In 1865 it was stated that Half Dome was “Perfectly Inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.” The Backpack 6Pack disagrees!
The morning started out early as we knew today was going to be a long one. We had a 2 mile stroll ahead of us just to get to the base of the Half Dome Trail. From there, close to a 4 mile intense climb hitting 8,842 feet covering just under 3000 feet of elevation gain. Between us and the summit, a class 3 climb assisted by 400 feet of steel cables. Before the day was over we would add 11 more miles to our trip.
On the flip side, we had set up a base camp and we were going light today! Our research showed there is no water along the way and it is recommended that each hiker should carry 1 gallon of water. We each carried a day pack containing water, lunch, and snacks with the intention of eating lunch at the summit.
As the accent began, we started to wrap around the base of Half Dome on a fairly well maintained path. The trees are thick and the intermittent sounds of a stream or waterfall rippled in the distance. Occasionally the morning sun would break through the trees and show signs of the hot day approaching. Although the trail camouflages it well, there is a steady and steep climb involved. As the tree line starts to break, we found ourselves glancing at branches instead of trunks until eventually there is not much more than tree tops in our view. As we made our last wrap around the base of the Sub Dome, the horizon filled with amazing panoramic views of the entire valley we just climbed up from. Snow covered peaks, flowing water falls, and vibrant green valley floors cause yet again another moment of sensory overload. Looking back, it is difficult to put the experience into words and the pictures really do not capture the beauty of the powerful landscape.
After taking a few minutes to soak up the view (catch our breath), we continued on to the base of the Sub Dome. This is where the fun begins. We later found out this is where the Ranger would normally be stationed and without a permit you cannot go any further.
***Tip*** To anyone thinking of checking out the view and not climbing the cables, I would consider a different hike. If you were allowed to access the top of the Sub Dome then it would be worth it, but being stopped at the base really limits your view from a 360 to about 180 degrees.
Artfully crafted steps lead us up an extremely steep narrow set of switchbacks. This is really when Half Dome starts separating the men from the boys. At this point we are fully exposed above the tree line; the temperatures are hitting 90+ F and not only do the legs begin to burn, but the lungs can feel each step as we near 9000 feet. Popping up over the top of the switchbacks the cables make their first “up close” appearance. Speaking only for myself, I am not one to be easily intimidated, scared, etc. I am somewhat of an adrenaline junky and have tried a lot of things in my life, but this was intense. Taking a seat on the top of the Sub Dome and looking at the cables from about 100 yards away, they appear to be vertical. Vertical in such a way I believe my only words were “Wow”. Unfortunately that shock factor got the best of one of us. Chick Norris made everyone aware coming into this trip the cables may not be in her future. Never getting much above 5 feet tall I think she has a slight animosity to all things not vertically challenged. With so much work and effort put into preparing for this trip specifically for the cables, there were a few emotional moments when the decision was made to stay below while we completed the summit. When it was all said and done I commend her for recognizing her limits and not placing herself as well as the rest of the 6Pack in a potential rescue situation.
***Tip*** If you are a little overwhelmed by the first glance of the cables don’t give up just yet. Walk all the way to the start of the cables and then take another look. They are nowhere near as steep as they look. Although this approach did not work for Chick, it did work for The FallGall and it may work for you.
After resting our legs and lungs for a few minutes we began our accent. The girls were slightly nervous at this point so it was decided, I would take the lead to “show them the way” and Chuck would take the rear; I suppose giving the illusion that he would stop them from falling to their demise. We used the wooden slats as break points on the way up. I would climb a couple slats up (each one being about 15-30 feet apart), then wait for the rest of the pack to climb up. This turned out to be a little to much “hang” time for Doc. After having a few moments to look around and soak in the dangers involved she said she had enough waiting around and had to go. Passing by me on the left she made a break for the summit and never looked back. Continuing our pace up to the top we finally made it about 20 minutes later.
How does one describe the top of Half Dome? The best I can come up with would be endless. It truly does capture the sense of a never ending horizon, somewhat similar to being on a boat in the middle of the ocean. No obstructions, no limits; it is truly breathtaking. We found a spot to take a seat and eat our lunch. Peanut butter and jelly never tasted so good! The heat however started to take its toll. With no shade to be found on the desolate summit, comparable to being on the moon, temps soared to triple digits. We took a few minutes for some pictures and began our way back down the cables in search of shade.
Coming down the cables was, in my opinion, much easier than going up. However we apparently chose the wrong time to head down. A younger teenage climber with his father was about 1/3rd the way down and got a little nervous. What should have taken about 15 minutes took close to 45 minutes. At one point my feet were falling asleep from standing at such a steep angle and not moving so I began passing people. Once I passed the scared climber I was able to speed up the pace and could nearly jog down the rest of the way. The gloves really come into play on your way down.
***Tip*** BRING GLOVES! I used “mechanic gloves” that you can get for a few dollars at any auto or hardware store and they worked great.
Chuck and Chick had already began their trek down the Sub Dome. The rest of us regrouped and then quickly separated descending down the narrow stairs in search of shade. Once in the shade, just after the last set of stairs, we all enjoyed a nice 30 minute break. We had some snacks, observed a very curious coyote, and then headed for camp.
The hike down caused some separation in the group for sure. We found going up, that it is fairly simple to speed up or slow down the pace as a group. But going down, it is often easier to just go at your own pace and meet at the bottom. We stuck in groups just in case there was an emergency, but down we went. Along the way we heard talk of some bears on the trail, and then there they were! Two beautiful brown colored Black Bears. They had zero fear of us or the other hikers along the trail. The smaller, most likely female bear, was very curious however. Looking around, staring down the trail, even facing our direction as if she was going to walk over and say hi. The bears hung around for a while. This essentially stopped traffic on the trail so there was a decently large group both above and below the bears. Twice we had to make some noises to encourage the bear to continue off the trail when she was getting a little too brave. At no point in time did I feel threatened or nervous, but the thought of their power never escaped me. After taking a few pics and nudging them along their way, we continued our hike down. Once we made it to the bottom of the Half Dome Trail we were greeted by 2 rangers. The first being a ranger asking if we came from Half Dome and if we had a permit, the other was part of the Bear Tracking Team (or something along those lines). After showing our permit and talking with the ranger about the normal procedures I discussed up above we brought up the bear sighting. The ranger that was part of the bear team was extremely excited and his passion for his job was immediately apparent. When I told him we had photos and handed him the iPhone, he spent about 10 minutes flipping back and forth through the images zooming and talking about the types of tags and why they were colored a certain way etc. It was really interesting, and they were very nice.
Once the pack was back together we finished our hike with a 2 mile stroll back to camp. The rest of the day was spent cooking dinner, doing some laundry, and just relaxing. By the end of the evening it was apparent that we were no longer all 100% and it was decided that we were going to alter our original route and come up with a new plan. The miles were adding up fast and our bodies were feeling the abuse. Ultimately, we decided to stick around at base camp 1 more day and do another day hike for day 3. This would give everyone the flexibility of hiking as much or as little as they wanted as well as one more day of not carrying the full pack weight.
The decision to cut part of the planned trip out was somewhat deflating at first, but keep a look out for the day 3 trip report to find out why it became one of the highlights for the whole trip!
Here is a slide show of our second day in Yosemite! (YouTube has become very restrictive on mobile phone access. If you get an error that the video is not available from a mobile device try the Vimeo video link below)
Yosemite Day 2 of 5 from The Backpacking Journal on Vimeo.