The Yosemite Half Dome hike is not your run of the mill hike. It is a Bucket List thing, a thing you’ve either done, or you should consider doing. That being said going to the top of Half Dome is not for everyone. There were a number of people who got to the top of the sub-dome, looked up at the cables, and were completely satisfied with waiting there while the rest of their group went up and came back down. I’m not a fan of heights and I have a healthy respect for my safety, but I could not look up at those cables and not do the climb. I had read a lot about Half Dome, but I really had no idea how steep the climb would be, what “the cables” were all about, how they were “put up” or what a board was. The cables appear to be permanently attached to the rock and they are “put up” when they raise them off the rock with the poles which are set in holes drilled into the rock. The “boards” are 2×4 boards setting on the top side of the poles with a metal strap that goes under each pole holding them on. How steep is it. Everything I read stated that steepest angle is about 45 degrees, but I can tell you that it looks and feels much steeper in the middle of the climb. Going up the cables was just a matter of going up one board at a time, taking your time and giving everyone around you plenty of space. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on a board, holding on to a cable and a pole, staying as far right as I could while a large dude with an unreasonably large pack passed me on the way down. I looked down on Tenaya Canyon, from that vantage point it was an almost unreal scene, and felt literally on top of the world. Regardless of being bumped and jostled multiple times, I never lost of sense of calm, never felt uncomfortable. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
On Saturday morning after staying a couple nights at Camp Curry and enjoying Yosemite Valley, we got up early, loaded the food from the bear locker next to our tent cabin into our backpacks and headed for the Curry Village lodging desk to check out and catch the first Yosemite Valley shuttle bus to Yosemite Lodge. At Yosemite Lodge we had time for a coffee and then got on the 8:30 tour bus to Glacier Point. The tour guide’s comments were interesting, but the bus ride can take up to 2 hours, so plan on a late start when you take this bus. Glacier Point has some of the most beautiful views of Yosemite Valley in the park, so also plan on taking plenty of pictures at Glacier Point, and the views continue along almost all of the Panorama Trail. Both Jenny and I had hiked the Panorama Trail before but the backpack added a little more challenge. It’s 5.2 miles from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley and the majority of it is downhill, but there is a section of uphill trail after Illilouette Falls, and another between Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley, but the Panorama trail is much easier than climbing the John Muir trail or the Mist Trail and it is very scenic.
I had done a little research since my day hike of the Panorama Trail in 2010, and found that there was an opportunity for a good view of Illilouette Falls before you reach the creek. So we were watching for it. To get a full view of the falls you have to be right on the edge of the view point which is a little hairy. It didn’t seem to bother Jenny, so she gets credit for the great pictures of Illilouette Falls. It is hard to put the height of the falls, 370 feet, into perspective in this picture. It is a big impressive falls. (Note: be sure to click on the smaller pictures to see them full size.) We breezed past the Illilouette Creek bridge. I guess we were eager to get the first uphill portion of the hike done.
Like the previous year, there were very few hikers on the trail until you reach Nevada Falls. We took off our shoes and ate lunch on the Merced River above Nevada Falls, near the top of the Mist Trail. The water was ice cold, but felt great on my feet. We knew we would be back in a couple days so we didn’t hangout or take a lot of pictures.
We were happy to see the campgrounds at Little Yosemite Valley. Even though all the wilderness permits were taken the camp was not crowded. I believe part of the reason may have been that some people only got the wilderness permits in order to get Half Dome permits, and may not have stayed in Little Yosemite Valley. The new Half Dome permit system and 7 day a week enforcement has made it very difficult to “do Half Dome”. I talked to so many people in Yosemite Valley that were not able to do a Half Dome hike because they could not get permits. I also talked to a few that just went anyway hoping to find a group with extra permits, and were able to get their chance to climb the cables. We had permits before the trip, and I’m sure we would not have gone this year if we did not have had the permits we needed. The most distressing thing we heard from a group headed to Half Dome was that they paid $70 a piece for the permits on Craigslist. A quick search for Half Dome permits on Craigslist found several listing, including one that was giving them away. It is not necesssary to try to give your permits away, just call the park to cancel them and they will give them out to other people who can make the trip. I hope by next season the Park Service comes up with a way to prevent the scalping of Half Dome permits and validate that people who get wilderness permits actually backpack and camp. This year the permit system was definitely broken.
