Bucket List Item Checked – Half Dome

A lot of people have a Half Dome story. This one is mine. I use the occasional bad word. Cope with it.

Thousands of people have done this hike before. Hell, dozens did it before me just that day. If you’ve ever done this before, now I get it. If you haven’t this isn’t intended to be a guide but maybe reading my story will help. This is, to use a highly scientific term, “hard”. Let’s not confuse this with climbing the face though. That’s an entirely different level of badass.

Note: I am occasionally reminded that there are people who don’t know what Half Dome is. It’s a major feature in Yosemite National Park in central California. It’s an enormous piece of exposed granite with a peak that rises to over 8800 feet above sea level. There is a hiking trail that will lead to the top and it is usually described as “extremely strenuous” in difficulty. It can be done in a single day, but that is one long day. Read the official story here.

Backstory:

Years ago I was dating a lovely girl named E. She told me once about the hardest thing she ever did: hike Half Dome. She mentioned the length of the hike. She mentioned how scared she was on the cable section. I didn’t understand and I reacted with something like “oh that’s nice.” She never brought it up again. I didn’t get it and I’m eternally sorry about that.

Fast forward to 2013. I’ve had desk jobs for years, I’m badly out of shape, and my back is killing me. My doctor is using all the scary words like “heart”, “overweight”, “family history” and “avoiding diabetes…”.  By wonderful coincidence some things were colliding that enabled change. I picked up a used digital camera and got friendly with some incredible photographers. They shared photos of travel, adventure, and Yosemite.

I also met a few people who weren’t only brilliant and adventurous, but also in excellent physical condition. I loved being in their company and I found myself wanting everything they were doing.  Keep in mind that Half Dome was utterly unthinkable. I started walking more and eating a little better. Months later the weight dropped and the walk became a jog. The jog became a run. The run went from 2 miles to 6. I dropped from 201 to 180. Now what? I signed up for the hardest thing I could think of, Crossfit. (quick joke: how’s Crossfit different from Fight Club? You can’t shut up about it.) I thought I would puke. On one occasion I did. I kept coming back. I met Pete who said that no matter what happened, the rest of the day had no choice but to be easier than what we just finished. I kept getting stronger. My shirts fit tighter and my pants all fit looser.

Ryan, my new coach and inspirational friend challenged our gym to do something really hard. We were going to do one of those insane obstacle courses and we chose Battlefrog. Done. I placed top 20 for my age group. Now what? I needed a new goal. It was going to be Half Dome. Ryan and I started training for the specifics: countless lunges, squats, pullups, carry the heavy weird thing, now run with it. Oh that hurt? It’ll stop hurting when we’re dead. Go again.

We stayed at a friend’s place in Oakhurst. We also planned on stopping at Glacier Point for some artsy photos.

Half Dome Sunset. Usually I want some clouds in this view, but tonight I had some thing else in mind after dark.
Half Dome Sunset. Usually I want some clouds in this view, but tonight I had some thing else in mind after dark.
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I could see hikers along the Mist Trail far below. I setup for along exposure so I could catch light trails along the trails.
North Dome Under Starlight
North Dome in starlight.
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Half Dome Alpenglow
Half Dome in Starlight
Half Dome in Starlight with the Andromeda galaxy overhead. A climber’s lamp is visible.
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One of many incredible people we met.

Back to the point!

I watched videos, read blogs, looked at photos, and I recalled the stories from friends. Heck, I even played a minecraft map modeled on Yosemite and Half Dome for giggles. We got our permits and it was time to go.

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Up really early and on our way from the Oakhurst side.

Everything you’ve heard is true.

This isn’t just strenuous. It’s fucking hard. It’s a challenge not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Having said that I’ve seen kids around 10 and men in their 70’s do it. I’ve also seen grown men turn around.

I brought my best camera to document the trip. It’s heavy but it wasn’t much of a problem. I used a Peak Design Capture to mount it to my back pack strap. This was perfect.  I carried the camera and a wide angle lens. Ryan carried  the telephoto. I had one job for that telephoto.

I estimated about 10 hours of hiking, which would put us on Half Dome about 1:00. My estimate was very close. We started from Curry Village (I just can’t use the new naming scheme yet. Yuck.) at 7:40 am. Campers were just waking up and several people were on the trail already. Ryan and I took the Mist Trail route. The first stretch is paved and super easy. This would be a nice, quick hike or bike ride if you’re camping nearby.

