Our alarms cried out in the otherwise silent Stanislaus National Forest at four in the morning on the second to last Saturday morning of September. We reluctantly slipped our sleeping bags off, and packed our bags back into the car. Twelve hours prior, we were sitting in traffic trying to escape San Francisco. We arrived at Hardin Flats around 9:30p after some dinner and groceries, and were fast asleep by 10p.
Adam bellowed across our site, “It’s time guys, let’s do this.” Today, he, Joey, Avery, Seth, and I would hike to the top of Yosemite’s famed Half Dome.
Half Dome is one of the most treasured and challenging hikes in any National Park. The trail from end to end is about 16 miles long, and you scale nearly a mile of vertical distance from Yosemite’s valley floor at ~4,000 ft to its summit at ~8,920 ft. The last 400 ft to the top are set at a sheer 45° angle on raw granite above the tree line, aided only by metal poles drilled into the rock with braided cable threaded through. An average of two people a year die on this portion of the climb.
We drove into the park, and eventually hit the trail by 6:15a, before the sun had risen. We clipped along at a good pace along Mist Trail, where you see Vernal and Nevada Falls, though neither were as fervent or wet as promised due to a considerably dry summer. As we made our way past the waterfalls, into Little Yosemite Valley and up the backside of the mountain, we were all kind of in awe at the sheer scale of everything. It was at once magnificent and … surreal. In a way, it felt like a theme park, the grandiosity was so unbelievable that it actually felt fake. Your diminishing water supply, the thinning air, and the sun’s strengthened grip will all convince you otherwise though.
Around 11a we reached the most challenging part of the ascent: the granite staircase up the subdome and the 45° angle braided cables to the final summit. Since acquiring the permits to attempt this portion of the hike in April, I both eagerly and anxiously looked forward to this part of the hike, but as soon as you’re face to face with the rock, you’d be hard-pressed to not have your hands immediately become cold and clammy. The granite staircase up the subdome is literally a set of large, man-made angular wedges in the granite—sometimes with the jackhammer marks still evident—that switch back and forth up. No one tells you about this part of the hike. There’s nothing to hold on to, the path is narrow, and the tree line is below you, so it’s only you and the tricks your mind will play. At a certain point, the stairs disappear, and you’re left completing the subdome by just climbing the raw inclined granite. At 6’3” and an uneasy center of gravity, I stayed closer to the surface.
Once on top of the subdome, only the cables lie ahead. As you approach them, you can only see them from one head-on view, collapsing the elevation into what appears to be a completely vertical climb. My hands became colder and clammier yet. I put on the leather gloves that are nearly a requirement—it’s foolsplay to attempt the cables without a pair—and began the climb. Prior to 2010, you could climb the cables without a permit, but so would nearly 1,200 others in a single day. Since then, the National Park Service has invoked a lottery to distribute 350 permits issued per day, which greatly eases the traffic on the cables. While harrowing—I could hardly force myself to look anywhere but at the granite my feet were touching—the cables are manageable, and to finish them and reach the summit is a tremendously satisfying sensation.
The top of Half Dome is massive. It feels like a miniature faraway planet, a surface familiar and foreign all at once. And the views are utterly striking. To the east, Tenaya Canyon, a deceptively beautiful canyon that is otherwise known as the Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite for all of the mysterious disapperances and deaths of hikers who attempt exploration there. Almost due east in the canyon is Cloud’s Rest (9,930 ft), a stunning mountain that tempts Half Dome hikers as their next trek. To the west, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan in the distance. At nearly 9,000 feet you’re closer to the clouds, too; planes flying overhead sound louder and almost feel like they’re taunting you.
We hit the summit around 12:15p and spent almost an hour and a half on it. Rest was welcome, as was a roll of celebratory summer sausage. We walked from edge to edge, and wiggled our way into the nook beneath “the diving board” where you can look east to Tenaya Canyon. In the angled photo above of the summit and valley floor, you can see the diving board, the outermost point, the shadowy nook just beneath it, and at the bottom of the photo, a belay and technical climber on the vertical face of the dome. This served as a good reminder that far more extreme things happen on this mountain than what you just did.
At this point, you think the rest of the hike is easy, but it’s only half over and while the first half requires physical strength, the latter half imparts physical stress. The cables were an order of magnitude easier to go down, and the granite staircase still asks you to go slowly. At this point, it became clear the arc of our hike was following, step for step, the arc of the sun. By the time we were passing through Little Yosemite Valley again, Golden Hour was upon us and when we opted for the switchbacks of John Muir Trail instead of the steps along the waterfalls, the valley was awash in a beautiful haze, and Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap were dipped in warm light. The rest of the hike all kind of blurred together, our feet and knees were aching, and we were ready to finish. We eventually arrived back at our car by 8p. Motivated to linger in a hot shower and sleep in our own beds, we decided to drive back to the city right then. By 12:30a Sunday morning we were back in San Francisco, and we couldn’t decide if beginning and ending the adventure in under 36 hours was utterly insane or exhilarating, but it was probably both.
This hike had been lingering in my head all summer, as something I was both extremely excited and considerably nervous to do. Hitting the summit instilled a sense of personal pride I hadn’t felt in a long time. And completing the hike is worth more than the sum of its parts. Should you ever find yourself in the company of others who would like to forge the adventure, I’d strongly recommend it.
For the full set of photos, see Flickr.