Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Victory Over Half Dome of Yosemite

Hereby I declare victory over the Half Dome! Finally we did it. I, Shahriar and Nitol succeeded in our mission to hike Half Dome of Yosemite in the first weekend of October and we finished the hike in less than 13 hours despite facing a long wait time in the cable to ascend on top of half dome.

We have taken a lot of preparation before going to this hike. We are relatively new hikers (specially I was the last person on planet earth to get involved in any kind of physical activities or sports) and hence those preparations made good sense. Before I tell more about myself, I should tell a little about my 2 co-hikers in this trip - Shahriar and Nitol.

Quazi Shahriar Rahman (Sujan) is an Electrical Engineer in Cadence Design in Sillicon Valley, the first Bangladeshi batch mate whom I came to know in California by chance more than 3 years ago. He is a guy with sheer interest on physical activities and sports. He is a good soccer player, runner, table tennis player, tennis player, enjoys bowling, 29 (cards) and more. He constantly looks for new and interesting things to do and hence when he knew of the opportunity to hike every weekend, he took it unmistakably. His advantage is strength, stamina and "can do" attitude. 

Shabbir Asiqur Rahman (Nitol) finished his Electrical Engineering from BUET and moved to the IT sector where I met him first as a colleague. He is now working as a Software Developer in Life Technologies in Foster City. He is one of the modest guys in the crowd and interested in various sports and activities, specially when accompanied by friends. We started our career as a Software Engineer almost 8 years back and since been very good friends all throughout. He will get married end of this year and hence I was not sure whether he will be able to take apart a good chunk of time to prepare and finish this hike with us apart from his busy schedule at this time. His advantage is a cool head and a strong pair of arms (we used to call him Shoaib Akhter for his bowling speed). 

I, Ashik Uzzaman (Fahim), is working in as a Software Developer head quartered in San Francisco. It's difficult to say my below-par weight and eating or drinking in small quantity are advantages or weaknesses. I have been always interested in games that involve less physical strength or stamina. That's why I picked Chess as my favorite hobby at an early age and consider myself an enthusiast in that area. I play table tennis in office during lunch break, occasionally 29 (cards) and bowling with friends in weekends. I am also an avid book reader and a blogger as you can see.

Few things common to all 3 of us are - we are of the same age, finished high school at the same year, live within 2 blocks in Fremont, California and are regular hikers every Sunday. We formed a hikers group where around 15 members come on and off to hike bay area trails - Mission Peak, Mount Diablo, Sunol Wilderness, Rancho San Antonio etc. If you want to join us, find Bay Area Bangladeshi Hikers Group in Facebook and look for our event calendar. A remote possibility of 2 of our friends Mostazir Rahman from Fremont and Noel from Los Angeles got canceled at the last week. I guess if the half dome cable would remain open 1 more month and we could reschedule our date, we would get a few more hikers in this trip with us. But as Winter is coming, there was no way we could delay our hiking date further.

Here you will find some of the pictures and a few videos taken during our hike.
I took time off from office October 2nd the Friday although Shahriar and Nitol didn't take leave. We started from Fremont at afternoon around 3 PM and reached Curry Village of Yosemite Valley by 8 PM with one break on the way. I was driving Nitol's Civic with GPS until we were very close to Yosemite when the road started curving wildly. Shahriar already booked a nice cabin with restroom and we had a sound sleep there at night. There was full moon when we entered into Yosemite and I was surprised to see how beautiful the hills looked under moonlights! It's my sixth time in Yosemite still only the second time at night. We saw people with gears preparing to climb rocks that night. I have a great respect for rock climbers as I am aware of the level difficulty involved in it. 

Aside from taking pictures of the cabin, we ate plenty of Khichuri and egg fry as dinner that Shusmita gave with us. The cake from Ramirez market was also a hit amongst 3 of us. We were lucky that we got cabin within a mile of the happy isle, the starting point of the half dome trail.

