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.

First view of Half Dome

First view of Half Dome

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.

Half Domes East face. Sub dome is dome just below Half Dome.

Half Domes East face. Sub dome is dome just below Half Dome.


Closer view of the cables on Half Dome.

Clos­er view of the cables on 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.


Hikers on the Half Dome cables.

Hik­ers on the Half Dome cables. I made this pic­ture large so you could appre­ci­ate the scale.

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.

The cables held up by poles placed on the face.

The cables held up by poles placed on the face.

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.

Getting ready to climb up the cables.

Get­ting ready to climb up the cables.

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!

Holding on for dear life going up!

Hold­ing on for dear life going up!


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.”

Some of the stacks of rocks on the top of Half Dome.

Some of the stacks of rocks on the top of Half Dome.

On top of the Visor, a rock feature on halfdome.

On the Visor, although you can’t see all the expo­sure in this picture.

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.

Exploring the top

Explor­ing the top

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

Admiring the view on top of Half Dome.

Admir­ing the view on top of Half Dome.


Heading back down the cables.

Head­ing back down the cables.

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!

Back on the trail after a lazy afternoon.

Back on the trail after a lazy afternoon.

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.

Map of the days hike.

Map of the days hike.






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