Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bucket List: Hiking Half Dome

It wasn't until last year hiking Yosemite's Half Dome got added to my "bucket list."  Not because I didn't want to do it, but I honestly believed I would never achieve the level of fitness needed to make the climb.

Last year K and I did the 7-8 mile round trip hike up to the top of Nevada Falls.  It was absolutely breathtaking and I knew instantly we had to come back and tackle Half Dome.

You want me to hike up where?
Half Dome is a strenuous 14 - 16 mile hike that lies 4,800 feet above the Yosemite Vally floor and 8,800 feet above sea level.  The last 400 feet to the summit include navigating the cables that allow hikers to reach the summit without climbing gear.

You need a permit to hike to the top of Half Dome.  Permits are required 7 days a week when the cables are up and while not illegal, hikers are strongly cautioned NOT to attempt to summit when the cables are not up.  The cables are up from approximately May to October and permits are acquired through a lottery.  The preseason lottery was held in March with the results distributed in April.  You were invited to submit up to seven dates in preferential order and request permits for up to 6 people on each date.  300 people a day are granted permits to summit Half Dome (225 allocated to day hikers, 75 allocated to backpackers).  If anyone decides they are no longer interested in hiking Half Dome and give up their permit obtained through the preseason lottery those spots are re-distributed on a daily basis so if you decide after the preseason lottery you want to hike Half Dome you can apply for a permit that way.  Rangers were on the trail checking permits so don't forget to bring yours!  We fared pretty well and got our second choice date.  

Most people start the hike from Happy Isles (shuttle stop 16) which is about .5 miles from the trail head.  Supposedly there is parking at the trail head but we couldn't find it and ended up parking in Curry Village which is only .75 miles from the trail head.

You can reach Half Dome via the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail or a combo of the two.  The Mist Trail is advertised as 14 miles round trip.  It is much steeper but offers spectacular views of Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls.  The John Muir Trail is advertised at 16.3 miles round trip.   It is much more gradual and does not have the steep stair cases the Mist Trail has but you miss the views of the waterfalls.  Or, you can do a combo of the two for 15.2 miles which is what we did - up the Mist and down John Muir.

Don't let the advertised mileage fool you though - with detours to take pictures and walking to and from the car we ended up hiking just over 19.25 miles for the day. 

Reservations to stay in Yosemite sell out months in advance so we stayed just outside in the town of Oakhurst which is 23 miles from the Southgate entrance to Yosemite.  Once inside the park, it was another 20-25 minute drive to Curry Village.  Another great option would be to stay in El Portal which is 11.5 miles from the West gate.  We had a fun dinner at South Gate Brewing Company and  surprisingly it wasn't too hard to fall asleep by 9:00 pm as we had a 3:15 am wake up call.  Everyone recommended to start hiking as soon as possible in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds.  

By the time we checked out, drove, parked, hit the bathrooms, etc we were on the trail just before 6:00 am.  We had brought headlamps and flashlights just in case but it was just light enough not to need them and we already saw other groups hitting the trail. 

Brother-in-Law E, Sister L, Myself & K

The first mile is paved but is hilly enough to warm up the legs.  Despite being 45 degrees I was already shedding layers a mile in at the base of Vernal Falls.  This is the only place to get water without having a filter so we took a couple big gulps, refilled our packs and started up the stairs to the top of Vernal Falls.

A note on water - we each carried between 2-3 liters of water and it was recommended each person carry 4.  We mainly didn't each take 4 because between food and other supplies we didn't have room. E and L ran out a little over half way and at that point K and I still had about 3 liters between us so we all shared.  Luckily, it probably didn't get over 80/85 degrees and while we rationed it on the way down I don't think anyone felt too parched.  However, if it is any warmer or you start any later (and don't have the benefit of getting the hard part out of the way when it is still cool out) I would strongly recommend the 4 liters a person or bring a water purifier. 

Comparison of Vernal Falls: Left August 2013, Right June 2012
What a difference a month makes in terms of water flow!  The picture on the left was taken during this hike this year (August).  The one on the right was taken last year in June.  The trail was not near as "misty" as it was last year (but still beautiful nonetheless).

After conquering the first set of stairs to the top of Vernal Falls we took a short 5 minute break to re-fuel and take pictures.

