San Francisco Sabbatical 2008

If I meet one more interesting person I think I'm going to be sick......

Tales from my 6 week sabbatical trip to California, April & May 2008.

Butterfly Box

Butterfly Box I built in it's entirity, Installed in Queens Library, New York


At the start of 2008 I finally decided to act on the idea of taking a sabbatical that I had been thinking about for some time, so I decided to fill in the volunteer application for from the Exploratorium in San Francisco and await their reply. I had hit on the idea of the Exploratorium as an interesting place to go after reading an article written by Tim Hunkin about exhibit development on his website.

In the middle of January, it was announced that my employer, BAE Systems were going to stop production at their site in Guildford and make approximately 75 people redundant. This was followed by two phone-calls a day later from companies interested in employing me and inviting me for interview. After a couple of weeks I had settled on one offer, which was to later mean a move to Banbury. Before this however, (2 days after the redundancy announcement), came an email from the Exploratorium inviting me to join them for a placement.

Over the course of a couple of weeks after the announcement I was able to formulate a plan, book tickets, check visas, get insurance, book accommodation and do all the myriad things that need to be done before travelling. Thankfully I was able to leave BAE systems before the redundancy date by taking holiday for the last few weeks, and to delay the start with my new employer until late May. All of this meant I would get 6 weeks in the US. 5 weeks to be spent at the Exploratorium with my last week intended to be given over to visiting Yosemite (which I had wanted to do for a while and was strongly encouraged to do by friends who had visited it in the snow earlier this year).


The rest of this is therefore a diary of what I got up to on my travels:


I made it safely into the states after a pretty uneventful journey (thankfully), complete with all my baggage. Terminal 5 generally seems a much nicer place than the rest of Heathrow, and there was no sign of the baggage chaos that had been widely publicised in the news the week before when it opened. The trip across the city was fairly simple too, including a ride on the cable street cars. I didn't do much else on Friday as I was feeling pretty tired from the trip other than settle in the hotel and have some dinner..


I stayed in the Kenmore, a 'Residence Hotel', which is basic, but adequate. I found it quite difficult to make any friends there as it was mainly frequented by groups of language students who had formed their own cliques, or by some slightly strange people...


I got up fairly early on my first full day there and set out for an explore. I didn't put any suntan lotion on which was a mistake, resulting in a bit of sun-burn.

I walked across to the Exploratorium to work out where it was and if it would be practical to walk every day, which it didn't really turn out practical to do. I then headed down to the beach by Crissy Fields, on the edge of the bay. I got talking on a beach with a bloke who had moved here from the UK in 1972- so got some tips of things to go and see and do and then walked on up to the 'Warming Hut', where I sat and had a coffee before setting out across the Golden Gate Bridge.


The day was very clear so the views were magnificent!. I then walked back into the city to the Embarcadero area, stopping at a few shops on the way, and then back up to the hotel. In all I probably walked over 16 miles, which explained why I had slightly sore feet the next day.


Sunday, I again headed out fairly early, with the intention of not walking too far. That didn't quite work although it wasn't as far as Saturday. I caught the cable car down to Union Square and ambled round the shops in that area for a while before heading on the Muni out to the ballpark. Close to here was supposed to be a big sports shop that sells lots of camping gear. I found when it got there that it had moved. Twice. I ended up with a fair bit of a detour until I actually found it, although it was worth it when I got there.


With the weekend over, and my acclimatisation to the city complete, I started the week with a relatively gentle walk to the Exploratorium as I didn't need to be there early, and I hadn't yet picked up a Presidigo shuttle bus pass. I was immediately made to feel very welcome by the volunteer co-ordinator, Deidre, who took me round to visit all the departments and meet key people. The centre employs about 275 people, which was quite a surprise- a lot of these are involved in special events, training teachers in engaging kids in science and technology and building exhibits for other museums around the world. All these are areas I hadn't realised formed an important part of the Exploratorium. Once we had been round the site, I met up with Ray who was to be my main point of contact, and went and got some lunch at a Thai place nearby whilst we discussed what skills I have and how best to use them during my trip.


