Hiking Half Dome

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Half Dome, taken 11/2006

A week from today, I will be standing atop Yosemite’s Half Dome.  At least that is the plan.  Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places.  I’ve only been twice, which is not nearly enough, and haven’t been since 2009, which is far too long.  For years I’ve wanted to hike Half Dome, but it just hasn’t happened.  I turn 40 in November and decided at this year’s outset that before I hit that dreaded number, I was going to reach the top of that famous mass of granite about which Josiah Whitney said, “was perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been and will never be trodden by human foot.”

Half Dome rests at 8,839 feet above sea level.  The hike, from the Yosemite Valley floor, is about 16 miles round trip with 4,800 of elevation gain and takes between 10 to 14 hours, depending on your fitness level and how often you stop to gawk and photograph the waterfalls and granite you pass along the way.  The last 400 feet to the top of the dome are part hike and part mountaineering, as you hoist yourself up cables held in place by poles set a few inches deep in the granite.  Many thousands of people have ascended the dome since Mr. Whitney made his perfectly wrong “perfectly inaccessible” statement, but given those statistics, we can forgive him for thinking so.  While it is literally a walk in the park, it’s no walk in the park.

I had always hoped to gather a group of like-minded hikers to tackle the challenge along with me.  But, organizing an undertaking of that magnitude could prove as challenging as the hike itself.  So to ensure the least number of complications and increase the likelihood of it actually happening, I decided I would do it solo.  I would drive up the day before, find some place to camp/sleep, hit the trail early the next morning, conquer the dome, and drive home.

From the jump, it seemed my quest was doomed to fail.  A permit is required to scale those cables up the final 400 feet. Permit’s are not so easy to come by.  Once spring hits the National Park Service opens a lottery online.  You choose the date you want, a few backup dates, and the number of permits you need, then cross your fingers.  My plan was to go on a weekday in the fall, after the summer rush had subsided.  I figured that would give me a pretty fair chance of scoring a permit.  The problem was I thought he lottery opened in April when it really opened in March.  When I finally realized my mistake, I was over a week behind the eight ball.  All of my requested dates were unavailable.

As luck would have it, my good friend Sandy had also entered the lottery, but at the very beginning.  She got four passes for late June and offered Jen and me two of them.  Perfect!  Now not only would I be able to accomplish my goal, but would actually have some company after all.

Even with the permits, I knew the shape I was in was no shape at all for a 16 mile hike, much less one with thousands of feet of elevation gain.  Jen and I took to the trails to get ourselves in hiking shape.  We’d been up the trail about halfway before, and knew it’s rigors.

We were two days from our trip.  The hotel was booked, arrangements for the kids to stay with grandparents were made, I was starting to get excited.  We were enjoying a day at the beach, when I got a phone call.  Our dogs, Mac and Boomer, had escaped our yard.  Mac was hit by a car and had a severely broken leg.  The trip was off.  Mac is doing fine now, by the way.

Disappointed, but undeterred, I activated Plan B.  While the main permit lottery is held in March, the Park Service holds back a smaller number of permits it grants through out the season to last minute hikers.  Two days before the day the permit is valid you can apply online and find out the next afternoon if you’ve won.  There was still hope!

Now, you might be thinking, “If you can only get a permit the day before, and you’re going in a week, how do you know for sure you’ll be able to get a permit?”  The answer is, I don’t.  I’ll be logging on at the stroke of midnight Sunday morning, hoping to get a permit for next Tuesday.  Because it isn’t easy to get a place to stay in or near Yosemite at the last minute, I booked the first campsite I could find with availability a few weeks ago.  If I don’t get a permit, I’m still going.  On Sandy’s hike, she met a couple people that didn’t have permits that she gave hers to.  I’m hoping someone will do the same for me.

It’s back to a solo trip, though now I’ll be spending a second night after the hike.  I found a campsite that was actually available for two nights, and figured it might be a good idea to get a decent night’s rest after the 16 mile trek.  I don’t want my muscles to seize up and/or fall asleep trying to drive home the same day and end up at the bottom of some ravine in the Sierra foothills.  Jen and the kids were possibly going to come along, but it just isn’t going to work out.

Though it would have been nice to do the hike with company, I’m kind of looking forward to going it alone.  I’m not really a “commune with nature” guy, but I do think there is value to being alone in the woods.  All my training hikes since Mac’s injury have been alone, save a few with Boomer, and it’s kind of nice to be alone with your thoughts.

I’m leaving for Yosemite on Monday morning, hoping to arrive at my campsite by early afternoon.  I want to be on the trail by 4:30 AM at the latest.  I’ll probably skip the Vernal Falls portion of the Mist Trail on the way up since it will be dark on those steps will be slippery and precarious.  I’ll take the John Muir Trail toward Nevada falls, which should get me to Clark Point in time to watch the sunrise over Liberty Cap, Nevada Falls, and the backside of Half Dome.  From there it’s Nevada Falls, to Little Yosemite Valley, to the Sub Dome, and finally to the cables.  After making the hike back down, this time going past Vernal Falls, I’ll hit up dinner in the Valley, get my “I Climbed Half Dome” t-shirt, and head back to camp.  The next day I’ll probably drive up Tioga Road and see the sights up that way.  Then the drive home.

So that is the plan.  So far, it seems like maybe it isn’t meant to be.  But it it all works out, at about his time next week I’ll be on the trail, permit in hand, the sun just staring to peak over the Sierra, Half Dome still several miles off in the distance.  And when I reach it I’ll be just the latest to ascend that magnificent granite ridge and say, “In your face Josiah Whitney.”


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