Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hiking Half Dome


Always carry more than enough water. Every once in a while, we need a little reminder of why some outdoor rules are in place. Maybe we get a little complacent and wonder why we prepare the way we do. Then we get an experience that puts everything back to where it should be.

Getting the permits was an adventure in itself. This year, to control usage on the Half Dome cables, the National Park Service instituted a permit system. Unfortunately, the NPS workers are not terribly tech-savvy, and some wily entrepreneur broke their system. The idea was that 400 permits would be available every day and folks would have to reserve them ahead of time on the NPS recreation.gov website. The day the permits (which sell for $1.50 from the NPS) went on the site, all the permits for the entire season were sold out in 14 minutes. Later, on sites like Craigslist, the permits would reappear – this time sold by private individuals charging upwards of $60 per person. Capitalism is alive and well it seems.

So when we planned our trip to Yosemite, this was definitely a discouraging development. The only other time we had tried to hike Half Dome, back about 8 or 9 years ago, we had made it all the way to the base of where the cables start before an oncoming thunderstorm had chased us off. The memories of that day still are a source of conversation, on the dangers of Half Dome during a storm. Like the book, Shattered Air, the explosions of the lightning hitting the rock behind us as we ran the 3 miles to the backpackers campground remind us that Half Dome is absolutely no place to be during a thunderstorm. We had not been able to return since then though, and of all the peaks that we have climbed in the years since, Half Dome remained unchecked on our list.

Certainly we weren’t paying $120 for the climb - that was out of the question. Thankfully, in mid-July, the NPS (finally!) discovered that the majority of its permits were going unused. To combat this, they started issuing 50 new permits every day, for the following day. So at exactly 7am, they would have 50 new spots open up. These too were snatched up fast, but since these permits were non-transferable – and with a much shorter time window between issuance and validity, the piracy has been negated. The not so great part is that Half Dome is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, and Yosemite being probably the most popular Park 50 permits is not a big number, and even those permits are bought out very quickly.

So the day before we planned our hike we got prepared. We have two laptops and a desktop, and some minutes before 7am I had them all dialed in and logged on to recreation.gov. I knew from watching the site for the last few weeks, that within the first 15 minutes all the permits would be gone, and that traffic on the site would be high, not allowing some folks to get through. At around 6:57, we started clicking “Book Permits” – I was clicking ambidextrously with a laptop mouse and the desktop mouse. At 7:02am the laptop went through – Success! We had our two permits for the hike. We were going to hike Half Dome the next day – we jumped for joy and high fived like we had just won the lottery. Only a few hours later did I realize that shoot, tomorrow we were going to have to go on a 14-mile hike.

We had made it down as far as Angels Camp the night before after work, and so we still had a piece to drive Friday morning. We woke up at 3am and assembled our gear after a coffee injection. Sometime just before 6am we drove through the entrance of the Park – the Rangers were not yet at the gate so there was just a sign to pay on your way out. We finally hit the Valley and the trailhead just before 7, and by 7:15 we were on our hike.

We had been up the trail before, but it is still a magnificent hike up through the Mist Trail, as the spray from Vernal Falls lightly wets all your camera lenses as you try to capture the beauty in a moment of time. This year of course has been a deadly one at Yosemite, and our thoughts never forgot that a 17-year old boy had fallen and hit his head, later dying, just a week before right on this trail. Also earlier in the summer, 3 young hikers had plunged off the top of Vernal Falls after crossing a barrier and getting swept away by the strong currents. I looked at the strangers around me and hoped they all had the message in their minds as well, just because it is a National Park does not mean you are not in the wilderness, and the first 4 letters of wilderness are wild. Luckily, this day, all would be safe.


The hike itself involves walking up many, many steps cut meticulously into the granite, which makes the trail somewhat different than an ordinary dirt trail. It’s like a stair-climber exercise machine, only with a 360 degree panorama of wonder around you. Once you reach the top of Nevada Falls, the second fall on the trail, the route changes to a sandy, beach-like consistency, which again tests your fitness level. By the time we had reached up here, it was starting to get hot. The trailhead begins at just 2000’ above sea level, and although the top of Half Dome is above 8,000’, you still are not out of the late summer California heat. The temperatures for most of the hike were right between 70-80 degrees, fairly warm for a strenuous hike.


We reached the top of the sub-dome right at lunch time. Sitting down at the top of the sub-dome to eat our sandwiches, we could see all the folks queuing up the cables, and hear their stories as they made it down. The people hiking Half Dome are not climbers like us, for the most part. They are just tourists who enjoy a great hike. There were many people remarking that the way down was scarier than the way up. There were folks who were so intimidated by the looks of the cables that they decided to sit it out, and wait for their hiking companions on the sub-dome. Still others bravely carried on up the cables, folks young and old, on the adventure of living life.

