"Just your average day in Yosemite"
by Peter Holleran
About a month before the Marin Headlands 50K in northern California I felt the need for a challenging run in a new environment, and my choice was between South Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley. I thought running to the top of Heavenly Valley Ski Area from Stateline would be interesting, but their website indicated that hiking was only available from the top of the gondola on what were really four short service roads, and that ski trails were off limits, which nixed my plan to make a meandering summit assault via the Runabout and California trails. In any case, the restaurant at the top of the tram had recently been closed to all but catered groups, so I also knew there would be no water or supplies on my route. Moreover as this was not ski season I would most likely be completely alone on the mountain, so survival was an issue. Bears and coyotes have overrun Lake Tahoe, and there is always the possibility of a nasty fall miles from nowhere. Finally there was the consideration of altitude (6000’ to 10000’), which might make running uncomfortable with only one night of acclimation. So that left me with Yosemite Valley. Here the trails were plentiful, the elevation would be less demanding (4000’ to 8500’), and a Monday visit would provide a comfortable mix of company and solitude. My plan was to run up to Half Dome, then over to Glacier Point, and back to the Valley, an ambitious loop of 25 miles with 6500’ of ups and down.
I drove the Merced-Mariposa route the night before, passed on the thought of staying at the closest inn to the park, the Cedar Lodge (psycho Cary Stayner’s former hangout) and found the next closest place only ten miles down the road that boasted a pool, air, and, best of all, $29 a night. Air was really a swamp cooler, gerry-rigged into the window with plywood and duct tape and sounding like a jack-hammer. The mattress sagged and the pool was empty and green, its cement walls cracked and crumbling. But the TV worked, all three channels, and it was home for the night.
Running and hiking in Yosemite requires a bit of planning. I didn’t get started until almost 9 A.M., but earlier would have been better, as the sun can get warm on the exposed trails. The visitor center doesn’t open until 7:30, however, and it is easy to kill time buying snacks, looking at souvenirs and dilly-dallying before catching the shuttle bus to Happy Isles. The trail to Half Dome covers 8 1/2 miles with 4800’ vertical, and the only safe water on route is a fountain at the 0.7 mile mark at the bottom of Vernal Falls (too close to do much good) and an unmarked seasonal spring around mile six (which I couldn’t find). Being averse to wearing a Camelback, I took a fanny pack with a water bottle in each pocket, two more inside (along with energy bars, first aid kit, whistle, and pepper spray), and a sports drink in one hand. All this weight was a hassle, but even so it wasn’t enough. The morning temperature was warm, although not hot, yet by the time I started back from Half Dome four out of five bottles were empty, and I was still nine miles from Glacier Point.
One of my goals this time was to see how much faster I could run up to Half Dome compared to hiking. While the Yosemite guidebook allows 10-12 hours minimum for a round trip, last year with a moderate but steady pace a friend and I made it up to the bottom of the cables in four hours. I looked forward to demolishing that time, but even more so, I looked forward to ego-stroking “oohs” and aahhs” from the hikers I would easily pass by. One of the joys of being a runner - any runner - is that once you leave your challenging, competitive running environment and go out into the “real world”, most ordinary folk think you are great! I wore one of my Dipsea T-shirts, and to my surprise there were quite a few people from Mill Valley on the trails that day, greeting me with words like, “this must be a piece of cake for you” (not really), “show-off” (true), and “way to go!” (yeah, I needed that).
I started my run conservatively, feeling somewhat stiff and sluggish, reaching the Vernal Falls bridge in 8 minutes, top of Vernal Falls in 22, and the top of Nevada Falls in 45, an hour ahead of my last year’s pace. Signs upstream ominously warn: “do not attempt to swim in the river; you WILL be swept over the falls, and you WILL die.” Once beyond the cooling mist of these cataracts the day began to warm up. The trail then enters an annoying flat section with loose beach-like sand for over a mile, ending at an area known as Little Yosemite where backpackers camp for the night. It’s very popular with the bears, too. The climb resumes for another 4 miles and 2000 feet of steep but very runable mountain trail to arrive at the base of Quarter Dome. The final approach to this point is very reminiscent of the last 300 yards of Cardiac on the Dipsea trail. As I crested the top a tired hiker exclaimed with an obvious touch of envy and frustration, “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” (more strokes, I loved it). My elapsed time was 1:58. A final 10 minute ascent on steep stone steps followed by a trail-less scramble over a vertiginous open rock face lead to a small isthmus at the base of the famous cables that stretch 800 feet up a 55-60 degree incline to the top of Half Dome. The cables were not part of my plan that day as running had top priority. Actually, the fact of the matter is, even though I had climbed them once before, I was still scared s....less! Park officials say there is no known incident of anyone being seriously injured here (which I find hard to believe), but if you let go of the cables, odds are highly in favor of the house that you’ll die. If you are lucky you will fall several hundred feet and land directly on the granite below . A little to the left or right and you could fall thousands of feet more. Either way you lose. The thought was dizzying. I tried working on a Cliff bar, but it wasn’t that easy.
