Half Dome: Epilogue

(Flip back to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the story to see what you missed.)

After a little more time and a few more pictures atop Half Dome, we decided we’d better start heading back down, as those clouds on the horizon didn’t appear to be going away. And I have to say, the descent didn’t bother me anywhere nearly as much as the ascent. Yes, our only stopping places were those same tiny slivers of rock along the way. And yes, it was still our own strength and sense that were keeping us from falling. But using the same strategy I finally developed on the way up, I was about to change this 400-something foot descent into a series of shorter descents that my mind somehow found more palatable. (I still, however, must not have looked terribly comfortable, as a couple of other climbers on their way down took the time to pause and ask if I was doing okay. Very considerate on their parts and very likely a good question to ask, but yes, I was somehow managing it this time.)

(Aside: As it turned out, my sweetie actually had more of a problem going down than she did going up. I can understand why—when you’re heading up, everything is clearly laid out in front of you, but when you’re heading down, you can’t really see where you’re going, and the blind steps you occasionally have to take are more than a little nerve-wracking.)

But (obviously) we both managed to make it down safe and sound. And it was then the magnitude of what we had just done hit us, I think. We hadn’t just gone up and down Half Dome—we had climbed up and down Half Dome. The two of us—moderately experienced hikers but not-even-novice climbers—had managed to scale a 400 foot block of granite and make it back down to tell the story. Yeah, we were pretty damn proud of ourselves. (Still are, by the way.)

One last look back at our lifetime achievement…

And after an extended break for lunch (during which those ominous clouds that had chased us off of Half Dome simply vanished… go figure), it was time to head back down. Down was simply up in reverse (duh): over and down the Sub Dome, down the switchbacks of the Half Dome Trail, along the sandy and flat banks of the Merced through Little Yosemite Valley (but let me tell you, after 11 or so hours of hiking, slogging your way through sand—even flat sand—sucks beyond belief), and down the rocky switchbacks to the top of Nevada Falls. Then back on the John Muir Trail to take us the rest of the way down.

Looking back at Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from a vista on the John Muir Trail.

(Aside: It was here that we probably made our only true error of the entire day. We knew that we were only a couple of hours from the end, tops, and we were both getting very sore and very tired. All up until now, we had been stopping every hour or so for a quick bite to eat and a large dose of water, but in our eagerness to finish this trek, we simply powered our way down the John Muir Trail with only fleeting stops for sips of water until we reached the bottom at the footbridge over the Merced where our hike truly started almost 14 hours earlier.)

Just short of the bridge, we came across a solo hiker sitting on a bench. And he did not look to be doing well. At my sweetie’s urging, we offered to walk back down to the Happy Isles trailhead with him, and that’s when his story was told: He had started his day hiking down from Glacier Point with two other buddies—but his buddies, having had other engagements later that evening—simply left him behind to get down faster. He (our new friend) said he didn’t mind, but that was completely irrelevant. You do not do that. You do not leave anyone behind, no matter what the reason. So to the two who left him on his own to finish the hike: you’re both complete and utter assholes. (No, neither of you will ever read this, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re both assholes.)

Anyhoo… another mile along the same paved path (now thankfully downhill for the most part) along which we started our hike, and we were back at the Happy Isles trailhead. We had made it. 16 miles and 14 hours after we had started, we had accomplished something we’ll never forget: we had made it to the top of Half Dome and back.

The end.

Except for the EMTs. Oh yeah…

So a little while after we had finished our epic trek, we were waiting in line at the Curry Village pizza counter (oh yeah, it was most definitely pizza and beer time) when my sweetie start feeling very lightheaded. She went inside to find a table and to sit down while I got our food. But by the time the food arrived and I had found her again, she was not in good shape at all: extremely lightheaded and unshakable chills to boot. Didn’t appear to be heat stroke (thank goodness), but thinking that maybe it was heat exhaustion, I got a cold towel for her (though, honestly, her skin didn’t feel too warm at all). Nope, no help, and her condition seemed to be getting worse. So I flagged down a manager and explained the situation, and she ran off in search of help. (And I mean she literally ran off to find help, as she was off like a bullet.)

