Old friends are the best.
In general I’m bad at staying in touch, but lately a group of my high school friends has been making an effort to get together more often. We met in Aspen in 2016 and 2017, and last year four of us who like hiking made a trip to southern Utah. We enjoyed that trip so much we’ve decided it should be an annual event, with a different destination each year.
This year our first choice (again) was to hike the Lost Coast, but we didn’t organize ourselves in time to get a permit. Pretty quickly we all agreed that the next best choice was Yosemite National Park. Kevin and Rob E. had never been there before, and David hadn’t visited in decades. I’ve spent a lot of time in Yosemite over the years but never managed to do the iconic Half Dome hike, which we set as our top priority.
Rob E., who lives in St. Louis, kicked off the trip by driving to Kansas City and meeting up with David and Kevin. The three of them flew to Fresno on a Saturday, rented a car, and drove to Yosemite.
I was late to the party, given that on Saturday I was busy with another party – Marie’s milestone 50th birthday, which included blowing out candles, a horseback ride, and a celebratory dinner in Cooke City. It’s a relief that Marie can no longer point out that I’m in my geriatric 50s while she’s still a spry young 40-something.
The next morning I started the long drive to Yosemite and arrived on Monday afternoon. By that point David, Rob E., and Kevin had already checked out giant redwoods and sequoias and hiked over 20 miles. I was bummed to have missed so much, but it felt great to see everyone and raise a toast with our first beer as a full group.
We spent that night in a tent at Curry Village and set out the next morning with heavy backpacks. Our plan was to hike up past Vernal and Nevada Falls and camp in Little Yosemite Valley, just a few miles from Half Dome. Having a backcountry permit for Little Yosemite Valley allowed us to add a permit for climbing Half Dome any of the days we were there, giving us the flexibility to make our attempt whenever there was a window of good weather. So far it had been mostly rainy and cold, conditions that make the Half Dome climb more hazardous.
The scenery in Yosemite is among the most beautiful and dramatic in the world. Mist and clouds swirled around the granite peaks as we hiked, constantly hiding and revealing different features of the landscape. It’s easier to haul a heavy load up a steep trail when every view is jaw-dropping.
My pack was by far the lightest and still my legs were wobbly when we arrived at our Little Yosemite Valley campsite. As we set up our tents the thunk-thunking sounds of two pileated woodpeckers chipping away at a dead tree filled the air.
“You’re already done brushing your teeth?” our fastidious friend David asked me as we stood in a dark field cleaning up before calling it a night.
“You’re supposed to brush your teeth for two minutes,” he declared solemnly. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when David is joking.
Cold rain fell all night and some of the tent sites we thought would remain dry did not cooperate. Around 3am I heard Rob E. spring into action when his tent flooded, followed soon by David. They relocated to dry ground, alternately laughing and cursing. Before going back to sleep Rob E. defused potential trouble at Kevin’s tent by constructing a series of drainage canals that would have impressed a Dutch engineer.
Scattered showers continued the next morning, but the forecast claimed that sunshine and warmer weather were on the way. We considered heading straight up to Half Dome, but the prospect of clear skies coming soon convinced us to hold off one more day. Instead we began what turned out to be a 15-mile loop hike up the Merced Lake Trail and back on the John Muir Trail. That whole area of Yosemite was completely new to me. In some ways the views were even more scenic than in the main valley below.
Our tents remained dry that night and the next morning brought clear skies, as promised. Taking only our daypacks, we headed up the relatively short but steep trail to Half Dome. Soon we arrived at the base of sub-dome, a smaller-scale bulge of granite on the east side of Half Dome, where a park ranger was checking permits. As we approached, the ranger noticed a mom with two college-aged daughters trying to loop around her and sneak past. The ranger sprinted over, caught them, and escorted the three of them back to where we were waiting. One of the daughters broke down sobbing and begged the ranger not to give them a citation. Yikes! I guess it’s a bad idea to have a sloppy plan for hiking Half Dome without a permit.
A series of switchbacks took us up sub-dome until we had our first view of the notorious cable section. The final 400 feet to the top of Half Dome is a sheer slope of exposed granite, too steep to climb without help, so in 1919 the Sierra Club installed two parallel lines of metal cables that provide a more secure path to the summit. Even with the cables the final climb can be a gut-check. If you lose your grip and slide off, it’s a long way down. Over the past 20 years seven people have died on this section, mostly when the granite was wet.
We made it to the cables relatively early in the day, before they got crowded. Even so the climb up was a white-knuckle adrenaline rush. Instead of taking photos I concentrated fully on my grip and footing until we reached the top. Exiting the cables and finally standing on the summit of Half Dome felt amazing. An endless landscape of glacier-scoured granite stretched to the horizon in every direction.
The mood at the top was celebratory. We took our obligatory photos on the Diving Board (a rock shelf that leans out over a vertiginous drop), checked out all the different views, and chatted with other climbers. “I want to be like you when I grow up,” a young hiker told Rob E.
The cables were significantly more crowded when we left, making the descent slower and more stressful than our climb up. Someone below us apparently froze, which created a traffic jam that left us waiting in sometimes-awkward positions on the cables. But we made it down fine, and by mid-day we were back at our tents.
We weighed the possibility of staying at our campsite another night against the temptation of beer and pizza at Curry Village. It wasn’t much of a contest. That afternoon, unsurprisingly, we headed back to the valley floor. Hauling our heavy packs down the steep trail after hiking Half Dome tested our limits, but hot showers and cold beers washed away most of our aches and pains. It felt pleasantly strange to look back at Half Dome and realize that we’d been standing on the summit that morning.
The next day, our last as as full group, we woke up slowly and spent a couple hours watching rock climbers on El Capitan. Scaling that gigantic wall seems crazy enough with ropes – it’s mind-boggling that someone actually free-climbed it.
We drove across Tioga Pass that afternoon, left Yosemite, and made a quick stop at Mono Lake, a highly-saline lake with strange limestone formations that developed underwater and are gradually being revealed as the water level drops.
We spent our final night at a hotel in Lee Vining. I said my goodbyes after dinner, given that I planned to head home early the next morning. I was on the road by 5am and ended up driving all the way back to Silver Gate in one grueling 17-hour shot. The rest of the group drove back through the park, ate a final lunch at In-N-Out, and flew home from Fresno.
What an awesome trip. It was great, as always, to hang out with Kevin, Rob E., and David, and I was really happy to finally tackle Half Dome. Fingers crossed that everything comes together for us to hike the Lost Coast in 2023!