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Sunday, June 28, 2015

U.S. Trails - The Hike That Almost Got Me to Quit - Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

For the visually oriented, skip straight to the pictures here.

Yay! It's the day of the Half Dome! I've read a bit about the hike and was pretty excited to do it, both for the challenge and the views up top. It was going to be a long day. My alarm went off at 4AM and I was in my car by 4:30AM, at the parking lot near Curry Village by 7AM, and at the trailhead by 7:30AM. With my 15-pound backpack tightly strapped on, I headed off.

The ~7 mile one-way route, starting at the Mist Trail, is broken up by a series of landmark stops, beginning with Illilouette Fall followed soon by the Vernal Fall Bridge about 0.8 miles in. However, as I approached the trail leading up to Vernal Fall, I realized why it was going to take me longer than I thought. Steps! As someone with a height disadvantage (read: short legs), hiking up giant steps, to put it frankly, simply suck. It gave me immediate flashbacks to my Lost City trek in Colombia's jungles. Except the humidity was only ~17%, not 100%. I refilled my water bottle here and continued onward to the top of Vernal Fall, followed by Nevada Fall. I got lost a bit and had to climb a couple boulders, but hey, I never said spatial orientation is one of my strengths. The misty spray of Vernal Fall was a welcomed cool down. But also as a result of the spray the steps are very slippery, so take it easy if you find yourself here.

By the top of Nevada Fall the trail had been pretty much either steps or uphill inclines. But, at Little Yosemite Valley hikers get a short mile reprieve of flat flat flat land. At the top of Nevada Fall, the trail actually switches from the Mist Trail to the John Muir Trail, which is the route used by mules and horses. Hence all the crap on the trail. Watch your step as they say.

After the relative plateau is another stretch of hills until the trail takes you out of the forested area and into the open blue sky. Another short stretch later is the Sub Dome, which to me sounds pretty ominous. At the base of the Sub Dome is a ranger checking for permits. No permit, no go. The Sub Dome is the "hump back" of the Half Dome. The route up it is a series of very narrow switchbacks that sometimes disappears and you have to make your own path by climbing up boulders. Luckily, the steps are small so they weren't a problem for me. It was during this section of the trail where I started seeing people turning back out of fear and anxiety. A couple folks were on their butts slowly making it back down. Caution is a virtue here because a sudden and even minor dizzy spell can mean falling off the edge. Since I was carrying a heavy backpack. I tried to keep my back facing the dome so if I fell backwards, it wouldn't be to my demise. Big tip: don't look down! At least not unless you're on steady footing or sitting down.

After making it up the Sub Dome, the final ascent to Half Dome was in full view. And boy, it was quite the sight. If there ever was a time when I almost turned around it was then. The 400-foot vertical climb up consists of nearly 70 pairs of poles anchored into the side of Half Dome with wooden boards connecting each pair of poles (so you can stand and rest at each pair). The first couple pole-pairs are on a low incline but they very very very quickly turn steep to anywhere, I'd guess, between 45-60 degrees upwards. While a number of people have sadly died during this segment, I reminded myself that many of the tragic deaths were likely preventable (e.g. those climbing in a rush, when the cables / Half Dome were wet, lightening was imminent, etc.). If the last sentence didn't come through, do NOT climb if there's ANY chance of rain or lightening. It's stupid and dangerous. Go with the weatherman on this one.

After a little self pep talk, I put on my climbing gloves (necessary in order to get a good grip on the cables). There's a pile of gloves at the base for anyone who didn't bring a pair. The first few meters up were cake, but then it got challenging as my arms and shoulders expressed discontent from having already carried a 15-pound pack for over 7 miles. I took my time and rested at each pole-pair before continuing. Although upper body strength is important here, so is leg strength as that helped propelled me forward. I climbed up like I was rappelling upwards, which allowed me to use the entirety of my arms to pull me up. I saw other people put one hand on each cable, which feels safer but it also means they're relying more on their smaller pectoral muscles to go up. And obviously shoes with good traction is a must. If you're wearing tennis shoes it's time to go home.

The incline decreased during the last few meters of the ascent. It was low enough that I just ran up it so I could more quickly find a place to sit and rest. Four hours later, I was finally at the top (elevation: ~8,880 feet)! Let's not think about the 3.5 hours back yet, because first, there's the 360° double-chin dropping views of Yosemite's greatest hits (see below and in the photos gallery). It's rather spacious at the top, where I wandered about for an hour before heading down.

The little blue dot at the edge of the cliff is me:

The climb down is much much much easier than the way up. I don't think I even broke a sweat going down. The technique was similar to that going up - going down like I was rappelling down, but at the same time pushing down on the cables and making sure my feet were in full contact with the dome to maximize friction. However, the actual descent took a lot longer than the ascent, because someone was frozen further down and was unable to move. No pressure to rush as the views were pretty amazing even just standing there.

On the return trip I stopped upstream of Nevada Fall to soak my feet in the refreshingly cold water. Afterwards, instead of taking the trail back down the Nevada Fall steps, I took the John Muir Trail. It's about 1.1 miles longer, but it has fewer steep steps, which are also dry (read: less slippery). The JM trail is rather boring, but is very well marked so taking the wrong path is difficult.

See photos of my Half Dome hike here.

Total miles walked today: ~16.5
Total water drank today: a rainfall x 5

Half Dome Trail Summary
Difficulty: Hard like a diamond
Length: Depends on the route, but the above was ~16.5 miles
Altitude change: ~4,737 feet
Time: On average, 10-14 hours, but be generous with your estimates. Have a hard stop for turnaround time, because hiking back in the dark probably won't be fun nor safe.
Tips: Bring plenty of water and food. Wear good gloves and broken-in shoes. Carry a flashlight and jacket in case you end up walking back in the dark, which apparently is a frequent occurrence. Be patient. Don't rush yourself or anyone else. Build your arm strength. Importantly, use common sense. Don't go beyond your limits.

Remember: hike at your own risk as your safety is your responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. I was nervous reading this one.....found out about my question I posted about the gloves.


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