Surviving the steel cables of Half Dome

By Jaya Murthy 

When they hit a midlife crisis, men buy cars; women hike!

At my 43rd birthday this February, Meena, another 40+ friend asked "So what are we going to do different this year? Let's climb Half Dome!" The rest of us, who have run no marathons, half marathons, triathlons or bike races, looked at her like she was nuts and told her so. That evening we laughed it off as an impossibly high goal and forgot all about it.

The Prep

But my friend persisted. And before we knew it, a bunch of us, convinced we were absolutely crazy, were shivering at the base of Mission Peak(MP) in Fremont on a freezing March morning in the pitch dark at 5:30 a.m. It was a nose-numbing 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Huffing and puffing, with some motivational spiel and lots of chattering, we made it up the boring switchbacks to the top of MP. The 360 degree views of the Bay Area communities, the water and its bridges and the verdant hillsides made the climb worthwhile. The near 4-mile hike did leave our untested muscles achy and tired the next day.

Clearly this was going to need more prep. We all agreed to try and hit the gym or do other cardio work at least 2more times in the week. Over the next few weeks, we made time to attend a presentation at REI on climbing Half-Dome by an expert who has made the trip an awesome 21 times. We also picked up copies of his book, deciding to follow his trail to the top. The photographs of the cable section-the last 425 almost-vertical foot climb looked scary. We nervously got home and looked for more vertical hikes!

Half Dome, at Yosemite National Park, is somewhat of a Holy Grail for novice hikers. At 8,836 ft., it is a challenging climb, yet doable without altitude training. Sheared by glaciers over time, the peak looks like a sphere chopped into half vertically. The hike is about 15 miles but the real challenge is a short 400 ft. segment that is scaled by hauling yourself up the sheer granite face with the help of steel cables.

Our intrepid bunch of Half Dome half-bakes hooked up with a more experienced bunch of hikers to climb the non-touristy side of Mission Peak the next week. There is a segment on this climb that we have now affectionately named “The Stairmaster,” a steep path cut into the hillside which is a must for those training for Half Dome.
 
Meanwhile, the tribe had grown to seven of us mostly forty-ish women – of assorted shapes, sizes, abilities and ailments. Every Sunday we would dutifully set out at about 5:15 a.m. to drive further away to hike a new and challenging trail. From Rancho San Antonio to Bolinger Canyon to Mt.Diablo we hiked; our singing of Hindi songs getting louder, legs getting stronger, equipment getting more sophisticated and navigation and topographical map reading skills getting better. Elaborate details were exchanged on the various granola and power bars we were all buying and tasting. Most were disgusting!

Repetition is a good thing. The hills got decidedly friendlier and warmer and easier to conquer as the 8 weeks went by.

We picked June 16th, a Monday, to climb to Half Dome.

Our final test was the 14 mile hike to Mt. Diablo on June 1st. It was hard but not uncomfortable. The telescopic hiking poles we had acquired came in really handy on the long way down. Over the last few months, REI and the local other stores like Target had benefited considerably from our mission.  We bought  hiking poles,  moisture wicking  shirts and hats, convertible zipoff pants, camelbacks for the hands-free water sipping,  hiking  shoes  of various  types and brands and  sizes, bicycle gloves, cool sunshades, Bedouin style sunhats and soon "Who is going to REI this weekend?" became a common refrain! We had also acquired a 'Steripen ' (that uses UV light beam  technology to kill all bacteria and protozoa in 60seconds) and a water pump to filter water and make it potable along the trail!

Through this entire training one thing was clear. Friends make the world go round.  It took only one 2-hour hike with my teenage son and his complaints to realize that the "company" was  the biggest motivator of them all.  Have you noticed how  quickly the  30mins  on any exercise machine go by when you are yakking away with a fellow sufferer? The gals NEVER lost their commitment (though everybody had self doubts occasionally!) and we had giggled  or grumbled through  most hikes with our sense of humor and our friendship intact.

The Stay

We reached Yosemite the afternoon prior to the day of the hike; a tolerable 4 hour drive from the Bay area. Curry Village, where we had booked tent cabins 2 months in advance, is probably the most scenic campground in America. Giant granite formations surround the site like watchful sentinels. The trademark Douglas firs in their eternal greenery create a magical air around the open air theatre. The Curry Village also has a nice buffet restaurant, pizza and ice cream parlour, sports bar and decently stocked grocery store.

We took a gentle 2 mile walk that evening along the full Merced River, right by the camp and said our hellos to Half Dome in the high distance. The trailhead is at an elevation of 3800 feet so the acclimatization did us good!

The cabins have beds and can sleep from 2 to 5 people. The bedding and towels are provided, so no bulky packing from home is required. Every tent had a bear box provided to put away all our food and fragrant toiletries for the night.

