Half Dome Hike
Yosemite National Park
June 26th-27th 2016
It has been a long time dream to visit Yosemite National Park. After studying Ansel Adams photographs, I was inspired to see if I could replicate his images. An opportunity arrived when I was invited to photograph my cousin’s wedding in San Jose, California, just a 3 hour drive from the park entrance of Yosemite!
My girlfriend Jamie and I started making plans. She found a perfect two person cabin at Yosemite Lakes Campground in Groveland, located just outside the park entrance. Our next big decision was to decide what to do with so much to see and only 2 days to see it. As the time got closer, researching our visit became a day to day obsession. Jamie came across an article at Yosemitehikes.com about hiking Half Dome. The quote read “Half Dome is the ultimate Yosemite day hike – the one you can’t die without doing, and the one you’re most likely to die while doing.” Then we read about the cables, which are staked into the dome and guide you up the final 400 feet to the top. For comparison, the climb is just shy in height to the Woodman tower here in Omaha, NE, or 95 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The elevation of Half Dome reaches 8,842 feet, and has a 4,800 feet elevation gain from the valley floor. I am terrified of heights but this opportunity was too adventurous to pass up. The article we read also explained Half Dome as follows: “The difficulty level is extreme. It’s long, steep at the beginning and end, and more dangerous than most Yosemite hikes. It’s probably the most difficult of all Yosemite day hikes. On the traditional 1 to 10 scale, this one rates an 11. Also the insanity factor is a 9 out of 10.” Jamie and I decided that we were hooked, we were going to hike Half Dome!
We needed to get serious and purchase quality hiking shoes and trekking poles. I bought a pair of Oboz hiking shoes from Canfields Outdoor Sporting Goods, and Jamie found a similar pair. These were recommended because they feature the extra shank support that extend, from heel to toe. We thought it would be a good idea to take our new shoes for a training hike to break them in. Only a couple weeks before our departure to California. We packed ours bags and hit the hills on a camping and hiking trip to Indian Caves State Park in Nebraska. Located in south east Nebraska, off the Missouri River, with lots of spots to camp, and miles of trails to hike through the bluffs. The steep hills was just the training we were looking for. However, we did not purchase any trekking poles at this time. Quickly realized it was tough with out them. We covered roughly 5 miles of trails and got swarmed by mosquitos in the deep woods. Needless to say we turned around.
Time was running out to train before the trip. However, Jamie, and I had recently trained for a half marathon. On the yosemitehikes.com site had suggested to train has if you were training for a marathon! Figured we were half way ready.
The time was finally here to fly out on our 8 day adventure to California, flying into Oakland on a nonstop flight. Prior to visiting Yosemite, we spent the first 4 days in San Fransisco, San Ramon, Half Moon Bay, and then made our way down to San Jose. My main assignment going to California was to photograph my cousins wedding! Of course the best part of the trip!
Following the next Sunday morning, we loaded up the rental car and headed out. Driving 157 miles to Groveland, were we would stay. Stopped on the way at a Bass Pro Shop, to pick up a set of trekking poles. It was exciting has we got closer, the view just got more and more amazing. Arrived at Yosemite Lakes Campground, We attempted to check in early but were told to come back later. We took this first day to figure out the road ways and become familiar with the park. Only about a ten minute drive to the entrance and a 30 minute drive to the Valley floor. The park is not very clear with road signs. Made it tough to get around but didn’t bother me at all cause the view was overwhelming. We made the mistake of trying to plan too much on the first day. Think we were trying to cover 3 different trails while we had no idea how to get to them. After being stuck in the car for a long period of time, found parking and directions on how to get to Mirror Lake Trail. Only a short 2 mile hike to reach the lake. We were so blown away by the huge trees and rocks along the trail. Searching for the perfect photo of Mirror Lake, there is a big rock in the middle, that a number of kids were climbing up and jumping into the water. The ripples didn’t allow for a perfect reflection. I had waited until they all left to take my photograph. A seamless reflection was created. Well worth the wait. A good experience for our first day. We hit up the next spot on our priority list, which was the Ansel Adams Gallery. A beautiful gallery that displayed a mix of silver gelatin prints and digital prints. Souvenirs and gifts displayed from calendars to small post cards. There was a wall that hung original 8”x10” prints, printed from Ansel Adams negatives, that could be purchased for $300. If I had the extra money I seriously considered it. The most interesting framed print on the wall, was one of Adams first prints he made. It was for sale for $84,000. There were plenty of digital prints, matted for sale. I of course had to buy a couple of them. The gallery will ship your order, so you don’t have to lug around your purchase.
