I’d been to 49 states. It seemed high time to make it an even 50, so I planned a trip to Hawaii with my brother Aster. We didn’t want to do the typical touristy “stay in a resort on Maui and never get to see what Hawaii’s really like” trip, so we opted instead to spend two weeks backpacking through the less popular but more scenic Kauai and the big island of Hawaii instead. No resorts, no hot showers… hell, we didn’t even sleep indoors once. “Vagrants in Paradise,” isn’t that a Nick Nolte movie?
Most vacationers go to Maui or Oahu, book a package deal at a resort, and essentially just transport their regular life to somewhere warmer for a few weeks. They rarely interact with Hawaiians who aren’t serving them something. They don’t eat weird unheard-of fruits that may not actually be edible and may actually just be a practical joke, just to fit in with the locals. They never get to eat at a restaurant called “Da Crack.”
They definitely don’t experience Hawaiians of all ages asking them every day if they have any weed.
The trip ended up being a four-part saga (Los Angeles, Kauai, the big island, and Yosemite), which involved six flights and five rental cars. The L.A. part is mostly about bizarre travel hassles, so skip to Kauai if you’re just here for sunny beaches and near-death experiences.
I fly into LAX and rent a car. Attend my sister’s wedding. Drive back to LAX, return car, shuttle to airport, pick up Aster. Shuttle to different rental agency, rent different car, drive it up to Fresno. Lunch with our mom, return car, get on a plane. Sit on that plane in runway gridlock while pilot gives other planes the finger for cutting him off. Fly back down to LAX for a layover on the way to Kauai. What? Ah, nonsensical modern life.
We landed in a weird satellite terminal in LAX, totally unclear about how to catch our plane to Kauai. Find the shuttle to the main terminal, wait while it fills up with confused people. Then the door opens again and the driver tells some big manly Hispanic dude that he’s got the wrong suitcase. Dude grabs this extremely effeminate little purple roller bag, hustles back into the terminal, and then comes back out a few minutes later with a nearly identical extremely effeminate little purple roller bag. Off we go!
…to sit at a runway stop sign while we let every other variety of runway traffic pass us. Planes, baggage carts, an elephant. It took us a solid half-hour to get from that weird Twilight Zone satellite terminal to the main terminal, where we climbed up a set of jerry-rigged ramps to get into the building. Get inside and realize I just walked in through the door our flight is supposed to be leaving from. Ask the gate agent when the flight to Lihue is leaving, and she says she has no idea what I’m talking about. I point out that the flight info is on the giant screen RIGHT BEHIND HER, and the flight is leaving from the gate she is currently manning, and she says I’ll have to ask the guy next to her, since he works for American. We’re in the American Airlines terminal. Who the hell does this woman work for? Can I man a counter in this terminal when I’m bored?
I wait 15 minutes for the guy to finish speaking Spanish to the woman in line in front of me. I think he’s giving her advice about raising children on a fixed income. Finally get to ask him about the flight, and he says oh no, that flight left 10 minutes ago. Off to the customer service desk.
Got a little queasy walking up to the customer service desk, since I spent 7 hours standing at a counter just like this at the San Francisco Airport last summer. Short version: Next flight’s tomorrow morning, and we get no hotel or food vouchers since the flight was delayed due to air traffic congestion. I blame Obama, loudly.
Now I have to figure out how to get us back to my grandpa’s house (45 minutes away) to spend the night, having already returned the rental car. Go to book a car on my phone, but the signal dies during checkout. We hop on the Dollar shuttle to go rent one in person. At Dollar, the car’s $90 for one day. Fuck that. Shuttle back to LAX. Book a $30 car through Hertz on my phone, hop on the Hertz shuttle. The Hertz shuttle driver is clearly a robot designed to be cooler that regular people, and he is DJing while he drives. “Those were the smooth sounds of Otis Redding, now let’s get on down to some Aretha!” We somehow got him talking about dispensaries and legalized marijuana. He declared that yes, it would be pretty cool if he could smoke a blunt while driving the Hertz shuttle.
