When an expanse is too vast, it feels 2-dimensional, a mural. Consider standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Vast, yes. Two-dimensional, yes. Afraid of falling in? Not really.
On the other hand, climb onto a boulder 10’ high and you feel the ground calling.
Now pick something intermediate. Say … Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The summit is at 8839’, the valley floor and closest walls nearly a mile in any direction. It’s potentially scary-vast.
It wasn’t on my Bucket List after both my brother and sister did it in the ‘70s, nor while, my husband and I lived conveniently close through the ‘80s. As I age, the Bucket List becomes more real, and there might be things on it that never get done if I dilly dally. Suddenly Half Dome is in bold font.
We hike and backpack, mountain bike and ski. I like to climb, and heights don’t bother me as a rule. We usually do one or two half marathons a year, to justify our eating habits.
Water frightens me terribly, but I learned to scuba dive – mostly because I don’t like the idea of being limited by my fears. I’m OK ON the water, like in a kayak or on a sailboard. Anyway, the water bit isn’t relevant here, just throwing it in as a freebie.
Bottom line, we’re pretty fit for a couple of old people.
And so when I started talking about doing Half Dome, finding out more about it from others, I was surprised at the responses I got.
My sister Valerie, who admittedly wasn’t fit when she did it as a teenager, said she complained the whole way up, but she nevertheless recounted fond memories of the adventure.
My dental hygienist, an ultra-marathoner with a preference for 100 mile races (!!), said it was hard and that her quads and calves were very sore after.
And yet living at 6700’, in Colorado, the land of THIN air, I was more concerned about air THICKNESS. And by “concerned”, I mean “looking forward to”. We had done the Pikes Peak Ascent several times, a half marathon with elevation gain of 7815’. Pikes Peak summit is 14,114’ – it’s one of the many 14ers in Colorado that we have hiked. So altitude and elevation gain didn’t really concern me. You just take your time and keep on going, and once the air thins out, you step/breathe/step/breathe. Eventually you find yourself at the summit, hopefully without a thunderhead to greet you.
I read that the hike from the Happy Isles trailhead is anywhere from 12-14 miles, to 17 miles. Yes, a HUGE difference! I knew we could handle a half marathon distance pretty readily, but 17 miles is long. How could they not know how long it is? How much food and water would we need to carry? Could we count on the Merced River having measurable water during this severe drought?
The photos of the dome itself are bizarre. Cables are put up May-ish, and taken down usually in October. The 2 parallel cables are braided steel, attached to posts in (hopefully) deep holes drilled into the granite. Each pair of posts has a 2×4 attached to minimize a big slide back to earth. So in the photos you see what appears to be a ladder of posts, cables and 2x4s going straight up. Could that be right?
First, a little background. Like in many National Parks, it’s a bear to arrange lodging on short notice, and Half Dome is so popular anymore that a ranger is posted on a rock about 8 miles from the trailhead, checking your papers like a Customs agent. Permits are assigned by lottery during the month of March for the May-Oct season. Conveniently, the Yosemite NP website shows you charts with odds of lottery success by day and date for the previous year to help you pick your seven preferred climbing dates, and in September we reserved a Curry Village tent cabin for a 3-week window.
By April we knew we won the permit for August 28 and began evaluating necessary fitness requirements. We were well into training for a June half marathon, with a second slated for early August, so at least the 12-, 14-, or 17-mile roundtrip (depending on which source you trusted) should be doable.
August was good because there was less of a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, though an early start would be prudent. Standing on a huge granite batholith with lightning all around would do a job on my hair.
The deep Yosemite valley captures Spring snowmelt from the surrounding backcountry in the form of numerous gigantic waterfalls, but it has the side effect of making the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls too slippery to be safely passable. And we had to go past Vernal Falls to get to Half Dome. Going in August meant we wouldn’t have to use the John Muir Trail “longcut”, although our knees may beg us to come back down that way rather than by the steep big granite steps on the Mist Trail.
And so it was that during the next 11 months, much to Husband Ron’s pleasure 🙂 , all I talked about was Half Dome, perhaps to reassure myself that it couldn’t be as hard as everybody says.
Pre-dawn August 28 we found ourselves walking from Camp Curry to the trailhead, a quick 3/4 mile warmup walk.
The first few hours of hiking are quite beautiful, going past first Vernal Falls (via Mist Trail, yay!), then Nevada Falls. The Little Yosemite Valley is conifers, at least before the big fire would engulf a portion of it 2 weeks hence. We found a solitary Sugar Pine cone without a Sugar Pine tree in sight. A morning puzzle.
It is as you get further into the valley that you see the backside of Half Dome – the rounded side – and its shoulder, which we would shortly be ascending.
The trail leaves the valley, winding through pine-scented Heaven, to the far side of the shoulder, whereupon we came across the surly ranger and loitering, permit-less hikers hopeful for a slot with another group.
The shoulder has no cables but is a very steep stairway composed of sharp, narrow granite blocks. This is where the fear begins. No handrail, so you watch foot placement carefully, resisting any inclination to admire the breathtaking view.
A couple of short switchbacks and that view has expanded above the trees to 180 degrees. You’re starting to see the big Yosemite Valley below, and the spectacularly smooth white granite walls of Tenaya Canyon to the north, carved during the last ice age by a 2000’ deep glacier.
Two-dimensional landscapes … the world recedes into the haze. You are indeed here, finally, well on your way to earning the plum-colored Half Dome t-shirt.