We hit up the Yosemite Valley Lodge, where we were able to gather snacks and food for our Half Dome hike. Nearing dawn, we attempted to catch the sunset at Tunnel View. Confused on how to get there we missed the sunset but were able to meet up with my Aunt Sue and Cousin Jennifer. Shared sandwiches has we enjoyed the view. A hight light of the trip, next time I will have to make sure I get here earlier. The view of Half Dome has the sunsets is unbelievable. A warm glow paints Half Dome for a short time. Knowing we had a early day coming, we headed back to check into our cabin. Now the real story begins.
On the day of the Yosemite hike, we set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. Before ascending on our hike we loaded our Camelbaks, packed a few snacks, (beef jerky, nuts, oranges, bananas, fruit snacks, cheese, and salami) and loaded the camera backpack with my 17-35 f/2.8 lens, the D610 Nikon DSLR, and my Nikon D80 film body. We were on the road by about 5:30 a.m., with roughly a 45 minute drive to the valley floor of Yosemite.
We hit the trail at 6:30 a.m. with great excitement! We knew that we had 8 miles ahead of us (one way), so we took just a couple pictures in the early morning light. The surrounding beauty as we hiked was breathtaking! The views were so surreal that it felt like a dream. Just before the Mist Trail that leads to Half Dome we saw the final water fill station. There was a sign stating that hikers should have a minimum of 4 liters of water. We had less than 1.5 liters. When researching and talking to experienced Yosemite hikers, they told us a couple liters would be plenty. We tried to keep the water we drank to a minimum.
Most of the trail is a steep incline much like the Stairmaster at the gym; talk about a work out! We were glad that we had our trekking poles to offset the weight and save our backs. There is a short flat trail after Vernal falls that gives you a mile and a half break, before the 2 mile incline hike to the base of Quarter Dome. We reached this stretch by about noon and we were both pretty tired and sore. Although we had just stopped not long before, it was time to rest and enjoy a few snacks. At this point in the hike we felt pretty good; we seemed to be making great time, we were staying hydrated and eager to make it to the top.
One thing I forgot to bring on the hike was a hat, which seemed necessary as we were exposed to the sun for a good portion of the hike. It was reaching temperatures in the 90’s now that it was midday. I knew this could also affect my hydration and although I wasn’t a Boy Scout, I turned my long sleeve shirt into a (hat) head covering.
When we were about a mile from the top, Jamie’s Camelbak ran dry. This was a situation that we didn’t plan on and we were so close and still determined to see what we had come for! Turning back didn’t seem like an option for either of us. We were checking my Camelbak for volume when a fellow hiker asked if we were okay. We replied that we ran out of water, and to our surprise she handed us a spare bottle. It was enough to keep us going to Half Dome.
As we continued to make progress, the views became even more remarkable. Roughly a half mile from the top, we could start seeing over the tree line. It was a moment to take it all in. Our original plan was to climb the cables up Half Dome but a permit is required. The only way to obtain one is to enter your name in a lottery, which We both did not get lucky. We had read online that you could try to ask other hikers if they had extra permits. It was difficult to consider turning around after we had made it so far. We were determined that luck was on our side. We asked every hiker that passed, if they had extra permits while we took a lunch break. After about 45 minutes, we hit the jackpot; our fear of not being able to climb the cables was over!
A ranger checked the permits and gave us the okay to proceed to Quarter Dome. It took maybe an hour to scale the make-shift steps of Quarter Dome and the slanted rocks in the direct sun. Unlike the rest of the trail, Quarter Dome was defined by a single file of steps (in the beginning) then proceeding to an open granite with a handful of trees. There is no dirt packed down by traffic, just climbing on a big rock. Once we made it to the top of Quarter Dome, we could finally see where we would start the cable climb. There were about 20 people going up and down when we arrived. I knew this was going to be one of the most terrifying fears I would ever attempt! We secured our poles and packs, triple checked our shoe laces and put on our gloves. Jamie asked “Who’s going first?”. I said, “I’ll go!” and grabbed onto the cables that are roughly 4 ft apart.
The first few sections were at a 45 degree angle so it wasn’t too bad, but it was scary as people passed me coming down. As people passed, I had to grab the cable on just the right side with both hands to let them by. A third of the way up, it got extremely steep. The steepest part of the climb is close to a 75 degree angle. I didn’t dare to look down to see how far I had climbed. I focused on the rock in front of me from then on. The experience was awesome; everyone had the same goal! The goal was to get up and down safely. I knew once we made it to the top of Half Dome, it was going to be the most spectacular, breathtaking view ever!
It was a relief once we reached the top of the cables, so we just took it in. All of our hard work to get there had finally paid off. The top of Half Dome was a peaceful sanctuary. We celebrated our victory with high fives and hugs. Jamie and I were thrilled! I took about ten minutes to meditate and take in the view, then I went to work on photographing the amazing panoramic view. I cranked the f/stop all the way down to f/22 for maximum depth. After 30 minutes and lots of photos and selfies, it was time to head back down.