Over the rest of the week I was familiarised with the majority of the machine tools in the workshop, with the intention that I should be able to work reasonably independently during the second week as Ray was going on holiday. I therefore worked on a number of projects, most of which were for Queens Library in New York;  table tops for exhibits to fit to, sign panels, posts, mounting brackets as well as helping with some maintenance.


I had a reasonable route to work sorted out, which involves a trip on a cable car the full length of the California Street line to the main interchange in the city, the embarcadero, I then got on a bus, mainly with Lucasfilm people to the Exploratorium. It was surprising how infrequently I got asked for a ticket on the cable car- I guess if you get on at the end of the line that early, they assume you are a local and have a season ticket.


The Exploratorium is housed in a large curved building towards the Golden Gate Bridge that was the Palace of Fine Arts at the huge exhibition held in San Francisco about 100 years ago. The outside surroundings are beautiful and well looked after, including a small lake where I sometimes ate lunch, whilst watching Japanese tourists and wedding parties having their photos taken. These lunchtime jaunts were usually proceeded by a trip to the Marina Deli on Chestnut street, who make great sandwiches. The other favourite lunch spot is down near the waterfront at Crissy Fields, in the visitor centre a few minutes away, where you get a great view across the bay to the bridge or Alcatraz from the large conservatory.


I had quite an experience in the middle of the week when the Olympic Torch came through town. Much to the disgust of lots of the locals, the route was changed at the last minute without telling them, so there were large crowds waiting in the city centre to watch the spectacle go past. Mid afternoon someone came into the workshop and shouted that the torch was outside, so I grabbed my camera and dashed outside with a few of the other museum staff. We started to cross the road only to get stopped at a traffic island by a policeman on a motorbike, so we stood and waited. In under a minute the police had lined up down either side of the main road, with us stuck in the middle. As a result we got a great view as the torch went past, probably better than most other people in the city had as it wasn't blocked by the thin blue line! It was however quite depressing how swamped the torch generally seemed to be by policemen. There was a minor scuffle just before it reached us, but I think it looked worse because the police were being a bit heavy handed due to their sheer numbers.


On Thursday I joined the San Francisco Flickr group for their monthly meet up, which was conveniently being held in the grounds of the palace of arts, just outside the museum. We spent about one and half hours wandering round, taking photos and then followed this by a trip to a bar where we had dinner, a couple of beers and a socialise. It finished off with three of us going to a late night bookshop, going for an amble and chatting about places worth visiting. Also that evening as well as me joining in, being the furthest travelled, we were joined by a journalist from 'San Francisco Magazine' who is in the process of putting an article together about how Flickr is affecting how people photograph. Quite a few of us were interviewed, so I may well end up being quoted in the article!


Friday lunchtime I headed along to Sports Basement, which is a massive sports/ camping type superstore, so have come home sporting a fair few additions to the wardrobe.

That evening I had a bit of an explore around the area of the hotel, but didn't really find a lot of interest to report, except some of my crafty friends would like the giant art store a couple of blocks away. That was my first week complete.


The second weekend I spent time exploring more of the city. I started off by heading into Chinatown and having a wander around there, taking in the sights and smells, I headed on to the outskirts of the North Beach area, the centre of the beat scene in the 60s (Jack Kerouac et al) and spent about an hour in City Lights Bookstore, where I bought a few books (including one on poetry as one does when in a place like that...).


From there I then headed up the hill to the cable car museum, which I then followed with the streetcar museum. The cable car one was fairly interesting, and is the place all the cable hauling takes place in, for moving the cable cars round the city. The other museum was pretty small and nondescript. I followed this by jumping on a packed streetcar (tram for everyone English reading this!) along the front to Fishermans wharf, which was heaving with people. I wandered out on Hyde Street Pier to look at the old ships, followed by a quick trip into the visitor centre/ museum. I then went on to USS Pampanito, a Second World War Submarine which was interesting, particularly as I hadn't been on a Sub before.  I reckoned I had probably done enough transport museums for one weekend by this point, so didn't go onto the liberty ship. That'll have to wait until I return to the city.


