This is the story of that trip to Yosemite Josh and I took. There are edits I'd really like to make, but I'll stop myself and leave it as it was originally distributed to friends and family 8 years ago. I wrote the original story (in regular type), then Josh added to it (in italics), then our friend Scott added in his thoughts (in bold). I'm burying this back at the beginning of the blog because that's where it rightfully belongs and because it's so long and I don't want to clog up the current posts by just posting it.
Hi all. Last weekend I took another trip to Yosemite. One day, Josh Hill, Scott Swetnam, and I climbed Snake Dike--up the backside of Half Dome. We had planned on 3-4 hours of approach, 3-4 hours of climbing, and 3-4 hours of descent. Josh managed to get us up by 4:30am to start an adventure none of us had intended. Here's the story of it.
Howdy, this would be josh.
So it was a good idea at the time when I proposed it. Everybody seemed to be in agreement that it would be a long hike but worth it when we reached the top. Now I am banned from planning climbing related adventures.
Hi, Scott here.
Kimberly Eneks took the time, very shortly after arriving home, to write down the thoughts and experiences she had on our “Let’s go to Yosemite and climb Half Dome, I found this really cool route” climbing adventure. Thank you Joshua. Actually, that’s not fair. (Kimberly and I promised to give Josh a lifetime of grief, and vowed never to let him come up with the basic frame work for any future trips; so, it is my duty to continue that which has already begun). We were all willing participants, skilled in our activity of choice, and very eager to accept this challenge. We did our research, practiced our skills, developed a plan, and made our preparations so that we could climb the 5.7R, Snake Dike route up to the top of Half Dome. I should point out that I am writing these words, after several days rest, because I thought it would be: 1) interesting to add my experiences and recollections, of the same event, to Kimberly’s, 2) helpful in identifying “lessons learned”, and 3) fun. So, here in all of it’s glory, or lack there of, are the combined recollections and comments of the events, which occurred on July 23rd, 2002. The names have not been changed. (We have all, already been blabbing, and claiming this adventure as ours…so what would be the point of starting this story with “Dude, I heard about this group of climbers…”).
We woke up around 4:30am on Tuesday morning. Stumbling through the dark, trying to fish our food out of the bear box without waking up the entire camp, we had no idea we were starting our very own Yosemite epic. We drove to the trailhead and as we strapped our gear on our backs, we were all pumped up for this climb. Pumped would be an understatement, on our way back to the car the next morning no one remembered it taking this long on the hike in. All the guides said it was six miles, about 3-4 hours, to the climb, and then another nine miles to hike back down after the climb. The guide actually says “3-4 hours for the approach, 3-4 hours for the climb, and 3-4 hours for the decent”. So, that’s 12 hours, plus a few for fudge factor, makes 15: 4:30am plus 15 equals 7:30pm…cool, “Let’s go”. We were prepared for this--we had all planned on a moderate climb surrounded by "very strenuous" hiking. We packed in enough water to get us to the waterfalls and a water filter, and started up the trail by the light of our headlamps. Though the gear became increasingly heavy, the ropes increasingly bothersome, and the water increasingly scarce, we made it to the top of Nevada falls in excellent time. “What a gorgeous hike past two incredible waterfalls…I bet they’re even prettier when the sun is out”. Our legs were tired, but we were in good spirits and psyched about climbing to the top of Half Dome. We sat down and broke out the water filter---filled our stomachs and then all of our nalgenes and water bladders.
It was at this time that I gained the nickname “Mr. Enduroman”, not really sure what happened but I gained my second, third and fourth wind all at the same time. It felt like I was floating over the terrain. I had to stop and wait for Kim and Scott several times. This feeling lasted for several hours and when it was gone I don’t remember crashing back down.
We left the falls with seven liters and significantly more weight to carry. It was less than an hour later that the climber's trail branched out from what we called the "people of the path" trail. It was only now that we learned what "very strenuous" actually meant. We had a faint, but definite trail for another mile or so. For the “use, and enjoyment”, of the Yosemite park staff, there is a workout facility located in the park. Weight machines, stationary bikes, and a stair-step machine are all housed in a portable building which has a spectacular view of motor pool filled with dead, busted, and rusted park vehicles. We walked along a fabulous trail, and ascended some 2200 vertical feet…did I miss something somewhere? We hit Lost Lake--actually more of a marshy swamp--where Josh proclaimed, "if I was a moose, this would be heaven". All semblance of a trail disappeared. There were cairns to follow--the problem being that you could see up to seven at any given point and they all led in different directions. We consulted our topo (which said skirt the slabs, so we walked a straight path to the base and started walking…well sliding and scrambling) and directions that only said there was some bush whacking and exposed fourth-class slabs involved. We could see Half Dome looming above us, so we just did our best to follow where we saw little vegetation and the faint traces of old footsteps. The whole time we were losing altitude and looking for any sign of human activity that would have recently passed through. I felt like a tracker looking for broken branches, foot-prints, litter, anything.
