Six days ago, I conquered Half Dome.
It feels unreal to say those words and part of me is convinced that it really isn’t real: did I actually climb Half Dome? I must be dreaming. But it’s real. Really real.
It seems that every person who has climbed Half Dome in Yosemite has their own story, so I figured I would add my own to the mix. But let me start from the very beginning.
Around March, an old friend of mine asked me out of the blue if I was interested in visiting Yosemite and climbing Half Dome with her this summer. She was coming to California for a week or so and Half Dome had been on her bucket list for ages – she was eager to finally accomplish this task. I, having only recently emerged in the outdoorsy/hiking/adventure community, had never heard of Half Dome or knew of its legendary hiking stature but was eager to embark on another great adventure. After some extensive research, my anxiety about the hike began to rise dramatically and I worried if agreeing to this had been such a good idea (see my previous post). Each hiker who had accomplished Half Dome had drastic and dreadful stories, stories that could scare away even the most ambitious of hikers, but somehow I was able to convince myself to go on this journey regardless.
And so, last Tuesday, my friend Tori and I set out for Yosemite, crashing at an inn on the outskirts of Yosemite that night before venturing into nature’s sacred grounds on Wednesday morning. Throughout the days leading up to our adventure, we had been continuously applying for a Half Dome permit using the 48 hour lottery process. This permit allows the group to climb the cables on Half Dome and is given out on a completely random lottery basis. When we first failed to receive a permit for Wednesday, we were disheartened, wondering what our options were if we actually didn’t secure a permit during the duration of our trip. But luckily, on Tuesday evening, an email rolled in confirming our permit for Thursday, June 18, 2015. Immediately we were filled with excitement and nerves.
When we arrived in Curry Village early Wednesday morning, we ambitiously decided that we would warm up for Half Dome the following day by climbing Upper Yosemite Falls. Considered “very strenuous”, Upper Yosemite Falls is a 7.2 round-trip hike, averaged to take about 6-8 hours according to the Yosemite hiking guide. With such a short mileage, we thought “this can’t be that bad” and set out, eager to experience the fresh air, towering redwoods, and impressive cliffs that made up Yosemite.
Boy, were we wrong. First, we set out at about 11am, leading straight into the hottest part of the day, which to our demise was in the 90s (Fahrenheit) and felt even worse with the thinner air of higher altitude. At the bottom of the trail, a sign warned hikers of the extensive switchbacks that this trail took but fresh into the park we ignored the warnings and ventured on. Quickly, we realized why so many hikers before us cursed any and all switchbacks for their hard-on-the-knees incline and endless monotony. Like damn, this trail was ridiculous. During the last third of the hike up, our motivation started to fail us and no matter who we passed as they headed down, they all seemed to say “just another 40 minutes”. After what seemed like eons, we reached the top and enjoyed the stunning views, letting the spray of the mist from the waterfall cool us in our exhaustion. Long story short, the hike ended up taking about five and a half hours (including a 40-50 min stop at the top for food) and took a lot more strength and endurance than we anticipated.
Coming off the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, both of us were a bit shaky: if we had barely survived this hike, how were we supposed to tackle the 12-hour, 20-mile beast that was Half Dome the following day? Sure enough, when we woke up Thursday morning, bright and early at 4:30am, each of us independently freaked out (Maybe we shouldn’t do this. It’s not too late to back out now. WTF, we’re crazy, what have I gotten myself into?). But by 5:15am we were on road, leaving Curry Village by the Happy Trails trail, munching on a breakfast bagel.
The great thing about the Half Dome trail is that it’s nicely portioned out into distinct milestones that really makes you feel like you’re making progress (as opposed to the endless switchbacks of Upper Yosemite Falls). Once we reached the actual trailhead, the first leg is the 1.5 mile paved-road hike to the Vernal Falls bridge. This portion had it’s steep sections and it’s flatter sections, but the big thing we learned early was to really pace ourselves: one step in front of the other, never letting ourselves get out of breath. The other thing we established early was that it’s okay to stop every 20-30 minutes for a quick break to grab some water and to stop every hour-ish for a 5-10 min snack break.
From Vernal Falls, we followed the Mist Trail up toward Nevada Falls. Even though it was early in the morning, there was plenty of morning light to illuminate our way along the steep steps, but definitely be advised, this trail is not for the light-hearted. While the steps wind next to the waterfall, exposing miraculous views of water’s power to carve it’s way through a mountain, this isn’t a sight-seeing trail as every foot hold is a careful balancing act. In the bottom corner you can see some of the winding staircase that makes up the Mist Trail, although most of the trail is not so friendly or fenced in.
