Stairway to Heaven: Half Dome Edition

There aren’t many reasons compelling enough for me to wake up before the sunrise, especially since I know I won’t be going back to early morning commutes for a little while. In July, a friend of my family, Paul, had planned a trip to Yosemite to hike Half Dome, and at nearly the last minute had a member of his group back out.  I jumped at the chance when offered, having dreamed for many years of just seeing Half Dome, let alone climb it.  I knew the possibility of getting permits at a time I could actually go was slim in the future, and so at 4 am on July 25th, darkness found me waiting on the porch, backpack and snacks in hand.

We met up with the rest of the caravan, and made the surprisingly short drive to the woods.  After stopping off at a couple of spots along the way to overlook the valley, we pulled into Half Dome Village, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon messing around in the river since we didn’t have to set up camp.  We attempted to tuck ourselves in early since we had agreed to meet at 3 am ready to hike, but our neighbors in the surrounding tent cabins seemed to have other ideas, and we were up on and off through img_0060the night, jolted awake by screaming babies, laughter, and other shenanigans.  At 2:15 am, we got up and started getting ready for the long hike up to the summit.  For the beginning part of the trail, we were following Mercedes and Nate, who had done quite a bit of the trail we were hiking in winter previously and knew the way. We marveled at the views of the stars so bright between towers of granite and trees on all sides, and passed burbling rivers and crashing waterfalls, unseen in the darkness pierced only by our six headlamps.  We climbed more stairs than I care to think about passing Vernal Falls, and looked over the edge to see white water pouring off into the pitch black void, and moved on. Our goal was the be at the top of Nevada falls before sunrise at 5:45 am, about 2.6 miles and a 2,000 elevation gain from the trailhead, and since it was dark we didn’t take much time to admire the scenery.  As the sky began to lighten the going got slower, and pretty soon we were stopping to survey massive waterfalls in the purple light of morning.

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20160728_071400We reached the top of Nevada Falls before we could see the sun over the horizon, and the gain in altitude caused temperatures to slowly decrease as we hiked on, so we donned once again the layers we had shed during our stair climbing hours.  By mid morning, we had reached the last water source, and using Paul’s water filter topped off our bottles for the last 4.5 miles and 2,800 foot elevation gain to summit Half Dome.  Paul, listening to his cramping legs, opted to stop here. The rest of us carried on, enjoying the flat section through Little Yosemite Valley, but soon began to climb again.  Although this was probably the easier part of the hike, the trail approaching the subdome felt like miles and miles of never ending switchbacks, and pretty soon, Kyle decided to go back and join Paul.  The remaining four of us continued up, soon reaching the subdome.  This portion of the trail feels like another planet, scrambling up the steep granite in whatever direction seemed less treacherous under the blazing sun (by this time it was about 9 or 10 AM) and seeking shade from the few small trees stubborn enough to survive in such conditions.  As we neared the actual base of Half Dome, we began to see views of the cables in the distance, and I felt my stomach drop.  I’m not the most excited about heights, and from my previous and admittedly not particularly extensive reading I hadn’t understood exactly how steep the cables are.  From a distance, they appeared to literally go vertically up the dome, and I didn’t understand how the climbers were staying upright.

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img_0087Upon closer inspection from the base of the dome, my fears were assuaged only slightly.  I had thought the cables are positioned at 45 degrees, but it turned out that in some spots it is apparently more like 60.  After coaxing other members of our hiking party into continuing, we donned our gloves and started the ascent up the last 400 feet to the top of the dome.  It was harrowing, to say the least.  Many people on the cables are slow going, and many are struggling (understandably) against the basic instinct to get back down as quickly as possible.  Since the only footholds are 2×4 slats resting on the cable stakes, this meant that often one or more of us was stuck without a foothold waiting for other climbers to move forward and up, leaving us scrambling for a tenuous foothold on the slick granite.  I had opted to wear running shoes since most hiking boots end up chewing up my feet, but the tread on my trusty Sauconys was worn down after over two years of running and hiking duty, and I found myself struggling to keep a purchase.  As if using your upper body to scale a 60 degree rock face while waiting for other hikers to move in front of you to gain a foothold isn’t enough, don’t forget that the same set of two cables is also the only way down from the dome, so we were also contending with moving out of the way as people were descending. It took over half an hour to reach the top, but when we did the view left us more breathless than the hike.

From the top of the dome, you get a panoramic view of Yosemite Valley and the domes, rock faces, and hills surrounding it.  In the distance you can spot El Capitan, overlook North Dome, and peer across to Cloud Rest.  Nate was all about finding the most precarious places to sit, while Mercedes, Nicole, and I enjoyed a couple well earned protein bars and enjoyed the view a safe distance from the edge of the face.  After exploring, hanging out with the squirrels, and taking photos for about an hour, we decided to head down the cables and start the seven mile hike back to the trailhead, and not a moment to soon.  From the top of the cables you can’t see the bottom, so we were surprised after getting 50 feet down or so to find a large crowd growing at the bottom to img_0145begin the climb.  It turned out to be much easier to stop and wait for people to pass us going up than it had been when we were moving up, so we tried to be courteous and defer to what would be safest and easiest for the folks making the difficult climb.  As had most of the people who passed us on our way up, we offered encouragement to anyone going up who seemed to need it, although standing in place for me drastically increased the anxiety of the heights.  This was not helped when someone dropped a water bottle, which bounced two or three times down the steep face before exploding and careening haphazardly down the rest.  It was easy to imagine what would happen to human body if allowed to roll down the slope, but after about 45 minutes of backlog we ended up down at the bottom once more, safe and sound.  Looking up, it appeared that the cables were jammed with climbers in both directions, and we were glad we had decided to go when we did.  We started the hike back down, which went significantly faster (we were eager to be out of the sun and had started speculating about spending the rest of the day in the river soaking our aching bodies).  In Little Yosemite, we looked for Paul and Kyle, but they had moved on, so we stopped for a swim in the still pools near the campground.  The water felt amazing on our tired feet, and we soaked for about an hour, watching the water snakes effortlessly glide by before reluctantly donning our boots once more to complete the hike.

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At this point, Mercedes was having some knee trouble, so she and Nate opted to take an alternate route that would avoid the steep steps.  I wanted to get a good look at the waterfalls we had passed in the dark that morning, so Nicole and I went back the same way we had come.  At Nevada Falls, we came across a group of people high-lining above the falls, so we stopped to watch for a couple minutes and ask the people how they set it up so I could talk to Jon about it when we got back to San Diego.  We moved on, encountering a much more crowded, although easier to navigate, trail system now that the sun was up.  After a couple more grueling hours in the heat, we made it back to the valley, where we discovered Paul and Kyle totally wrecked from their hike down, and all of us opted to lay down in the shade and not put our shoes back on to make the journey to the river.  We hit the hay early again, too tired even to be hungry, and woke the next more at a much more civilized 6 AM.  Paul and I grabbed Nicole and left the park, stopping off only to grab a quick photo of the sun rising over Half Dome.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to summit Half Dome again (I think scaling those cables once is enough for me), but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to face my fears in a way that I never thought I’d be able to do.

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