Bates Motel Revisited, or Disaster on the Death Slabs

June 25-26, 2004


random trip report

Todd asks me go rock climbing in the valley, and I decide to combine it with a hike up the climber's approach to Half Dome (also known as the Death Slabs), which I've been wanting to do for a while. I prepare by manually copying the relevant pages from Supertopos at Ironworks, and studying the excellent trip report by Heyning Cheng.

Originally I plan to do the Half Dome hike with Rob, but a schedule conflict rules this out. I decide to try it by myself, which is a mountaineering no-no, but I reason that it's a fairly well-traveled route and I'll play it safe.

Erica and I drive up on Thursday afternoon. We stay in the 'Little Valley Inn', 8 miles outside of Mariposa, which is the only place with vacancy that I could find. The air conditioner doesn't work, and Erica is slightly disturbed when the manager, instead of looking into it, says 'That's a state-of-the-art air conditioner; it has to work' and 'no one's ever complained about that before' and reluctantly gives us a different room.

There are some chickens and goats out back. A male goat is misguidedly doing male-dominance aggression things towards a pregnant female. We eat at the nearby Sportsman's Club. A group of Christian Harley riders is there. We both sleep poorly. The bed has the property that the slighest motion by one person causes a large oscillation that wakes up the other.

Next morning, muzzy from lack of sleep, we meet Rob, Todd and Walt at the El Cap bridge. Rob and Erica go off, and spend the day hiking up Yosemite falls and touring the visitor center. Todd, Walt and I hike to the Cathedral area and spend the day doing 5.10a/b face climbing. We meet up with Rob and Erica, and dip our feet in the cool Merced river.

Erica and I dine at Cedar Lodge. She gets the Soup of the Day, tomato basil, which turns out to be slightly diluted bottled spaghetti sauce.

We return to the Little Valley Inn. I tell the manager about the bed problem, and ask him for a rollaway bed. His first reponse is 'You've got a lot complaints - first the air conditioner and now the bed', and says we can't get a cot because the maids have gone home. 'Those beds are the best you can get, and no one has ever complained about them before'. I persist, and the tone of the conversation turns unpleasant. I offer to move the cot myself, and he relucantly agrees, but then returns and says the cots are all in use. Several rooms are empty, and I ask if we can try their beds and maybe switch rooms. He says he's not going to do anything more for us, we can take our room or leave it.

Now I'm pissed off, and we jaw back and forth for a few minutes. I use some fairly strong language to describe my feelings about the motel and its probable future in today's depressed economy. I conclude with a few F-bombs. Finally I give up, and we put the mattress on the floor again, and actually sleep OK.

Next morning we get up early and drive into the park. Erica drops me off at the Mirror Lake trailhead at 9:00. I'm feeling great. Map in hand, I follow the path to Mirror Lake and locate the cairn marking the start of the climber's trail.

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The spillway at W end of Mirror Lake


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Cairn marking start of climber's trail

The trail winds through forest for a while, then emerges into a long, steep area of slabs and scree, leading up to the base of the Half Dome cliff. There are stretches of 3rd- and 4th-class climbing, i.e. some rock-climbing moves are involved, and there's exposure. At six points there are fixed ropes, ranging from 20' to 60', that protect easy 5th-class stretches. The ropes are knotted every couple of feet, and you just pull yourself up them, using feet when possible.

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A few hundred feet up


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The first fixed rope (easier to see in hi-res version)

In the second rope, disaster strikes! As I'm pulling up hard on the rope, my forehead slams into a low branch and it makes a big cut, about 1.5" long and pretty deep. I'm stunned but don't black out (fortunately, since I'm about 15' off the ground). I quickly pull up to the top and sit down. There's a goodly amount of blood, which I stanch with a bandana.

I sit for a few minutes and take stock of the situation. I'm definitely shaken, but feel no signs of shock or concussion, and I feel fine in general. I'm about 1/3 of the way up the slope. So I decide to keep going up.

