Yosemite National Park: Half Dome

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Days before leaving for Yosemite, I flipped the page in the National Parks calendar my mom gave me for Christmas and saw Half Dome looking exactly as an 1865 report declared it: “perfectly inaccessible.” But I’d made my plans to hike it months ago, so on Thursday morning, I drove to Yosemite and set up camp in Upper Pines.

I grabbed some food in Curry Village, explored the area (put my feet in the river), and sat by the campfire, obsessively checking my phone for weather updates. It was supposed to be clear and sunny every day except for Friday, which was the day I had a permit to hike Half Dome. There was a significant chance of thunder and lightning, and Half Dome is the last place you want to be in a storm. I decided that I would go through with my plans and wait to make a decision until I had more information.

I woke up early the next morning, and I was nervous. I stalled, getting ready slowly and making myself tea, but it was still early when I caught the shuttle to the trailhead. The Mist Trail up to Nevada Falls I had done before on a previous trip in May of last year when Vernal Falls had rained down on the steps. This time--to my disappointment--the trail was completely dry.

I climbed and climbed, feeling like I was making good time at first and later feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. The trail leveled out for a while as I walked through Little Yosemite Valley, and then became steep again as I made my way to Half Dome. The part of the trail I was least prepared for was Sub Dome, a series of many steps that lead to the base of the cables. I had hiked seven miles by that point and had already heard some rumblings of thunder, but the sky looked clear enough, so I continued on.

There is a lottery system for hiking Half Dome that I applied for back in March. It limits the number of people who can hike to the top each day. If you look at pictures online, you can see what crowds looked like before the lottery, a solid line of people going all the way up. This was the one place in Yosemite that I didn’t have to contend with a lot of people.

I sat for a while at the base of the cables, telling myself I was resting and also waiting for a couple backpackers to go ahead of me. What I was really doing was talking myself out of hiking to the top of Half Dome. From certain angles, it looks like no big deal, but from the base, it looks like a very big deal. There were some dark clouds in the area, but no thunder, so finally I got up, decided to stop thinking, and started hiking. Just as soon as I tied my shoes twice more and put on my gloves.

I remarked when we were in Zion on the number of supportive things that strangers said to my friend Linda as we hiked to Angels Landing. It was really uplifting to witness, though I have personally found it sometimes patronizing to hear “you’re almost there!” when I’m perfectly fine; I carried none of that pride up the cables to Half Dome, though, and I appreciated the number of strangers who told me I was doing a great job and should take my time.

What I was thinking on those cables was not, “this is scary,” but instead, “this is hard!” My legs are strong, but my arms are weak, and they were responsible for pulling me up much of the time. At a certain point I realized my fingers hurt from gripping the cables. I made it to the top and was instantly greeted by a marmot, which seemed like a welcome sign.

I spent some time taking pictures and walking between the different sides of Half Dome. I had cell service up there, but decided to save my, “I made it!” message until I was on safer ground. Soon I heard thunder in the distance and decided to go back. Navigating my way down the cables was physically easier, but also scarier. Sometimes my feet would get far ahead of my hands on the cables. A few rain drops hit my face.

I cheered more when I reached the bottom than I had when I reached the top. It was not just my imagination that there was a group of people playing, “Eye of The Tiger.” I’d worried about getting back down Sub Dome, but it seemed easy after what I’d just done. I stopped and chatted with people on their way up who asked about my experience. As I walked away, I overheard a guy say to his friend, “We do this for fun?”

The trip back down a trail is usually a blur that goes by much faster than the slow hike up, but my legs were tired by that point and the trail was steep with small steps on uneven and slick rock. I took a small detour to the top of Nevada Falls, which on a previous trip to Yosemite I declared one of my favorite places ever, but the sun was getting low, so I didn’t spend much time there.

The sun set just before I made it back to the valley floor where I joined the crowd waiting for the shuttle. In total, I’d hiked 14-15 miles, only 400 feet of which had been the cables up to Half Dome. It was completely dark when I walked back to camp. I started a small fire, ate dinner, and headed for bed.

The next morning I was determined to go for another hike. I was sore, but I figured the 7.2 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls wouldn’t be too bad. I slept a little later and then caught the shuttle to the trailhead. I realized quickly that I didn’t have my normal energy and that my legs were weakened, but I kept going. The final stretch was a challenge, but the top of the falls were beautiful.

At this point in the year, there’s not much water falling, but there are still pools at the top of the falls for swimming or at least dipping your feet. It seemed like a paradise there and it was fun to see all the people I’d been slogging up the canyon wall with having fun.

It was when I started heading back down the trail that I realized this hike had probably not been the smartest idea. My legs hurt with every step and the uneven rocks aggravated the blisters on my feet. I had no choice but to go slowly and yet I still fell three times--THREE TIMES! The last fall was a pathetic slide where dirt became imbedded in my shin. I was so relieved to finally make it back to the valley floor again.

I made it back to camp before dark this time, sat by the campfire for a long time, and then finally went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, my first thought was that I could not move at all. I packed up camp slowly and then stopped at Tunnel View on my way out of Yosemite for one last picture.

I hope that once I can walk again without pain, it will hit me that I hiked Half Dome!

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