When I moved to California just over five years ago, I was only familiar with Yosemite National Park through books and photos, namely Ansel Adams. I had my first opportunity to visit the park in January 2016, to photograph an engagement session. I remember being so excited to finally experience the national park for myself. The day of the engagement session finally rolled around, and it snowed. The valley was so shrouded in fog (another first for me–snow fog) that I couldn’t even see the iconic granite edifices from the valley floor, let alone the legendary Tunnel View. And while the engagement session was still amazing, Yosemite was apparently not quite ready to reveal her splendor to this East Coast girl.
I didn’t have the chance to return to Yosemite until last year, but I made up for it by visiting on three separate occasions, including my first drive over Tioga Pass. In the meantime, I had become slightly obsessed. I’ve always been a bit of a history nerd, so I found the firsthand accounts from people like John Muir to be fascinating. I’ve also always considered myself to be “outdoorsy.” My dad used to be a park ranger, and my grandfather worked in forest management. I was a Girl Scout. I’d spend hours in the woods. We camped every summer, often multiple times. Reading about the experiences people had in Yosemite National Park took outdoorsy to a whole new level.
I spent hours on the AllTrails.com website and app learning all I could about the different hiking trails in and around the park. It was during this time that I discovered the possibility of hiking to the summit of Half Dome (with the correct permits, of course). My previous scoffing at the idea of a bucket list went directly out the window. I was smitten. But even more than that, I was determined. I was going to get to the top of Half Dome.
Half Dome, originally called “Tis-sa-ack,” meaning cleft rock in the language of the local Ahwahnechee people, was declared “perfectly inaccessible” by Josiah Whitney.
But by October 1875, George G. Anderson became the first person to reach the summit. He completed his route by drilling and placing iron eyebolts into the granite. In 1919, not too far from Anderson’s original route, a more permanent route utilizing post-mounted braided steel cables was constructed. In 2012, this route was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is still in use today.
HALF DOME HIKE - QUICK FACTS
DISTANCE 18 miles (roundtrip), via the Mist and John Muir Trails
ELEVATION 8,842 ft (4800 ft elevation gain from Yosemite Valley)
TIME 10-14 hours
“I’d say that there was no turning back after this, but in all honesty, Sub Dome was mentally tougher than going up the cables.”
HURRY UP...AND WAIT
Half Dome is the only day hike in Yosemite that requires a permit. The permit requirement began in 2011 as a crowd control safety measure to keep would-be hikers safe. While the cables are permanently affixed to the rock face, they only go up between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, weather permitting. The weather permitting part is important, seeing as I had been part of a group last year that had scored a permit for June 1. Guess when the cables went up? June 2.
Once again, I was foiled by snow.
This year, I wasn’t messing around. I applied to the Half Dome cables permit lottery on March 1, 2020, as trip leader for my own group. Permit winners would be notified on April 10, so the only thing to do until then was keep my fingers crossed.
Then, COVID-19 hit the U.S., and Yosemite closed down completely.
Crushed doesn’t even begin to cover how I felt. I was beginning to wonder if I was ever meant to reach my goal. Thankfully, hiking was one of the activities allowed during quarantine. Rather than giving up completely, I continued training by utilizing our amazing East Bay Regional Park trails with the hope that I would receive a permit and the park would reopen before the permitted date.
April 10 rolled around and waiting in my email inbox was the news that we had scored a permit for June 17, 2020. This was immediately followed by an email saying that Yosemite was still closed due to COVID-19, and if things didn’t reopen prior to my group’s permit date, the permit would be cancelled with no option of rescheduling. Talk about a roller coaster of emotion!
I tuned in to every scrap of news released by the National Park Service (NPS) that I possibly could, including whatever unofficial tidbits I could glean from the Yosemite sub-thread on Reddit. I had almost resigned myself to hoping for better luck next year, but on June 3, the NPS announced that Yosemite would be opening for wilderness and Half Dome permit holders on June 5, and for the rest of the public on June 11. Services and camping would be limited, and admission to the park would be cut by roughly 50 percent. If you didn’t already have lodging secured in the park, a day use reservation would be required. Luckily, my Half Dome permit had us covered.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
At 4 a.m. on June 17, my alarm went off. Admittedly, I am not a morning person. I found myself questioning everything I was about to undertake. Was I ready? Had I conditioned myself enough? Was I too old? I don’t typically struggle at higher altitudes and I was no stranger to hiking, but I had also never done a hike with this level of difficulty.
“From the top of Vernal Fall, we continued past the Emerald Pool, up the first set of switchbacks, and past Nevada Fall.”
The journey from Yosemite Valley to Half Dome begins at the Happy Isles trailhead, and continues up the Mist Trail, past Vernal Fall. In the one and a half miles it took to reach the top of Vernal Fall, I’d already gained 1,000 feet in elevation and climbed over 600 wet granite steps. They definitely don’t call it the Mist Trail for no reason.
This was the “easy” part.
From the top of Vernal Fall, we continued past the Emerald Pool, up the first set of switchbacks, and past Nevada Fall. By the time we reached the halfway point of the hike up, one of our group of three had already decided to turn back and the other was starting to question how much farther she would be able to go. As for me, it was going to be sheer stubbornness that got me to the top. Blessedly, the next mile was relatively flat. Unfortunately, it was the only flat section of the hike. Once we reached Little Yosemite Valley, it was more uphill switchbacks through absolutely stunning, old-growth pine forests. The smell of sun-baked pine trees is one of my favorite scents on earth.
At long last, we reached the base of Sub Dome. This is as far as you can go without a permit. The rangers were super friendly and after checking everyone’s permit, they gave a brief safety presentation. I’d say that there was no turning back after this, but in all honesty, Sub Dome was mentally tougher than going up the cables. The 400-foot climb up and over Sub Dome involves more switchbacks on very uneven steps carved straight out of the granite. There are no railings to hold onto and in almost all directions, it’s a straight fall down. This is where the last member of our small group called it, and I can’t say that I blame her. I continued up and over, driven by the previously mentioned stubbornness and sheer exhilaration. The cable portion loomed in front of me. I took a quick breather, pulled on my gloves, made sure that my pack was secure, and before I could have any second thoughts, I started the final 400 foot, 45-55 degree ascent up the cables.
When I reached the top, I cried. I was so overwhelmed with all of the emotions. I couldn’t believe I had done it. Every time another hiker appeared at the top of the cables, the hikers already at the top cheered and clapped for them. These were my people–full of enthusiasm and the knowledge that their bodies were built to do hard things.
I’m already planning my next trip.