We eventually got to a point where we couldn't move more than three or four feet without the gear getting snagged in trees. We had to move up the slabs. No pro, no ropes---and they weren't kidding when they said exposed. Whoever thought this was fourth class was off their rocker though. Some parts of this trail were definitely 5.7 territory--maybe harder. We had planned on being at the base of the climb by 8:30, maybe 9am. Remember when we stopped to fill our water containers at the top of the falls, yep, 8:30, or maybe 9am. Sometime around noon, 10:30 to 11:00 with the sun beating down and the water running low, we finally found what the guide called "sandy switchbacks". We were once again on the trail, but sandy switchbacks really meant big, steady looking rocks that came loose with the slightest pull, tons of dead pine needles, and a feeling that at any second your foot might go sliding right off sending you careening back down to the very far away bottom of this peak. Feeling a bit dizzy, I sat down for a rest. We rested many times trying to look for the “right” way to go. We are all sipping water less and less, realizing the situation we are in. Contemplated eating the second of my three power bars---knowing I'd regret it later. Sipped at precious water trying to find the balance between dehydration now, and dehydration later. “This is bad”, and yes, I read your mind. This is the point where I remembered that ‘Murphy’ is a very patient, and opportunistic fellow. Thoughts of bailing danced around my brain, enticing me with thoughts of camp 4 and the cold Merced River I could find below. Trouble with this climb was that the only way to bail was to go up---to climb to the top and take the hiker's trail down. There was no safe, feasible way to turn back from here. A bit of shade and a cool wind sent us once again on our way.
We finally reached the base of the climb around 1pm, maybe later. We were too tired to care too much about the time. That, and we all understood we were committed no matter how long it took. It is a feeling I had not known before, that the easiest way down is not retreat but to actually finish. I finally indulged in that power bar. We had drunk all but three liters of water---enough for us each to carry one up the climb. We put on harnesses and gear, flaked ropes, and stood at the base looking up. At this point, we were wondering why this was suddenly the climb while the approach was just a hike---this looked just as easy, if not easier than the stuff we'd just walked up. It really was, there is a picture of me posing, actually laying down, frolicking on the rock, enjoying not having to bush-whack anymore. Ok. So, we have used all of our fudge factor, and then some, …ETA back to Camp 4 is now 11:30pm…cool, “Let’s go”. We had no bivy gear, no clothes that would have been really safe to sleep in at this altitude, where the temps dropped dramatically at night, so time was an issue---Josh took off to lead the first pitch. Remember how I told you that the climbing guide said”3-4 hours for the climb”? Well, that estimate is based on two climbers…add one climber, double your climbing/belaying time… ETA back to Camp 4 is now 3:30am…crap, “Let’s go”.
The climb was a nice break from the pain of the day---easy climbing, fun times at the belays, and a sense of accomplishment. Despite Josh's short-lived illness and dropping a power bar, a bandana, and an expensive pocketknife, we were enjoying ourselves. In case you missed it, a lot of things happened during that last sentence. At this point, I can safely say that Joshua and I were thankful for the following things: someone invented the drop seat climbing harness, baggies come assorted, useful sizes, and chalk bags can hold more than just chalk. I am additionally thankful for Josh’s comfort level related to “movements” while on rock, and his good aiming skills. Josh thought that Kimberly, and I, were going to be paparazzi like opportunists and try to catch him “with his pants down”. Kimberly, and I, never looked up: one, we could be hit by something falling from the sky, of a substance and size, that hasn’t fallen from the sky since the time of giant, prehistoric birds; and B), we knew we would be seeing the full moon before too much longer anyway.
The bandana, and what was left of a Power Bar, falling was interesting, but the knife was impressive. Dropped gear is a reality of climbing and I am very glad that no one was below us on the route, but like I said, it was impressive. It just kept falling… and falling… eight one thousand, nine one thousand, …damn! I like to think that my knife, like Excalibur, is buried to it’s hilt, in some rock at the base of Half Dome, waiting for some worthy individual to come and claim it. Again, I am very thankful that someone wasn’t, down there waiting for Excalibur to arrive.
