subdome half dome

A Non-Hiker’s Reflections on Half Dome

By Darren

I’ll admit it: Hiking isn’t my thing.

Oh, I don’t dislike hiking. I just think there’s a clear winner between getting up at 4 in the morning on a perfectly good Saturday to scale the side of a mountain, returning filthy and sore and spending the day off enjoying eggs benedict and bottomless mimosas on a sun-drenched patio.

Having put that out there, I will confess to a certain degree of envy when Heather returns from a solo hike and shows me photos she’s taken of big horn sheep or selfies of her standing on a rock ledge high above the clouds. California is a beautiful state, and I don’t want to look back on my time here and realize I missed much of it due to my own laziness.

So I’ve been joining Heather on more hikes, in part, because I shared her goal of summiting Half Dome. These types of feats mean more to Heather than they do me, but I do love Yosemite National Park and I looked forward to the idea of one day pointing at Half Dome and saying, “Yeah. I was on the top of that thing.”

Anticipation was keeping me waiting

Heather’s done a fine job of describing the Half Dome hike, so I won’t take up space here giving a blow-by-blow account. Instead, I’ll simply provide my non-hiker’s take on hiking Half Dome.

Given my apathy, I was surprised that I seemed more excited about the hike the night before than Heather did. As we filled our water bottles and stuffed our backpack pouches with granola bars and beef jerky to snack on along the trail, I kept asking, “Are you excited?”

“I don’t know,” Heather would reply. “I don’t think I’m feeling it yet.”

I slept little that night; in fact, I spent the last two hours before our alarm went off thinking, “Ring! Ring!

Heather usually wants to know every little detail of whatever we’re doing before we do it. In the weeks leading up to the hike, Heather boned up on Half Dome books, blogs, articles and YouTube clips and more or less had the hike memorized before we started out.

Me, I don’t want to know how many switchbacks I have ahead of me or what the toughest parts of a hike are going to be in advance because then I’ll talk myself out of going all together. In my case, ignorance is definitely bliss.

For instance, I was happy not to learn of the Mist Trail’s 700 steps until we started climbing them. Or the however many steps there were between Vernal and Nevada Falls. Or the black bear and coyote and rattlesnakes we were sharing the trail with. All pleasant surprises, as far as I was concerned.

Ain’t no mountain high enough?

Once inside Little Yosemite Valley, we had a clear view of Half Dome’s backside and Subdome jutting out like a giant boil to the right. And I think that’s where things started going wrong for me. The peaks of most of the hikes I’ve been on have been obscured by trees, rocks and even other mountains along the way. For that reason, the psych-out factor has always been low because I haven’t been able to see how much farther I have to go or been able to anticipate how hard it might be to reach the top.

But Half Dome’s massive, distinctive peak is visible throughout most of Yosemite, its smooth, naked face taunting you with its lack of discernible routes to or from the top.

Little_Yosemie_Valley

“Look at that!” Heather would say. “We’re going to be up there soon.”

“Yeah…” I’d say back. Then, a little more quietly, “I’m just not seeing how…”

I was hanging in there just fine until I saw the base of Subdome and the way the side of the formation seemed to rise up as flat and straight as the side of building. Would we need ropes and picks to get up there?

“Um. I really don’t think I can do that,” I confessed during a brief pause.

Heather assured me that I could do Subdome, that it wasn’t as intimidating as it looked. And she was right. Although parts of the ascent were made up of smooth slabs of granite pitched at steep angles that were a little difficult to navigate with 20 pounds of weight strapped to my back, the majority of the climb consisted of steps carved into the rock. Easy.

With Subdome vanquished, I turned with renewed confidence to Half Dome’s last hurdle to the top: The cables.

The cables

Well, “renewed confidence” is probably a stretch. Let’s go with “not as much bowel emptying trepidation as before.”

I’d seen a lot of photos of climbers using the cables, and while most of these pictures don’t make the cables look easy per se, they look manageable. This photo from Mr. Half Dome’s blog is pretty representative of what I’d been seeing:

Mr._Half_Dome's_Blog

People all smiles, whooping it up, having the time of their lives while maneuvering a pleasant little grade. “Whee! The cables on Half Dome are fun!” I mean, look at this girl:

Mr._Half_Dome's_Blog_Detail

I’ve since learned that these photos were strategically taken or cropped in such a way as to minimize just how steep the climb is. This screen grab from a video on kidofallkids’ YouTube channel shows the reality. The cables are less of a gently angled walkway and have more in common with a ladder rising 400 feet straight up into the sky.

Half_Dome_Cables

Still, I was undaunted and, after putting on a pair of rubberized gloves, I grabbed the first strand of braided metal and started pulling myself up.

Half Dome, full failure

I’ll preface the remainder of this by saying that I realize that countless people have gotten themselves to the top of Half Dome thanks to the cables. It is perfectly doable. In fact, of the three or four dozen people up there with us that morning, only one person couldn’t hack it.

And that’d be me.

I don’t think I was fully prepared for just how much strength it was going to require to hoist myself up the wall. My legs were virtually useless in terms of propelling myself up; they functioned more to brace myself against the 45-degree angle. Instead, I had to rely almost exclusively on my arms, back and chest to literally pull myself upward. And just as those muscle groups failed me during every chin up, pull up and rope climb I’ve attempted, they failed me on Half Dome.

I would rest at every two-by-four plank along the route, but as I did so, I felt weaker and weaker. There have been plenty of times during my hikes with Heather when I’ve been fully aware of how hard they can be. Many times I’ve simply willed myself to put one foot in front of the other, to ignore every part of me that’s begging to stop and rest.

The cables at Half Dome, though… That was the first outdoors experience in which I found myself thinking, “You could die doing this, you know.” As I stood there clinging to the cable, feeling the wind whipping through me and my pack encouraging me to lean backward, I knew that one foot slip or one sloppy grip of the cable would send me straight down with very little in the way to stop me. That thought spooked me and tempting fate for a few photos and video suddenly didn’t feel worth it anymore.

The bottom feels so much better than the top!

I debated soldiering on, but my legs and my arms were practically vibrating from the strain I was putting on them. Two-thirds of the way up, I knew that not only did I not care about getting to the top, I wanted off and I wanted off fast.

But how to go about it? I thought I’d try simply going in reverse the way I had come up. But when my foot slipped on my first downward step, I quickly turned around and sat down on the rock face to think things through. The backpack seemed to be playing a large role in my underperforming that day, and for a brief moment, I debated removing it and letting it slide down the side of the mountain. With people approaching from in front and behind, I switched tactics and started down facing away from the rock with a full view of my surroundings. I crouched to center my gravity, locked my arms at the elbow and put most of my full weight on the cables like parallel bars. I let the cables slide through my hands and I took baby steps from one two by four to the next. Within 10 minutes, I was back at the cables’ base.

Exhausted, I sat and guzzled water. My relief at being done with the cables eventually gave way to the realization that I had come within feet of standing on the top of Half Dome. A feeling of crushing defeat washed over me.

Later, when she came back down the cables, Heather told me not to feel bad, that there wasn’t any shame in recognizing that I had reached my limit. “You can always come back and try again!” she consoled.

I appreciated her trying to make me feel better. But I think we should stick to what we do best: Next time, Heather can do Half Dome. I’ll do brunch.

Darren_Half_Dome

The author and the cables.

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