The trail to Half Dome begins in my study in the eastern hills of San Jose. There are other approaches, to be sure. But this is called The Dauntless One. It's for those who keep trying. Here in this book-laden den John Muir resides and he encourages the diffident:
Climb the mountains and get their good
tidings. Nature's peace will flow into
you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds
will blow their own freshness into you, and
the storms their energies while cares will
drop off like autumn leaves.m
Some of that energy and peace makes itself felt as I stand at Glacier Point and wait for the clouds to move away from the back of the granite monolith. Then as they do, I'm awestruck and deeply stirred as I see the rain-dark torso of Half Dome heave into view like a whale rising from the depths.
It's early in the day but late in the year - seven o'clock on a Friday near the end of September. The season for climbing Half Dome is drawing to a close. I've chosen this opportunity before the snow and ice take over. And before the cables are taken down from the bare rock pitch nine hundred feet to the summit. The cables can't withstand ice and snow avalanches.
Sometimes I think I've been climbing Half Dome in my head for years. Ever since one winter morning at four o'clock during my freshman year at Berkeley, when four of us - Nancy, Merrill, Joanie, and I - at someone's exuberant suggestion, piled into a car with ski equipment and took off in the cold and dark for Badger Pass in Yosemite.
We skied all day for three days and in the evenings we drove delicately down the icy roads to the valley, where we skated on the ice under the stars. And always, of course, there was the brooding presence of vast domes and cliffs - among them, however remote and inaccessible, the haunting form of Half Dome, snow-covered, bleak, and forbidding. And since then, as I say, something has been yearning in me toward that lofty place of quiet.
Half Dome, the objective of this rainy trek, is many hours and miles away across a vast gorge. The approach is down-and-up, long, and strenuous. But it's the least difficult of the few available routes by foot.
It'll take more than a day, going and returning. So I hit the trail with pack-and-frame, sleeping bag, and space blanket. I'm partly ready for more rain, but I don't like ponchos or foul-weather gear. I'm wearing a waterproof windbreaker, denim trousers that absorb moisture very slowly, and rubber-cleated hiking boots.
Seventeen minutes, one California ground squirrel, and three mule deer down the trail, I feel a light rain on my face. It's welcome! As is the overcast sky. The rain and cool air keep one's body temperature down and one's canteen remarkably undepleted. What they don't do is ease the pressure on the leg muscles during steep angles of ascent and descent for long stretches over shambles of rocks and boulders.
Approaching Ilillouette Fall, I'm aware that the steady rain of yesterday and the night before is returning. Only just before dawn did it let up, and I felt a surge of promise and energy for the trail.
But now as I reach the bridge at Ilillouette Fall and begin the long climb up to Panaroma Cliff, the rain is increasing steadily. A decision must be made whether to turn back or go on despite the distance, weather, and other uncertainties, such as trail conditions and sleeping out without a tent.
I decide to go on. The long haul back up the gorge would be spiritless and exhausting. I'm at the point of no return. But now the trail is turning into a stream of water, and there's hardly a place to rest that isn't rain-drenched.
I'm sitting on a wet rock under a Jeffrey pine, when a fellow traveler passes by in the same direction. We exchange a few words, and he goes on ahead toward Half Dome.
But at the bridge above Nevada Fall, an hour later, I see him returning. He's gathered some news up ahead. The rain is not going to let up. A hurricane named Olivia has hit Baja, and part of it is moving north. We're on the fringes now.
I'm standing at the top of Nevada Fall where John Muir, enthralled with the tons of water twisting and gushing toward the cliff, said, ''This is the morning of creation. The whole thing is beginning now! The mountains are singing together.''
As for me, I've given up hope of keeping dry. It's raining through the wind and mist. It doesn't look as if it will ever clear up again. But I'm in life - stormy though it be - not standing apart from it. And this realization makes all the anguish of the trail worthwhile, after all.
It's clear to me now that I can't go on to Half Dome but must descend to the valley by way of the Nevada Fall foot trail and the Vernal Fall Mist Trail. This test of endurance will reach into the afternoon and take as much stamina as I can muster. It's a steep and rocky descent and, down along the side of the canyon below Vernal Fall, very precarious.
So, raising my blue, soaked bandanna like a limp flag of surrender in the direction of Half Dome, I start down.
And that night in my tent cabin at Curry Village, lying in the dark and listening to the rain beating on the canvas overhead like an eternal poetry, I think: Nothing has changed. Though people do climb Half Dome, for me it's the same. Half Dome is as forbidding as it was that winter of my freshman year when Nancy, Merrill, Joanie, and I skated on the ice along the valley floor under the stars.