A couple of minutes later, she was back and with a blanket for my sweetie (which seemed to help a bit). And a couple of minutes after that, the EMTs arrived. They ran all of their normal tests and asked all of their normal questions. It was pretty obvious that they were assuming that she was severely dehydrated—a perfectly valid assumption for them, I’m sure, as plenty of people every year attempt this hike woefully underprepared. But we told them how often we had stopped to eat and drink, and we told them how much water we had had all throughout the hike, and sure enough, their instruments showed she was definitely not dehydrated.

And then one of the EMTs asked the magic question: “How much Gatorade have you had?”, and we told her the truth: that we had each had a bottle apiece early in our hike. She nodded, and the pieces fell into place: my sweetie wasn’t dehydrated but had instead depleted her electrolytes to the point where her body simply shut down to some extent. A bottle of Gatorade for the drive back to our hotel (the Wawona at the southern end of the park), and she was mostly back to herself by the time we finally made it to bed, none the worse for wear.

(Aside: We don’t know if our speed hike—without prolonged stops for food or drink—down the John Muir Trail on our descent contributed to what happened. Given that there wouldn’t have been any Gatorade or such involved regardless, perhaps not. At most, maybe—maybe—it just accelerated things a little. And it doesn’t explain why I didn’t suffer from anything at all like this—after all, I had (or didn’t have) the same food and drink that she had. Oh well.)

Final numbers:

  • Total time (round trip): just short of 14 hours, including the time spent stopping along the way
  • Total distance (round trip): just over 16 miles
  • Elevation gain: about 4700 feet

Next time we’re back in Yosemite, maybe we’ll go back to doing the more touristy things instead of killing ourselves with things like this.

Though I kind of doubt it. :-)

Half Dome: Part Three

(Flip back to Part One and Part Two of the story to see what you missed.)

So here we were at the base of the Half Dome cables, which, just as advertised, were not officially up for the season, but were instead just laying flat against the face of the rock. And off on the horizon, grayish and not-too-pleasant clouds seemed to be gathering and, more importantly, heading our way. So we decided to get up to the top and back down before we took an extended break for lunch instead of our original plan of having lunch first.

And despite the fact that the climb was not officially open, there were probably a couple dozen other brave adventurers around us in various stages of the climb: some already going up, a couple already heading down, the rest of us either readying ourselves for the climb or recovering from the finished effort. And it was then that we noticed a few things:

  • We were under the impression (from various readings and anecdotes) that it was about a 45 degree climb up the side of Half Dome. And this was indeed true—for the very first part of the ascent, where it was just picking up from the saddle between Sub Dome and Half Dome. But then it got steeper. And not just for a little while, but basically the entire rest of the way until just short of the top, at which point it flattened out again…

  • …and standing at the base of the ascent, we finally realized just how high a climb we had left. 400-something feet up the side of this giant hunk of rock, in fact. Reading it and saying it is one thing. Standing at the bottom of it and looking at what felt like straight up at it was quite another thing altogether. Oh. Dear. Lord.

  • One thing we noticed was that a number of other (smarter?) climbers had clipped themselves (via carabiners) to the cables with a short length of rope, with the other end attached to either a double-length of rope around their waist or to a safety belt. Pretty smart, as it gave them an extra point of contact. Us? No such safety line. Our entire means of safety was our ability to hold onto the steel cables and pull ourselves up and down them. That’s it. One slip of the grip or one loss of footing, and adios—and in a rather permanent way.

So, of course, we started up anyway.

Seriously? This was really a good idea?

Rather, I should say my sweetie started up, as there was never any doubt in her mind that she was going to the top come hell or high water. Me, I was a bit less sure—and by “a bit”, I mean it was 50-50 as to whether I’d even make the attempt. But in the end, I started up behind her.

The first 50 feet or so were okay for me. Then it got steeper. And, of course, it got higher. And it’s not like there are any convenient places to stop on the way up—you’re basically left with finding little ledges and crevices (some only an inch or so wide) on which to perch yourself for a couple of minutes to catch your breath. And these havens are infrequently spaced along the side of the rock, averaging maybe every 50 feet or so. About a hundred feet up or so, I discovered something about myself…

…and that is that I am apparently deathly afraid of exposed heights. Now I don’t have a problem with heights in general—the higher, the better, in most cases. As long as there’s solid ground beneath my feet, bring it on. But as I was perched on an inch-wide sliver of rock, hugging the side of this gigantic hunk of granite 100-some-odd feet above where we started, I made the epic mistake (as it turned out) of looking down—and I froze. The wind, the height, the realization (again) that I was the only thing keeping myself from falling… it all hit me, and I about peed my pants at this point.

