Half Dome, July 15, 16 2001

Return of the Backpacking Home

I've just returned from a short but rewarding trip to Half Dome in Yosemite from Yosemite Valley. I had a great time and I finally got to go hiking with my dad. I've wanted to do a trip with my dad for some time and we finally worked out our schedules and found the right trip for us to get together.

My dad, Al Ebert, is 55 years young and is just as competitive and stubborn as he's always been… So I was curious to see how he'd handle an 18-mile hike that gains and loses over 8,000 feet.

We started out on the mist trail at 8:00 with very few tourists and day hikers up yet. It was nice, quiet with clear weather. Cool enough to keep us comfortable as we humped our loads up the hill. The mist trail leaving Yosemite Valley is fairly steep and unfortunately paved with crumbling asphalt for the first mile or so. We started out slow and eventually made our way past the asphalt and into the granite steps that make this trail so challenging.

As we got into the steps my dad noted that I hadn't told him about them so let me state here that if you plan on hiking to Half Dome, from any locale on any trail, you will be hiking up several hundred, perhaps thousand, granite steps. These steps are irregular in shape, size, and height. Be prepared, it can be a fairly arduous task if you aren't ready for these!

For the most part this trail follows the Merced River all the way to Little Yosemite Valley so as you make you way up the asphalt and stairs you have one view after another of wonderful rapids and small falls. As you approach Vernal Falls you start to understand why this trail is called Mist Trail. The spray from the falls comes up and sort of enshrouds the trail, which is all steps by this point, and makes for some spectacular views as the sun lights it up to create numerous rainbows.

As difficult as it is to lift your head from staring at your boots you need to stop often along this section to take in the sights. That is one of the reasons to come out here after all, isn't it? So as we climb along and past the falls the view just keeps getting better and better. And the trail keeps getting steeper and steeper. The final set of steps before the top of the falls has a rail on the exposed side and is only wide enough for one person at a time, barely large enough to go through with a pack on. I'd imagine if the trail were crowded, this would be quite a bottleneck.

As you top out from these steps you actually descend to the falls where you can lean over the railing there and have a breathtaking view of the water cascading straight down. Pops and I spent a moment taking in the view then went and found a place to sit down, take a rest, and have something to eat. We found a nice area overlooking Emerald Pool and relaxed for a bit.

I spent some time rock hoping and taking pictures of the area and noticed something quite disturbing. Perhaps because I haven't spent much time on trails of this type, high use tourist/day hiking trails, but I was shocked at how much litter and graffiti all over the place. There are a couple of nice logs where you can sit and enjoy the view of the water coming into Emerald Pool over Slide Rock that are just riddled with graffiti carvings. Then there is litter scattered all throughout the surrounding rocks. Dad and I were both disappointed in this thoughtlessness. Luckily there is enough grandeur to allow one to enjoy this spot anyway, and despite the litter and graffiti Pops and I really did.

At one point a park worker came over and spent some time talking to us about her job and the things she sees walking up and down the mist trail five days as week as a member of the emergency rescue team. It's comforting to know there are people like her up there just waiting for you and I to get in trouble. After a nice visit and enough time to allow our shirts to dry we loaded up our packs again and started making our way up toward Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley (LYV) beyond.

This section of trail gets rocky and fairly rough, just like a good backcountry trail should. We were now mostly past the tourists and the asphalt and were being passed by those day hiking to Half Dome's summit. Seeing them carry their light loads made us a bit jealous and I think I'd like to try day hiking this trip. As you hike towards Nevada Falls you are treated repeated views of the falls. Where Vernal falls cascades and creates a spray this time of year Nevada Falls thunders and creates a rumble as it sends its water coursing down it's cliff. The falls are on your right here and all you need to do between steps is turn your head to the right to get an inspiring and motivating view.

Mist Trail doesn't actually go to Nevada Falls. You'll come to a junction of the John Muir Trail (JMT) and the Mist Trail. Turning right for a couple of hundred yards will bring you to the top of the falls and turning left for about a mile will bring you to Little Yosemite Valley. Our plan was to return to the valley via the JMT because we both prefer loop trips and the JMT doesn't have the steps that the Mist Trail has, at the cost of a couple of extra miles. So we decided to turn left and see the falls on the return trip.

About a mile later we were slogging through the sand that belies the nearness to the backpackers campground in LYV. We eventually came upon the camp and scouted around until we found a nice flat spot to set up camp. We set up camp and took in the local sites, which include the composting toilet nearby and the Merced River a few dozen yards away. Both of us took some time to dip our feet and felt very refreshed afterwards. Pops even smoked his Cigar as we relaxed along the river.

After a scrumptious meal of Mac-n-Cheese with Little Smokies and red onion we walked over to see what was happening at the community campfire rings. I would guess there were maybe a dozen groups in the campground and apparently they were all tired from the hike in because there were hardly any people at either campfire. Those that were there were generally couples and such and we didn't really feel comfortable sticking around. We headed back to our camp, cleaned up a bit, prepared some things for an early start and hit the sleeping bags.

The alarm went off at 5AM and the sun wasn't quite up yet. It was a tad chilly so I put on pants and jacket to go make some coffee and breakfast. Dad woke from my stumbling out of the tent and started getting himself ready for a long day too. We were fed, packed up, and walking out of camp by 6AM. Only one or two others in the area were stirring and we had the entire trail to ourselves.