On Sunday morning we got up early to head for Half Dome. We had nearly full bladders, over 4 Liters of water for two people, but should have had a little more. We were both empty before we got back to camp. The trail is awesome. There are lots of trees, including many younger (150 years old or so) Sequoias, along the trail. I really appreciated the shade both going up and coming back down. There were lots of hikers on the trail and we struck up several conversations. It was definitely a social hiking experience. As you get further up the trail you lose that trees and shade, but there are some great views of Clouds Rest above Tenaya Canyon. Then finally Half Dome and the sub-dome come into view. As you get closer you can make out the cables and start to see people going up the sub-dome.
If there was a surprise at all on this hike it was hiking up the sub-dome. From the bottom it looks every bit as steep as Half Dome and there are no cables! A Park Ranger is checking permits below the sub-dome and there were several people without permits waiting for someone to come along with extra permits. The sub-dome climbs steeply with lots of switchbacks and stairs. As you climb upward the view into Tenaya Canyon opens up making the sense of being extremely high even greater.
To add to the fun, the stairs end and even the trail appears to end before you reach the top. This leaves you a bare, significantly sloped portion of the sub-dome to navigate. This part of the sub-dome was the most difficult for me. I have very little problems with heights when I’m on a well defined trail, but I start to have issues when I no longer have that. I managed to scramble up that last part of the sub-dome, but I tweaked my back on this part of the trail and I was glad to get to the top, rest for a while, and stretch.
There were about 30 people on the top of the sub-dome, some were catching their breath and several others had decided that they had gone far enough. A significant number of hikers (mostly younger) were putting on harnesses before going up Half Dome. Looking up at the crowded path between the cables this seemed like a very good idea! I have to admit that the thought of using my tweaked back as an excuse to skip the cables did cross my mind. Between the challenging climb up the sub-dome, looking down at the very narrow looking shoulder we would cross to get to the cables, and then looking up at the very steep slope the cables went up, I felt all of my “respect” for heights come to the surface.
However, I decided to push through all that and finish the hike. I didn’t do all that planning and come all this way to turn around before reaching the top. There was a very strong, dry wind across the dome, and we were constantly drinking on the way up. I would definitely recommend a bladder for this part of the trip alone. The top of Half Dome is huge. We explored, took some pictures, and ate lunch on the top of Half Dome.
When Jenny was standing out near the point there was a young man jumping like a madman on the very last rock. This rock is balanced on top of a few other rocks and there are several places where you can see air through the pile of rocks. The mother came out in Jenny and she told him to “Stop that!” She said every time he jumped he was moving slowly backward. His friend was yelling at him too. He ignored Jenny, but I think his friend finally got through to him, or he got tired… We did several “meet in the middle” trips to get some cool pictures. It will be at least a couple years before we get up there again so we wanted to get plenty of pictures. I don’t have room in the post to intermingle them all so I’ll put a few at the end with captions.
It was very windy on top of Half Dome too, so we found a pile of rocks to block the wind so we could put together a couple sandwiches for lunch. Of course, like anywhere else in Yosemite, once the food came out so did the squirrels and chipmunks. I’m not sure how they got up there. Do they stay year round? I’m sure it is very cold in the winter so either they store a lot of food in the rocks, or they find a way to go up and down. Maybe they go along the cables once they are down (out of the poles). They were looking pretty fat and happy though!