Well, crap.

My sweetie was apparently having no such issues, as she had sped a bit ahead of me. Another 50 feet or so up the climb, my arms decided that they were starting to get tired. Ho–… ly… shit. I am so going to fall. I called up to her and told her that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up, as my arms were just burning. (Tell me again why I haven’t been going to the gym? Anyhoo…) And she could hear the quite real fear in my voice and told me (and rightly so) that if I wasn’t absolutely sure, I had to turn around. And I have to say that right at that point, I was about to start back down. But at the last minute, something made me pause, and that same something told me that I’d be kicking myself for however long if I didn’t do this. A very macho and very stupid something apparently, but it won out. So very lamely rationalizing it to her (“but you don’t have the camera!”) (or perhaps I was further rationalizing it to myself), I took a very deep breath and hauled ass as fast and as steadily as I could muster to the next waypoint I had picked further up the rock.

And that’s how it went: I’d reach one of these minuscule places to pause, pick my next minuscule place to pause (which usually involved me calling up to her “how far til the next ledge?”), take a deep breath, then power up hand-over-hand as quickly and as steadily as I could manage, never stopping and (God forbid) never looking around or down until I got there. At which point I would stop, quite literally hug the side of the mountain, and hope and pray that I could make it to the next waypoint.

Did I mention that my sweetie was apparently having no such issues? ’cause she wasn’t, as she soon climbed out of my sight as she passed over the steepest part and onto the flatter shoulder just short of the summit. I could still hear her (and thank God for that, as knowing she was ahead of me was the only reason I could keep going at this point), and with her encouragement, I finally passed over this steepest section myself. A short scramble up the shoulder (which gave me no issues, as I could once again place both feet solidly down on the rock and more or less walk myself up), and I was… rather, we were finally there. 8800 feet up in the air and on top of Half Dome.

Looking across (and down at!) Yosemite Valley from atop Half Dome.

Looking upstream (and again, down at!) the Merced River valley from atop Half Dome.

We may as well have been on top of the world. It was glorious.

(On to the big finale…)

Half Dome: Part Two

(Flip back to Part One of the story to see what you missed.)

Our plan for the hike was slightly different from the typical round trip for this hike. What’s usually done going up is taking the very popular and very scenic (and very steep) Mist Trail up to the top of Nevada Falls, then picking up the John Muir Trail to the Half Dome Trail the rest of the way. However, neither of us was in any mood to get soaking wet this early (the “mist” part of the Mist Trail is come by honestly), and neither of us was really in the mood to ascend the hundreds upon hundreds of stone steps that went up the trail. So instead, we planned to take the John Muir Trail up from the start—it would result in a slightly longer hike but, owing to the switchbacks on the John Muir (as opposed to an infinite series of steps), it would be a bit easier on the knees. Finally, following the usual, we planned to descend via the John Muir Trail as well.

Based on our readings and our own abilities, we were budgeting around 14 hours (round trip) for the 16-mile hike. We decided to get as early a start as possible, meaning the goal was to hit the Happy Isles trailhead not long after first light, somewhere around 5:30 a.m. or so. Given that we were now staying at the Wawona Hotel at the southern end of the park, we got a very early jump, as we knew that there was road construction between us and Happy Isles. So much for planning, though: The construction delays were actually worse at this time of day (night?), and we didn’t end up getting to the Curry Village parking lot til after 6:00. And from there it was still a short hike just to get to the trailhead at Happy Isles. OK, not a great start, as this now meant that we were going to be pushing darkness by the time we finished our hike.

But at about 6:30 a.m., we were finally off! And I swear, we promptly about turned around. The very start of the hike—just to get to the “real” trails—is all paved. (Yay!) But it is brutally hilly, especially for 6:30 in the morning. (Boo!) We were both thinking, as it turned out, that if this is what the whole hike was like, we were never going to make it. But we slogged on, and in what turned out to be very short order, we made it to the start of the “real” hike—the footbridge over the Merced River, taking us to the John Muir Trail.

