Chris and Joel disturb a black bear at the Porcupine Creek trailhead
One of the many snow plants in the higher elevations. These entirely bright red plants have no chlorophyll and come out immediately after the snow melts.
Joel on North Dome with Yosemite Valley in the background
Chris on North Dome with snowy peaks behind
Chris posing with dramatic Indian Rocks
Joel and Toby at the top of Vernal Falls
Kristi, Amy, and Joel in the wee hours at Vernal footbridge
All systems go as head farther up the trail
The famous cables leading to the summit of Half Dome
Joel near Little Yosemite
The girls pose with Nevada Falls
Amy with one of the many trail signs
Amy and Kristi at the top of the "Stairs of Doom"
The summit of Half Dome is surprisingly flat.
The happy summit team
Kristi descending the cables-"Look Mom, no hands"
After much negotiation the day before, I found myself rolling out of my sleeping bag at 4:30 am on June 29, 2010 so I could be on the trail to Half Dome at 5:00 am with Joel and Amy Brewster. Joel felt 4:00 am was a more prudent starting time, so we could beat the crowds on the trail and the hot weather that was certain to find us around noontime. Amy and I, though, found 4:00 am to be a crazy hour; we were thinking more like 6:00 am. Democracy ruled the day, and 5:00 am was chosen. Turns out, we did beat most of the crowds, making the day safer and smoother, and we managed to stay ahead of the worst of the heat, too.
The trail to Half Dome is one of my favorites. Along the way, you pass right next to beautiful Vernal and Nevada Falls, both pounding with fresh, abundant snow melt even into late June. Early on, you can see Illilouette Falls in the distance – it was still a little dark when Illilouette came into view for us, and we were graced with a spectacular view of the cliffs, the Falls and the nearly full moon. The trail also takes you through a lovely, albeit mosquito-filled, forest and across a tranquil area dubbed “Little Yosemite Valley.”
There's also a bit of adventure on the way to Half Dome, in addition to the famed cables. After a little more than a mile on the Mist Trail, you realize exactly why they chose that name. Along the side of Vernal Falls, the trail turns into a set of tall steps aggressively leading you to the top while the mist off the falls swirls ceaselessly around you. Honestly, it's pretty fun, even at 5:30 am in the relative darkness. Amy and I screamed in unison as waves of heavy, cold mist hit us, and Joel casually trudged along, blind since his soaking-wet glasses lacked windshield wipers.
The sun still hadn't made an appearance by the time we topped Vernal Falls, so the next couple miles were a little brisk for us wet hikers. That section of trail took us up the side of Nevada Falls and delivered us to Little Yosemite Valley. We'd been on the trail for a less than 2 hours at this point, and we'd covered 2.5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation. We were making great time. Once the sun entered the picture (and the heat with it), though, we started to slow down. Especially through the forested section of the journey, which offered less shade than you might expect from a forest, we seemed to take a lot of snack breaks.
After the forest, the most challenging section of the hike confronted us – what my husband refers to as the “Stairs of Doom.” So, up we plodded through the stair switchbacks cut into the granite that ultimately delivered us to the base of Half Dome. All that was left was 400' of cables to help us climb the slick granite of Half Dome itself. Since we'd gotten an early start, there weren't many people on the cables when we got there, and the vast majority were going up like us. So, we hopped in line and began our ascent. Along the way, we were entertained by a guy who dropped both a camera lens and his water bottle, and frightened by some descenders who seemed in over their heads as they careened down from board to board (the cables are held in place by metal posts positioned every 10 feet or so, and wooden planks run horizontally between the posts to give hikers a place to rest).
However, before we knew it, we'd arrived safely on the summit. After a quick survey of the land, we found a little spot for an early lunch (it was about 10:30 am) near the “diving board.” Pictures of Joel and I on the diving board followed, after we promised Amy we'd safely stay back from the edge. I did, though, peer over when she wasn't looking so I could take in the valley floor some 5,000 feet directly below. Looking upward and outward, we saw Yosemite Valley, including Yosemite Falls and El Cap, and portions of the still snow-covered High Sierra.
Our time on top also included flirting with a marmot who cutely stuck his head out from under some rocks now and again, and some high-fiving when we realized two tall, dark and handsome Germans who had passed us like we were standing still back in Little Yosemite Valley were on the summit at the same time as us. We'd like to think we kept pace with them, but the reality probably is that they'd taken a two-hour summit nap while we were slogging up the trail.
Grand 360 degree views from the top of Half Dome
So all that was left was getting down – 7+ miles and around 5,000 feet of down – starting with a descent of the cables. Enough time had passed that the cables were getting busy, so maneuvering down was a wee bit tricky. Slow and steady, though, we made it to the bottom. Joel arrived first, and he had some time to hang out with a ranger who was counting hikers. Apparently, 190 people had already gone up or had started up the cables by that time (I think it was around 11:30). She informed Joel that by next summer, Half Dome Cable permits will likely be required every day of the week to keep the crowds down. This summer was the first time Yosemite required permits – 400 are doled out each Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the week, you can summit without a permit.
Kristi and Amy come down the cables carefully passing the throngs going up
So, we worked our way down the cables, through the “Stairs of Doom,” then the forest and Little Yosemite Valley, passed Nevada and Vernal Falls, and finally to our campsite in Upper Pines at just past 4:00. Stops along the way included a picnic along the Merced River, a water refill at the top of Nevada Falls, and a first aid intervention on Joel's hands – his decison not to wear gloves on the cables left him with shards of metal imbedded in his palms. Once back at camp, we had plenty of time to clean ourselves up (Amy and I via the Curry Village showers and Joel via the 40 degree stream that ran adjacent to our campsite) before going out for pizza with the families. It was a perfect ending to a fabulous day!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Unfortunately we were only able to secure one campsite (not the four we were attempting to get) due to Yosemite's high popularity, and therefore could not make it the big LVMC trip we had originally planned.
Joel and Kristi standing on the "Diving Board"
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