Tom’s Birthday Challenge Done

I did manage to do my birthday challenge and even have fun at it, all while raising over $800 for the American Safe Climbing Association. If you have LOTS of spare time, you can read the novel on the “Read More” page.

The Valley Rim Tour

June 6, 2004

[Note: I put most of my stuff on hikiing routes and such on my Yosemite trails site. I don't do trip reports there (like this article), but more photos and beta, since I figure most people don't care much about *my* trip and are more interested in *their* trip.]

So I talked my talk and hiked my hike. More or less. It was an awesome hike and the Valley just doesn't look the same. No matter where I look, I look at someplace that I visited during my hike. I don't know whether I'll do that exact dayhike again, but it was definitely worth the effort.

Some stats (no speed record here).

People kept asking me about my plans for me “run”. I had to insist that I had no intention of running. This was to be a *hike*, just plodding along at a leisurely pace of twenty minutes per mile. I didn't realize at the time that I was boasting.

Total distance

My best guess at the total distance is 54 miles. That's based on trail signs for everything except the part from the top of Half Dome to the base of the Snow Creek trail. For that part, I'm giving myself 5 miles. I mapped it out with TOPO! software which said it was only 3.5 miles, but the same software told me that the Snow Creek Trail was 1.3 miles from the base to the footbridge, while the trail signs say 2.5 miles. It also told me that the Falls Trail was 1.3 miles from the base to the winter gate, while the trail signs give the distance at 3.2. So it seems fair enough to count that part as 5 miles. You can, of course, adjust your pledge accordingly if you disagree.

Two variations from my planned route:

  • detour through McGurk meadow (+2.2 miles, +100 feet vertical).
  • skip the detour over North Dome (-2.5?? miles and -500 vertical).

I can't find my map with all the mileages marked so I can't get the exact distance the North Dome cutoff saved. So basically it ended up being:

  • 25.3 miles to the top of Half Dome.
  • roughly 5 five miles from the top of Half Dome to the start of the Snow Creek Trail.
  • 21.8 from the base of Snow Creek to the Foresta Road.

Pace

  • The first 20.8 miles took 7:23 (21:18 pace)
  • The middle 13 or so miles took 6:51 for an ultra rapid 31:37 pace)
  • The last 21.3 miles took 8:03 (22:40 pace)

To put that in perspective, if you don't maintain at least 18:40 pace, they kick you out of the Western States 100 Ultramarathon. The winners maintain a pace of just over 10-minute miles.

Vertical gain

As for the vertical gain, I misjudged this by a fair bit. I mapped it several times using the TOPO! software (which seems pretty accurate for cumulative vertical). The estimates I got ranged from 16,500 to 18,500 feet of cumulative vertical, but I think that's probably a bit high. I'll guess somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000 feet (View elevation profile).

Confession.

The up front confession is that I skipped the North Dome summit tag. The main reason for this is that at the point that I had to decide whether to head over to North Dome or just go straight to the top of the Falls trails and on over to El Cap, I was at my most tired and my furthest behind schedule for meeting Theresa for my pickup out at Foresta.

Having gotten the honest answer out of the way, I can say that I also skipped North Dome because I got lost early on the hike and did a little 2.2-mile detour through McGurk Meadow. Skipping North Dome cut off about that much, maybe a bit more, from my original plan.

Preparation (if you can call it that).

To the extent that this was not badly planned all around is due largely to Theresa and Doug. Doug couldn't understand why I wanted to hike from the Foresta to Wawona Tunnel, which makes logistics harder when you actually live right near the Wawona Tunnel. The answer was that I had picked that direction partly because I had never gone down the Half Dome slabs and was afraid I would get lost and mostly because there were more places to quit at that end if you do it that way. Doug convinced me that since I was going to do the whole distance, this was a stupid reason that just adds that much driving in the morning.
Theresa was the one who convinced me to just get up at 1:00am because “If you have to hike in the dark, you should do it while you're fresh.” Little did I know that I would be doing it in the dark on both ends. The trail at the far end was relatively hard to follow and I was so glad that I was able to do the hard-to-follow part with enough light to see. I'd probably still be wandering around up there if not for having a smart wife.

