The Angry Corrie 59: Oct-Dec 2003


Half Dome, full on

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara...

I first read The Dharma Bums as a lad of 16, and was instantly captivated by Kerouac's account of mountain climbing and Buddhist monking in cool perfect starry California. Not only did the novel set me off on a spiritual quest which would eventually lead me up a tree in Arran (see TAC53, p6), it left me imbued with romantic notions of hopping the Union Pacific up the West Coast and climbing in the Sierra Nevada. Twenty-seven years later, I got to live that dream.

Sort of. Not on a freight train, though: instead, we hopped a Dodge Intrepid at LAX, and rolled north on Lincoln Boulevard contemplating Alejo's Italian Restaurant, palm-tree fringed Hotels California, and Legal Grind, cappuccino for $300, divorce included. Our first stop was indeed Santa Barbara, where I dipped my toes in the Pacific for the first time. Then four days driving the Pacific Coast Highway past the rocky promontories of Big Sur, surfbeaten Half Moon Bay and on to San Francisco, and the City Lights Bookstore on Jack Kerouac Lane. Next day we drove through Mamofa, or miles and miles of fuck all, to Yosemite and mighty Half Dome.

Two days later, and a 5am moonlit drive led to a pink and orange Yosemite dawn. Boots on, deep breath, and away up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls: even with the sun still low, the smirr from the waterfall was refreshing. Another hour, another waterfall: I stopped for breakfast, and had a cheese roll stolen by a chipmunk. Then a flattish mile along the sands of Little Yosemite Valley: glimpses through the pines of the hill's south-east face, which is the shape and colour of a broken Hob Nob. Half Dome, half biscuit.

image from TAC59

Although there was a fair number of hikers on the trail, it was still easy to find yourself alone. At such times one's thoughts turned to bears. Conventional wisdom holds that it is not necessary to be able to run faster than a bear: it will suffice to outpace your slowest companion. No companions, however, means no safety margin. There was a sudden rustle in the bushes. Too tired to run, I thought it best to shut my eyes and hope whatever it was would go away rather than, say, rip my head off. When I opened them again, I was confronted by a young deer, no more than six feet away, curious and unafraid.

We went our separate ways, mine being above the treeline and into the full-on microwave effect of the California sun on Yosemite granite. At the top of a series of gruelling rock switchbacks, the golden shark-fin summit of the Dome finally came into view. The last couple of hundred vertical metres are set at an angle of 45-50°and are only surmountable by mere mortals thanks to the provision of two steel cables looped through (all too) removable poles, which are linked by the occasional wooden step. Although I had been on the trail for nearly five hours, I was anxious to get on with it before apprehension got the better of me.

After five minutes on the cables, my arms were screaming and lungs gasping for air already thinned by altitude: I had climbed far enough to be concerned about the drop below. Another five minutes of chest-bursting effort ended in total engine failure. I parked my arse very firmly on the granite, legs astride an upright in the manner of a pole dancer. I suddenly didn't fancy this at all: I envisaged a prospect of a steepening slope, popping poles, fraying cables and termite-eaten balsa steps. Reversing the route looked daunting enough from where I was sitting; better to retreat now, said the devil on my shoulder, than get into deeper, or rather higher, shit.

But to have come this far and fail at the last? What of all those months of training, cycling, walks and the eschewing of chips? Just then an angel appeared at my right shoulder in the form of a little girl. She danced nimbly past with a smile and carried on up the route, unfazed by the drop and using the cables only for balance. Thus macho embarrassment drove me to another 30 minutes of breathless pain and the bald top of Half Dome.

The view was, in the Californian cliché, awesome. To the right of the vertiginous 5000ft vertical drop into Yosemite Valley rose the great face of El Capitan, to the left the spires of the Cathedral; behind me the ridge-tent of Clouds Rest, and on the blue horizon the snow-laced peaks of the Pacific Crest. Elation was tempered somewhat by fear of returning to the cables. I was reminded of the Zen saying quoted in Kerouac: when you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing, which advice seemed more appealing and more possible than the dizzying descent. I tried going down the cable facing out: when that became too scary, I turned round to face into the rock and promptly stepped hrough a crust of sun-dried vomit left by some other dehydrated domester. Finally I resorted to sliding on my backside from step to step for 30 unpleasant minutes.

Much later, when I took off my tattered shorts, I winced at the cuts and grazes that this method of descent had caused. A bad case, I thought, of Dharma Bum.

Gordon Smith


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