Sept 4, 2012 — Half Dome and not too much further
Half Dome isn’t technically part of the John Muir Trail. From where I camped it was a 5 mile side-trip. Being so close to the JMT though lots of people take the time for it. Two years ago the park service implemented a permit system to limit the amount of people, (Up to 1,500 people used to try and squeeze up the cables a day, now it’s 400) which usually books up pretty fast. However if you have a permit for something nearby and it is considered reasonably close to Half Dome you can get a Half Dome permit for $5 (like I did), even if all the regular permits are taken. Some people do try and go up without a permit but there is usually a law enforcement ranger (like a cop for the park service) waiting at the bottom of sub-dome to check.
No I didn’t end up getting up at 4am. It was closer to 6am, still dark, but not for too long as I begrudgingly got out of my sleeping bag. I had a bit of a headache and was so tired, but excited to go up Half Dome. By the time I packed all of my stuff into my backpack and hit the trail the sun was fully up and I got a grand view of half dome. It was so beautiful, rising out of the forest a giant barren monolith of granite. Alluring, imposing, enticing.
I left my main pack and most of my stuff where I camped, taking only a small daypack with me. Food, water, jacket, rain gear, map, Nikon d7000 (camera), wide angle lens, tripod and small point and shoot camera. It felt so good not to have to carry a huge 70 liter backpack, probably weighing almost 50lbs.
A mule deer caught a glimpse of me on the way up, really close, maybe 15 feet, she glanced up, looked at me for a second and then went back to munching on the bush she was having for breakfast. They are so friendly here in Yosemite. With no hunting permitted there is no reason for them to be skittish. There were 3 in all, right next to the trail unfazed by my presence, except for the fawns, they don’t seem to be quite as used to people yet. It was still early in the morning so was quite cool and the Douglas Squirrels were chirping (click for audio file of a chirping Douglas squirrel) as I walked through the forest up to Half Dome.
When sub dome came into view (the ridge that you climb up before Half Dome) it looked totally unclimbable from a distance, just straight up. As I got closer however I saw the trail carved into the rock. Really quite amazing actually. So much work went into these trails. They literally have to carve steps into solid granite in places. It was steep and shade was scarce. Reaching the top it leveled out for a bit and half dome came into full view. I could see the cables and people going up. It wasn’t as intimidating as I had built it up to be in my head.
Cables were installed on half dome about a hundred years ago to assist hikers and climbers going up and down it’s East face. Holes were drilled into the granite and poles set in them holding up the cables. The cables are also bolted into the rock in a few places. The poles however are not bolted down, you can pull them out of the groves they slide into. In fact every winter the poles are pulled out and the cables lie flat on the rock, this makes the cables feel a bite loose and you definitely don’t want to pull up on them as you will yank the poles right out. The granite at one point was pretty rough, but after countless thousands of people have gone up and down in the same place it is polished smooth between the cables. Wooden slats were put up to deal with this and they are located approximately every 10 feet or so, were there is also a set of poles. The tendency is to quickly go from wooden slat to slat, resting at each, which can be quite hard if there are lots of people on the cables.
It could be considered a dangerous hike, statistically it most definitely is with people dying at least every few years, and hundreds of “incidents” every year (there were fatalities in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011), usually attributed to poor weather conditions, rain, hail and lightening. Just last August 2 people fell to their deaths, although one of them was a 4,000 foot fall from the top of Half Dome, climbers heard the scream on the way down. 2011 was actually a pretty grizzly year in Yosemite with 18 fatalities, most due to an influx of water from a larger than normal snowpack.
Seeing Half Dome for the first time up close was pretty impressive. A massive wall of granite 400 feet high with 2 cables running up it. The people going up and down put things in perspective getting smaller and smaller as they go up until they disappeared over the top. I saw my friend Fred coming down the cables. He had gotten there early to beat the crowds. Despite having a restless night due to the bear in camp. There weren’t many people on the cables, maybe 1 or 2 and me, so I was able to go at my own pace and grasp both cables at a time.
It was a little scary but more tiring. I had to take a break on almost every piece of wood to catch my breath. Glancing down a few times I experienced light vertigo. Nothing too overwhelming but the higher I got the more I just wanted to look at what was in front of me and not the drop behind. I did glance down a few times but never for too long. 2–3 people passed me, going down but that was it. No waiting for someone in front of me, nobody passing me going up. Thank god! I’ve seen pictures and videos of the cables packed with people!
Before too long it rounded out and got less steep and suddenly I was walking on the barren summit. It was larger than I expect and people have gotten quite creative with stacking rocks up here and then there’s the view! That was pretty much what went through my head. Well actually the first thing was “I made it! That wasn’t so bad now.”
