Snakes and Ladders

Back down from Glacier Point in the early predawn hours, I caught a few hours sleep and then started up the trail for Half Dome. I knew I wanted to photograph the night view from the top of Half Dome. But my plans were not quite clear. I thought I might come down after photographing and catch Nevada and Vernal Falls by star light.

On the other hand, once darkness fell I might be stuck on Half Dome for the night. So I brought some warm clothes, some power bars, and my head lamp in my camera backpack.

A funny feeling: all the abstract, advance planning for this moment of starting out. The hordes of tourists diminish as I head upstream, up the Merced River. They’re thick to the Vernal Falls bridge, and pretty thick up the Mist Trail. Muggles with cell phones and iPods in the wilderness. What’s the point of being in the wilderness if you can’t break the electronic umbilicus?

There are fewer people above Vernal Falls and on up to Nevada Falls. Above Nevada Falls the human flood dimishes to a trickle along the Merced in Little Yosemite. This is a tough trail, tough enough to discourage anyone out of shape or not really motivated.

By the banks of the Merced, I strip off my hiking boots and shirt, and cool off in the river. I drain my water bottle, and pump a new bottle for the treck up to Half Dome, and maybe so I can have water overnight.

I just finish pumping when I look around and see a few feet from me, slithering over my hat, and between me and my camera bag, a rattlesnake. The snake is about three feet long, handsome, with viper head, beady eye, and rattles. We look at each other. Then he waves his tail and slowly coils into the underbrush.

Partially fueled with adrenaline from my snake encounter, I head up the dusty switchbacks. This is a long, steady climb. At last I reach the top of the ridge. Turning back east on the ridge, a combination of stone staircase and glaciated granite shelves head up the dome that leads along to Half Dome. At last I reach the bottom of the notorious cable ladder up Half Dome.

This ladder goes up roughly five hundred feet. It’s constructed using metal poles stuck into the rock every twenty feet or so apart. A wood cross piece goes at the bottom at each set of poles, and metal cables go through holes in the top of each pole, roughly at armpit height if one were perpendicular to the rock face of Half Dome. The trick to climbing the thing is to use your upper body strength to wedge yourself as far out from the cliff as possible, so that you can more or less walk up if you’ve balanced it right. Worth noting: the climb isn’t made any easier if you are carrying twenty-odd pounds of camera and tripod gear.

The sun is setting. Looking up the cable ladder, it’s darn clear to me that once on top, and after the sun had gone down, I’ll be on top as long as night lasts. No way am I coming down that thing in the dark. Taking a deep breath, I head up (stay tuned for my adventures on the top).

The photo that illustrates this story shows the east face of Half Dome and the ladder lit by the rising sun. I had just safely come down the ladder. Standing looking back, I met the first hikers of the day coming up from the valley (you can make it up shortly after sunrise if you leave the valley about midnight).

They told me about Hirofumi Nohara, who had slipped off the Half Dome ladder a few days before, and bounced down about 300 feet and over the side towards Yosemite Valley. Nohara is one of three people who died on the Half Dome ladder in the last year.

I feel really bad about Nohara’s accident, although I’m glad I didn’t learn about it until I was off Half Dome.

It’s easy to see how the accident could have happened. Although I had Half Dome to myself, on summer weekends the cable ladders are solid lines of people. It’s an easy guess that many people going up Half Dome don’t have proper gear, particularly good boots.

You also have to figure that part of the point of wilderness travel is that it is inherently somewhat dangerous. For example, see this story about hiker Hyundo Ahn, missing in the Sierras a few years back. No one knows what happened to him.

At its best, a good hike is part exercise and part mystical experience. And the mystical experience cannot be, as C.S. Lewis put it, a “tame lion” or it becomes inauthentic.

I really don’t know how the Park Service is going to resolve this one, although I’d imagine they aren’t going to allow such a dangerous situation to persist indefinitely. Still, if we lose the ability to climb Half Dome on our own terms, we’ve lost something important. Hazards such as the Half Dome cable ladder, and even venomous snakes, are part of the reason we visit the wilderness.

Related stories: Half Dome by Starlight; Midnight Rambles.

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