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I want to start this post with the end, first. By the end of the Half Dome day hike, I could barely walk. I had neoprene braces on each knee and was using two hiking sticks like crutches. I would swing one leg forward and then, the next. When I arrived back at my hotel, I began to get uncontrollable chills. My body was shutting down. I have never been so exhausted and spent in my entire life. I was clearly not ready for this hike. Take that as a warning before undertaking this or any other major day hike.
Yosemite Half Dome Hike
The day started well before dawn at about 4:30AM at the parking lot. I met a couple friends that would take on the Half Dome day hike adventure with me. They had both done it, before. They knew what they were getting into. I. did. not.
The ultimate goal, a mere 4,600 feet in elevation above the parking lot in which we started, was the summit of the famous Half Dome mountain in Yosemite Valley at Yosemite National Park. To go all the way to the summit, you must have a permit to use the “cables.” The cables are just that; cables that help you along the shear granite “dome” to the summit of Half Dome. Although we applied for a permit, we did not get one.
We did, however, hear that you can often “tag-along” someone else’s permit, if they have extra spaces. As luck would have it, the first people we met on the trail had exactly 3 extra spaces on their permit! This turned out to be a blessing…and a curse.
You see, in order to keep up with “our” permit, we picked up the pace to stay either with or ahead of that hiking group. We pressed ahead without many breaks and those breaks were short-lived. Did I mention that I did not prepare well for this hike?
As soon as you get on the official trail (about a mile hike from the parking lot), you are climbing and that does not stop. Ever.
You climb stairs like this with railings.
You climb stacked granite, like this. You climb to the top of waterfalls.
You climb and climb and climb.
Finally, when you do get near the midpoint, it levels out…a little. Not really. Sort of. But, then, you’re at a higher elevation, so it’s freezing cold.
After this “leveling out” area, you enter a giant Sequoia forest. This was probably my most favorite part of the hike. These trees were just spectacular and photos alone do not do them justice.
Once you get through the Sequoia forest, you catch your first glimpse of Half Dome.
You also catch your first view of “the steps.” The Steps are the last bit of climbing before reaching the summit of “sub-Dome” or the small dome shaped mountain just 400 vertical feet below the summit of Half Dome. When I first saw The Steps, I said, “No way,” out loud. It was a calm statement of fact, not an exclamation.
It appeared that we would be climbing as much elevation in about 3/4 to 1 mile as we had just completed in the previous 8 miles. The Steps appeared, even from a distance, to be carved right into the side of the mountain. No. Way.
Yes, way, I was told. So, on we went to tackle The Steps. This is where I experienced something I’d never experienced before on a hike. True fear. Typically, I do not get afraid of heights. I’ve been skydiving, bungee jumping, I love flying – I’ve been in big planes, small planes, even gliders. I love this type of stuff. However, I found myself on all fours, crawling my way up The Steps. It was terrifying.
I believe it was a combination of several factors that led to my fear. One, you’re on the edge of a freaking mountain! You’re above the tree line and the geography is expansive! You feel like you’re on the edge of a chasm and could fall 4,500 feet at any moment. You can’t, really. But, it feels that way. Two, I was pretty wore out by this point and my legs were a bit shaky. Unstable legs on gravely, narrow granite steps — not a good combo. Lastly, as I just mentioned, The Steps are narrow. And steep. You’re winding your way up about 1,000 feet of elevation in about a mile. Oh yeah, and people are coming down, too. So, you get to move even closer to the edge of a deadly fall to let them pass.
Lest I should forget, about 3/4 of the way up The Steps, they disappear. What’s that? Yes, they are gone. Shear granite for a good 100-150 yards. I was completely focused on the single square foot in front of my face to keep my vertigo at bay and did not notice until the last step. My friend, Joel, was just ahead of me, already walking upright on the sloped, shear granite face of sub-Dome. As I looked up and around, I hollered at him, “Where the 4@(% did the steps go??!!!!!!” He just laughed and kept moving up sub-Dome. Meanwhile, I performed some crazy, crab-like, Spiderman, belly/butt crawl up the last hundred yards to the summit of sub-Dome.
As I reached the summit of sub-Dome, I was greeted with this view.
“No effing way!” This time, it was not only a statement of fact, it was an exclamation.
I was done. Physically and mentally. I would have never made it this far, if it were not for my friends. They encouraged me and kept me going. However, no amount of encouragement was going to get me up those cables. Heck, at this point, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get back down The Steps! I had illusions of just living on sub-Dome for the rest of my days!
So, I stayed behind while my friends climbed the cables.
They asked before they left, “No regrets?”
“No regrets,” I said.
And it was the truth. I was good. I should not have made it this far and I still had to hike down. The decision not to climb the cables provided a much-needed break. I sat and ate lunch while enjoying the view and taking some pictures.
The hike down was pretty unremarkable….other than it was remarkable that I finished. I’ve never pushed my body harder than I did on this hike.
Getting down The Steps was not nearly as bad as coming up. I stayed close behind my friend, Joel and just avoided looking around. Before I knew it, I was back on the main trail. However, now, my ankles began to hurt, then my knees, and finally, my hips. Additionally, my stomach was not happy with me. I kept getting the hiccups. Then, I felt like I would throw up. Then, the hiccups returned. It was a never-ending cycle that did not end until I finished the hike.
Although the pain was excruciating, I eventually just became numb. And, although I seem to be complaining as I look over this post, this was one of the most amazing outdoor experiences of my life! Joel asked near the end if I was still glad that I did the hike. Absolutely! I replied. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m proud of myself for completing it! The views were spectacular! The trail was amazing! I can’t say enough good about this hike. I just wish I had been more prepared, physically.
At the end, my phone app had registered almost 19 miles of hiking and over 4,500 feet of elevation up and then, back down. When I stopped to think about that after the hike, it shocked me. 19 miles and over 9,000 feet of elevation change without training. That’s pretty impressive! Could be seen as kind of dumb, too, I guess….
Nevertheless, this was one for the books. I’ll never forget the experience and can’t wait to try it again……with a bit more (or any) training, this time.