A Half Dome primer (if you’re going)

One thing is for certain.  Googling about hiking to Half Dome bears little resemblance to being there.  Another thing is for certain: that previous assertion cannot be made into anything more banal than it already is. Banality, however, does not rob it of its essential truth.

photo-19 Housekeeping Camp

My friend, Rob, and I respectively headed from our homes in Las Vegas and Redding, Ca. towards Yosemite’s valley floor to the homogenized, downscale and glutted-down–Housekeeping Camp.  We literally arrived within 40 minutes of each other–around 2:30–3:00 in the afternoon.  After the “it’s been three years” sort of chronological accounting, we were off–time to start tinkering with the preparatory process; we were slated to start the laborious trek up the Half Dome trailhead at 0615.

photo-20 Basically, you start where it says “Happy Isles” over there on the left. I think it becomes painfully obvious from there.

Let me just get this out of the way.  If you’re in any way someone who only hikes intermittently along trails with gradually ascending terrain, then you can immediately dispense with any hallucinogenic notions about the hike “being about 8-10 hours.”  Because it’s going to take you six to get up there.  If you’re an inculcated cardio-hound with the ability to factor in altitude acclimation, you might do it–but why go to the top of Half Dome unless you’re going to kick it up there for at least an hour?

Oh, and if you’re a camel, that helps, too.  Being a camel will get you there with even greater facility, because no matter how much water you take, it still won’t be enough–which is where logistics, and understanding one’s proximity to the Merced River becomes paramount.

photo 2-2

Let’s a give a simple rundown of the sectional traits of the trail:

  • The first mile is paved.  You will cross a bridge downriver from Vernal Falls. At this point is the second-to-last restroom you will encounter, and the LAST source of potable water.
  • After a short, and rising grade on a relatively smooth dirt trail begins a series of granite steps rising dramatically.  If you’re not already sweating and drinking water here, you’re better than we were.  The need to stop and rest was frequent, but needed. However, you have two choices–because there IS a fork in the road:

1. The John Muir Trail to the right

2. The Mist Trail to the left

photo 1-2

The John Muir Trail is “easier,” per se, but a little over a half a mile longer in trod-length.  It has less steps and more switchbacks. Those with knees not-so-amenable to the stark gain may want to go this way.  It will take you past Vernal Falls, but it will do so by placing a giant gulf between you and it as you make your way towards Nevada Falls.

The Mist Trail is the “truncated” route, if you will.  The stone ascendancies are numerous, ominous and seemingly endless.  These however will take you past the stunning Vernal Falls (within a distance that will soak you in season).  Take heart.  You will soon climb to the top of these falls in a short period of time.  Drink water.  You’re going to need it.

photo 4-2 Vernal Falls from the Joh Muir Trail . . .
photo 3

Approaching Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail.

  • These two trails will merge at the top of Nevada Falls (594 feet high). Congrats. You’ve managed to ascend 1,945 feet in elevation in a 2.5 mile jaunt.  Only 5.7 miles to go.
  • The next two miles or so dispenses largely with the steps, and becomes a series of sandy and dirt switchbacks, hills and turns.  At one point you will be walking alongside the Merced river–a section that is NOT near a giant, yawning precipice that will suck you over if you were to lose control and fall in. FILL YOUR CONTAINERS WITH WATER. Purify them, or set them up for whatever filtration device you have.  you WILL regret not doing so because you think the” hard part is over.” Because once you see the sign “Backpacker’s Camp,” you will not see the river again until you return from the summit (just factor in a round trip of “eight miles until water” into your mental and hydration calculus)
  • The next 1.5 miles from this sign is comparatively easy to deal with.
  • Then, you will encounter this sign:
photo 4 Two miles from the summit. Get ready for the trail to get challenging up ahead.

By now, you’ve also ascended another 1040 feet in elevation. The psychological boost provided here was amazing.  From this point, Half Dome’s primary lid becomes visible through the trees and starts to seem within striking distance.

Yeah.  Right.

The next mile and a half feel pretty good, but the trees start to sparse out (you will, of course be leaving the tree line abruptly). Then–you will meet the accounting ranger at the base of what is known as “Sub Dome.”  The cable route seems literally “right there.”  It looks like all you need to do is walk around the corner and start climbing.

“How long until we hit the cables?” I asked the iPad-weilding accountant.

“45 minutes to an hour,” he said.

