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Thanksgiving 2002/AKA Nightmare in Paradise!!!

Submitted by zee on 2002-12-15

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It has been one year from the time when Zorba and I first started our adventures. That's right, one year ago, we went down to Mexico to climb our first big wall multi-pitch complete with death defying stunts and rappelling in the dark with no headlamps. So what more appropriate way to celebrate than to go out to Yosemite to climb Half Dome. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close up the wall with our English dead! (quote from Henry V)

It starts in San Francisco, cause that's where we landed. My sisters Anna and Judy arrived to whisk us off to a Thanksgiving feast for the ages. But first a brief stop at REI for a cold weather climbing jacket. It was supposed to be brief, but that's how REI is... We finally decided to go with newer technology in jackets and purchased some soft shell single layer jackets. We'd also acquired some air activated hand warmers, which becomes essential later on.

Thanksgiving turned out great. Incredible food from Judy and none of the public humiliations of going around the table telling everyone what one is thankful for. What we're thankful for becomes abundantly clear later on. Plus Judy fixes my finger, and Heike adjusts Zorba's back. With both my finger and Zorba's back straightened out, we figured we had what it takes to tackle Yosemite. Or at least give someone the finger with a straight back. So we stuffed ourselves on Beef Wellington masquerading as turkeys until we can eat no more, and then left at 5 AM.

We get to Yosemite not knowing what to expect. It turns out to be one jaw dropping spectacle after another. Beautiful and magnificent granite behemoths rising out of the ground. So many trees around that it was near impossible to find the forests. The air is crisp and the day sunny. It just couldn't be any better. Oh wait, yes it can. We could be climbing on these granite behemoths.

We'd picked out the Nutcracker as our first climb in Yosemite. It's a five pitch trad climb rated at 5.8 difficulty. It seemed to be a good climb to get used to the type of rock and crack climbing. Contrary to what the name suggests, it appeared to be a climb that wouldn't bust our balls. The Nutcracker gets its name from the classic yuletide musical as well as being the first climb in the valley to be set without pitons, only nuts for protection. It seems appropriate as well, that our first climb reflects the time of year.

The Nutcracker was sweet! A good first climb. The first pitch is a lie back crack, which I tried climbing by hand jamming for some odd reason. It quickly became apparent that we wore too much clothes. The sun was making it very warm, especially when jamming a lie back crack. I decided to stop making peanut butter and jam out of the route and lie backed the rest of the crack. Zorba followed me up the first pitch and started the beginnings of excuse number 1. Excuse number 1 is that he's out of shape from taking six weeks off because of hurt hand tendons. Zorba led the next pitch, which ends on a nice wide ledge, where I promptly took off all my warm clothes. We helped some guys rappel off, and then I continued on up the third pitch. Of course, now that I divested all my warm clothes, it starts to cool off again. Oh well, I wasn't about to go through the hassle of unpacking my clothes and try to put them back on, so I borrowed Zorba's hat. Meanwhile, as we fired through pitches 3 and 4, Zorba develops excuses 2 and 3. 2 being that the rock type is new to him and 3 being that he sucks at crack climbing, inexperienced with it and all. The fifth pitch has the crux move, and involves a mantel. Zorba gets a brain fart and falls off it. We decided not to give an excuse number for that one since brain fart's happen. We get to the top and enjoy the view. The best part is that we don't have to rappel off! We can walk off the back side. We do so with minimal instances of slipping on pine needles.

That night we enjoyed some hot mulled wine, a warm fire, the company of random campers at the camp site, Judy's cheesecake, and a great big fuzzy black bear that was brown. We pursued the bear across the street, but after it turned to look at us and gave greeting in way of a growl, we decided that he should probably answer the call of the wild by himself. He's a big bear now, he can take care of himself! So with bittersweet pride in our hearts, we watched our ursine companion quietly disappear into the woods. We can only hope that we didn't teach it anything about getting food from the evolved monkeys.

So encouraged were we by our first trad multipitch climb in Yosemite, that we decided Snake Dike, a climb up Half Dome's Southwest face was on tap for the next day. Somehow, we conveniently overlooked the fact that it's a six mile hike in and a nine mile hike out. We think, it's just a 3-4 hour hike in, about a 4 hour climb, and then we hike out. Start out early, climb, and then hike out. Probably get back in the dark. Oh, how true that was. Actually though, as it happened, we almost got back in daylight.

