After a little more time and a few more pictures atop Half Dome, we decided we’d better start heading back down, as those clouds on the horizon didn’t appear to be going away. And I have to say, the descent didn’t bother me anywhere nearly as much as the ascent. Yes, our only stopping places were those same tiny slivers of rock along the way. And yes, it was still our own strength and sense that were keeping us from falling. But using the same strategy I finally developed on the way up, I was about to change this 400-something foot descent into a series of shorter descents that my mind somehow found more palatable. (I still, however, must not have looked terribly comfortable, as a couple of other climbers on their way down took the time to pause and ask if I was doing okay. Very considerate on their parts and very likely a good question to ask, but yes, I was somehow managing it this time.)
(Aside: As it turned out, my sweetie actually had more of a problem going down than she did going up. I can understand why—when you’re heading up, everything is clearly laid out in front of you, but when you’re heading down, you can’t really see where you’re going, and the blind steps you occasionally have to take are more than a little nerve-wracking.)
But (obviously) we both managed to make it down safe and sound. And it was then the magnitude of what we had just done hit us, I think. We hadn’t just gone up and down Half Dome—we had climbed up and down Half Dome. The two of us—moderately experienced hikers but not-even-novice climbers—had managed to scale a 400 foot block of granite and make it back down to tell the story. Yeah, we were pretty damn proud of ourselves. (Still are, by the way.)
And after an extended break for lunch (during which those ominous clouds that had chased us off of Half Dome simply vanished… go figure), it was time to head back down. Down was simply up in reverse (duh): over and down the Sub Dome, down the switchbacks of the Half Dome Trail, along the sandy and flat banks of the Merced through Little Yosemite Valley (but let me tell you, after 11 or so hours of hiking, slogging your way through sand—even flat sand—sucks beyond belief), and down the rocky switchbacks to the top of Nevada Falls. Then back on the John Muir Trail to take us the rest of the way down.
(Aside: It was here that we probably made our only true error of the entire day. We knew that we were only a couple of hours from the end, tops, and we were both getting very sore and very tired. All up until now, we had been stopping every hour or so for a quick bite to eat and a large dose of water, but in our eagerness to finish this trek, we simply powered our way down the John Muir Trail with only fleeting stops for sips of water until we reached the bottom at the footbridge over the Merced where our hike truly started almost 14 hours earlier.)
Just short of the bridge, we came across a solo hiker sitting on a bench. And he did not look to be doing well. At my sweetie’s urging, we offered to walk back down to the Happy Isles trailhead with him, and that’s when his story was told: He had started his day hiking down from Glacier Point with two other buddies—but his buddies, having had other engagements later that evening—simply left him behind to get down faster. He (our new friend) said he didn’t mind, but that was completely irrelevant. You do not do that. You do not leave anyone behind, no matter what the reason. So to the two who left him on his own to finish the hike: you’re both complete and utter assholes. (No, neither of you will ever read this, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re both assholes.)
Anyhoo… another mile along the same paved path (now thankfully downhill for the most part) along which we started our hike, and we were back at the Happy Isles trailhead. We had made it. 16 miles and 14 hours after we had started, we had accomplished something we’ll never forget: we had made it to the top of Half Dome and back.
Except for the EMTs. Oh yeah…
So a little while after we had finished our epic trek, we were waiting in line at the Curry Village pizza counter (oh yeah, it was most definitely pizza and beer time) when my sweetie start feeling very lightheaded. She went inside to find a table and to sit down while I got our food. But by the time the food arrived and I had found her again, she was not in good shape at all: extremely lightheaded and unshakable chills to boot. Didn’t appear to be heat stroke (thank goodness), but thinking that maybe it was heat exhaustion, I got a cold towel for her (though, honestly, her skin didn’t feel too warm at all). Nope, no help, and her condition seemed to be getting worse. So I flagged down a manager and explained the situation, and she ran off in search of help. (And I mean she literally ran off to find help, as she was off like a bullet.)
A couple of minutes later, she was back and with a blanket for my sweetie (which seemed to help a bit). And a couple of minutes after that, the EMTs arrived. They ran all of their normal tests and asked all of their normal questions. It was pretty obvious that they were assuming that she was severely dehydrated—a perfectly valid assumption for them, I’m sure, as plenty of people every year attempt this hike woefully underprepared. But we told them how often we had stopped to eat and drink, and we told them how much water we had had all throughout the hike, and sure enough, their instruments showed she was definitely not dehydrated.
And then one of the EMTs asked the magic question: “How much Gatorade have you had?”, and we told her the truth: that we had each had a bottle apiece early in our hike. She nodded, and the pieces fell into place: my sweetie wasn’t dehydrated but had instead depleted her electrolytes to the point where her body simply shut down to some extent. A bottle of Gatorade for the drive back to our hotel (the Wawona at the southern end of the park), and she was mostly back to herself by the time we finally made it to bed, none the worse for wear.
(Aside: We don’t know if our speed hike—without prolonged stops for food or drink—down the John Muir Trail on our descent contributed to what happened. Given that there wouldn’t have been any Gatorade or such involved regardless, perhaps not. At most, maybe—maybe—it just accelerated things a little. And it doesn’t explain why I didn’t suffer from anything at all like this—after all, I had (or didn’t have) the same food and drink that she had. Oh well.)
- Total time (round trip): just short of 14 hours, including the time spent stopping along the way
- Total distance (round trip): just over 16 miles
- Elevation gain: about 4700 feet
Next time we’re back in Yosemite, maybe we’ll go back to doing the more touristy things instead of killing ourselves with things like this.
Though I kind of doubt it. :-)