So, since no one else wants to tell about the climb, I will. Starts with a 5.7 slab that was actually quite enjoyable. That was also my first 5.7 trad lead. What a way to initiate a new grade.
The second pitch was a bitch. Traverse right 30 feet, place a .5 cam, climb up 100 feet, clipping two bolts along the way, traverse back left 20 feet clip a bolt, continue traversing 20 more feet to the anchors. Make an anchor and back traverse to the last bolt to unclip it lessening the pendulum for the second. Lets just say this whole pitch was a test of my patience with all the rope drag since I was screaming and cussing the whole time about needing slack. Oh yah, this is still all slab and on the last traverse there is zippo for your hands, nary a crystal in sight, just palm the rock for balance. My nerves were on end at that point. From here on out you are on “the dike” which is a rib of rock that juts out about a foot and is two feet wide in places. The dike reminds me of a dog breed called a rhodesion ridge back. The rock is full of pockets and chicken heads that make the climbing almost mindlessly easy. Although with the 150-foot run-outs my mind was amazingly focused.
Third pitch was my sickness pitch. The three of us had a heart to heart about the situation we were in. I was feeling really sick from my body going into dehydration mode and because I had to take a crap. So I fished a couple of zip locks out of the pack, thank you Scott, and made my way to the third belay. I could see Kim and Scott below as I did my business thinking the whole time a camera would appear for a papparazzi shot or two.
Once I did the fourth pitch my mood changed because we were more that half way through the climbing and I realized we would make it after all. Up till this point I had been going through various scenarios about SAR coming in to rescue 3 gumby climbers stuck on 5.7 snake dike. That embarrassment alone was enough to keep me going.
I soloed pitch 7 and 8 by tying in short while Scott belayed Kim, to speed things up a bit, they are only 5.3 and I really wanted to be done and off that rock.
On the topo for this climb, the route suddenly stops, after eight pitches on a 60m rope, and it says, "third class slabs forever". Forever is roughly equivalent to a thousand feet, and by this point we were down to half a liter of water and were so tired that it was a struggle the whole way. I started counting steps—the most I could do at once was fifty.
I preferred to climb to the beat of songs playing on the jukebox in my head: “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch, who watches over you? Make a little birdhouse in your soul”, or …”guess that’s how Engin’ Joe got his name, he cooks beef in a barbeque stand, ever since the day that he mangled his hand. He just keeps on smok’n cigarettes and briskets man. IIIIIIIIII ain’t joke’n”. (Thanks J.) The key here was to keep setting intermediate goals, and keep yourself moving. “If there is a large mountain that you must climb, it doesn’t do you any good to stand at the bottom doing nothing”. – Unknown. The rock began to level out, we realized what we thought was just another false summit was actually the real thing, and the sun was just beginning to set.
To the west, the sun was disappearing, bathing all the rock we were on and could see to our East in a gorgeous orange light. To the east, a full moon was rising. We reached the top forgetting all our troubles--we felt great, we had conquered our own physical limitations and reached some sort of uneasy compromise with the rock. We watched the moon come up, took the obligatory summit shots, and walked to the edge to peer down. I could hear my friends that were on the regular route right now. Later, back at camp, I found out from a member of their group that bailed two pitches up that their approach was just as bad as ours--probably worse since they had planned on a three-day affair and carried the gear for it. They seemed to be having a good enough time for now though. The temperature was quickly dropping and the wind at the peak was horrendous, rendering our thin pants and shirts useless against the cold. We had to go down before it got any later. Half Dome time…9 o’clock…temperature…darn chilly!
There were the three of us and one other soul on half dome then. It’s not often you get to be alone on that particular piece of rock.
