Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Half Dome Ascent

Sarah and I left the house early this morning, climbing in the car at 4:00 AM to get on the trail for Half Dome as early as possible. The hike up Yosemite's iconic rock has become so popular that the Park Service this year instituted a permit system on weekends to limit access to the top. As Tuesday hikers, we did not need a permit, but we wanted to get on the trail as early as possible to beat the crowds to the top.

We were on the trail by 5:30, joining several others hiking the first mile using headlamps.

Early on, the trail passes by two spectacular waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. The photo above is of Vernal Fall, and there is a photo below of Nevada Fall from our return trip. These falls are destinations in themselves, as we found out on our return later in the day - hiking through swarms of families on their way to see the falls and play in the water upstream from the falls. Not something I would take my family to do!

It took us about 2 hours to get to the top of Nevada Fall, and our trail turned there from a series of steps to gentle grades through forests of Ponderosa Pine. It takes longer than it should seem to get to places, but on the way up you don't really notice. It is also amazing on the way up how long you hike before catching even a glimpse of Half Dome.

After about 3.5 hours, we had gained about 3600 feet in elevation and came to the area known as the Sub Dome. This part of the trail was over 800 steps carved into the granite -great on the knees! There are no handrails, and the steps are not wide. But the last third of the rock face had no steps at all - you just keep hiking upward and figure you must be going in the right direction. Below is a photo of Sarah ascending the Sub Dome.

We came to the most awesome sight at the top of the Sub Dome: the cables that we would take to the top of Half Dome. Though we were tired, there was an adrenaline rush at seeing the cables, because we had anticipated this moment for so long. Though I was ready to jump on them right away, we took some time to rest and get hydrated before going further. Good move!

I had read about the cables. I had seen videos of people doing this part of the ascent. The accounts all talked about how grueling the cables are, but I figured it was hype designed to scare away overweight heart attack victims. I could not have been more wrong!

The cables are attached to poles that are anchored in the rock. At least, I always thought they were anchored. Turns out, the poles are just set into holes, and some feel like they could come out at any time. At the base of most poles are wooden slats. The slats move, the poles wobble, and the cable slacks and is slick. I had to get up the rock by focusing on the next slat, pulling myself up quickly, trying to catch my breath, and then going to the next slat. Meanwhile, the rock got steeper and steeper. And sometimes I had to negotiate with hikers coming down the same set of cables - it is a two way street!

Focus was broken when the climber in front of me yelled out. I couldn't tell what he yelled, but I thought we had lost someone! I saw something go tumbling by me to my right, heading off the rock into the abyss. It turns out that a hiker a couple of folks in front of me lost his camera bag, containing an expensive camera and his car keys. I bet it dropped 3000 feet! The hiker told me later that he was going to go down looking for the bag, but we could not figure out how he would know where to look.

I continued to ascend as the rock got steeper, the cables got slicker, the poles got wobblier, and the slats became less frequent. There were a couple of times when I really did not think I could make it up. It was so hard to catch my breath and the experience was terrifying. I am eternally grateful (we both are) to Bronwyn, my boss and official BFF, for giving us rock climbing straps and caribeeners. People kept telling us how smart we were for having these straps, and the psychological benefit it provided was tremendous.

After what seemed like forever, the grade leveled off, the poles stopped, and I entered a relatively flat spot at the top of Half Dome. As you can see from the picture above, Sarah was not far behind me.

We both were exhausted and thirsty. The two of us were very content to stay far away from the edge of the rock, as the valley side drops 4800 feet straight down, and we had experienced plenty of excitement on the trip up. We made some cell phone text messages and Sarah called her brother to wish him a happy birthday.

The guys in front of us still had one camera, and were having a blast at a famous point where the rock sticks out into space. I thought it looked like fun so I had Sarah take a photo of me. It doesn't show how the rock sticks out, however, and I hated the experience so much I didn't want to try for a new shot. That shot below hides some really wobbly knees.

We spent 20 to 25 minutes on the top. Neither of us felt we could really celebrate yet; we still had to make it back down the cables.

So we headed back down, and I went first at Sarah's request. I decided early on to go back down backwards. It limited my field of vision to the next slat, which I would see under my left arm. I snapped the caribener onto the cable with every stop and eventually got into a rhythm that made the decent enjoyable. I would stop and negotiate passage with the ascending climbers, and got down the cables really fast.

My ascent was probably 10 minutes faster than Sarah's, as her terror moments came on the way down. She decided to take it face first, and was was paralyzed with fear. The cables were considerably more crowded than they had been on our ascent, and Sarah sat down for much of her decent, unable to move. The picture below shows some French women ascending outside the cables and passing Sarah - literally dancing down the rock. One of them convinced Sarah that going down backwards actually improves her center of gravity, so she turned around and eventually succeeded in completing the cables.

Can you find her in the photo below?

We were both exhilarated by our ability to survive! The trip back took us 5.5 hours to complete, in part because I took a wrong turn in returning and in part because we had to negotiate swarms of people who came up to the trails to swim upstream of the falls.

The entire hike took somewhere around 19 miles and 11 hours, and we ascended nearly 4800 feet. It was the greatest hike of my life.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad.

Location:Yosemite National Park


  1. looks awesome! Boy, dropping that bag would really be a bummer.

  2. WOW!!! thumbs up to both of you. I got dizzy from reading about the climb....WOW!!