Major POIs and Timelines for Hiking via Mist Trail and Returning via John Muir Trail

Point of Interest (POI)
Expected Time To Pass
Actual Time
Altitude (Feet)
Cumulative Mileage

Start from Curry Village
6:45 am

Mileage Marker Sign
7:14 am

Vernal Fall Bridge
7:39 am

Top of Vernal Fall
8:18 am

Silver Apron Bridge
8:30 am

Little Yosemite Valley


Half Dome/John Muir Trail Split


The Little Spring


View of Half Dome & Sub Dome
11:45 am

Base of the Cables
12:38 pm

Apex of Half Dome
2:08 pm

Take Rest and Pictures (Until 2:36 pm)

Coming Down to Base
3:36 pm

The Little Spring – again


Little Yosemite Valley – again
4:37 pm

Junction of Mist & John Muir Trails
5:35 pm

Nevada Fall Bridge
5:50 pm

Vernal Fall Bridge – again
6:50 pm

Mileage Marker Sign – again
7:28 pm

Curry Village Parking Lot


Although we got up around 5 AM the next morning, it took us some time to start our hike. By the time we returned the room key to the front desk and walked the road to happy isles, it was 6:45 AM. We reached the mileage marker sign at 7:14 AM which we initially planned to reach an hour earlier. Nitol forgot his hiking sticks in the car that he got from his colleague and regretted that. We were going in smooth pace crossing Vernal Fall, taking the Mist Trail and then reaching Nevada Fall taking pictures every now and then. While in the steep stairs of Mist trail I was talking to Shusmita and my 3 years old son Ahyan. He thought I went to bring Banana for him as I do often while coming back with a coffee from Starbucks.

As we are hiking half dome for the first time (I hope it's not the only time too), we were taking photos frequently of the beautiful sceneries and trail around us. This accounted for the higher total time we needed to go up till the base of the half dome. The steps in Mist Trail were steep and quite long. This was when I first acknowledged that we were not over-prepared. The whole half dome trail was all throughout steep except once we went further into the little Yosemite Valley where we got couple of miles easy-on-legs trail. At the start of the journey Shahriar and I had an idea that we could have finished the Half Dome hike even without rigorous preparation. But well, it’s one thing to run around Mission Peak in Fremont which is only 2500 feet at it’s peak and 6.4 miles round trip, and it’s completely a different story when you are tested your endurance over 17/18 miles for an elevation gain of almost 4800 feet. I found it very satisfactory that Nitol was keeping the pace with us all through out. In this process he had to push himself to his limits several times. As a result we got more rest than him and hence probably less tired too. Nitol was clear to himself about his target – he knew he wanted to go on top of half dome but he didn’t have any specific timeline to reach there. He was more like going on his own pace unless we were close enough within his reach. For me, I felt that I want to keep up with the suggested pace that I calculated in the table above. So at times I walked a little faster to accommodate the extra time to write down the time logs as well as analyze how good or bad we were doing in terms of pace. I found we were going faster than what I expected as per my back home calculations but slower than what the author of the book One Best Hike: Half Dome of Yosemite Rick suggested. I wrote some comments on the time logs which is helping me now as a source of information for this blog entry. For Shahriar, it was more like meeting a standard timeline so that we were not too slow. Unfortunately, on this long beautiful trail we met no beer or mountain lion, but just one big deer. Bangladesh flag was always with me in this full trail that I got from Shahriar as he had an extra one.

Then came the first view of the beautiful half dome! While I was taking a picture of Shahriar keeping half dome in the back, I found I didn't want to move my sitting position to take his pictures from different angles - a sign of tiredness. Shahriar was commenting like we can't get too tired here as we were eying towards Mount Whitney/Mount Hood  and other very tough trails in future. The first time I really felt tired was in the giant steps of sub dome which you have to cross to go to the base of the cable. The approximate 800 steps of subdome has not been emphasized much in the articles or books except in Rick's book.  In some places it looked like a sharp vertical wall and only after careful observation you find there were rocks for stepping to go around those walls. I reached earlier in the base of the cables than Shahriar and Nitol where we found a very big crowd for the cable to go on top of half dome. When I saw it so closely, the first thing came to my mind was - holy crap!!! If I would not see other people climbing that cable, I would never think it’s feasible.  Nitol told that he would think a few times before going up through that cable if he would not have the chain with him to hang himself with the cable. Shahriar was calculating himself in his mind to conclude that it's not a matter of joke. We left our bags in the base as many people do so.

We knew the climbing will be easier while going up than while coming down. But even that was tough enough. I think the park authority should have a permit system for physical and mental fitness before allowing anyone to this cable. As per Shahriar, it’s not only risky but also dangerous. But Nitol was very comfortable with the climb. One hiker helped Nitol to hook his chain with this body properly. Then we saw him walking outside the cable to cross some people although it was too much to cross so many people. Despite all his tries, it was 1 hour and 30 minutes before I first went on top of half dome. Shahriar and Nitol came a few minutes later than me. In the cable you will find a wood every 10 feet to keep your body weight on. But the way to go from one wood to another wood, you have to walk over the slippery rock and bring your body up putting all the weight on your 2 hands. While stopped and hanging, you need to make sure your leg is on one of those woods. And yes, don't make mistake of not wearing a full pant and a jacket. On the way up, I was regretting not wearing a full pant, due to the cold wind. 