Climbing back down the cables was much easier than going up. It is very much like repelling, but no one is on belay. By the time we headed back down the cables were much less crowded which made it nice also. I’ve seen some pictures people have taken while on the cables, but I wanted to keep all of my attention on what I was doing. If I had a harness on I might be more inclined to take pictures. I did see one thing on the way down worth mentioning. I was talking with the people below me who were coming up to be sure they were good with me coming down, while they stayed on the board below me. Talking to be sure everyone is on the same sheet of music is a good idea. Anyway, during one of these discussions the guy, a pretty big guy, said he wanted to get a drink before coming up, so I said I would wait above him. I’m glad I did. He leaned forward, took both hands off the cables, basically balancing all 240 (at least) pounds on the board he was on. He took his backpack completely off, took a bottle of water out and took several drinks. Put the bottle in his pocket, the pack back on, then grasped the cables again. I hope it wasn’t too obvious what I thought of his maneuver. If he had fallen I’m sure he could have easily taken out 2 or 3 people below him. I’m not sure if he was that confident in his balance or just really thirsty! In my mind it was another good reason to consider bringing a climbing harness next time, there are other people who may do something you can’t control. Definitely bring a Camelback style water bladder system so you can focus on climbing without having to dig around for a water bottle.
I would also recommend bringing a couple pairs of gloves, a pair of rubber coated garden gloves for the climb (nice and sticky), a pair of thick split leather garden gloves for the decent (nice and thick split leather to take the friction). There was an impressive pile of gloves to choose from when we got there, but I would not count on that. Your shoes will be important too. If you have climbing shoes with great traction, bring them. I had good hiking shoes on and felt very comfortable most of the time, but my foot did slip once and it was not a good feeling.
The hike back to Little Yosemite was beautiful, but the feet got a little more sore from the downhill. Back at camp I ran into a gent we had met at the Wilderness Permit office on the first day in the Valley, Chris, and his kids. We had a good talk while we purified our water. We met up with them at the community fire ring that night too. Jenny and I decided to backpack out the next day, Monday, and staying another night in the Valley rather than rushing out Tuesday morning and jumping right in the car for the drive back to San Diego. There was some talk of maybe doing a day hike to Clouds Rest first, but when the morning came, we both voted to sleep in, enjoy the camp, jump in the river, and have a leisurely hike out. Clouds Rest will still be there next time! We saw Chris and his kids one more time when we went for our dip in the river, they had just returned from Half Dome and were cooling off in the river. The water was COLD, painfully cold, but the sun was hot, so in we went. On the way out we spent some extra time at the top of Nevada Falls. We had walked right past on the way in and wanted to enjoy the view. Nevada Falls was impressive for late in August with a very strong flow of water. We headed down on the John Muir trail which neither of us had taken from the top before. The views of Nevada Falls are terrific as you go down that way, and it is much easier than the steep Mist Trail when you have a backpack. We got down to the Valley a little before 8 and decided to stay in the House Keeping camp for convenience. I like that you can park right in front of your tent/cabin, there is an area to cook, it is close to the water, and the showers are included. It is not as close to Curry Village though. By the time we finished our shower the only place to get food was the Bar and Grill at the Ahwahnee which is open about 45 minutes later than all the other restaurants. It was a treat after a couple of days eating dehydrated meals.
In the morning we got our “Half Dome” t-shirts/sweatshirts and a quick breakfast at the Yosemite Lodge (I really like the cafeteria style food for breakfast). Heading out of the park we saw a lot of cars parked along the road in front of El Capitan. Assuming there were climbers, we stopped and pulled out some binoculars for a better view. That rock is huge, even with the binoculars the climbers were tiny. We also hope to stop for a quick visit to the Mariposa Grove on the way out, but the parking lot was full and we didn’t have time to ride the shuttle from Wawona Lodge and back. I suppose the Sequoia will be there next time too! Yosemite was spectacular, we enjoyed every minute of the trip and can’t wait for another chance to enjoy it.
A few more Half Dome pictures…