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Summer hikes


Half Dome in Yosemite National Park



Half Dome hiking tips

  Josiah D. Whitney, geologist and Sierra surveyor, stated in 1870 that Half Dome “never has been and never will be trodden by human foot.” But the summit of this granite monolith, which Whitney called “perfectly inaccessible,” was first reached five years later and since that time has been the destination of hundreds of thousands of visitors.
   It was the last Saturday of summer last September when John and I entered the famous Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. This camping trip and Half Dome dayhike were my way of celebrating my 50th birthday, which had occurred the day before.
   The first thing someone who spends any amount of time in Sequoia National Park will notice in Yosemite is the people — in cars, walking, on bicycles, in buses, everywhere! But also having an obvious impact are the striking landscapes, which almost makes null and void the people.
   People-packed or not, Yosemite must be experienced. It is an awe-inspiring place of unforgettable natural beauty.
   Reaching the summit of Half Dome entails a 16.4-mile roundtrip hike and 4,800 feet of vertical elevation gain. We added a couple more miles onto this planned daytrip by arising before the shuttle buses and walking to the trailhead from Lower Pines Campground and returning on foot as well.
   We were on the trail at daybreak on the last day of summer (Sunday, Sept 21) on a morning that dawned cloudless and warm. The trail to Half Dome begins where the John Muir Trail does, which extends from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
   The Half Dome mileage of 8.2 on the trail sign looked wimpy compared to the 211 miles it stated for Whitney.
   Beginning at an elevation of 4,035 feet, we were dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. But we soon realized that the sun wouldn’t be shining into the narrow Merced River canyon until we had left it far behind, and the temperature was dropping as the altitude increased, so we soon were adding layers.
   Mile 1.0 (4,600 feet elevation)— We reached the Vernal Fall footbridge and had not yet seen another hiker. Whoever wants this magnificent, yet popular, waterfall to themselves better get on the trail early.
   The 400-foot waterfall was at its low point of the season — barely a stream was running down the vertical rock face — but we weren’t here solely to view the world-renowned Yosemite waterfalls. We were on another mission.
   Above Vernal Fall, the Mist Trail to Nevada Fall leaves the John Muir Trail and shortens the total mileage to Half Dome by a half-mile, so we initially planned to take this route. We hiked along the south side of the Merced River, then climbed the steep staircase to the top of Vernal Fall.
   About a half-dozen people were resting here, all headed to Half Dome. Nearly level with the top of the waterfall, we found a scenic viewpoint where we, too, took a break. It was breakfast time, so we fueled up with tangerines, banana bread, and a hardboiled egg.
Mile 1.5 (5,200 feet)— After the steep climb to the top of Vernal Fall, the trail relents slightly and follows the river past the stunning Emerald Pool. There is a trail junction here and a choice to be made: the Mist Trail or take a .3-mile spur to rejoin the John Muir Trail.
   One glimpse at the people ahead on the steep, narrow Mist Trail and we turned toward the JMT. Although this option is longer, the elevation gain is obviously the same, meaning that the JMT is less steep than the Mist Trail.
   The trails merge again at the top of Nevada Fall. It’s interesting to note that even with the additional mileage, we made it to this point well ahead of the parties we had split from below.
   The lesson is that the shorter trail isn’t always the easiest trail. Another truth is that no matter what route is taken here, one is never alone for long.
   Mile 3.1 (5,980 feet)— The Nevada Fall area had always been our turnaround point when previously hiking this route. It is a worthy destination.
