Half Dome Trail Junction to Half Dome to Happy Isles
We wake up at 4:30 am, hoping to hit the trail before sunrise. It’s dark at first, but, by the time we make it out of the tent and finish a quick breakfast, we hardly need our headlamps to see anymore. Just before taking off, a small coyote wanders right through our camp. We watch it in silence as it trots behind our tent, and it’s amazing how little sound it makes. If we were still inside our tents, we would have never even know it was there.
We make our way back to the JMT and take the Half Dome trail at the junction, just a few hundred yards away from our camp. The trail is nice and wide, and we talk excitedly as we walk side by side, a rarity on the trail where one of us is usually in front and the other behind. We gain 2800’ in elevation over the next 2 miles, but we know the steepest climb is yet to come when we encounter the cables that will get us to the top of Half Dome, Yosemite’s most iconic rock formation.
As we climb higher, we get our first open glimpses of Half Dome. We stop to take lots of photos along the way as the early morning light keeps changing.
Eventually the dirt trail ends, and we start the steep climb over the rock shoulder to the base of Half Dome. At first there are large rock steps cut into the path and positioned to get us up and over the granite slabs below them. We left our hiking poles in our tent this morning. It’s just as well because having our hands free comes in handy once the steps abruptly end. From here, it’s nothing but giant rock slabs, and the poles wouldn’t be all that helpful on this type of terrain.
We finally reach the top, where we get our first close-up look at the cables. Matt is certain that I am going to bail right then and there, but we come across two 20-something year-old girls sitting on the rocks waiting for their boyfriends to climb Half Dome. They are clearly upset and complaining about being left behind when they ask us if we are planning to go up. I say that I am chicken but want to at least give it a try before make a decision. Matt encourages them to walk up to the cables with us and see what it’s like from a little closer.
They’ve had it with waiting on their boyfriends and jump at the encouragement. They march up to the base of the cables, grab some gloves to protect their hands from the big pile and start climbing up, jabbering on about how it’s not as bad as they feared before they started. Up, up, up they go!
That’s some good encouragement. And now it’s my turn to give it a try, so I select a pair of gloves and approach the cables. There are two metal cables on either side looped through stanchions to be used as hand holds to pull myself up. (The metal chain is tough on the hands, hence the need for the gloves.) There are also 4-foot long 2×4 boards placed every 8 to 10 feet or so horizontally across the face of the granite which can be used as foot holds. At first the distance between the boards seems way too far apart, but, once we start going, it becomes evident that they are strategically placed.
What’s lacking from this scenario is any way to clip into the cables with a safety harness, so the only security is to hold on tight and move carefully! I hold on for dear life to the metal cables and then start literally walking up the face of Half Dome, just like Spiderman. My boots feel super grippy on the granite rock, and the wooden boards provide a nice resting spot after each burst of energy I muster to move upward. It’s tiring but not nearly as difficult as it looks from the bottom staring up.
Before I know it I am 50 feet up the face of Half Dome. Matt is right behind me giving lots of encouragement, and it seems silly not to just keep going, so that’s what I do.
There are some spots that are a little tougher than others. Sometimes one set of cables ends just before a new one begins. The first set angles low off the last stanchion toward an anchor in the rock before the new set angles up from its anchor to the next stanchion. Sometimes there is a granite shelf that requires a big step up, and sometimes the rock is a little more slippery where it has been polished smooth by so many footsteps. I slip back a bit in these spots, so I grip the cables even tighter with my hands to get through those sections, but, for the most part, it’s surprisingly manageable—provided you don’t think too much about what you are doing or look back down at where you started.
I do notice the steep wall to my right and left and can’t believe I am going up it. Eventually the angle eases a bit as we get closer to the top, and, by the end, we walk out onto the top of the peak like we are exiting an escalator—unbelievable!
The view of Yosemite Valley below is amazing, and we are there early enough in the morning that we only have to share it with a few others. The sense of accomplishment and exhilaration we feel is incredible. We take the opportunity to find a quiet spot to sit, rest, eat and take in the view.
Summiting Half Dome is an achievement in itself, but, for us, it represents far more than the achievement of a solitary climb. Standing at this spot is the culmination of our 24-day adventure on the JMT. The end is now in sight (literally!), and the significance of this moment sinks in as we quietly take in the expansive views of Yosemite Valley from high above.
There is a small REI backpacking group nearby, and we listen intently as their guide points out all of the peaks in the valley. He also gives them good advice on how to get down safely. He says to go slowly and to gently release pressure in your hands to effectively lower yourself down. I cling to his every word.
We take photos, eat a snack and walk around on the bald before taking on the descent. It’s getting warmer now that the sun is getting higher in the cloudless sky, and we want to get down before the hordes of climbers coming up from the valley floor arrive and start heading up the cables.
Everyone says it is easier or at least less taxing to go down, but I find that I prefer going up. Matt takes the lead and advises me from below. Don’t look down, look straight ahead at the mountain. It’s only a few more feet until your next board! We continue slowly and steadily in this manner, carefully placing each foot as we step backward over the hump and down the mountain.
The angle feels steeper in this direction, and the slippery rock is even more noticeable going down. Sometimes my feet just slide, and I use my hands to lower myself a little bit at a time and control my speed. I breathe heavily trying to control my nerves as my heart rate soars. My heart feels like it is thumping out of my chest, but, little by little, I make it down.