After a thirty minute break to rest and refuel, I starting my descent of the open rock face. Traction is pretty good, but there is enough loose granite to make caution in order. If you are disoriented and stray too far from center it gets scary (and dangerous) real fast. From out of the blue someone shouted, “just like running down to Stinson, huh?” That friendly greeting calmed my soul, and they were right. Except for a mere half-mile drop on either side, this slope was no steeper than the Dipsea. Ah, but this was Yosemite and not the Dipsea, and that made all the difference!
The unofficial record on the Half Dome Trail is 2:51:56 (1:38:45 UP, 1:13:11 DOWN!) set by Mark Spencer in 1982. Next best is Bill Wright with 3:15:02 in 1999.
Forty minutes later and back to the top of Nevada Falls, I met some hikers on their way up who had ridden with me on the bus to Happy Isles hours before. We exchanged hi-fives, and I crossed the bridge over the falls and continued on the Panoramic Trail. Panoramic makes a wide arc of 5 1/2 miles past Ililouette Falls (where there is a nice but hard to reach picnic spot) before climbing up to Glacier Point. It tends to get warm and dry in this area and the trip takes longer than estimated because there is an initial climb of several hundred feet that isn’t obvious on the map. So the stated change in elevation from Nevada Falls to Glacier Point of 5800’ to 7200’, or 1400’, is really about 2000’. In the heat, with no water, and after running up Half Dome, this section took close to an hour and a half. The Glacier Point cafeteria beckoned like Shangrila, and for a long time on the dusty switchbacks I visualized savory soup, chili, pasta, sandwiches, and cold drinks. After standing in line for fifteen minutes, however, I somehow lost my appetite, and under increasing brain fog I settled for an iced-tea. Loading it with sugar after sugar I felt like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and was sure everyone thought I was some kind of a nut. Funny, though, after getting it down and resting in the coolness of the interior I felt revived and the chili bowl looked good again, but it was time to move on. Plus I had made the mistake of eating chili at the East Peak snack bar on Mt. Tam once before, and it just didn’t work. I settled for peanut butter crackers and Powerade, and headed towards the valley via the Four Mile Trail.
Aptly misnamed because it is really closer to FIVE miles, this is a fun trail to run, although caution is in order, for there are many switchbacks where a slip could send you thousands of feet to a nasty end (this is a common theme at Yosemite and, in fact, part of the attraction!). It is 3200 very precipitous vertical feet from Glacier Point to the valley, and the trip to the bottom seems to go on forever. About a mile down this relatively unfrequented trail I was on pace for a 45 minute descent (compared with last year’s 2 1/2 hours) when the unexpected happened. A lone hiker told me to be on the lookout for a momma bear with three cubs a short way ahead. I slowed and in a hundred yards, there she was - a small to medium sized (brown) California black bear, only 25 feet away, chewing on a fallen log. This was no campground bear, as it bore no tag. Seeing such a magnificent creature in its natural environment was a first and took my breath away. There were as yet no baby bears in sight - or so I hoped. (If THIS was a baby, I would have been in serious trouble). Apparently oblivious to my presence, she never looked up, and I quickly moved along. (But what if she were ON the trail and I had run into her coming full tilt around a corner? I lacked the energy to retreat uphill, and in any case couldn’t outrun a bear. Nor did I really trust my pepper spray (extra strength, and containing a special chemical the government used at Waco - or so I was told), and by the time I fumbled around in my pack for it I would’ve been a goner. All in all it would have been a rather dicey situation, and the unnerving thing is that it could easily have happened). Silently thanking the Yosemite gods for a fortuitous and awesome encounter, as well as for my safety, I continued the descent. Finally, the valley floor drew near, and I returned to earth once more. (Click here for another Four Mile Trail trip report). The unofficial ascent record, from the road to the Glacier Point railing, is 1:09 by Bill Wright.
After a mile or so jogging through quiet meadows I was back at the visitor center, where I enjoyed a well-deserved meal, sipping an O’Doul’s in slow motion while reclining blotto and gazing bug-eyed at the tourists walking to and fro. Dusk was approaching, one of the nicest times at Yosemite, and on the way out I pulled over at the base of El Capitan and took a refreshing dip in the Merced River to cool down. I had it all to myself. The experience was overwhelmingly peaceful. After some time I noticed a mother duck and her ducklings drifting lazily with the current in my direction. Lowering myself in the water until only my eyes were visible, I observed them in secret. They came close enough to reach out and touch before letting out a chorus of startled quacks and scurrying away. A satisfying end to a great day. I recommend it highly.