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August 10, 2011

Welcome to Existence: Half Dome Hike Report

“Welcome to the planet - welcome to existence …

Tension is here - between who you are and who you could be –
Between how it is and how it should be –

I dare you to move –
I dare you to move like today never happened before.”

- Switchfoot, “Dare You to Move” (video after post)

Somewhere in the middle of Yosemite National Park last week, a thought occurred to me: this trip had all the makings of a rite of passage.

Not long ago, my son turned thirteen – which is something of a milestone not only for its entry into the teenage wilderness, but for the dawning of what most grownups would call “real life”. Grades count. Relationships matter. The world starts keeping score. It’s the beginning of a whole new existence.

Coincidentally, he’s wanted to hike to the top of Half Dome for a couple of years now … and until this year, I honestly didn’t think he was ready. But he’s gradually become a strong kid, and at some point during all the hiking and mountain biking miles we’ve shared, it occurred to me that he was almost certainly capable. So we put a date on the calendar (and grabbed ourselves a permit – more on that later) which happened to fall shortly after his birthday, and finally made the pilgrimage to Yosemite.

In hindsight, our trip was a fitting adventure to mark the transition, because exploring Yosemite is about experiencing life at its most promising. It’s about leaving the everyday person you are at home for a while, and getting a glimpse of the kind of person you could be. It highlights the difference between how the world is and how it should be. And it inspires you to appreciate each day for the unique wonders it beholds.

But that’s enough dime store philosophy for one post, so I’ll just get to the report.

(As always, click to enlarge any photo.)

The journey we had before us was certainly daunting - an 18-mile round trip with nearly 5000’ of climbing - but one of our biggest challenges of the day was the very first task: getting out of our Curry Village tent cabins 90 minutes before sunrise. My son saw this one coming; in fact, it was one of my criteria for taking him to Yosemite in the middle of summer. There was no way I wanted to deal with the crowds or heat that both become insufferable in the mid-afternoon - and to my son’s credit, he didn’t protest at all when the alarm went off at 4AM. I took that as a good sign.

Fortunately, he and I had hiked the Mist Trail a couple of times before, so he wasn’t concerned with doing much sightseeing on our journey into the dark.

I’m skipping through the report on the Mist Trail up to Nevada Fall for a couple of reasons: 1) the majority of it was too dark for good photos, and 2) I’ve done two separate reports on the Mist Trail – one here, and the other here – you can read. However, I have to say that it was pretty cool making our way up the rock stairs and alongside cliffs with the roaring of the massive waterfalls in our ears; those falls don’t have to be visible to make their presence known.

Above Nevada Fall, we made our way into Little Yosemite Valley, which was a welcome sight because it’s the only flat section of the entire hike …

… and because daybreak was finally lighting the trail for us, as well as brilliantly illuminating our destination in the distance.

From the base of Yosemite Valley you encounter a relentless climb through beautiful Sierra forests of the John Muir Trail …

… and finally branch onto the Half Dome Trail that marks the beginning of the dedicated ascent of the mountain.

Incidentally, by the time we reached this point, we had been on the trail for approximately three hours, and saw only two people: a pair of rock climbers making their way to the Snake Dike route up the southwest face. Earlier, I told my son that if we woke up early enough, we’d have almost the whole park to ourselves – and luckily, that’s just the way it worked out.

After 7 miles of mostly climbing, as the hike was beginning to take a toll on our legs, we got our first real look at the peak through the trees in the distance.

Seeing the top of the hill has an almost magnetic effect in pulling weary hikers closer to the final goal, which is a good thing, since the most difficult climbing still lies ahead …

… such as scrambling up over the shoulder of Half Dome, a steep grade where the trail eventually fades into a raw expanse of granite. As long as you’re going uphill, you’re headed the right way.

Cresting the shoulder, the sight of the curved dome and the cables is almost enough to take your breath away – and for my son, it also triggered a minor case of high mountain jitters.

