The Ascent of Half Dome

After having our fill (almost) of wacky, free and fun San Francisco, we set off in search of giants. Both Giant Sequoia and tall peaks.

Entering Yosemite National Park is a welcoming canyon framed by towering granite cliffs. A cool, high altitude calmness is present. That is, until you meet the crowds. Despite being the end of the season we entered the park during their annual ‘Face Lift for Yosemite’ program bringing more than a 1,000 volunteers, crowding parking lots, trail head, and camp grounds.

Stopping by the back-country office we were lucky enough to grab one of the 50 permits they reserve for back-country backpackers to climb to the summit of iconic Half Dome.

The Map of our Route

We set off up the steep misty steps past Vernal Falls where signs told us of the unfortunate fate of three hikers who thought it would be fun to get a picture on the slippery edge of the roaring falls. Next we passed through shady forest before again heading skyward through a thin pass to the left of Nevada Falls.

We spent the first night in Little Yosemite Backpackers Camp half way to the summit of Half Dome; a moderately difficult yet doable ~4 hour hike. At 3am we awoke to hear the ‘sunrise crowd’ pack their things and head for the summit. (A hike, we are told, that is best reserved for seasoned Half Dome trekkers, having to ascend more than 2,000 vertical feet on slippery granite steps and outcroppings…. in the dark.)

We awoke again at 6:30 as the hustle began in the camp. We quickly made our breakfast and set off with light packs filled only with water and a snack, leaving our heavy tent at the camp for the next night. After ~2 hours we reached The Steps.

Twisting in sharp switch backs up nearly vegetation-less terrain, our thighs began to burn as we lumbered up the 12-inch+ steps. Sucking oxygen-thin air we finally reached the top of Sub Dome at more than 7,500 ft. Time for The Cables.

"The Cables!"

I swear at times that the slope exceeded 70 degrees….

…..raw metal cables slipping slightly in my sweaty bare hands.

…..I looked back (and down) once, feeling my stomach leap as my mind reminded me what my fate might be should a cable come loose, or my foot slip on the smooth granite dome beneath my feet.

As we began our descent, dark puffy clouds were moving rapidly toward the Yosemite valley from the east. We recalled the nearly 20 fatalities that had already occurred on Half Dome this year alone. Many deaths had been caused by hiker’s reckless abandon in attempts to summit, or linger atop the dome for too long while noon-time clouds rolled in bringing torrential rains, hail, and lightening. This day was no different.

Most of the 400 daily permits to summit Half Dome are taken by day hikers. These mildly fit tourists attempt the 4,000 vertical foot, 16 mile round trip hike in a rapid 12 hours stent. With frequent storms at noon each day, hikers are advised to be off the summit and sub dome by no later than noon. Despite this warning, the bulk of hikers on the trail were still hours away from the peak as we returned to our camp ahead of the storm.

We boiled water for tea and sleepily recounted the majesty of the view and the intensity of the hike. Returning to the tent to phone my father of our survival, the rain started with a clap of thunder; a lightning strike near to the summit, without doubt. The majority of the hikers were either just summiting, or beginning their decent as the hail started in. A heavy gust of wind whipped through the dense forest of our ‘protective’ campground. A succession of pops following a deep creak widened my eyes. I clutched Natalie’s arm. More pops, a SMASH. A nearly two foot diameter pine had fallen barely 30 yards from our tent.

….our campsite flooded during the hour an a half downpour. Our gear was soaked.

We packed our bags wet, and with the drizzly, cool, calm of the post-thunderstorm forest, we began our hike down to the valley at 4pm. Nearly 3 hours later, with the onset of night, we reached our car damp, aching, and proud. Another man changed out of his wet clothes across the parking lot, telling us stories of the people he saw clutched to The Cables in petrified hysteria as they were pelted with horizontal streams of hail as lightning struck the granite dome above them and streams of water made the smooth rock nearly impassable. He had been one of the last to descend before the rain, watching the rescue attempts of those still at the sub dome.

Yosemite is raw with beauty. It commands respect and does not take lightly, those who do not head its warnings.


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