The Ascent of Half Dome – Not Your Average Walk in a National Park

The literature on the Half Dome hike reads as follows:

Difficulty:  Extreme. It’s long, steep at the beginning and end, and more dangerous than most Yosemite hikes. It’s probably the most difficult of all Yosemite day hikes. On the traditional 1 to 10 scale, this one rates an 11.

Insanity Factor: 9 out of 10.  Wait ’til you get to the cables, and you’ll see.

     I lie motionless in my sleeping bag in the still night air listening to the climbers miles away on El Capitan shouting back and forth to each other as they are suspended thousands of feet up on the face where they have clamped their ‘bat hammock’ into the granite face for the night.  My alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m., but I’m already awake.    Although we all went to bed very early, none of us slept very well – we knew we had a big day ahead of us.

      We were on the trailhead at 4:00 a.m.; we gazed in awe at the black sky filled with billions of stars – it is an awesome sight, one we don’t get to see back home.  With miner-like hiking lights attached to our hats, we begin out journey.

      It’s a little over a mile’s hike from where we parked to the trailhead, from there it’s 6.2 miles to the top of Half Dome, our destination.  I attempted this same hike just last year, but because of the late and heavy winter, the infamous cables that must be used to climb the last several hundred feet to the summit, were down, so I could not get to the top.  The bucket list went unchecked, so I returned.

     Early in the hike we get to the extremely vertical granite ‘steps’ of Mist Trail along side Vernal Falls, one of the toughest part of the hike, compounded by the fact that our packs are heaviest with the 3-4 liters of water we are carrying, as there is no potable water along the way.  We reach the top of Vernal Falls and it’s still dark as we head towards the base of Nevada Falls, but after about 20 minutes, we realize we’ve lost the trail.  Scott has a GPS and gets us back on course.

     To me one of  the most beautiful parts of any hike is when you’ve hiked in the dark for several hours and then are able to experience the soft light of a sunrise filtering through the pines slowing bringing daylight to the mountains.  This soft morning light allows us to turn off our ‘head lights’ and enjoy the relatively flat part of the hike and then a gradual incline to the base of the ‘Subdome’.  The trail is relatively free of other hikers, in part because it’s after Labor Day and the tourists are gone, and in part because the recent hantavirus outbreak caused by rodents that infected eight visitors to the park this summer, killing three, has certainly discouraged some visitors.

     We’ve been on the trail for about five hours when we reach the base of the ‘subdome’; climbing the subdome is arguably the hardest part of the hike.  It is a series of very vertical granite switch back steps, the heat of the day is apparent as is the fact that you’re at around 8,000 feet and air is starting to get a little thin.  We take our time and finally reach the top of the subdome; from there it’s a short hike down to the saddle between the subdome and the bottom of the cables and your eyes are on the cables the whole way.  There are about 5-6 hikers spread out at various stages on the cables, which look much more vertical than I remembered.  Perhaps it’s because I know that this time I’m going to have to climb them.

     We don our gloves, which are necessary for gripping the cable and pulling yourself up, and begin the final phase of the climb.  Because of generally fewer people on the trail and our early start, there is no one coming down the cables while we were trying to go up.  They say the cables are at a 45 degree angle, it seems more like 90 degrees.  Under the two cables, which are about three feet high, are 2 x 4s on the granite about every ten feet, where you can stop and rest, which we do.  It’s an opportunity to turn and look down at where you’d end up if you slipped.  You don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on that, so you turn around, keep your head down and your hands on the cable.

     The top of Half Dome is spectacular; at 8,835 it’s not that high, it’s not even the highest point in Yosemite, but the view beats any I’ve seen from much higher summits.  The area on top is surprisingly large, I was told that there is room for 17 football fields up there.  Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to go out of bounds on any of them.  I did crawl on my hands and knees and then my stomach to the edge of the dome to looked over and immediately crawled back.  Patrick, Jeff, Greg and I spent about twenty minutes on top, ate a small lunch and then headed back down the cables – maybe scarier than going up; I tried going down forwards and backwards – it was scary both ways.

       Our return trip was high-lighted by seeing both Nevada and Vernal Falls in the light of day; the water levels were down, but still it’s amazing to just stand and look at these wonders of nature.  Eleven hours and 15 miles later we are exhausted and exhilarated . . . and home.

For those who haven’t seen the video I made of last year’s Half Dome hike, when the falls were spectacular, I’ve put the link below.

One comment on “The Ascent of Half Dome – Not Your Average Walk in a National Park

  1. Good on you, Bob! Had sweaty palms through the entire piece. Now I know for sure why I won’t be making that hike. But it was fun living it vicariously.

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