Sunday proved to be a more relaxed day- I had a bit of a lie in and then headed out, with the aim of going to the Haight area of town- This didn't quite work out as planned as I misread the info about which Muni stop to get off at and ended up on a long circular tour round some of the suburbs. I did eventually get back to where I meant to go several hours later and had a good wander round, looking mainly at the book and record shops. I then had dinner in the Squat and Gobble restaurant on Haight Street and wandered back to the hotel.


I moved at the end of the second week to a room in the house of one of the Exploratorium employees, Dan, which turned out to be a good place to stay-I was lucky that Dan drove into the museum, so I was easily able to get a lift with him.


In my second week at the museum I was now signed off on most of the machine tools, and was able to get on and work independently. The list of jobs therefore ended up being: laminated and routed three table tops, made 6 sign posts, 20 mounting plates, a large wooden circle, fixed new ventilation, rewired and replaced a ballast in an exhibit, made 13 plastic flaps, made up three circuit boards machined some weld tabs for some signs and did some research on butterflies. Quite a lot really!

Bug Viewer

One of the Many table tops I made


Prior to moving I met up with Dan on Wednesday to have a look at the house and then went out with him and some of his friends to a bar in the Castro. On the day after I moved in, Anna, one of his old colleagues came over and so we went for dinner and drinks, again in the Castro. We ate, and then shortly after eating were treated to a number of drag acts including Miss Gay San Francisco.... Evidently this type of show is quite common in the restaurant that we went to. We followed this by going to a rock bar for a few more beers.


Also that weekend I hired a car so that I could do some exploring. I therefore headed down to silicon valley (San Jose, Santa Clara & Sunnyvale) to go to a couple of surplus shops, buying a few small pieces of junk & stopped on the way back at one of the malls to get a few things there too.


Sunday I headed north out of the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge into the national park. I started by driving to the east peak of Mount Tamalpias which I then walked to the top of, followed by a bit of a walk round the area. I then aimed to go and walk in Muir woods, but decided against it when I saw how difficult it was to park! I therefore took highway 1 up the coast as far as Stinson Beach. It was another lovely area, albeit very windy off the Pacific. I followed this by following the coast road down to the Golden gate bridge where I stopped at the viewpoint where we had stopped on my previous visit to the city , although this time in much better weather, before driving back into the city and making a visit to another mall to have a look at a book shop.


If I meet one more interesting person I think I'm going to be sick.......

The quote was made to me by one of the Artists at the '2nd Skin' exhibition regarding the people who work and volunteer at the Exploratorium. More about the exhibition in a bit....


Week four was a pretty full week again- I progressed with making more table tops at the Exploratorium along with making up some circuit boards, prototyping and then making 12 hinged flaps for an exhibit, making a butterfly display case and assisting in removing a 'wave mirror' (a prototype possible future outdoor exhibit) from the sea.


Later on Wednesday we joined up with Dan's friends again at a bar in the mission and had a few beers- met a few more new people and had a very pleasant evening. Thursday I went down to 'Planet Granite' and indoor climbing wall in Belmont with Claire and Paul from the Exploratorium and met up with a group of other climbers. I had an enjoyable evening, and discussed our intended trip to 'The Pillars' and Yosemite as at least one of these are those I will be climbing with.


On Wednesday lunchtimes the Exploratorium host science colloquia for staff and volunteers, presented by one of the staff. The first one I attended was Cosmology 101 which was very interesting.


Friday night saw the launch of '2nd Skin, Imaginative designs in digital and analogue clothing' so we went in late and stayed late. For the first part of the evening I was assisting Jay and his brother, a researcher from MIT, with 'OK to Touch', a musical jacket, encouraging people to join in. We then went on to watch the runway shows, which was interesting, along with a strange performance art/ dance piece by Bad Unkl Sista.


I picked up a hire car on Saturday and headed down towards Carmel, stopping at Outdoor World on the way. I got to Carmel late morning, had a bit of a wander in the gorgeous sun, grabbbed some sandwiches and headed for the beach. After lunch I then headed off down highway one.


I drove down to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park where I had a quick look at the visitor centre. There wasn't much to see, other than hundreds of toilets. (The Big Sur Marathon was happening the next day). I then headed down to Pfeiffer beach, which was very pleasant, and spent time wandering round and relaxing. After an hour or so I carried on down the coast as far as Partington Point, before heading back up highway one. I had the aim of getting further South than we had managed last time I was there, so thought it best not to stop too much on the way down, I did however stop lots on the way back, and tried to stop in other places that we didn't before. The scenery is truly stunning and rugged, and the road fun to drive!