The Visor (usually incorrectly labeled as Devils Diving Board) is a rock feature jutting out from the edge of Half Dome. If you’ve seen a photo of someone on top chances are it was here. From a distance it looks like you are on a tiny ledge jutting out with vast exposure. In reality it’s a pretty wide ledge and it looks much worse than it is. Still it was a little nerve wracking and when I starred down for too long I started to loose my balance, not a good thing when there is over 4,000 feet of air below you.
I wandered around on the summit for almost an hour. Then I noticed more and more people arriving. I wanted to get down before it was too crowded. I decided to video the descent so I strapped my camera to my chest and headed
Going down was so much easier than coming up, despite the 30–40 people. I simply grasped the cables with both hands and leaned forward, my weight pretty much took care of the rest. I felt secure, being used to descending on a rope from rappelling down canyons, this wasn’t exactly as secure but it wasn’t terrifying. Much easier than going up. Some people coming up were scared stiff, wheezing, holding onto the cable with a death grip. Most let me pass as I was going so fast. It was actually pretty fun going down, definitely like rappelling. I told a few few people it’s much easier on the way down, then I thought “What if it’s just easier for me?” Oh well they needed something to boost their morale either way. From the top of Half Dome to the bottom of the cables it only took me 9 minutes, could been much faster if there weren’t other people.
I had just finished coming down sub dome when a ranger appeared from behind a tree, that’s no exaggeration, he was suddenly just there! Caught me by surprise. It was a law enforcement ranger with a gun, badge and quite the array of accessories around his waist. “Hello” I said as I approached him. “Are you checking permits?” “Yes” he replied, I was already getting the permit from my pocket. “I saw a pretty big bear last night at Clouds Rest Junction.” I told him “How big?” he asked. I held my hand off the ground, “About this high at the shoulder, maybe 3 feet and this long.” I held out my arms as far as I could (about 5 feet long). Ranger: “Yeah that’s medium size, they get much bigger than that.” Wow I thought to myself, I’d sure hate to run into a “big” bear. The one last night was plenty big to me. Ranger:“We’ve been having trouble with him. We’ve shot him 27 times with rubber bullets.” Now that’s a persistent bear. Alden “He came to my tent last night and when I heard him knock over my bear canister I chased him away.” Ranger: “Yeah they are pretty afraid of people. He broke into one of the bear canisters.” Alden: “What?! How did he do that? Was it one of the approved bear canisters?” Ranger: “It was but it is one of the less common ones, I had never seen it before.” Alden: “Did they secure it properly?” Ranger: “They said they did but I was a little suspicious. I looked at the hardware, or what was left of it. He busted it up pretty bad.” “I’m checking permits” The ranger said as 3–4 kids came walking up the hill, slowing when they caught sight of him. Without saying anything they turned around. More people were coming down and the ranger moved on to check the next permit. I wonder what would happen if I didn’t have a permit but was on the way down?
As I made my way back to camp I remembered Lupita had put a piece of gum in the side pocket of my backpack the day before when I started on the trail. I had completely forgotten about it. Horrible scenarios of carnage went through my mind, my backpack torn apart, all of my supplies strewn across the ground a hungry bear sitting in the middle amidst a cloud of down, letting out an annoyed grunt as I chased it away trying to salvage what was left. I’ve heard horror stories of bears tearing apart tents and in one such instance, full of boy scouts, just to get a tick tak, a troop leader being mauled in the process. After talking to the ranger I was thinking hard if I had left anything in my bag when I realized the gum was there. It was still another 2.5 miles to camp. Lupita’s stick of gum would be the death of me!
When I got back to camp I rushed over to where I put my bag. There it was, in one piece, no bear had torn it apart. What a relief! I walked over to Freds tent, he was there chilling out, relaxing. We had lunch and spent most of the afternoon chatting. A young girl and her dad wandered into camp and joined the conversation. It was so hot in the afternoon I just didn’t want to hike anymore. I was pretty tired too. One thing was for sure though, I certainly wasn’t going to camp there again. I wanted to get some sleep without a bear sniffing around my tent all night keeping me awake. You have no idea how nerve wracking that is until it happens to you!
After a lazy afternoon of eating and sitting around I finally set off on the trail again. The sun was going down and I wasn’t sure where I would camp. I just wanted to be at least a mile or two further. The forest was dense, quite, peaceful. Trees towered above me. Something caught me eye in the forest, it was Fred’s tent, I said hi and continued on the trail. I kept walking looking for a spot to set up my tent. It was almost totally dark when I saw a fire a few hundred feet off the trail. They pointed their headlamps at me and offered me a place to camp. I couldn’t refuse. It was 4 guys from the East coast, one of whom I had met earlier that day on the trail. We sat around the fire talking. They were doing the trail in 2 1/2 weeks, much faster than me, something that was pretty common. Most people do the trail in 2–3 weeks. I wanted to spend more time and do side trips.
It was a good day and even better once I got in my sleeping bag, looking forward to a peaceful nights sleep.