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Half Dome, June 2000
Fool's Quest
A True Story by Dave Norton
Very often, an individual will read an article like this, and, after consideration of all the life-threatening risks and the very real likelihood of electrocution, will immediately feel encouraged to start planning the same hike under identical conditions. Very often, that individual is crazy.

 

 

Half Dome, 30 June, 2000:

We got a late start headed up the 3.5 mile climb to Half Dome from our Little Yosemite Valley campsite. The day was beautiful, the temperature in the high 70s, with the daily thunderstorm just beginning to gather to the south and east. It is an arduous dry climbing trail to Half Dome, with one small spring a mile from the top being the only source of water. We passed occasional day-hikers coming down the trail, many with children as young as 8 years. As we got closer to the top, we passed a stream of perhaps 40 hikers coming off the rock, and several of them told us the Ranger was not letting people on top due to the approaching thunderstorm. We pressed on, figuring we would get as far as we could.

Half Dome is actually two domes of granite, with a narrow saddle between. The first, smaller dome is climbed by negotiating 24 switchbacks of uneven rock steps, no railing, with a spectacular view rewarding those who make the ascent. At the base of the stairs there is a sign warning you not to proceed further if there is any thunderstorm activity visible anywhere out to the horizon. We were met by Ranger Rick escorting the last of the hikers off the top of Half Dome. There were 4 other young people there, trying to decide whether to go on up. Ranger Rick looked me straight in the eye and said “I strongly advise you not to go up there today. There is a thunderstorm approaching, and you don’t want to be up there when it hits.” We paused, and decided to go up the smaller dome and decide from there. When we started climbing, the 4 others followed. When we reached the saddle between the 2 domes, the other 4 went ahead up Half Dome.

Half Dome

The “trail” up Half Dome cannot be adequately described, it can only be experienced. The ascent is made using a walkway consisting of 2 steel cables about 2 feet apart, held about 3 feet high by steel posts drilled into the rock at about 10 foot intervals. At every other post there is a 2X4 attached at the bottom of the posts, forming a short step between adjacent posts. As became apparent during the descent, these steps are there to stop the inevitable slides as your shoes slip on the granite. And slip you will, as the granite slope you are climbing is inclined an actual 45° for nearly 100 yards. This pathway, with the cables, was built in the 1920s, and the granite surface has been worn down by 80 years of climbers.

At this point we had been watching the approaching squall line, with lightning striking the ridgetops perhaps 3-5 miles distant. We still had a narrow cone of blue sky and sunshine directly above. Russ and Chris both looked (up!) at the cables and voiced concerns about acrophobia. We were at the point of decision. We watched the 4 climbers ascend into the sun, and I said, “Well, I’m going up.” The others followed. That point, we all agreed later, represented the single stupidest thing any of us had ever done in our collective lives. We selected gloves from the pile at the base of the cables, and began the climb.

Now, on 45° (some sources on the internet mention a peak slope of 55°) slope you can’t even stand up. So the cables are used to pull yourself up, with your weight about equally split between arms and legs. Once you get about 1/3 of the way up, you can see the cables sloping away and you assume you’re almost there. Then it gets really steep. I voiced encouragement to Chris and Russ behind me. No option now but to finish the climb. At the halfway point, we reached the party of 4 who ascended ahead of us. They had started down immediately after reaching the top, seeing what we could not, the approach of low thunderheads from the south. As we passed them, I recall the glassy stares and the deathgrips on the cables, and one of them sitting on the rock hugging the post. Not happy campers.

We did reach the top, at 8842 feet. It was rather anticlimactic. The views are breathtaking to be sure,

but we were, shall I say, pressed for time.

We found ourselves surrounded by rainsqualls, our little window of blue sky shuffling off towards the north, with dark clouds and lightning approaching. We took a few pictures, with each of us picking a different spot from which to view the valley.

It was at this point that 2 things happened. I was near the vertical drop, by the granite slab placed (presumably) near the edge to afford a safe viewing spot, when I heard a low hum.

I checked my digital camera, the only electric item I had with me. Nope, not that. I looked down into the valley to see if perhaps something very loud down there might be the source. No again. Then I noted a cleft in the rock to my right. As I approached, the hum got louder. It sounded rather like a bad ballast in an old fluorescent light fixture, and seemed to emanate from the cleft… At the same time, Russ looked overhead and noted lightning arcing from cloud to cloud perhaps a mile distant. The wind was picking up, and with it came the first wisps of rain. We both called for Chris, and the 3 of us headed down the cables once more.

Russ led the way down, followed by Chris and me.

As they dropped out of sight over the slope, I was able to take 2 photos, the last from perhaps ¼ of the way down. By that time, the rain was heavy enough that I bagged my camera and continued down. The trip down the cables entered into a new dimension of BAD. Russ and Chris later admitted to stark terror. I recall feeling only that I was the one who urged us forward, and if anyone got hurt I would carry the burden for the rest of my life. Under these circumstances, slight injury was not likely. Death was. For the very cables that formed our lifeline down the rock also carried the means of our electrocution should lightning strike the dome during the 20 minutes it took for the descent. During that time, I can’t recall any sound, but Russ tells me there were perhaps a dozen lightning bolts from cloud to cloud in the area, some directly overhead. I remember none, such was my concentration on my grip on the cables and on my footing on the granite.

As we each approached the steepest part, footing became tenuous indeed. Several times our feet would slide completely out from under us, leaving us dangling by the grip our hands could manage on the wet cables. At the halfway point, our hands and wrists were so tired that slipping feet resulted in a slide down the cables to the next post, our hands slamming into the cables and threatening to break our grip loose completely. At one point, Russ stood on one of the 2X4 steps, let go the cables, and hugged the rock, resting his hands and laughing hysterically to keep from crying. It was that bad.

There are 2 methods of handling the cables. Both involve going down backwards. You can pull up on them, pushing down with your shoes to gain needed traction on the slippery rock. This helped until your feet did slip, then you found yourself in freefall as the slack in the cable allowed you to drop perhaps a foot before taking your weight once more with a jerk. Really dicey. The other method has you taking more of your weight through your arms into the cables, taking weight (and traction) off your feet. Slips are more frequent, but there is less free fall. Neither method is at all satisfactory, I might add.

This 20 minutes was the longest 3 hours in any of our lives. The tension, the physical strain (particularly toward the end, as fatigue took its toll), and the constant battle between the need for speed and the need for care. It was in all the most frightening non-instantaneous experience of our lives. It was akin to that moment of sheer panic in a car crash when you realize that you are just about to get hurt, bad, when time seems to slow to a crawl and things happen is slow motion. The difference is that things really are happening in slow motion, with time stretching interminably.

We did reach the bottom safely, and made a swift retreat to safer ground. On the way back to the campground, we met a young excited Ranger who asked us if we had heard of someone being struck by lightning on Half Dome. We allowed as how that must have been us, as we were the last ones up and the only ones there during the lightning activity.

The next day, hitching a ride from the Valley back to Tuolumne Meadows, we were picked up by 2 separate Park employees, one of whom asked if we had heard that someone was struck by lighting yesterday on Half Dome (yes, we heard…), and the other a rock climber who related his personal experience of having been struck while on a climb of El Capitan. We didn’t relate to either just how close we came, or just how stupid we were…

Dave Norton

©Dave Norton 2000

 

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