I then headed back to Carmel, and spent about an hour with JP and Christine (and their energetic cats!) before we then went up to the Black Bear Diner in Seaside and met Steve and Lari (Vicki's adopted parents!). We had a good meal there and a big catch up, which was very enjoyable. Steve, Lari and I then went back to theirs and continued chatting whilst half watching Harry Potter, whilst JP and Christine disappeared home.


We had a bit of a lie in the next morning and then again spent several hours chatting before it was time for Brunch in 'The Breakfast Club' After thisI said my goodbyes and set off.


I followed Steve's advice and took the coast road back to the city, stopping at Santa Cruz for a couple of hours, wandering along the Boardwalk and out on the pier and then stopping at various very picturesque beaches and views at various points on the way back. It was definitely worth the extra time it took, although the fairground and amusements at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz would be more fun with a group of friends!


Again, the next week was pretty full at the Exploratorium. A lot of my time was spent in repairing an old exhibit- 'Molecular Buffeting' where the bearings have worn out and need replacement. This has meant some brute force to remove the old bearings and turning up quite a few new parts on the lathe. I also finished off the butterfly display box which I started the previous week which was then taken to Queens Library in New York for a meeting.


I spent a bit of time at lunchtimes during the week exploring the area around the Exploratorium- down on the waterfront and into Marina along with a bit of time in the evening exploring round where I was staying.


I had the experience of going to one of the few Malls in San Francisco on Thursday to go to the Apple store where I invested in an IPod.


Wednesday night we met up with Dan's friends on Polk Street for an Indian and a few beers- the Indian restaurant was quite different to what we are used to in the UK. It was a sort of canteen style, and the choice was limited, but the food was good. We then went for a few beers at a pub nearby.


Friday night we decided to do something different so went for an Afghanistani meal- It was worth going- nice food and a colourful restaurant. We followed this by heading to 'Mint', a karoake bar in the Castro area, which proved amusing, although I wasn't persuaded to sing (probably just as well!)


There is quite a revival on the west coast for traditional bitters, so I managed to avoided drinking much lager- which is a bonus! There are a number of good beers from the area- my favourites being Anchor Steam Brewery.


Saturday I had a bit of a lazy start to the day. I then headed down to a large professional camera shop, which some of you would love! I bought myself a digital SLR- a Nikon D80 with 18-55mm lens and flash.


Early afternoon we headed (new camera in hand) over to the Maker Faire-


For those that don't know, for a few years there has been a quarterly magazine called 'Make' produced in the US, recently joined by 'Craft' magazine. Both of these have gained quite a following of 'Tinkerers', sufficient to warrant having it's own event (now in two venues). I know of nothing in the UK quite like it- it is part festival, part art exhibition, part workshop, part convention- it sort of defies description, but I'll try....


The event is held in a big event centre, not far from San Francisco. It has a number of large halls, each with a number of things in, including a couple of stages for talks and demonstrations.


One hall is full of small stands of stuff (the only description that works!), largely from individuals and clubs (although there are a few trade stands interspersed)- this hall included a 3D printer using sugar, various robot stands, a giant giaraffe, electric cars, furniture and art exhibits, RC cars, planes, animatronic puppets and all manner of other exhibits.


A separate building housed a similar range of craft type stalls- knitting, weaving, printing etc- although I didn't stay long in there.


Another building was the 'Dark Room' housing stuff that didn't want too much light- light up bicycle wheels, tesla coils, glowing orbs, shadow puppetry and the suchlike


There was a hall called the 'Bizarre Bazaar' which housed lots of stalls selling handmade crafts, much like the craft building.


Yet another a hall housed 'TechShop'- this is a group based in the Bay Area, where for an annual subscription of $800 you can have access to a wide range of tools, machinery and classes. They brought much of this with them- In no particular order there were Mills, laser cutters, CNC routers, Vinyl cutters, vacuum former, CNC hot wire cutters and a whole host of other pieces of tooling being demonstrated.


