By Sarah Burke
For decades, climbers have gravitated towards Yosemite Valley to live out adventures, and to push the boundaries of what is deemed climbable. Great walls like El Capitan rise over 3,000ft from the Valley floor, captivating the attention of anyone who passes by it, and tempting intrepid climbers to ascend it. I had always been intrigued by the stories of Lynn Hill- who made the first free ascent (with ropes but without aid) of The Nose of El Cap in 1993 or Alex Honnold’s free solo (no ropes or aid whatsoever) of in 2017. But beyond the astonishing climbing feats, perhaps the best part of Yosemite National Park is the fact that everyone- from skilled climbers to skilled couch potatoes- can have the chance to live a different style of life and explore the unknown. Sometimes the mountains call, and answering that call- as I’m sure anyone who has answered would agree- is something you’ll never regret. My friend Leah and I answered the mountain’s call and drove to Yosemite for a weekend full of trail-running, exhilarating climbs, and friendship- all fueled by a healthy dose of Sufferfest beer, of course. Follow along for some trail recommendations, adventure anecdotes, and a bit of mountain- inspired wisdom.
DAY 1: HALF DOME
Run, climb, run. That was the plan. Leah and I stuffed our climbing shoes, harnesses, slings, prusiks and quickdraws into our backpacks as we prepared to run to the Half Dome, climb up and down it, and run back to our rental van. I was certainly testing the limits of how much gear a Solomon Sense Ultra backpack could hold and would soon test my own limits as I had never done anything quite like climbing the Half Dome before. During the off-season, the cables going up the Half Dome that are usually raised above the rock face are lowered so that they are lying flat on the rock. Leah and I had heard that you can still clip onto the lowered cables to assist yourself up the Half Dome, but since we hadn’t seen it done we weren’t sure exactly how it was going to work. With our gear packed, we headed off to the trail-head and decided to assess the cable situation once we got to the Half Dome. Starting on the Happy Isle Loop trail we made our way to the Mist Trail. Luckily it was a warm day because we were drenched from the waterfall by the time we made it up the aptly named trail.
We dried off from the Mist Trail as we ran along the John Muir Trail, to the Half Dome Trail. This gradual uphill trail was much less trafficked that day than the Mist Trail. It seemed like the stunning waterfall view was a great turn-around point for people wanting a shorter day hike than the Half Dome. About 8 miles up from the start we had arrived at the base of the Half Dome. Although climbing up the cables looked a little sketchy at first, there were about ten other people who seemed to be of a variety of skillsets climbing it at the time Leah and I got there, which assured me that it couldn’t be too bad. A quote from a TED Radio Hour podcast that I had listened to on the drive to Yosemite popped into my head as I gazed up at the wall. In the podcast, Tim Ferris- author, entrepreneur, and dooer-of-all-things-challenging, said that when he is thinking about stepping out of his comfort zone he asks himself “if anyone else in the history of time, less driven, has figured out how to accept the challenge”. In most cases, and in this case involving the Half Dome, the answer is yes.
Since Leah and I only had one prusik loop to tie onto the cable, I attached myself to Leah by linking two slings together and Leah tied herself to the wall. The prusik knot would act a source of friction so that if Leah and I leaned back on the knot, the loop would pull tight against the cable and would prevent us from sliding down. As we climbed up the wall in unison, we slid the prusik knot along with us. By the top of the wall, the grade was gentle enough that we could unclip and walk the last 50 meters to the summit.
We reached the top of Half Dome, marveled at the expansive views, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches then slid our way down the rock similar to the way we came up. To my surprise, the climb was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. The prusik knot on the cables seemed to be a safe way to go.
Leah and I descended the same trail that we came up for a total of 24 miles and 5,910ft of vertical gain that day- according to Strava. Since we tacked on a few extra miles at the beginning of the day while looking for the trailhead, it was a higher mileage total than we had expected. In my opinion, the best kind of day is one spent running around on trails with friends. With the added element of climbing, this trail run was certainly one for the books. I highly recommend the route, especially during the park’s off-season when you don’t need a permit to climb Half Dome.
At this point it was time to relax, so we kicked back in the parking lot near Camp 4 with a post-run brew. Few things in life taste better after a hard effort than my personal favorite, the Sufferfest Shakeout. I only wish I had planned better and brought a cooler. Cheers to all-day runs, the simplicity of car-camping, and the opportunity every day to step out of your comfort zone.
DAY 2: EAGLE PEAK AND EL CAPITAN
The feeling that making pour-over coffee outside with the anticipation of a full day of adventure ahead of you is unparalleled. The goal of the day was to run/hike up Eagle Peak, a 13-mile total out-and-back, and save time to hike up the approach trail of El Capitan before having to drive back to San Francisco. We took the Lower to Upper Yosemite Falls trails, which at almost 4,000ft of vertical gain in the first 6 miles was no joke. More vert, more fun was true in this case. The summit of Eagle Peak overlooked Yosemite Valley from one side and the part of the National Park that is much less charted from the other side. We did a quick touch-and-go at the summit, before bombing down the technical trail as fast as we could, just for the fun of it.
Next, we ran to the approach trail of El Capitan, which was about a half mile in from the road. Looking up at El Cap, with its unimaginable height and exposure, was awe-inspiring. It made me think about human potential in anything- not just climbing- and how challenges, like the wall, shape the trajectory of our lives. Either we can rise to the occasion of creating something grand out of a challenge, or we can succumb to the grandiosity of the obstacle and deem it too big, too powerful and ultimately immobilizing. The walls, like tremendous goals, remind me to not be immobilized, paralyzed by fear of the unknown and to accept goals as exciting opportunities to push beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking in order to achieve the grandest accomplishment that you can ever imagine. And then, once that goal is accomplished, celebrate with a Sufferfest beer!