   At the top of the waterfall, there is an impressive section of river that flows serenely across glacier-polished granite until the water dramatically plunges 594 feet off the precipice on its way to the serene Emerald Pool and breathtaking Vernal Fall.
   Although inviting, we didn’t pause here, in part because we had a long way to trek, but mostly because it was cold. The sun’s rays were bathing the surrounding mountains in morning light, but the Nevada Fall area was still in the shadows because the sun had not yet risen above the 7,076-foot Liberty Cap, the granite dome that towers over Nevada Fall and is so-named for its resemblance to the Liberty Bell.
   From here, the trail crosses back to the north side of the river via a footbridge and parallels the azalea-lined waterway briefly before turning north and climbing a brushy, and sunny, slope. At this point, if a bathroom break is necessary, several stalls await.
   At this early hour, there was already a lineup at the pit stop. We bypassed the crowd and headed up the trail as the layers began to be peeled off, the hikers multiplied, and the Merced River continued to provide the music and the scenery.
   Mile 4.5 (6,100 feet)— At the next trail junction, the John Muir Trail makes a right-angle turn to the north while the Merced Lake Trail continues along the river to its headwaters. Here, we entered Little Yosemite Valley, which is the location of a backcountry ranger station and a backpackers’ campground, where many spend their first night out on the way to Half Dome or Lake Merced.
   Neither of these sites are visible along this section of well-used trail, although we did pass a couple of groggy backpackers heading down. The route here is on a gentle grade for more than a quarter mile but the trail is actually a trench of deep sand due to the abundant use it receives.
   We were alone on the trail once again while walking through the valley, but as the elevation increased so again did the crowds. As we began a forested ascent, we met many hikers, going both up and down. A group of Stanford University students heading down informed us that they began their Half Dome hike at 1 a.m. and were on the summit for sunrise.
   Mile 6.2 (7,020 feet)— Another trail junction is reached while in this forest of firs and cedars. This is where those heading to Half Dome leave the John Muir Trail, which now heads east to Tuolumne Meadows, a little over 20 miles away.
   Over the past couple of hours, we had been working our way around the back side of Half Dome, so as the trail now continues its upward trend it also begins turning west for the approach. We passed a group of a dozen UC Berkeley students who were slowing their pace due to the altitude, which was not yet a factor for us, thanks to Sequoia National Park, where most of our hikes begin at the elevation we were just now reaching.
   I passed this large group, but John got caught in the traffic jam, so I walked for awhile with a man who I learned had flown from the East Coast and met up with other family members specifically to hike Half Dome. He was feeling the effects of the thin air and stopped to rest, so I bid him goodbye, but I would be having another conversation with him later in the day.
   As the trail rises above the shadow of the trees, the trek gets serious. There’s a steep climb consisting of a couple dozen short switchbacks on a granite stairway that requires some strenuous, high-stepping lunges to ascend.
   This narrow section of trail took our breath away, and it wasn’t just due to the scenery. I would take as many steps as possible, then move to the side and suck in some oxygen while drinking in the view, which includes Clouds Rest and the Quarter Domes formations.
   As the trail then levels on a plateau, it becomes as wide as a two-lane highway. This is a vivid contrast to what we were about to encounter — the one-way-only cables that can become gridlocked with hordes of hikers. From here, there is a stunning view of the east side of Half Dome.