Outside there were loads of large things happening;

A number of 'Art Cars' were scattered around the grounds, the most popular seemed to be the lego one, where kids and their parents were busy building sculptures onto the car.


There were plenty of pedal powered devices- hacked bicycles, and ones with wooden frames, but the most impressive was the Buscycle- one where multiple people (about a dozen) pedalled together to move it around.


Quite a lot of robots were around, including some very large impressive beasts, many breathing fire from somewhere on them, or being demonstrated destroying shop dummies.


Powertool drag racing was definitely one of the highlights- Circular saws, chainsaws, sanders etc, tarted up with riders (dolls/ stuffed toys) and set off against each other along a wooden track.


There were a couple of stages with various bands, conventional and playing home-made instruments were performing, giving quite a festival atmosphere.


There were loads of fire sculptures, which really came to life after the sun went down- everywhere you turned there seemed to be fireballs going off... These were joined later on by a 1.39MV Tesla coil being run up- pretty impressive to watch from a few tens of feet away (until it stopped working!!!).


There were quite a few Steampunk goings on including a Jules Verne inspired land ship- the Neverwas Haul, which was very impressive in it's size and decoration. This was joined by a steam car, whistles and various paraphernalia.


After all that- my favourite (helped in no way by the mice, honest!) was the giant mousetrap. This is a construction using bowling balls of the mousetrap board game, extending over an area of something like 50 x 150ft and up to about 20ft high. It evidently needs a complete artic trailer to transport and is largely made of steel scrap. A truly impressive feat.


Sunday was then spent wandering round more of the city-I was in a small second-hand bookshop in the Mission today. When I looked down to the floor where I was about to stand I saw a small black snake......

It turned out to be a rubber toy snake. Not sure why it was there!


The day started fairly early with a trip to the flea market with Karin, I then mooched round the Castro, the Mission and the Haight.


My last week at the Exploratorium went pretty quickly- The project team I was working with took me out for lunch at a Thai restaurant on the Tuesday. I spent time machining plastic lens holders, fabricating more brackets and fixing one of the exhibits.



Exhibit I made the instruction panels for

Thursday I had a day out climbing with Paul, one of the employees at the Exploratorium and Hal, one of his climbing partners. We went to an area called The Pinnacles, a national park a couple of hours South East of the city and had a very enjoyable day climbing a range of routes (In grades, trad and bolted protection) on a rock called welded tuff, which is quite different to the types of rock I am used to. There were very good views from the top of the pinnacles, including of the San Andreas Fault (which many San Franciscans seem to be getting worried about as it is 20 years since the last major quake). We also saw quite a lot of wildlife (various birds including Turkey Vultures, Ground Squirrels, Lizards etc) and learnt the important skill of how to recognise poison oak. Both Paul and Hal were good company as well as both of them being very experienced and competent climbers. I heard plenty of travel stories including that of trips to Antarctica and the Andes, as well as had various discussions about science and technology.


My last day was spent finishing off a few loose ends and saying my goodbyes to the team I had been working with. It finished with a visit for a few hours to the 'English Pub' near the Exploratorium called 'Liverpool Lils'. I'm struggling to work out what made it English- Guinness or the name? It was however a nice pub, and a good way to round off the day. I have made quite a few friends at the Exploratorium, and was struck by the kindness shown to me by many of them- especially Dan and Karin who I stayed with, but also those I worked closest with- Ray, Josh, Diane and Claire.


Saturday I picked up a car from the airport and proceeded to visit more places round and about the city- catching up on some shopping I wanted, including picking up the new zoom lens and spare battery to go with my new camera and picking up some camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment) from Ray in preparation for Yosemite.


After returning back to Dan's, we both headed downtown on a packed Muni to go to KABOOM!!!- A big firework display fired from a barge by the Bay Bridge. San Francisco lived up to it's reputation and whilst the fireworks did definitely KABOOM! we could only see the bottom half of the show due to the fog. It was worth going for a free show though!


We headed up to the Castro after this where we had been invited to a celebration in the most unusual party venue I have ever been to- a flat above a funeral parlour. The flat's inhabitant had once worked at the Exploratorium and was friends with Ray- hence the invite, but the party also included quite a few other current and ex-Exploratorium people. The flat came with the responsibility of being a live in caretaker - hence why the flat was there- the party was being held as he was leaving the city the following week. Just to top it off a Karaoke machine was added and we sung away until the early hours.


