We are on the rim of the immense glacier carved valley in the bright sun and wind, gripping steel cables through rubberized gloves, barely balanced on an arching back of pale granite, breathing thin air that catches in our lungs if we inhale too deeply.
This is the top of Half Dome. It took us 6 1/2 hours and 10 miles to get here, and it will take us 6 more hours and 9 miles to get back to camp, but the view is worth it.
Since visiting Yosemite National Park last May, climbing Half Dome had been on our minds. This granite crest is iconic. Probably the most recognizable rock formation in Yosemite, it’s also the inspiration behind the North Face logo, and each summer, thousands of hikers make the climb.
On our Pacific Coast Trip, we had hopes of getting back to Yosemite, but no real plans. Almost a week into the trip while parked at a gas station half a day north of San Francisco, we put our names in for the Half Dome permit daily lottery (only 50 permits available two days in advance, after 225 per day are given out pre-season). Luck was in our favor, and we scored some camping reservations to go with our permits.
After a week of 200-300 mile days on the motorcycle cruising highways, arriving in the familiar forests of Yosemite Valley felt like coming home. For the first time on our trip we’d have two nights in the same place, back in these incredible mountains.
“Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands … None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire…” John Muir
At the Housekeeping Camp in Yosemite Valley, we wake up at 5 in the dark September morning. We meant to get up earlier, but a raccoon broke into our camp and spooked us in the night, and around 4 we heard a cougar screaming probably hunting campground raccoons. We pack our backpacks, get our snacks and cameras ready, put on our shoes and jackets, and set off in the dark.
Up an hour before the park shuttles start running, we have a “warm up” mile and a half to reach the trailhead. We walk through Curry Village camp and the sky starts to hint at dawn, blushing blue over the mountains. By the time we reach the trailhead, the cold blue light of dawn is on us, and we make good time up the Mist Trail we’d hiked in May, virtually empty in pre-dawn September.
It’s breezy and cool, and the mist trail is dry this time, but a bit of water still tumbles onto the granite wall as we climb past Vernal Fall up and up to Nevada. From here it’s new ground for us. We crest the top of Nevada Fall and meet the John Muir trail and some bright shafts of sunlight in the smoky morning.
Wildfires that have been burning close by are mostly out, but still smoldering. The bit of smoke in the calm morning make the atmosphere thick, dense, we can see the distance by haze and it smells like forest and fall.
We stop at the river for a moment, watch its reflective water in the morning light, and keep moving on this longest and most ambitious day hike of our lives.
We go in a giant arc from the falls, behind and far past Half Dome, and then back again to its eastern flanks for a mostly gentle climb – until the top.
We rest in the shade of enormous pines and have one last banana and trail mix snack before we get to the park ranger who grants us access to the trail as it leaves the forest and steepens into granite stair steps and sandy shelves of bare rock.
Then, the cables. The final 400-foot ascent up the peak’s steep east face follows a pair of metal cables raised on posts
We pick pairs of gloves from a pile between two boulders at the base of the cables, grateful for their rubber grip and protection from the distance of vertical cables we’d use to mostly pull ourselves up to the top.
This part is gruelling in a full-body way that hiking is not. It’s an uphill scramble from one set of poles set in drilled holes, supporting a ‘step’ of pine board where we have steady footing and a moment of rest before scrambling and pulling up a few more feet, letting people coming down pass as we go up and up and up. Several people ahead of us turn back, too scared or tired to make it to the top.
We push on, pausing often to let people pass (one way traffic on this narrow path) and catch our breath. Eventually the top begins to slope and we reach the end of the cables and hike the rest of the way to the top of the dome.
The top is enormous. At first it doesn’t feel like such an impressive pinnacle since it’s so sloped. But then we are there on that edge, looking down into the valley and far off into the west from where we’d come, and it becomes real. The edge. The height. The distance we’ve come.
After a while of resting on top of the world, we start our spectacular descent down the cables.
Every time we have to stop for people to pass, or for the woman with a fear of heights descending ahead of us to pause and calm her nerves… this incredible view is there yawning into the sky.
The hike down is 9 miles of exhaustion. For the first half of the descent we’re running on adrenaline and the afterglow of what we’ve just accomplished, but from the top of Nevada Fall (where we choose to take the gentler but longer John Muir trail down) to the Happy Isles Bridge at the bottom of the valley, the strain of what we’ve done to our bodies today starts to get to us as the trail switches back again and again and again.
The sun sets on us in the same mountains where it rose 12 hours before, and we are still on the trail pushing forward.
We make it to the road at Happy Isles Bridge just as the shuttle approaches. The driver waits for us as we to hurry to the bus, so relieved we don’t have to walk the extra mile and a half back to camp. We stop by the store in the village to get firewood, chips, and beverages to cap off our day.
By the time we walk from the shuttle stop back to our camp site, our legs almost don’t work anymore. Lying down on a bed has never felt so good before. We have some Half Dome beers and force ourselves to hobble across camp to the shower rooms, for one of the most revitalizing showers of my life.
Back at camp we boil water for a backpacking dinner, shove the cork into our bottle of Half Dome pinot noir since we can’t get it out (no bottle opener, hello toothbrush). Of course the village store sells Half Dome everything, and we buy it to celebrate.
We build a fire and make two s’mores from our Roasty Toasty package s’more kit. Then we rig a raccoon barricade of luggage boxes and cardboard from our firewood, collapse into bed and sleep peacefully with no raccoons fiddling in our stuff, dreaming of this feeling…
Planning to conquer Half Dome yourself, or have you already made the trek? Leave a comment below!