The Climb

We began the climb at about 5:30 the next morning, taking the Misty Trail. The trail runs right along the Merced River, flowing rather swiftly at this time of the year, with the fresh snow melt. The first mile is a steady climb to the Vernal Falls Bridge. This is where the last flush toilets and fresh water faucets were. Goodbye civilization from here on. It is a good place to fill up on the water supply; rather than carry the water from camp the night before and unnecessarily for the 3 mile hike we had done so far.

The trail really was misty from the ample water gushing down the falls and we welcomed the resultant drenching. The steps were wet and some of them were up to a foot high, but this was easily the most spirit lifting part of the hike. We continued on to beautiful Emerald pool and the top of Vernal Falls, picture perfect spots.

The easiest portion of the hike was in the Little Yosemite section which we now reached. It is a flatter walk thru pine forest and we could now see the quarter-dome, the saddleback and half dome, from behind! It appeared even more stark and bare and intimidating up close. By the time we reached the base of the treacherous sub dome, we were quite
warm and took a good rest to consume the extra calories for the steepest section of the climb.

Being an entirely Indian American group, it was not surprising that what to eat was one of the primary concerns of the group. In fact, we actually met a week before the hike just to decide what goodies we would bring. We ended up carrying chutney sandwiches, methi theplas, PBJ sandwiches and fresh fruit in addition to the protein bars, electrolyte goo, assorted dry fruits and nuts.

The rule for a long hike is "drink before you are thirsty and eat before you are hungry" and we took it seriously, stopping several times along the route to refresh ourselves and get an energy boost from all the wonderful food we were carrying. Several impromptu picnics later, we were at the base of the sub dome.

The sub dome, a challenge by itself, is also a steep hike up huge granite blocks dynamited by the Park Service to provide footholds. The vertigo-inducing climb felled one of our group, who opted to stay behind at the bottom of the sub dome.

Hats off to the National Park Service and its dedicated folks….for making the glory of Yosemite so accessible and possible. One really does not get up close and personal from the car or shuttle rides in the Yosemite Valley floor!

Past the sub dome, breathing really heavily now, sometimes on all fours, we finally got to the saddleback and got our first view of the dreaded cables. The steel cables run thru poles inserted into the sheer granite, at intervals of roughly 10 to 15 feet. The distance of 425 feet is really not that much. But add the vertical slope of the dome and the width being barely 4 feet, and you have the makings of “Fear Factor” .Not to mention that wrong footing and falling was a certain drop to nowhere….from 8000 feet above sea level!  One more member of the group decided to stay behind at this point and watch the stuff we jettisoned to climb the cables.

Five of us reached the cables at 11 a.m. and could not actually start the climb till almost 12….because of the sea of humanity lined up waiting to go up and an equally large number waiting to come down. It worked out well because everybody was forced to go slow…10 feet at a time to the two by four plank of wood that was the lifeline to rest on; the effort of actually hauling one's weight up, sapping most folks. On each 'step', we would wait for the person coming down to go by and then climb on to the next one. There were old people, boy scouts, even an 8 year old kid – without exception, everybody was polite and encouraging. Talk about team-spirit – strangers united in a mass group against Mother Nature's challenge!

About 45 minutes later we had stepped on the Dome. The exhilaration was complete – akin to the euphoria after child birth. The views were remarkable – snow clad peaks, El Capitan, the valley floor clearly visible 5000 feet below, more granite land forms and some human sculpting on the dome – using the little rocks found everywhere. We spent an hour resting on our laurels, eating and taking many pictures.

The descent was relatively easier, partly because it was now familiar terrain. But if you have a huge fear of heights, it helps to come down backwards, facing the dome.

We followed the John Muir trail back down, which adds a couple of miles extra to the trail, but it is a gentler slope with many switchbacks around the hills. It is a pretty hike with lovely views around every bend but quite endless when one is exhausted from a whole day of climbing. Nevada Falls and its pool were a welcome sight and the feet dip in the ice cold water is refreshing.

It was 8:15 by the time we reached home to Curry Village again. Antakshari with old Hindi songs saw us through those long 4 hours down the switchbacks!

We were exhausted but the adrenalin rush from "mission accomplished" was high enough to keep us bouncing till midnight that day. We showered and ate a delicious vegetarian pizza and salad, and celebrated with a glass of wine!

Learnings:

1. Invest in a good pair of comfortable hiking shoes early on- try several before you settle on the best feeling one. Never hike in brand new shoes! Consider buying a size larger than usual since your feet almost always swell during long hikes.

2. Hiking poles were great for our training hikes but somewhat of a hindrance for this particular hike. Since poles are useless during the last stretch up sub dome and Half Dome, you will have to think of a way to carry them or keep them at the bottom during the hike. Consider leaving the poles behind if you are comfortable with the idea.

3. Round up good company. Invite fresh people weekly for the training hikes and keep it fun.

4. Go on a weekday and definitely begin before 5:30 a.m. We spent an hour waiting in the cable section despite leaving at 5:15! That is a good way to ensure you are back before dark.

