by Hank Leukart
March 24, 2010
After climbing Half Dome, I can’t bear to leave Yosemite.
A view of Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley, seen from Glacier Point (view all Yosemite National Park, Ca. photos)
OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — I’m lying in bed thinking how much I hate my friends Laura and Justin. I hate them because it’s six o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, and my cell phone is ringing, and it’s them calling, and no one should ever call me at 6 A.M. I push a button on my phone, sending them to the darkest bowels of the AT&T voicemail system: my cold, cruel voicemail greeting. It doesn’t even instruct callers to leave a message, because if I never get another voicemail message for the rest of my life, I’ll die a happy man. Then I roll over, make a mental note to hire a hit man to kill them, and go back to sleep.
When I wake again at ten o’clock, I see a big red dot on my phone’s screen, an indicator that I need to record a new voice mail greeting: one that’s even more unsympathetic, harsh, and threatening. I imagine it: “I screened your call because I hate you. Goodbye.” It then occurs to me that creating a nasty voicemail greeting may not be a healthy or mature response to being woken up early on a weekend day. I feel like maybe the urban sprawl of Los Angeles may be gnawing at me a bit too much, penetrating and poisoning my core.
“Get in your car right now and drive the six hours to meet us in Yosemite!” I hear Laura yelling enthusiastically from San Jose when I reluctantly play back the voicemail message. “We’re going to hike to the top of Half Dome tomorrow.”
I haven’t visited Yosemite National Park since middle school, but I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Half Dome ever since a girl, whom I secretly wanted to date after working with her in an office in Los Angeles, described her Half Dome hike to me one day. When she then showed me stunning photos of her boyfriend’s on-top-of-the-Dome marriage proposal, I reluctantly conceded that I had missed my chance with her, but her pictures of the bewilderingly enormous granite Dome captured my imagination. Later, when I read that early environmental crusader and Sierra Club-founder John Muir described Half Dome as “the most beautiful and most sublime of all the wonderful Yosemite rocks,” it further cemented my desire to tackle it.
I call Laura back, demand that she never call me at 6 A.M. ever, ever again, and then I tell her I’m on my way. I grab my backpack, a tent, and some Clif Bars, jump into my car, and drive toward the Park. As I drive through the Los Angeles traffic on Melrose Avenue, I think to myself, Good riddance, urban sprawl.
When I reach the edge of the Park, I see a forest fire billowing smoke in front of a glorious Yosemite sunset, and I realize that my friends have somehow tricked me into driving, on a whim, into the heart of a National Park that’s literally on fire. But the sight of striped red and orange bands of sunlight and smoke shooting across the sky, with helicopters overhead dropping water on the fire, is a majestic sight. I reluctantly decide not to hire the hit man to kill my friends, because, after all, when I arrive at the campsite, I don’t want two dead bodies on my hands.
When I arrive in the evening at the Park’s North Pines campground, I have two dead bodies on my hands. Okay, well not dead, exactly, but Laura and Justin are exhausted from their drive to the park, and since their plan is for us to start hiking at 4 A.M. to avoid a crowded trail (why do I have friends like this?!), we eat some grilled steak and go immediately to sleep in our tents. I casually mention that Yosemite is on fire, but they seem unperturbed.
I’m lying in my sleeping bag thinking, again, how much I hate my friends Laura and Justin. I hate them because it’s four o’clock in the morning, and they’re yelling at me to get out of my tent and grab my backpack. I weasel out of my sleeping bag, make another mental note to hire a hit man to kill them, and then we start tackling 16 miles and 4,750 feet of elevation, toward the top of Half Dome. John Muir would be proud, I think.
The first 90 minutes of our hike is before sunrise, and we climb up the notoriously slippery Mist Trail using headlamps, past Vernal and Nevada Falls. I know from reading John Muir’s classic wilderness book The Yosemite and seeing photographs that the Falls are beautiful, but in the dark, I can only hear the thousands of gallons of rushing water crashing down adjacent to the trail, showering us as we climb. As we near Little Yosemite Valley, the sun peeks out from behind mountaintops, casting a golden glow on the granite dome of Liberty Cap so that it looks like a massive popcorn kernel waiting to explode from the sun’s heat. We hike under enormous pine, fir, and cedar trees with dark red trunks and emerald pine needles soaring hundreds of feet above us, when a rattlesnake crosses the trail. Timid, it slithers off the path, warning us with its trademark rattle, and three deer elegantly prance past us under the tree branches.
When we begin the slow, exhausting climb up the sheer side of the sub-dome below Half Dome, I see a tiny, eight year old kid effortlessly jumping up the mountain as though his legs are made of springs. I am jealous of this show-off, who weighs only 80 pounds. I secretly hope he’ll start crying and get too scared to make it to the top, because he’s definitely making my sluggish ascent look stupid.
