Hiking Stats as of 11/15/2019
Total Trips:
Total Distance:
Total Elevation Gain:
 3,891.68 miles
 1,060,050 feet

Sep 21, 2013 - Half Dome


Partners: Kyle Breen

Distance: 18.40 miles

Elevation Gain: 5,402 feet

Trip Time: 8:17

Maps and Stats:
One of the most enjoyable aspects of hiking in the Sierra is the expanse of wide open spaces where you can spend a day in the wilderness enjoying spectacular views as you work your way up to the top of a challenging peak. These trips typically involve 6-8 hours on and off the trail while running into one or two people the entire day. Despite my preference for the solitude on the trail, there are some hikes which are so amazing that I don't mind if I have to share the day with people around every turn. Two such hikes that live up to this standard are Mt. Whitney and Half Dome, both of which I climbed last year, and enjoyed the experience so much that I am likely to come back to each on an annual basis. I had been to Half Dome twice in 2012, with Kyle joining me on my second visit in the fall.

Unfortunately we were unsuccessful in our attempt to secure a Half Dome permit in the preseason lottery, effectively shutting us out of Half Dome until the later months of summer when we would have a reasonable chance at securing a permit through the daily lottery process. As it turned out, the Rim Fire restricted access to Yosemite (or at least would have required us to drive an extra 50 miles each way to circle around the closed highway) near the end of August and into the first couple of weeks of September. As such, we didn't even bother trying for a permit at all until September 19th. The lottery process awards permits for 2 days in the future, meaning we were applying for September 21. The purpose of the timing of this was so we could take advantage of a cabin I had booked through a Groupon deal at Yosemite Pines in Groveland. If we hadn't secured the permit I would have simply hiked somewhere else, but as luck would have it I won the Half Dome lottery (and luckily Kyle lost so we didn't wind up with an extra permit).

Kyle met me at my house around 9 PM on Friday and we set out for Yosemite Pines where we would spend the night in the cabin before setting off for Half Dome Saturday morning. The cabin was surprisingly nice, with a little bathroom, fridge, TV, and a full bed along with 2 bunk beds. I really enjoyed the cabin as opposed to a motel with shared walls - this just seemed so much more comfortable and quiet. We left the cabin at 6 AM for the 45 minute drive up to Yosemite Valley and the start of the hike to Half Dome. We had decided on this unusually early (for us) start time because we had been hearing about a potential storm coming into Yosemite. Water and Lightning don't mix well with the granite slabs and metal cables of Half Dome. The forecast indicated showers beginning sometime between 11:00 and 2:00, and it was our intention to get the heck off of the summit before any of that could get us. We hit the trail at 7 AM at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

We kept up a strong pace as we took the Mist Trail as it ascended next to Vernal Falls. The down side (if there is such a thing) about a fall hike to Half Dome is that the waterfalls slow to a trickle, as nearly all of the snowpack of the high Sierra has melted away. As such, Vernal Falls looked more like a trickle as it dropped to the rocks below. By 8:00 we were at the top of Vernal Falls, although I was spoiled by the views on previous trips and was a bit underwhelmed with the low flow. We didn't spend too much time with the views and instead got started towards the impressive Liberty Cap where Nevada Falls would be waiting. The trail doesn't actually cross Nevada Falls (we would take an alternate route down the John Muir Trail on the descent so we could cross the Falls), so once we got to the top of the rockfalls adjacent to the falls we didn't bother to rest, instead pressing on as we reached the flat Little Yosemite Valley area at 6,000 feet where the backpackers camp is located. The trail is quite boring through this area, as little elevation is gained and the trail is an annoying sand substance that makes you sink several inches. I much prefer the stability of rock.

We still had nearly 3,000 feet of gain to go, and with one eye on the gathering clouds and one eye on the trail we kept up a good pace as we reached the end of the valley and resumed our uphill ascent. By 9:45 we hit the junction where the John Muir trail continues on towards Clouds Rest to the east and the Half Dome trail breaks off and heads west. We made our way up the steady incline, although unlike the portions of the trail near Vernal and Nevada Falls, where the ascent is made more difficult because of large and steeply cut granite steps, we were on solid forest ground and were able to maintain a good speed as we tried to beat the incoming storm. About 40 minutes later the terrain started to change, and trees and forest dirt were replaced with rock and granite. The elevation and lack of trees led to fantastic views, as we looked towards Clouds Rest, the high Sierra, and the Sierra crest. As the time approached 10:30 we made it to the bottom of the subdome and the permit check point.

We met the ranger and handed over our permit. There were a few people milling about, and one asked us if we were "going up". I said yes, so long as it wasn't raining. We were told that the weather forecast called for rain beginning in half an hour. In looking at the sky it looked possible, although I still had yet to see the obvious rain sheets anywhere on the horizon so I felt we probably had more time than that. The ranger told us that she would not stop us from continuing, but that she strongly recommended that we do not continue and that there would "be no rescue available" if we were somehow stranded or needed assistance up higher. We were a bit concerned, but not overly so, as we continued on, agreeing to each other that one drop of water from the sky would result in our turning around. The dangers of a rainstorm on Half Dome are real - lightning is extremely dangerous, especially if you are on top or on the cables, and the vast majority of fatalities on Half Dome occur when the granite is wet and trekking on the slick and steep granite becomes dangerous. We weren't sure exactly how long it would take us to get to the top, and we pushed on as quickly as we could. Unfortunately for me, the section heading up the subdome to the base of the cables is quite steep and relentless on the leg muscles - I really could have used a break after our rapid ascent the entire way up but the impending rain would not permit such a luxury. This resulted in a pretty significant cramp in my left quad. I was forced to rest every couple of minutes as the pain was too much to continue, only being relieved by rest only to begin the cycle all over again.