Looking down from Vernal Falls
Shadow of Half Dome

Next it was time to tackle the next set of "stairs" and switchbacks to the top of Nevada Falls.  Maybe it was because we were having a great time laughing and joking around but it definitely didn't seem as long as last year to reach the top.

Nevada Falls: Left August 2013, Right June 2012
As with Vernal Falls, the flow of Nevada Falls was quite different from two years ago.

From our hike last year I remembered there being a nice little area at the top of Nevada Falls to relax and put your feet in the water.  As much as we wanted to stop we figured it was best to solider on and get on the cables earlier rather than later.  Nevada Falls would be there on our way back down.

There was about a half mile more of uphill before the trail opened up to Little Yosemite Valley.  This is a hike in camp where back packers can stay the night if they want to break the hike into two days (or just camp in general).  The best part about Little Yosemite Valley was that it was nice and flat and really allowed us to pick up the pace.

Once we hit the hills again we knew this would be our terrain to the base of the subdome.  It was pretty much a combination of switchbacks, rocks, and lots of dirt.  The good news was it was a nicely shaded area of trail.  With about two miles to the subdome there was a ranger checking our permits.  It was starting to get real.

In the weeks prior to the hike I scoured the internet for pictures, tips, hike reviews - anything that could help me prepare to summit.  I will admit, some of the pictures of the cables scared me but in general heights do not bother me so I wasn't really terrified of the cables.  Everyone I knew who had done it raved about the hike; even longing to do it again!  I guess I was just more anxious as to what to expect.

As we got closer we started to get really good views of what we were going up against.

I had heard from others that the subdome could be just as hard as the cables themselves as it contained 500 feet of granite stairs of all sizes.  They seemed to taper out leaving uneven rock for the last 100 feet or so that I literally navigated on all fours.  Slow and steady though we made it to the base of the cables.

It had taken us about 4.5 hours to get to this point.  As you can see from the pictures there were people on the cables but not as bad as some of the pictures I had seen.

The cables are 400 feet long and consist of two metal cables that run up the side of the rock at roughly a 45 degree angle.  There is a wooden plank situated every 3-4 feet to allow you to catch your footing and rest.  My goal was to take it wooden plank by wooden plank.

After taking a break to re-fuel and hydrate we decided we were only prolonging the inevitable - it was time to get climbing!

It was highly recommended to climb with gloves to protect your hands from getting torn up on the cables.  Trust me, you will be glad you brought them.  I had read that many times there was usually a pile of gloves left behind from past climbers in case anyone forgot theirs but they were nowhere to be found when we started our climb so I wouldn't recommend counting on it.

Also, roughly 1/3 of the people we saw were using climbing harnesses with carabiners to attach themselves to the cables.  While this didn't give them any advantage, it certainly gave them extra piece of mind should something happen.  It didn't seem to be the norm according to my research so we opted to go without but looking back I can't imagine why we even took the risk.  If I was to do it again I would definitely use a harness.  Even if not for lack of confidence in my own abilities but the abilities of others and what kind of domino effect they could have should something happen.

I got into a good rhythm during the first 1/3 of the cables.  It was look at next wooden plank, pull, step, pull, step, pull, step, pull, step, rest on wooden plank, repeat.  I think there were multiple "approaches" you could take, i.e. one hand on each cable, two hands one cable, etc.  I opted to hug the right cable and go hand over hand trying to keep the cable under my arm pit in case I slipped I could catch myself that way.  Plus my right side is stronger so I think I naturally gravitated to that side.

Then just like that, the forward movement came to a stop as people started to get backed up and I found myself just hanging out on the side of giant rock.  Side note - I was amazed at the courtesy, compassion and patience everyone showed for each other on the cables.  You came down the same way you went up so there was a lot of navigating as to who would go first, waiting for others to pass, etc.  Ahh, so this is why everyone said to get there early - less traffic.

This is when I started to panic slightly.  There is nothing like the feeling of being trapped in a situation like that.  It wasn't bad when we were moving but when we were stopped like that you really had a moment to process what you were doing.  It also didn't help that this all happened at the steepest part.  I tried hard not to look around and still stay focused on the next wood plank.  As I watched the people coming down I noticed a lot of them doing what I thought of as "controlled slipping."  They were in control but it was so steep your shoes naturally slipped a little on the granite rock.  Many of them were trying to comfort us by saying going down was easier but I didn't believe them for a second.  I always thought coming down was going to be harder than going up and seeing this scared me to no end.

