Half Dome; The Magnificent and the Brutal

Picture: Sunset light on Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Sunset light on Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Exactly two weeks ago today as I sit and write these words, I was making my way down from the summit of Half Dome, the landmark icon that dominates so many visions of California’s Yosemite National Park. I actually had no plans to hike Half Dome this year. My original plan had been to just do a long solo day hike down the Tuolumne River toward Waterwheel & Le Conte Falls. A few days before leaving, I hopped online at midnite on a complete whim to see if any of the rare and elusive Half Dome permits were available through the Recreation.gov Permit Web Page.

This is not the first year the National Park Service (NPS) has required permits to climb the cables, but with ever increasing crowds and demands placed on the very narrow cable path, 2011 marks the first year the NPS is requiring permits seven days a week for the entire cable-hiking season, instead of the previous weekend only permit requirement. (See a sample image of the crowds on the the cables from a previous year.) The daily allotment for day-hikers is 400 permits, and zero of those permits are available to obtain from anywhere (physically) in Yosemite. The only way to get one of those 400 was through the aforementioned web site. Unfortunately, technology made it so that within 5 minutes of going on sale, an entire month of Half Dome permits had sold out. Worse, you can’t even get one in Yosemite; only through the Recreation.gov site. So for me, finding one available permit for a few days after my planned 18 mile solo hike was like winning a mini-lottery; though I was unsure if my body was going to be in the condition to ‘collect’ on my good fortune. If I was too beat up, my only loss for giving up on a Half Dome attempt would be the $1.50 permit fee.

My hike began with a cup of Peet’s coffee at the trailhead parking lot around 6:30am, which was enjoyed as I packed my day pack with all the stuff I would foresee needing, even for the off chance of having to make an emergency bivouac somewhere along the descent. Certain survival items always stay in my pack, including a compass, poncho, small first aid kit, and whistle. I hit the trail around 7:15 am and made good time heading up to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. (I would find out later that day that three people were swept over the edge of Vernal Fall while I was on my hike. It turns out they ignored many obvious and repeated warnings prior to the tragedy. See my previous post; Triumph & Tragedy in Yosemite.)

At the top of Nevada Falls, I wolfed down two granola powerbars and chugged my two quarts of water, figuring I’d fill all four quart containers a mile down the trail using my trusty Sweetwater filter system, another item that ‘never’ leaves my pack. I get to the Merced River in Little Yosemite, and after a frantic search completely emptying my pack, discover my water filter is NOT in my pack. I can’t flippin’ believe it. I realized later that the night before the hike, I stripped everything out of my pack at Olmsted Point, preparing for the hike and an early departure. The water filter was the one thing that didn’t make it back in the pack that night, and I simply assumed the next morning that it was there. Lesson; always confirm via touch that an object is where it should be. A passing through hiker on his first day of the John Muir Trail was nice enough to let me use his UV purification light, giving me the water I’d need to finish the hike.

Picture: The trail to Half Dome at the cables, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: The trail to Half Dome at the cables, Yosemite National Park, California

About 6 miles into the 8.5 mile one-way hike to Half Dome, you start to realize that you are on a strenuous hike. By the time you’re within a 1/2 mile of the subdome, you realize this is turning into a very strenuous hike. Once you arrive at the subdome, a ranger, or in my case, a SAR (Search & Rescue) person was checking the permits. The subdome is the shoulder that you see in the top photo, and the trail follows the exact ridge line right where the sunlight and shadow meet. However, trail isn’t the best term to use; more appropriate would be ‘Staircase from Hell’, and in my opinion makes the Mist Trail look easy. My original plan had been to shoot sunset from the summit of Half Dome, and then hightail it off the mountain as soon as the best light faded. However, with my bad knees, the subdome stairs convinced me I didn’t want to be going down that alone at night.

