Yup, the Half Dome story does not end with how we got to the top. We had to get back to terra firma, right? So, read on.
[If you want to know how we wound up perched on the top of Half Dome in the first place, read ,  and ]
At the top, we all congratulated each other and posed for victorious pictures. The top of HD had a pretty big surface area - much larger than a football field.
V, E and C explored a bit - S and me mostly admired the view from one spot as it let us be least mobile :-D. As I enjoyed the spectacular view of the valley, thoughts of the climb back down constantly interrupted my thoughts!
We could not spend too much time at the top. We were among the last few people to have climbed up Half Dome that day. Unless we hurried, we were running the risk of darkness descending upon us during our return back to the trailhead.
So, soon, we all set off to descend down the cables. Given how terrified I am of heights, for the return trip down the cables, I decided to choose a configuration in which I would feel safe. C and V would lead the way showing me how to climb down. S would follow them. I would follow S and finally, E would bring up the rear.
For the first few steps I was okay. Then we reached the steep section of the descent. As I looked down, a wave of dizziness swept over me and I tried to fight back panic. It did not help that this story kept flashing into my mind. Climbing down sidewards was recommended. Even then, the section was so steep that there was no question of climbing down - I had to slide from one plank to the next. And sliding isn't a very easy thing to do when you risk dropping some 390 ft to the ground in case you mis-slid.
I managed to climb/slide down some more planks with E encouraging me (btw, E slid, sitting down the entire way - he was having fun!!!). Then, while sliding down to a plank, I lost my footing a bit and slid down mostly on my behind, hanging on to the cable for dear life with both hands.
At that point I froze, utterly panicked. With the cables as narrow as they are, I was holding up all traffic behind me with my slow pace. But I couldn't have cared less. As long no one asked me to move, I could spend the rest of my life on that plank as far as I was concerned!
Then, someone behind me asked if it was okay with me if they passed me. Sure - just don't ask me to move! Then a guy climbed down past me. I don't know what prompted me to do so but as he climbed down onto the plank below mine, I meekly called out to him "Please, can you just stand on that plank and watch while I climb down to it? I will feel better if someone is watching me."
The hiker looked up at me and said, "I noticed that you are very scared. I was wondering why no one of your party was keeping step with you". I pointed out to S in front of me and E behind me. The hiker (henceforth referred to as God - as far as I am concerned, he saved my life) said, "Let me do one thing - I will put my leg between the planks. You can lean your foot against my leg and use it as a support. Remember, my leg isn't going anywhere."
Now, instead of sliding five feet to the next plank, I had to only slide two and a half feet, upto his leg and then slide down the other two and a half feet. I thought God would continue descending after I came down that one plank.
Instead, God cheerfully told me that he would do this all the way to the base of Half Dome! He said he was happy to be of use. God's technique made climbing down so much less difficult. Like a trusting child, I obediently followed his instructions. He kept up a constant stream of cheerful conversation and encouragement and I finally stopped focussing on how far away the ground was! E was right behind me, shouting out encouragement too. We made slow but steady progress.
Finally, at long last, I stepped off the last plank and I was back on terra firma! And immediately, a whole bunch of people who had been watching the descent applauded - hehehehe. Hikers are one nice and helpful bunch!
God gave me a big hug and I posed with him for a picture - not that I would forget his kindness or help ever. Waving good-bye to God, the five of us set off on our return trip. We did not have any time to rest - it was already 6.00p. So we all set off immediately for the return journey.
Remember the no-step portion of the Steps I talked about here? Well, I did not even notice it during the descent - after that descend down Half Dome, this was child's play! After getting down the Steps, due to an urgent need to use the restroom, the guys practically ran all the way upto Little Yosemite camp (the nearest place with "facilities"). S and me couldn't keep up with that pace (as S put it, "I am constantly moving my legs and I still am behind, what else can I do") and were lagging behind by about 15 minutes.
At Little Yosemite campsite, we re-synchronized with the guys and all of us headed to Nevada Falls together. Once at Nevada Falls, we had to make the call about whether to take the Mist trail or the John Muir trail. The Mist trail was shorter by 1.2 miles but we would have to tackle the trecherous, steep and slippery steps near Vernal falls. It was already 8pm and our chances of being caught in the dark just near those steps were very high.
We decided on the Mist trail and set off immediately. My only aim at that point was to get to the base of Vernal Falls before it turned dark. I had nightmarish visions of me slipping and falling off the steps in the dark and this fear gave me a rush of adrenaline. Apparently, it was motivating others too. We literally ran down all the way from Nevada Falls. V in the lead, S behind him, then me, then C and then E.
At any other time, I would have threaded my way carefully over the rough rocks and slopes on that trail. But that evening, like Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin, we bounded over the steps not even pausing for breath. And we were right in doing so. Just as we reached the base of the Vernal falls, the last traces of daylight faded away, plunging the Valley into darkness.
I had been responsible for making the list of required items for the hike. I added "flashlight" almost as an after thought (why on earth would we still be hiking in the dark?) on that list. S had bought a new hike-worthy headlamp specially for the trip. E had brought along a powerful flashlight too. Those two lights (along with my, as V put it, useless flashlight) saved the day or rather the night. We hiked the remaining one mile back to the trail-head, the lights picking out the way. The valley was silent and after sometime, we could see the moon shining on the Merced river. It was calm, quiet and beautiful.
My knees which had been complaining (but which had been ignored) during the latter half of our fast descent started acting up and we took two short breaks to relieve the cramps. Finally, we reached the trail-head. From the trail-head, we still had a not insignificant walk back to the car. C and V offered to bring the car closer while we waited.
E, S and me had to walk some more distance till the pick up point. As we waited for them, E first sat on the dark ground. After a while, my sore legs got precedence over any fear of snakes and I squatted beside him. S bravely continued standing.
Then the car arrived and we stumbled into it. It was 9.45pm. We drove back to the townhouse and were received with cheers from the rest of the folks. I had a shower and saw the white soap turn into a dirty brown! There wasn't too much talking while we ate dinner. Soon afterwards, we retired to bed.
We had gone the miles we had to go before we could sleep!
Stuff which did not fit in elsewhere:
1. If you are wondering how I still remember every single minute detail: well, so would you, if you had told the same story to different people in excruciating detail about half a dozen times (besides telling the abridged version several more times) :-D.
2. I don't know how much my training helped me in the actual hiking. But it did help in quick recovery. Though on Sunday noon, the day after the hike, V, S and me did something akin to the March of the Penguins as we walked from the car to the restaurant we had gone to for lunch, by Monday noon, I had completely recovered - yaaay!
3. My descent back down the cables marks one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I still break into sweat when I think back to how I stood on the planks. Needless to say, climbing up (or down) heights is not for me and unless they start helicopter service to the top (or God decides to go when I go :-P) I am not going back to the top of Half Dome.
4. Only after seeing my wonderful performance while descending to the base of Half Dome did V, E, C and S realize exactly how scared I had been though I had mentioned it quite a few times on the top. Either I joke too much or cry wolf too many times :-(!
5. Since we were among the last hikers to have climbed HD that day, many of the people we crossed on our way back had been at the top of HD around the same time as us. And guess what, quite a few of them remembered me and told me "Good job!", "We are so glad you came back down safe" etc. - ah, fame (hahahaha) comes in so many ways!!!
6. Yup, I am finally done with my narration. Till now you really did not believe that description for a one-day hike could span four posts, did you :-P?