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…)