It all started out deceptively serene in the morning at around 8 AM. We drove down to Curry village to park the car and begin our hike out to Half Dome. We were so innocent then. Eyes so bright, heads held high, and a healthy spring to our steps. We crossed the first waterfall on the way out feeling good. Took off a warm layer since walking builds up heat. Eventually we get to the point where we have to deviate from the main path to begin our approach to Snake Dike. We turn off a little too soon and wind up climbing a hill (a mountain verily!) and back down before getting on the real path. By now, the healthy spring in our steps was faltering. We'd been passing the rope back and forth to share the load. It's not the easiest thing to carry, so I tried adjusting it while walking. I walk right onto a patch of ice, and fall splat on my butt for my trouble. Zorba proceeds to find this extremely amusing. I figure he's in a lighter mood since he's laughing so much and gave him the rope bag to carry.

We meet up with two other climbers on this false path planning to do Snake Dike as well. They're from Sonora, so were kinda like locals. By this time we were starting to feel hungry, but since we forgot to bring much of our food, we wanted to conserve our lunch till we got to the rock. It seemed like we were getting real close anyway.... Two hours later, we meet up with the locals again, feeling extremely hungry. We begged food off of them. Trail mix and Tuna never tasted so good. These guys were extremely helpful too. Chalk it up to trail magic, whenever you meet someone out hiking in the middle of nowhere, you always get along and get some food if they have it. They found the Snake Dike route for us too as we walked past it, and they weren't even going to climb it. They said that they lived too close to be descending in the dark. Fair enough. We're from Texas and who knows when we'll be back, so what's the big deal with coming back in the dark for us? So we say goodbye to these guardian angels, as we began to consider them. After all, we were going astray from the path, and they led us back on the righteous path leading up to the serpent.... uh never mind.

The sun never came out this day, and being so high up, it was a little windy and cold. I put on my warm layer and opened up a pack of hand warmers. With the sun hidden, the rock looked to be a bit cool as well. I put the warmers in my chalk bag and started the climb. Halfway up Zorba mentions that maybe I should come back since it's snowing. I considered it, marveling at my first snow fall of the season, then replied "I'm almost to the anchors, why don't I get there, and you come on up and decide from there." It's a way of buying time to see if this gets any worse and turns into a storm. Zorba meets me at the top of the first pitch and we decide to push upward. The snow didn't seem to get any worse. Besides, the dastardly approach was not something we felt like reversing. Once more into the breach.....It's easier than finding dead English to block the wall with.

I move my hand warmers from my chalk bag to my pockets. I haven't used any chalk yet and they weren't keeping the open chalk bag warm anyway. As we climbed the 2nd pitch I realized that the snow was melting on the rock, making it wet in the holds. It didn't appear to affect friction, but it sure affected the temperature of our hands. It was a common sight to see us pause to warm up our paws.

I move my hand warmers from my pockets to my shoes. I felt it important to keep my toes from freezing. My fingers were more active and besides, I can stick them in my pockets. Unfortunately, after taking a picture of Zorba climbing up, I drop my camera. It's a disposable kodak, but still, it had good pictures in it. It bounces straight towards Zorba, but at the last instant, it bounces out of reach, and down to oblivion. A bit bummed at the lost camera, I decide that maybe it's a sacrifice to the bear gods to keep them from breaking into Heike's Pathfinder. Well, at least it made me feel better. The other thing I'd hoped was that this wasn't the beginning of the Blair Bear Project, where we disappear and the only thing they find is the camera that tells the story.

We managed to climb the route in 7 pitches rather than 8 using a 70 meter rope. Dusk was waiting for us at the top of the climb. So we took a picture there, since at the summit, it would be a shot in the dark. In celebration for reaching the top of Snake Dike, we finally eat lunch. Again, the best food a soul can have. After lunch comes the hard part. The trek to the top of Half Dome from the top of the Snake Dike climb. It is about 1000 more feet to ascend by walking up the 60 degree slab of granite. It was totally dark by now. At least the snow stopped. During the ascent, Zorba begins to feel the altitude. We are at 8000+ feet. He goes into the lock step mode, resting every couple of steps. This saves me the trouble of resting myself. At the time he was using excuse number 1. But now we think it could be excuse number 4 (altitude). Excuse number 5 is his bad hip.

We arrive at the top of Half Dome in pitch blackness. Only starlight gives us light. Okay, technically, it's not pitch black. However, we did use the stars to help confirm our orientation as we tried to find the cables leading down off of Half Dome. It takes about 20 minutes to find them. Downclimbing Half Dome with cables would normally be a simple task, but anything simple disappeared with the sun. The cables were not suspended, and they were cold, and we didn't want to get hurt now, after triumphing through so much. So as a precaution, we clipped onto one of the cables with a crappy biner, since it would be rubbing all the way down. We figured at least if we slipped and fell, we wouldn't go bouncing all the way to the bottom. Every once in a while, the cables had some sort of stop or anchor on them.

