Yosemite flashback #2: Half Dome, September 16, 2008
Having packed our bags and made our sandwiches the night before, we woke up at 5am on Tuesday to get ready for our trek up Half Dome. We drove over to the trailhead parking area and left the car just before six. It was dark enough that we had to backtrack and walk along the road to the trailhead, as the narrow path through the woods was obscured. There were around two dozen people starting out at the same time, including a big group of about twelve people. We made a quick stop at the Happy Isles trailhead, then started up the paved path to Vernal Falls. The darkness was fading into shady morning light as we climbed that first mile, the sometimes-steep 430 foot climb a good warmup for the trail ahead.
Unlike Yosemite Falls, which was entirely dry, Vernal Falls still held a trickle of water in mid-September. While that made for less spectacular pictures, I was quite happy with the lack of water on the stairs leading toward the top of the falls. Our guide book claims that there are about 300 steps on the trail from the bridge to the top, but it felt like a lot more as I was climbing them. I went at a slow-but-steady pace, counting out 40 or 100 footsteps before pausing for a rest. The steps are only about 0.6 miles, but they were steep! Still, I was fairly well energized and felt triumphant when I reached the top.
We paused for a bit of GORP before heading up the trail to Nevada Falls. Although it’s a higher climb and longer than from Vernal Bridge to the top of those falls, the path to Nevada Falls was made more palatable by friendlier switchbacks, sometimes with granite stones providing a ramp with some traction but rarely resorting to the cursed stairs of Vernal Falls.
After a quick break for beef jerky and pictures of the falls, we headed onward to Little Yosemite Valley, a relatively flat mile or so of trail that was a welcome respite from the endless climbing. Just before we got to the valley floor, we saw three mule deer – one watching us for any sudden moves, another eating away without a care, and the third hiding behind a fallen tree, poking it’s head up to watch us every few seconds.
After a mile of mostly flat sandy trail, we began ascending again, relatively gradually through a shady pine forest with pine needles and acorns and pine cones strewn along the trail.
After climbing for a while, we reached a sign – Half Dome: 2.0 miles – hooray! From there, we continued climbing through the pines, the trees gradually thinning as we got higher. We stopped for a sunscreen break at the edge of a cliff, where we could look out toward Clouds Rest and other cliffs along the northern edge of the valley.
After a few more minutes of ascending, the walk getting tougher from the high elevation, the granite steps up the shoulder of Half Dome started without much warning. Incredibly steep, and in a seemingly endless series of short switchbacks, these made for a touch climb and I stopped for a break about every twenty steps. After finally reaching the end of the stairs, we had to find our own way up to the top of the shoulder, as the trail all but disappears on the final ascent. On the top, we found a sort of staging area, where people took breaks before the final summit push, and gathered their courage or waited for others who pushed on.
After a five minute break to gather up some energy and decide whether to go forward, we made our way across the gap to the true base of the climb. After an initial bout of apprehensiveness I decided to try the cables, but there were ominous clouds gathering and the wind was growing. Not wanting to be caught on the summit in the rain (or lightning!), we waited for most of the clouds to pass, then started to ascend.
I soon discovered that the cables were even scarier than they looked; incredibly steep and with granite worn smooth by thousands of hikers, there was very little traction. After three or so pushes upward, I decided there was too much scary ascent (and an even more terrifying descent) ahead, and decided to turn back. Chuck went onward for a few minutes, but then began getting cramps in his forearms and was unable to grip the cables well, so he headed down without reaching the summit as well.
We climbed back up to the top of the shoulder to eat part of our lunch, but the wind was picking up and we decided to get down to safer ground in case it started raining. As we made our way carefully but quickly down the wind got worse, forming twisters here and there along our descent, picking up dust and debris and sending it flying into our faces. We took a break again once we had safely descended, thinking that the people who were just starting up the slope in the wind and intermittent raindrops were a little bit crazy.
We traipsed back down through the pine forest and into the valley, noticing that the river looked quite inviting – it seems like Little Yosemite Valley would be a fun place ot backpack and stay for a night or two, relaxing in the river and maybe trying the crazy Half Dome hike again. In any case, we were soon ascending out of the valley, and then descended back to the Nevada Falls trail junction.
This time, we took the John Muir trail to the edge of the Falls, where a bridge crosses over just above the spot where the falls begin.
Presumably the whole area is wet with spray and the pools above the falls are churning violently in the spring, but at this time of year the falls were fairly docile and people were swimming in the pools above the falls and playing on the rocks just below the bridge, making a mockery of the signs imploring you not to do either of those things.
This too seems like a fun destination for a hike of its own, and it was a good resting point before the final descent of our hike.
From the falls, we had almost four miles to go; the first three were semi-shady switchbacks along the Muir trail, first along more exposed ridges and then through a forest as we got closer to the Vernal Falls bridge. This part of the trail was mostly uneventful, except for passing an ultra-noisy school group and a small group on horseback. I was quite happy to be back at the Vernal Falls bridge, about nine hours after we first passed through. I filled up a bottle of water, having drunk my last bit on the descent to the bridge, and we set off again, only one more mile to go!
It was funny on the way down, passing all the people whose only destination that day was the bridge, and knowing what we were coming back from. we also passed a lot of people who were also heading back down – we were moving faster just because we were so much more eager to be done hiking for the day! With a longing glance at the now-open snack shack at the trailhead we slogged the quarter-mile back to our car, and collapsed there with relief. It took us just about 9 and a half hours for the trip, and we took breaks for probably 45 minutes or an hour of that, so it was about eight and a half hours of hiking for the day.