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The Mist Trail took us to Vernal Falls, which provides most of the mist on the Mist Trail. Typically this part will soak you. We went in September to increase our chances of getting a permit, but it also had the benefit of the trail being dry. The trail becomes a long series of steps cut out of granite. Plenty of people have described the details, so I won’t say much about the trail itself. The steps are narrow and tall. There are lots of them. They are usually wet and slick. They are worth it. Consider them to be about 300 box lunges. Probably more. Bring a light poncho unless you go when it’s dry.

There were a few climbers on the trail with us. One had a helmet with a couple of stickers.

  • one red droplet
  • O+

It took only a few seconds to realize that meant “If you found me, my blood type is ‘O positive'”. These guys were the real badasses.

One helmet has a sticker saying his blood type is O+
One helmet has a sticker saying his blood type is O+
Climber
If found, I’m O Positive

I was warming up with the camera during this stretch. Yes, I warm up much like I do before a workout. There’s enough light, but not harsh yet. I want to keep moving while taking pictures of the climbers ahead. So about 35mm at 1/250 of a second at ISO 400 ish at f/5 ish oughta do it. It doesn’t quite freeze the action, but sometimes a little blur in a footstep says something more about motion than freezing it does.

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We paused briefly at the Mist Trail steps (click!) to see what we were getting into. Yup, hundreds of lunges. As expected there’s just a little water in Vernal Fall. It’s an “open shade” type of light which is usually ideal with a tripod. Hand held though means higher shutter speeds and higher ISO. I framed up the waterfall against the granite, completely ignoring the sky and bright spots. The results are pleasant, but not high enough quality to print or ever sell. Certainly better than a typical snapshot. I think shooting here in normal ( soaking) conditions would be out of the question.

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Vernal Falls in late September, 2016.

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Up the rest of the steps to the top of Vernal Falls and Emerald Pool. The squirrels are looking for a handout immediately. Ryan gets one of the little boogers to pose but we don’t feed or touch him.

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No, we didn’t feed him. No, nobody got the Plague.
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Swimming or wading into Emerald Pool is beyond discouraged. Sliding down the waterfall would be uncomfortable at best since the sound of your neck breaking would be upsetting to the other visitors.

We rest for a few minutes and a fellow hiker offers to take our picture. Thanks Tammy!  Otherwise I nearly don’t exist in photos.

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I swear I’m not quite that short.

The sun starts peering through the trees so there’s an opportunity for some lens flare fun.

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Lens flare fun

Break time is over and it’s upwards to Nevada Falls. The trail gets narrower and cliffier (it’s a word!). A railing keeps you from falling over the cliff, but it’s pretty clear that it’s mostly one-way traffic.

Nevada Falls doesn’t have a lot of water in it while we’re there but it’s still awe inspiring. I was busy framing up one perfectly horrible shot when Ryan whistles and points. He’s spotted a better view in excellent light between the trees. The framing was perfect.

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Nevada Falls not far off now
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The sun pokes over the edge at Nevada Falls

The trail disappears a couple of times but it’s obvious that the general direction is “up”. We cross a foot bridge and I do a Jerry Downs inspired shadow selfie for fun. We still have a long way to go.

A Jerry Downs-inspired Shadow Selfie
A Jerry Downs-inspired Shadow Selfie

The leg to Little Yosemite is right after Nevada Falls. It is a flat, sandy trail that saps your energy a bit. I stuck to the sides of the trail where the ground was more compact. There are spots of exposed granite with boulders deposited by glaciers centuries ago. This isn’t an uncommon sight on the other side of the Yosemite Valley.

There wasn't much for fall colors here. It was going yellow to brown to down.
There wasn’t much for fall colors here. It was going yellow to brown to down.

After passing Little Yosemite is a long, long, set of switchbacks. A sign informs us that we’re still 2 miles from Half Dome and we really should have our permits. A small but steady stream of hikers comes down, looking tired but always saying how great it is, you’re almost there, etc. We meet a few others who we see for the remainder of the way up.