We sat down at the base of the cables to put on harnesses, a safety decision that I planned long before arriving in Yosemite, but one I was especially happy to have made in light of the fact that someone had fallen off the cables and died a mere three days before. However, this was also one of the few moments where my carefully crafted plan faltered a bit.

On the whole drive up and throughout the hike, I purposely didn’t say anything to my son about someone dying very close to the exact spot where we now stood. But as we were at the base of the cables and I was giving him a lesson on carabiner use, we spotted a woman coming down the cables using the same kind of harness system. I pointed her out and told my son to watch how she alternated the clips as she went along. When the woman arrived at our spot, she started the following conversation:

Her: I’m glad to see that you guys are using harnesses.

Me: I figured we’d feel a lot more secure with them.

Her: Yeah, that’s good … because you know that someone died here this week, right?

And with that, I cut off the conversation and pushed my son toward the cables.

Thankfully we were the only ones on the cables, which meant that we could take all the time we needed. We inched our way through the first minor slope together, and by the time he was about halfway up, my son was managing on his own quite well – which was great for me, since I was having my own concerns about staying anchored to the granite on the nearly 45-degree pitch.

My son’s persistence was finally rewarded, and we made it to the top of the rock, with practically the whole summit to ourselves. By this point, the early morning wake-up call was a distant memory.

Apparently there’s some confusion about the name of this spot; in my previous report, I called it the Diving Board, only to find out that another location on the western slope of Half Dome has the same name. I think the official name is the Visor, but if this Google image search is any indication, that name has a long way to go before it sticks.

Incidentally, want to hear what my wife calls it? The “You guys are going to give me a heart attack” spot. But for some reason, that one’s not on Google.

Once we safely arrived at the top, we spent about an hour enjoying the killer views while munching on some trail mix …

… a healthy portion of which we ended up sharing with this marmot. True story: at one point when we were walking around the rock, I returned to find Mr. Marmot sitting on my backpack, right next to the pocket that he unzipped and the Ziploc seam he opened to get into my food. I suspect he’s pretty well-practiced at that sort of thing.

Two side notes about our footwear for the day:

1) My son wore a pair of Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves that the company offered when I was setting up an upcoming children’s shoe review, even though my son was too large to fit in any of the kids’ models. They were absolutely perfect for him, with the best outsole traction imaginable on Half Dome’s smooth granite … and the fact that Merrell stepped up to provide them even though I’d already reviewed the shoe tells you all you need to know about the company.

2) I wore the Vibram FiveFingers KSO Treks that have become my gold standard for day hiking. For as common as Vibrams have become at trail races, they’re still very much a novelty among hikers. About 2 miles down the trail on our return trip, my son said “We should count the number of people who say something about your shoes” … and we both lost count somewhere in the 30s.

When we were finally ready to leave the summit, it was time to rope up again – a technique that’s probably even more beneficial for the descent than it is for the climb. On my last visit here, I didn’t use clips, and it didn’t seem like that big of a deal – but when there’s a kid involved, it’s absolutely non-negotiable. I can’t overemphasize how much peace of mind being clipped into the cables gave both of us …

… especially as the slope steepened and seemed to curve downward into the abyss.

It was only at the base of the cables that we encountered any noticeable foot traffic. My plan to be off the cables before the summer gridlock started was executed to near perfection. Have I mentioned the benefits of waking up early already?

(And for the record, yes, every single person on the cables asked about my Vibrams.)

A few people have inquired about the impact of this year’s new permit requirement on crowding, but because we got up and down so early in the day, it’s tough for me to assess this for sure. However, I can offer two observations …

Making our way down the shoulder, we initially enjoyed an open path, but encountered increasing numbers of people as we went further down the trail – so I suspect that if you’re on the shoulder or near the cables anytime in the middle of a summer afternoon, you’re still going to deal with a good-sized crowd. We also overheard at least a few groups making comments like, “maybe we can sneak past the ranger,” or “maybe the ranger won’t be there,” so the deterrent factor isn’t 100% effective.