This was my least favorite part of the trip. I was not looking forward to the climb down the cables. I knew the only way I was getting back down was the same way I came up; facing the rock. The climb down ended up going smoother than I had thought though. It was getting later in the day, so there weren’t as many people. Jamie was seemingly fearless and was down in no time. Although it seemed like an eternity, I was down in less than 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, Jamie and I were completely out of water at this point. We had talked to a group that was camping at the backpackers’ campground, which was 2-3 miles away. They told us that we were more than welcome to fill up on water there.
The hike Down Quarter dome did not go very well. The trail was not very defined. I thought I had spotted a tree that we had passed on the way up so we started climbing down there, but it was not the same tree. We were off the path and were coming up on a granite ledge with a straight drop-off. We saw two hikers on the other side of the rock. They asked us why we were off the trail and offered their assistance to get us back on track. They helped us climb over a 5 foot rock wall back onto the correct trail (Yet another guardian angel was looking out for us).
It was close to 3 p.m. when we reached the bottom of Quarter Dome. We squeezed anything that we had left from the camelback bladders for a chance at a drop of water. It was pretty scary knowing that we had 2-3 miles to go before reaching the camp for water. I didn’t know how we were going to make it; still hot Jamie was starting to slow down. My adrenaline took over; I knew we had to keep moving. Once again, it was hard to define the trail with no one else around. We got a little turned around and land marks were a blur since it had been hours since we had passed them.
After a bit we ran into 5 hikers from San Francisco. They were down to their last drops of water as well. It was at this point, that another passing hiker asked us specifically how we were doing on water and offered to filter water for us from a small stream nearby that a ranger told him about. We were ecstatic! God had answered our prayers for water. Jamie stayed behind on the trail as she was getting pretty dehydrated and fatigued. The rest of us headed down a steep hill to a big rock with a stream on the other side. Jonathan (who had grown up a Boy Scout) was prepared. He used a filter that worked like a well with a hose to submerge into the water. The hose ran up to a hand pump that would push the water into a liter size bottle. After about 15 minutes, we had 3 liters of water. It seemed like a miracle that we had water! I told Jonathan he was a Godsend and couldn’t thank him enough. What he thought was just a small favor, was a heroic act!
I went back to the trail to meet Jamie while the others stayed to pump more water. We both instantly felt energized once we got rehydrated. (Jamie also was relieved to get water.( It must have been close to 5 p.m. once we got moving again. Our spirits were lifted, but our journey was no where close to being over. We weren’t far from the section that took us 5 and 1/2 hours to hike up.
It was an ecstatic part of the hike. We couldn’t stop talking about the cable climb, the views and the whole experience. We were back on track and had water. However, my legs were pretty tired and Jamie’s feet had some serious blisters. We both wanted to rest, but we knew we needed to keep moving. We needed to get as far down as we could with the little daylight that we had left. (Luckily, we came prepared with a head lamp and flashlight even though we thought we would be back before dark.)
We decided to take a short break to rest and inventory our food and water supply. I had finished the majority of the liter from the stream, but Jamie seemed to have enough to share. We were down to a little salami, a couple pieces of beef jerky and cheese and a Quest bar. We shared the Quest bar and ate a piece of salami. Jamie bandaged her blisters and changed her socks. We were rejuvenated and ready to keep trekking.
The trails were noticeably quiet at this point. Jonathan and his wife caught up with us, along with the group of 5 from San Francisco. It was nice to see other human life. One group that we hadn’t seen for awhile was a group of two girls hiking with their mother (we hiked the majority of the way up seeing this group often). We knew their mom was struggling at the top of Half Dome and they were low on water, so we alerted some people from Canada that we passed at the backpackers’ camp.
We met so many generous people in Yosemite. The two Canadian girls offered us filtered water from their campsite. This time we weren’t dehydrated but we also weren’t in a position to pass up on water and risk being in the same situation again. Once we left the campground, we wanted to leave our fellow hikers a bottle of water. On the trail, we left the bottle and drew Veena’s name out with sticks. We know Venna got the water because she and her family ended up catching up with us. They were actually in pretty good shape because they were carrying larger water bladders in their packs, but were still thankful for the water.
We were coming up on Nevada Falls. Going down was much different than the hike up. Everything was becoming a blur and we were losing daylight now that it was about 8 p.m. The next 3 hours seemed to be the longest hours of my life. When I thought we were getting close to a landmark, we still seemed to be miles away. We turned on the head lamp and wimpy flashlight. We had to slow down quite a bit to make sure that we were staying on the trail as it became very easy to get off track in the dark. Our hike was likely extended by hours. We finally come up on a bridge that we remembered crossing, but we couldn’t remember where the trail continued. There was an open rock floor that was the size of a basketball court with endless possibilities. We searched in the dark for more than 20 minutes until a fellow hiker came through the opening of the trail. I was so excited to see another hiker, but I forgot that I was wearing a head lamp and blinded him which left him un-excited to see me. He said that he was headed to the back packers camp (he was the last hiker that we ran into on our trek). I shouted to Jamie over the loud Nevada Falls, as she was on the opposite side searching.