Got to Hertz, which turned out to be right across the street from Dollar. Whoops. Go inside, aaaaand our reservation was somehow for their Hollywood branch. But they’d be happy to put us in a car for… $90. Fuck this.
Went on my phone and booked the cheapest thing Kayak had, which was a cargo van for $25. Whatever. No shuttle to get there, so after navigating our way out of a Hertz lot most assuredly not designed to be escaped on foot, we walked a few miles across town to the van rental place. Through some pretty sketchy sections of Inglewood, adorned with abandoned cars and inexplicably fenced-in lots full of crashed and burnt-down rental car husks. We decided that the Inglewood trail was officially the first hike of our backpacking trip.
So then all of a sudden I find myself driving this big-ass van around L.A., like I’m taking the church group to summer camp. We stopped at The Golden Mean Cafe in Santa Monica for dinner, which was everything you've heard and more, and then attempted to use the 405 freeway to finally get the hell out of town. Only the onramp was closed. No problem, navigate to the next one. Closed for construction. After about ten closed onramps in a row I started to joke that we were going to take side streets all the way to the 101. This became slightly less funny when it turned out that EVERY onramp for the 405 was being worked on simultaneously. How do you even do that? Way to go, L.A.
Eventually escaped town, slept, bombed back down the airport at the crack of “Oh my God we’ve got to beat traffic!” the next morning, blaring “I Love L.A.” in ironic fashion. At LAX, we discovered an amazing vegan restaurant inside the terminal (you confuse me, Los Angeles) and finally we were off to Kauai.
Things many people know about Kauai: It’s the oldest and smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands. It’s beautiful, and they filmed much of Jurassic Park there.
Things not many people know about Kauai: There are fucking chickens EVERYWHERE. Imagine if you went to any random place in America and you took all of the squirrels, pigeons, stray cats, rats, opossums, Chihuahuas and other semi-pesty little animals that wander around getting into things, and you replaced every last one of them with a chicken. That’s Kauai.
The weirdest thing about this is that 99% of the chickens are roosters. I have no idea where they’re hiding all the hens. They may be hiding in the stomachs of Hawaiians.
The main function of all the free-range roosters seems to be to let you know that it’s morning, by crowing loudly and repeatedly at, say, 3:30am or 2 in the afternoon. If they have the opportunity, they’ll climb to a high perch for maximum volume, but if that’s not a possibility they’ll just surround your tent so they can crow into both of your ears at the same time.
Each rooster has a slightly different crow, which is funny when you hear one bail out in the middle of his crow like he changed his mind (“COCK-A-DOODLE-Dfuckit…”) and then you realize he crows like that every single time.
Our first day on the island we camped on Haena beach on Kauai’s north shore, which was also hosting an 8th grade field trip and this extremely drunk German guy who talked to me for a half an hour about the convoluted glowing jet trails we were looking at in the sky, and his theories on aliens and government conspiracies. This was an early indication of what I’d discover throughout the trip: Every third person you meet while traveling will be German, and many of them will be hammered.
After falling asleep to the sound of the crashing ocean waves echoing off the cliff face behind us, the roosters woke us up at 3:30am to let us know it was daytime now. It wasn’t, I’m not sure if they saw the moon or a plane flying overhead or they were just defective, or if roosters have been running a scam on us for millennia to make us believe that they can tell when the sun’s up. We got up around 4:30 so we could hit the Kalalau trail before the sun actually came up, an event which I was pretty sure was going to confuse the roosters into silence.
The Kalalau is rated as one of the most dangerous hikes in the world (along with Half Dome, which you’ll read about later), because the trail is a couple of feet wide and is carved into sheer cliff faces, so people fall off and die while admiring the view. Or they don’t fall off and they make it to the beach at the end of the trail, go for a swim to celebrate and have the riptide pull them out to sea and drown them. There were hand-carved signs along the trail counting with hash marks how many people had died on the trail, and a humorous assortment of official warning signs describing all imaginable varieties of peril:
I responded to the warnings of the trail’s danger and difficulty by wearing my toe shoes, which was fucking stupid. After about a mile my feet were hamburger, from stubbing every part of my feet and toes on the sharp rocks, stumps, roots and crags that made up the entirety of the trail surface. And then the trail ripped the sole off one of my shoes.
