Father, son continue Western travel adventures

November 18, 2018

Bitten last year by an adventure bug (we hiked Angel’s Landing and The Narrows in Zion National Park), my son, Scott, and I sought a new challenge this fall. We chose a hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

“Challenge” is the right word for this strenuous trek that covers up to 16 miles roundtrip and rises a near vertical mile. But with research (Yosemite’s Half Dome by Rick Deutsch is excellent), a decent level of fitness, and a little luck, it can be a thrilling and unforgettable experience.

The luck involves getting a permit to ascend the final 425 feet of granite to Half Dome’s apex. One permit allows up to six hikers to use provided cables to assist their climb. Lotteries assign the permits, but a loophole exists (described later).

We visited Yosemite in late September to avoid summer traffic and crowds. Flying into Sacramento rather than San Francisco saved time driving a rental car 180 miles southeast to the park. We stayed at Yosemite Valley Lodge. There are other overnight choices, including tent and wood cabins.

An early start

The hike itself was beautiful, but a bear (California pun intended). As suggested, we started at 6 a.m. and used flashlights the first 30 minutes. The crisp morning air was welcome, as the first 3 miles quickly test a hiker’s fitness, rising over 2,000 feet on what’s called the Mist Trail. Almost 700 stone steps led up the ravine next to Vernal Fall, which, in early autumn, ran low on water. The view as we climbed improved in the ever-lightening sky. More granite switchbacks led to Nevada Fall, again not quite raging like it would have been in spring.

Just in time to cool our calves came Little Yosemite Valley. This level stroll through a lightly wooded area tracked the Merced River for about a mile. For those choosing to filter water (we carried ours) to avoid daypack weight, the river is a safe source. The valley also passed a backpackers camp with the trail’s last outhouse.

We then entered a fragrant forest of cedars, white firs and pines, zigzagging up and around the back of Half Dome. In time, we reached a signpost saying our destination was 2 miles away. Past the sign was a natural spring, the last source of water for those filtering it. The Deutsch guide does a great job of photographically pinpointing the spring’s location.

Still shaded by trees, we continued up switchbacks, exiting the forest at the base of what’s called Sub Dome. Told to expect a park ranger checking permits there, we never saw one, not even on the way down.

Tough climb

In retrospect, Scott and I agree with others who call the 400-foot rise up Sub Dome tougher than the cables. This formation above the tree line is a crisscrossing granite staircase with over 800 steps of varying height. When the steps ended, we scrambled another 100 feet to the crest, thankful for the traction of good, lightweight hiking shoes.

The reward was an in-your-face view of the legendary cables. Photos don’t do them justice. They are both intimidating and enticing. Exhausted from Sub Dome, we rested and refueled while enjoying a different kind of “cable show.” About 15 hikers hugged the rock face at varying heights. We watched the give-and-take between those traveling opposite directions, trying to learn the etiquette of sharing a thin chute of safe passage on a slippery granite wall angled at an average 45 degrees. Cooperation was the clear key to avoiding mishap.

To the cables

We took to the cables. Four feet apart, they’re held upright by 68 pairs of 3-foot pipes. The pipes rest inside holes drilled into the rock. Each pair is set 10 feet higher with a 2-by-4 board fastened to their base to stand on and rest. Arms and upper body strength now join the hike. Ten feet at a time, we scaled the granite, one hiker per board (unless shared briefly with someone descending). We heard nothing but encouragement and teamwork between strangers counting on everyone above and below them to be diligently careful.

In about 25 minutes, we conquered the cables and walked to the apex, triumphant! Pride, joy and a hint of disbelief filled me. The views, especially down Yosemite Valley to El Capitan were breathtaking. Even at just 8,842 feet of altitude, it felt like the top of the world. Scott and I high-fived and found a quiet spot to rest, an easy task on the relatively flat surface covering 16 football fields. After spotty reception in the valley, my son was able to Skype with his mother to share the moment.

Of course, summiting Half Dome was only half the hike. Eight knee-busting miles down the mountain remained. And while the direction and adrenaline worked in our favor, both of us were running on fumes at the blessed end.

The details

Trail mix: Scott and I each drank about five quarts of water on the hike, most of it spiked with a flavored electrolyte powder. We snacked on energy bars, jerky, Swedish fish and Sourpatch gummies. You’ll need plenty of carbs, protein and salt replacement to stay strong on this adventure.

Permit loophole: Well, it saved us. We had lost all daily lotteries we entered, but a mother/daughter team at the lodge mentioned a common courtesy of the trail. Many folks with a permit don’t have six in their party. When conversing with others along the way (you’ll meet many), tell them if you don’t have a permit. People with open slots usually offer them. They give you their party leader’s name to tell the ranger when you get there (no, you don’t have to hike or arrive together at the checkpoint). In our case, within a half-mile of the start, a young couple from Los Angeles said we could join their unfilled permit. So, in the end, it was the kindness of strangers that took us to the top of Half Dome.

Disclaimer: This difficult hike is not for everyone, but Yosemite National Park is. There are amazing shorter trails, including those rising only to Vernal or Nevada Fall. Four Mile Trail from the valley to Glacier Point pays off with the best view of Half Dome ever. And hiking Yosemite Falls (the highest falls in North America) is its own reward, though certainly better with springtime snowmelt. Numerous other hikes, great biking paths, and other stunning sections of this park await all visitors.

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