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September 13, 2009

Half Dome Run Report

“So celebrate while you still can -
‘Cause any second it may end -
And when it’s all been said and done –
Better that you had some fun … “

- Oingo Boingo, “No One Lives Forever” (video after post)

One morning during the spring, a group of us spent some trail miles discussing the adventure runs we’d like to do someday. I didn’t hesitate a second before declaring what was on the top of my list:

The more I think about it, the more embarrassed I am that I’ve spent nearly my entire life in California, but never set foot in Yosemite National Park until two years ago. And since I first laid eyes on its distinctive face, I knew that the Half Dome climb was something I had to try.

For some reason, the objective took on an increased sense of urgency through the spring and summer. More specifically - as one of the runners who accompanied me put it during a training run this summer – you never know when your own window of opportunity for doing something like this is going to close. I’d always had it in my head that I could go run Half Dome anytime I wanted – but if something ever happened that took away my ability to do it, I’d look back at all these healthy years I’ve enjoyed and regret never giving it a shot. (I know that sounds kind of morbid, but that’s where I was. I can’t help the way my brain works sometimes.)

Basically, I wanted to celebrate while I still could - so clearly, it was time for me to tackle Half Dome. Luckily, I was very fortunate to have several companions who weren’t just great runners, but had also climbed this mountain before. They proved extremely helpful as far as selecting the date, working out logistics, and generally contributing to an all-around awesome adventure. (On a related note, they’re also the people you’ll see in many of these photos; one of them is a very hip blogger friend, and the others are Monterey County dudes who thankfully don’t have issues with appearing on some idiot's running website.)

With that, we’ll jump into the report, with one administrative note: I sometimes resize pictures that end up here - but with many of these pictures, it’s hard to appreciate the distance and scale from a tiny image, so I’ve left them all at their original size. As we go along, feel free to click any picture to enlarge it and get a better sense of the scene.

Our group of seven runners left the Curry Village cabins at 6AM, reaching the Mist trailhead at first light – and this sign is a nice cue to mention that none of us knows exactly how far we ran. A few of us had GPS units that lost signals at times, and some of the distance markers along the way seemed unreliable. I’ll make a ballpark estimate of about 18 miles for the whole trip, but the mileage really didn’t matter – there was only one objective to this day.

Much of the elevation gain hits you right away, ascending the steps of the Mist Trail. When I’ve been here in the spring, water vapor from nearby Vernal Fall is heavy enough to drench you like it’s raining; in September, not so much.

Nevada Fall still had a decent volume of water, but there was nothing like the deafening roar that the top of this fall sometimes produces.

From the top of Nevada Fall, we were making good enough time that the sun hadn’t yet spilled into the valley. Good thing, too - because the day promised to be a hot one.

At this point, we still had (according to the sign) 4.5 miles to Half Dome - and from here on out, it was all new territory for me.

Running towards Little Yosemite Valley, you get some great glimpses of your destination. That smaller hump to the right is Quarter Dome, which you go up and over before hitting the cables on Half Dome. This vantage point is a beautiful sight – but it also makes you realize there’s still an awful lot of climbing ahead.

This picture requires a bit of an explanation …

That’s my friend and Western States pacer Brian, who spent much of the drive from Monterey to Yosemite Googling the fastest known times for various trail runs and rock climbing routes. He eventually found the fastest documented time for the summit route we were taking to be 94 minutes – so when we passed the 2.0 mile to go sign, we had the following exchange:

Me: We’ll set the record if we reach the top in five minutes.

Him: I don’t think we’re gonna make it.

Turns out that record time is pretty darn fast, I guess.

Over the final two miles, the terrain becomes increasingly rocky …

… and you start getting some killer views of the peak, such as this one in profile.

Before reaching the cables, you go up and over the Quarter Dome peak, where the trail is essentially a steep, multiple switchback staircase chiseled into the side of the rock.

It seems like an awfully long way up from the base of the hill …

… and the slope becomes noticeably sharper on all sides.

View near the top of Quarter Dome, looking down ... although beyond this point, looking down may not be recommended for some.

When you see the tip of Half Dome peeking over the ridgeline here, you know you’re getting close.

My first glimpse of the cables gave me an almost electrical charge; I couldn’t believe how excited I was to finally be there.