Switchbacks
Switchbacks

Another quick break with a mile to go. I brought lots of food and water. It’s recommended that you bring at least a gallon. I brought more than that. The switchbacks are upwards from here and a bit monotonous, but not terribly hard. We came across a couple of guys in their late 60’s hiking with their adult kids. They’re all doing fine but I heard one mention that he swore years ago that he’d never climb this rock again… and here he was. I decided that I want to be that guy when I grow up.

DSLR selfie fail. Ok I don't want to grow up just yet.
DSLR selfie fail. Ok I don’t want to grow up just yet.

Sub Dome

The trail gives way to granite. There are more steps cut out of the hillside and yet more switchbacks, more lunges, and more realizing that we’re almost there. Tree cover comes and goes but once we’re at the base of the sub dome it’s exposed granite. We are right on my imaginary schedule so we take another break for food etc.  I had one of those Gu energy pouch things. I hated that thing. Avoid. This was a good place to pack up my camera. I just didn’t want it on my mind climbing up from here. No turning back now (like that would happen…), it’s time to go up the steps.

Ryan’s picture of the warning signs. I get a kick out of the recently added “24 HOURS A DAY” line.

The trail vanishes a couple more times. Again, it’s really not hard to figure out that the direction is “up.” The air is noticeably thinner. I live at sea level, so there’s some extra effort over 6000 feet but we’re doing great. The muscles in my legs are burning some but that was expected.

Ryan taking in the view from the sub dome
Ryan taking in the view from the sub dome

The Cables

Well damn here we are. We stopped for a few minutes at the base of the cables to think about what’s next. OK, I was thinking. Ryan likes to just go. There’s validity to that. We look up and there they are: the infamous cables of Half Dome. The cables are suspended by steel poles. About 10 feet between the poles are planks of wood. There are sections that are clearly very steep. The obvious best approach is hand over hand while keeping to one side of the cables. This allows people to come down to your side or pass you if needed.  Then we see him. There is one insane guy well outside of the cables on his way down.

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Insane Guy would go wide about 15 or 20 feet, come down a bit, then back to the cables. I put the camera back together with the telephoto because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I overheard somebody say that he has done this 12 times in 12 weeks. I think the clinical term for this is “batshit crazy”.

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Don’t do this. I just knew bringing the 300mm telephoto was a good idea. But this isn’t.

We observed that the line of people on the cables had stopped. Somebody towards the top wasn’t moving and everybody was waiting. We chose to see if this would clear out before starting up ourselves. It was also an opportunity to pack the camera again and secure my water bottles etc. Every once in a while you hear the “bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk… bonk… bonk….” of a water bottle falling out of somebody’s pocket. Once the situation cleared it was time to put on my gloves and grab those cables. Yes, bring gloves. Full fingered gloves. Not gardening gloves from the hardware store. Something tough and grippy. I brought motorcycles gloves, but I saw lots of folks using rubberized ones. Ryan’s hands are leather from years in construction. Even he borrowed a pair of gloves for this. This was probably a good idea.

Ryan's pic of me on the sub dome.
Ryan’s pic of me on the sub dome.

Climbing up the cables is reasonably difficult physically. It’s mostly pulling with your upper body while pushing up with your legs. I’ve been training exactly for this and it wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was mental.

Ryan's iPhone pic of the people on the cables
Ryan’s iPhone pic of the people on the cables

I don’t think I’m especially afraid of heights, but we’re 8000 feet up with nothing to catch us if we fall. It’s pretty easy to understand why somebody might have a total panic attack here.

The edge of nothing
The edge of nothing

I decided to keep it simple. Concentrate on the task at hand only.

  • hand over hand
  • step, step
  • hand over hand
  • step, step
  • 2×4
  • pause
  • check the person ahead
  • repeat

Of course I did look to the side occasionally. It confirmed the steepness and the view was one of those once in a lifetime things.

At about 90 percent of the way up I ran into Chad again. He’s sitting down straddling a post and he’s taking a picture downwards. I happen to be in it. He mentioned that he could feel his legs tightening up and he was concerned about cramping. I suggested that he keep moving because nobody could help here. Yeah, that’s when I felt it in my legs too.

Hey it's me! Yes this is the view down.
Hey it’s me! Yes this is the view down.

