Posts Tagged ‘Yosemite’

Yesterday I had a brilliant, clear view of Yosemite Valley from the plane:

Yosemite from Plane 3

Yosemite Valley [click to enlarge]

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A friend in Albany recommended that I visit to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.

Map of Cooperstown

I had, of course, heard about Cooperstown often, for reasons other than art, and I had driven by the exits off the freeway, either to the north on I-90 or the south on I-88 many times over the years. It is far enough away from both freeways to prevent an accidental stop-over. One does not happen upon Cooperstown. One must purposely go there.

Cooperstown is famous in part because that’s where the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located. Since I only know the name of one baseball player, Babe Ruth, and since I have only been to two baseball games in my life, during both of which I had a hard time not falling asleep, I was never likely to make my way to Cooperstown.

Then not too long ago I read the book Reflections of Toddsville by Hollie Van Horne, a time travel romance novel that plays in and near Cooperstown. This book was descriptive enough about the area that it piqued my interest.

Needless to say, when the recommendation about the art museum came, it was a quick decision. I had to drive from Albany to Syracuse, and I might as well take a lesser highway, enjoy the fall colors in their full glory in rural upstate New York and visit Cooperstown.

Fenimore Museum

The village of Cooperstown had 1852 residents in the 2010 census and is the county seat of Otsego County.

The village was part of the Cooper Patent, a 10,000 acre stretch of land which Judge William Cooper purchased in 1785 from Colonel George Croghan.  Cooper was the father of noted American author James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of novels which includes The Last of the Mohicans. Contrary to popular belief, the village was named after Judge Cooper, and not his son. The village is located at the southern tip of Otsego Lake and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful and scenic land in upstate New York.

So there are two things Cooperstown is famous for, the family of its founders and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I loved the Fenimore Art Museum. There are two main categories of works exhibited. First there is a wonderful collection of Native American art, clothing, buffalo hides, coats, and blankets. Then there is a wealth of American paintings, most of them created in the 1800 to 1900 timeframe. Since  photography, as usual, is not allowed at the museum, I cannot share anything here. However, I can share their website here!

The most impressive work to me was Thomas Cole’s The Course of the Empire series of five paintings. They were all there, lined up on one wall, and had me captivated for quite a while.

Of course, the very most exciting work was Thomas Hill’s View of the Yosemite Valley:


Collection of The New-York Historical Society

I was keenly interested in this painting, since Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the world, and I had just taken a photograph of the valley recently from the air myself.

All in all, I loved spending a few extra hours on what would have been a routine freeway drive on a splendid autumn day in upstate New York, visiting a wonderful village on a spectacular lake with an impressive art museum.

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Half Dome was the physically hardest hike since summiting Mt. Whitney some 20 years ago when I was a much younger man. Ascending the infamous Half Dome cables was also the scariest thing I have ever done, worse than technical rock climbing and skydiving. This hike is listed in Backpacker Magazine as one of America’s 10 most dangerous hikes.

[click on any images in this blog post to enlarge]

The hike from the parking lot at the trailhead and back was 18.3 miles, starting at an elevation of 4,000 feet and topping out at 8,840 feet, a huge elevation change for a day hike. We started at 4:00 am in total darkness, and I came limping and dragging back to the parking lot at 6:00 pm. “Younger people” can usually do it in about 8 – 12 hours. We are not “younger people” anymore.

It is not my intent for this post to be a guide for other hikers, but rather a narrative of my own experience. “Mr. Half Dome”, Rick Deutsch, does a much better job, both with his website, blog, videos and his book Yosemite’s Half Dome. I highly recommend all if you are seriously planning hiking Half Dome.

When entering Yosemite through the main tunnel, the vista is breathtaking. Yosemite is one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring natural places in this country.

On the left you can see the famous El Capitan, a 3,000 foot sheer rock wall. In the background, overtowering the valley and everything around it is Half Dome, our final destination. The north face of half dome is a 2,000 foot wall of vertical rock.

The weather looks good for a climb on September 11th.

Here is where we’re planning on going, zooming the camera in from the valley floor. It’s really 4,800 vertical feet above where we’re standing. Hikers come up from behind the dome, from this viewpoint.

In recent years it has gotten so crowded on this trail that now permits are issued and strictly enforced by an armed ranger. Since there are many more applications than slots, a lottery is used. Trisha applied in April and promptly won us slots for her birthday bucket-list hike on September 11th. I didn’t even know this was on my bucket list. Half Dome is listed as “strenuous” or “very strenuous” in every description.

It was pitch black when we got on the trail at 4:00 am. We turned the lights off and I took this flash picture. The reflectiveness of the sign turned Trisha into a ghost.

With headlights we only saw the next 10 or 20 feet in front of us. Turning off the lights left us in complete blackness, with the stars as bright as I have ever seen them overhead, accompanied by a sliver of a moon and Venus nearby.

For two hours we hiked up the famous mist trail past Vernal Falls, one of the most scenic hikes in America, and saw nothing at all. We even lost the trail a couple of times and needed to use to GPS to find our way back. Sometimes it’s hard to find the trail in daylight. Try total darkness sometimes. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to be lost in dark woods next to thunderous waterfalls and sheer drops of hundreds of feet all around.

Around 6:00 am we finally got some light. By now we had passed through the most scenic part of the hike in darkness. At least we saw Nevada Fall right here. You can see some of the rough-hewn steps here. There were hundreds and hundreds of those leading up the cliffs.

