Sarah's Half Dome Conquest!
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On Sunday, May 26, 2002, my friend Becca and I tackled the most challenging hike in Yosemite National Park--the 16.4 mile round trip to the top of Half Dome. The route heads up via the Mist Trail or John Muir Trail (we took Muir going up, Mist coming back; Mist is shorter but steeper and wetter) to Nevada Falls. From Nevada Falls, you take the John Muir trail until it forks. At this point you take the Half Dome Trail straight to the top. You begin on the floor of Yosemite Valley, at an elevation of 4,035 feet and end on the top of Half Dome, elevation 8,842 feet. This comes out to an elevation gain of 4,800 feet in the 8.2 miles up. The most grueling part of the hike up is the last mile or so. You are first greeted by a steep set of granite "stairs" (rocks strewn together in a semi-stair-like fashion) that cover the 400-500 feet from the treeline up the side of the smaller "bump" that you can see to the left of the Half Dome summit in the picture below. You can then rest for a minute atop the "bump." The last 400-500 feet to the summit are completed with the aid of two steel cables that run up the very steep (more than 45 degrees) slope of Half Dome itself; this final leg of the hike is impossible without the cables, which are up from mid-May to mid-October of each year.
The trail takes about 12 hours (that includes an hour at the top) if you are in average-to-good physical shape. Becca and I left at 6 a.m., I reached the summit at 1:00 p.m., and we got back to the car at 8:00 p.m. I made it to the summit and was back at the bottom of the cables at 2:10; Becca made it to the bottom of the cables just as I was coming down from the top, and unfortunately we had to turn around in the interest of time and she wasn't able to make it to the top.
For any random web surfers looking to use this page as a resourse in preparing for your climb, I estimate that alone, I could have covered the trail in 6 hours up, 5 hours back--hence the 12 hour including summit hang-out time estimate. To give you an idea of my physical conditioning--I had never done any serious hiking before, nor had I trained at altitude to prepare myself. In the 4 months before doing this hike, I had started to run regularly. I think my running really helped with my endurance and quick recovery. My biggest problems were blisters and sunburn (and nervousness about those cables on the side of that steep granite), not pain or muscle fatigure. The day after the hike, I had mild soreness in my arms and legs, but nothing more than I've ever felt the day after a long run. All in all, I completed the hike with far more ease than I expected.
The following is a summary of the hike with the best pictures. Once you're finished, if you'd like to see more pictures (without much captioning), please continue to Half Dome Hike, page 2.
Half Dome, as seen from the Yosemite Valley floor. Yes, this is what I climbed. Yes, it's as high as it looks. (This picture was actually taken at sunset, when the sun shines on the face of Half Dome.)
Early morning breakfast stop, sometime around 8:00 a.m....about two hours into the journey. Mmm. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made the day before and packed for the trip, washed down with lots of water.
The trails are very well marked, making it easy to see how far you've come...or how far you still have to go. 4.9 miles to the summit...almost halfway there, but still more than 3,000 feet in elevation to climb.
Nevada Falls, complete with a rainbow formed in the mist at the bottom. Here, the Merced River drops 594 feet. (This picture was actually taken on the return trip, at around 5:30 p.m.)
Getting closer! This picture is taken about a mile and a half from (and still probably 1,000 feet below) the summit, on the cusp of the treeline. From here on up, it's all granite, with no trees to shade you from the sun. From here to the top will take at least an hour.
Here's a shot looking up the granite "steps" that I mentioned earlier. Yes, there is still the occasional tree, but I'd recommend you make sure you've got on plenty of sunscreen. These steps are pretty rough--they're not built for comfort, they're simply there to be functional, and the gap between "stairs" is often large.
Here I am about halfway up the granite steps. (Or halfway down, actually...this picture was taken on the return trip.)
These are the infamous Half Dome cables that will take you the final 400-500 feet to the summit. It's impossible to get to the top without them, unless you're an experienced rock climber and have gear, harnesses, etc. In the foreground is one of my new best friends, Alisa. With Becca an hour and a half behind me and a never-before-experienced fear of heights beginning to rear its head, four kids from L.A.--Stephanie, Erin, Alisa, and Dan--became four of my favorite people in the world when they invited me to join their group for the cable climb.
Stephanie searches for a decent pair of gloves in the pile at at the base of the cables. Fortunately I had done my research and brought my own pair. Without them, the cables can tear up your hands...especially if you're holding them with the death grip that we were. The cables are definitely not for the faint of heart or those with even a mild fear of heights, and I highly recommend good hiking shoes or boots with lots of traction. The path is very steep, the wind is blowing, and watching the occasional lost water bottle cap skitter down the side into oblivion doesn't help. I saw a few people turn around before they got even 20 feet up, and talked to many more who reached the base of the cables but couldn't go any farther out of fear. Still, I had gone this far, there wasn't really any question about not going to the top...
...and so here I am!! I made it to the top of Half Dome!! Some random guy congratulated me and was kind enough to take my picture. In the background you can see two other famous Yosemite landmarks. The solid granite face of El Capitan is over my right shoulder (the massive cliff visible directly above the red backpack and behind that first ridge of trees). Yosemite Falls (the tallest waterfall in North America) is visible as a thin white streak about an inch and a half directly to the right of where I am sitting in the picture.
There's actually quite a lot of room to walk around on the top. There was even a lot of snow leftover from a storm the area had seen about 5 days before, which made for a few snowball fights. Even though the hike to Half Dome is strenuous, it's still very popular, and there was a steady stream of people coming up to the top. Once I made it, I sat down with my L.A. friends long enough to eat another sandwich, munch on some trail mix, and drink a lot more water. Then I began to explore...and take lots of pictures.
There is this ledge on top which is very nerve-racking. I made it all the way up those cables, but I wasn't brave enough to go out on the ledge. Whew. Anyway, this is a great picture. If you look very, very closely at the picture of Half Dome that I put at the beginning of this page, you can see this ledge sticking out (to the left of the dark streak visible on the shear face of Half Dome). Alternatively, you can just look at this picture and marvel at how far down it is to the valley floor--4,800 feet.
Here I am back at the tree line on the way down, with Half Dome in the background. I climbed that! YEAH!! At this point, Becca was back with me and we were gearing up for the descent back to the valley floor. Going down is not all that much easier than going up; it's very hard on your feet, ankles, and knees, and you have to watch your footing to avoid slipping on the rocky trails. The nice thing is that you don't get out of breath going down.
Going up, we took the John Muir trail, which was longer but not as steep as this trail that we took coming back--the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail was really a treat. It covers a combination of granite stairs and rocky switchbacks that pass near the base of both Nevada and Vernal Falls and place you directly in the mist produced from the water smashing against the rocks at the base of the falls. You will get wet (Becca and I both took our waterproof jackets), but the views, like the one of Nevada Falls I posted earlier on this page, are fantastic.
Well, that's the hike! For more information on Yosemite and to find current conditions of all the trails, check out Yosemite's homepage at http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm. And if you have any questions about the Half Dome hike, feel free to email me.