My brother was heroic enough to let me change into his boots, and he wore his toe shoes the rest of the way, which was brave and foolish of him. I was grateful to have some foot protection, even though the boots were a size too big and my feet slid around in them until my toenails had cut up every last one of my toes and my feet looked like some kind of Arby’s sandwich. Basically this hike was like that scene in Casino where they catch the guy cheating at cards and they take a hammer to his hands to discourage him from doing that any more, only this was my feet and Robert DeNiro was a mountain in Hawaii.
This was all before I fell off the cliff. As described, the trail is just a narrow cut into a steep cliff, and at the outside edge of the trail the land drops off at an extremely steep angle for 30 feet or so before dropping straight down for a few hundred more feet down to the rocks and water below. Aster is an inhumanely fast hiker, and at one point I was scrambling to catch up to him, turned a corner too fast, and stepped on the outside edge of the trail, which promptly broke away like it had been primed for this scene in the movie. Suddenly I was sliding down the cliff face. Thankfully my body has more intelligence about such things than my brain, and I was able to blindly grab onto some of the vegetation on the cliff face to halt my fall before I got to the vertical drop. I clawed my way back up to the ledge, and promptly decided that catching up to my brother was an extremely overrated concept.
All foolhardy danger aside, it was quite a hike and the views were amazing. We spent a good chunk of time on a secluded beach in one of the valleys along the hike, where I was able to bask in the sun and acquire a deep sunburn in about four minutes.
After we survived the Kalalau, we hiked the trail to the Hanakapi’ai waterfall. This makes a lot of lists of most beautiful waterfalls in the world, which explains why so many people brave the long, technical trail to get there. About a quarter of the way there we passed a dude coming the other way who said “Almost there guys!” I still kind of want to punch that guy in the face a little bit.
The next night we camped on Anini beach, which was absolutely Kauai’s best-kept secret until I just told you about it right now. Seriously, you’re pretty much an idiot if you camp anywhere else in Kauai. And I know, because we camped everywhere else in Kauai and there were a bunch of idiots at those places.
One of our big goals for the visit to Kauai was to complete the legendary Blue Hole hike, which isn’t really an official hike because that would mean there would actually be a road to get there and a trail and you wouldn’t be hiking up the middle of a river because the woods there are absurdly thick like Andy Rooney’s eyebrows. We 4-wheeled it back to the trailhead, driving through a few streams and a “road” that was only a “road” in the sense that anything you can successfully drive over is sort of conceptually a “road” by default.
After parking our rental Escape and making sure the magnetic “Plant Trees” bumper sticker I’d bought to make our rental car not look like a rental car (or at least provide enough conflicting information so that any would-be car-breaker-inner might mistake us for locals) was affixed, we headed up the trail and through the Jurassic Park gates. You can’t tell at all, but these two posts were once part of the big-ass “Welcome to Jurassic Park” gate they drive through in the movie:
The goal of the Blue Hole hike is to get to the center of the island, which is called “the wettest place on Earth.” There’s a cliff that weeps, and probably some other oddball Indiana Jones stuff in there. Paradoxically, you cannot hike to “the wettest place on Earth” if it has rained any time recently, because the river you have to hike up the middle of quickly changes from a river you can hike up the middle of and into raging rapids that you can tumble down screaming until they find your body washed out somewhere in the sea.
