Rising 8,800 feet above sea level lies Half Dome, the greatest icon in Yosemite National Park. This unique granite monolith is named from the obvious cleft appearance. I've spent the last 3 years planning my crusade. The "easiest" way to see the summit is by a 14 - 16 mile round trip hike that gains 4,800' elevation gain. The most famous part of the hike is the final 400' section that requires assisted use of metal cables, seasonally installed by the park. In order to use the cables one must obtain a permit by a lottery system, and each individual is only allowed one application per year, with about 20% odds in your favor. On my third year applying, I was granted a permit, and this is where the story gets interesting.
Depending on how you view it my adventure either fell apart, or came together. The original plan was to go the traditional hiker's route, as described, with my immediate family. I was lucky to get a permit for Memorial Day weekend too. As the departure date grew closer, my family reserved their participation for a time when they would feel more confidently conditioned to tackle the demanding length and elevation gain (and the scary cable part!)
So I was left to decide about hiking the trail alone, refunding my lottery winning permit, or plan C, randomly ask a qualified friend-of-a-friend to technically ascend the monolith using ropes and rock climbing equipment, an entirely different style of adventure. Plan C it was! I met my teammate Ryan, aka Taco, a weekend before Memorial Day. We ran some very rudimentary drills and assured each other of enough sanity to partner up and commit to the ascent, a trip he had lead previously, which was highly reassuring.
Carefully watching the always nerve racking weather forecast of the Sierra Mountains, we headed out to Yosemite on the afternoon of Sunday May 24th. Arriving at our temporary base camp for the night, we tried to get to sleep by 9pm. We woke up at 3am on Memorial Day and headed to the trail head. The rock climbing route objective is called Snake Dike and requires a similar statistic of hiking, but with the added climbing instead of the cable assistance. So we hit the trail at 4am for the 6.5 mile approach to the bottom of the route. You can start by taking the beautiful Mist Trail, or do a variation using a section of the John Muir Trail, both take you a couple thousand feet up past Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls.
Now the first sunlight is appearing, and we fill up our water bottles for the last time. We hike passed Little Yosemite Valley Campground and catch a climber's trail that heads into the back country. At this point it's around 6:30am, and we have not seen a single person. The climber's trail is beautiful, and spirits are high. We're keeping an eye out for bears, but only see birds.
The climber's trail eventually disappears to open rock slabs. From here you follow some cairns that may or may not guide you down the correct path. Like many people do, we had some minor setbacks getting to the base of the climb. This section requires some bushwhacking and sometimes very exposed ledges of 3rd and 4th class sandy switchbacks to get you to the Southwest face of Half Dome.
We get to the climb! I would be lying to say I wasn't a little tired already. We just tackled near 7 miles and 2500'+ of gain. It's 9:30am and we take a break for brunch. Many people avoid climbing Snake Dike, or call the adventure "Snake Hike" because of the long approach, but hiking in Yosemite Valley is not a punishment, but rather a treat. Look at this view from the bottom of the route, it's spectacular.
Now for my first time roping up in Yosemite and my personal bid for the summit of Half Dome, it's go time! Snake Dike, in regards to a relative grading system isn't extremely difficult per say. However, it's a very strenuous day and a very "R-Rated" climb. This specifically and particularly means there is little rock protection along the 800' of roped climbing and little room for error. Essentially you need large cojones, and it qualifies this route as being one of the most glorious moderate climbs on the planet. I've been climbing for less than 2 years and without the guidance of my partner Taco, I can't imagine having enough strategy.
Here I am below, about to approach the anchor of the 1st pitch. Snake Dike requires 8 pitches. I'm smiling to get to this ledge, before this was photo was taken you must use almost exclusively friction and finesse to arrive.
Here you can see Taco leading the second pitch of the climb, it requires a very delicate traverse. The sweeping views of the Valley floor are the finest. We really lucked out with great weather and when we started climbing at 10am, there wasn't another party on the route. EMPTY! It was as if we had Yosemite to ourselves, on Memorial Day nonetheless!