5. Don’t forget your water pump. In the cool weather, it is easy to drink less than you need and the water deficit may not manifest itself as thirst – instead you may feel tired, nauseous and disoriented. Drink often even if you don’t think you need it and refill at a little spring on the way. It is the best tasting water you will ever have.

 

 

21 thoughts on “Surviving the steel cables of Half Dome

  1. PR Ganapathy

    Great show! Makes us couch potatoes rethink our lethargy!! Lovely pictures. I wish you hadn’t included the picture of the human ladder climbing up the cables – that made it look really daunting!

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  2. jim flaherty

    thanks for the post. My friends, family and I are hiking Half Dome in 2 weeks. We too have taken the “stair master” up Mission Peak many times in preperation for Half Dome. WAY TO GO LADIES!

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  3. Pingback: Bookmarks about Cables

  4. Manish

    Hi thx for a great writeup! definitely going in 2010. other than mission peak did you find any other bay area hikes that were a good preperation for half dome?

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    1. Vidya Pradhan Post author

      Some of the other hikes we did were –
      Rancho San Antonio ( prettier and easier than Mission)
      Black Mountain (ditto)
      Sierra Azul ( a tough one, if I recall correctly)
      Pleasanton Ridge
      and of course, Mount Diablo as the prep hike. I think you might find a post on that too here.

      http://bahiker.com is a good site to find potential trails.

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  5. Windy Wilson

    Congratulations! I attempted it in August, 2007, but the ankle I sprained the month before stopped me at the base of the cables. Hobbling back down to Happy Isles, I drank all five liters of water I carried with me and finally came off the mountain at 9:30 pm, 16 hours after starting. My hiking companion thinks I am a wizard of preparedness because I was too lazy to go back to the car to leave the extra weight of the flashlights behind, so when it turned dark we had light!

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  6. Nikhil

    Wow!! This post of yours is totally inspiring. I just got back from Yosemite this weekend and went up to a little more than Vernal Falls. But I was humbled by the sight of half dome. Was thinking on my way back whether I was actually fit enough to go up there (28 yrs old and not very fit). But I think you women have just given me the motivation I need. A couple of my buddies from around the country might be interested in hiking up this year. I live in East Bay (not hard to guess where exactly!!). Will start with Mission Peak (I have gone up thrice, already, except, now, I am recovering from an ACL surgery of my knee, although, its been 1.5 yrs) and the other places you have mentioned. All in all, I think its gonna be a very interesting summer. Thank you for your post.

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    1. Vidya Pradhan Post author

      All the best Nikhil. If a bunch of middle aged ladies can huff and puff up Half Done, I have no doubt that you will be able to do it!

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  7. Nikhil

    Thank you Vidhya. July 23rd is the date. They have a permit system now. And six of us fools!!! 🙂

    So far, we have gone up Mission peak and Berry Creek Loop in Big Basin. Mt. Olympia this weekend.

    We are starting a blog too..Will keep you posted.

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  8. Nikhil

    We finally made it…Thanks a lot guys…It was an unbelievable experience…
    All 5 of us made it to the top…It took me 16 hrs to do it..My quads cramped up 4 mils into the hike but somehow still made it to the top. On my way down, I completely cramped up and my friends helped a lot. Overall, it was one hell of a hike..great stuff..
    Thanks a lot for inspiring me.

    Hope you guys are doing well

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  9. Carol

    GREAT essay! I’m hiking Half Dome in a little less than a month with my 3 sisters, and have read a lot from people who have done it. Your writing was clear, helpful, realistic and inspiring; thanks!! 🙂

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  10. Gopal

    Hi

    Re; Using MP to train for Half Dome

    What is the “non-touristy side of Mission Peak the next week. There is a segment on this climb that we have now affectionately named “The Stairmaster,” a steep path cut into the hillside which is a must for those training for Half Dome.”

    I know of the Ohlone trail and the Stanford trail. Can you elaborate/ I am planning to train for Half Dome using MP.

    Regards

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    1. Vidya Pradhan Post author

      When you start walking the trail, there is a path that goes up and the path that goes down..take the latter. It leads you to the stairmaster..I believe it is called the Heavenly Horses trail or something like that.

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  11. Megan

    Nice description!  Very accurate, and great advice.  
    I hiked Half Dome twice, both times before I had kids, and I have often thought and said what you did, except switched around since I did it in reverse order… childbirth was like hiking a mountain – lots of hard work and completely worth it.  

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  12. Gopal

    Different hikes do keep things interesting. But do you think that 2 x MP, or Ed Levin Park in Milpitas to MP and back (twice would be almost same elevation/distance as Half Dome but done at lower altitude) would help train as well? Thanks in advance!

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    1. Vidya Pradhan Post author

      I do know of people who do that..and it does seem to help. Just don’t do that hike too close to the actual day.

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