Once you’ve crested the subdome, you realize the accuracy of why the hike to the summit of Half Dome is listed as the hardest Day Hike out of Yosemite Valley, and the only hike rated “Extremely Strenuous”. And there you sit, panting, happy to be there, staring dead ahead at “The Cables”. As you can see from the above photo, there was no crowds on the cables when I arrived at 2:00pm. When I’d gone up twenty years ago, I don’t remember any issues with traction on the climb, and didn’t hesitate to scoot around the outside of the cables in either direction to pass slower hikers. This time, even with decent boots, the climb up the cables was much slicker than I remember, with the narrow gap between the cables suffering from it’s own form of glacial polish thanks to the decades of increased use. For me, going up was extremely strenuous.

Picture: Hiker checking out the view from the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Hiker checking out the view from the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

I made it to the top of Half Dome on a grand total of three granola bars, so my first thought on reaching the summit was having lunch. The permit checker advised paying close attention to my pack, and with good reason. Within minutes, I had two baby marmots and the mom marmot, and several squirrels trying to relieve me of any food item I might have in my possession. After resting for about 20 minutes, I spent another bit of time grabbing some photos. The summit of Half Dome does have an amazing 360 degree panorama, but with the extremely bright blue clear sky, I was happy to just grab a few scenic shots before heading back down,

Picture: The view while looking down, descending the cables from the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: The view while looking down, descending the cables from the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

I found that heading down the cables was super-easy, and didn’t phase me a bit. I went down backwards, leaning against gravity like someone rappelling down a wall. I could never go down face forward, not because of fear, but because of the strain on my knees. I made it down the cables within about 10 minutes, but it took me nearly a half hour to get down the staircase from hell. Because of my knee injuries, I could only go down using my right leg to step….step….step….step. It wasn’t until I got off the subdome that I finally said my “Thank God that’s over!” I then made a beeline down the trail, stopping only for a few minutes at Little Yosemite and Nevada Fall, before finishing my hike at 9:30pm when I arrived back at my truck, 17.5 miles and 9,600′ feet of vertical elevation change later.

PostScript: On Sunday, July 31st, the news reported that a local 26 year old woman died falling 600 feet off the cables. One of the first things you notice on the hike to Half Dome, like atop the waterfalls, are the repeated signs cautioning people to not climb the cables if there is any chance of rain or lightning. Apparently the morning started off glorious and clear, but clouds quickly gathered and it was apparent that bad weather was imminent. A couple young women hikers, Jolie Brouttier and Kristen Michael who had been on the trail that morning were advising people not to climb or to turn around and go down. You can see an interview with them here, or check out the discussion on the Yosemite National Park Facebook Page. Jolie was nice enough to send me copies of some of the photos she took that day, and they *clearly* showed how quick the clouds were building as the weather moved in that morning.

A lot of people suggest that the NPS needs to do more to regulate or restrict people’s actions where there is a potential danger. But like with the waterfall incident, it doesn’t make sense to keep a ranger on guard at all the places were people might make or use bad judgment. If you can’t heed repeated warnings, and in the case of Half Dome, not climb when there’s a chance of rain, then you have to take personal responsibility and assume the risks you’re taking. Permits are in place to control overcrowding as a safety issue, but the NPS expects visitors to make their own decisions regarding other safety considerations.

Picture: Lightning strikes the summit of Half Dome as seen from one of the Yosemite Web Cams, Yosemite National Park, California Image: Used with permission & courtesy of the Yosemite Conservancy.

Image: Lightning strikes the summit of Half Dome as seen from one of the Yosemite Web Cams, Yosemite National Park, California

In an ironic and sad twist, one of the Yosemite Web Cams actually caught a bolt of lightning striking the summit of Half Dome at about exactly the same time frame as when the young woman fell to her death. In this shot you can see a lightning strike on the left side of the top of Half Dome, exactly in the area of the cables. Whether this strike was instrumental in causing the woman to fall is unknown, but it sure seems likely. In any regard, the one thing that is certain beyond all else, no one has any business being on or near the top of Half Dome in weather like this.