As for the aforementioned ranger …

She was there, but not until sometime around 9AM. This photo was taken on our way down; when we passed this spot at about 8:15, there wasn’t anyone in sight. So there is definitely a ranger on duty, but apparently they keep something close to bankers’ hours – which isn’t too surprising, as I imagine the commute is a bit of a challenge.

We weren’t asked for our permit on the way down, so it turned out that we didn’t even need it; whether that’s the way it always works on every day of the season is uncertain.

What wasn’t uncertain was how expertly my son handled himself throughout the hike. His legs wore down a bit over the final miles, especially going back down the countless rock steps of the Mist Trail at the end of a 10-hour day. But through it all, he never complained, and never did anything foolish to get himself into trouble.

And I didn’t have to wonder very long whether he thought doing this sort of thing was the way he wanted life to be …

... because when we were less than a mile down the trail on our return, he pointed out Clouds Rest a few miles further (and 1100’ higher) into the wilderness, and said “That’s the one we’ll do next.” And we talked about the beauty of Yosemite almost the whole rest of the way down.

Appreciating the experiences we have, while looking hopefully to the promise of days to come: I’d say this kid is officially ready to venture into the world.

Switchfoot, "Dare You to Move" (click to play):

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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Gretchen 8/10/11, 9:46 PM  

Have I told you how much I love Yosemite? And that as a reader (and writer) of Young Adult Fiction, coming-of-age-stories are my favorite? Especially within the genre of realistic fiction, (or even memoir).

My very favorite.

You're right - this is a perfect coming-of-age narrative.

Also, Snake Dike was my first route up Half Dome, and I think VFF's are possibly the perfect Yosemite downclimbing shoe. But I think I did tell you those things already.

Haven't had a chance to listen to the song yet, but I have a feeling I'll dig it.

Congrats to your young man!

Meghan 8/10/11, 10:05 PM  

Your son deserves a big congratulations. And, this was a great write-up. I'm sure he'll love looking back at this.

David 8/11/11, 4:02 AM  

One of my best memories of childhood was hiking the Berg Lake Trail behind Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. I was only 11 at the time, but was not too young to be awed by the majesty of the waterfalls, glacial streams, and even ice bergs.

As an adult, I have dreams now of turning the 40K overnight hike into an epic long run. But even more than that, I want to share the experience with my children when they are old enough.

Congrats to your son!

Anne 8/11/11, 5:53 AM  

My daughter's hiking up Half Dome next week, and I'm more than a little nervous for her. This post helped, but I doubt she's got such a good leader (or footwear) as you.

Nice song. That's a local band, and I remember when that piece got a lot of airplay. Nice to remember way back when.

Cherylrunner 8/11/11, 5:57 AM  

Beautiful report, Donald! Your son is so lucky to have you as his dad and congrats to him! So glad you used biners on the cables. I wish I'd had them when I was on the dome several years ago. It is a scary climb down!

.:Ash:. 8/11/11, 9:22 AM  

What a great report from the hike! Those photos are spectacular. And, you've definitely sold me on the idea of taking the family to Yosemite in the future. I'll probably wait until at least one of my sons is a little older though. I can't imagine that 5-year old would be able to enjoy the park as much.

Dan 8/11/11, 9:41 AM  

Story telling like this is one of the things that makes Running and Rambling a must-read blog. Well done, Donald.

Morgan Hill

Thomas 8/11/11, 11:59 AM  

Beautiful entry! Quite possibly your best ever.

Brandon,  8/12/11, 12:18 PM  

Nice work on half dome. Just wanted to point something out with the use of a harness and slings as I have seen many people using them on the cables. If the slings aren't dynamic(unless its a via ferrata specific sling it isn't) then a tiny fall will result in such a large impact force that it will break the carabiners and probably multiple bones in your body. This is much more important than people realize as they think they are being safer, when in reality a small fall would likely still be fatal. Petzl.com has much more info on this if anyone is interested.

c.bellevie 8/13/11, 9:03 AM  

What a great post! Leaves me anxious to share the trail with my own son. Congrats to you both!

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