Half Dome Day 3: Summit

The big day! 5am and we’re up! Jenn was already awake before the alarm like it was Christmas. I never expected her to be quite this into it. It’s cold and dark outside as we put the food from our bear box into our packs, put on our headlamps and headed out.

We had told Rebecca and Mitch we’d meet them at the trail head at 6, hoping to start at 5:45 but if they weren’t there by 6 we’d get a head start knowing we’d be slower and if we beat them to the cables, wait at the ranger spot until 1pm. Only we were running a bit late and didn’t get to the trail head until 5:58 with them nowhere to be found. We waited with Sara stretching until 6:15 and then left up the trail. Rebecca and Mitch always late!

The first part of the trail is paved but surprisingly steep. A quartet of Indian hikers started when we did and kept yoyo’ing by us, setting out at a quick pace and passing us then running out of breath and stopping before doing it all over again. We got to the bridge right before the split between the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail we were taking up and low and behold Rebecca and Mitch were there! It turns out we had some confusion with what exactly was the trail head and they’d been ahead of us the entire time!

We discussed our routes a bit and then started off. Rebecca and Mitch really wanted to see the Mist Trail for its beauty, but Jose and I had gone that way before and knew it was very steep and when the waterfall runs, slippery. I’d convinced Sara and Jenn we should take the John Muir Trail which is a mile longer to Nevada Falls and a bit less scenic, but easier on the body. After one last attempt to convince them to stick with us, we made our separate paths planning to meet at the outhouse past Nevada Falls, it’s kind of a natural congregation point. The sun now was peeking over the horizon and we could put away our head lamps. We’d also warmed up enough to pull off our jackets.

The first mile or so of the trail is pretty boring switch backs in the mountains, but picks up quite a bit as we pass Clark Point providing great views of our target Half Dome now being lit by the morning sun. Liberty Cap still in it’s shadow, and Nevada falls seeming really close and nearly at eye level. We figured Rebecca and Mitch’s route would have them to our meeting point sooner than us because of the mile less, but hoped the grade would slow them down enough that we wouldn’t make them wait too long, and before we knew it we were there. 5 Miles already under our feet and it not even 10am yet, we were making great time.

Nevada Falls though running on the quiet side was still as pretty as ever.

The next portion though was the boring part of the route. Now together as a group we crossed Little Yosemite Valley and then started up towards the bottom of the Sub-Dome. Here we entered the woods and didn’t have a single view other than our feet one in front of the other for a few hours. Switch back after switch back we climbed higher above 6000ft above sea level. The legs and lungs start to feel the altitude now. By noon we emerged onto the Sub Dome, and the view went from nothing to spectacular in a single turn. By now Jenn was needing a few stops here and there, but a lot less than I expected, the cooler weather did wonders for her.

After a bite of food and no sign of the ranger we set off up the Sub Dome. This steep route traverses bare granite with a series of steep dynamited in steps in the side of the mountain. The view is precipitous on both sides but reveals great vistas of the two Yosemite Valleys and Cloud’s Rest and Omsted Point. This section is really tough and I had no idea how sketchy it could be. After a point the steps disappear and we’re left to our own devices to find our way up to the top. Along the way we find hikers too scared to continue, but our hiking boots give excellent grip and we push on trying to stay as close to the rock face as we can stopping from time to time to catch our breath as we break the 8000ft altitude mark. Finally we make the top and what seems like base camp for the summit. People are preparing themselves. Some psyching themselves up. One woman telling her husband shes stress eating Cheetos. We’re encouraged to leave our packs behind to make the cables easier to pass, and I don’t need an invitation. I sling my camera over my shoulder and attach my strap and carabiner to my belt. Not the most secure system, but it should hold enough weigh to keep me from sliding if I lose my footing though not enough to hang by. One last drink of water and I’m ready. The views are spectacular here, nearly as good as we could hope for on the summit. The only thing in the way is Half Dome itself, but from here you get the first real view of the cables.

The cables look like they’re going straight up a wall with wood planks bolted to posts every 10 ft or so. It’s daunting to say the least. Sara who had done it last year doesn’t want to go again. Without a harness shes seriously scared, and to be honest I’m feeling a bit of trepidation myself. I remind myself that people do this every day by the hundreds and people die only once every few years doing this. I’m game. Rebecca and Mitch are getting into their Via Ferrata harnesses. Jenn isn’t sure shes going to do it, but someone who had just came down is reassuring his wife that after a bit you acclimate and its not so bad. Jenn steels herself and we head to the cables.

Jenn goes first and for the first few poles I’m unclipping her and re-clipping her onto the cable with each post. It’s really hard on me but I’m doing it so she stays safe. If shes too scared it becomes less safe, and if something happened to her I’d hate myself for life and then some. Soon though she does acclimate and is taking care of her own carabiner leaving me to focus on myself. I’m feeling more comfortable all the time and take a few photos as we ascend. I’m glad for my lens cap and hood as my camera keeps brushing the cable, my expensive lens safe. I can’t worry about that, just myself getting up, and sort the rest out later. It seems impossible but halfway up the route becomes even more steep and it feels like we’re going at a 90 degree angle! We’re getting tired and it’s hard going with people passing on their way down. This must be how the summit of Everest feels. Jenn makes me promise never to suggest we do Everest after I mention it, and I agree. This is it for me.  More than halfway up we see several Chinese hikers looking completely unprepared struggling to get down, as prepared as we are, they are not. No way to clip on, worn out shoes, no gloves. It’s like an alien teleported them to the top for sport. Finally the grade eases and we reach the summit.

Full of the feeling of victory we congratulate each other and soak in the amazing view. The weather couldn’t be better, by now its in the mid 70s and we’re now at 8640ft above sea level looking out from the highest point in the valley. Man what a feeling. There are maybe a hundred people up here! Even some guys from Sierra Nevada Beer shooting an ad with a model.

We don’t have as much time as we’d like. We’re now bumping up against our cutoff and having to make our way down.

Going down the cables isn’t as hard as I expected, in spots I could rest with my feet against the poles, back to the rock nearly standing up. There is a hold up though, a lady halfway down is having a panic attack and can’t get herself turned towards the rock. I don’t blame her, there is a spot where the grade increases and the cables appear to disappear over the side of a cliff and you can’t imagine how you’re going to get down. But you do. At the bottom ecstatic we make our way down the subdome. The trail here is torture on the knees with deep steps and tired legs.

Jenn is making amazing time down hill past the subdome, as fast as I am up she is down. I can’t keep up. My knees hurt. All of the cyclists are experiencing the same problem. We’ve trained up our muscles with our legs bound into an anatomically perfect configuration specifically to not need control muscles pulling and wasting energy. This means though that these muscles get completely overwhelmed quickly and the added torques on the knees cause trouble. I’m very quickly realizing I need better cross training, and this can’t be healthy. At this point I decide I need to alternate the cycling with trail running or hiking to resolve this. The trekking poles I borrowed from Sara really help.

The hike back was mostly uneventful, and we got to the bridge near the bottom by sundown, and back to camp by 7ish. Here we all split. Me for the shower, Jenn to get in line for food, and Rebecca and Mitch who knows where. Dinner is pizza again and the USC game is on. A nice beer and I’m ready for bed. What a day. What a day. I can’t wait to look through my photos, the conditions were unmatched.

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