Monday, September 20, 2010

A Change of Pace - When Running and Hiking Collide

It wasn’t a marathon in the traditional sense. There were no water stops, no fans cheering…there wasn’t even a t-shirt. In fact, it wasn’t even 26.2 miles. But it sure felt like it. A little over a week ago, my friend and I found ourselves staring down (or rather up) at a 2.5mi climb to the top of Yosemite Park’s Half Dome. The only problem was that we’d already covered 4.5mi up winding stone staircases and relentless sets of switchbacks.

One of my mantras while running on particularly difficult, rolling trails is, “It gives back what it takes away.” In other words, the work you put in to climbing is gifted back with a merciful declivity or plateau. In this instance, it was the stunning views of Vernal and Nevada Falls that kept us trekking, not to mention the sheer awesomeness of the cliffs and mountains that swallowed us up.

At this now infamous 2.5mi juncture, we took pause to catch our breath, swallow some electrolytes, and take a quick photo in front of the “Dangerous” sign, warning hikers of the cables they’d have to endure for the last 400ft up Half Dome (more on that later). The sign may as well have read “Mile 20.”

The day – the trip – had started to wear on us physically. We’d set out from L.A. five days before, driven up the coast to San Francisco, went careening down the Muir Woods trails, seared our lungs ascending the Dipsea Trail, spent a day wine tasting in Napa, hiked up and down the trails surrounding Crater Lake, Oregon, and narrowly avoided freezing rain at Lake Tahoe.

Half Dome in the background

Though we’d enjoyed all of those stops, Half Dome had become the focal point of the trip – the one trail we’d prepared for for weeks. The trail guides estimated a 10-12 hour hike to cover the 14.2mi out and back, so it left little time for delay.

We pulled out of Tahoe at 6:30 a.m., bleary eyed and wrapped in various fleece articles to stay warm. Finally, nearly five hours later, we trotted up to the Half Dome trailhead in hiking shorts and t-shirts. It was 11:15. Our backpacks were filled to the brim with food, cold-weather gear, and headlamps…just in case.

The pace started brisk. We overtook tourists of larger carriage at a great clip, bounding up hills that seemed to never end as they disappeared around corners. Everyone’s destination appeared to be Vernal Falls, a mile deep into the trail. Hordes gathered at the footbridge at the base of the falls, while others bravely (and slowly) tottered to the top of the falls. I was amazed at the diversity in gear. Everyone ranged from serious hiker to khakis and polos (for lunch at the club after a morning walk) to *gasp* flip flops. Flip flops!

We carried on.

And on.

And on.

And when we got to the top of one particularly punishing set of switchback stairs, we looked up at Half Dome. Exchanged smiles as if to say, “Look how bad ass we are. 10 hours? Ha!” Except as we got to the map, in one horrific moment, we realized it wasn’t Half Dome at all. In fact, we were .2 miles outside of half way. It was a good place to stop for lunch.

We walked on in silence until reaching the aforementioned 2.5mi sign. After pausing for the photo, we both inhaled deeply and set out. Uphill. Always climbing. Never resting. My quads were tight. My hamstrings quivered. And the trail just continued on. That creeping despair crept in that comes in the last 10K of a marathon, where you’re not sure if you’ll see the finish line, yet you’ve come so far. You go to the well and urge yourself on. I called back each of those experiences with each grueling, sweat flinging step.

Finally, we hit the tree line. And began walking out along the ridge. And came to one more set of stones to climb.

About those cables. Roughly 100 yards from the top of the staircase, we reached what looks like a wall. They’ve bolted cables into this wall. There are gloves at the base of the cables for people to use to haul themselves up. And so that’s what we did.

It was awkward at first but finally we got a rhythm down and pulled ourselves up the side of this mountain, hand over hand. I made the mistake of turning to look down at one point and felt the odd sensation of my stomach flipping completely over. “Going back down this is going to be a treat,” I called up.

“Just trying to get up first,” my friend called back.

And so we did.

The trail paid us back in full, because of the view of Yosemite Valley. It made the despair we dragged ourselves through not 30 minutes before vanish. Instead, we walked from edge to edge taking in the 360 degree view of the Valley.

We returned to the base of the trail in about two-and-a-half hours. The whole thing took us seven. Satisfied and grateful to be alive, we devoured steak kabobs and black beans over the campfire. And that trip to Napa? The Stags Leap Winery Chardonnay didn’t stand a chance.

The next day we walked gingerly through the park, driving to various destinations, stepping out, taking in the view, snapping more pictures. There was no race medal at the finish, but the experience was all we needed.

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