Conquering Yosemite's Half Dome Hike
I was at the apex of Half Dome, celebrating my 55th birthday. I was sitting at 8,400 feet elevation after climbing 4,400 feet in nine miles, and I was only halfway through my hike. Threatening clouds soaked the sky. There was no time to sit and revel in the immense accomplishment I had just completed - there was the getting down part to attend to. My Yosemite hiking book echoed in my head: “If you see clouds accumulating...get down.”
Collecting myself after a good, healthy cry from sheer relief and total happiness, I turned to my hiking mates: “What do you think guys?”
“Let’s get the hell down these cables before those clouds let loose,” they agreed.
I had received my “Cables for Half Dome” permit six months ago. It was easily the coolest email I have opened in a very long time: “Congratulations, you have secured a lottery slot for the Half Dome Cables for Thursday, September 14, 2017.” I contacted my three closest hiking pals who responded practically immediately with, ”I’m in.”
“Going down is way easier than going up,” they said.
I didn’t expect my fellow hikers on the Half Dome trail to be so friendly and supportive. I had read that occasionally hikers on the cables can be frustrated by slower, less experienced hikers, but on this day, that was not the case.
I had trained hard for this hike. As soon as I received the confirmation email from the park service and had a concrete date to put on my calendar, I was able to make a plan. I started hiking like a boss. I started slow and worked my way up increasing distance, difficulty and speed. Training for Half Dome, for me, was similar to training for any athletic endeavor. I hit the gym and started doing lunges around the couches in the living room while the evening news was on. When the trip date came around, I was ready.
Then, the fires near Yosemite nearly ruined me. My hiking mates were flying in from three different directions to meet in Fresno, California, where I would drive from Arizona to pick them up. Plane tickets had already been bought. I was devastated. My 81-year-old dad called to make sure I was going through with my plan. Three days before we were set to start hiking, the air quality measurement was in the red/unhealthy zone. My dad had a point he wanted to make to me on the phone.
“Tori”, he said, “if you go to Yosemite, there is a chance you won’t be able to hike up to the top of Half Dome. But if you stay home, there is a 100 percent chance you won’t be able to hike up Half Dome.”
With that advice, the hike was on!
I picked up the girls at the beautiful Fresno/Yosemite airport and we were off. We found our little tent cabin and Half Dome Village to be just perfect. I will say it was a little weird - but great - to be without cell service for three days. I wasn’t expecting that, but it definitely added to the magic.
The day before the big hike, to get the bugs out of our travel legs, we hiked up to Vernal Fall bridge then to the top of Vernal Falls, over the Silver Apron to Clarks Point then back to our cute little tent cabin - seven miles. We all felt good. We spent the evening preparing for the next day. Headlamp: check; extra batteries: check; protein bars: check. We were organized. We were prepared.
My goal was to enjoy ourselves and take it all in. No time frames, just to get back to our tent cabin before dark. We were on the trail by 4:30 in the morning, headlamps on, hiking sticks in our hands.
Walking up the steps to Vernal Falls in the dark with the mist from the falls keeping the steps wet was otherworldly, to say the least. Moss was growing everywhere. The dark, damp fragrant ground made me think of Mordor. I started looking for Gollum. The ground shook from the power of the falls and the sheer noise was overwhelming. Moments later, the sun came up and I returned to a realm where I was more comfortable.
We gazed out over the top of Vernal Falls. We were shocked: The valley was clear. No smoke. It was going to be a beautiful, clear day. Thanks, Dad.
Seeing Half Dome from the actual trail for the first time was not exactly a pleasant experience. It was more like:
“No stinking way.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“I don’t think that is actually it.”
“Are those dots people?”
“No, that’s definitely a different hike.”
“That hike is for the brave people.”
We made our way up the sub-dome, which was surprisingly technical (which in plain English means damn difficult), and we found ourselves perched at the bottom of the cables leading up to the apex of Half Dome, which, six months ago, seemed like a really neat idea.
One hiking buddy is putting on her GoPro.
One hiking buddy is packing the one backpack she will lovingly take to the top for us.
One hiking buddy is saying, “Okay guys, we just need to do this before we think too much.”
I was taking the few last gulps of water, quietly wondering why exactly this ever seemed like a good idea. Why had I put myself and my beautiful friends in harm's way? If something happened to any of them, I would never forgive myself. I was using all my might to not lose my shit. I love these women. They are my family.
One step. Another step. One more step. Gloves on cables. I can do this. One more step. Don’t look. Focus. Quads burning. One more step. Stop and breathe. ShitShitShit.
I don’t know how long it took to get to the top. Time stood still. I was aware of one thing: my climb. I was naturally worried about my hiking mates, hoping they were also focusing as I was, on the climb.
We arrived back at our tent cabin well before dark. Before we allowed ourselves to lay down, for fear we wouldn’t get up, we showered and got food. Not the beer I thought I wanted, just the best damn veggie burger I have ever had in my whole life followed by the best sleep imaginable.
There are lots of ways to bond with your girls - this one was pretty extreme. It left me feeling euphoric and triumphant, yet glad it’s over.
It was perfect.
Tori is the mother of three grown children who lead impactful, engaged, and interesting lives. Her career of 30+ years as a nurse has been consumed by working exclusively with women and children. When she isn’t working, you can find her hiking in the mountains behind her home or taking long, chaotic walks with her new baby, Hank, a chocolate lab. If you ever meet Tori, you can count on her having dog treats and a blue poop bag in her pocket.