Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Hike to the top of Half Dome via JMT, certainly one of the most challenging and iconic hikes in Yosemite National Park.
Tribe's Option A was firmed up months ago, which was to climb mighty Mt. Whitney in October 2020. But the smoky clouds from California fires put the plan at jeopardy. The permits got cancelled, just a week before, and the tribe was completely bummed. It was time to spin up Option B, for this tribe could not resist the smell of the mountains (#smellofthemountains).
Tribe was in luck, the confirmation for permits for the cables at Half Dome came in with less than 48 hrs. for the climb. Packed and loaded we headed to Yosemite. Drove out from the Bay Area around 5PM and reached Yosemite around 9PM.
Hike one of the most prominent feature in Yosemite National Park - Half Dome
It was still going to be smoky, but the tribe decided to take chances, we camped overnight in Yosemite, just a mile away from the trailhead at Upper Pines Campground. The night at the camp was restful - tribes plan was to take an early start.
The hike begins at the Happy Isles Trailhead and proceeds up the valley. The trail leads to a junction where the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail split. At this time of the year all weekdays there was work in progress on the Mist Trail, so the tribe took the John Muir Trail, this forks on the right, and is supposed to be longer but the bonus being you skip all the steps that lead up to the falls through Mist Trail. As the tribe continued their hike on a well marked trail, we met backpackers and day hikers going up to Half Dome. The incredible views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, Nevada Falls, and the Yosemite Valley start to unfold in front, these granite walls glowed in the rising sun. The sheer size of these granite walls is a sight that can be admired for hours.
Trail leading up to the top of Nevada Falls is steep, the tribe continued to take ample water breaks and enjoyed the views. Its soon started to feel warm and all the layers which we thought we may need started to shed. Once at Nevada Falls, there is bridge crossing over the Merced River onwards towards the Little Yosemite Camp. This part of the hike is rather easy before it gets steep again. Most backpackers camp at the Little Yosemite Camp, this is also a good spot to grab some water, filter it and have it ready for the remainder of the hike.
Beyond this point, permits are required, on the Half Dome Trail, it's just another 2.5 miles up, but it feels like a lot lot more. This part is a grueling way up through multiple switchbacks in the forest. As the tree cover starts to thin at around 8000 ft. elevation, the approach to the rocky part of the sub-dome is reached. This is a good spot to regain the strength and energy for the final push which definitely is the most strenuous part of the hike. You will come across a ranger here, he will check permits for the upcoming hikers. The tribe had an extra permit and there was a group who had hiked all the way up without permits and we were able to help them out. Once the formalities of permit check and a short safety talk were completed, tribe started the uphill on sub-dome - and yes do not under estimate this part of the hike, rocky, steep stairs with vertical drops is how it looks. Somewhere in the middle the trail vanishes and its sheer rock that has to be traversed, sometimes on all fours. Be cautious and do not walk out to the cliff side, advice to stay in the center and continue to move uphill. Along the way tribe did come across some fellow hikers who needed assistance and were panicking because of the heights. Take it slow, hydrate and stop often, remember its not a race! Soon enough the tribe was at the base of Half Dome, the section where the cables begin.
Half Dome cables are fixed with bolts in the rock and raised onto a series of metal poles - challenge your mental and physical endurance on this hike.
The sight of Half Dome and people going up/down the cables is unnerving, tribe decided to take a break and watch the people go up/down the cables. Can this be really done? Contemplating on how to tackle this or should this be left for another day, was the question in our minds. Almost 400 ft. granite wall, which has a gradient of close to 50-60 degrees, but looks more like 80 degrees, is sure to feel like a 600-800 ft. climb. The decision to tackle the Cables at Half Dome was made and tribe put on their gloves and made their way to the beginning of the cables. The granite is super slick at places, sturdy shoes with good traction is a must, so are the gloves. Tribe was lucky to have just 3 people ahead of us, one of them had done this before, so we let her lead the way. Graciously she kept passing instructions on navigation on the wall. Typically the lines are long, slow on the cables and this section can take almost an hour. The most important thing is to get from footboard to footboard, placed between the metal poles. Upper body and leg strength to pull along the cables, will be your best friend. What the tribe also realized is that its important not to panic on the wall, it can be fatal and to take as much time as you want between the boards. This narrow path is a two way street, giving way to the hikers climbing down and letting them pass on safely on the left is important. Slowly, safely and carefully the tribe traversed to the top of the dome. Greeted by fellow climbers with fist bumps and high fives and simply incredible 360 degree views of the Sierra Nevada, was so worth it. WE MADE IT! Didn't realize that the top of Half Dome would be this large flat surface, couple football fields could fit in. Tribe was smiling ear to ear with sheer joy with this achievement which didn't seem possible, was absolutely scary at first.
After refueling and photos it was time to head back down the cables - two ways to do it, either go backwards holding the cables or just go straight footboard to footboard and even more careful given the gravity plays a huge role going downhill. The granite has worn out at places and is very smooth, there are breaks in the rocks and some of the footboards are apart by a lot, hence take it easy, calculate your comfort level, do not panic and keep the focus. Some in our tribe found going down easier than coming up, while others had a different opinion - it does feel rough when you slide on the rock, with just a cable in your hand and gravity pulling down. Getting to the bottom of the dome safely, was a big relief.
The delight of opting for Option B
Tribe made way back through the sub-dome to Little Yosemite Valley and back towards the top of Nevada falls. Here we took a quick break, rested our legs and continued onwards to the John Muir Trail. Given the days had started to get short in October we had our headlamps on by the time we got to the parking lot. This 20 miles round trip with almost 5100 ft. elevation gain was such a delight.
So glad Option B worked out just right, this will stay in tribes memory for ever😍.
Learning's from the tribe - Life does have its ways to unfold and sometimes Option B is the one that gives you greater joy. Do not miss the beautiful opportunities that life throws at you :)