Half Dome Summit

Half Dome Summit

| Jeanne stands on the summit of Half Dome gazing outward at Yosemite Valley. |

Half Dome. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of California and the American West, save perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge. The imposing hunk of glacier-carved granite that graces personalized license plates across our great state.

Despite spending my entire life thus far in California, I have never had the opportunity to summit this iconic landmark. For the last few seasons, I’ve been playing the pre-season permit lottery in the spring with no luck. Then, when the cables go up in early summer and the climbing season opens, I’ve continued to play the daily lottery, where you apply for a hiking permit 48 hours in advance, hoping to get a permit for the following day so I could immediately jump in my car and drive the eight-plus hours to Yosemite from San Diego to summit and then return home. For a state with pretty strong anti-gambling laws, they sure have turned the Half Dome permit lottery into a crazed addiction for me.

This summer, as always, began permitless. My working game plan—after poring over the statistics on the National Parks website for number of permits applied for by day of the week—was to keep entering the daily lottery for a mid-week hike with a group size of one (sorry, friends), in order to maximize my odds of securing my coveted hiking permit and finally satiate my addiction. The one (and only, I maintain) benefit of graduate school is that you can disappear mid-week to do a bucket list hike without asking anyone’s permission, and the only potential consequence is your advisor maybe yelling at you and threatening to end your scientific career for missing 24 hours of lab time. (Just kidding.) (Am I kidding?)

Half Dome Winter Stars

| Half Dome and the lights of Curry Village during Christmas 2015. |

This summer, however, was to be different! A permit angel sent from heaven, who took the human form of my friend Sebastian, had unbeknownst to me listed my name as an “alternate trip leader” on a permit he was awarded in the pre-season lottery. One of the many details of the Half Dome permitting system is that if the trip leader is unavailable on the date of the hike, the entire permit is void, no matter how many people are on the permit. You can name an alternate trip leader, who must be available in the trip leader’s absence, but if neither of them can make it, the whole group is out of luck. Yes, I have put the full might of my research-trained brain into learning this permitting system inside and out, and no, this did not help me actually secure a permit. (So basically, I’ve had as much success with this as with my actual research. Sigh.)

Sebastian had something come up (probably a surprise powerlifting meet — do those happen by surprise?) and couldn’t make the hiking date, and thus the permit, and with it the awesome responsibility of being Alternate Trip Leader, fell to me. I could bring up to three other brave souls to the crest of the mighty dome, where we would together be able to marvel upon the miracle of creation as we gaze from our skyward perch across the spectacular Yosemite Valley, or maybe just lie there panting and eating trail mix.

Unfortunately, the only other person keen to hike up an 8,800 foot dome a full day’s drive away with just a few days’ notice was my college friend Jeanne. Two precious permit spots, wasted. The unbearable tragedy. As it’s now basically impossible to get a campsite anywhere within seven hours of the Sierras without booking two years in advance, I caved and found a cheap motel room in Merced, and Jeanne drove out from San Francisco after work to meet me.

4am came just a few short hours later and we were driving out to Yosemite Valley in darkness, trying to get a 6am start on the trail. We missed it by a bit, but were on the trail before 7am, headed up to the first landmark of the day, Vernal Falls.

Early summer is when the waterfalls in the Sierras reach their peak, as snowmelt from the higher elevations swells the rivers and sends torrents of water thundering down the cascades. I’ve seen Lower Yosemite Falls in late summer, when it has slowed to barely a trickle, but I have never seen Vernal Falls at the beginning of summer, when it’s at its peak. This year’s snowpack across California was closest to the largest amount on record, which contributed to the end of our years-long drought. I don’t know if the massive snowpack was partially responsible for the state of Vernal Falls when we hiked, but we may as well have been swimming. My hiking camera—a nifty little mirrorless Sony a6000—is not weather-sealed, and I did not dare take a photo of the actual waterfall lest it drown in the incredible amount of spray coming off the falls. The trail may be called Mist Trail, but this day it may have been better termed Thundering Deluge of Bitingly Cold Wall of Water Trail. It was invigorating.

Vernal Falls Trail

| the line of hikers ascends the stone steps of Vernal Falls trail in a deluge of spray. |

After passing the falls, the number of hikers on the trail lessened a bit, and we continued onward towards the next big landmark on the trail, Nevada Falls. The trail doesn’t go quite as close to Nevada Falls as it does to Vernal and we were able to continue to dry out as we passed these falls.

Nevada Falls

| Nevada Falls, Jeanne for scale. |

After passing Nevada Falls, the number of hikers thinned out even more, so we were no longer hiking in a line-up of people and felt more like we had entered the wilderness. The trail followed along the serene Merced River, through dappled sunlight under the shadow of old-growth sequoias, with occasional glimpses of the panoramic valley below and bursts of yellow Sierra butterweed and other colorful wildflowers.

We rounded a bend and came across a ranger standing in the trail, and finally got the chance to show off our hard-earned permit and identification. It was rather anti-climactic, but we had no time to dwell on it as it was already afternoon and we had a lot of steep uphill hiking ahead.

We eventually reached the Sub-Dome, a smaller dome before the main peak of Half Dome where the trail turns into steep granite steps carved into the side of the rock. This seemed to go on forever, but we finally crested the Sub-Dome and got our first glimpse of the final summit.

Half Dome Cables

| the infamous cables for the last 400 foot ascent up the dome. |

We reached the base of the cables around 3:30 pm, before our turnaround time but later than planned, although we were prepared to be hiking back in the dark. As we had been slower than most other hikers—thanks mostly to my strict graduate school workout regimen of sitting on a computer for 18 hours a day and occasionally exercising my abdominals via uncontrolled crying—we got to enjoy the summit mostly to ourselves.

View from Half Dome Summit

| land of granite domes. |

After drinking in the breathtaking views of the valley below for as long as possible, it was time to head back down the mountain to cover as much ground as we could before dark. We had brought headlamps, but better to get a move-on. Plus, several parts of the trail near the waterfalls were dangerously slippery. I realized a few miles before the end of the trail that I had a hunk of salami in my pocket (my go-to trail breakfast), and we quickly formulated a plan to hurl it as far as we could away from us should we be charged by a hungry bear. We also triggered a camera trap somewhere on the trail near Vernal Falls, so there is probably a spooky picture of exhausted Jeanne and me somewhere in some researcher’s dataset.

Half Dome Panorama

| panorama from base of cables to Half Dome summit, June 2017. click to enlarge. |

Car to car, we hiked 30 miles over 13-ish hours. A day for the record books.