I fulfilled my long cherished dream of scaling the majestic Half Dome in Yosemite in the fall of 2016. My overnight backpacking trek to the dome materialized after months of persistent applications for a hiking/backpacking permit, followed by a handful of training hikes in the hills in my neighborhood.
I would strongly recommend making your Half-Dome adventure an overnight backpacking trip rather than a single day hike. You’d be thanking yourself at the end of it all and have a much more relaxed and memorable experience to look back upon. I spread out my Half-Dome hike over two days with a night’s halt at the beautiful Upper Yosemite Valley backpackers campground.
If you haven’t arranged for accommodation in the park the night before your hike, as a backpacking permit holder, you are entitled to camp at one of their valley campgrounds. It was very late in the night when I reached Yosemite, driving from the San Francisco Bay Area. Being the inexperienced camper that I am, I lacked the confidence to be able to locate the unfamiliar campground and pitch my tent in the rolling darkness of the park. I slept through the night shivering in the backseat of my car hoping dearly a park ranger won’t come knocking at my car window and cite me. My foolish decision to rent a sleeping bag at the park rental store rather than beforehand and not having brought any warm clothing made for quite an uneasy night as I tucked my limbs in and trembled the night away.
There are two trails up to Half Dome – Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail. Do not commit the blunder of taking the Mist Trail unless your pack is light! I learned this the hard way. On my way up, I took the John Muir trail which is slightly longer than the Mist Trail but has a more gradual elevation gain due to the switchbacks. Mist trail is one long nightmare of going up or down a flight of stone lined stairs. With a heavy backpack bouncing on your waist, an ascent or a descent through the staircase of Mist Trail will turn out to be a long drawn tale of suffering. The only good things on the Mist Trail are the two splendid waterfalls that you hike alongside – Vernal and Nevada.
The Little Yosemite Valley campground is midway between the Happy Isles trail-head where I began my hike, and Half Dome. This campground is where you break for the night and also restock your water supply from the Merced river that flows by the campground. With a quiet night’s restful sleep at 5000 ft, you’d be all refreshed the next morning and raring to slither up those damn Half-Dome cables!
As you begin another 7 miles of hike from the campground early next day, the Sierra’s magnificent vistas open up all around you as you gain elevation. Soon enough, you’ll be standing at the sub-dome humbled and terrified staring at the soaring rock face of Half Dome resting in front of you. The cables run right up the rock and disappear near the top edge, making you think what lies beyond is your inevitable fatal fall into the valley 8800 ft below. Warming up to the idea, I rubbed my sweaty palms, took a deep breath to calm my racing pulse and braced myself for the final ordeal.
Hauling oneself up over the cables is not for the faint hearted. A few pulls into the cable climb and the rock gets quite slippery and the angle of the climb gets steeper and steeper. Before long, your fingers start aching due to holding on to the cables tight. However, there are resting planks every few feet you can stand flat on for a momentary respite. These planks are real saviors. As you continue your relentless march up the cables and resting every few steps along the way, you begin to get the hang of climbing the cables soon. While going up the cables, the steep angle makes you wonder how you would ever descend down these cables without slipping down to certain doom. It turned out that going down was much easier as gravity works with you and you figure out how to use your handy grips effectively to adjust your speed of descent.
The top surface of Half-Dome isn’t anything out of the ordinary except the panoramic views are just unbelievable. The whole feat of getting to the top of Half-Dome is a surreal chain of events that is a testament to, albeit clichéd quote – ‘Its not the destination that counts so much as the journey’. You let the satisfaction of your accomplishment wash over you as you lay down on the surface of Half Dome and gaze into the High Sierra range that envelops you. The distant peak of Clouds Rest beckons.
After an hour of dreamy meandering on top of Half Dome, it was time to head back. Going down the cables was a breeze, although there was a hold-up due to an elderly hiker stuck on the cables frozen with fear. This happens quite often. Nothing prepares you for what the cables have in store for you. People get themselves onto the cables and then freeze solid midway, too scared to go either way and get rooted in their spot. This slows down the movement of hiker traffic until the poor soul is somehow helped out.
Out of the cables and back on the dusty trail, I was very fortunate to sight a mother bear with her cub foraging through the bark of a fallen tree in a nearby meadow. The mother watched her cub paw through the tree bark. Honeybees buzzed around the cub’s snout as it restlessly tried to sway the bees away with its paw. A couple of minutes into this priceless spectacle, mama bear and the cub scampered away into the bush. Either the bees pestered the bears enough to drive them away, or the excited whispers of us hikers in the distance scared away the animals.
On my way back, I halted for a break at the Little Yosemite campground again and had a refreshing swim at the nearby Merced river. The water was quite chilly but I couldn’t be bothered with it. The gentle flow of the river coupled with the shallow waters makes for a very safe and happy swim. I reluctantly waded out of the water after sometime and it was time to leave the paradise behind and head home.
Dusk was falling when I got back to the valley. I rewarded myself with pizza and beer at the outdoor patio at Curry village and drove back home loaded with a bundle of fond memories.