If you have one of the rare, hard to obtain permits to climb Half Dome, and on the one day you’re allowed to hike, the weather turns foul, you’re far better off enjoying the view from a distance, and living to make the hike again another day.

Picture: Storm clouds shroud the summit of Half Dome at sunset, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Storm clouds shroud the summit of Half Dome at sunset, Yosemite National Park, California

Image ID#: 119717b_YOS-0047 Half Dome from Olmsted Pt. (1st image)

Image ID#: 110522_YOS-0300 Storm clouds & Half Dome (Last image)


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13 Comments on “Half Dome; The Magnificent and the Brutal”

  1. Jolie Brouttier Says:

    Awesome job Gary! Keep up the good work! And long-live the beauty and essense of Yosemite, CA!

  2. Richard Wong Says:

    Great account of the hike and events, Gary. I was getting sweaty palms just looking at your photos.

  3. Jim Goldstein Says:

    Great write up and photos Gary. From what I’ve heard (3rd degree of separation) is that the news is not reporting it correctly and she was struck by lightening.

    The hike to summit Half Dome is not an easy one. I swear I’ll never do it again each time I do the hike, but I seem to go back for more punishment. With some luck I’d like to do the hike again. Glad your knees survived.

  4. Russ Bishop Says:

    Excellent post and images Gary. It’s sad to have yet another tragedy in the Valley, but it does underscore the fact that more and more people are visiting these special places yet the inherent dangers haven’t changed.

  5. enlightphoto Says:

    Also, Check out the post that Jim Goldstein wrote today as well.


  6. Michael E. Gordon Says:

    Hey Gary: Enjoyed the reading and the images (especially #1). Yep, we unfortunately cannot prevent poor judgement and stupidity.

    I enjoyed looking down on Tenaya Canyon in your hiker-on-summit photo, especially the narrow and rugged section (the Inner Gorge) before the canyon spills into the Valley. In 2005, I enjoyed a technical and beautiful descent of Tenaya Canyon; read about it here if you like (w/ images): tinyurl.com/3w7cjhr

    Thanks, Gary!

  7. Youssef Ismail Says:

    Wonderful story Gary. And I will heed the warnings.

  8. Today’s Shared Links for August 3, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0 Says:

    […] Half Dome; The Magnificent and the Brutal Share this:Share […]

  9. A.Barlow Says:

    Never seen Half Dome from that angle before. Thanks! really nice shots. I like the rope climbing one, great perspective.

  10. Mark Bolster Says:

    Great story Gary! Though I’ve made some pictures in Yosemite visiting as a tourist for a couple of days, I certainly haven’t had the experiences you’ve had. Not sure if my bad knees would be up for what you did, but who knows someday…I thought you needed ropes, and all kinds of mountain climbing gear/experience to get on the top, so this is an eye opener that it is a day(long) hike.

  11. latoga Says:

    What a lucky trip you had Gary! Reminds me of the first hike up Half Dome that I did about 5 years ago. At least back then the lines at the cables gave you plenty of time to catch your breath (compare that image to your second image above…white the difference!).

  12. Joe Hearst Says:

    I climbed it 20 years ago, on my 60th birthday, with two of my kids. I had invited them to come with me (no permit problem in those days) and we spent a night at Little Yosemite before we went up the dome. I didn’t learn until many years later that they only did it as a favor to me, and were terrified on the cables. But they did bring a split of champagne to drink on the summit.

  13. David Leland Hyde Says:

    I greatly enjoyed this comprehensive write-up, comparison of the trail conditions to before, great photo coverage, background, personal and larger story. I am embarrassed to admit I have never climbed Half Dome, even though I lived and worked in Yosemite Valley and White Wolf for a summer. What a fantastic post. Thank you for the links to my interview of you in the previous post as well.

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