Here’s a question: how many people get to see the Half Dome cables with nobody on them? At 8AM on a Friday morning, that’s exactly what I was looking at. Unbelievable. Not only that …

… but the summit was practically deserted as well. There were no more than 10 other people on top when we arrived; it was like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. (In the distance, you can see some rock formations – more on those in a minute.)

With increasing frequency, whenever I’m at the top of some climb and looking to just chill out for a while, I get this overwhelming urge to kick my shoes off and play around in bare feet – so for the 30 minutes that we were on top, that’s exactly what I did.

As soon as my shoes were off, I immediately made a beeline to the point I had been dreaming about for months: the “diving board” portion of the summit that overhangs the rest of the rock formation.

This picture freaks my wife out; apparently the enormous pile of loosely stacked boulders on an unstable geologic formation notorious for its frequent rockslides gives her reason for concern. Or something like that.

Obviously, I wasn’t too stressed about it. I wore this same loopy grin on my face just about the entire time I was on top of that rock; I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world.

I decided to check out the valley below from a couple of different vantage points …

… because there’s really no better way to appreciate a 4,000’ vertical drop than when you’re staring right over the precipice of it.

After a while, I dragged myself away from the diving board and checked out the rest of the summit area. As you’d expect from a world-famous landmark, some of the rock formations on top were world-class. I’m still trying to figure out how somebody made this arch. The two structures in the background aren’t too shabby, either. It’s really a shame that all of this artwork will be buried and collapsed under snow in just a few months.

Eventually it was time to head back down … and if the cables gave you the jitters going up, on the descent they were positively dizzying. It’s a barely-controlled plunge down a 45-degree slope for 400 vertical feet. I wore my most grippy trail runners (La Sportiva Wildcats), and I was still slipping down large stretches from post to post. Just something else to keep the blood pumping, in case your adrenaline wasn’t flowing enough from being above 8000’.

Descending Quarter Dome, there’s no choice but to look down. Needless to say, it’s kind of important to watch your step here.

We took a little break at the Muir Trail bridge at the Merced River crossing, just before the river cascades over Nevada Fall. It’s a nice place to drop your hydration pack …

… and take a plunge in the cold water. The day was getting warm by this point (it would eventually get to the mid-90s), and after more than 13 miles of running, this little break felt amazingly refreshing.

We took an alternate route down from here, choosing the John Muir Trail instead of backtracking on the Mist Trail. The first part of it is an engineering marvel carved into the side of the hill.

One last glimpse of Half Dome (left) and Liberty Cap (right) before they drop out of sight on the descent. Liberty is very much in the foreground, which explains why it looks bigger than Half Dome, in case you were wondering.

Nevada Fall in the background one final time as we descend the switchbacks of the Muir Trail. This route features a pretty consistent grade all the way down to the junction with the Mist Trail, where it’s only another mile to the main trailhead.

From that point, it was one more mile to Curry Village, where we grabbed a camp shower, ate some lunch, and were on the road home by 1:00 PM. Before we left the park, though, I had one final order of business …

When I visited Yosemite in April, I stood in line at the lodge gift shop, waiting to buy a hat with the park’s famous Half Dome logo on it. I stopped myself just short of the register, filled with a sudden, overwhelming conviction that I shouldn’t buy the hat yet. I think it was my runner’s instinct bubbling to the surface – the same code of honor that says you shouldn’t wear the shirt of a race you didn’t run. Whether right or wrong, I resolved then not to buy anything with Half Dome on it until I actually climbed the thing.

So we stopped at the store again last week … and this time, I got my hat.

Given a few days to think about it, I really don’t know how this trip could have gone any better. The weather was ideal. Our timing on the trail was perfect. We essentially had the peak to ourselves when we got up there, and were well back down the hill before the larger crowds came trudging upward later in the morning. Our group stayed intact nearly the whole time, and I got to share with them a wonderful experience that I’ll remember forever. When it was all said and done, all of us had a ton of fun. It all went so well, that If I were ever to do this run again, I honestly can’t imagine how the experience can be improved.

Maybe I’ll just have to try it someday to find out.

Oingo Boingo, "No One Lives Forever" (click to play):


Jon (was) in Michigan 9/15/09, 4:10 AM  

Aha! I knew it was too coincidental that Jeff mentioned being there as well. Very cool.

I'm pretty sure if I ever got up there, I would have a hard time going back down that cable ladder thing.

JohnF 9/15/09, 6:32 AM  

Thanks for this descriptions and pictures. I will be there in a couple of weeks for the first time. Looking forward to it.