The next day, as would probably be expected wasn't an early start. I posted the packages I needed to send home, went and got a few bits for Yosemite and headed over to the Exploratorium for one last time to pick up a climbing helmet and say goodbye to a couple of people I had missed on Friday as it was their day off. In the evening Dan and I met up with one of his friends, Ian and his wife and son for a Nepalese meal. Ian is an ex-pat, so wanted to know how Blighty was! It made a change talking to someone where they understand the word quid and know where the places you are talking about are! We followed the meal with a trip to a local pub, before heading home.


Monday I left mid morning after finishing packing and loading the car, stopping on the way to stock up on food, and taking the drive fairly leisurely. Once away from the main multi-lane highways, there were a few things of note on the journey in. There seemed to be huge expanses of flat land, that were occasionally broken by a ridge of hills- the first major ridge hid an enormous reservoir which was feeding a hydroelectric power station, before it flattened out into a very dusty plain. The roads here were straight and largely uneventful- flanked on both sides by mile upon mile of dusty fields, interspersed regularly with farmsteads and occasionally small towns with their ranch supply and irrigation stores. I guess i was firmly in middle America in these areas. I went through only two sizeable towns- Los Banos and Merced. After Merced the land got greener (although even that is relative) and hillier, gently rising up towards the Sierras. The last twenty or so miles on the way to Mariposa reminded me heavily of films of the goldrush- It is just as you imagine the frontier land to be, but with paved roads!


There is a mining museum in mariposa which looked quite interesting, but I got there 15 minutes before they closed. I was let in for free, but didn't have anywhere near a proper look round.


I finally reached my campsite around 6.30pm after the final leg of the trip and having a 45 minute wait at one set of traffic lights for the roadworks that are being carried out on the lower valley. I set up camp, stowed my food in the bear proof locker and got dinner in the Curry Village dining hall, where they failed to charge me. After a short explore and a long sit down reading, I headed off to bed.


The Tuesday I decided to take fairly easily so that I could get orientated within the valley. There is a free shuttle bus that runs round the valley, so I made good use of it over the week- starting off by going to Yosemite Village. From here I took a small path down the valley to Yosemite Falls, surprising myself with the large numbers of tourists at the falls themselves. All became apparent as I walked on after having paused for a good look at the falls. The path the other side of the bridge was wide, tarmaced and led directly to a convenient car park. This was the first time I realised, although it would happen many times over the week that I found it very easy to get away from the crowds just by following a path on the map I had for a few hundred yards rather than the guidebook.


It was also noticeable where I was camping that probably 2/3rds of the other people on the campsite were in their RV's for one or two nights to 'do' Yosemite. Quite a lot of them also lived up to the stereotypical American image of overweight and loud. This is quite a contrast to what I'd experienced in San Francisco where most people didn't seem to be overweight, were chilled out and friendly.


I walked on down the valley towards El-Capitan. For those that climb this is an amazing place- it has probably the worlds best known straight rock climb- 'The Nose' and is the tallest granite rock face in the world. Needless to say I had a good close look! I then walked back up the valley to 'Camp 4'. This is the place where many of the climbers stay, and has a notice board where I put up a note looking for a climbing partner. I headed back to my campsite and started cooking dinner. Whilst doing this I got a visit from Bruce- someone looking to do some climbing, who happened to have all the kit, but not a huge amount of experience. We decided to hook up and do some routes the next day.


Wednesday, Bruce and I met up and headed over to Sunnyside Bench in the Yosemite falls area, and a after a brief scout around found the bottom of the climb- 'The Regular Route'. This should have been a relatively easy going 5.4 (UK HVD) 4-5 pitch route, with me leading. It proved to be quite a challenge due to difficulties route finding and ending 4 pitches up a crack blocked by a lack of holds and a lot of vegetation. We therefore ended up abseiling off. The detour meant that I was attempting a much harder climb than I was expecting, but I succeeded in retreating safely after 4 hours on the climb!