Unfortunately, I did not consult either Theresa or Doug when it came to food selection. I didn't check the fridge and cupboards until just before bed, at which time I realized that we didn't have much decent food. I ended up finding about three handfuls of cashews, some chocolate chips, a couple of string cheese sticks, a small cube of feta cheese and several handfuls of Gu-like things (Power Gels, Clif Shots and Pit-ins, a sort of a Japanese Gu) and a bunch of Japanese sports drink that Yuji left here. I would spend much of the hike fantasizing about a ziplock full of pizza or a carrot or some red pepper. I had never before tried to eat more than two Gu packs in a day. I'm not sure I ever will again.

One more note. Three longish hikes for a total of 67 miles over the course of more than a month does not constitute training. I think I failed the Zig Ziglar test: “Be tough on yourself and life will be easy on you.” I should have gotten myself out running regularly and just generally been tougher on myself in preparation for the hike. On the other hand, if I had done that, the hike would have been easier and required less willpower, so where's the fun in that?

Wawona Tunnel to Glacier Point

I woke up at around midnight with something on my mind that I can't even remember now, but it was spinning round and round and I couldn't get back to sleep. I finally decided that if I wasn't going to sleep, I might as well walk and got up, went downstairs, had a bowl of cereal, grabbed my pack and headed for Discovery View. A warm evening, I left the parking lot at 1:22 in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. I had this idea that I would use my heart rate monitor to stay near the bottom of my aerobic range so that I wouldn't waste myself early on. I'd never done this before and was amazed at how slowly I had to go to keep my heart rate in the 130s. I set the alarm to go off at around 145 beats per minute and it took me a while to teach myself to walk at slow enough pace to keep that from happening. I also set my watch to beep every 30 minutes so that it would remind me to eat something.

Sort of a boring walk by headlamp, but by the time I got up to Dewey Point I was getting nice views of El Cap in the moonlight. After a healthy climb of a few thousand feet up to Dewey, the trail is relatively gentle up to Sentinel Dome. Apparently, the Park Service does not have enough money for trail crews this year, so there are a lot of downed trees to climb over which can get a little confusing in the dark. I passed a sign that announced that it was 5.9 miles to Glacier Point. Not too bad.

A bit further on, it got a lot colder and I stopped to put on a hat and shirt. I thought this was because I had crossed a thermal gradient as I went up in elevation. The trail was looking sort of unfamiliar, but I had only been here once and that was a year ago and during the daylight. Eventually I came across a sign that said Glacier Point Road, 0.8 miles. I turned around and saw the sign for the trail going back the way I had come and it said that Glacier Point was now 7.0 miles away. I finally figured out that I was in McGurk Meadow and it had gotten “colder” because of the humidity off the marsh. So I had to backtrack to the main trail. When I got there, I realized that I had missed the intersection while detouring around a downed tree. A little 2.2-mile morale-boosting detour to start my day.

Once back on track, I managed to get going and catch Taft Point at sunrise. Up from there to Sentinel Dome and some gorgeous morning views.

I really wanted to avoid backtracking at any point on the route. I had already screwed that up by getting lost. I also did not plan to solo Snake Dike so that I would go up and over Half Dome, so I would have an up and back there as well. That said, at the least I could scramble over Sentinel Dome and avoid backtracking. I met a nice trio of photographers up there and chatted with them for a few minutes and headed down to Glacier Point, arriving at 6:45, much later than I had hoped.

Glacier Point to Little Yosemite.

After a few pictures from the lookout, I headed back to the trailhead and down the Panorama Trail. I haven't been here many times and was really stunned by the scenery. Illouette Falls and Illouette Creek are gorgeous.

I stopped at the creek to fill up on water. There were some people camping there in one of the prettiest spots you can imagine and I told myself that some day I would hump a tent in and spend the whole day there. I wasn't planning to treat my water, but they offered a filter so I borrowed it and pumped three liters into my Camelback. From Illouette it's a quick climb up over the ridge and back down to the top of Nevada Falls (about 8:30am). For most of that time, you look across at Half Dome, looking beautiful, but steep, so I started telling myself “Luckily I have bionic legs. Luckily I have bionic legs.”