And we’re off!

Once we started up the John Muir Trail, our initial fears turned out to be unfounded. Yes, the ascent up this part of the trail felt like one endless series of switchbacks, but no part of it was particularly steep. Not long along the trail, we caught sight of our eventual destination, as we were treated to grand views of the back side of Half Dome. And within a couple of hours, we caught sight of our first waypoint—the top of Nevada Falls. Knowing we were this close it gave us a little jump, and before we knew it, we were there. And let me tell you, it is quite a rush to be standing mere feet from where thousands upon thousands of gallons of water a minute go plummeting off the edge of a cliff.

Our first glimpse of Half Dome from the John Muir Trail.

Looking over the edge of Nevada Falls from a few feet away…

We took a short break for a quick bite to eat, and then we were off again. Immediately upon leaving the area of the falls, we were subjected to a short but rocky set of switchbacks, and after that… a break. For at this point, we entered Little Yosemite Valley, a dead-flat, mile-long stretch of trail along the banks of the Merced. Many people actually camp overnight here to make a shorter hike of Half Dome, in fact. For us, this served as a stop to refill our water bottles from a quiet spot along the river.

(Aside: If you’re going to make a day hike out of Half Dome, you simply must plan on packing a portable water filter/pump with you, as there is no way you can carry an adequate supply of water with you unless your idea of fun is hauling an extra 10 pounds of water with you for 14 hours. We had a Katadyn Hiker Pro with us, which allowed us to have to carry only two 1-liter water bottles each, as we knew there would be opportunities along the way to refill.)

The only downside to this stretch was that the trail was completely made of loose sand. In fact, it was like walking on a beach, and because of that, you lost part of your energy with each step just pushing off of the sand itself. But this is just griping—believe me, a flat stretch of trail was a godsend.

At the end of the valley, we split off from the John Muir and onto the Half Dome Trail itself. As with the ascent up the Muir, this part of the hike was just one switchback after another, none of it too steep in any one stretch but relentlessly uphill nonetheless. Partway up, another group of hikers (who had passed us awhile back) was stopped in the middle of the trail, and then we saw why: the trail was temporarily blocked by an unplanned visitor—a 4-5 foot long rattlesnake.

An unwelcome hiking partner.

Needless to say, all of us gave it a very wide berth. A little while later (relatively speaking—again, this hike was 7-8 hours long one way), we stopped for another refill of our bottles at an almost-hidden spring that our guidebook had filled us in on.

(Aside: If you’re looking for a guidebook to get up to speed on the Half Dome hike, I highly recommend Rick Deutsch’s One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome. We read it in the months leading up to the hike and carried it with us on the hike as an emergency reference as well.)

Up and up and up, until… more flatness, as we reached a shoulder giving us a grand view of Half Dome. But only a brief respite, for although we were almost at our destination, there was still one more major obstacle to overcome: the so-called Sub Dome and the brutally steep series of step-lined switchbacks up its side that many will argue (and that I will not refute) is harder than the ascent up Half Dome itself.

View of Sub Dome and Half Dome from the shoulder.

But overcome it we did. A quick jaunt across the saddle on the other side, and finally: touchdown.

Good lord, we have to climb that thing?

It was at this point that our collective common sense apparently decided to leave us for good.

(On to Part Three…)

Half Dome: Part One

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done. But I’ll get to that.

Back in January, we made our summer vacation plans for this year. The centerpiece of the trip: a week-long stay in Yosemite National Park, our first trip back since our incredible initial visit there back in 2004. And the centerpiece of that centerpiece: tackling the epic hike and climb to the summit of Half Dome. Yes, Half Dome—a 16-mile hike (round trip) with an elevation gain of over 4000 feet, including the fearsome last 400 feet or so up the side of Half Dome itself.

If you’re not familiar with the climb, the way it classically works is that there is a series of 2×4 boards bolted into the side of the mountain every 10 feet or so, basically forming a ladder up the side (or at the very least, giving you regular much-needed places to catch your breath). In addition, a set of parallel steel cables are mounted on steel poles alongside the makeshift ladder, giving you a set of handrails to help pull yourself along. This is not to say that this setup makes the climb easy—but it definitely makes it easier. (Let’s just say that the flip-flips-and-T-shirt crowd—and unfortunately, they’re part of the reason for the crowds—would not be getting to the top otherwise.)