We made our way upstream, leaping from rock to rock (my brother) or falling forward repeatedly into the river (myself) for a while; until it became painfully apparent that this was not terrain I could navigate wearing a giant 80-liter hiking pack. So we decided to return my pack to the car and make do with what we could fit in Aster’s bag. On the way back to the car, it began to rain. Hmmm. We decided to wait out this inevitably brief sprinkle from the comfort of the rental car. 40 minutes of hard rain later we realized that not only was the river now too high to hike through, the streams we had driven across on the way to the trailhead were also quickly rising, and the “road” we had taken in was rapidly turning to impassable soup. Very quickly the rental car’s name became literal and we lit out to escape the area while we still could.
Some serious deep mud 4-wheeling and stream crossing later, we just barely made it out onto dry land. It rained torrentially for the next three days. So on one hand, we didn’t get to do the whole Blue Hole hike. But on the other hand, we also didn’t get to be trapped upstream in the rain for three days with an afternoon’s worth of food, and no flat land on which to pitch a tent, while we waited for the river to recede. So things kind of balanced out there.
We waited out the three days of rain by not waiting out the rain at all and running around, camping and hiking like it wasn’t pissing rain constantly. We spent a night camping in Koke’e State Park at high elevation up the mountain, and met some fun groups of young German and French tourists who were adorably baffled that they had chosen three days to visit Kauai when it was pissing rain all the time.
That night we pitched our tent up the hill at the highest campsite in hopes of not being washed away by the deluge. In the middle of the night the storm shifted gears into full monsoon mode, and I was certain we were going to wake up in the parking lot. The rain was coming down so hard it was actually beating straight through the tent material, and at one point I woke up to find my phone floating across the tent floor. Every photo I took the next day looked like it was taken in dense fog because of all the water inside my phone.
In the morning, the roosters woke us up to let us know they were okay and hadn’t been washed away in the flood. I hiked down to the parking lot to find that the French girls had abandoned their tent in the middle of the night and slept in their car. And the Germans were one campsite further down the hill from the one they had started the night in, a fact I attribute to 10,000 gallons of water and gravity.
We spent the last few days of rain hiking down into Waimea Canyon, which is called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Incredibly beautiful, and a real bitch to hike down into in the rain. The canyon was ringed by waterfalls spilling water majestically into unreachable pools, perched upon the faces of the cliffs all around us. I was admiring one of those far-off pools when a voice called down to me from that distant ledge: “COCK A DOODLE DOOOOO!” Did I mention there were roosters everywhere?
We camped the night at the bottom of the canyon by the river and hiked back up the next day. And in spite of hiking for two days up and down steep canyon walls, over endless stretches of mud and loose gravel, I prided myself on not stumbling once. We got up to the canyon rim, triumphantly left the trailhead heading for the car, and I completely ate shit in the parking lot like an ape on roller skates.
We spent our last day in Kauai 4-wheeling through the mud to get to the beach at Polihale State Park on Kauai’s West coast, which was fun and completed our absolute trashing of the rental car.
For our last night on the island, we camped near the beach at Salt Pond State Park. It was Memorial Day weekend, so the place was packed with locals partying and unwinding from the week. We were serenaded all night by Hawaiians a few tents over, who were playing the ukulele and singing traditional songs we couldn't understand at all. Though at one point after the alcohol had been flowing for hours, somehow "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers snuck into the playlist, and we sang along from inside our tent.
My favorite thing about Kauai was how much the whole place felt like a small town, and how after a week I felt like a quasi-local. I’m sure this was at least partially an illusion, but it was an enjoyable kind of self-deception.
The island of Hawaii is basically lava that people live on. It’s the youngest of the islands, which means it’s not finished yet. Much of the island is a series of lava fields with signs marking what year it was when this lava flow destroyed and buried everything in its path on its way out to the sea. This concept takes a bit of getting used to. You can walk up one now-closed highway that suddenly terminates into a miles-wide lava flow from 2002. This would be sort of like waking up one morning and suddenly finding out that I-80 dead-ends into a mountain in Nebraska now.