At the end of the Mist Trail, it was just a bit farther before reaching the top of Nevada Falls. A number of people were resting here once we reached the trail split so again we took a break before venturing on knowing that only a couple miles remained to the top. From Nevada Falls, the trail wound a bit into a sort of mini valley where a few campsites were located and the trail leveled out to almost completely flat: just a simple walk in the park. This gave our legs a nice rest before we entered the dense forest switchbacks that led to the sub-dome or quarter-dome.
So far the trail hadn’t been too difficult, especially compared to the steep switchbacks of Upper Yosemite Falls the day before, but the forest switchbacks put our energy level to the test. Again, we paced ourselves and took breaks regularly to ensure we conserved our energy. During one of these breaks, we were able to peer through the trees to see the upcoming cables stringing their way up Half Dome and it all became real. This was Half Dome and we were about to conquer it.
When we surfaced from the trees, we found ourselves at the base of the subdome. Unlike the dense forest, the subdome was almost extremely bare of trees – just sheer rock rounding upwards toward Half Dome itself. Like many of my fellow hikers, I found the subdome almost as difficult as Half Dome itself. There are no cables here to keep your balance and there are any number of paths to take to summit the dome, with still a steep slope eager to pull you down with one false step. But again, we paced ourselves and watched our footing, making it to the base of Half Dome itself.
Now, before we embarked on this journey, I had read that the cables are far more intimidating and terrifying-looking than any pictures you might come across. And holy shit, was that true. Standing there, with my lungs starting to strain for oxygen at the high altitude, with Half Dome looming up in front of me, I honestly wasn’t sure I would make it. Aside from when I first woke up, this was my first moment of doubt all day. I mean, these things looked like death just waiting to happen.
A couple who had been hiking nearby us all day – passing us as we rested and resting as we passed them – was already at the base of the cables, looking up and thinking about turning back. After a five minute psych-up though, we convinced ourselves to go on. We had come this far and couldn’t turn back now. I wouldn’t let myself live it down if I gave up now.
So we pulled on our gloves (tip: bring your own gloves that fit) and started up the dreaded cables. And, pardon my French, but holy fuck was it terrible. Being almost 6 ft, Tori was able to tackle the cables head on, focusing on leg strength to push her up the sixty degree incline and using the cables more for balance. But for me, being a measly 5 ft 2 in, it was a completely different story. My short legs required me to take much shorter steps and, at times, the cables came up near my shoulders and head, requiring a whole different set up upper body muscles that I had not prepared for. It was almost about 40 minutes of heavy panting, pure agony, and perpetual “YOU CAN FUCKING DO THIS MEAGHIN KEEP GOING” thoughts to keep me going.
But at 11:11 (I’m not joking), I summited.
Pictures really can’t do it justice. It’s actually breath-taking (and not just because of the high altitude/thin air/lack of oxygen). It’s stunning. Majestic. Powerful. Gorgeous. You can see for literal miles. You are eye level with snow-topped mountains, rising above them on this outcropping of rock that you fucking climbed. This, I believe, is what it feels like to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Let’s be real – I got up there and I cried. I’m not totally sure what it was – an outpouring of relief, happiness from the beauty around me, or pride at proving myself wrong when I thought I really couldn’t do it. Because I did it. And it was all worth it.
After about an hour resting and refueling, we ventured back down. Despite the height of the cables compared to little me and even with my fear of heights (did I forget to mention that?), rappelling backwards down the cables was far easier than ascending. Once on the bottom, descending the subdome was far trickier since no clear path quickly presented itself. Slow but steady, we did reach the base though and continued back to the forest switchbacks that had led us to the amazing peak.
From this, it was a pretty uneventful descent. As with most hikes, descending was much faster than ascending, although also much tougher on the knees and feet. Since the hike had been so well sectioned, each time we reached a point of interest (Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, etc.) we knew we were one step closer to a shower and a bed.
By the end of the day, we had hiked 20 miles in 12 and a half hours. God were we happy to see our tent.
Overall, I would highly recommend Half Dome. I know it’s on many adventurers’ bucket lists but if you work for it, I know you too can do it, whoever you are! Hit me up for more Half Dome tips and tricks and never stop exploring!