Regardless of whether you are a bucket list believer or a bucket list basher, everyone has a secret mental list of “things I wish I could do one day.” If you don’t, then you are not a dreamer. And if you are not a dreamer then you may as well be dead. But that’s just my opinion.
I confess to maintaining two bucket lists….those I think I can actually achieve, like Zion’s Angels Landing, or visiting all 59 of our National Parks. And then there is that “secret list” of things I wish I could do but I know it’s not likely. Things like trekking to Everest Base Camp, or summiting a 14’er. Yosemite’s Half Dome falls somewhere in between. It’s one of those secret desires that I keep to myself for fear it is beyond my reach. I know I have the mental desire but at 61 years old, do I still have the physical stamina?
Half Dome, the iconic 8,800 ft granite monolith dominates every vista point from all directions in Yosemite, one of our nation’s most popular National Parks. It is the focal point of every photographers lens from Ansel Adams’ famous grayscale landscapes, to the backdrop for current day technical climber selfies, even gracing the California State quarter. The 14+ mile Half Dome hike with 4,800 ft elevation gain is rated “extremely strenuous” in the park’s hiking guide. It involves an arduous, thigh-busting, lung-burning, exhausting climb before one ever reaches the top of the “sub-dome,” or small false summit. Then, one must dig even deeper to negotiate “the cables,” another 400 vertical feet using cables threaded through loose stanchions as hand holds. I know it will take everything I’ve got.
Hiking Half Dome is best approached in stages. Starting the one way hike with a dropoff at the top of Glacier Point will add an additional six miles of hiking, but mostly downhill while eliminating the 600 steep and slippery stair steps alongside Vernal and Nevada Falls. Spending the night in the backcountry camp of Little Yosemite Valley will spread the 20 mile hike out over two days, but it will also mean hiking with a 30-40lb pack on my back. Every bucket list has its tradeoffs.
The trail down from Glacier Point is stunning, with views of Half Dome at every switchback. And there are a lot of views, because there are a lot of switchbacks! It’s mostly downhill through dense, fragrant firs and Ponderosa Pines. We encounter a few shallow stream crossings that serve as welcomed peaceful rest stops. After about five miles on the trail, we meet the intersection of the John Muir trail at the top of Nevada Falls, then begin a short uphill stretch and finally the last level mile of a sandy slog to base camp.
Although I have camped and kayaked with backpacking gear before, this is my first attempt at backcountry camping. I have never been further than half a mile carrying everything I need to sustain myself in the wilderness. Make that a bear-inhabited wilderness. Fortunately, Little Yosemite Valley camp has both bear boxes for food storage, and the beautiful, clear running Merced River for water purification. There is a communal fire for meal preparation, but I know I’m exhausted when I’m too tired to roast a marshmallow for S’mores.
Another benefit of overnighting is getting an early start to get a jump on the throngs of day hikers beginning their hike four miles below at the bottom of the trail. Less people on the cables means less anxiety and less margin for error. So we wake with the first chirp of the early morning bird chorus, boil some coffee and fortifying oatmeal, and begin our final three hour uphill climb to the sub-dome.
I keep a lookout for my birds of a feather geezers on my way up, but I am surrounded by selfie-snapping, go-pro gadget-wielding millennials. I haven’t seen a gray hair for hours. I later learn that according to a 2010 study, only 6% of Half Dome hikers are above the age of 55. Golden Age Passports represent!
Along with mental and physical prep for a Half Dome climb, gear is essential. Deep-treaded, supportive hiking boots are a must. I see some struggle to climb in sandals and tennis shoes. Though sticky granite is typically an easy surface to climb, not so in between the cables. The surface is worn slick on the 3 ft wide path in-between the stanchions. Gloves are also a must for gripping the cables. I have brought along a pair of fingerless sailing gloves, but instead, I opt for one of the donated pair of heavier rubberized gloves that lay in a pile at the bottom of the cable route.
One of my hiking companions Jona, an Eagle Scout and aspiring young climber, rigs me a modified Swiss sling harness, which makes me look more experienced than I am. One continuous loop of nylon webbing that goes around the waist and through the legs, with two caribiners attached will in theory save me from plunging to my death. In reality, it offers me a task on which to focus rather than thinking about the worst possible scenario. “Purple clip on. Silver clip off. Purple clip on. Silver clip off.” is my mantra down the steep vertical face.
I make it to the top on sheer adrenalin alone. The views of the snow capped Sierras are breathtaking. Too excited to enjoy my lunch, I circle the gently rounded bald summit snapping photos in all directions. But I won’t celebrate just yet. I am only halfway there. I still have to get down…
Typically descents are harder for me than ascents, but not so with Half Dome. To descend, one must turn around and face the wall as if climbing down a ladder. Since the surface is so slick, it’s easy to slide down the 10 ft in between wooden crossbeams. The scariest part is the hazard presented by others too impatient to wait their turn. By the time I reach the base of the sub-dome, the crowds are growing along with the temperatures. An early start has no doubt contributed to my success.
The hike from Little Yosemite Valley up Half Dome and back down along the Mist Trail, down the stairs of Vernal Falls is over ten miles, almost half carrying a backpack that despite being emptied of food now feels twice as heavy. But there is a reward waiting for me at the bottom. The fridge in my Winnie View holds a nice chilled bottle of bubbly waiting for me. Time to celebrate not just making it up safely, but making it back down again!