All Hawaiian place names are impossible to remember, unless you’re a much better person than I am. I spent the whole trip referring to things like “That place we were on Tuesday” and “You know, Wai-*mumblemumblemumble*.” My brother found this hilarious, but I’m still not sure how I was supposed to keep Waimanu, Waipi’o and Waimea straight, or cope with the fact that many of the same place names existed on both islands.
Culturally, Hawaii is similar to what you’d expect. Things are laid-back, people drive slowly, and being on time isn’t really a thing. A few aspects of this caught me off-guard, like the fact that the airport is outdoors. Like, all of it. There’s no indoors. You go through all the usual airport security equipment, only it’s outdoors, and then you wait out on a patio that’s about as secure as my grandpa’s backyard until the plane comes.
When you’re on the islands, you’re supposed to say “aloha” instead of “hello” and “mahalo” instead of “thank you.” Also instead of waving there’s a hand gesture that I think of as meaning “hang loose,” but there’s probably a more official name for it. I’m not sure I ever got completely comfortable with this set-up, as I was never sure if it was just a show for the tourists or if I was going to come across as an immense poseur and possibly suffer a beatdown for even attempting this regimen. It felt a bit like walking up to some random gents in Compton and inquiring about the state of their shizzle. But I probably needn’t have worried, all the Hawaiians we met were pretty laid back and I think mostly concerned for me, since they interpreted my Minnesota-white skin as a sign of near death.
Probably the greatest things in Hawaii are the acai bowls. These are bowls of blended fruit topped with more fruit and honey and random deliciousness. We ate all the acai bowls while we were in Hawaii. I’m sorry, you probably would have liked them if you could have tried them, but they’re all gone now because we ate them.
The first thing we did on the big island was to visit South Point, the southernmost tip of the island, which is also the southernmost point in the United States. There’s a cliff ledge here where you can leap into the ocean, just because. Here’s Aster taking the plunge:
Inland, Volcanoes National Park was a bit of a washout. Aside from the fact that it was raining the whole time, there wasn’t actually any lava flowing on the island while we were there. The closest we came to lava was seeing the dim glow from the volcano’s caldera at night.
(paste unrecognizably dark photo of nothing here)
All was not dull, however, since driving through the woods in the park that night we passed a red convertible that had gone off the road and wrapped around a tree. The headlights were still on, so we pulled over to help. We found the driver, a kid in his early 20s, wandering around in the rain, disoriented and in shock. It took about twenty minutes to talk him into letting us give him a ride back to civilization. On the way, we talked about what would happen if you peed on a lava flow and if there were any lepers left wandering around from the colony on Molokai. If I had it to do over again I would have asked how his car ended up off in the woods, facing uphill. He must have really been flying.
We spent an afternoon driving up to the peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s dormant volcano and the tallest mountain in the world, more than twice as tall top-to-bottom as Everest. But since most of the mountain is under water, the elevation of the peak is “only” 13,800 feet, which was still plenty high enough to give me a wicked case of altitude sickness. In spite of not being able to breathe and having my IQ knocked down to about 48, I enjoyed the incredible views and the sunset from above the clouds, followed by a night sky cram-packed with stars, as we shivered in our sleeping bags and the domes of the numerous observatories whirred behind us.
That night we had a rather expensive permit to camp at Spencer Beach Park on the island’s West coast, but when we got there around midnight we discovered that they had locked the gate at 9pm. There was no one on hand to reason with, so we ended up studying Google maps for a few minutes before driving to a resort up the road, sweet-talking the guard to let us in, driving off the back end of their property and 4-wheeling it to get onto an service road back by the beach, all in hopes of sneaking in through the back entrance to the park.
We were eventually stopped by a chain across the road with a lock we couldn’t pick, so we got out and walked the rest of the way in, feeling out our options for off-roading the Jeep the rest of the way. When we finally got to Spencer Beach, the back entrance had a locked gate as well (as well as many scary “You Trespass You Die!” type signs, referring to the area we had just come from), but we eventually found the park’s overnight security guard watching a skin flick on his iPad, and he agreed to let us in. He started heading for the front gate to unlock it for us, at which point we had to awkwardly explain that our Jeep was actually waiting at the not at all legally accessible back gate. This is one of those times in life when it’s probably better to be an adorable girl instead of two guys who look like the Allman Brothers after a month-long vision quest in the desert.