The route is surprisingly hard - I'm amazed that climbers can do it while carrying gear and ropes. There are a couple of places where you have to traverse 10-15' of exposed, steep slab. The hardest place is at the top of a drainage, where there's a 6' ledge that would be an easy stem and mantle move if it were solid, but it's not - it's crumbly dirt with embedded rocks of various sizes. If you fall, there's a tumble of 15', possibly much more. There are a couple bedraggled plants growing at the top, which people have evidently yarded on, but they are not useful. I spend several minutes studying the situation, looking for a solid move. I don't want the first accident to lead to a second. Finally I suck it up and make a move. Nothing crumbles. Whew!

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Halfway up or so


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... and the view down


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The 5th fixed rope


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Getting near the cliff


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View to the right

I continue up the slabs. The trail is easy to follow, and the Supertopo directions are excellent. But the climbing is hard, especially the sections of mixed sand and sand-slickened boulders. I'm on all fours a lot of the time, trying to be as safe as I possibly can. I take a couple of brief rest stops, but I feel like staying in motion, and I want to reach the safety of the main Half Dome trail.

The face of Half Dome, looming 2000', is increasingly awe-inspiring as I approach its base. A final brushy/sandy stretch and I'm there. I follow the brushy trail along the base of a cliff. A pair of descending climbers pass me, looking with concern at my cut and advising me to get down as soon as I can.

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Traversing up base of cliff


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The sun comes out

I continue up around the shoulder of the dome, into the sun, through a pine forest, and finally I reach the main trail and the throngs of hikers on it. It's about 12:30. I pull my hat down to avoid grossing people out with my cut.
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Back among the masses


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Ovoid rock in foreground; Mt. Hoffman in background


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Half Dome; hard to see, but long queues on trail and cables


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Looking south; Mt. Lyell, others


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Looking down into Tenaya canyon

I haven't ruled out going to the top of Half Dome, but a glance reveals that it is crowded, and people are talking about a 1-hour wait at the cables, so I just head down the main trail.

I pass some teenagers who see my cut and offer band-aids. I accept, and a young man named Micah (?) cleans the cut with an alcohol pad, puts some antibiotic on it, and covers it with 3 band-aids. Micah works as a nurse and knows first-aid. He tells me it's pretty big and will need stitches. It's still oozing, and for the rest of the hike a mixture of blood and sweat drips down my face and into my eyes.

In spite of everything I'm feeling great. Micah and friends are setting a good pace; I walk with them, chatting about this and that, and before I know it we're at Nevada Falls, at around 2:15. I reluctantly say goodbye to Micah and hunker down to wait for Erica, who's climbing the Mist trail and is scheduled to arrive at 4:00. But to my delight she shows up at 2:30. What a great hiker she is! I show her my wound and to my relief she doesn't immediately freak out.

It's a beautiful day, and we spend a few minutes enjoying the incredible views, but we decide to get down quickly in case the clinic closes early.

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Erica at top of Mist Trail


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Note blood down face


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Gotta get some new shorts


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Top of Nevada Falls


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Same


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More of same


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Nevada Falls and Liberty Dome


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Same

We go down the John Muir trail, Erica sets an excellent pace even though she's pretty tired, and we make it to the clinic just before 5 (which is good - although they're open 24 hours, the rates go up after 5).
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Bridge at bottom of Vernal Falls


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Same, w/o hat

I enjoy lying on a comfortable gurney for an hour or so, getting cleaned up and sutured, chatting with the nurses and doctors, who are all climbers. Then Erica and I get something to eat. We try to rendezvous with Rob and Todd but they're not there, so we just drive home.

Summary: I'm glad I did the hike, but in retrospect it was a bad decision to do it solo. I got off lightly with disfiguring cut. It could have been a lot worse. In fact, I'd rather not even think about it.

Copyright 2017 © David P. Anderson