Yosemite Speed

Like many, my first experience with mountains in California was with Yosemite. After running at the US junior championships in track, I went to Yosemite with my mom to see what made her fall in love with the place. A few years later, after wrapping up my freshman track season, I headed back to Yosemite to explore a bit more and take a few hard trail runs. Hans Florine, legendary Yosemite speed climber, had just given a talk at Stanford that got me pretty excited. My initial thought was to run Half Dome and El Capitan in a day, but after visiting Hans’ speedclimb.com, I realized that there were established records for a few of the trails.

After I finished my last final, I drove out from campus, and bootleg camped in a mosquitoey pullout just outside the park. I had some dining points left on my card that were set to expire, so I bought awful blueberry muffins, cheese sticks and whatever other meager pickings were at the campus convenience store. This was my first trip doing my own thing in the mountains, and while some aspects of it could have definitely run smoother, it was a blast and I’m glad I started with such a dirtbag ethic. The next morning I got up really early, and drove into the Valley before dawn. I jogged and stretched at the base of the Yosemite Falls trail, then with little fanfare and no one in sight, I clicked my watched and darted up the trail at about 7 AM in a drizzle.

FIRE! Big mistake. This isn’t a running blog, and I can definitely go down that rabbit hole, but let’s just say that as someone who’s done a lot of hard running, I know my aerobic limits pretty well. Unfortunately, coming off sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and instantly arriving at 4000 ft, moderate elevation to be sure, but very very noticeable to an endurance athlete, is was quite a shock. We all have an anaerobic threshold, past which we begin to accumulate lactic acid. The trail was a bit over 3 miles and 3400 feet of elevation. “So like a 5k,” I thought, still just a wide-eyed freshman. The Yosemite Falls trail is also relentless. Aside from a short downhill section about a quarter of the way up, it is nothing but steep blocks and sand, the biggest staircase in the world or so it seems. As I reached the downhill, I finally was able to feel good and get my stride in a bit of a rhythm. The waterfall spray chilled me as I ate a gel and drank some water heading back up the upper switchbacks.

Lower Yosemite Falls in morning mist

In racing, good and bad times come and go in a series of waves. After a long trough, I finally could feel the angle easing off and I could practically taste the top. In a euphoric ride to the finish, I sprinted the last bit up the trail and clicked my watch. 43:04. I just shattered the old record of 47:58 held by speed climber Bill Wright. I caught my breath and headed over to the railing overlooking the falls. It was early June, probably the peak of the snowmelt, and the thunder of the falls made the granite vibrate. It was truly invigorating. Afterwards, I jogged down the trail and laid down and stretched a bit a the bottom. A family with a young child came up and asked me about the trail. “How long will it take?” I have a healthy ego, but I decided to start off with the modest card, “Well, the park service recommends allowing 6 to 8 hours, and I think it might be a bit much for the three of you.” “Well, how long did it take you?” Long pause. Let’s just say my ego got the better of me and they ended up posing for a portrait with me. The wheels were turning though…I had my sights firmly set on Half Dome, and I knew Bill Wright had the second fastest time. I had a chance I thought.

The next day, I went to Hetch Hetchy, the much less visited sister valley of Yosemite to the north. I took a spectacular hike, then returned to the valley, went on a short hike, and a short run before settling into my campsite. I managed to snag a spot in Upper Pines so I could just run to the trailhead.

At 5:00 I got up, forced down a few bites of a bar, and had some water. I did a little warm up shake-out run to the trailhead where I stretched, and at 5:30, I clicked my watch and started running up the trail. While the start of Half Dome certainly isn’t flat, it wasn’t the shock of Yosemite Falls. Plus, Half Dome was a different animal…17 miles and 5100 ft of elevation gain, and I paced myself accordingly, especially since my legs were a bit tired from the previous few days. After about seven minutes, I crossed the bridge at the base of the Mist Trail, named because it’s receives so much spray from a series of waterfalls. At seventeen minutes I topped Vernal Falls, and by thirty-five minutes I had passed the awfully steep blocks to the top of Nevada Falls. I had jotted some splits down from previous speed attempts, and I knew in the ballpark of record pace. I changed out of pants above Nevada Falls…I definitely didn’t have my equipment system dialed for these attempts. On Half Dome I overdressed and took about a liter of extra water.

