Half way to Half Dome

Suzanne Anthony Suzanne Anthony  |  07.01.2016

Regardless of whether you are a bucket list believer or a bucket list basher, everyone has a secret mental list of “things I wish I could do one day.”   If you don’t, then you are not a dreamer.  And if you are not a dreamer then you may as well be dead.  But that’s just my opinion.

I confess to maintaining two bucket lists….those I think I can actually achieve, like Zion’s Angels Landing, or visiting all 59 of our National Parks.   And then there is that “secret list” of things I wish I could do but I know it’s not likely.  Things like trekking to Everest Base Camp, or summiting a 14’er.  Yosemite’s Half Dome falls somewhere in between.  It’s one of those secret desires that I keep to myself for fear it is beyond my reach.  I know I have the mental desire but at 61 years old, do I still have the physical stamina?

312Half Dome, the iconic 8,800 ft granite monolith dominates every vista point from all directions in Yosemite, one of our nation’s most popular National Parks.  It is the focal point of every photographers lens from Ansel Adams’ famous grayscale landscapes, to the backdrop for current day technical climber selfies, even gracing the California State quarter.  The 14 mile Half Dome hike is rated “extremely strenuous” in the park’s hiking guide.  It involves an arduous, thigh-busting, lung-burning, exhausting climb before one ever reaches the top of the “subdome,” or small false summit.  Then, one must dig even deeper to negotiate “the cables,” another 400 vertical feet using cables threaded through loose stanchions as hand holds.   I know it will take everything I’ve got.
302Hiking Half Dome is best approached in stages.   Starting the one way hike with a drop-off at the top of Glacier Point will add an additional six miles of hiking, but mostly downhill while eliminating the 600 steep and slippery stair steps alongside Vernal and Nevada Falls.  Spending the night in the backcountry camp of Little Yosemite Valley will spread the 20 mile hike out over two days, but it will also mean hiking with a 30-40 pound pack on my back.  Every bucket list has its tradeoffs.

301The trail down from Glacier Point is stunning, with views of Half Dome at every switchback.  And there are a lot of views, because there are a lot of switchbacks!   It’s mostly downhill through dense, fragrant firs and Ponderosa Pines.  We encounter a few shallow stream crossings that serve as welcomed peaceful rest stops.  After about five miles on the trail, we meet the intersection of the John Muir trail at the top of Nevada Falls, then begin a short uphill stretch and finally the last level mile of a sandy slog to base camp.

305Although I have camped and kayaked with backpacking gear before, this is my first attempt at backcountry camping.  I have never been further than half a mile carrying everything I need to sustain myself in the wilderness.  Make that a bear-inhabited wilderness.  Fortunately, Little Yosemite Valley camp has both bear boxes for food storage, and the beautiful, clear running Merced River for water purification.  There is a communal fire for meal preparation, but I know I’m exhausted when I’m too tired to roast a marshmallow for S’mores.

Another benefit of overnighting is getting an early start to get a jump on the throngs of day hikers beginning their hike four miles below at the bottom of the trail.   Less people on the cables means less anxiety and less margin for error.   So we wake with the first chirp of the early morning bird chorus, boil some coffee and fortifying oatmeal, and begin our final three hour uphill climb to the subdome.

306Along with mental and physical prep for a Half Dome climb, gear is essential.   Deep-treaded, supportive hiking boots are a must.  I see some struggle to climb in sandals and tennis shoes.  Though sticky granite is typically an easy surface to climb, not so in between the cables.  The surface is worn slick on the 3 ft wide path in-between the cables.  Gloves are also a must for gripping the cables.  I have brought along a pair of fingerless sailing gloves, but instead, I opt for one of the donated pair of rubberized gloves that lay in a pile at the bottom of the cable route.

309One of my hiking companions Jona, an Eagle Scout and aspiring young climber, rigs me a modified Swiss sling harness, which is a makes me look more experienced than I am.  One continuous loop of nylon webbing that goes around the waist and through the legs, with two carabiners attached will in theory save me from plunging to my death.  In reality, it offers me a task on which to focus rather than thinking about the worst possible scenario.  “Purple clip on.  Silver clip off” is my mantra the steep vertical face.

308I make it to the top on sheer adrenalin alone.  The views of the snow capped Sierras are breathtaking.  Too excited to enjoy my lunch, I circle the gently rounded bald summit snapping photos in all directions.  But I won’t celebrate just yet.   I am only halfway there.  I still have to get down.

310Typically descents are harder for me than ascents, but not so with Half Dome.  To descend, one must turn around and face the wall as if climbing down a ladder.   Since the surface is so slick, it’s easy to slide down the 10 ft in between wooden crossbeams.   The scariest part is the hazard presented by others too impatient to wait their turn.  By the time I reach the base of sub dome, the crowds are growing along with the temperatures.  An early start no doubt contributed to my success.

303The hike from Little Yosemite Valley up Half Dome and back down along the Mist Trail, down the stairs of Vernal Falls is over ten miles, almost half carrying a backpack that despite being emptied of food now feels twice as heavy.    But there is a reward waiting for me at the bottom.  The fridge in my Winnie View holds a nice chilled bottle of bubbly waiting for me.  Time to celebrate not just making it up safely, but back down again!


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4 Comments

  1. Dennis Gregory Posted on 07.18.2016

    Beautiful pictures … it brought back a lot of memories of my Brother and I making the trek up John Muir trail to the top of the dome, waited 20 minutes then back down Mist Trail (won’t do that again) … we called it “relentless down” … really tough on your heels and legs. Anyway, we did the 17-1/2 mile hike all in the same day in a little over 11 hours. I was 60 at the time … bet I could still do it a age 69! Whatever age you are, you MUST prep. Get in shape, exercise your legs for a month prior, take a gallon of water and granola bars, extra socks, and go for it! :-)

  2. Kent Gardam Posted on 07.17.2016

    Nicely done, nicely written Suzanne. If our RVing gets us around to doing just a portion of the things you’re marking off your list, Sandy and I will consider ourselves very lucky and successful.

    Kent

  3. Lisa Harris Posted on 07.16.2016

    Beautiful photos. Enjoyed the article but at age 73, I’ll have to settle for viewing your photos.
    Happy hiking and exploring. Looking forward to your next article.

  4. gary Posted on 07.01.2016

    Great reading. Pictures are awesome, and makes a visit to Yosemite a addition to the Bucket List. A bottle of champagne in our View is another great idea. Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers
    Gary & Deb