Half Dome cables

Mile 8.0 (8,400 feet)— We climbed out of the flat section and over a knob of rock, which is Half Dome’s east shoulder, and there they were… the famous cables, looking both intimidating and inviting.
We sat down and contemplated this final leg of the journey. I had only previously seen photos of the cables, and the route is much steeper than I had envisioned.
   As we rested, three people from separate parties turned back, choosing not to make the final ascent.

  It was just after 9:30 a.m. when John and I began our Half Dome summit push. We started up the cables at about the same time as another group of five, but in surveying the route, there were just six other people on the rock, all in ascent mode near the top.
   The “cables” are actually threaded through a short piece of pipe shaped like the eye of a needle, which is coupled to the top of a three-foot metal pole.
   The poles are placed about six feet apart up the dome’s east face, and there are two parallel cable lines that extend the length of the rock, creating the vertical walkway. To assist with the precarious footing, two-by-four-inch boards are placed crosswise and loosely attached on the uphill side of the poles.
   This is the only way that it is possible to reach the top of Half Dome without technical gear as the pitch averages almost 45 degrees. In addition, the rock is slick due to eons of glacier action and a century of hiking boots. Then, because this is not challenging enough, there’s the added hazard of loose gravel.
   The smallest fissure or slightest uneven surface along the route becomes a foothold as the hands keep a tight grip on the cables at all times, making gloves a necessity. We brought our own, but for those who don’t, there is a multifarious collection of handwear at the base of the cables.
   I enjoyed the climb, which although steep wasn’t exceptionally tiring because when one person up ahead would stop to catch their breath, everybody in the line would have to search for the nearest foothold, like musical chairs when the music stops. We were behind a woman who hadn’t even made it to the steepest portion before her fear of heights paralyzed her and she had to be assisted back down by her husband.
   During these final 400 vertical feet, it is best to be patient. Plan the hike accordingly and assess your fitness level honestly so that this section can be completed without carelessness.
   Also worthy of mention is the combination of high, open rock and the metal fixtures, which make this a dangerous place to be in an electrical storm. In addition, any amount of moisture would make the rock even more treacherously slick. Check the elements before you commit to the cables. There have been six deaths on Half Dome since 1995 and every fatal fall except for one occurred when the rock was wet and slippery.
   Mile 8.2 (8,836 feet)— We reached the summit of Half Dome at 10:15 a.m., two of just a dozen or so hikers currently reveling in the accomplishment. We spent the next three hours on top.
   Our first stop was the dome’s highest point, where we looked down on Yosemite Valley, nearly 5,000 feet below. For me, savoring this precipitous view from the edge of the cliff was best accomplished by lying on my stomach, thus ensuring that my balance was under control at all times.
   From the rim of Half Dome, we had a Google Earth view of our campground, the golden meadows, green forests, roads, and river. It makes sense that since Half Dome can be seen from just about anywhere in the park, then from the top of Half Dome, hikers have a 360-degree panorama of Yosemite. We pulled out the topographic map and acquainted ourselves with the landmarks in this part of the Sierra — from El Capitan, up the remote Tenaya Canyon past Clouds Rest to Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman. Turning south, there’s Mount Starr King, the Illilouette Creek basin, and to the southeast the Clark Range. To the east is Moraine Dome and, behind it, Mount Florence.
   We settled against a dresser-sized chunk of granite to eat lunch while people-watching and shooing away a persistent marmot (did this oversized rodent utilize the cable route to procure his territory?). It was a mostly college-age crowd that was gathering, and several different languages were being spoken. Not wanting to postpone sharing their feat, many were talking and sending photos on cell phones.
   As it approached midday, the horde was quickly multiplying, so we packed up and continued our tour of the summit area. It is reportedly the size of 17 football fields, so there is plenty to explore.
   Just west of the dome’s highest point, there are exfoliated slabs that extend off the main rock, and we stood on this lip — unofficially called “The Visor” — to pose for photos with Yosemite Valley in the background and far below. From here, hikers can also look back toward the main summit for a close-up view of the famous north face of Half Dome.
   Next, we walked to Half Dome’s less-crowded west side, which the map calls the Diving Board. This is where one notices the great expanse of granite that is Half Dome.