The meat of our time spent on the big island was a three-day hike up the Muliwai Trail from the Waipio Valley to the Waimanu Valley, camping for two nights right off a black sand beach that can only be reached by hiking nine miles over a… mountain? Butte? I don’t know what the hell it was, but we had to hike all the way over it to get there.
But first we had to drive down Waipio Valley Road to get to the trailhead on the beach below. This road is famous for its sections of 40% grade, making it the steepest road in the world. You can’t go down it in a normal car, but thankfully we had an abnormal Jeep. Aster was very excited about this, as it’s like Disneyland for steep road aficionados. There’s even some kind of Range Rover overturned and mangled all to shit in the jungle at the bottom, whose owner obviously missed one of the hairpin turns.
All told, on this trip Aster drove down the road twice, up it twice, and hiked it both ways. He was like a kid in a very steep candy store.
We were getting our packs ready on the beach by the trailhead and trying to make the Jeep look like it didn’t have any valuables in it when we were approached by a local named Pono. He asked if we were seriously going to leave our Jeep there while we did the hike, since that would clearly be very stupid. He proceeded to tell us about the vehicles that get trashed down there by local punks and iceheads while people are out hiking the trail. He also wanted to make sure we were bringing weed with us on the hike, because c’mon man.
Pono’s very Hawaiian openness was in evidence as he told us his life story and gave us advice on not marrying Hawaiian girls and how to smuggle ganja between the islands. We decided to heed his advice at least on the Jeep front, and Aster took off to stash the car somewhere on the streets up above.
After Aster got back, Pono asked in bewilderment why we were starting up the trail’s 1,200 feet of vicious vertical switchbacks during the heat of midday, thinking we were probably naïve about the difficulty of the hike on which we were about to embark. Aster informed him that he had done the hike before, to which Pono responded “Oh, so you do know what you’re about to drag your brother through. Wow… what an asshole!” Oh Pono, we love you so.
We waded across a river spilling out into the sea, which is harder than it sounds, and scrambled up, up, up, up.
During the hike I started to write a song about our Hawaii trip:
I left the sole of my shoe on the Kalalau
And I realized that I’m older now
Running straight up mountains
Is for the young and the stout
This guy named Pono asked if we had some weed
And this kid on a bike asked if we had some weed
But this guy on the beach just wanted
To sell us some weed
That’s as far as I got since right then I walked face-first into my 100th spider web of the hike and had a spider the size of a small cat on my face.
The hike was supposed to take seven hours. Five hours and much pain later, we descended into the Waimanu Valley and waded across another river to get to the campgrounds and the beach. You’ll recognize the scenery if you’re unfortunate enough to have watched Waterworld all the way through to the final scene.
The valley and its secluded beach were beautiful, and we had them all to ourselves...
On our second day in we set off on a hike to see Waiilikahi Falls. We’d been told that this trail was (wink wink) “officially” closed because earthquakes had scrambled everything up like trail mix in a blender. In reality, this meant the trail was a hot mess and we spent the hike sliding down gravel embankments and searching for pink ties in the trees marking where the trail was supposed to be. Aster braved the whole jungle hike without a shirt, and by the end of the trail he was covered in more mosquito bites than I'd seen cumulatively in my entire life up to that point. An hour or two into the hike we passed an awful smell and enough flies to build a Winnebago entirely out of flies. I sprinted past the stench and hoped it was a boar that had died in the woods, and not the owner of the random gear we had found left behind around our campsite.