Finally, we made it over the last little hump and the last 1/3 flattened considerably (relatively speaking) although I kept a firm grasp on the cable until it ran out.  Then I collapsed on the ground.  It had taken about 10 - 15 minutes to get up (not normal but with all the waiting we had to do it took longer than normal - usually much faster I heard).  I think were all in a bit of shock for a few moments before we actually looked up and looked around.  We freakin' made it to the top!

The beauty was indescribable.  It was such a rush to feel like you were on top of the world.  We hung out for a bit snacking and just generally taking in the views.  I even ventured out onto the "visor."

My nerves started to flare up again when we decided to go down.  My original plan was to go down backwards and try not to look down but that plan quickly went out the window and I found myself retracing my strategy going up, hugging the right side.  But you know what?  Going down was 1000x easier than going up.  You didn't need to exert all the upper body strength it took to go up - I just let gravity naturally pull me down (keeping a death grip on the cables of course).  Within minutes my nerves vanished.  I was talking, looking around, really able to take it all in.  The people were right!  This was so much better than going up.  I tried to impart this wisdom on others on their way up but they kinda just looked like they wanted to punch me so I kept my mouth shut. 

Within no time we were safely back on the ground and it was time to begin the descent back down.  Until Nevada Falls we re-traced our steps we had taken to get there so it was all downhill which was   was welcome after all that climbing.  Within a mile of Nevada Falls I could tell we were all starting to get slightly cranky.  I think everyone's feet were starting to hurt and while we were back in Little Yosemite Valley so it was flat the trail was exposed and we were in direct sunlight.  I just kept thinking of that soon enough we would be able to relax at the falls for a bit.

The best ice bath in the world!
The cold water felt amazing on our tired feet.  We probably spend about 30 minutes relaxing by the water and snacking.  Despite not really feeling nervous I think the nerves kept my appetite at bay as all of a sudden I was starved when we sat down for a break. 

All that was standing between us and the car was 4 miles on the John Muir trail.  As I mentioned this trail, while slightly longer, is much flatter than the mist trail and I was very happy we chose this option for those last four miles.

We arrived back at the car around 5:15 - 11 hours and 15 minutes after we started.  We rinsed as much dirt and grime as we could off at Curry Village before we loaded up to drive back to the Bay Area.  Along the way we stopped at at a really great old fashioned diner for large milkshakes, hamburgers and fries - a well deserved meal.  I finally crawled into bed at 11:30 after being awake for over 20 hours.

I have been asked if I would do it again and my answer is YES - in a heartbeat!  I would leave earlier in the morning though - like 4:00 am.  As I mentioned we kinda lucked out with weather and crowds but you can't count on that - really the earlier the better.

I am so glad I got to have this experience - it was very mentally and physcially challenging but the rewards were beyond measure.  This should be on everyone's "bucket list"!
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  1. Aaahhhh, yep, your blog made me want to climb Half Dome again! It's funny how we are opposites: I much preferred going up than back down (and yet, we're the opposite in trail running...). And you definitely picked the right trails -- the Mist Trail steps are not fun after hours of hiking. I love the photo with the dome and sub dome labeled; who in their right mind thinks, "Let's go climb that!" LOL

  2. I can't believe you were not clipped onto the cables!! You are crazy! But what an amazing experience.

    1. Yes, I too cannot believe we cheated death and did not clip in! Next time for sure.

  3. Holy wow. I love going to Yosemite and only 2 years ago did the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. An amazing experience. I always look over to Half Dome and wonder if I could do it, if I could hike to that point. My fear of heights and falling are strong though. My heart was racing for you just reading about your climb up the cables!

    Beautiful photos. I can only imagine actually seeing the view in person. Congrats on conquering the dome!!

    1. Thank you! I want to do the Upper Yosemite Falls trail now - in fact, I want to do all the big hikes in Yosemite now!

  4. This is an AMAZING post! I'm not sure I have the guts to do it, but you've nearly convinced me. Your photos are wonderful and what an amazing achievement!!! I really loved the visor photo...I'm not scared of heights per se but it kind of freaked me out ;) Congrats!!

    1. Thank you! It kinda freaked me out too but in an exhilarating way. If you ever feel comfortable I highly suggest going - you won't regret it.

  5. LOVE! One of these years maybe but that last part, I dunno =).

  6. Beautiful! I have kind of always wanted to hike half dome, but never really ventured to do it. Great photos of your hike.


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