The cables end when the steep part of the rock ends. Since we didn't come up this way, we had to find the path off the lower half of Half Dome. Out in the distance, Zorba spies a camp fire. Using that as our beacon, we find the endless path of stairs cut into the granite that leads to the base of Half Dome. What a sense of relief! We made it up Half Dome, and now we're well on our way to getting off it. We head for the fire, intent on thanking them for the guiding light and to ask for directions on getting back on the main path leading to the valley.

On the surface the two Standford pre-med students we met at the camp fire seemed real nice and helpful. After all their fire help us get off the rock. We sat around the camp fire for a while, they gave us two carrots to eat, and pointed us off in a direction of a path. That sounds all nice and simple, correct? Now didn't I say that anything simple disappeared with the sun earlier? Well it's still true. Sitting around the camp fire got us really cold. I was shivering as I walked away. I had to throw some hand warmers into my shirt. The carrot seemed to have an ill effect on Zorba. And to top it all off? The path was not a path at all! We wound up starting off trail from the beginning of our hike out.

It was beginning to look more and more like the Blair Bear Project. Here we are, wandering lost in the woods, looking for anything that looked like a path. In truth, we probably followed many little game paths. The map was next to useless. It only told us what the location of Half Dome was in relation to the main path. However, it didn't stop us from consulting it frequently, insisting that this is the way. For the most part although we were lost, we were wandering in generally the right direction. When up high, it's hard to not use Half Dome as a landmark. The problems occur when you get lower into the valley and the huge trees block all sight of everything.

Zorba's body, having been through so much already, has to contend with the attack of the evil carrots. Occasionally, we'd have to take rest breaks in the woods. We'd find level ground with lot's of pine needles, collapse and try not to sleep for more than a minute. Hypothermia was not an invited guest. We'd realized, in our wanderings, that there were several factors that we were rapidly becoming staunch believers in and were thankful for. They are hand warmers! A wonderful invention that should be in any adventurers survival kit. Another thing is our jackets! These jackets can take the abuse, they're light, comfortable, and keep us warm enough as long as we're moving. Cairns are another very nice thing that hikers set up to help others find the path. There were a couple of other things we believed in, but didn't have, namely, more water, food, GPS, or at least a compass, a good map, and a helicopter to lift us out.

After about the 3 hour mark of scrambling over talus, brush, wandering around in a bunch of pine trees that were too selfish to declare themselves a forest, and about 4 naps, we stumble onto Lost Lake. This is good, since we passed Lost Lake on the way out to Half Dome. We find the path and start following it. However, due to our lousy map and desire to bypass climbing anymore hills, we deviated from the path on purpose! Soon we're wandering around not knowing what direction is which. Isn't that tree familiar? It's that same tree! Shut up! Let me see that map! The map? I kicked that map into the lake! Hahahahahaha! (Okay not really, we didn't want to litter in Yosemite, but figuratively). After one more cat nap, we decide to climb up a hill, find Half Dome and get our bearings again. We do, and lo and behold, we find Lost Lake again. How appropriate. Whenever we're lost, we find Lost Lake. We figure we must have circled it. Once we got back on track, we stuck to the path like glue, until we found the main trail.

Through this ordeal, we both had various thoughts and tunes going through our heads. I couldn't get the tune of I think bohemian rhapsody out of my head. Specifically, "Caught in a landslide, escape from reality..." Zorba had a few going too. He mentioned an excerpt from Gangsta's Paradise, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." In any case, exhaustion was setting in. Burned tree trunks lying on the ground looked like man made objects. Possibly rations. We're barely walking straight, making deals with our bodies to keep going, it's not too much farther. We had about 5 more hours of walking after finding the main path. It was a rather silent walk. Both of us wrapped up in our tunes and struggles to keep our balance. One time we lost the main trail and felt it a good time to take a rest. We almost slept for a long bit, but forced ourselves back up and found the trail again.

The last mile was the forever mile. We'd arrived at the car at 3:56 AM. Another hour and it would start getting light out. We started the day at 8 AM. This was a 20 hour adventure. At least the car was okay. No bear attacks. The next day was painful, but all the more sweeter for the pain is a reminder of life. So would I do it again? Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.....


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