The carved wrought iron sign posted at the edge of the trail read, 2.5 miles, to the top of Half Dome. Today is the day, and the skies at the moment are blue and free of smoke. We will walk a half mile to the side trail to Half Dome, set up our tent and ditch our packs inside, and start our 1 mile climb to the base of the sub dome before we actually begin to climb Half Dome, proper.
It is after 9 am as we head up the wide dirt trail. People are heading down, most with giddy smiles on their faces. We ask, “How was it?”. “Really cool”, “Scary as shit”, or “I just couldn’t do it” were the common responses. I had already planned for the “scary as shit” scenario, as I really truly am not a fan of heights, or more accurately the possibility of falling to my disfigurement, as I am certain that with my luck, I would not die….immediately. Knowing that I fret over heights, my son who is the opposite of afraid of heights, dug out his climbing harness, and adjusted it to fit me before we left on our trip. Such a good boy! I carried this harness with me (or did Paul?) this entire trip specifically for the final ascent between the cables.
Without the weight of our packs our pace was quickened. Dirt tread and trees were replaced by naked granite, and bulky block steps, as we reached the base of the sub dome where the NPS Ranger checked our permits. Paul being the consummate joker, kidded the Ranger, asking about a tram.
Step by step we climbed ever higher, occasionally stepping aside for those who were on their way back down to the valley. This thankfully, allowed us to catch our breath and enabling the “burning” of our thighs and glutes to dissipate. If I had continued CrossFit, those “box jumps” would finally have been helpful.
Paul and I surmised as we trudged upward and onward ahead of Scout and Sandy, that if my longer legs were being challenged (namely my knee), then Sandy’s shorter and more recently injured knee and ankle were certainly being taxed to the max. In order to stave off vertigo, I made a conscious effort to look directly in front of me with each step as the “trail” marched its way up the sub dome, often via stone hewn and stacked steps.
I stopped for a moment . My breathing at that point had become short and quickened. I made the mistake of looking down and around and was now trying to figure out if I was winded from the climb or beginning to hyperventilate. Upon further analysis, it was clear that I was beginning to hyperventilate and freak myself out even before getting to the actual base of Half Dome. After reigning in my focus and bitching myself out with an “inside voice”, I wrangled my psyche and shifted from growing panic to rejuvenating awe. No way was I going to come this far and wimp out. With a renewed attitude toward altitude, the climb became easier and the views even more breathtaking (pun intended). When Paul and I reached the top of the sub dome, I suited up with the harness my son had provided. Being the only one donning such a thing, I felt like a dork. But a safe dork! We waited for Scout and Sandy, and after a while they soon appeared.
As we peered towards the top of Half Dome, the people going up and coming down looked like ants between thin lines that were in fact 1 inch thick cables.
A pile of discarded but useful gloves, reminiscent of the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’s Island of Misfit Toys, lay at the foot of the cables. A man with a thick Slavic accent lamented in awkward English, as he dug through the pile, “How is it only one hand?”, meaning that finding a left and right hand matching glove was nearly impossible. Did people take one for a souvenir and leave the other? We, however came prepared with our own $7 rubber coated gloves. Paul briefed me on what to expect, and how to “rest” on the intermittent 2×4 pieces of wood that span the narrow width of the cabled trail.
I tentatively “clipped in” and began my ascent of the granite façade that sometimes had a greater than 45 degree incline. The “zip” of the aluminum carabineer against the stiff cable was awkward yet comforting, as I was confident I now would not fall to my disfigurement. As I continued to climb, it became more apparent that a slip and fall from here would assuredly result in certain death…if not immediately, eventually. My breathing started to drift again into panic mode.
Reigning it in once more, and with encouragement from Paul and those coming down between the cables above me, I regained my composure and resumed the rhythmic, ‘Zip, click, click, sigh. Zip, click , click, sigh’. I pressed my Salomon X Ultra MID 2 GTX soles against the worn smoothing surface of the massive granite boulder, and pulled myself forward and upward with my grip enhancing rubber work gloves, section by section. Oddly, it did not take much time to make it to the top.
What an exhilarating experience! The top was much larger, in fact even more enormous, than I had expected. Behind us is the piled rocks that make up the “diving board” that one sees from the valley floor when gazing upon Half Dome. The top of this mammoth boulder stretched the width and length of more than several football fields…and was fairly flat. (Photos below: Looking left and then right from the top of the cables. Can you find/see all the people?)
We spent nearly an hour exploring the top, as we had read that at one time in the life of this boulder it was sparsely populated by actual trees. Based upon the small trees that we saw growing out of the crevasses in this granite monstrosity on our way up, I can see where this was highly probably. Soon the distinctive brims of Sandy and Scout’s hats crested between the hearty cables. Woo! Hoo!, we cheered.
After a snack, rest, a bit more exploring and obligatory photos, it was time to descend, especially considering the growing presence of ominous clouds and the continual creep of smoke into valley clouding the views below. Now climbing down rocks, smooth or otherwise is usually harder than climbing up, and heading down this rock required a firm grip and hearty resolve.
For me it also required wearing a harness, clipping in and descending as if I were rappelling, but painfully slow. On our way up, it appears that we beat the “rush hour”. However, on our way down we were at the height of traffic on the cables. Pausing to let wide-eyed, edge of panic, people climbing up was frequent, for as with all hiking, uphill has the right-of-way. Everything was going swimmingly until I heard a collective “startle”, which signaled that someone had dropped something, slipped or fallen. I looked above me and saw it was Sandy that had generated the reaction. While edging her way down (like walking down stairs and holding the rails), her feet had slipped out from underneath her. As she was falling, she was able to grasp the left side cable with both hands, and further arrest her fall by straddling one of the metal stanchions that each side cable threads through. As usual she was smiling brightly. While color returned to everyone’s face, Sandy was asked if she was okay. “Absolutely!”, was her ready reply. She of course was not scared one bit. She said it was like “dropping into a 15 foot wave”, “I was aiming for the pole”. The rest of us however, were terrified, especially Scout who was powerless to help or arrest his wife’s fall. I’m sure the thought of, “what will I tell the kids?” passed through his mind in an instant.
We made it back to the pile of gloves and regrouped atop the sub dome before our descent back to terra firma (with actual dirt).
Smiles all around, we practically skipped back to our packs that were resting in our tent. While back at our tent, we retrieved our bear containers that we had failed to ensure would still be in the shade. Thus we unintentionally had “hot” lunches. We were tired and could have stayed right where we were, but water was scarce and our calves and thighs were starting to cramp up, so we mounted up once more and headed down the John Muir trail to the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker campground, where we would collect water, bathe and camp for the night. A splendid day was certainly had by all. Especially considering the “unfazed one”, didn’t fall to her death.