Probably the Gnarliest Few Days Ever - Nick Smith

     Hey everyone! Welcome to my adventure blog. This is a new thing for me, so I'm pretty excited to get it up and running. I'll be talking all about the adventures I have in the spectacular Yosemite National Park as I live here and hopefully more after I move on. So with my intro done, let's move on to what was  probably the craziest, most awesome weekend of my life so far!

      We have to start just a little earlier than the weekend of July 23-25 for this to make sense. I had been climbing with a friend I met in the valley named Will and as we finished the day with a two pitch route at Swan Slabs and were cleaning up our gear, a friend of Will's walked up to us. Will introduced us saying, "Hey Nick, this is Jose, he's a really talented photographer as well." That night the three of us went to dinner and after some chat agreed to head out to Swan Slabs again the following day so we could take Jose up his first ever climb. The next day I was tired and ready to text Will to drop the news that I wouldn't be joining them. Just as I raised my phone,  knocking sounded on my door. It was Will, he said, "Are you ready?" and I left with him to meet up with Jose. Back at Swan Slabs, Will and Jose racked up their gear to get ready for the climb and I quickly taught Jose how to belay. Will shot up the first pitch and I took Jose's GoPro and quickly free soloed up after Will so I could film Jose on his way up. 


     After the Climb we all went out for dinner again, and Jose mentioned that he'd like to spend the night at Taft point for photos at sunset. Jose really is a very talented photographer, and I wanted to see what I could learn from him so I offered to tag along. The plan was to leave that Saturday evening after I got off of work. Mid week our plans filled out as I decided I wanted to rappel off of Taft for sunset and Jose wanted to climb Half Dome the following day.

     Saturday rolls around and I meet Jose in Camp 4 along with his friend Brandon Tormanen who's also a professional photographer. We all head out in separate vehicles to Taft point and arrive around 7pm. We quickly pack our things and head out onto the beautiful mile and a half trail to the cliff edge. The hike is fun, Jose makes a remark about a silly photo shoot he did in a field of flowers and I explain to Brandon why my Instagram username is plagued by underscores. we make it to the rappel point with about half an hour left to set up and get the shot. I try and set up my anchor as fast as I can, but the amount of space I was preparing to lower into was vast and I felt rather tense. I fumble through gear as I explain to tourists what I'm doing. One man offers me some food and I gratefully accept. The anchor is set and it's time to rappel just as the sun meets the horizon. I take a big breath and drop. A few seconds to collect myself and I'm sliding down my rope with an other worldly view below me. I look up and around as all along the cliff edge people have their phones out and are Snap Chatting. I wave to a few of them as I continue down further and further. All of a sudden I lower past a roof and I'm bathed in beautiful pink lighting. At this point I figure I've lowered far enough and stop. I look back at Jose and everyone else shooting and see something unexpected. Jose is yelling at me to go back up the rope. What do you mean Jose?! Up the rope? That makes no sense. I listen though, and slowly ascend the rope until I'm told to stop. Five minutes later the sun is no longer visible and I inch my way back up the rope and over the the edge. Back on solid ground a man named Zeek runs over to me, camera in hand, and films me asking me how I felt after the experience. I'm not really able to think much at the time so I reply with how I always feel. Stoked. I tell him it was awesome but that I'm glad to be back on solid ground connected to life by more than a 9.8mm thick strip of nylon. At least that was what I'm thinking. I don't remember exactly what I told him. He shows me some of his amazing photos and stays with me as Jose runs up to ask me how it was.

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      I pack up my gear into the night and Jose asks me if I want to shoot the sunrise at Glacier Point before we head out to climb Half Dome in the morning. I'm totally down. I always am. Almost simultaneously we come up with the idea to rappel off of the overhanging rock for some more surreal photos. With that thought in mind we help Zeek and his friends pack out their gear to the road and tell him our plan for the morning. He seems totally stoked and says he'll join us. Jose and I know we're going to have to get up early for the photos so, with sleep in mind, we drive to a pull out off the side of the road and hike off the side a bit to avoid being caught. We throw down our sleeping bags and lay in the dust. The moon blasts me in the face and the high country is enveloped in a milky white light. Everything is visible. It may as well be day time, and that's exactly how my body felt. I was awake. I tried to sleep. I adjusted in my bag and shifted my nalgene water bottle which I was using as my pillow. Nothing works. I can't even keep my eyes closed without straining. I hear a soft snore next to me and curse Jose for being able to drift off. A fun fact for you, 5 hour energies are not good for 5 hours. They last a minimum of 24, for me at least. At 3am I give up entirely on trying to sleep and wake Jose up to say that I'm going to my car to organize gear and prepare for the rappel. As I get to the car, Jose pops up over the hill and meanders into his own vehicle, half asleep, not wanting to spend the night outside in the dark alone. I pull out my rack of gear and organize everything by size. Eventually I make it to my harness. "What?! Where is it?!" One of the three things I actually needed for the rappel was missing. My Grigri. "Fuck". I think back and retrace my steps, eventually coming to the conclusion that I left it back at my last rappel at Taft point. I drive back to the trail head and hike in at night, alone. Admittedly, I'm a little scared. I blast my music and start running as The Kooks jam out a song, comforting me a little bit. Back at the edge of Taft I see my belay device, pick it up along with a rock, and run back to the car without taking time to appreciate the views. Back at the pull out It's still 3:50am and I have an hour to kill before I need to wake up Jose for the photos. What followed must have been very confusing for Jose because from his point of view, I was literally running around in circles for no reason. In truth I was running down the road and back to my camera trying to get some cool light trail photos.