The waterfall was well worth the hike and some random person possibly dying:
On the hike back to Waipio the next morning, we set out at a good clip. Before the trip I’d started running to get in shape for these hikes and to prepare to run my first marathon in the fall. So I was at least a little ready for this, but on the way out I was still suffering. We’d made really good time on that hike. The trail is only recommended for very experienced, fit hikers, and as mentioned, for them it takes seven hours. They say if you’re in great shape, you might make it in six. We did it in five. But even at that I was clearly holding Aster back from his usual freak of nature Olympic-level hiking pace. I know there’s no hiking in the Olympics, stay on topic.
On the hike back, going up over the mountain again, I was thinking about that physical suffering and how it was possible to exist within it, but perhaps also possible to detach from it. I started to focus on this and before long it was like I was riding on top of my body’s suffering like a person riding a horse, vaguely aware of the suffering but not experiencing it from the inside. I picked up the pace and kept up with Aster. We climbed up, up, up.
I thought about the energy of the island and of the jungle around us and focused on breathing that energy in with each inhale. Buoyed by this influx, I hiked faster and faster. This was amazing. I’d tapped into some kind of insane Hawaiian hiking voodoo! We were cruising.
The morning flew by and before long we were walking through the surf on the beach at the end of the trail. We’d done the entire hike in three hours.
Only slightly less miraculous was the fact that the Jeep was still there.
There was something special about the energy of Hawaii that I’ve never been able to recreate running or hiking anywhere else, but I used the profound insight about detachment I gained that day in my marathon training and even in difficult yoga sessions and other hikes afterwards, which has made a world of difference. Thanks Hawaii.
Hawaii, it rains a lot...
…but you get some bitchin rainbows.
Last summer we went to Yosemite and attempted to climb Half Dome. For those unfamiliar, Half Dome is a big-ass granite dome that’s 9,000 feet high. It’s cool as hell. You hike eight miles from the Yosemite Valley to get there, and the hike is up, up, up. Last summer when we attempted this, the hike completely and thoroughly kicked my ass and then chewed it up like bubble gum. All the photos from that day show me flat on my back, trying not to puke.
Last summer, once we were about halfway to the dome, it began to rain. This is bad news when you’re planning on climbing a huge granite dome, since everyone who tries to climb Half Dome when it’s wet and slippery falls straight to their deaths. Well, not everyone, a few people have made it to the top and then they were hit by lightning. So, we turned back and all vowed to get in better shape and try it again the following summer.
Picture the training montage from Rocky. I basically did this. Rounds of P90X, Insanity, and Body Beast, running countless miles around the lakes, etc. And now we were back to kick Half Dome in its disturbing lack of nuts.
I got Aster, our friend Paige, and my sister’s boyfriend Chris up at 3:30am to start the hike, ensuring that they would all hate me forever. My sister didn’t know much about the hike, other than that she didn’t want to do it. Our mom had too much life experience to be talked into doing this.
Our mom was worried about my feet. After the Casino/Arby’s foot torture on the Kalalau hike, my feet were too cut up to wear closed shoes for the rest of the Hawaii trip. I’d bought some sandals to hike in, which worked great except for the cruel beating my feet took scrambling over boulders and loose rock on the way down the mountain at the end of the Waimanu Valley hike. By the time we got back to California my feet were swollen to twice their normal size and I was icing them whenever possible to keep them from exploding. The night before the Half Dome hike I slept in compression socks and I laced my boots tightly that morning, hoping it would all work out somehow.
The hike up was wonderful, especially in contrast to the severe ass-beating it had given me the year before. Hiking up past Vernal Falls in the twilight before the sun came up was a real treat, as was reaching Nevada Falls and realizing we’d done the first half of the hike in an hour and 45 minutes, compared to the 6+ hours it had taken us last summer. My feet were fine and we were making amazing time.
“Sean, I’ve never seen anyone hike as fast as you! I didn’t know anyone would even want to!” Paige said, totally oblivious to the fact that my brother was torturously holding back his every primal instinct to leave us all in the dust and sprint up the mountain. He walked slowly with Paige as they fell further and further behind us. I’d never see him hold back for anyone, EVER, in any circumstance including their (my) immanent death. So he clearly really wanted to impress Paige. I’M ON TO YOU ASTER.