21stCenturyMom 9/15/09, 6:40 AM  

That answered my question about Jeff. I have somewhat lost my ability to distinguish between my blogger friends and my real life friends which, when you think of it, isn't such a bad thing.

What a fabulous trip. I now have a big desire to get to Yosemite some weekday morning by 8 AM and have a look around the unfettered valley floor and then head for the high ground. Great photos!

Alisa 9/15/09, 8:17 AM  


It's embarrassing for me to admit, I'm a born and raised California and I've never been to Yosemite. Neither has my native California husband. Next summer we are going!

jeff 9/15/09, 9:29 AM  

don't let him fool you, folks. the day wasn't as bright and sunshiny with bluebirds on your shoulders as he makes it out to be.

did he mention the bear in the parking lot that almost ate us? no.

did he mention the blistering pace going up the mountain that had us all redlining our hr? no.

did he mention how he tried to get us to break the record on the descent? by leaping off the diving board? no.

did he mention that diving into that beautiful pool at the top of nevada falls meant risking being swept away by the current and to a certain death on the rocks below? no.

did he mention the killer squirrels? UGH!! THE SQUIRRELS!! no.

don't let him fool you. nay, nay, dear readers, donald is all sunshine and rainbows on the outside, but beneath that positive and motivating exterior is psychotic pool of DEATH.

don't say i didn't warn you.

shel 9/15/09, 9:46 AM  

freaking gorgeous! what an awesome experience. and of course, all i was thinking about when i saw that arch someone had constructed at the summit was... bare feet! perfect!

olga 9/15/09, 11:35 AM  

Stunningly beautiful.

Deene 9/15/09, 3:04 PM  

beautiful scenery. my fingers got sweaty and tingly at the cables view, i like the altitude but that is way steep!

Backofpack 9/15/09, 8:10 PM  

Whoa! What an awesome day. Incredible photos - thanks for sharing with us.

don 9/15/09, 10:07 PM  

Thank you so much for this post, I found it quite inspiring. The photos are spectacular.

Gretchen 9/16/09, 4:37 PM  

I'm so glad it went so perfectly! Sweet pics too, of course. Gotta love it when you can't shake that goofy grin.

triguyjt 9/16/09, 5:44 PM  

that was a very fun post to read...what an experience...wow...and yes i can see why your bride would freak at that photo...

man ..did you look like you enjoyed the hell out of that

Rainmaker 9/16/09, 6:12 PM  

Wow, that's incredible. I was wondering when you posted the other day how you managed to get a picture with nobody in it...makes sense.

And yes, that cable picture is awesome.

Jo Lynn 9/16/09, 9:30 PM  

Congratulations! I WILL make it next time, I promise. I can't believe there was not a single soul on the cables. I knew if I made it up that quarter dome (shoulder, as I call it), I would have had trouble coming back down. Quite steep, right?

robtherunner 9/17/09, 4:37 PM  

I think I would be a bit wobbly making it up those cables. I am getting tunnel vision just thinking about it. You wouldn't find me standing on the diving board either unless I was hooked to a cable with a straight jacket. Looks like a must do though!

Sunshine Girl 9/17/09, 7:37 PM  

It's *almost* as pretty as Banff National Park! :)

Notleh,  9/20/09, 4:22 PM  

Great story!

I did this hike when I was about 13 as the start of a week long trek along the John Muir trail and have many fantastic memories.

Your story has inspired me to put this trip on my calendar for 2010.

jen 9/22/09, 6:08 AM  

I've been saving this post and boy it was worth it. WOW! Congrats on the climb. Sounds like an amazing experience. The photos are astounding. I feel queasy just looking at them (a bit afraid of heights). It looks like you had a great time though. Thanks for sharing!

Darrell 11/4/09, 6:23 PM  

What a great day. Thanks for sharing the experience through words and photos. Hiking Half Dome is on my life list. I almost did it 12 or so years ago, but got really sick the day we were supposed to go up. We haven't been back to Yosemite since.

don 5/16/10, 8:51 AM  

Your post inspired me to visit Yosemite on my way home from Ironman St George a couple of weeks ago. I was able to hike to the base of Half Dome but then turned back because the snow was quite deep. I was a bit disappointed at not reaching the summit however a Ranger later advised me that several people had slid in the snow and were "missing".
I cant wait to go back and do some of the other 800 miles of trails that run through Yosemite.

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