Monday, May 25, 2009


Of all the features of Yosemite Valley, the most iconic among them must be the granite titian known today as Half Dome. Millions of tourists photograph and study it every year, and its image graces endless commemorative paraphernalia. As I write this I am sipping tea from my Yosemite Association member’s mug, which proudly displays a lithograph of Half Dome. Native American legend tells of an Indian maiden turned into stone by the wrath of the gods, her tears still visible on its face, they called it “Tissiack”. At one time officially deemed “inaccessible”, the rock’s summit was first ascended by a man named George Anderson in 1875. He did it by drilling holes in the granite and installing iron eyebolts one at a time. The first official cable route was established in 1919 making it possible for park visitors to hike to the summit. Since then it has become akin to a pilgrimage for outdoors enthusiasts. The first technical assent of Half Dome’s sheer face was accomplished in 1957 by pioneering climber Royal Robbins. But thousands of hikers make the summit every year by hiking the trail through Little Yosemite, behind the rock, looping around to the northern base. Steep rock steps take you up to “the saddle” where the cables begin for the last 400 foot scramble to the summit. This hike is daunting, having a total elevation gain of over 4800 feet from the valley floor. Proper preparation is essential. If you’re planning your first Half Dome assent I would recommend perusing Rick Deutsch’s website Hike Half Dome. Rick also has a book available. There are also lots of other web resources to research, but don’t try it unprepared.

We set out early at daybreak. For this hike I packed light on water because I was carrying my Katadyn water filtration system. The section of trail through Little Yosemite passes within close proximity to the Merced River at safely accessible locations for filtering water. And what delicious and refreshing water it is. Fresh, pure, high Sierra snowmelt. This a great way to go because it allows you to refill twice along the way, but I just love the experience of superior tasting water. You need lots of water. The maps show a spring somewhere up on the Half Dome trail, but I have never found it.

Hiking up the Mist Trail in spring there is a virtual assurance that you will get soaking wet in the spray from Vernal Fall. Using the John Muir trail is an alternative, but it will add 1.5 miles. I had brought my rain anorak, but that only kept my upper torso dry. My pants and boots still got soaked, but this all part of the experience. On a hike like this, you know you’re alive, and it’s all good. The weather was still too cloudy and hazy for good photos, so I may use some of my old fall pix. When we got to Nevada Fall the air currents were carrying the spray down river making it impossible to even get my camera out without diving equipment. At the top of the falls we could see that lots of people were up there, so I began to get anxious about how crowded the cables would be. I had a bad experience one year during summer when there were so many people on the cables, I was not at all comfortable with that, and gave up and went down without summiting. This time I discovered the crowds were not bad.

The John Muir trail eventually turns off and you begin the Half Dome trail. The trail is graded very well and the climb is not bad. I always pace myself so I don’t aggravate my knees, or get too short of breath. Speed is not a goal. We spotted some nice snow plant near the trail. There were lots of young mule deer around feeding on the new vegetation. They are so used to seeing people they have lost their fear of them. The forested area on the way up is thick enough to provide lots of shade in the morning too, and the aroma of the timber is everywhere. The crystal clean air scented of cedar and pine combined with the incomparable taste of the high Sierra river water is pure heaven.

As we arrived at the base of the rock the weather had cleared with an almost cloudless sky, perfect for the assent to the top. We stopped for a snack while looking out across Tenaya Canyon, and over to Indian Ridge, the domes to the north, and Snow Creek Fall. We still had nearly 1000 feet to go to the summit, but the views were already captivating. I made my way up the rock step section to the saddle. I would swear this is the toughest part of the hike, not the cables. The steep steps and the altitude make this section very aerobic. There were lots of people on the cables, but it really was not bad. People on the cables are like a brotherhood. Everyone seemed quite affable, talking to let you know where they are, and you can work with them. If you make it this far you are not a tourist. Outdoor people are a fine community.

Up on top there was still some snow hanging around, and people were sunbathing on the rocks. The 360 degree panoramic views are not to be matched from any point in the valley. Looking down on North Dome, it looks diminutive in comparison. The perspective is completely different up here. The cool high country breeze is like a gift from the mountain gods making the subtle sunlight deceiving in its intensity. The snowy high peaks seem to be whispering on the wind, and the air smells so clean as to be indescribable. The valley sprawling out below looks almost uninhabited from this far up. If you look you can spot the roads, bridges, and some large structures like the Ahwahnee Hotel, but they seem like toys; far away and insignificant. Giant tour busses just look like incredibly slow ants. The beautiful mature forests like grasses. This is not just a hike. It’s more like a pilgrimage to an outdoor Mecca.

Click here to see my photos on flickr
Click here to see my 2004 pictures which include a Half Dome summit

1 comment:

Rick Deutsch said...

Great summary of a great hike. Re: water. In my book I tell you exactly where the Little Spring is between Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome. It’s right on the trail, and is tiny, but it’s always there. It’s easy to miss if you are daydreaming of checking out your shoelaces. The spring mentioned in some guide books is way off to the right and a pain to find. DRINK a lot. Also the “saddle “ is the little depression just before the cables. The long 400 ft vertical uphill grind is called Sub Dome. And yes, many think this is harder than the cables. I highly suggest using Trekking Poles for this monster hike.


Carpe Diem,
Rick Deutsch ("Mr. Half Dome")
"One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome"