Climbing Half Dome – What were we thinking?
In June 2018, Alex and I experienced an incredible two-week journey out West that included rafting through the Grand Canyon, driving through Death Valley, and exploring Yosemite National Park. Alex had been bugging me for several years to see the wonders of the western wilderness with him, and I am thankful I finally agreed. I’m going to share one highlight from our trip that Alex and I will be talking about for the rest of our lives. But first I want to provide some background about Yosemite based on my research before and after our adventure.
From the first explorers in 1851, those who encountered Yosemite were awed by the staggering splendor of its larger-than-life geological formations. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln authorized a land grant, managed by the state of California, that protected Yosemite from commercial interests. While Yellowstone was the nation’s first national park, this was the first time land had ever been set aside by the government simply for the public to appreciate.
Today, the total park is 1,200 square miles, but Yosemite Valley, where many of the iconic big rock walls and waterfalls reside, is just 7 miles long, amounting to less than 1% of the park’s area. People come from all over the globe to see amazing valley landmarks, such as El Capitan, at 3,200 feet, the largest granite monolith in the world, and the place where big wall rock climbing was pioneered.
Another astonishing sight is Yosemite Falls, at 2,500 feet, the tallest waterfall in North America and 5th tallest in the world. The waterfall you see above is Bridalveil, a mere baby at “only” 620 feet. Our adventure was to hike to the top of Half Dome, perhaps the most imposing of all the park’s wonders. Alex took this photo, called the Tunnel View, from the western end of the valley after emerging from the Wawona Tunnel. You can see Half dome in the center peaking over the cliffs in the distance 7 miles to the east.
Half Dome is the renowned granite mountain that presides majestically over the eastern end of the valley. It was formed by a glacier and its name reflects the fact that from certain vantage points it looks as if half of the dome is missing. Alex took this photo below of Half Dome from across the valley at Glacier Point the day after our hike. It provides a great overview of our route and the topography we traversed.
This trek involved climbing almost 5,000 feet over 8 miles from the valley floor to the top of the mountain. Besides the length and height of this hike, a major challenge for coastal dwellers like us was getting used to the thin air at this unfamiliar altitude. As difficult as all of this was, the biggest obstacle we faced was one that is unique to Half Dome and only experienced when ascending the final 600 feet. This obstacle is actually on the back side of Half Dome and not visible here.
The impediment I speak of begins above the tree line and is called “the Cables,’ seen below in the middle and right photos. But to get to the cables we had to climb the Sub Dome, 500 feet of misshapen steps ascending into thin air, which you can see here on the left. After Sub Dome, reaching the top of Half Dome requires navigating a 600 ft surface of flat rock tilted at 45 – 60 degrees. Since this is impossible to do unaided, a parallel set of steel cables on posts was installed decades ago to allow non-mountaineers like us to make the ascent. This is analogous to hauling yourself up a 600 ft ladder made of sheer granite with rungs every 10 feet. The advice we got was to never look down, but we couldn’t help ourselves.
Yes, it was mighty satisfying to be on top of Half Dome, but it took me an hour to recuperate from the climb before I could stand up to be in this picture. While I was resting I was stunned to find that my phone showed a signal strength of 5 bars. So I immediately called Janet, who plotzed when I told her where I was. I later learned that there is a powerful cell tower many miles away that has a clear line of sight to the top of Half Dome. In the middle photo you can see the view looking to the western end of the valley, where we began our story.
Along the journey we also encountered many natural wonders, including astounding waterfalls hundreds of feet tall. A Mule Deer that suddenly crossed our path and stood there watching us from only 15 feet away for several minutes. Ponderosa Pines reaching 200 ft in height with pinecones as big a footballs. And a Raven, one of the smartest birds in the world who will unzip your backpack and eat your food if you’re not careful.
When we finally returned to camp we were completely and utterly exhausted. We made a beeline for the outdoor concession area to get dinner before it closed. Once we sat down, Alex literally could not move, while I began shivering and shaking, even though the temperature was 80 degrees.
But surprisingly, the next day we felt pretty good and travelled to Glacier Point where we could see the entirety of our adventure right there before us. Both Alex and I agreed that if we had known the true magnitude of the effort required to hike Half Dome, we probably would not have done it. But both of us are extremely glad we did.
Note: Most of the pictures in Yosemite were taken by Alex on his smart phone. My camera at that time, a Panasonic Lumix zs70, broke two days earlier at the end of our Grand Canyon rafting trip from sand entering the lens housing. No worries, he did a fine job.
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