Nevada Falls made for twenty miles. Suddenly I encountered the throngs of Half Dome hikers and enjoyed some flat ground through Little Yosemite.

The Business: Little Yosemite to the top of Snow Creek Trail

Climbing out of Little Yosemite I still felt strong. As I got up near the shoulder before the trail steepens noticeably, I came across Paul Drew and his partner Peter. They had gone up to do the Regular Route on Half Dome but Peter had gotten sick and they were hiking down after having done pretty much no climbing. They looked pretty disappointed. I know from experience – it's a long hike to not even get on the rock.

When I hit the point where the trail steepens for the last climb before the cables, my heart rate alarm went off for the first time in several miles. I realized that I simply wasn't going to make it up the steps and the cables at 135 beats per minute and turned the alarm off. I looked up at the cables and told myself three times: “Strong legs, strong heart, strong mind. Patience.” Having hiked about 24 miles and several thousand feet of vertical already, I was starting to feel it in my legs and the cables were tough – it took me over 10 minutes just to get up the cables. Once on top I took some pictures, had some feta cheese and cashews. I was starting to have trouble eating gels though and just couldn't force them down.

After a fifteen-minute break, I headed down the cables and the steps, then took a sharp left and quit the trail to head down the so-called Death Slabs (the climbers' approach to the base of Half Dome). Here I really started to slow down. Down through manzanita tunnels, switchbacks, step-downs and talus. I finally got to the base of the Regular Route. I wasn't too excited about taking water from here without treating it, but it was flowing pretty fast, so I filled up.

I headed down the slabs, following the general flow. At one point on the slabs you can either go left and rappel or go right and scramble down the fixed ropes. I realized that I had stayed on the left side too long and was now at the rappel station. I had to turn around and hike back up to find the other trail and cross the drainage. This involved only a few minutes of climbing, but the sun was blazing and I was feeling the heat and my legs. Once back on track the rest of the slabs went slowly, but well as I picked my way down and batmanned down the fixed lines.

The grueling Snow Creek Trail as seen from Half Dome

Snow Creek Trail

from Half Dome

View larger

Once down into the Valley, you get a brief respite with a mile or two of flat trail. Then you hit the Snow Creek Trail, the hardest part of the whole thing. It is super steep (2500 feet in a little over two miles), south-facing and sun-drenched. I felt like I was really overheating and hiked to the shade and rested, hiked to the shade and rested (repeat interminably). I felt like kissing the ground when I finally saw a flat trail ahead! It had taken me two and a half hours to get down from the top of Half Down and around Mirror Lake and another hour and half just to hike the 2.5-mile Snow Creek Trail. I was thrashed and, at least at the time, felt that humping up Snow Creek that day was one of the hardest things I had ever done.

When I reached the top, I stopped by the river. Another of the beautiful but less-popular spots in the Valley area. I came across two guys relaxing by the river and having a great time. There was a fallen tree that spanned all of Snow Creek and the one guy was sitting out on the tree playing ukulele. I refilled my water and had a bit to eat. By this time I was really unable to eat any more energy gels or anything sweet for that matter. I had a few cashews. By now I was having elaborate food fantasies and kicking myself for not going shopping the day before and getting… the list was long. This is where the fantasies of ziplocks full of cold pizza and cut red peppers started to fill my head and not want to go away. I still had food, but almost everything that was left was just too sweet.

The top of Snow Creek Trail to the car

A couple of miles after the top of Snow Creek Trail, I came to a decision point where I had to decide whether or not to loop around to the top of North Dome or just go straight on to El Cap. My original plan was North Dome, but I was thrashed by Snow Creek, way behind schedule and unable to get in touch with Theresa and warn her that I was going to be several hours late. Ultimately, I decided that I would just substitute my unplanned McGurk Meadow miles for my planned North Dome miles.

I was starting to worry about getting lost in the dark on the far side of El Cap too, so I decided I needed to hurry a bit and, despite what I had told people about not doing any running, I felt like it might be prudent. I covered the next three miles in 35 minutes. The twenty or so minutes I saved turned out to help a lot at the end, so that was a good thing.

Going through the swamps on the way up to El Cap, the mosquitoes were incredible. I was slapping them in threes and fours. I ran across the first hiker I had seen in several miles and begged some bug juice from him. He let me have some and said “You'll get to a marsh up there where the mosquitoes just think this stuff is frosting.”