We finished our lunch and strapped on our helmet cams to video the ascent. I thought it was funny how many people asked me if we were taping this. “Uh yes, that is the reason I have a camera on my head” was what I felt like saying sometimes, but instead just nodded and smiled, enjoying the thrill of the moment. The climb up looks less steep on the helmet cams, in my opinion, than it really was. It was definitely a switching of gears too, as all day you are using your legs to power you up the trail, then for the cables you must rely on your arm strength to finish the climb to the top. Passing people who were going down was also a little cumbersome, as for a moment one has to switch to holding on to just one side of the cables, and hoping like heck your feet don’t slip until they get by.



Eventually we made the summit and took our photos. The summit plateau is huge, and the drop off below is incredible and far. We had picked a perfect day for our hike, not a cloud in the sky. There was a little smoke in the valley, which clouded the view of El Capitan, from management fires burning in the distance, but even still the view was breathtaking. Relaxing in the sunshine, we had fun spying a marmot get into a fellow hikers backpack. A whole family of marmots, we could pick out the baby Marmot, the Momma Marmot, and the big Fat Daddy Marmot. The unsuspecting hiker would have a surprise when he returned to his pack! We spent about an hour on top and finally started on our way down.


The way down wasn’t as bad as some folks had been saying, at least to me. Yes, you are sliding down, so good shoes are essential. We had chosen to bring our own gloves from home, these were good mountain biking gloves. They had a pile of work gloves available at the base of the cables for hikers who hadn’t brought their own, though. Definitely, you would not want to be on the cables bare-handed. Three-fourths of the way down the cables our progress was stopped, however. A young man was having a “panic attack” and stopping people from passing him by. This caused a bit of a traffic jam, which finally resolved itself as the people coming up took turns letting people go down around him, as he sat on the rock unable to move. When asked if he needed help, by the time we got to him he just cheerfully said no, he was just going to wait there a while, and we passed by. I found it odd that he had gone up and 3/4 of the way down before the panic hit him, but you never know I guess. That’s what happens when a route is open to people with no experience requirement.

When we finally got down, we packed in the helmet cams and took a quick inventory of our water supply. Both of us had carried 1 liter of water and 1 liter of Gatorade at the beginning of the day. Now, with still 7 miles to go back to the trailhead, we had just 500 milliliters between the two of us! We were going to have to ration, and it was blazing hot. With still 5 miles of hiking to go, our life giving liquid was gone, leaving us to survive in the 80 degree day. The streams aren’t right there beside the trail. Finally we got down to the backpacker camp, where shortly after is a slow moving part of the stream. I wasn’t too forward to take as big of a drink as I wanted to though. We are still in the Sierras after all. While I don’t hesitate to drink water from a stream in some parts of the world, I know that in the Sierras giardia is a real risk. We had some iodine tabs with us, but those of course take 30 minutes to take effect. I took a small drink, nowhere near enough. There were drinking fountains down at the bottom of the Mist Trail, still miles away, and over the next hours all I could think of was getting down to those fountains and drinking water, lots of water. My brain was dominated by thoughts of water. Water was all around me, the cooling sprays of the Mist Trail as we bounded down the numerous steps, but none of it to drink. When I finally did reach those fountains I filled up my Nalgene just like I had imagined I would, and greedily chugged down some pure H2O. Nothing tastes as good as water when you are really, really, really thirsty. Finally, I could be happy, we did it. We had finally climbed to the top of Half Dome!

We had slowed down considerably at the end because we had sore feet, but still managed to complete the hike in 11 hours, including the hour spent on the summit. We drove the short distance to the Yosemite Village, where I ate a reasonably priced medium pizza by myself. By the time we left the park it was past 8pm – and the rangers had already closed up shop on the exit gate – this trip to Yosemite was for free.

As far as the permits system goes, the experience did change my opinion of it. Before the climb, I was really resentful that there needed to be permits. How dare they limit my access to this natural resource! But having done it, there is a great danger with overuse. When we were there years before, the trail had been extremely crowded. There are still a good number of people on the trail today, but nothing like what it was before. Also, the people on the cables were fairly well spread out. It was sketchy enough as it was, I can’t imagine how bad they could have been with a crush of humanity on them. So yes, the idea of a permit system is a very good one. The NPS just needs to work on the delivery of the idea, so that others do not have to re-create the day before 3-computer click frenzy that we had to go through in coming years. But I’m very happy we did it, and very happy the weather smiled upon us and we were able to complete our hike, finally checking Half Dome off our list. Of all the National Parks I’ve ever been to, Yosemite is the most beautiful, and Half Dome is its most recognizable icon. It was all worth it.


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