Yosemite: Half Dome Hike

AJM has always wanted to visit Yosemite. We thought we’d go one of the summers when SAM came down but we camped at Lake Tahoe and boated through the Grand Canyon instead and haven’t organized anything since.

With summer almost over we realized we should make an effort to go somewhere this year so we dragged up the old idea of visiting Yosemite and planned our trip. During our research, AJM read about hiking Half Dome, and I agreed to try it. Sure, why not? So what if I don’t run 20 miles a week like he does and he’s uncomfortable with heights. Should we be concerned that the first question on the Half Dome hike FAQ is “How many people have died on Half Dome?” We read the Survival Tips and prepared. My idea of a vacation has rarely included working on on a Stairmaster in the weeks before, but there you go.

We leave my parents’ house in Las Vegas at 4:30, drive through Death Valley at sunrise, turn off at Tioga Pass at 12:40, and arrive at Yosemite Valley at 15:16. We stop to take photos from the lookout next to the tunnel.

Yosemite Valley

Looking east through Yosemite Valley, El Capitan is on the left and Half Dome is in the distant center. The air is warm and dry but scented with pine and the smell of recent forest fires. We drive on to the Wawona Hotel, keeping track of how long it takes. AJM plans to start the 16-mile hike at 6AM as I’ve announced my intention to stop frequently to rest and enjoy the views, not just trudge along.

Our iPhone alarms go off at 4:45. We grab a cup of coffee to go in the hotel lobby and leave by 5:20. The narrow roads and hairpin curves keep us under 35 mph. We arrive at the trailhead parking lot at 6:10. There is very little traffic; we see a ringtail and a coyote crossing the road. I take two ibuprofen and we each drink a can of Red Bull for extra caffeine. In addition to wearing Camelbaks, we carry bottles of water and Gatorade, two Powerbars each and trail mix. We put the remains of our breakfast sandwiches in the bear-proof lockers and start off at 6:20. It’s still dark. The trail is paved with Tarmac. At 6:44, we reach the sign listing all our destinations (4035 feet). From this point, Half Dome is 8.2 miles (11.3 km) and a 4801 foot ascent away.

Vernal Fall

The first stairs up the side of Vernal Fall. I prefer stairs to just a steep incline. This is the “Mist Trail”. I’ve seen photos of it in the spring when the falls are all gorged and the entire valley covered in mist and rainbows. In late September, it was quite dry.

Vernal Fall Pool

One of the advantages of having the camera is that I can sneak rest stops in disguised as photo ops. Very vernal! The camera is still complaining that it’s too dark to take a photo without a tripod, though. So we climb onward and upward.

Vernal Fall Pool

7:41. Looking down from the top of Vernal Fall (5200 feet) over the path we’ve come so far, only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in an hour and a half. But we’ve finished the first of three step stair ascents and we cover the ground to Nevada Fall more quickly.

At 8:28 we stop at the bottom of Nevada Fall to eat PowerBars for breakfast. We’re surprised when AJM’s iPhone ring. We haven’t had cellphone coverage at the hotel. It perverts the “wilderness experience” and he turns it off.

We haven’t seen a lot of other hikers on the trail until this point but climbing up the rock-hewn stairs next to Nevada Fall, clumps of people suddenly congregate. People who started the hike later are zooming past us. We reach the top (5980 feet) by 8:52. The second set of stairs down and we’ve gone 3.4 miles, almost halfway. Unfortunately the bathroom at the top is still closed.

We are now up in Little Yosemite Valley. The walk is comparatively flat for a mile or so. When we turn off before the campground, we’ve ascended only 120 feet. Another 6/10ths of a mile brings us up another 40 feet. However, the next mile and a half is unpleasant. The path on the map gets very wiggly (meaning lots of switchbacks and a steep ascent) as we reenter the trees. Despite keeping hydrated, caffeinated, and sugared, I’m beginning to see spots before my eyes. I really don’t want to get a migraine right now. So I lie down and put my feet up on a rock. I eat some trail mix and feel better. The trail becomes less steep. We reach the turnoff point. We’re now at 7020 feet with only two miles to go.

tree line

11:10. Only a mile to go now and we come out of the trees. I rush to the edge with the camera to take in the view. This is the point where AJM discovers that he is not entirely comfortable with heights.

Half Dome

We can see Half Dome but we aren’t sure of the path from here. I don’t know where we’re going exactly and it’s just as well. I can’t see the people climbing up the side. But the camera can.

Half Dome

If my eyes could zoom in like my camera’s, this is what I would have seen. The little dots to the left of the yellow line are people.

Half Dome Steps

11:35. After another rest on the flat wooded saddleback below Sub-dome, I pose by the sign warning “DANGEROUS. Serious Injury and Death. During and after lightning and rain storms. Evaluate the weather before proceeding past this point.” The sky is deep blue and cloudless so we proceed.

However, this is where I almost give up. I’m already tired and short of breath. These stairs are much steeper than the other two. I’m afraid of slipping and falling backwards. I don’t feel that my footing is secure and my pack throws my balance off. Although my shoes have a good grip on the granite, there is lots of granite sand which makes me slip and slide. I clamber up these steep steps on my hands and feet. I’m not the only one.

