“You can do it! You run half marathons, you’re fit!” That’s when I started wondering what exactly this Half Dome trek involved. I did a bit of googling which suggested it would be a challenge but my son said I could do it and that’s what persuaded me. So I ordered a book on Yosemite NP to help us prepare and got back to organising the rest of the trip.
As happens, the book arrived the day before our departure for the US so Mirek (husband) packed it in his case and that’s where it stayed till the end of the holiday.
Two weeks into our trip, on a pleasantly warm pre-dawn morning at the end of July we left our tent cabins in Curry Village in Yosemite NP without so much as a hot coffee to start the day, each loaded with 4 litres of water and countless energy bars, not to mention the butterflies in my stomach, and set off for Happy Trails, the beginning of the trek.
If I were to divide the trek into four different sections, I’d say the first (Mist Trail) just over 5 km to Nevada Falls and third (sub dome) parts were the most exhausting. On that first part countless stone steps of all shapes and sizes combine with paved areas as you make your way up Mist Trail. It is quite a strain. The spray from the waterfall is refreshing and the drizzle wasn’t overpowering when we were there. The incline, however, seems to go on forever; once past the Vernal Falls you then march on for another couple of km and stop briefly at Nevada Falls to take in the beauty of your surroundings and have a snack and drink before heading on.
Because of our haste, we probably didn’t stop to admire the views as often as other people. It’s only now when I look at the photos that I can fully appreciate the wonders of Yosemite’s waterfalls.
You then come to the second part which is a pleasant amble amongst sequoia trees through a flatter forested area which goes on for quite a few kilometres before you reach stage three where the rocky sub-dome appears and where the park warden usually waits to check your permit. On the day we were there, he wasn’t there, at least not until we were returning and then showed our permits.
While the 213 metre high Half Dome with its cables and 45 to 60 degree angles makes for more dramatic scenery settings, the sub dome is the part of the trek which really tests you as you trudge up increasingly high steps hewn out of the rock. Only the fittest and most agile trekkers around us made their way up without stopping. My husband and son went up ahead and waited for me before ascending the Half Dome itself.
As I plodded up the rocky terrain I reached a group of people being led by a young energetic woman who was encouraging them along. Like me, most of these people looked exhausted. We’d already been hiking nearly five hours at this stage and the sun was getting higher and hotter as I slowly made my way past some of the group. Their team leader stopped, looked at me, smiled and said something like: ” You’re doing really well, I’m proud of you, there’s not that much further to go” (I had turned 60 six months before). Well, that gave me wings as I summoned my courage, took a sip of water followed by a bite from an increasingly nauseating energy bar and lumbered on with a smile on my face. Nothing could stop me now 🙂
In fact it is those smiles we came across from so many American trekkers coming down or going past and the words of encouragement which stand out for me when I think of that hard day’s trek. Superficial as some people might think such greetings are, they certainly spurred me on that day. In Europe, you might smile and say hello to a passing trekker, but you rarely say more than a word of greeting. Brief as these American greetings may have been, they sounded genuine and came with that wide smile we associate so much with American geniality and yes, it helped me push on.
There’s a little dip at the top of that hellish third section before you reach the bottom of the Half Dome where people stop to rest, have another drink, put their protective gloves on and hit the rails. By now it was about 10.30am, it was no longer possible to hide from the sun and it was getting hotter. There was also beginning to be a bit of a queue and people coming down the same way, having to use the same rails. They too all smiled and cheered me on with supportive words. By now, I was so immune with exhaustion from having crossed the sub dome that I felt relief when I saw a smooth surface rather than high steps as I placed my foot on the rounded rock and pulled myself up.
Because of the buildup of traffic going up the dome, you grab the metal rail and place your foot on the smooth rounded rock a step ahead and upwards from you. You then lever your foot against a wooden bar placed every 3 metres or so and either wait for the person coming down to go past you, or wait for the person ahead to take the next step forward (upward). This pause meant you could rest a bit and, surprising myself, I was able to look up and around and take photos. I felt elated at this point and found this part of the climb much less tiring than the previous section. I didn’t even get shaky knees as I looked around me at the 45 degree angle rock face.
A (more experienced) hiker coming down advised us to lean into the mountain as we were taking steps forward and up so as to relieve some pressure from our arm muscles. This proved to be good advice.
The climb went on for about half an hour before the dome flattened out somewhat at the top and we reached the end of the handrail and walked over the rounded summit of the half dome. The top is mostly flat, the size of a few football fields apparently. Other than a dozen or so trekkers, we saw chipmunks and marmots who waited keenly for dazed trekkers to leave their backpacks open with snacks on offer.. There used to be a few small trees at the top in the past but most were used for firewood when camping was allowed on the summit until 1993 (according to travel writer James Kaiser).
Coming down Half Dome wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, the best way is to go backwards, stopping and taking turns with hikers going up and holding onto the cable before making your move. By this stage there was quite a bit of traffic, around midday, which is why the sooner you set out the better; you can always catch up on sleep later.
On our way down, we chose the longer John Muir trail to avoid the crowds and the steeper Mist Trail route. This was pretty laborious despite some wonderful views during the first part. After about three hours of this trudge we were just very much looking forward to getting back to camp and treating ourselves to a pizza and a cool drink! In all, including breaks, the trek lasted about twelve hours.