Up and up you go, switchback after switchback, crawling on slabs of granite when the trail is elusive. After about 45 minutes and .4 miles you have climbed 500’ to the top of the shoulder, where you finally understand the gravity of this undertaking. The cables await. Dauntingly.
I enjoy climbing. I love standing on a precipice, ready to fly. But this … I ponder the line of people that become ants far above, and I am intimidated. I sit and watch, neck craned. From one moment to the next, one person changes position. It’s a slowly evolving arrangement you would miss should you avert your eyes. My mind empties and I just watch the unprotected climbers.
This is a ladder missing most of its rungs. The poles supporting the cables wobble. How deep are these holes anyway? What if someone pulls a pole loose? Would everybody end up in an attached heap, broken, at my feet?
A few people sit beside me watching the acrobatics, having decided this trail, today, ends here.
One young fit couple comes down. This is the husband’s second attempt, his first success. His pronouncement deserves no shame. His wife offers the suggestion to not look down during the ascent. Others recommend descending face to the wall, to hang on tightly.
Ron decides to venture forward, ascending a couple of rungs to determine feasibility. The sun is warm on my face and I wonder whether I have arrived this far only to turn back, content with the prospect. How is this climb even possible? Whose idea was it???
When Ron returns, I put on my pack. We go up, devoid of emotion.
Imagine the granite expanse before you, 400’ vertical, 200-300 yards of cables, and a typical incline of 45 degrees. It is easy to imagine you are the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale, living alone on a tiny planet.
You don’t have the continuity of land expanding for miles, ingrained in Homo sapiens from time immemorial. So when suddenly you appear on the surface of the planet belonging to the Little Prince, it’s disconcerting. This is a DOME. The surface curves away from you in all directions. VERY 3-dimensionally.
Above, people disappear over the granite horizon. Below looks to be straight down. You avoid looking at the unnatural curvature left and right, and correct yourself when your eyes stray to the mountains beyond the glacier carved valleys.
Something primal tears at me. How is it possible this is so popular as to need a LOTTERY system? Who are all these people around me and why are they here? Did they also not believe this would feel EXACTLY like what the pictures show?
I reach another rung, a 2×4 attached too loosely to the metal posts. I contemplate possible paths to the next rung, as I let my arms rest. If I put right foot on that rough spot, I could get left foot to that little knob, and swing right foot over the slab ledge.
Onward I go, sometimes slipping, my gloved hands holding tightly. Hand, foot, other hand, other foot.
The Dome still curves above me, people still vanish, no end in sight. And yet my sister Valerie told me that at the top they played Frisbee.
I look down a few times, holding securely from the relative safety of a 2×4 that seems to have lost one of its anchors over the long summer. The Dome is immense, but not so vast as to be flat, I conclude. A bird goes by. All is silence.
An hour and 20 minutes after Checkpoint Ranger, I see people standing without cables. Could it be?
Soon I too am off the cables, disoriented by granite I can stand on by gravity alone. An eternity has passed. A lifetime having considered what I am made of, surprised at having reached this uncertain goal. This is it? I did it?
Ron sits beside me in the saddle, gazing in happiness at the granite valley before us, far below. We open the bag of Celebratory Dark Chocolate Mint M&Ms, then have a leisurely lunch in the sunshine.
An hour passes, I build a cairn, the day is glorious.
But then we find the top of the cable section, pausing with uncertainty at what is to come, enjoying the 360 degree view one final time, before joining the mass of bodies on what looks to be a string of fish.
Descending, I feel a new confidence in my abilities, in conquering what I hadn’t expected to be so monumental. I look to the expanse without fear, delighting in my transformation, at a new standard of ability going forward.
The descent is SO much easier. Your entire foot provides traction on the granite, instead of just the toes. You feel secure going hand over hand, stopping to let climbers ascend, and suddenly 25 minutes have passed and you are off the cables again, looking for the start of the steps on the shoulder section. There is no sign of the ranger, and we pass back through the forested switchbacks and the Little Yosemite Valley, down to Nevada Falls where we contemplate filling up our 100 oz camelbaks, close to empty. We’re about 3.8 miles to camp, all downhill, and there is a water fountain at the bridge at Vernal Falls so we continue on, passing the baton from tiring feet to fresh knees as we descend the 500’ in 0.8 miles of the Mist Trail.
Refreshed from the water fountain, we go over the bridge, with just 1.75 miles back to the trailhead. Our feet protest, we place them delicately on the ups and downs, then another .75 miles on flat land to our tent, where the beer cooler awaits in the bear locker.
We really did it! We took an unknown and made it ours, an 11 hour hike/climb at a leisurely pace with plenty of rest, but we persevered and got the plum colored t-shirt!
If you plan to do Half Dome, you might consider via ferrata gear (which only a handful of people had), but I HIGHLY recommend climbing gloves AND climbing shoes. My low-top boots didn’t provide sufficient stickiness.
Also, in addition to long distance training and any high altitude training you can squeeze in, exercise calves and upper/lower arms, plus quads. The total mileage I recorded, via Mist Trail both ways, from Camp Curry, is 16.9 miles.
And you may want to fill your camelbak with Gatorade to guard against cramping. Carry more than 100 oz, maybe another liter, or plan to refill at the top of Nevada Falls, being of course sure to purify the water using your preferred method. We carried the UV pen, light and convenient, and the Merced river was flowing nicely.
Unfortunately I’m not aware of any anti-vertigo training, other than standing at the top of Half Dome!
Thanks to my husband, Ron Donaldson, for his photos included above.