Below you can start to see the Dike itself. It's a very distinct shape, almost looks like a dinosaur spine. Excellent climbing when you get to it, almost acts like a natural ladder. This shot of me cleaning what little gear can be placed displays a typical view looking down the route. High exposure, and this is probably only pitch 3 I'm guessing.
Somewhere along the route we stopped for a selfie. It wasn't easy to shoot many photos of the climb seeing as we sort of had our hands busy holding the rope for each other. Ya know, so nobody dies and all. That's important.
When you get to the top of the 8th pitch, around 800' later you untie your rope and sit on this large rock perched above the route.
Now this is not the top, there is a required extra 1000' of unroped 3rd class slabs. You cannot fall here. Not sure if you would slip all the way off the mountain, but it's not worth finding out. The slab is off a lower incline but sticky rubber shoes is a must. This part is a real calf and lung buster, especially after what you've put your body through by now.
We're gonna make it! And we make it. We finally get over the top of the never ending slabs and there are a few peppered tourists around the summit who have made the ascent from the metal cables. They are impressed to see us arrive from a different and obviously less convenient angle. It's almost surreal to me, I have been waiting 3 years to see this view. However, there's not much time to take it all in. There are dark storm clouds in the distance near Mount Star King. Being at the top of Half Dome during a storm could be a death sentence. The dome is a natural lightning rod and several people have died instantly when the rock is struck by lightning. Furthermore, the granite is naturally slippery, attempting to get down if it's wet could be a real nightmare. It's around 2pm and I convince Taco to take a summit photo with me. He's a bit shy to be mixed in with this tourist activity and I understand. We've endured quite a shitload together seeing as it's a new friendship, the photo is non-negotiable in this instance.
At this point, I have full cell phone reception, since we've climbed near outer space and closer to the AT&T satellite. I make a quick facetime call to my wife to let her know I have survived and show her the view. I then make my way over to the diving board shaped summit portion known as Half Dome's "visor." Here one takes the quintessential and ubiquitous postcard-from-the-edge souvenir photo. It's a little dizzying to stand out there but it's irresistible.
Now I guess you think it's over, but this marks the half way point. Now let's get the heck out of here! The celebration ends abruptly as the clouds look sketchy. We head over to the hiker's metal cables for the traditional descent of the climb. Coming down the cables is scary, sure thousands of tourists do it a year, but after sleeping a few hours and hiking several, and climbing even more, one must stay mentally sharp. When you're tired is when mistakes can happen. I found descending the metal cables to be part of the most nerve racking experience of the whole thing. Weird but true. It was just amazing how empty the place was. We expected a whole mess of visitors heading up and down the cables, traffic jamming, but it was nearly vacant!
It seemed mentally safer to walk down the cables backwards, sort of like how Batman would rappel. It's really shocking how many tourists use these things! Relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables. However, injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly.
So we get down the cables, and still have NINE MORE MILES to hike back to the car. HA! Since you descend a different face than we climbed, the hike back is even longer. Luckily it's the most beautiful hiking ever. My mind and body are basically separated at this point and I'm just following my feet as we fly down the waterfalls and back to the trail head. I stop at a switchback about half way home to get a capture of myself standing in front of my latest and greatest accomplishment.
We get back to the car at 6pm, making it an exactly 14 hour adventure. We've hiked close to 16 miles with 5000' gain, which is about 4 times the height of the Empire State Building. What a dream come true for me. Taco and I head to Curry Village and massacre a large pizza before passing out at our campsite in Upper Pines. I'm overjoyed with glory and satisfaction and it makes the blisters on my feet so forgetful.
The next day I hiked out to Mirror Lake to take one more peek at the iconic Half Dome. I have been tracking all my climbs in a small Adventure Journal and was elated to add Snake Dike to a page. Cheers to my first climb in Yosemite, my first summit up Half Dome, my first 8 pitch route and salute to Mother Nature for letting all the stars align!