We found the cables and started sliding down them. At the bottom of the cables, we had no food, no water, and nine miles to get back to the car. At the bottom of the cables that other person that was on half dome offered us his water after hearing what we had been going through. Thank you for the kind gesture. We started down the endless steps down little dome. Toward the bottom, I heard a slide behind me followed by "Shit!" uh oh---Scott had slipped. I turned back to see him sitting on the ground, with his leg out stretched. (The leg with a knee that has a tendency to dislocate). I went toward him with my mind racing.... there’s no way Josh and I could get him back, we had no water to leave him. Mike, down at camp 4, was the only one expecting us back, would he call SAR if we didn't turn up tomorrow? Fortunately, a few curse words later, and with a little help, Scott stood up and continued on the trek. I don’t know if other climbers suffer from a similar affliction, but I seem to have a difficult time traversing relatively flat terrain. Fortunately, due in part to a lifetime of practice, I have mastered the art of the tuck and roll, and the only thing bruised was my ego. The relief I felt gave me a short-lived burst of energy. We got to the trees, where it was strangely humid and oppressively hot. We still had about three or four miles to the nearest water. My hips went numb from the weight I was carrying, the numbness dissolved into a burning pain that nothing would relieve. I switched the weight completely onto my shoulders and plodded along, stumbling over rocks in the path and eyes going blurry from occasional tears that seeped out. After what seemed like forever, we finally reached the water. We broke out the filter and started filling the nalgenes. I quickly chugged half a liter trying to relieve my thirst. Being on top of a waterfall, with no windbreak, in the dark is not the place to chug cold water. I don’t know about Kimberly, but after drinking about a liter of very cold, filtered river water, Josh and I experienced very strong, full body shivers. Talk about rapid cooling of the of the body’s core temperature!. It feels like breaking a fever and happened within 30 seconds of drinking all that water and was gone in about 5 minutes. WOW. We were all soon freezing, and huddled behind a small boulder to escape the wind and take a short rest. Someone asked what time it was--12: 30am. There were still 4 miles to go. We were all still shivering, and beginning to doze off, so we loaded up all the gear and got moving again.
We opted for the slightly longer, much easier John Muir trail from this point. All of the headlamps, except my Tikka, finally flickered out, and we stumbled along by the moon light, tripping over rocks, wishing we could just lie down and sleep, but not stopping. More than once I wondered why a squirrel or lizard wasn't moving out of my way only to discover it was a rock. When Scott walked up on a deer, he thought it was just another trick his brain was playing until it finally leapt up a wall. I don’t know if was so much “tricks of the brain”, as it was what do we do know. Here we are on a trail, cut into the side of a steep mountain, and a very large, startled animal was blocking our progress. The whole march down from Nevada falls was done on auto-pilot. Just placing one foot in front of the other, repeat. We plodded along, wondering just how long we had walked this trail the morning before and if we were in fact in the right place. When we finally got to the car and turned it on, we checked the time--4:08. I managed to fall asleep before we even got back to camp 4. Knowing there was the smell of food on everything we'd taken that day, we chucked all of our gear in a bear box and crawled into the tents to fall asleep.
By 8am, the camp was awake and ready for another day, and there was no way we could escape the noise and stay asleep. We stumbled outside for breakfast, and Mike came to check on us, "Dude! I was gonna call the rangers if y'all weren't back yet--we had an awesome party last night, we were saving beer for you". We told our story, and rehashed the funny, and not so funny parts of it for everyone as we dumped and sorted our gear. A short breakfast and we were ready to climb in the car and get home. I managed to sleep away about ten and a half hours of the eleven hour drive, and still crash into bed for another nine hours of sleep when I got home.
All in all, it wasn't so bad. I learned that I'm in control, everything is a matter of mind over body, and my body can do amazing things when I tell it to. The view from Half Dome as the sun was setting and the moon was rising is one I will never forget. The feeling of accomplishment knowing I've done something not all that many people do is one that's addicting. I'll have more Yosemite epics.... ones that are much more eventful, but this was an experience that I definitely learned from and that will stay with me for a long time. I swore I'd never climb Half Dome again. I doubt you could get me around the back side, but maybe after the memory starts to fade you might find me on the regular route one day. Right now though, El Cap with her 15-minute approach is sounding pretty good....
So, there you have it, our epic tale. Granted, it’s nothing like the epic stories we have about Jason and the Argonauts, or expeditions on Everest. However, I cannot ignore the fact that we could have had a very different outcome. Our pre-trip planning could have been better, and without a doubt, we should have carried more water. I believe that there were several factors that had a significant impact on our ability to survive what had the potential of being a real disaster. First, we let people know what we were doing, the route we were going to take, and when we expected to return. Second, we maintained good communication within our group. We “checked in” with each other, and didn’t bury how we were doing under a layer of bravado. This helped us constantly evaluate our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses in a constantly changing environment. Third, we didn’t panic or surrender to our circumstances. We were able to understand our situation, explore our options, and develop/re-develop a plan that was both safe, and workable. We were a team, and we successfully utilized all of our available resources to achieve a positive outcome. I guess that leaves only one question to answer…. Would I do it again? Yes. Maybe not the same trip, but I will definitely go on another adventure with Kimberly and Joshua. We had way too much fun, and Josh and I have a lot to learn from Kimberly. You see, Kimberly is more of a boulderer than a traditional climber, like Josh and myself, and she has this theory about the approach…