While ascending the cable, we found one person had to be held from 2 sides to bring back down to the base from the middle of the cable. It's height phobia. There is no escape if you miss your step and fall. The first hit you will get is almost 200 to 500 feet down followed by thousands feet down I guess. Nitol was comfortable keeping his chain around the cable allowing himself even walking outside the cable often. It took us 1 hour 30 minutes to go on top due to the heavy human traffic on the cable that late hours. Well, yes - we made it to the top at last! By that time, we were so tired and feeling cold that the first thing I was looking for is when to go down. We were on top only 26 minutee. Shahriar finished his prayer and we took a few photos there.

On the way down, it took Shahriar and me 1 hour while Nitol probably finished it by half an hour. A few things happened when we were one-third down in the cable. I was wearing the synthetic pant which is slippery. Due to the traffic, I was taking rest by sitting in the rock sometimes. Once while seated I started slipping to the right side of the rock. First I had only one hand in the cable and I quickly caught the ropes with the other hand. However, I was still virtually hanging and didn't know how long I can hang like that, may be less than a minute. I asked Shahriar to hold one of my hand who was just above me coming down. While he forwarded his hand to me, the person in front of me gave his leg that I used to come back to the middle of the cable and escaped falling down. It was very risky. The line between life and death is very thin, if you are not careful enough in that cable. I didn't sit after that in the cable for the rest of the time. 

Shahriar got a muscle pull at the same time or a little earlier. But he didn't tell me so that I don't get into panic. Your hands and legs are your life in the cable and at that point a muscle pull means a very likelihood of falling down from the cable. And I hope I don't need to say what does it mean by falling down from the half dome cable, you can see the pictures or read Wikipedia of what happened in near or long past. Shahriar just told me not go too fast and stay together. That's what I did the whole way coming down. Our strategy was I would go down one wood distance (10 feet) slipping and then put my leg up. Shahriar would then slip until he touches my leg and shifts his weight to my wood. Then I would again advance for the next wood. Due to his muscle pull, he could not put pressure on his legs and held his whole body weight over his 2 hands. He slipped many times, 2/3 of whom looked very serious to me. He didn't tell about the risk he had undergone through while coming down, until we got down from the giant sub dome steps as well. What a relief! His muscle pull was no more issue as soon as he came to a relatively flat land.

One the way down we walked very fast and took the John Muir trail instead of Mist Trail. Although this trail is a bit longer than the Mist Trail it's less steeper than that as well. People take it on the way back to get rid of the extra pressure on knee. Last one hour or more we walked over the headlight as it became dark.

By the time we reached the car parking, only Shahriar had the energy left to drive back home. However, we didn't have much gas in the car and Nitol was thinking of even staying at Curry Village that night. But we were eager to go back home and have a sound sleep and rest. So Shahriar started driving. Soon we found that the gas is so less that we may not be able to reach the nearest gas station with that. We still kept going. And then the road started curving up which takes uses more gas than regular drive. So to our horror, we found the gas bar going down very rapidly. Nitol tried to call 911 and roadside assistance and there was no mobile network inside the forest of Yosemite National Park. We started looking for a turn around when the gas started using the reserve oil. However, at that time we found we are at 6192 feet elevation and there is no visible turn around. As if it were not good enough, we started seeing bear sign on that place which means if the car stops here now, we have to stay the whole night here amongst the mighty bears. Shahriar asked if the car break will work we run out of gas when  driving uphill here. None of us knew and had the only option to pray for a gas sign to see. As Almighty's blessings to us, when we thought the car is going to stop any moment now, we found a gas station sign. Aaah!!! While taking gas, we saw signs of bear everywhere in that gas station.

Once we filled up the gas, we were smoothly on our way back to Fremont. We stopped at Denny's for dinner on the middle of the way. Shahriar held the dinner in celebration to our victory over half dome. A great feeling of accomplishment for 3 of us!

Well now what! Despite all the risks we had undergone through, the next mission will be Mount Whitney in summer of 2010 - the highest peak in the lower 48 states of USA (14,505 feet).

See you there.

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