In Little Yosemite Valley, I hit my groove. While the trail was sandy, it was gloriously flat, and I was able to run like I was just on a regular run, which was a joy. I kept the rhythm up the wooded section to the base of the subdome, where I passed a couple of women who gave me what can only be described as perplexed looks. Those who have climbed Half Dome know that while the uppermost cables section gets all the hype, the subdome goes on seemlingly forever. I scrambled up the granite in a burning blur, then ran to the col at the base of the cables and grabbed a pair of work gloves laying on the rocks. The final 400 feet to Half Dome’s summit is a 45 degree granite slab, which is protected by cables that have been drilled into the rock. Usually, they’re held up with posts and 2x4s for footholds, but I had purposely come before the handrails were up so I wouldn’t get bogged down in a traffic jam of tourists. I simply pulled up, arm over arm on the cables and made quick work to the summit. I actually found the granite much stickier than the previous time I’d done Half Dome as I was able to climb to the side of the normal route which has been worn slick by the thousands who climb Half Dome each summer. On the summit, I did in fact take in the view for about a minute and a half.

Half Dome veiled in clouds

Finally, I had a benchmark. I’d made the summit in 1:34, which was 4 minutes faster than the 2:51 record pace set by Mark Spencer in 1981. I felt I deserved to enjoy the view, and I was actually the most confident in my ability to descend. Certainly when compared with other runners, I’m actually not that great on the uphills, but I’ve noticed over the years that I’m pretty solid at running and scrambling down trails, scree and talus. Now the sun was up and I was just enjoying myself. I slid down in a rappel of sorts down the cables and ran back to the subdome. I stopped for around a minute there to fix a backpack strap, then continued on. I passed the two women again. I think they were glad to see that I was alive, but they still seemed confused. By the time I reached the top of Nevada Falls, I still had seen only a few people. I looked at my watch and figured I had to run down in the same time I ran up to get the record. Basically it was in the bag, “As long as I don’t break an ankle,” I thought. I had to slow things down quite a bit as I got hit with hordes of tourists on the Mist Trail. Initially, I was polite, but I just started running through family portraits. Even so, the last bit out to the trailhead was a bit of a spectacle and I basically just jogged it. 2:38:21. I had descended in 1:03:59 and shattered the record. I smiled and walked back to my campsite. It was a bit after 8 in the morning. I still had to break camp and drive the 4 hours back to campus to help pack for a two week geologic mapping trip leaving the next day. I rolled into campus at lunchtime. I chuckled at my ridiculous morning as I loaded propane, tents and burrito supplies into the vans.

The records:

Yosemite Falls Trail one way (T in valley loop trail to the winter closure gate at the top): 43:04

Splits: Columbia Rock 14:01, Bottom of Descent: 20:22

Half Dome (Happy Isles to the summit and back) 2:38:21

Splits: Bridge below Vernal Falls: 7:30, Top of Vernal Falls: 17:39, Top of Nevada Falls: 35:42, East end of Little Yosemite Valley: 45:xx; Two miles to go sign: 1:01:xx, Summit: 1:34:22

On Speed

I have mixed emotions on my speed ascents. These are really the only two that were speed climbs. The Yosemite Falls record still stands, while the Half Dome record was broken by Ryan Ghelfi in 2008, and is now held by Rickey Gates with a time of 2:28:18. I’ve since climbed lots of things quickly, and I believe I have the fastest known times on two California 14ers (Middle Palisade 7:28 RT, and White Mountain Peak at 2:58 RT). However, on both of these, I didn’t really know of the fastest times at the time of my ascent and I certainly wasn’t treating them as record attempts. I guess I’m more of the mind that I’d like to travel efficiently, but I still want to see the place, take photos and enjoy myself. That said, I enjoy myself a hell of a lot when I’m not taking breaks, so that’s what I’ll keep doing. Now, when I’m out climbing, I have a hydration system and I stash a snack in a pocket and keep moving unless I need to catch my breath, take a photo or go to the bathroom. And if I’ve started before dawn, I do a quick stop at sunrise to shed layers, put on sunscreen and sunglasses, eat and drink.

Not to tip my hand too much, but I’m intrigued by the idea of speed at very high altitudes. I don’t think I’ll take it to the extent that Chad Kellogg or Ueli Steck have, but being fast at altitude isn’t just a matter of records etc. In a lot of ways it’s flat out safer, just because you’re exposing yourself to so much less time in a risky environment. Furthermore, if you can minimize camps, you save a tremendous amount of weight, and if you can camp lower and have a bigger summit day, you’re sleeping lower, which is also safer. I can say from my limited experience that there’s a big difference between sleeping at 5000m (16,000 ft) and at 6000m (20,000 ft). Those decisions end up mattering a lot. This summer in the Pamir, I’m certainly planning on sleeping at 17,300 ft and likely at 20,000 ft to acclimatize on Lenin Peak, but not necessarily follow the typical camp 1, camp 2 etc pattern on my summit bid. On Korzhenevskaya, I’d like to summit from a lower camp, negating the need for camp 3 at 6400m (21,000 ft). Both of those climbs will be good preparation for Peak Ismoil Somoni, which will likely require an extended stay above 20,000 ft. Whether it’s a “speed” climb or not, I’m out to have fun, and for me, that means using my aerobic tools to my advantage and minimizing the suffering and risk.