Yosemite's Half Dome an epic hike

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Yosemite's Half Dome an epic hike

Post by ERIC » Tue May 30, 2006 9:59 pm

Yosemite's Half Dome an epic hike

Published: May 26, 2006

Brian Ward, trail crew supervisor at Yosemite National Park, picks up his radio and delivers a brief, yet long-anticipated message.

"Yosemite 627," he signals a park dispatcher in El Portal. "Half Dome's cables are up for the season."

Clipped into the cables with prusik knots and carabiners, the trail crew works from the bottom up installing the lower half of the cables.
Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2006, The Union Democrat

A small crowd gathered at the base of the cables Wednesday afternoon clapped and congratulated the 10-person crew that had just installed the last of 142 posts, which make climbing the cables safer and easier.

The cables extend up Half Dome's especially steep granite shoulder, giving access to the 8,842-foot summit and to unparalleled views of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding snow-capped Sierra Nevada.

Getting to the top is one of the park's ultimate day hikes.

The challenging 16.4-mile, round-trip route starts along the John Muir Trail at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. Hikers then follow the popular Mist Trail, which passes by heavy-flowing Vernal and Nevada falls.

Then it's off to Little Yosemite Valley — about half way up the trail. A few miles later, hikers reach hundreds of steps along narrow switchbacks that lead to the base of the cables.

Hiking heaven

Half Dome has long been a symbol of the park.

Yosemite sells "I climbed Half Dome" T-shirts, the granite dome is featured on the sign welcoming tourists to Groveland and it's even pictured on the state's quarter.

A notebook that people have signed on Half Dome's summit contains a sampling of the diverse people who make the trek to the top of the famous granite face.

Notes ranged from the spiritual: "Praise be to the Almighty God for his awesome and glorious creation!" To the grateful: "What a blessing to be at the top of the world with my family. Life doesn't get much better." To the just plain silly: "I had sex on the top of Half Dome. Woopie!!"

About a dozen people from as close as Sacramento to as far away as Spain waited patiently for the cables to go up Wednesday.

After watching the trail crew hang on the cables for hours, the group of all ages and body types began marching single file up to the top.

One of the first people to climb the cables this year was Grant Neckermann, a recent college graduate who helps start up new college fraternities around the country.

"I told everybody in my office I'm climbing Half Dome so I better come back with a story," the Indianapolis resident said, explaining why he sat for six hours to climb the cables.

Hiking Half Dome is not for everyone.

Yosemite emergency crews typically respond to sprained ankles and dehydrated hikers along the trail. Sometimes, there's even a death.

"It's generally precipitated by something else," Yosemite spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said of fatalities along the trail.

Two years ago, someone had a heart attack on or near the cables, she said.

There have also been lightning-related deaths and rock climbing fatalities on Half Dome.

A woman who hurt her ankle while climbing the cables three years ago is now suing the park.

Before the cables were put up on the posts Wednesday, a couple attempted to climb the dome. About a third of the way up, they turned around. When they returned to the base, the woman was crying.

The first person to climb Half Dome was George Anderson, a native of Scotland who worked in Yosemite Valley as a guide and trail builder, park records show.

Anderson first accomplished the feat on Oct. 12, 1875. Four days later, he led a group of six tourists to the dome, two of whom made it to the top.

Rope was used to pull people up to the top of Half Dome until the Sierra Club bought the first cables in 1919.

Throughout the decades, the cables, posts and footboards have been replaced several times. The cables that are now used were installed in the 1980s.

‘Gnarley cables'

Over the course of several hours Wednesday, trail workers installed 71 sets of posts, and put wooden footboards about every 10 feet up the dome's shoulder.

The easygoing crew of 10 workers — five from the National Park Service and five from the California Conservation Corps — spent Tuesday night camping in Little Yosemite Valley.

After a 6 a.m. breakfast of blueberry-mango oatmeal, sausage and bagels, the group headed up to install the cables.

Crew members — mostly in their 20s and about half with facial piercings — live throughout the country.

Typically, the cables are put on posts at the end of May, just in time for the throng of park visitors who come for the Memorial Day weekend.

On busy summer days, the cables often become gridlocked. There can be quite a crowd on top, even with some people talking on their cell phones.

Half Dome's cables were put up late — in mid-June — last year because of a heavy snowpack and because someone had burned some of the footboards, presumably for firewood.

The rods holding the cables up are removed each October, and the cables lay against the dome's shoulder during the stormy winter months.

Two thick wire ropes, commonly referred to as the cables, run more than 600 feet along the dome.

With summer on its way, the trail crew began by clearing out the posts' holes, filled with water, dirt and rocks.

They then put in posts, which are stored at the base, the top and the middle of the climb during the off season.

There are three different size rods, which vary depending on the cut of the rock and the angle of the slope.

A cap is screwed off from the top of the posts and the cable placed inside before a crew member uses a large wrench to tighten the cap back on.

The posts are then lifted and wooden footboards placed below them.

"It's not necessarily easy," said Ward, a friendly guy with a ponytail who has helped put up the cables off and on for the past 20 years.

Installers use sturdy, box-framed backpacks that help carry posts and boards to harder-to-reach spots.

Trail crews wear climbing harnesses and are safely attached to the cables while working in pairs.

The crew was all smiles after their mission was complete.

"That was like the funnest job I ever did," said Alicia Medina, a crew member from Southern California.

Even after hours of putting up the cables, crew members Brian England and Jessica Yeatts couldn't resist another climb to the summit.

The cables are a popular topic in the notebook at the top.

One entry read, "Made summit in 5 1/2 hours. 1st time to Yosemite. Gnarley cables!"

Another note, written by a little boy, said, "I've completed the cableway to heaven for the second time and it's even better then the first because this time ... I used yellow gloves!"

Gloves can usually be found at the base of the cables, however, park staff has been more strict about keeping a mound of tattered gloves away from the bottom.

Looking straight up the cables, the climb seems more realistic than the view further down the trail — where hikers look like tiny ants on a vertical cliff.

"As you get closer you see that it is possible. You just take it one step at a time," said Sonora resident Gini Seibert, who most recently climbed Half Dome last June.

Seibert, who jokingly refers to herself as an "active senior," said each of the eight times she's hiked to the top of the dome, her childhood fear of heights lessens.

"It's always a rush — you're on the side of a rock hanging on. I just try to stay focused," she said. "One of these days, I'm going to look down while I'm climbing up."

Contact Mike Morris at mmorris@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4537.

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