The trail gains a quick 1500 feet over a mile and a half as it leaves LYV. Being the first on the trail we were treated to a face-full of spider webs… We could start to see the cable side of Half Dome and the sun was starting to hit it turning it yellow and providing us with some great views. We got to the junction with the trail going to Clouds rest and Sunrise in due time and took a left turn for the final two miles to our goal. This section of trail provides a very pleasant place to walk. It angles up at a consistent rate and is a good trail through peaceful pine forest. As you get closer to Half Dome your view of Clouds rest behind you and the Valley to your right just get better and better.

With about a half-mile left to the base of Half Dome you start the fun part of the trail. You pass a sign stating that if there are clouds in the sky do not start climbing as Half Dome has been hit by lightning in every month of the year. Not seeing any threatening clouds we started up. If you haven't had the chance to climb steps thus far in your trip, if you came in from Tuolumne or something, you will now be provided with a great opportunity. A comment heard often on this section of trail is "should have spent more time on the Stairmaster…" These steps are man made with local materials, Granite. No two steps are the same size or shape and the trail is never more that foot and a half wide or so, with a long and painful tumble being the reward for a missed step.

We got to the top of this little dome to the east of Half Dome and made our way down to the saddle between the two. We stopped here for a bit to watch the two people already on their way up. We ate a bit and took some pictures and then it was time to give it a go.

My dad went up first and I followed about a minute later. I've heard that the cable route gets as steep as 60 degrees but when you're on it sure seems steeper. About every five to ten feet there is a 2x4 across the upright supports to give your feet a purchase and an opportunity to rest. We both were breathing hard in no time and stopped to rest for a few minutes. We took our time and were soon in the middle of the route where it is its steepest. Pop stopped to take a break and swung around on the cable to sit/lean against the granite wall. He happened to be standing on a 2x4 that was only attached on one side, the opposite side he was standing on, and it moved suddenly trying to dump him off of it. Luckily he had a vise like grip on the cables and quickly regained his balance. It was a scary moment and I had a few bad visions go through my head. Around this point I wanted to get ahead of my dad so I could snap some photos and get some video of him climbing this steep part. So I passed him and got a few boards ahead to film him. I asked him to wait a minute while I got the camera out and he was more that willing to oblige…

After the picture shoot it wasn't but a few minutes until we were standing at the top of the cables slapping each other with high fives with huge smiles on our faces. Just between you and me I think my dad was pretty darn proud of himself! We made our way to the true summit and joined the three or four people already there. We sat down, took in the priceless views and had a little snack with the chipmunks and marmots begging away. We took some pictures including the obligatory shot of us on the overhang that juts out over the valley 3000 feet below. I crawled on my stomach out to the edge and took a look straight down into what looked like oblivion and had to crawl back to make my stomach relax…

We explored the whole area, looking at the various rock art people have done up there. Lots of "Joey", and "Bob loves Jenny" spelled out with little rocks on the expansive summit.

Eventually it was time to go. We got our gloves back out and headed towards the cables. Pop asked me which way I thought he should go down and having gone down frontward the previous year I suggested he go down that way. He found it easy enough that way and we were standing at the bottom of the cables in less than ten minutes. We stopped for a few more pictures and to watch some people climb with a lot of self-satisfaction. I can't describe the feeling you get from doing something like this but it is incredibly rewarding and I highly recommend this trip to everyone! If you want to improve your self-confidence or want to battle a little height sensitivity then this trip is just the ticket. Just let me know when you all are going so I can plan for a different weekend…

Going down the granite steps is nearly as challenging as going up. Following the trail can sometimes be tough too; it's actually quite easy to walk right past a switchback since they're small and sometimes hard to see. Eventually we made it back to the warning sign, and then on to LYV. We were passed by a lot of day-hikers through this section some of whom were quite surprised we were coming down so early. Once we'd told them we'd started from Little Yosemite Valley they felt better about their own pace…

We got to camp, packed up our gear and prepared ourselves for another six-mile hike after the seven we'd just completed. As mentioned earlier we took the John Muir Trail back to the valley and this was a good choice. This is an excellent trail giving outstanding views of Nevada Falls from the other side of the canyon. It is mostly paved with asphalt but it makes for easy walking and instead of steps one descends on switchbacks.

The JMT joins the Mist Trail below Vernal Falls and you spend another mile hiking with the tourists and day hikers to the valley. It's funny some of the looks you get from these people. Everything from not being noticed to acknowledgement to wonder at why anyone would put so much weight on their backs, to even awe from little kids. It's fun but it doesn't make up for your fatigue by this point. Unfortunately gaining the trailhead is not all that much of a relief because the parking lot is another half a mile down the road.

I loved this trip and I loved hiking with my dad. I think he had a pretty darn good time too! I highly recommend this trip and I'm considering making a day hike out it some time. When my son is big enough I'll definitely take him on this one, and maybe even my wife, though I don't think she's too interested in the cable section.

One word on the mental side of this trip. Standing at the bottom of the cables it appears as if the cables go up almost vertically, they don't but it can look like it. It can be a bit daunting getting started but once you've started up you concentrate so much on the effort and your hand and foot placement that you hardly have time to think about getting scared. As my dad and I were hiking down the granite steps we passed a fellow who remarked to his friend that he was "…just afraid of heights…" I said to my dad that that guy pretty much just guaranteed he wasn't going to make the top. If you're strong enough to make it to the base of the cables then you're plenty strong enough to make it to the top!

As one sportswear company likes to say, "Just do it!"