Half Dome, by Jonas Kulikauskas, is one of 14 stories, memories, and interviews, from the book Yosemite People.
I did it. I hiked up Half Dome.
I had to make sure that this seminal Yosemite experience was included in this project. That being said, I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this mission because a year ago I had had surgery to mend two torn menisci in my right knee. Just six months before, I couldn’t even make the leisurely one-mile walk to Mirror Lake from the stables, and now I was tackling a seventeen-mile round-trip odyssey with a gain in elevation of 4,800 feet (not to mention the notorious six-hundred-foot cable climb). Hiking Half Dome requires a permit that only three hundred hikers are privileged to receive daily from the National Park Service (NPS), and they are in high demand. People do back out of their plans, and for that reason, the NPS holds a daily lottery of the leftover spots. The hike closes for the season October 12, so I threw my hat in the ring at the last minute on Saturday night and was awarded a spot for Monday. As luck would have it, Curry Village had an inexpensive tent available (around $40 per night), so I was off.
To my delight, a small bunch of drunks checked in around 4 am next door to my tent. They were very happy and giggly. I was not. Sadly, a baby woke up, and it meant that I had an hour less rest before hitting the trail at 4:50 am. It was very dark, and my headlamp revealed just how foggy it was. There’s a shuttle bus to the trailhead, but they only start operating at 7 am, so I was on my own walking up the bike path/fire road to the Mist Trail. It wasn’t long before I saw another headlamp: a photographer checking his gear, which consisted of a huge telescopic lens, tripod, and kit. It looked burdensome, and I was grateful to be traveling light with my compact 35 mm camera.
It seems a little strange or even unsafe to tackle such a big hike alone, but the truth is that there’s essentially one trail, and you know that about three hundred hikers will be sharing it with you. Sure enough, I bumped into a friendly fellow from Upstate New York, and we hiked and chatted for a good half hour in the dark. Such was the hike: seeing the same people, passing them, resting, being passed by them. Sometimes you chat; sometimes you don’t. I will say that the Mist Trail steps that go up Vernal Falls in the dark were a bear. There were times when the stairs seemed so steep that it felt like going up a ladder. At one point, I turned a corner to see at least a dozen lights at the top of the falls. It was so encouraging, to be able to follow the lights and to imagine that I could be joining this crew at the top—it kept me going. After climbing two sets of falls, there is a good one-to-two-miles stretch of flat land. It was a very pleasant reward for the pain endured. As the sun came up, I could see Half Dome illuminated by the sun’s red light. It was quite an invitation.
It was also a signal to check my light meter. It was finally light enough to document Yosemite People. The next few miles were relentless, consisting of switchback after switchback. Fortunately, most of this is in the shade among the giant pines. I saw a new, small fire on the other side of the valley and was glad to see that a helicopter was already responding.
The closer I got to Half Dome, the more people I started to encounter. At my first big break closest to the Sub Dome, I stopped and chatted with a small group of graduate students from the Bay Area. Just about everyone I met on the trail was kind and considerate. It seems that in Yosemite in general, I meet many locals, that is, Northern Californians. On this hike, I met folks from the UK and from Germany and encountered the most charming family, who gathered from opposite ends of the world—New Zealand and Vancouver. There was a sense of unity, a shared purpose. It felt like everyone wanted everyone else to succeed. I saw people of all ages: a fourteen-year-old girl and folks who were likely in their early seventies. I also came across people of all shapes and sizes. I was surprised to see some people who seemed grossly out of shape, yet here they were. They had already hiked to the base of Half Dome and were hell bent and focused like lasers.
I didn’t realize the Sub Dome would be so brutal. Everyone talks about Half Dome; nobody talks about the Sub Dome. Essentially, this is the “baby” dome that leans up against Half Dome. There are steps carved into granite that are very steep, are in the blazing sun, and require very careful footing. One misstep and you could find yourself rolling dozens of feet down with a cracked skull. Hikers took these steps with great care. The pattern was to go up sixteen steps or so and rest. Sometimes, there would be a tiny pine tree with a tiny shadow where you could sit for a spell. Luckily, although it was a hot day (about 90 degrees), the breeze was cool enough to make it all tolerable.
At the base of the Half Dome cables, some hikers complained under their breaths that there were no rangers present to check passes. It is what it is. I was prepared with my own gloves, but as I had read in my travel guides, there were fifty or so leftover pairs in a pile, and some people picked through them. I had anticipated a steep climb with the cables but somehow hadn’t envisioned that the rock was truly at forty-five degrees or more. This is not an exaggeration. It was six hundred feet to the top, and the ascent required quite a lot of upper body and arm strength. Every six to eight feet, there was a two-by-four-inch plank to rest on. Fortunately, I’m not afraid of heights and was able to take shots while climbing. I did this, however, with great respect for this rock, because, truly, overconfidence or carelessness will get you killed. There is no soft spot to land on. No tree to grab and nothing to break your fall. You’re climbing up a granite cliff. This was physically demanding and exhilarating. When you get to the top, people are encouraging: “Congratulations; you did it!”—that sort of thing.
By the time I made it, there were fifty to sixty hikers at the top. On my way out, about forty-five minutes later, there was what I’d estimate as a crowd of eighty or so. People were resting and soaking up the sun. The tough part was escaping the sun. There were a few hikers who had hit their limit, who found shade under rocks and overhangs, and hung t-shirts and water-soaked bandanas over their heads. There were many groups of three hikers or more. The Irish were represented well, with a team of a dozen or more clutching a banner. Most people were eating lunch, and some brought specialty items for planned photos and festivities. One man had a full-sized umbrella, and his buddy was photographing him as he drank whiskey from a very tiny bottle. I asked him if this was a special tradition. “Oh, we’re just getting started,” he smiled. There was an awesome ledge that made for a beautiful photo moment, and many hikers spent time there doing crazy poses and kissing their mates. The mood was giddy and festive. The views of the Valley were more than splendid. People seemed to naturally gather at the very top of Half Dome, while the other side had less character and almost seemed like a desert or Martian landscape.
On the way down, I found the cables significantly easier from a physical standpoint. The approach was to go down backward, like going down a ladder. The problem now was a traffic jam. This was the peak of the day, and while people were heading down, many were still going up. One gentleman had got about halfway up and was struggling. He had determined that he wouldn’t make it up but was very slow in descending, which was making it difficult for people to pass. Most people were very understanding, and I’d say everyone erred on the side of caution. This was simply part of the cables experience. The hike down was pleasant, and the emotional high from Half Dome lingered for hours. Everyone around was elated and telling themselves and each other: We did it.