June 28, 2015 | 10.97 mi | + 2099′ / -5323′ | View on Map

Due to troubled dreams about bears and pinecones, I didn’t sleep much last night. Or, at least, it doesn’t feel like I slept much. We never did see that bear. All four of us get up at 3:45 and have breakfast. We want to climb Half Dome before it becomes crowded and hot, and my friends need to be back to Yosemite Valley mid-afternoon so they can leave the park before nightfall.

sierra nevada sunrise yosemite

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada

We cook and pack up camp by the light of headlamps, although the sky starts to brighten at 4:30 or so. We finish packing by 5:15 and walk the short trail to the Half Dome junction. None of us want to carry our heavy gear up Half Dome, so we stash most of it a little way off the trail. We make sure to separate the scented items from the packs and have a snack while we’re at it. A coyote comes to visit while we’re eating – he literally walks up to within a few feet of us and just looks at us. People must feed him.

We soon set out on the trail to Half Dome. It’s awesome to be hiking with so little weight on our backs! We pass a few people on their way up and a few others on their way down. There are plenty of beautiful views once we climb up to where the trees are thinner.

Before we climb Half Dome, we first must conquer “sub dome.” Sub-dome is a smaller dome adjacent to Half Dome; a narrow, rocky trail carves tight switchbacks into the side. At some points along the trail, steps are carved directly into the stone. In other places, there are make-shift stairs assembled from other rocks.

yosemite backpacking sub dome

Stairs hewn directly into the side of the mountain; “We’re nearly there, Mr. Frodo!”

Near the top of sub dome, the trail disappears altogether and you are left to scramble up the rock. It’s pretty clear where Half Dome is: just keep going up, so that’s what we do.

yosemite backpacking scramble

With no trail in sight, we just went up the rock in a straight line. This is going to be fun to go down…

The dome soon levels out and we reach the infamous cables. There is a large pile of gloves at the base that people have left for others to use. I suppose you could do it without gloves, but you end up using your hands to pull yourself up and you’d probably get some kind of burns from the cable.

We’re all grins now. Here we are, here are the cables. Let’s do this! They begin at a moderate 45 degree angle, but,45-degrees vantage point, it looks like they approach 60 or 70 degrees farther up. I take the lead, and we begin our way up Half Dome. The light pack and early morning energy make it easy to climb quickly. I’m just the right height so the cables are at shoulder level and I’m able to pull myself easily up the steep parts.

I pause halfway up and turn around to take a few pictures. There are 2×4’s every 10-20 feet that provide good resting spots. The granite underneath my feet is pretty slippery from all the shoes that have worn it down, but there are some cracks and shelves in the rock that provide nice footholds.




At the steepest part of the cables, my feet aren’t doing a whole lot and my arms are doing quite a bit of the work. All that strength training for running is sure paying off!

yosemite half dome

The heavens open and sun rays illuminate the distant mountains

I hurry ahead of my friends, squeezing past an Indian couple that are taking their time, and find a spot where I can get a few good pictures of my friends climbing the cables. It also proves to be an excellent spot for some landscape shots!

yosemite backpacking half dome cables

Conquering Half Dome!

I don’t have to wait long until my friends reach the top. I snap a few photos and then we go admire the view. There are a few people asleep on the ground and some other people scattered around the summit. We are definitely some of the first people to be here, though, and the relative solitude is well worth the early wake up time.

yosemite half dome valley

Only 5,000 feet to the bottom… Neglecting air resistance, it would take 16 seconds to hit the ground and you’d be traveling 157 m/s (352 mph).

Half Dome has a flat face, and although it is 1,000 feet lower than Cloud’s Rest, the drop off here is vertical and much more impressive. Have you ever stood next to a cliff and had the urge to jump off? You look over the edge and wonder what it would be like to fall all the way down. It makes your stomach churn for sure!

There is a rock formation that juts out over the cliff, suitably named “the diving board.” We all go out and have our pictures taken.

After that, we spend an hour talking and relaxing. One doesn’t just climb Half Dome and then leave right away. Even after chilling for an hour, it’s only 8:15 when we leave, still earlier than most people wake up on a Sunday morning. 🙂

yosemite half dome summit

My friends and I atop Half Dome

The hike down to Yosemite Valley is a little subdued, although we have some fun conversations on the way down to Little Yosemite Valley. I think we’re all tired, and I’m not sure any of us are really ready to leave the wilderness. The trails are relatively empty until we get to the Mist Trail near Nevada Falls. Then, gradually, the number of people increases from a handful every few minutes to more than will comfortably fit on the trail. Being back among casual hikers feels strange as if they are faking their love of the outdoors. I feel more than one person staring as we walk past. We’re dirty, carrying much larger packs than everyone else, and probably smell less than awesome. We are also walking much more quickly than most of the other hikers, even the ones going down. It isn’t a pleasant experience, and I would like nothing better than to disappear back into the mountains. Unfortunately, that isn’t really an option.

yosemite backpacking route topographic map

We leave most of our gear at camp, summit half dome at sunrise, then gather our things and descend to the valley.

It begins to rain a little when we get to the valley. I’m glad we were able to climb Half Dome before the rain came. I was very lucky to have perfect weather all week! We walk to my car in Curry Village and I drive all of us and our packs (we barely fit in my car!) to Tuolumne Meadows. Cristina, Stephen, and Lynnea unload their packs from my car and we say goodbye. I make sure I get their contact info so we can stay in touch and then drive to the backpacker’s campground in Tuolumne Meadows. I could leave the park this evening and get a start on driving back to Indiana, but I’m not ready to leave yet.

The backpacker’s campground is much more crowded than anything I encountered in the backcountry, but it is a decent compromise between what I’ve come to love in the mountains and the disgusting crowds in Yosemite Valley. I set up my tent in a light drizzle and cover up my backpack to prevent things from getting wet. The rain doesn’t last long, but I take advantage of the time to let my parents know I’m safely out of the backcountry. Even though I have cell reception here, I turn my phone off after talking to my parents; I’m not ready to “plug in” again.

Once the rain stops, I walk over to the Lyell River and wash myself and my clothes one last time. It’s generally not socially acceptable to do this. 😛 The water is cold, but it feels good. A man who is biking across the country comes down to wash just as I’m leaving and we chat for a few minutes. He mistakes me for a thru-hiker, and I laugh as I tell him that I’ve only been out for 6 days and am heading out tomorrow. I wish I was staying longer.

I spend a long time writing in my journal tonight and go to bed before most of the other campers. I have no trouble falling asleep and have another perfect night’s rest.

The next morning, I wake up at 5:30 or 6 and pack up my things. My pack feels very light now that all the food is gone! I walk a mile to my car, toss my pack in the trunk, and drive out of the park.

california pine road

So long, Yosemite!

Andrew Cox