Now we are in “Little Yosemite Valley.” There is a nice campground by the Merced River, and this is the last source of water. About halfway up. The top of Half Dome, from the back, still 3,000 vertical feet up and four miles away, is looming.

At 9:45 am we were at about 6.5 miles and 7,200 feet altitude. It was time to take inventory. Our non-negotiable turn-around time was to be at the cables by 11:00 am. Any later would jeopardize the hike and the ascent could get too dangerous, due to crowding, as well as weather. Thunderstorms or rain on the dome has been fatal to many a hiker and climber over the years. Trisha decided at that point that she did not have the strength to continue up the slope, with only an hour to go, let alone deal with the dome itself. The only responsible thing to do was to start the descent. I need to add here that many people somewhere along the way decide they have to turn around. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I assure you, the hike is much harder than most people anticipate.

We split up; I got into high gear and powered on.

After another 20 minutes up endless switchbacks, there is a flat ridge at about 7,800 feet altitude. Half Dome sat majestically, with the famous subdome in front of it. You can see the red arrow pointing to the cables on Half Dome and the blue arrow to the top of the subdome. Climbing the subdome is almost as scary as Half Dome itself, going up hundreds of rough, single file stone steps, some a foot high or higher. Toward the upper part of the subdome, the steps peter out and all that is left is steep, grey slab of granite to walk on.

Click on the image above to enlarge. You will see I have boxed in the cables section in green, and a section of the subdome in blue. There are people all over those two boxes, you just can’t see them unless I point them out.

So the image just below here is a zoomed copy of the blue box from the picture above:

I know it’s hard to see, but there are people all over these pictures on the wall. I have pointed out six of them with red arrows. You can now click again on the large picture above and pick out more people on the subdome, now that you know what you’re looking for.

Similarly, I have enlarged the green box here:

When you now see the people on these zoomed pictures, it puts the original picture into perspective.

Now I am on top of the subdome, which is marked by the blue arrow in the picture with the boxes above. Climbing the subdome was extremely exhausting. I would take 10 steps, stop and pant, try not to look down behind me the seemingly vertical wall. Another 10 steps. Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Focus on each step. Don’t slip. Don’t get dizzy.

Finally, on top of the subdome, shown here, there is nothing left to do but put on the gloves, gulp down some water, eat a quick power bar, and get on the cables.

I did not take any pictures while on the cables. I can only tell you about it now.

It took all my courage and resolve to walk up and get started. The slope is about 45 degrees, a bit steeper in the middle, less on both ends. The altitude is over 425 vertical feet to the top. Looking up, it looks straight up. Looking down brings on vertigo. I resolved to do neither. There are 68 posts, about 10 feet between posts, and 2 x 4 wooden slats at each post. So you pull yourself up using both arms on a steel cable thicker than my thumb. Strong gloves are absolutely required. Hands could not take it and skin would be gone in minutes. Feet solidly on the ground, walking up while pulling up. I could only do one post at a time and I needed to stand there and rest, breathe, relax the arms and hands. I could not have gone faster, since the traffic jam of people going up and going down slowed things considerably. There were some people, less than half my age, in complete panic and almost frozen with fear, clinging to a post, refusing to move.

I wished I had brought my climbing harness to clip in. Without a harness, slipping and falling for any reason would be deadly. Slipping could be induced by somebody above losing control or dropping something. When the rock gets wet, it’s like a sheet of ice, and the only thing left is upper body strength and hand strength.

Somewhere half way up, standing calmly and resting on a post, I realized how utterly exposed I was, along with 30 other people on the cables with me at the time.

Lesson to self: Next time, bring a harness and clip in. It’s the difference between sheer panic and peace of mind.

Now that you have a sense for what it was like, you will understand why I didn’t pull out a camera and took pictures while on the cables. I would have had to look up, look down, look around, let go of the cable, and take incalculable risks.

Sorry, no pictures.

40 minutes on the cables, and now I am standing on top of Half Dome:

To the right you see a couple of guys standing on the famous overhang. I cannot go near the abyss myself. I am happy just staying away from the edge.

Here is another angle of the overhang. People step out and look down, 4,800 feet to the valley floor below. A giant void unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I could not let myself get closer to the edge than this (about six feet or so).

Here is a view into the west. The top of Half Dome is said to be as big as 17 football fields. People have played frisbee up here, but don’t leap after it if it goes over the edge.

Clouds were coming in, making me scared. And knowing that I’d still have to go down the cables, which is a whole other experience, I could not relax sufficiently to enjoy much of my stay.

Here is the view from the top of the cables, before they curve down into the void.

Just as on the way up, I resolved to take it one post at a time. Don’t look down, don’t look around, since the void curves away in all directions. Try not to burn the gloves. Try not to slip. Carefully navigate around any people frozen in their fear, up or down.

Finally, 30 minutes later, I stepped off the cables, and told myself that I was glad that I had done it and that I would never, ever want to do THIS again.

One look back, now relaxed and satisfied. Been there, done that. Never mind that I had to get back down the subdome, and the other eight endless miles to the valley. Slowly, surely, I’d get there, about six long hours later of relentlessly pounding of the knees and feet.

The next morning, I point up to where I just was. See, it can be done.

And about never again: We decided that this was just a practice hike. We’re already planning to apply for Sept 11, 2013. We’re getting permits for a party of four.

Any takers for the extra two? I now know how to train you up.

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