     Dawn begins to make its appearance and it's time for me to wake up Jose. It's 4:50 in the morning and I can hear it in Jose's voice. He's beat, but this is the curse of being a photographer. Sleep is a precious commodity as the best photos often call for late nights and early mornings. He knows this and we drive down to the Glacier Point parking lot where I pick up my gear and walk purposefully to the overhanging rock. The last stars have petered out and the valley is now clearly visible. After the Taft rappel I'm not scared at all. I'm just excited. I set up my anchor around a large tree and some people walk over to Jose to talk to him about what's going on. It's 5:40, my anchor is set, my rope is down and I'm ready to rappel. I feed the rope through my belay device and lean back. "Crap!" There's way more rope stretch than I expected and instead of slowly lowering off the edge, I pitch off backwards and fall five feet slamming into the nose of the rock. "That was comfortable. great." I take a breather and slide down my rope, spinning around as my rope adjusts to the weight. Boy is it cool hanging off the side of Glacier Point. The views from the center of the line are some that very few people will have the pleasure of seeing, but I'll admit that I was feeling a little jealous of the photos Jose and Zeek were getting as I sat around essentially doing nothing in space. I brought a book down with me to get a photo showing how comfortable I was in an absurd position. As the sun broke out over Half Dome it was go time for both the photographers and me. I shot a couple photos with my camera, put it away and got to posing for the other cameras. It's amazing how fast the light changes in the morning, because five minutes after the sun appeared I was climbing back up my rope and over the edge onto the granite. 

     Jose, Zeek, and two people we met named Daniel and Priscilla stand chatting as I organize and pack my gear. With that done, I join them and we discuss what brought us to the valley and how we became who we are. This feels so good, I'm used to shooting alone with my tripod and a ten second timer. Tripods are not good company. We laugh and talk for about an hour before we head back to our cars. In the parking lot we say our goodbyes and Jose and I decide to postpone our Half Dome climb to the next day. The day whips past in a blur. Eventually the 5 hour energy loosens its hold on me and I crash. hard. I sleep from 11 to 3, wake up and edit photos. Soon it's 5am the next morning and I awake. Groggy. I convince myself that my alarm didn't sound and drift off. Ten minutes later my roommate gives me a good shake and this time I'm up for real. I splash some cold water in my face and feel a shiver jolt to my toes. Oatmeal goes down the hatch along with as much water as I can handle. Outside the air is crisp and the sky is a deep navy. I meet Jose at my car and we drive to the trail head. The first four miles of hiking are cruiser and we run into Daniel and Priscilla again and hug, talk and hike until it's time for Jose and I to break off the main trail towards the expansive south face of Half Dome. From here only discontinuous cairns mark the path. It's awesome being off the beaten path, and the higher we hike, the better the views get. After some time and some sketchy moments that push both of us mentally we make it to the base of the climb and take a fifteen minute break. Eventually we rack up and I push off on the first pitch. 80 easy feet of no protection, I finally place one cam. Another 40 feet, another cam. 30 feet and I'm at the anchors. Jose follows up, passes back the gear I placed on the climb and I'm on belay again pushing out right on the second pitch. I reach the anchors and we repeat the process. Next is the third pitch and along with it is the first real runout section of climbing. About 25 feet of exposed 5.7 friction climbing into 40 feet of easier climbing up knobs. It yields no problems and I place two pieces of gear on the 150 foot pitch. From here on out, the climb follows a beautiful salmon colored dike which heads straight up the wall to the top of the route. 