“Allrighty, then . . . “(furtively digging through my backpack for a Hemlock root)

  • This sub-dome sequence isn’t that long, but its vertical jump is staggeringly stark.  You will now encounter stone steps again.  Many of them.  At one point the trail becomes a bit . . . um, malleable.  You will find yourself scrambling across graded granite sheets with ZERO shelter from the sun (if you didn’t wear sunblock up to this point, put it on when you have your permit checked).  This seems to go on forever, and you will find yourself passing people that passed you earlier.

Then, they will pass you, as YOU struggle to recover, and deal with the altitudinal downgrade in oxygen levels.  Also, the majority of this hike does not feature moments in which you are within an error’s length of sliding into some unobtainable abyss.  But this sub-dome sequence does–not because you’re riding a razor’s edge, but because the possibility of slipping on the gravel-laden granite could cause one’s body to shift into an unrecoverable reaction.  Take it SLOW and STEADY.

  • Then–suddenly, you walk over a curve. And there, right in front of you, are the infamous and (yes visually daunting) Half Dome cables:
photo 5 Rubber underwear is at least worth considering at this point.

photo 3-2

What becomes immediately noticeable is how high those things go, and what else becomes noticeable is the ability to wet one’s pants in direct proportional reaction TO them is almost impossible, as some odd apprehension/dehydration/renal failure trifecta is now running the show.

If you have water left, use some now (like I’d have to tell you).  Take a breather. Watch the cables for while.  You will see ebbs and flows of hangups and crowding.  Glove up. be ready to hit them when it sparses out.  It’s okay to be on crowded cables going down, but going up, you’re straining your arms for position and security.

Once on top, you have opportunities for shots like this one:


Take out your phone and call someone.  I called my wife, and believe it or not, Yosemite’s Verizon-centric valley floor was still no obstacle to my pathetic AT&T issues; I had all five dots.  My emails came ripping in, texts and FaceBook updates.

8.2 miles of sheer effort, anguish and catharsis.

So let’s talk about some things that I WOULD advise, if you are planning to do this. You may need other things, but THESE are paramount to ME:

  1. You have two choices: Make this a one-day trip–valley floor-to-summit-to-valley floor (17 miles). Or, hike into BackPacker’s camp, rest for the night (fish the river nearby) and ascend the last 3.5 miles early.
  2. Take high-energy food that will not take up a lot of space. Nuts, Clif bars, bananas, and trail mixes, with maybe ONE dehydrated meal.  You need the bursts–not a full belly of sand.
  3. WATER:  If I had it to do again, I would pack a Camelback full of water AND carry stand-alone containers.  Save the Camelback water for the sub dome and cable ascents–because you won’t have to take your pack off to access the water, and you WILL want to drink water while on your way up.
  4. WATER–AGAIN: Not to panic you, but you might want to leave all your Bear Grylls minutiae behind if its space requirements works to the detriment of being able to carry that extra liter.  I would advise finding a way to start with four liters if possible, and then fill up along the way.
  5. FILTRATION DEVICES–whether it be the charcoal straws, or tablets or drops–must be considered.  We wound up gulping two liters each from the Merced when we got back down.
  6. ONE MORE EXTRA BIT OF WATER: If you’re the pay-it-forward type, have an extra water to give to that poor soul who does not.  It may be what keeps them from scrapping the ascent at the 8 mile mark.  You might just save their bucket list for them.
  7. Gatorade: If you can manage a small bottle–take it.  My electrolyte deal came running up and hit me in the face; I thought I was on an another planet there for a while.
  8. Sunscreen: If you don’t, then enjoy the fallout of being exposed to the merciless sun in an open-bay dutch oven.  Minimum SPF 30.
  9. Flashlight:  Yep.  Going down isn’t a cakewalk either. Just ask your traumatized knees and shins.  It may take longer than you thought. Believe me.
  10. BODY GLIDE, ANTI-CHAFING STUFF: It looks and feels like underarm deodorant.  Apply it where you KNOW it’s gonna get bad.  It simply will NOT chafe.  No matter how bad everything else gets, THAT area will be thanking you later.
  11. SHOES:  Make sure you have a pair of shoes amenable to slicker-surfaced granite for the final “pitch” up the cables.  You will not regret that.  If you don’t, get ready to look like you’ve skipped every day but “arm day” at the gym.

Most of all: Have fun.

Oh, and don’t fall off.

photo 2-3 Come to think of it, rubber underwear is a must.
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2 Responses to A Half Dome primer (if you’re going)

  1. Pam says:

    Whew! I’m exhausted just reading this. But thanks for the hike. Gorgeous shots! I really WOULD rather be on a mountain today. Armchair summit-er. That’s me.

  2. Pingback: Yosemite is starting to call my name again | Master Of None


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