Half dome, Yosemite National Park, September 2006

Half dome is an iconic mountain that I have seen in pictures for many years and I wanted to climb it.  I naturally assumed that Martin would share my enthusiasm, but it seemed not.  Was this because it meant a 17-mile walk, starting early, or perhaps he had been put off by the description in our Lonely Planet guide to the park?

  Half Dome from the Yosemite Falls path
Nevada Falls
  My offer of having separate days was eventually turned down and the alarm broke the dark silence (apart from the occasional clatter of bear scaring cooking pans) at 6am.  When daylight started stealing in, we were up, breakfasted and off at 7.  The wide trail from Happy Isles bridge was already busy with ‘Half domers’ striding purposefully along.  Yet again, the sky was blue and the air gradually warmed, but with most of the route having tree-cover, it provided welcome respite from the hot sun.  Soon, the John Muir trail took us above Nevada falls then into new territory, along wide sandy paths beneath the tall pines. 
The length of the route is due to the need to walk around to the back of the dome for the final ascent, but the woods were now quiet and we enjoyed the shade whilst it lasted.  At last, the trees thinned out and we were high on a sunny saddle, with extensive views across the scrubby mountains and not a cloud to be seen in the azure sky.  A steep granite stairway cut into the white rock to gain yet more height, giving way to more smooth granite.  The summit loomed large ahead, its dome brightly lit by the strong sun, dropping suddenly away to the sheer face, dark with shadow.   Emerging from the trees
The final steep 110 metre ascent up the dome - the dots are people   At last, the final section which ascends 110 metres is revealed.  The direct ascent mounts the granite up a dramatically steep  slope – it comprises two wires, and widely spaced boards to relieve the granite.  A large pile of very mixed gloves greets us, but we don’t need to pay heed to the sign warning not to climb if lightning threatens!
I let Martin go ahead, aware of his now apparent reluctance.  His progress up the steep granite was slow, allowing me to marvel at the chipmunks running up and down the face alongside us!  My mixed gloves stayed in pockets, as sweaty hands gave good grip on the thick wires.   "Mixed gloves"
A hyperventilation pause on very steep rock with 'mixed gloves' and no via ferrata kit...
  Eventually the slope slackened off but not before Martin’s predicament got the better of him, and he found himself hyperventilating to relieve the feeling of faintness he was experiencing!  Finally the wires ran out and we found ourselves on the top of the dome at 8,842 feet, on a broad plateau with superb views over Yosemite valley and for 360 degrees.
I revelled in our position, peering over the edge of the cliff formed by glaciers in the last ice age, whilst Martin remained seated in a safe position, worrying about the descent.    The view from Half Dome
Worried, on Half Dome summit
...and it's a long way down!

After 45 minutes or so, we had to reverse the ascent, with the added concern of having to pass others coming up!  Various techniques were in evidence – there was the woman walking forwards at high speed on the outside of the wires, my preferred descent leaning backwards using both wires, with flat feet on the granite and others facing forwards in the middle of the wires.  Hands ached when we reached the bottom, with huge relief on Martin’s part and the declaration “I’m never doing that again.”

The return was another beautiful walk, using the Mist Trail, descending steeply past Nevada and Vernal Falls which crash noisily despite the relative lack of water.

Back in Yosemite Valley by 4.30pm, this was our earliest finish in three days – and what a memorable day out in more ways than one!

Sue Banfield


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