I was still feeling pretty fatigued, but much better than at the top of Snow Creek. I had decided that I really wanted to hit the top of El Cap at least an hour before dark, because the Ribbon Meadow trail is relatively easy to follow in the daylight, but traverses a lot of big, open graveled areas where I was afraid I might lose it in the dark. I made it to the top of El Cap around 7:30, which meant that I had over an hour of daylight and hurried on.

I had not been able to get a good cell signal anywhere to call Theresa to tell her when I would be arriving. Strangely, I dropped down into Ribbon Meadows, with ridges above me everywhere, and heard a bird chirping. Then I decided it was a low-battery warning on the phone and decided to turn it off. When I pulled it out, though, I had a strong signal, called Theresa and could talk clear as could be. We arranged to meet at 11:00pm.

I was so happy to have some daylight left since the trail was, in fact, not that obvious in places. I eventually lost the trail and realized it was time to pull out the headlamp. My first reaction was just to cut across the slope and find the trail, but I realized that, tired as I was, I needed to suck it up and climb back up the hill to where I had lost my way. I once read an interview with George Lowe where he said that mountaineers often die because they get impatient. They go down the wrong couloir and rather than climbing back up and finding the right descent, they press on to their doom. I wasn't afraid that I would wander around to my doom. I was afraid I would wander around so long that when Theresa found me she'd kill me. Same result.

By this time I was starting to feel really woozy from too many energy gels and I was slowing down even more. Finally, I just felt sick and threw up several gels. That felt much better. I was really craving plain water with no sugar in it, but I hadn't passed a good water source in a while. Stupid! Finally, I made it to Old Big Oak Flat Road. Only 4.5 miles to go and moving quite slowly now. This is a gentle upgrade but was definitely more work than I had anticipated. Finally finished the uphill and got on the very last leg. There was one stream crossing that involved crossing a 10-inch tree about ten feet above the stream and about 40 feet long. I started across it and realized that my balance wasn't so great anymore. I just imagined I was on my stability ball and said “Come on! Come on!” out loud. That was the last part of the trail that I was worried about. Now I just had to put one foot in front of the other until I saw Theresa and Doug, which I did in about another ten minutes.

I was glad of the company, though I found it distracting to talk, at least on the uphills and mostly just plodded along after Theresa until the car. The best thing, though, was that she traded Camelbacks with me and I finally got some plain, unsweetened water in me. Finally, at 11:22, I was back at the car. Only four to five hours more than planned.

Recovery

I managed to expel the rest of my energy gels once the car hit the windy roads. I understood then why I was drinking so much but not peeing late in the hike. I think my body was trying to dilute all that sugar in my stomach and just couldn't get rid of it. Once home, I just took a shower and some water and went to bed. In the morning, Doug and Theresa fed me tea spiked with salt and I was amazed at how quickly that revived me. After a few cups of that, I was ready to move on the huevos rancheros, watch movies and then head down to Curry Village for the all-you-can-eat buffet. The next day was our last chance to spend time with Doug, so Theresa and I joined Doug and his friends for some climbing at Camp 4 Wall. I can't say hiking talus with a rope, rack and water was easy, but not as bad as I thought. I felt gnawing hunger all day though, so the climbing day done, we went to the all-you-can-eat buffet yet again. Yum! After my second visit to mother Curry's kitchen, I finally felt pretty much recovered.

4 thoughts on “Tom’s Birthday Challenge Done

  1. Hans Florine

    WAY TO GO TOM!

    That IS THE Speed Record! – for that variation. You Rock!

  2. Pat McLaughlin

    Great job, Tom. Very impressive and inspiring. I may have to do something for my 41st birthday.

  3. Pascal Longchamp

    When the heck are you coming to the Swiss Alps man. We need guys like you around here. There are plenty of crazy hikes to do. I enjoyed reading your story. Happy birthday. Pascal

  4. Paul Drew

    Tom,

    Good to hear you completed this – it was quite a coincidence to run into you near the top of Half Dome.

    We tried to guess how far this trip was but 54 miles is longer than we thought – impressive.

    Paul

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