     Pitch by pitch, we shave away at the climb until the angle of the wall recedes to the point where gear is no longer needed and climbing turns to hiking. It's 1000 vertical feet to the summit of Half Dome after the route Snake Dike tops out. This is the hardest part of the day and is the reason why many people choose to call the route "Snake Hike". The angle is relentless and we take breaks every twenty steps or so to catch our breath. On the way up we make a tentative agreement to stay on the summit until sunset so I can rappel off the visor for photos, but with water getting dangerously low and a nine mile hike back to the car coming up, it was looking like it may not happen. Our hope was that we would top out into a crowd of tourists from whom we could fill up our bottles. An hour passes and we reach the top. "Crap, there's no one here". Being alone on the summit of Half Dome in the middle of summer is not something that happens. This was not supposed to happen. There's a slight breeze and in the space once occupied by the other half of Half Dome, ravens catch the updraft and swoop about. One raven just stands on the edge looking into the distance, feathers rustling in the wind. I like to think that animals can appreciate beauty. As we walk around on top I'm looking for excuses to stay. "come on, there's got to be some water up here some where, I really want to do this rappel". After a bit of searching I find a half filled plastic water bottle and down it greedily. I didn't care where it had been, when you're thirsty any water is acceptable. That was all I needed to convince myself to stay. I tell Jose that I'm going to check out the rappel and see what gear I can place to anchor the rope down. On my way to the edge I found a towel, "sweet, padding". I stuff it in my pocket. About ten feet from the cliff face I find a crack that accepts all six of the cams I brought with me. I thread my webbing into all of them and double up carabiners on each piece of gear. I tie three bites into the center of my rope and clip each loop into a separate locking biner attached to the webbing. I bounce test the anchor and there's no movement. That's exactly what you want. It looks good and I signal to Jose that it's ready to go. I walk back over to him and just as I get there two girls crest over the southeast side of half dome via the cables. We chat a bit, but it's not long before I get to the thing I'm really curious about. Water. As it turns out, they were camping very close to the base and they had some extra in reserves. Thank God. I was not looking forward to being severely dehydrated on the hike down. I couldn't thank those girls enough. I turn around and stare into the sun. It was low on the horizon and glowed a deep red. I squint and bring my hand to my brow for some shade as I scan the landscape. "ok, no more waiting, I'm ready". I walk purposefully to my rope and wrap the towel over the part of the rope where it meets the edge to prevent it from cutting. Just below where the rope runs over there is one last ledge where you can stand. I have a firm grasp on my rope and lower carefully to it. I run my rope through my belay device, throw on a prusik as a back up and slowly lower off the visor. This felt easy compared to the other two rappels. Under the visor everything is red. The sun kisses the place where land meets the sky and light reflects off the smooth granite behind me. "Holy crap, I can see myself glowing". I'm used to seeing edge light in photos, but I'd never actually seen it on myself before that moment. 

     I look through my legs down. I can see where the face of Half Dome hits the death slabs and I follow the snake like paths of rockfalls down the slabs to the valley floor with my eyes. Suspended in space I contemplate the distance to the valley floor. I decide it's around 4,500 feet. Not even El Capitan can offer such vertical exposure. Wind blows me about as I'm locked into position by my Grigri and Prusik. Every fiber of my body should be screaming at me to go back up the line to safety. This is an unnatural place to be. This rappel laughs in the face of logic. I'm not trying to climb to the summit, there's nothing I need to retrieve from down here and other than getting some photos, there's no true objective. Once again, my body should not be comfortable with this, but strangely, it is. My lack of fear for heights is almost disturbing to me. I'm not sure I'll ever understand that about myself, but what I do know is that this pointless rappel lead me to the most beautiful sunset of my life. Were there spectacular clouds? No, but unlike nearly every other sunset I've watched, I felt truly present. I was able to take in every bit of detail and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I spin about in the air and take in the 360 degree view. It doesn't get much better than this. Suddenly I'm no longer blanketed in golden light and the air chills. The sunset is over and its time to climb back up to real life. I ascend the line and pull up and over the lip. "Wow, that was cool." 

     Back on top I walk over to Jose and the girls. Jose is totally stoked about the photos, so am I, but I just feel high off of that rap. The girls give us the last of their water, offer to refill us at their camp site and head down while there's still light. Everything I do is in slow motion. I pick up my gear and pack it away, but it takes a long time. Once everything is ready Jose and I exit towards the cables. I put on my head lamp and head down first. By now the sky looks like it did when I woke up. That shade of blue between black and those hideous redneck blue jeans I despise so much. Descending the cables I find a rhythm and before I know it I'm standing on flat ground looking up, watching Jose's light bob up and down as he moves towards me step by step. He reaches me and all the hard parts of the day are behind us. All that remains is a, mainly downhill, nine mile hike back to the car. We text the girls and pick up some water from them on the way. Everything looks the same in the darkness of night and we live in our bubbles of light. The thing about repetition is, it makes time fly by because your mind doesn't spend time registering all the new things. Before I knew it we were back at the car, I was in bed, and then back to work in the morning. 

     I'll leave you by saying that had I spent a lot of time planing all of this, it may never have happened. Sometimes you have to do things immediately as they come to mind. Don't wait for things to happen, make them happen. Go the extra mile even if you're tired. It's almost always worth it. Some times it doesn't seem that way, when things don't turn out the way you  would like and you miss an opportunity. When this inevitably does happen to you, remember to think positive, there's always a silver lining. \m/

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