I told Kyle to keep going up - no reason for him to miss out on a summit attempt as I limped up subdome. I popped a few ibuprofins, and kept pressing upward, a few minutes behind Kyle as he made his way up. Despite what seemed to be an eternity to me, looking back I think I probably only slowed down to a normal pace rather than becoming a anchor. Before too long the pain became more manageable and actually subsided entirely just as I neared the top of the subdome . At this point it became obvious that today was a bit different. On my previous two visits up here saw dozens of people walking around the subdome, but on this day there were less 10. At this point I caught up to Kyle who was waiting for me and we made our way across the top of the subdome toward the cables. The wind velocity was extremely fierce and we started to have doubts as to if heading up the cables in this windstorm with the threat of rain was really a good idea. We could only see maybe 3 or 4 people at any place on the cables, an extraordinary sight considering the typical scene where perhaps 25+ people are on the cables at any one time. Also striking was that none of those few people were headed up.

We waited for the 2 lowest descenders to finish and asked them about the winds which were actually more of a concern than the threat of rain. They replied that the windiest spot was actually right where we were standing, and that once you get on the cables the wind becomes much more tolerable. Relieved to hear that, we reaffirmed our commitment to descend upon the first drop to be seen anywhere on the dome. With that, we started up the cables, with Kyle leading the way. With only a couple of people descending and nobody in front of us to slow us down, we went up rather quickly, although I intentionally kept my pace a bit slower to avoid a return of the leg cramp. Kyle was up on top in something like 11 minutes, and I followed maybe 2-3 minutes later, arriving at the broad, flat summitt of Half Dome at 11:15. I started walking around the summit, and was struck by the lack of people. Like nobody in this direction, or over this way, or over here. Hmm, could it be that we were on top of Half Dome all by ourselves on a Saturday in September in the middle of the day? Well, there was nobody to be found in this corner, or in this one, or even over there. At this point we knew we were alone on top and we couldn't help but laugh at our good fortune. To be standing on the summit of Half Dome all by ourselves was indescribable. I headed over for the Visor and gave the camera to Kyle to get some summit shots.

As I got to the Visor I made my way for the very end of the rocks, right to the edge where another step would result in a rather quick but painful descent back down to the bottom of Half Dome some 4,800 feet below. I didn't realize it at the time, but these shots came out great, one of me standing on the edge and then one of me taking it all in as I sit and relax. Kyle was up next and we switched places, with him now on the Visor, standing on what looked to be an unstable rock pile but in reality has probably been situated this way for thousands of years. We spent about 20 minutes by ourselves on the summit, but as noon approached we didn't want to press our luck any further with the weather. Kyle called his wife to let her know of our good luck (and she let him know it was absolutely pouring back in the Bay Area) and I made a quick summit video of the empty summit before we began the descent. It turns out that we couldn't have timed our time up on top any better. We ran into 4 or 5 people making their way up. We were back down on the top of subdome 10 minutes later, and set to the task of the 8 mile trip down to the bottom.

The descent was a race against time, as the clouds began to darken overhead. We felt our first few drops of rain at 1 PM as we made our way back through the backpackers area. We couldn't help but wonder if there were still people up on Half Dome at this point, and if there were they had better get down fast because the storm was coming. The raindrops came and went for about 15 minutes, not really causing us too much discomfort as we arrived at the trail junction by Nevada Falls. This time we would take the John Muir trail down which would give us a chance to go over the falls and hike down the opposite side of the canyon. At this point we could see the rain making its way into Yosemite, and we knew we would not make it all the way down before conditions would worsen. From the John Muir trail we were able to barely capture the scenic view of Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls before the clouds began assaulting Half Dome in an impressive march that completely engulfedthe icon within a matter of minutes. By this point anyone still on Half Dome would be in a lot of trouble. This all occurred right at 2 PM. As we descended further, Half Dome came back into view for a few moments, treating us to to those world famous views. The rains then began to intensify, although nothing too serious or uncomfortable. As we got down lower the temperatures rose and the rain tapered off. We finished the descent and arrived back at the car at about 3:15, completing the 18 miles in about 8 1/4 hours - a much more rapid pace than I had achieved on either of my previous two trips up.

Normally the trip home is not worth writing about, but this time we would find ourselves driving into the teeth of the early season storm, which wound up dropping several inches of snow about 8,000 feet. We were shocked to find what looked like snow on the road out, and soon we started getting pelted with a rather intense hailstorm. This resulted in a rather slow trip out of Yosemite, as it took us well over an hour to get outside the gates. Once outside we saw the unfortunate damage caused by the Rim Fire (it was still dark when we drove through this area on the way up). The fire seemed to damage entire areas, and then suddenly leave other areas untouched. It was quite a sight indeed. Although I had driven by the "Rim of the World" turnout over a dozen times in the past, I paid special notice of it this time as we drove by. This is the location that was the source of the naming of the fire, and several vehicles were pulled over to take in the views of the ravages caused by the fire. We were tired and just wanted to get back to Yosemite Pines to pack up our stuff and get back home. The rest of the journey went as planned, bringing to an end a memorable 24 hours in and around Yosemite.

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