   From the dome’s high point to the far end of the Diving Board it is about a quarter-mile walk at a slight decline. There are blocks of granite lying atop the solid white rock that is Half Dome, some that settled in their resting places by nature’s forces while others are stacked like snowmen by hikers. When heading in this direction, the obvious turnaround point is when the rock becomes forebodingly steep.
   It was after 1 p.m. when we headed back to the cables. Whereas our ascent included just a handful of people along the route, the descent was going to be high-country congestion as rush hour to the summit was in full swing.
   The climb up did not frighten me, but on the way down I gripped the cables much tighter, so much so that I wore off the top layer of my gloves. I concentrated on standing straight and fought my natural inclination to lean back, just to make sure that my feet wouldn’t slip out from under me.
   There was a steady line of people coming toward us, most who didn’t mind stopping to take a breather while we passed. Some people were chatty and happy, others were tense and trembling.
   When I was about 100 feet from the bottom of the cables, I twisted to let a hiker go by, which caused my backpack to rest on the cable and forced a half-full, quart-sized, plastic water bottle from its pocket. To my dismay, it started bouncing down the rock face on the outside of the cables. There were several people below me, all heading uphill. I yelled, “Heads up!” and most stopped to watch the bottle performing its acrobatics.
   It would hit the rock, fly into the air, and bounce again. It could have soared off the south side of the rock at this point but instead crossed to the north side of the cables and headed toward a drop-off that would propel it directly down to the valley floor.
   Instead, something incredible happened. The bottle went airborne one more time and perfectly stuck its landing in the pile of gloves at the base of the cables. It was quite entertaining for all who watched.
By the time I climbed down to retrieve it, any witnesses were up on the cables, so I quickly snapped a photo of the upright bottle at its landing site, surreptitiously put it back in my pack, and kept hiking.
   Just beyond the crowded cables, there were more than 50 people seated on the nearby rock crest contemplating whether to climb or not to climb. A few dozen were members of the Cal women’s crew team. As we continued descending, we met more team members valiantly attempting to complete the hike.
   Below the granite steps, meeting up again almost exactly where I had left him, was the East Coast man with whom I had hiked for awhile on the way up. The altitude won that day and he didn’t make it to the top, but his wife did, he said, who was climbing Half Dome to celebrate her 50th birthday.
   Wow! What are the odds of that? I, too, was climbing Half Dome in honor of my 50th. They were in touch by walkie-talkie, so he knew she was close. I waited to meet her, two 50-year-olds from opposite sides of the country who chose to spend their birthdays at the same place and the same time.
   Just before reaching Little Yosemite Valley, we stopped to watch a young brown bear dig for grubs in a log. He was oblivious — a little too much so — to the growing throng that was gathering to watch him.
   Continuing on, we met up with the captain of the Berkeley crew team who was one of the first of her group to Half Dome and was now on her way back. She explained that the team embarks on this hike every year as a bonding exercise. They leave Berkeley on charter buses in the early morning and arrive in Yosemite Valley to hit the trail by about 8 a.m. They are to make the bottom of the cables or turn around by 1:30 p.m.
   They are back in Berkeley later that night. That’s quite a 24-hour adventure for these young women, many who had never before spent time in the mountains.
   Farther down the trail, we stopped to talk with two rangers in Little Yosemite Valley who happened to be tracking the same bear we had just been watching. At Nevada Fall, we again opted to stay on the John Muir Trail rather than take the shorter, people-packed Mist Trail.
   We arrived back at our campsite at 5 p.m., just in time for happy hour. We toasted another memorable day in the Sierra.

Half Dome hiking tips

  —The cables are typically taken down for winter from mid October until late May, weather-dependent.

  —Be prepared for the mileage (16-plus miles), the elevation gain (4,800 feet), and the amount of time the hike will take (typically 10 to 12 hours).


  —Bring gloves (don’t count on them being available at the cables because a lot of people use this route, but they are necessary to have for the climb).

  —Bring water, plenty of food, and a headlamp in case it becomes necessary to hike in the dark.

  —Summer Saturdays and holiday weekends are very busy along this trail with a long wait for the cables and slow access to the summit. (While on the cables, be patient with slower hikers and allow faster hikers to pass when possible. No matter how crowded the route becomes, always stay on the inside of the cables.)

  —Pack water bottles inside your pack while ascending and descending the cables.

  —Flush toilets are available at the Vernal Fall footbridge and composting toilets are at Emerald Pool, Nevada Fall, and Little Yosemite Valley.

  —Pack out all trash.

  —Do not attempt the ascent if storm clouds are in the area or the rock is wet.




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