After this we had a break for lunch before moving to another crag, Swan Slab, close to Camp 4. The first route we did here (successfully!) was a 5.5 called 'Swan Slab Chimney', which Bruce did his first lead on. After spending quite a lot of time on this I went to lead one last climb, a 5.7 called 'Un-named Crack'. Which I disappointingly failed to get off the ground on! At this point we decided to call it a day, so I headed off to find some food, which I did in Yosemite village- having a pizza. I then headed back to the tent and had a very early night after getting my gear ready for the next day.


I got up very early the next morning and after breakfast I headed out. I was on my way to the trail head by 5.15 am. The plan for the day was to get to the top of Half Dome- but as this is a sixteen mile round trip with over 4500ft of ascent, and the weather forecast was in the 80s I decided to follow the advice I had been given to be on the trail by first light. Half dome is a spectacular granite half dome (!) at the head of the valley, again another favourite with big wall climbers. The last section of the trail to the summit has fixed cables and steps to make the going much easier. These however are taken down in the winter for safety and notices posted in the valley telling you the trail is closed. In reality it is only the last couple of hundred yards that aren't easy to access, and I had been told that as a climber you could still get up fairly easily, so I decided to go up anyway.


The first surprise of the morning was my first and only sighting of a bear. As a came onto the bridge across the Merced river to get to the trail head, I saw the rear end of a bear disappear onto the trail. By the time I had got to the path it was gone.


I made good progress, ascending by the Muir Trail route and pausing to look at Nevada Falls, and various wildlife (Deer, lizards etc). Once I got past Little Yosemite camp-ground, I bumped into the third person I had seen all morning (in about 5 miles), one of the park staff, who told me they were on their way up to put up the cables. As she said they would be a few hours, I slowed my pace up somewhat as I knew I wouldn't get to the top straight away if I was going to have to wait for them. By now it was starting to warm up, and I'd got through 2 litres of water, so I paused to try out one of my new toys- a portable water filter so I could have plenty to drink. At one point one other walker passed me, but I saw no-one else until I reached the bottom of the cables.


I stopped and watched the cables going up whilst having lunch and chatting to the only other walker, who had passed me earlier. After an hour or so we were joined by a German walker, Werner. Eventually I decided not to wait any longer as it looked like the cables were going to take a few hours more to go up, so I headed back down taking it reasonably slowly to stop at the interesting places on the way back. These included descending by Nevada Falls from a different route, the Mist Trail,  Vernal falls and watching rattlesnakes, deer and chipmunks.


The last full day I spent exploring round the valley some more, after a lie in. I met with Werner in the late afternoon, and ended up finding out his next destination was going to be San Francisco, so I offered him a lift- In thanks, he cooked dinner. After this I headed for a showing of a climbing film, return to balance, in the village centre and talk by the climber featured in it, . This rounded off my week as I had to pack and sort my kit out to get a reasonable start the next day.


We had a fairly uneventful trip back to the city, stopping for lunch and trainer shopping for Dez in Gilroy. I dropped Werner at a hostel in the city and gave him a few pointers of good things to do (like visit the Exploratorium!) before picking up a few final things (including a suitcase from a thrift shop) and heading back to Dan's.


Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent in packing and sorting my kit out before Dan, Karin and I headed out for Cuban meal in Hayes Valley. The meal was reasonable, but the entertainment was very entertaining-lots of dancing going on in a tiny restaurant.


My last day started with the final packing before heading over to Ray's to drop off the camping kit I'd borrowed and pick him up. We then headed to Zeitgeist- a bikeresque sort of pub with good beer and an friendly sort of atmosphere where we had lunch, bumping into another Exploratorium employee and an ex employee too. After this we said our goodbyes and I headed out to the airport.

The trip back was reasonably smooth and un-eventful, other than having to re-pack bags a bit at the airport because I was well over the baggage limit. Thankfully I didn't get charged!


I arrived back safely at Heathrow the next morning, on time and made my way back home. I caught up with friends on Monday before heading up to Banbury in time to start the new job on Wednesday.


I thoroughly enjoyed the trip- learnt a lot, made some very good friends, had some great experiences and saw more of the world! I will almost certainly return to the area to visit the friends I made and see more of the area.