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Going Full Tilt at Half Dome

DESTINATION: CALIFORNIA

A day hike up the big rock at Yosemite tests body and soul

June 20, 1999|DENNIS POTTENGER | Dennis Pottenger is a freelance writer from Carmichael, Calif

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Seven of us are riding in a white Suburban. The road into Yosemite is narrow, a twisting black sliver leading us deeper into a wilderness. It is night, a few minutes after 9. We have a date with Half Dome in the morning.

We bump and roll beneath branches of Jeffrey pine and Douglas fir. Huge gray rocks stare down where the road curves. Just as we break out of the trees into a meadow, there is a voice from the back of the van:

"Oh my God, look at that."

The driver veers onto the shoulder and we skid to a stop in the dirt. One by one we stumble out into the night and stand in the empty road. There, out across a meadow, shimmering in the light of a full moon, is the largest single exposed granite rock on Earth: El Capitan.

"Wow," someone says. "Wow wow wow wow!"

There's nothing else to say. Carved millions of years ago by a heaving river of ice, the monolith seems somehow alive, moving before our eyes, shape-shifting, shimmying under a black curtain of winking stars. The perception of movement does something to us. Mesmerized, we stare at the rock, which stands 3,600 feet above the west end of Yosemite Valley. Then, as our eyes adjust, we see it, a flicker of orange about one-third of the way up the rock. Our pupils narrow to pinpoints, and we see a second flicker at the same place.

"Somebody's up there," I say. A rock climber, bivouacked for the night, flashing on a headlamp, perhaps brewing one last cup of coffee before turning in.

Down on the road, it dawns on us: We are seeing ourselves in a few hours' time, conquering Yosemite's other big rock: Half Dome.

(There have been two rockslides in the park since last fall, the latest, June 13, fatal to a rock climber. Rock climbing is a much more difficult and potentially more hazardous sport than hiking trails in Yosemite, such as the one that goes up the back--not the sheer face--of Half Dome.)

With its sheared western face and smooth, bald brow, Half Dome is one of the most recognized natural formations in the Americas, thanks to Ansel Adams and his 1927 masterpiece of photography, "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome."

Adams made the image in daylight, intending to capture not what the rock looked like but the sensations it aroused in him. To obtain that, he manipulated the photographic process.

In her biography of Adams, Mary Street Alinder summarized the result of that innovative moment:

"[Adams] stepped beyond the traditional photographic boundaries of his day. The sky was no longer light and bright; instead it became a black-velvet background for the smooth outline of the shattered, flat-planed face of Half Dome, rising majestically above its snowy shoulders. Looking at this image, we see Half Dome not with our own eyes but through Ansel Adams' soul."

On a cold, dark morning more than 70 years later, 10 of us lace up our hiking boots in search of our own visions of Half Dome.

As a group we range in age from mid-20s to late 50s. We are not experienced mountaineers but a collection of active working people, six men and four women, friends and acquaintances from the Sacramento area.

We intend to hike Half Dome in a single day just for the challenge: 17 miles round trip, half of that the ascent to the 4,733-foot summit up an almost perpendicular grade.

Having spent the night in tent cabins in Curry Village, we start the hike just before sunrise. We reach the first section of heart-pumping climbing about two hours and not quite two miles later, when we reach the stairway that curves around the right side of Vernal Fall: 300 granite blocks rising through a spray-drenched garden of ferns and wildflowers. The climb is grueling work, using nothing but the quadriceps, the big front thigh muscle. The leverage created by a hiking staff doesn't seem much help.

Eventually we struggle up the last set of stairs and peer out over the brink of Vernal Fall. It is October, months after the spring thaw, yet a liquid avalanche roars over the top for the 317-foot plunge to the valley floor.

I ask fellow hiker Dave, who has been up Half Dome before, if the stairs we've just climbed are as bad as the ones at the base of the summit. He looks at me, then at the ground. No words are necessary.

I knew what I was getting into. I read up on this hike--and it is a hike, not a climb, in mountaineering terms--and I talked to people who had made the trip. And I tried to get in shape.

Smart hikers spend weeks getting ready for Half Dome. Besides aerobic exercise and long hikes in the wild, one of he best ways to condition the legs is by climbing stairs. As you build strength, you can simulate the hiking conditions by adding a backpack filled with bottles of water.

You will need at least four liters of water on the Half Dome hike, but you don't have to carry that much in. Many experienced climbers carry canteens or empty water bottles and refill on the trail. If you choose this option, bring iodine tablets or a water purifier.

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