April 9, 2008 (Journaled August 10, 2013)
Wow, what a day. Glad I am still here to write about it! I can now attest to the lack of wisdom in hiking closed trails in winter! The plan for the day was to hike up to the top of Vernal Fall and the Nevada Fall via the John Muir and Mist Trails. That is what we did, just not the way we planned it. Overall, it was about an 8 mile round trip with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss of course).
We (I) had planned that we would hike the Mist Trail up until it was closed then move over to the JMT, hike up the JMT to the top of Vernal Fall and switch over to the Mist Trail (as it hugs the falls more and the JMT is closed after that anyway). The sections of the Mist Trail and the JMT that were closed were so because it was still pretty wintry on sections of those. Well, we hiked the Mist Trail to the bottom of Vernal as planned.
We saw a great rainbow in the fall:
We then moved over to the JMT as planned. Yet, during the beginning of that section, we kept seeing a few people sneaking over to get a glimpse of Vernal from the closed section of the Mist Trail. So we did as well and were rewarded with a great view. What was not planned was for my daughter to start climbing the closed Mist Trail, which of course she did. It is too loud with the water to communicate and she was just a bit too far ahead of me to stop her. So, I had to follow. Eventually it became quite clear why the trail was closed. Here is a picture of the trail I found online along with a look down from the top, and a shot that if you look close you can see others struggling along the ice after us:
Now, imagine that in sub-freezing temperatures. Lots of cold mist hitting cold rock equals lots of glistening, incredibly icy and slick rock. Note the large waterfall and the lack of hand rails. Well eventually, I was able to get her to stop, but not before we were already at least halfway up. By then, we had been reduced to climbing one step at a time, pretty much on our butts, trying to find little cracks in the rock steps and rock wall to keep some faint grasp. Those small handholds were pretty much the only traction we had and what kept us on the trail rather than off the side. At that point, we had to decide if we were continuing on or returning down to safety. The logical decision was to head back down to safety. It took us about three stairs down to realize that was not such a good plan (as by stairs I means we slid our cold, wet butts down one step at a time). It is in fact much easier to fight gravity upwards one step at a time, when you are the one applying force in a manner that is applying traction, than to fight gravity by going down while hoping to find traction on that next stair down. So, up we went, one small, ice cold, slippery, no hand rail stair at a time.
Well, you are reading this so by now you have surely guessed that I did not plunge down to the bottom of Vernal Fall. We made it to the top!
We then hiked on toward the base of Nevada Fall.
And then we made to to the top of Nevada Fall. I know that each year, at least a couple people die after getting in the water here. The sign makes it pretty clear what will happen: “Stay back from slippery rock at the water’s edge. If you go over the fall, you will die.” OK, don’t need to tell me twice.
After enjoying the view at the top of the fall for a while, we then turned our attention to the descent. We pretty much had two choices, go back the way we came (skipping the mist trail next to Vernal), or take the John Muir Trail down. We chose the JMT Now, I do not remember that the JMT was actually closed. It may not have been as it was somewhat passable, but that word “somewhat” may be generous. It was a fun adventure though, as we wove our way down the mountain one icy switchback at a time. In many cases, we had to abandon the switchbacked trail and scoot on our tails directly down the steep slope, as it seemed the remaining snow had decided to pile up at each turn making the trail in those areas inaccessible.
Now, one would think that coming down is easier than going up. I am not so sure about that. While going up burns the thighs and tests the lungs, going down puts a pounding on the knees, even with trekking poles. This became more and more the case once we got below the snow line and decline continued on harder ground. My knees were jelly by the time we were done! That was pretty much the most strenuous hike I had ever done, and what an adventure it was. Very satisfying and addicting as well!