As Justin, Laura, the Annoying Show-Off Kid, and I crest the hill immediately below the final climb to the top of the Dome, we all gasp, half in awe and half in terror. We see a massive silver, granite slab rising about 1,000 feet above us into a cloudless blue sky. It’s so big that, from our vantage point at the bottom, I can’t fit the whole thing into a single wide-lens photo. Though I’ve seen previously countless photos of the hikers’ route to the top, which sports cables installed by the Park Service to aid in the ascent, the route looks shockingly precipitous. From our position, it feels like we’re grasshoppers readying to walk up the vertical, smooth side of the Empire State Building. Even the springing Annoying Show-Off Kid hesitates, waiting for his father to join him.
Justin and Laura start the climb, and I follow behind them. It’s a surprisingly strenuous cardiovascular workout, battling gravity to reach the top of Yosemite’s most recognizable rock formation. The normally unflappable Laura looks petrified as she slowly inches toward the peak. Finally, the three of us reach the summit, breathing heavily and sweating with adrenaline rushing through our bodies. Laura, finding that she has suddenly become terrified of heights, sits safely in the middle of the Dome’s surface, not wanting to get anywhere near the edges, though they are at least 200 feet in every direction. The three of us eat a lunch of turkey sandwiches as we look out from a height of 8,836 feet above the dramatic expanse of Yosemite Valley, with its complex granite rock formations, pine tree forests, and sprawling meadows. The epic views make us feel dizzy and drunk.
“I want to stay here forever,” I say, looking down into the Valley below.
“I never want to leave,” Justin agrees.
“I want to go down, right now,” Laura pleads.
Laura’s fear of heights aside, Justin and I are not the first people to feel such a strong, immediate connection to Yosemite.
“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” John Muir wrote. “Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life… as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.” I find that my only regret in climbing Half Dome is that I’m not with my work crush at the peak.
When the Annoying Show Off Kid joins us at the top of the Dome with his father, I feel bad for labeling him the Annoying Show Off Kid. He’s actually an exceptionally brave eight year old, especially compared to Vertigo-Infected Laura, who is begging us to let her climb back down.
We congratulate and wave goodbye to the Incredibly Brave Kid and then begin the descent back to the Valley floor. During the trip down, I run into two women, Kathryn and Sharon, from my alma mater, who are hiking the entire 211-mile John Muir trail. I want to beg them to take me with them to spend 18 days surrounded by nothing but wilderness, but since I’m carrying nothing but two full bottles of water, I suspect they wouldn’t find me an asset to their journey.
As we continue to descend, Justin catches sight of a black bear, which I frustratingly manage to miss. But after a roundtrip total of 16 miles and nine hours, we reach Pizza Patio in Yosemite’s Curry Village, home of the tastiest pizza in the Park. We sit, gobbling the perfectly baked from-scratch crust smothered in gooey mozzarella. As we eat, I open Yosemite’s newspaper and see a huge scheduling grid of the Park’s hundreds of events and activities: photography classes, mountain climbing, backpacking trips, horseback riding, and much more. There’s a lifetime worth of stuff to do. It pains me knowing that in a few short hours, all of the Park’s weekend visitors, including me, will return to their homes, surrounded by urban sprawl, after spending only a day or two in the peaceful wilderness.
But when I gaze up at the severe granite slabs towering above me, I feel like I’m already home.
“I really do want to live here,” I say, dreamily.
Laura and Justin look into my eyes, and they can see that I’ve already decided. As they head back to San Jose in their car, I start looking for a place to live, maybe for a week, maybe more, in Yosemite National Park.
Read the second part of this series in which Hank discovers the birthplace of modern rock climbing and is terrorized by the world’s smartest bear.
How to Hike Half Dome
- Because of safety concerns due to overcrowding, permits to hike Half Dome are now required on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays when the Half Dome cables are installed (usually May 21 through October 11). Yosemite issues 400 permits every day, but they are not available in the park. Hikers must apply for a permit in advance through the National Recreation Reservation Service from between four months to one week in advance of hiking.
- Park your car in the trailhead parking lot near Happy Isles. Starting at 7am, you can take a shuttle to the trailhead, but if you’re starting your hike before sunrise, simply walk the half-mile to the trailhead.
- Hiking Half Dome is a 16-mile round trip with a total elevation gain of 4,750 feet. If you are an experienced hiker, you can complete the hike in around eight hours, but most hikers will require 10 to 12 hours. Leave at sunrise (or earlier) to give yourself enough time. The earlier that you leave, the less crowded the cables will be.
- Be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight, at least four liters of water, a picnic lunch for a lunch break at the top, and a topographical map of the area in case you get lost (though the trail is very well marked).
- There are two different routes at the beginning of the hike: the Mist Trail route is steeper and shorter, while the John Muir Trail route is longer but not as steep. I recommend taking Mist Trail in at least one direction (on the way down is easiest) so you can see beautiful Vernal and Nevada Falls.
- Two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to Half Dome’s summit without requiring technical climbing equipment. The cables can become very crowded in the middle of the day. Use extreme caution and take your time when you’re using the cables, and whatever you do, do not attempt to climb up the Dome outside the cable route (unless you are knowledgeable and using climbing equipment).
- View my route and download the Without Baggage Half Dome GPS track in GPX or KML format.