A couple passes us going up, but they are pleasant and patient as they scoot around us on the boards. They ask us how long we have been hiking and are suitably impressed when we say this is our 24th day on the JMT. They ask us what we have learned about ourselves along the way (perhaps the best question we’ve ever been asked on the trail). Matt says that his concept of time and distance has been altered and that he’s learned that he can push himself further than he ever thought possible. I say that I have overcome some fears and realized that I am much stronger and more physically capable than I think I am.
Finally we make it to the bottom, and I am overjoyed to have completed the cable route. And I am still alive to tell about it! Matt tells me he is in shock that I actually did it and is so impressed with me. I have to admit that I am, too. I would never have attempted such a feat had I not had all of the experience and challenge of the JMT to bolster my confidence. I am pleased as punch and excited to get down the rest of the trail and back to our campsite.
There are loads of people coming up the trail as we are going down. Just when we get to the bottom of the steep, rocky section we encounter three guys passing us on the way up and have a funny exchange. They are dragging, and the last of the three says to his friends, Come on guys, we’ve invested way too many miles in this not to finish it. I turn back and ask, Oh yeah, how many miles? The guy thinks for a second and says, About 8, how ’bout you? To which I reply, 265! Matt is ahead of me and turns back to look just in time to see the reactions. He says it was hysterical to watch their jaws drop down to the ground. It’s fun to feel like a bad ass for once!
We bound down the trail and are amazed at how many hikers we see coming up. Even though you need a permit to use the cables, it seems like there are tons of people making their way up. How many permits do they give out? Do all of these people have one? Most of these people are coming from the valley floor and have done an extra six miles of uphill climb just to get to the base of Half Dome. They will arrive much later in the morning, meaning they will be climbing the cables at a much hotter time of day—highly undesirable, mate!
Many of them do not seem to be carrying enough water either. We are super grateful we got up there early enough not to deal with a traffic jam coming up or down and to avoid the heat of the day. I also wouldn’t enjoy the pressure of people waiting on me. Feeling rushed is definitely not the way to experience Half Dome.
We run into Greg and Will shortly before reaching the trail junction, and it is great to see them one last time. We tell them how much we have enjoyed meeting them and sharing the trail together since Day Two. We are old enough to be their parents, but we truly enjoyed their companionship along the trail. They are bright, engaging and thoughtful young men who give us a lot of hope for the younger generations.
Even though you never really are supposed to say goodbye on the trail, we all know that this “see you down the trail” is likely for good on the JMT. We hope to see them in Chicago or on some other amazing trail one day. We exchange hugs and wish them well for their last few hours on the JMT and their long drive back to Alabama before heading off in opposite directions.
We are still on a high when we hit the trail junction. We turn uphill and make our way back to our camp, where we find our tent baking in the hot sun. Everything inside is so hot. We break down camp, repack and eat lunch as quickly as possible. We are eager to tackle the final 6 miles to the “finish line” in Yosemite Village. We get back on the trail around noon, and the midday heat is on. The trail is super dusty and dry, and all the people still making their way up to Half Dome already look spent. They have a long day in store.
We hike down, down, down, and, by the time we reach Little Yosemite Valley, we are beat, too. We are parched, but our water is too hot to provide any kind of relief. Our feet are killing from the pounding of the constant downhill and the extreme heat which makes them swell inside our boots. We can feel our old blisters returning and new ones starting to form. We stop by the river to douse our face cloths in the cold water but that doesn’t even feel that refreshing on this hot day.
We continue down, down, down, and we get all kinds of strange looks from the day hikers headed up. Maybe it’s because we are so dusty or smell so bad, or maybe it’s just because no one in their right mind would possibly carry a huge, heavy backpack in this heat—we must be crazy!
Finally, we reach Nevada Falls, where we watch some gutsy kid performing a tight rope act on a slack line suspended across a raging river just at the point where the waterfall plunges hundreds of feet down to the valley floor. He’s got some kind of safety rigging that he is clipped into, but it’s still super ballsy to try to balance hundreds of feet over a raging cliffside waterfall. We are impressed!
There are lots of people hanging out here enjoying the show from a shady spot next to the river. A few are even wading in the cool water trying to escape the heat. We dip our hats in the river and let the cold water stream all over us when we put them on our heads. This becomes an obsession for me on the rest of the trail, and, anytime I see water, I dip my hat in it and douse my head a few times before moving on. It definitely slows us down, but it’s the only relief I can find on this hot, hot day.
We continue down, and, about a mile from the trailhead, the surface becomes more smooth and paved. It’s easier to walk on, but the hard cement kills our feet. Some of our toes have become numb from the incessant pounding of the trail. (I don’t know this now, but it won’t be until mid-November that I will feel all of my toes again!)
We pass Vernal Falls Bridge and make the final push. Once we see the trailhead sign with the 211 mileage marker to Mt. Whitney, we know we have technically completed the John Muir Trail! We stop for a few photos to commemorate the occasion. We can’t believe it’s over—24 days, 270 miles, summiting the largest peak in the lower 48, and so many other huge milestone moments as we crossed 15+mountain passes—the JMT was truly our biggest adventure yet.
Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion.
I have crossed the Range of Light,
surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built.
And, rejoicing in its glory,
I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.
The John Muir Trail was a big one on our quest to hike the classic treks of the world, and, like John Muir, we pray that this isn’t our last time to see these beautiful mountains. We are not sure what could top this amazing backpacking experience, but you can be sure that we are going to keep trying. Thank you John Muir, pioneer and poet of the wilderness, for charting the way through the High Sierra and inspiring us and so many others to follow in your footsteps.