Last August, I set out with eight relatives to hike Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. By any account, undertaking Half Dome as a day hike is an extraordinary goal. The route we took was just over 18 miles round trip, with 4500 feet of elevation change each way. Reaching the summit of Half Dome has been a goal of mine for years, and I was excited to set off in the good company of my husband, father, three uncles, two cousins, and a cousin’s wife. Fitness is our family language.
The first several hours of the hike were straightforward. Awesomely beautiful, with breathtaking stretches of rock steps and grand vistas as we gained elevation. It was fascinating to see the flora change as we climbed higher, a clue that we were getting closer and closer to our goal.
As we reached the final stretch of the ascent, my husband’s fear of heights took hold of him. The sheer exposure of the climb up sub-dome to the base of the cables required to summit Half Dome were just too much. After Uncle-Of-The-Year Bill hiked the husband back down to a point where he felt safe, it was time to tackle the cables.
It’s hard to give a true impression of the angle of the final 500 yards of ascent to the top of Half Dome. Books say it varies from 45-60 degrees, but here’s the best view I can give you:
Climbing the cables goes something like this: grasp the cable with both hands, and using all possible upper body strength, pull yourself 10-12 feet forward/upward until you reach the next set of poles, at the base of which is a board on which you rest your feet. Catch your breath, work around other climbers, and repeat. The ascent itself took about 25 minutes, during which time I had to negotiate around climbers paralyzed by fear, climbers hooking and unhooking their caribiners (not a bad idea at all!), and my growing tiredness. I hadn’t expected so much upper body work.
At the summit, we took a few minutes to walk around, take in the view, and enjoy the accomplishment. Much to my dad’s relief, I had no interest in getting very close to the edge!
And how cool is it that those brothers, ages 55, 62, 57, and 65, have shared this experience? You won’t find four brothers who are each a strong personality and yet still so close as brothers. I have only two sons, and I hope they’re still having great adventures together decade after decade.
I started back down the cables so as to not leave the husband sitting alone any longer. The technique for descending the cables was influenced by the huge number of climbers coming up as I was going down. I chose to hold on to only one cable, face my body into that cable, and side shuffle down the rock. Again, a surprising amount of upper body strength was required, especially when I had to stand and hold in order to let ascending climbers pass.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the crazy people who felt it necessary to go outside of the cables in order to ascend or descend without waiting on the crowds. With very few exceptions, all of the deaths on Half Dome cables have been because people go outside the cables and move too quickly. For me, a little more burn in the forearms was well worth climbing safely.
As if the summitting of Half Dome wasn’t dramatic enough, we had a little more excitement than we really wanted on the hike back to Yosemite Valley. Due to a slight miscommunication– the kind only possible when dealing with family members, of course– our hiking party split up and some of us had a slight (90 minute) delay. But it allowed for some good conversation with my cousin and his wife (who was, let it be known, RIGHT!), and then a rare artistic moment from my husband when he helped make this sign:
Once we decided to hike onward to the Valley, we flew. Fast. We managed to hike the final 10K down to the Valley in less than 2.5 hours. Shortly before we returned to the trailhead, we saw my dad and Uncle T walking back towards us. We were more happy to be reunited and know that everyone was okay than we were upset that we had a delay while waiting for them to hike down when they’d already gone ahead.
In the end, it was a fabulous experience. The company, the scenery, the physical exertion, and — most importantly– the achievement of a goal. What a perfect day.