Day 8: Half Dome

I started writing about hiking Half Dome before I left, but didn’t get around to posting it. Here’s what I’d written:

One of the highlights of my 1996 trip to Yosemite was hiking to the top of Half Dome. I wasn’t planning on doing it again this time, until I saw these pictures of one family’s trip at around this time last year. I’ve been tempted now, so I think I should give it a try.

A few things have changed in 13 years; I’m probably not as fit, and I definitely weigh more, both of which will obviously make the hike harder.

On the other hand, last time I took far too much stuff with me, including a camera tripod I never even used. So, I should be able to pack lighter this time. I also have a better backpack, which will be more comfortable.

The other factor in my favour this time is a longer day. According to Darkness, I’ll have about 14.5 hours of daylight, whereas in mid-September, there was only just over 12 hours. So I’ll be able to set off earlier without having to hike more time in the dark before dawn; and I’ll have longer in the afternoon as well.

I have two full days in Yosemite (June 1 and 2), so that should allow a second chance if there are thunderstorms forecast for the first day.

Well, today was the day. There were thunderstorms forecast for around 5 pm, but I planned to be down by then; on the other hand, the forecast for Tuesday was for a chance of thunderstorms from 11 am to 2 pm, which is exactly when I would be on top.  Therefore, it had to be today.

Unlike my plan, I didn’t end up setting off earlier than my previous trip. But I did cut back on what I carried, taking only two lenses for my SLR (of which I only used one – d’oh!), no tripod, and minimal extra clothing. I also forgot my hiking pole, which wasn’t a disaster, but made the hike back down much harder on my knees.

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Although I set off by myself, I hiked with various other people from time to time, depending on our relative hiking speeds. I ended up spending most of the day (from Little Yosemite Valley onwards) with a family from Colorado, who seemed to have just the right pace; they also didn’t spend most of the time talking about their political opinions, unlike a guy I encountered earlier and quickly decided to ditch. On a long and arduous hike like Half Dome, having some company on the trail can be a big boost, particularly when the going gets hard.

Having navigated the Mist Trail (which I intend to petition to be renamed the Firehose Trail) and the steps to the top of Nevada Falls, the first hard climbing of the day was done, and the steady stroll through Little Yosemite Valley to the start of the next climb was a pleasant chance to swing the legs. And then, the climbing begins through a forest, but that eventually thins out as we get higher. All this time, Half Dome has either been hidden by other features, or hardly recognisable because of the angle. But eventually it came into clear view, and our goal for the day was right before us.

Half Dome from the back side

Half Dome from the back side

Up the cables

Up the cables

It’s hard to describe the cables on the final part of the climb. (By climb I mean hiking uphill, not rock climbing.) The cables seem to be approaching vertical in places, yet I heard someone say that they’re no steeper than 45 degrees. Whatever, it’s quite unpleasant when you have to wait for 10 minutes while someone up ahead gets the courage to continue. But once you get into a rhythm, it gets easier: wait for the pole ahead to be clear, haul yourself up (which is why gloves are important), perch on the righthand side pole to let people descend to your left, and repeat.

We reached the top eventually, and posed for photos to prove the point. (Although you can’t see them, my feet are firmly on the rock, not dangling over the edge as it may appear.)

Tim on top of Half Dome

Tim on top of Half Dome

The descent down the cables was almost harder than the ascent, with the strain being felt in the knees rather than the thighs. We we just descending the switchbacks on the far side of the shoulder when light rain began. It got heavier as we entered the forested section, and soon became hail, with thunder and lightning as well. The warnings about lightning on Half Dome are well posted, and I’d done my best to avoid it. Still, we only missed the storm by an hour or so. (On the next day, I heard from a hiker on another trail that a ranger had told him that someone had died from a lightning strike, someone I might have passed on the cables as they were going up. I haven’t been able to verify this rumour, however.)

Apart from the pleasant flat section, the rest of the descent was felt chiefly in my knees. In the end, the hike took just short of 12 hours (including the time from Curry Village to the trailhead), so a little longer than my previous time. I normally have photos of stunning views to show for such an effort, but shots taken in the middle of a hazy day are rarely anything special. However, the hike itself was an achievement, and I’m happy with that.

One Comment

  1. Rob says:

    Don’t jump Tim!

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