planned and reached the first of the falls, still in the pitch black after passing a number of hikers (I WILL be first up). Vernal Falls drop 317 feet, and from below are fantastic, even in the deep gloom of night. The series of stone stairs carved in the rock face to the right was one long quad-burning session to reach the top. I paused at the top to remove my long sleeve shirt that was now drenched in sweat, despite the below 50 degree temps.
When I started back up again, I got a little mixed up. I struggled for a few minutes to find the trail above the falls, and when a bridge crossed over the Merced River, I was sure I was in the wrong place. I was (mistakenly) certain the trail stayed on the right side of the falls. When the second waterfall, Nevada Falls came into view ahead I was sure (but still mistaken) I was in the wrong place. I humped back downhill 10 minutes, fretting I had lost ground on other hikers. I crossed back over the bridge and embarked on what turned out to be the Clark Trail which bisects the other two trails between the falls. But it wasn’t until I reach the top of Nevada Falls that I was sure of my mistake. Now, I had added at least a mile or two to my journey, and endangered my total time. I had committed to turning around at 3.5 hours, whether I had reached the top or not. Fortunately, the next couple miles around the back side of Half-Dome were a shallower ascent and somewhat runnable. I passed a few backpackers breaking camp after their breakfast, and their compliments on running only spurred me to go faster. I stopped once to get a good shot of the dome in the early dawn light.
By now, I was approaching 7,000 feet and being to really work for oxygen intake. I pushed forward as best I could, but there was less and less running. Finally, I reached “The Stairs”, a series of switchbacks up the north shoulder of the dome. For all intents and purposes, it was a continuous series of stone stairs dynamited into the mountain (you could still see the drill holes for the blasts in places). Now I was really sucking air. I had to stop every 2-3 minutes and let my heart calm down. It would beat so hard, at times, I felt like a drum was beating in my head. I got dizzy once, and swayed backwards as I made a turn on a switchback. I caught my balance and bent over for a minute, cursing myself for being careless. I knew a fall could mean a broken ankle or leg. When I stood back up, I look over my shoulder to see how bad the fall would have been. Which is when I realized I was standing at the top of a 500 foot precipice.
No broken leg here, it would have been Over. I chuckled at the near miss and headed on up. Finally I reached the top of the stairs and the base of The Cables. I was disappointed to find no ranger in waiting. What did I need a lottery pass for? I hid my handhelds in a crevice and prepared to make the final climb with just my camelbak. The 400 foot ascent to the top goes up what varies between a 45 and 60 degree slope. It is aided by cables which are fixed by bolts in the rock and raised on three foot metal poles placed every dozen feet or so. There are no safety harnesses, no safety net, in fact, little regard for personal welfare at all. Amazingly, only 6 people have died falling from the cables in the 93 years since they were installed. I watched several backpackers descending (who had camped halfway up the mountain the night before, and so by definition, had not beaten me to the top that morning) and marveled that the federal government didn’t worry more about its liability here. The only thing I could compare it to for risk factor was the Haiku Stairs in Oahu (which should also be on everyone’s bucket list. The stairs have been closed for years due to safety considerations, and thus illegal to climb. But the view from the top was well worth the climbing chain link and barb wire fences, hiking thru dense, unmarked bamboo forest, and risking life and limb on metal stairs made slick from moisture by frequent passing clouds. http://www.haikustairs.com or http://www.friendsofhaikustairs.org )
I tried to use good form going up, always making sure one hand was in contact with a cable at all times. I don’t know if it was the strength required to pull up the incline, the lack of oxygen, excitement, or fear; but my heart raced around 200 bpm the whole way up. It was a riveting experience. When I reached the top, there was just one other person on the far side of the dome, and he descended a few minutes later. For nearly 20 minutes, I stood on what felt like the roof of Yosemite enjoying the panoramic views in every direction. I refueled for the first time with a granola bar and walked out onto the ledge of rock called “The Visor”, below which there is a 3,000 foot drop.
Amazingly, I had cell reception (I never bring a cell phone with me when running, not ever. Running in the woods is my one respite from the responsibilities of the real world, no one can reach me out there. But I had brought it this time to show my lottery pass to the ranger who wasn’t there.) , I assume because I had direct line of sight to the lodges nearly one mile below. I couldn’t reach Sandra by phone, but sent her a text that I would be late. It had taken me 3 ½ hours to ascend, I was taking my time at the top, and I knew I needed at least 2 hours to get down. I called my daughter Rebecca, and gushed whatever nonsense you tell your child when you’re sitting on top of the world. Soon I was headed back down The Cables, and then The Stairs, passing the ever growing number of hikers coming the other way. Once out of the stairs, I was determined to take the downhill as hard as my quads would let me. I turned a corner, and a ranger stepped out to intercept me to verify my lottery pass (the assumption being if I was above him in the morning, I needed a pass). When he told me how amazed hikers always were of people running the trail, my pace only picked up from there. As I descended, I stopped briefly to take pictures of a doe and her fawn who had zero fear of me,
And even caught a rainbow at the bottom of Vernal Falls.
Towards the bottom, my quads were absolutely screaming and my breathing was ragged, but I never stumbled (no horse manure). I ran all the downhill sections, but promised myself I’d walk every uphill, no matter how brief. As I came across the bridge below Vernal Falls, I saw a steep uphill which I remembered from the darkness hours earlier. Here would be my 2-3 minute respite of walking. Just then, with dozens of onlookers, the leader of some hiking group yelled out from beside the trail, “Great job dude! Rock-On!” My peripheral vision told me everyone had turned to watch, and I was left with no choice. I sprinted the uphill until I turned a corner and was luckily out of sight in time to stop running before I needed to vomit. I made a wrong turn down in the valley and almost went to Mirror Lake by mistake. But eventually I found the lodge, and then Sandra. Almost 21 miles in 6:48 with over 5,000 feet of elevation change and numerous unusual challenges. I highly (is there a word stronger than highly?) recommend this run to anyone who gets the chance. This wasn’t just one of my best runs ever, this ranks high on my list of “Life events”.