I’m pretty sure if you asked Chris to tell the story of the hike, the version coming from someone who hadn’t been training for this all year would involve a lot more swearing and frowny emoticons. But he soldiered on just the same, and before long we could see the dome.
As we neared the dome itself and saw how big it was and how steep the climb would be, my stomach started to implode. I’m not great with altitude or heights, and had a few minutes of internal dialogue that went like “Wait, what? We’re doing this?” “We’ve been planning this for a year, of course we’re doing this!” “Fuck you!” “Don’t be a baby, if we fall off, it’ll only be scary for a second before we’re hamburger.”
The last 400 feet of the climb is a rock face goes from extremely steep to vertical to extremely steep again before you get to the top. There are holes drilled into the rock that hold metal posts, through which two cables are threaded. There are no harnesses or safety ropes attaching you to anything, unless you’re a total pussy and you brought that kind of stuff with you. You pry some climbing gloves off one of the many dead bodies littering the base of the dome (just kidding, you pick up climbing gloves from the pile of discards at the bottom, some of whose owners probably survived), say goodbye to your loved ones forever, grab a cable and begin climbing up.
The climb up takes some upper body strength, though if you’re there early in the morning like we were, you can take a cable in each hand and climb up like Donkey Kong Jr, which makes things a bit easier. The key is to not look up or down. About halfway up, one of the cables went slack, which is like a secret code to your body that you should shit your pants right now. I quickly discovered that the cables are only anchored at the top and the bottom, it’s pretty much a free-for-all in-between. Also, the posts aren’t anchored in the rock holes at all. We realized this when one of them came out and the cable began to sway from side to side. I think I said something like “Oh shit!” and then spent a few seconds wondering if I’d mind my last words being “Oh shit!”
Getting to the top and sitting down was a wonderful feeling. The view was incredible, the culmination of a year of getting in shape was satisfying, and not dying was keen. We spent about two hours on top of the dome, taking pictures, eating lunch, having a snowball fight, and taking a nap. Take my word for it, it’s a unique experience to be having a dream about a huge Japanese guy serving you noodles, then to wake up and find yourself suddenly on top of the world, level with mountain tops and with a sunburn on your throat.
Climbing down actually turned out to be much tougher than climbing up. During our time horsing around up top, many more people had arrived, and the cables became crowded, with one cable reserved for people struggling up and one for people falling down. The span between them was in no way wide enough to make this work, but what are you going to do? I quickly realized that climbing down with your back to the granite was flat out stupid, and settled on a rock-facing “rappelling” action going down. This made it easier to stay on the rock and not fall into Yosemite lore, but pretty much impossible to see where you were going. The difficulty of gripping the cables and holding up your body weight while navigating downward was magnified by the need to wait for the people below you to get the fuck out of your way, as well as having to stop constantly and lean way out into nothingness to let people on the way up squeeze by you.
Once I got to the completely vertical part of the descent, the second-worst thing possible happened. I’m thinking the worst would be me falling off, though maybe by world standards it would have been the Dalai Lama falling off or something. And I suppose someone above me falling off would have been pretty disadvantageous too, because gravity. So I’m not sure about the actual rank, but it would definitely be in the top ten: Some guy further down the cable panicked, froze up, and refused to budge. This was a problem since all of us above him on the cable were left to hang there while he worked his shit out. I was torn between a humanitarian sympathy for his obvious distress, and a selfish desire for him to get the fuck out of the way so that I would not die on this rock. I’m not sure how long I hung there, gripping that cable for dear life. Maybe 20 minutes, maybe 30, while somebody very slowly climbed up and helped him down, or punched him off the rock or something, I don’t know, I couldn’t see what was going on down there. But eventually he did get out of the way and I did not die on that rock, which was good.
Actually, come to think of it, that’s a pretty good way to sum up the trip. For anyone who doesn't like reading and who just skipped to the end of the blog to see the trip's punchline/summation:
I did not die on that rock, which was good.