Half Dome

Then the steps run out. I rest until my head is clear before I tackle this bit. I don’t realize it is the last 20 feet or so before we reach the top of Sub-dome. I don’t even see the people climbing the cables on Half Dome. My focus is on my hands and feet and keeping them on solid ground.

Half Dome

And then suddenly we’re at the top of Sub-dome.

Half Dome

12:16. We’ve made it to the cables. It’s taken almost exactly 6 hours. AJM takes one look at them and says, “I’m not going up there.” Given that I was never keen on the idea, I don’t spend any time trying to talk him into it. We sit here for for about an hour, watching people ascending and descending and talking to several people who are trying to talk themselves and us into doing it. They do. We don’t. We accept our limitations and live to tell the tale.

After we’ve eaten and rested and my head feels clear again, I walk across the saddleback to the cables to test myself. I climb up to the third rung. If I ever intend to climb them someday, I will have to have stronger gloves, stronger wrists, and stronger shoulders.

Half Dome

If you slip off the cables, this is the fall.

Half Dome

13:00. We begin the descent from Sub-dome. I’m glad AJM bought good walking poles. He carried them both on the way up but I appropriated one for the way down. We are almost three time higher than we were at Crinkle Crags when I thought I was at the top of the world.

Half Dome

From Little Yosemite Valley neither Half Dome or Sub-dome looks that steep.

Merced River Little Yosemite Valley

15:50. Merced River. Little Yosemite Valley. Above Nevada Fall near the campground looking towards Liberty Cap. The entire hike I’ve been dreaming about soaking my feet in these icy waters. It feels just as wonderful as I imagined. We’ve been hiking down almost three hours and we’re not quite half way down. We are not going any faster on the descent. It’s not as breathless so we don’t have to rest as often but it is very jarring on ankles, knees, and hips so we are walking gingerly. I’m glad for my good boots and AJM’s Moleskin blister kit and the walking poles.

Liberty Cap

Liberty Cap. Elevation: 7076 feet. Next to Nevada Fall. I took its picture in the morning, too, but the light is much better now in the afternoon. We go out to the railing next to Nevada Fall and watch it plummet over the cliff. We are descending the longer way down to avoid the stairs at Nevada and Vernal Falls.

Half Dome, Mt Broderick, Liberty Cap

Half Dome, Mt Broderick, Liberty Cap. The light is so wonderful I keep stopping for photos. Since we left the top of Nevada Fall we haven’t seen anyone. We are descending slowly and wonder if we will make it before dark. We see evidence of horses and wonder who’d be crazy enough to ride horses up this steep path. I barely trust my own two feet. About halfway down we meet another couple, father and daughter. He is worried about getting down before sunset; she has hurt her knee. We have a head lamp and two flashlights and invite them to walk with us. AJM lends her his walking pole. With company and conversation, the time passes quickly.

And then we are Vernal Falls Bridge. Only .8 of a mile to the start of the trail and another .5 mile to our car. We arrive at the car at 19:15, 13 hours after we started. It’s dark.
Half Dome from Glacier Point

When we leave Yosemite a couple of days later we make a detour to Glacier Point. From there we can see almost our entire Half Dome hike before us: the two falls, the curve around Liberty Cap, the flat bit in Little Yosemite Valley and the curve of Sub-dome where we stopped. Through a telescope we see people and cairns at the top of Half Dome. I don’t regret that we made the hike and didn’t make it to the top. I’d do it again. The journey was more important than the destination.

3 Responses to “Yosemite: Half Dome Hike”

  1. Kat Responds:

    What an accomplishment! I bet dinner tasted great after that workout.

    Thanks for sharing the photos and your experience. Photo ops make great rest stops as do–look at that lizard! or Have you ever seen a wildflower like that? or Hmmm. Have to tie my bootlaces.

    I would miss the mountains if I lived in Texas….

    We had a large dinner but we almost missed it. Driving back to the Wawona Hotel, we got stuck behind someone going 25mph who wouldn’t pull off to let the train of cars behind him passed. We rushed into the hotel just before the dining room closed and so didn’t have a chance to shower or change before dinner. We both sneaked off to wash our hands and faces while waiting for our order. I ate a huge plate of eggplant parmigiana atop a mountain of pasta. I have missed the mountains the entire time I’ve live in Texas. It was nice, too, showing AJM the part of the country I came from. I especially enjoyed the long, empty drives and how each desert valley has its own microclimate. There’s so much variety when you really look. More photos on that coming. — mss

  2. Pam/Digging Responds:

    I really enjoyed this post, having just had my appetite whetted for national parks with the Ken Burns series on PBS. The last time I was in Yosemite I was a few months pregnant with my first child, who’s now a teenager, so I’m way overdue for another visit.

  3. Mark Nelson Responds:

    Wow, good on ya! You were wise to know and not exceed your limits. Those mountains kill people every year, same as here. (Redrock.) Yes, the Ken Burns series is inspiring a lot of folks, I think. I’ve caught only part of it, which is bad considering I work for channel 10, BUT I’m re-inspired to go out to Valley of Fire this weekend and hike around. Nothing as strenuous as your trip though……….
    Your bro, Mark

The surface and beneath the surface