About two weeks ago Rob’s sister, Molly, and I decided to try our luck at Half Dome passes. She was coming to visit from Ohio and she’s my fellow National Park aficionado, so it just seemed like we should give it our best go. I didn’t want to risk not getting a campsite after such a strenuous hike so that was the lynch pin. Luckily, we were able to score a site in Stanislaus National Forest and though it wasn’t exactly as close as I’d have liked…. it was better than driving 4 hours home after a 16 mile hike. And after putting in our bid on Thursday we were lucky to score two Half Dome cable passes! I was both thrilled and intimidated.
Friday morning, we dropped the kids off at their enrichment classes, packed up some groceries and hit the road. We set up our tent, locked everything up in the bear box and headed down Highway 120 into the Yosemite Valley. The first entrance into the Valley did not disappoint. Even though our family went to Yosemite in early May when the waterfalls were in their glory, this month was not a let down. There was a haze in the air from a small fire outside the Valley which had been put out the day before we arrived, and the dust in the dry air was noticeable. In May we saw the power of the Sierra icepack, and in September we saw the power of the drought.
After a carb-rich dinner (read pizza and beer) in Curry Village which we shared with National Park People (my favorite kind on Earth) we drove back to the campsite and set our alarm for 5 A.M. I did not sleep well. I think I was feeling much more of the intimidation than the thrill….
Five A.M. came along and I managed to somehow only hit snooze once. We made instant coffee by headlamp light and packed up salty snacks, fruit, and granola bars. We filled our gallon jugs of water 3/4 full and packed them in our day packs with a few bottles of gatorade. Still munching on our peanut butter smeared bagels, we head out for the trailhead as the dawn slowly emerged.
We met up with some wonderful hikers at the trailhead. Some had Dome passes, some hoped to meet someone with an extra pass along the trail, and some were heading to Cloud’s Rest. As we marched up the Mist Trail step by step, we’d pass a party and then when we’d stop for a rest they’d pass us. It was encouraging for me, since I’d never taken on a hike like this before that our pace seemed to be sustainable since we were back and forth all day. The top of Nevada Fall was about equal with the longest hike elevation gain I’d achieved in the past and we still had 4.5 miles to go to the top of Half Dome. And all but a mile in the middle was uphill.
In the Little Yosemite Valley we had a peaceful snack, and I stepped out onto the rocks where the water was still. It was such a quiet, sunny spot it was hard to keep pressing on. But knowing that there can sometimes be a large crowd on the cables kept me wanting to get there sooner and not later. Molly has a lot more strenuous hiking street-cred than I do including Glacier wilderness hiking, Appalachian Trail hiking, Colorado 14-ers, Yellowstone, and Teton hiking. Since she didn’t seem worried about our progress, I decided not to be worried about it either.
The upper climb, before the sub-dome was pretty beautiful, but the heat was picking up and I was getting tired. Every time we passed a trailhead marker we were about one mile less far than I thought we’d be. Once we wrapped around, out of the Little Yosemite side and over the crest of the mountain to the main Yosemite Valley side it all got really real, really quick. I’m afraid of heights. People were walking over to the edge of the cliff… I stayed at least 20 feet from the edge… I was starting to wonder why I thought this would be a good idea.
We enjoyed another snack of gummy worms and almonds at the bottom of the sub-dome, in the shadow of a sign warning people not to sleep past the sign on the final 1700 feet of the mountain. And then I realized we may only have a little over a mile left to climb… but all of it was straight up. After following granite steps wrapping around the sub-dome, suddenly the stairs just stop, and all that’s left to do is follow in the trail of the people in front of you as you scamper over the giant granite turtle shell almost a mile above the base of the Valley. I was unnerved.
And then you get to the cables. I was done in. A woman sat at the bottom and said she had decided not to do the last bit and suddenly the idea that you can quit before the top crossed my mind. Since the cables are essentially straight up, and 400 feet long that didn’t sound like such a bad idea. But fortunately, the crowd was small and no one else was dying on the cables, so I assumed I probably wouldn’t either.
I committed to myself that I would climb up two rungs on the 2×4 “ladder” and assess if I could make it up. I cried the whole way. Apparently, Molly was giving me encouraging words from 20 feet below, but I didn’t hear anything she said. I was just going one board at a time. Step by step. Some of the steps were scary. Some were quickly achieved. All of it was probably a stupid idea, but we made it to the top. Everyone on the cables made it up, and everyone made it down. And this is what you saw when you there:
It was worth it. Even if there had been no view as payment at the top, just knowing that I could climb bit by bit until I had conquered my fears was worth it.
Coming back down, well that wasn’t the best. First of all, the cables are still nearly straight down and the way I felt most comfortable descending was sort of like a very tensely-held repelling situation. By 2/3 of the way down my bicep was throbbing, but I am glad I’ve been regularly lifting free weights and doing gymnastics. So though it was hard at the moment I didn’t have any extra soreness the next day in my arms.
I was hiking in my Merrell Trail Gloves, and they were fantastic. My feet were tired after all those miles, but I didn’t sustain a single blister. Molly, on the other hand, was having a shoe malfunction. Her toes were all crunched and blistered in her Merrell hiking shoes because of all the downhill hiking and her toes hitting the front of the toe-box. She was visibly laboring to take steps and it slowed us down by at least an hour. She finished the hike with her feet bare and her shoes tied to her pack. It was 8:30 before we reached the car and we could only manage to get turkey sandwiches in the Yosemite General Store and celebrate with an It’s-It bar. I had just enough left in me to get us back to the campsite and clean my feet before I crawled into my sleeping bag. I think Molly went to bed after me, I can’t really remember. Standing up the next morning was quite the adventure. I’m still rubbing the knots out of my calves two days later.
On our way out of the park the next day, we saw the smoke from the Meadow Fire which required that the Half Dome hikers needed to be evacuated by helicopter. We saw the helicopters fly over us in the Mariposa Grove. I have pictures of the small smoldering flames from the sub-dome when we were up there the day before and I got a video of the smoke on our way out. We could still see the smoke from the fire all the way in Manteca on the way back to the East Bay. I’m looking forward to seeing the damage when we go back next spring. It was so dry, and the smoke cloud was so large, I won’t be surprised if the whole Little Yosemite Valley is burned off. Glacier Point should be a good place to check it from without having to hike up to Half Dome.
I don’t know if I will do this trail again. I’ve definitely gotten the urge satisfied. But Cloud’s Rest is another story. That peak is even higher, at over 9000 feet. And I wouldn’t have to do those cables again!