We got to the top a few yards later. I felt the muscles in both of my legs cramp at the same time. I sat down and was in the kind of misery that comes with your body turning to stone from the inside out. Ryan helped by massaging the worst of it. I used my metal water bottle to roll out the rest. After a couple of false starts the worst was over and we were moving again. Of course the big question was could I avoid cramps on the way back down? There wasn’t an option so the whole line of thought was dropped. The solution was to drink as much water as possible and eat anything with protein. Things kept improving and recovery was a whole lot quicker than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, that was 10 minutes of shit.

One of our fellow hikers offered to take our picture with my phone so I faked my best Happy Sean Look ™.

Nothing hurts. No, really.
Nothing hurts. No, really.

Handstands and Yoga Things

I expected that we would get there a little after noon; 1:30 or so. Pro-photography tip: outdoor photography sucks at this time of day unless it is overcast. The brights are too bright, darks too dark, and the image just looks flat. We couldn’t stay until the light improved, but honestly what I wanted were the best snapshots I could make from here.  I had a couple of pictures in mind that I absolutely had to have. I wanted that picture on top of The Visor that you see so often, but this time with me and somebody I know on it.

In the meantime there was an attractive young lady already out there. Oh like I’d let this photo opportunity go by? This specific angle is exactly what I brought the telephoto for. Like I mentioned, the light stinks. This is a long, long way from ideal. The shadows are almost straight up and down. The telephoto enhances the haze in the background. The color temperature / white balance / was 100% out of whack. It took some effort to make this a usable photo. But I love it.

Veronica on The Visor
Veronica on The Visor

I made a deal with Chad for some once-in-a-lifetime pictures if he’d return the favor. I framed up the shot, set the focus, gave a super brief rundown on DSLR 101, and marched out to The Visor. Veronica made a little space for me and asked if she should move all the way out of shot. Heck no! Stay! So now there’s a picture of me and a new friend.

Me and Veronica on The Visor. Great job Chad.
Me and Veronica on The Visor. Great job Chad.

Yes the view is staggering. I’m at 8800+ feet hanging over the edge of nothing. It’s probably as scary as it looks but I just remember being very happy. Bucket list item solidly crossed off with extra points for style. Right at this moment my life is a story book.

A few minutes of pleasant conversation later I learn that she’s here with friends and they were going to take some pictures doing yoga poses up here. So crummy light be damned we set it up.

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I had this shot of Ryan doing a hand stand in mind too.

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Hand Stands and Half Dome

Return

Well of course we still had to come back down. Descending the cables wasn’t difficult really. I just kept it to one task at a time much like the way up. Go backwards, facing the granite. The same hand over hand approach kept my grip positive and it was a lot easier to get around a few of the small overhangs. There are a couple of spots where one cable transitions to another. That requires you to let go for a second. I’m sure that’s an attention-getter for some. We did hit a snag on the way down. One young lady had a moment of doubt on a steep section and needed some encouragement. Ryan is great at this so we waited as he talked with her and generally rebuilt her confidence. This is where this guy shines.

We all got to the sub dome safely and our groups joined into a fun, friendly band with lots of stories to share. The people on this trip were as amazing as the effort itself, and this was an unexpected prize. We caught up with Chad again and the day just kept getting better.  We parted ways at Little Yosemite. I gave everybody my card so we could stay in touch and they could get their pictures.

Can I borrow you for a moment ladies?
Can I borrow you for a moment ladies?

The rest of the way was a lot like going up but in reverse. The light started getting really good around Nevada Falls so I stopped periodically to capture some of it. Of course then I’d have to double-time to catch up with Ryan. We could have taken the John Muir trail but we stuck with the Mist Trail to keep it shorter. Next time I’ll take the John Muir trail back.

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Little Yosemite

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Just me at Vernal Falls
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A nice view of the trickle in Vernal Falls.
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The light was incredible in many spots. If it looks good shoot it. If it looks better, shoot it again.

The hike after Vernal Falls was almost dark. We got down the steps with enough light but that changed once we got to where the paved path begins. About that paved path; it’s inviting for that quick 30 minute walk with the family. It’s a jarring, unforgiving thing when you’ve already gone 15 miles and you have one or more remaining.

I’ll do this hike again, hopefully when one of my kids is old enough to want to go. I’ll just ask her when she wants to go.
Ryan blogged about his experience too. Go read it. I’ll wait. (taps foot waiting…)