Learning the Ropes
by John P. DeGrazio
My legs are really burning. I don’t remember these cables being so hard the last time. That’s because this IS harder. I didn’t realize this cable would be so heavy. At least we’re both sharing the load. Hey, don’t sit there! I’m barely holding on.
“Sorry” Jacob apologized as he sat in the only crack in the granite while slightly nudging me backward for a moment. “I didn’t realize there wasn’t any room.” Jacob inched to his right to make a spot for me to slide into the crack with him. “I really needed to stop for a moment” he politely added. He was so polite that it was impossible to get mad at him, even for a second. “It’s alright” I assured him as the initial anxiety eroded. Here we were about halfway up the cables on an already spectacular morning! We continued up the cables and made our way to the dome that was still partially covered in snow. “So this is what it’s like without any people” I bemused and was immediately hooked on this new solitary experience. It was only my second time to the top, but I realized the stark contradiction to the festival atmosphere of the summit on a summer afternoon. The year was 2006, long before the park service decided to limit the amount of hikers allowed to pursue the cable route from the Sub Dome with the permit system lottery. This was a true wilderness experience, and I could hardly contain myself as I lept from rock to rock snapping photos like the tourist I was.
In 2006 I founded YExplore, an adventure company offering guided photography tours in Yosemite National Park. Our concept was simple. We would offer photography classes in Yosemite Valley that were designed and instructed by local professional photographers. We hired Walter Flint who became our lead photographer and a great mentor for me as I learned the lay of the land. A funny thing happened when we received our very first booking though. The client asked if we knew of a company who could lead his family on a hiking tour after the conclusion of his photo field session. Catherine excitedly called me on that day and repeated the question. My response was to confidently tell him we do. “We do?” she gasped. “We do now!” was my retort.
Jacob Smith answered our first and only ad we placed in search of local guides for our newly developed Yosemite family tours. He was a bright young entrepreneur with an outgoing personality and an extensive knowledge of camping in Yosemite. He was perfect. He was hired. Actually, it was not until his second interview that I hired him. For his follow up interview, I had Jacob lead me (and another friend, we’ll call him D) on a hike to the top of the Upper Yosemite Fall. I will save sharing that tale for another time but would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it will always be referred to as D-Day. In spite of many theatrics from our friend D, Jacob decided to take the job, and we formed an early bond as we explored many trails in Yosemite that spring and summer. I needed to learn as much as possible, and we weren’t actually blowing away our competition for clients that year. We proudly led 9 total tours that season so there was plenty of time for exploration.
In mid May Jacob and I decided to embark on an overnight scouting trip of the Half Dome trail. This would be our last preseason tune up before we would begin leading tours. Half Dome was not yet on our list of offerings, but I had been yearning to return to its summit since the move. It was only a two day outing, but I was excited because it was my first official wilderness backpack in Yosemite National Park. In case you’re wondering, we moved to Yosemite in 2005 with a 3 month old daughter so most of my forays into the wild were of the one day variety. Sure, we covered a lot of ground on some of those uber hikes, but now was my first chance to sleep under the stars in a place I was growing to love exponentially more with every adventure. Jacob was great. He helped me prepare by sharing a packing list with everything I needed and even drove us. We stopped to pick up our permits in the Valley and set our sights for the John Muir Trail.
We decided to forego Little Yosemite Valley after spending some time atop Nevada Fall. Jacob didn’t want my first wilderness camping experience to be in a designated campsite. We found a previously impacted site as we were taught in the Leave No Trace trainers class we attended together and set up camp. Jacob was efficient and thorough as he built a fire in the established fire ring. He made sure to only collect branches from fallen trees that were no thicker than his wrist. I was learning so much from Jacob and he really helped me develop a proper set of ethics for being in the wilderness. “If it’s a place you love and are passionate about, it’s easy to respect and protect the areas where you camp.” I remember him sharing.
We woke early the next morning, ate our oatmeal, and were on our way up the trail. It was a short walk of about 2 miles, but it was chilly so the movement helped. By the time we reached Sub Dome, the sun had warmed us quite a bit. Once we managed the cables, we explored every inch of Half Dome making new tracks over much of the snow covered hump while photographing several waterfalls from vantage points we never knew existed. I snapped images of Snow Creek, Illilouette, Staircase, and Yosemite Falls from the summit, and there was a beautiful rainbow on Yosemite Falls. Although I didn’t catch Half Dome fever on this trip, it would come later, I was truly amazed by the ability to see all these waterfalls from up high. It definitely piqued my interest in exploring more of Yosemite’s backcountry.
Satisfied with our mission, we finally decided to begin our long descent to the Valley. It was mostly uneventful, you know. It had your typical wildlife sightings; some mule deer, a bear, and a California ground squirrel fighting off a rattlesnake who was too close to her burrow. At least I managed to photograph the bear though admittedly not very well. It wasn’t my first bear sighting in Yosemite but the first time I was able to observe one in its natural wilderness habitat. This bear was grubbing which is when a bear uses its claws to rip apart fallen trees while searching for insect larva called grubs. I was fascinated by this hunting behavior. It wasn’t quite the same experience as watching the brown bears fish for salmon at Katmai but still a thrill. Black bears in Yosemite actually are not hunters in the sense of their Alaskan counterparts. I’ve mostly observed them feeding on grasses, berries, acorns, and even pine cones. I am told they will not hunt a deer or other mammals but would likely feed on some carrion left behind by a mountain lion.
We returned to the trailhead in the early evening a little exhausted but ready for our next adventure. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of this place and never felt smaller. I didn’t know then but know now that this was the true beginning of my own Yosemite exploration. Sure, I had hike several trails in and around the Valley and Glacier Point; but it became apparent after this trip that I needed to expand my horizons. I was certain I would hike as many trails as I could see in the park requiring longer trips on far more isolated trails, and I was alright with that.
YExplore Lead Adventure Guide John P. DeGrazio has reached the summit of Half Dome more than 100 times. In this series, he will share stories from some of the most interesting journeys along the trail of Yosemite’s most popular peak. He will reflect on some of the most inspirational moments he has shared with hundreds of others while achieving their lifelong dreams. John will also share tips on how to properly prepare for such a long, arduous trek while providing insights on how to successfully complete this quest. He’ll also discuss changes to this hike he has witnessed throughout the years as well as many interesting encounters along the way.