Hikers walk up the east face of Half Dome, aided by a pair of cables. Original photo copyright Spencer Joplin.

It is quite the understatement to say that, despite the ordeal of the hike itself, it is a very popular hike. In fact, during the peak of summer, the line to climb up Half Dome (once you get there) is essentially a parking lot, as around 1200 people a day will try to make the climb.

Hikers at Half Dome on a weekend. Original photo courtesy of DirectCutter.

There’s a reason the National Park Service is investigating ways to better regulate the annual crowds. Their current method is something new this year: If you plan to climb Half Dome on weekends (Friday-Sunday) or major holidays, you have to make reservations by applying for one of the 300 daily first-come, first-serve day hike permits from NPS that will allow you to summit Half Dome on those days. 300 permits per day, and once they’re gone for a given date, they’re gone—no more hikers that day. Sounds like a start, right? Well, I didn’t know about this new plan. But by sheer luck, I happened to be poking around the NPS site in February and found out about this new requirement. And on the appointed day (the first day that permits could be obtained for the planned date for our hike), I sat dutifully by my computer and waited for the appointed time. A few clicks later, and it was done—I had secured permits for the two of us. (It should be noted that all 300 permits for our chosen weekend were gone within 2 hours.) So now, weather permitting, there wasn’t anything stopping us from making our attempt.

Except…

The weekend before our hike date, I received an automated call from NPS… informing us that due to the late, heavy snowfall in the Sierras, the cables to the top of Half Dome were not going to be up in time for our hike. That is, the climb was officially closed and that they would be refunding our permits. *CLICK*

Needless to say, we were not happy. But what could you do? We brought our (now useless) permits with us anyway, just in case the trail reopened in the first couple of days we were there. (Our hike was planned for two days after we got to the park.) But alas, no such luck—when we checked into Curry Village (a short hike from the trailhead), we were told the trail was not yet open for the season and that it probably wouldn’t be for a couple of weeks.

Fast forward to the day before our planned hike. While in the park, we overheard that the cables to Half Dome were, in fact, up. In fact, as it turns out, the cables themselves are permanently up. What’s not there (until the climb “officially” opens) are the 2x4s or the poles on which the cables are usually mounted. In other words, you could (in theory) still get to the top, but it’d be via an old-fashioned, hand-over-hand climb on the cables themselves. My sweetie got it into her head that we could do the hike/climb after all, but I (being the more practical party-pooper) basically said no way in hell, not with the snow and ice and other conditions at the higher elevations—we’re simply not that experienced. Reluctantly, she relented, so we instead made plans to hike the strenuous Upper Yosemite Falls trail the next day instead.

Fast forward to the day of our planned hike, which has now become the day of our Upper Yosemite Falls hike. On the shuttle to the trailhead, we ended up chatting with another fellow hiker who was going to be hiking the Falls as well. He informed us that yes, the cables to Half Dome were indeed up. But surprisingly, he also informed us that he had done Half Dome the day before—and that there was no ice or snow. In fact, it was clear sailing all the way to the top.

DAMNIT.

Fast forward to the day after the Falls hike. We were both physically hurting (the Upper Yosemite Falls hike is acknowledged as one of the most strenuous in the park). I was talking to my sweetie and, much to my own surprise, casually suggested that “if you want to, we should try the Half Dome hike tomorrow”. To say that she approved of my complete change of heart was, again, something of an understatement. She had been saying that she was OK with our (my?) decision, but I knew in my heart that a part of her would be unhappy if we left the park without even trying, especially when we knew the climb was there for the taking. (No, she had never said anything out loud to this point, but yes, I can read her fairly well. That’s how this whole soulmate thing works, I s’pose.) Yes, she was quite happy with my surprising decision. One thing we did decide on was that we would wait an extra day to recover, now targeting the Half Dome hike for two days later—the day before we planned to leave the park. (Which ended up being the right decision, as we would not have been able to make the hike without that extra day of recovery as it turned out.)

Two days later: June 9th, 2010. The Day.

(On to Part Two…)