The next landmark we came up on was Emerald pool, also called the silver apron, which we took a photo in front of on the way up. (This is where 3 people slipped and fell to their death down Vernal Falls). This was one of my favorite stopping spots on the trail because there were resting rock to sit and take in the view. It seemed that the trail never ended before reaching the Emerald Pool; it must have been 9 p.m. when we got there. We knew we were getting closer to the end, but we were uncertain exactly how far we had to go.
We came up on the Mist Trail, which we knew was going to be slippery and wet. We had no choice but to slow down dramatically, as we feared falling into the Merced River. I would say this was the most sketchy, narrow, risky, and potentially deadly part of the hike (Well, maybe second to climbing the cables!) We made our way through the narrow part of the trail in single file, the path had steep stairs guarded by a rail atop the waterfall. Then, we reached open steps that lead down the Mist Trail which are extremely slippery. It was a very slow process, but we knew this was the only way we were going to make it back safely (We often stopped and reminded each other to NOT fall and sprain an ankle or slip and fall into the Merced River).
Once we reached the base of Mist Trail, there were a series of rock steps and straight trails that tethered back and forth. We kept thinking we were getting close to the turn that came up on the bridge with the water station. Each turn though, seemed to be another case of steps. The endless trail with the surrounding trees made the trail almost pitch dark. We took a moment to look up at the sky because we had never seen the stars so clear before. I wished that I had my tripod as the valley outlined the sky like a beautiful silhouette! I probably could have figured something out, but instead we rested and I took in the view (Maybe I will have to go back to get this shot)! The view actually gave me confidence, I trusted that God would give us strength. We were tired and fatigued, but my adrenaline took over again for there wasn’t a choice to stop.
We were again low on water, we were low on food (but weren’t very hungry); my legs were done-for, and Jamie’s blisters (on her feet) had become worse. At about 10 p.m., we finally came to the bridge with the water station! There was light at the end of the tunnel, but we had another mile of trails and another mile to the car after that. Slow and steady, we kept moving. I started to recognize parts of the trail and started thinking of dinner options. Originally, we thought we could be back by 7 p.m., so we could eat a juicy burger and drink a cold beer at the Yosemite Valley Grill. (It actually crossed my mind to bargain with some campers for a campfire hot dog near where the car was parked!)
We finally reached the end of the John Muir Trail and crossed the first bridge where we had started 16 hours ago! I knew that I had parked the car right at the opening to the Yosemite Meadows, but I was turned around and couldn’t remember what road led back to the car. I wanted to take a right, but Jamie was more sure it was to the left. We headed down the road to the left and hoped that we were getting closer to the car. A shuttle pulled to a stop and although the driver was off duty, he offered to take us down the road. I asked the driver what options we had for food, but he thought vending machines were it. It was still a 5 minute ride back, could of possibly hiked another mile. We shared everything that was left of our snacks.
On the 45 minute drive back to the park entrance, we came upon the vending machines. Together, we had one $5 bill and one $1 bill. None of the machines took the $5 bill (we both tried about 10 times each). The only machine that would take the $1 bill was the pop machine, so we settled on an Orange Crush (the best Orange Crush I’ve ever had!) Fortunately, we weren’t so desperate that we had to break the glass; really we were more tired than hungry.
We headed back to our cabin at Yosemite Lakes and we were finally done. We had been awake for nearly 20 hours when our long journey came to an end. What an adventure! We had trekked 16 miles in 16 and 1/2 hours! We had only a small amount of food, we ran out of water 3 times, we got off the trail 3 times, and we met many helpful and amazing people! We conquered an American iconic landmark; we hiked up 4,800 feet in elevation and climbed 400 feet up the cables! We actually did it! We hiked Half Dome!
I hope you have enjoyed my story and are inspired to take on a hike like this. Even though we had done a lot of planning and research before this hike, we learned one you can never be prepared enough. You just have to do it (although, I would highly recommend investing in a water filtration system)! The trekking poles were a must for this hike. I think we did well on the weight of our packs. My camera weight was heavy, but well worth bringing. Next time, I would use heavier hiking socks to prevent blisters.
It was foolish for us to continue on the hike after we first ran out of water. Safety should always be the highest priority; sometimes I think I am lucky to have made it back to write about it. Jamie and I can’t stop talking about our Half Dome hike. It was a great experience that we will never forget. Until the next hike, Cheers!
Written by Collin Leeder