Yosemite's Half Dome is a peak life experience

08/25/2007 1:08 PM

08/25/2007 1:17 PM

I don't usually spend my Sunday mornings rising before dawn to stuff ice cubes into a CamelBak. But then again it's not every weekend that I have the chance to ascend one of the world's most famous granite domes.

So here I am at 5 a.m. leaving the cozy confines of my tent to prepare for one of life's signature hikes - the 17-mile round-trip jaunt to the summit of Half Dome.

Anyone with hiking boots and a healthy heart can do it. Some 50,000 people make the grueling hike every summer, taking in 360-degree views of nearly the entire Yosemite National Park. They pass two incredible waterfalls, walk through a valley of pine trees and finally muster up the courage to climb a 45-degree chunk of granite with the aid of cable handrails.

I know what you're thinking.

Is it safe? Didn't a hiker recently die when he lost his grip on the cables and tumbled 300 feet down the mountain?

Yes and yes. But perhaps some perspective will relieve any fears. When Hirofumi Nohara fell in June, it marked the first time in at least three decades that someone died on the cables during the summer hiking season, park rangers said.

So it's the first death among more than 1 million who have made it to the summit in that time. I've seen all ages make it to the top - from preteens to hikers with white hair.

Teacher Lauren Baiocchi took a group of 40 South San Francisco middle schoolers up Half Dome this summer and all but 10 had enough energy to complete the hike.

"They complained a lot going up there, but when they got to the top they were definitely excited," Baiocchi said. "Anyone who sets their mind to it can do it. It's just a matter of getting over the psychological challenge."

While anyone in decent shape can make it to the top, it does require some training and a heck of a lot of walking.

Plan on taking about 30,000 steps on the Half Dome trail, gaining almost a mile in elevation and burning 4,000 calories. It's OK; there's a $12 Curry Village buffet at the end to gain some of them back.

On this recent July morning, my fiancee, Laurie Phillips, and I prepared for our fourth consecutive summer hike up Half Dome. We had made enough rookie mistakes in earlier years to finally know where to filter water and at what early morning hour we should leave to avoid the crowds at the top.

So on this journey, we hit the trailhead at 6 a.m. Sunday. We like to avoid Saturdays because it's the most popular day, meaning you'll have a less enjoyable experience when hundreds of hikers are reaching over each other to ascend the cables.

The trail's first two miles snake along the Merced River and pass by some of the hike's most beautiful scenery. You'll soon discover why they call this section the Mist Trail, with the 317-foot Vernal Fall giving hikers a light spraying. It's good timing, though, because climbing hundreds of granite steps next to the waterfall gets the sweat going.

After enduring the equivalent of a 15-minute StairMaster workout, it's good to take a snack break next to the mouth of Vernal Fall. From here you can look down on the land you've conquered, and at the same time realize you're just one-fourth of the way to standing atop Half Dome.

Another mile - up switchbacks and more steps - puts you at the junction with the John Muir Trail. Laurie and I stop here to apply sunscreen, take off our fleece jackets and use one of the few toilets along the trail. A lot of people take breaks on the benches here and chat about where they've been and where they're going.

We ran into a high school-age girl and her dad who were woefully unprepared. They had left the valley at 11 p.m. hoping to make it to Half Dome by sunrise. But they were so tired and so disoriented in the dark that they had to turn around.

Now, I don't want to make any judgments about what personal items are inappropriate to bring along, but it probably didn't help matters that the girl was hauling the newly released 759-page hardcover "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The wizardlike powers apparently did not carry over for the hike.

We wished them well and moved on. The middle part of the hike provides relief because it's relatively flat and you can start to see your prize - the backside of Half Dome. It's also your last chance to fill up on water.

So we got out our filter and pumped some fresh cold water from the Merced River next to the Little Yosemite Valley campground. It's a popular spot to pitch a tent for those making the hike over two days. The river is also calm along here and makes for a nice swimming hole if it's hot.

But Laurie and I didn't have any time to waste - we wanted to press ahead to beat the crowds on the cables. To get there, we had to slog through the toughest part of the hike - the Granite Staircase.

We walked up hundreds of steps over the quarter-mile leading up to the cables, gaining about 800 feet in elevation. This is where hiking poles not only provide balance but also save the knees.

I had enough sweat on my shirt to fill a coffee cup after the Granite Staircase, but we weren't done yet. About 400 feet and two steel cables were all that stood between us and Half Dome. We stowed the hiking poles in our backpacks and put on our leather gloves.

The cables are a little more than shoulder-width apart and start out about waist high. But as the 45-degree angle up the mountain turns into 55 degrees, you're reaching above your head to grab the cables. Two-by-four slats of wood have been placed on the granite between metal poles, serving as planks to rest your feet on as you gain elevation. Just put your body parallel to the rock and pull yourself up as you walk.

People heading down cheered us on as we headed up. We returned the favor when we descended.

The climb takes about 15 minutes and on a few trips my legs have cramped up once I reached the top. But it's amazing how the pain goes away when you walk around the dome's 5-acre roof.

To the west, El Capitan shoots straight up out of the Yosemite Valley. To the east, Clouds Rest and the rugged Tenaya Canyon look better than an Ansel Adams photograph.

Take in the views. Snack on a lunch. Or get creative.

I liked the peaceful setting so much that I chose Half Dome as the spot to ask Laurie to marry me. (Solid foundation for that marriage, eh?)

At 8,842 feet, there's a shared sense of achievement. Strangers chat it up like best friends and talk about the struggles to make it to the summit.

"For a lot of people, it's one of those life goals," said Yosemite park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman. "It's an icon. Look at the state quarter program - what was chosen as the symbol of California? The California condor, John Muir and Half Dome."

Making it to the top is only the halfway point of the hike. Some say that going down the cables is harder than going up. I disagree, but it's difficult nonetheless. The key is to go down backward, letting the cables glide through your gloves. It's sort of like rappelling down a mountain, only in this case your legs always stay on the granite.

We took the same path down past Little Yosemite Valley, where we met up with the Merced River again. We always soak our feet here and throw on a fresh pair of socks.

We took the John Muir Trail down instead of the Mist Trail. It's about a half-mile longer than the Mist Trail, but it's a gradual descent instead of sharp steps. Your knees will thank you when you finish up at the trailhead.

It's hard to put into words the amazing sense of accomplishment I've felt when I look back up at Half Dome and say to myself, "I was actually up there?"

But maybe John Muir said it best. The famed naturalist was one of the first to ascend Half Dome in 1875. And he used to say, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."

I imagine that was true on his first Half Dome climb and it's certainly true today.

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HALF DOME STATISTICS

-Summit elevation: 8,842 feet

-Hike elevation gain: 4,800 feet

-Distance: 17 miles

-Hiking time: 10 to 12 hours

-Climbers: About 50,000 people make it to the summit each summer. Millions have hiked it since the Sierra Club installed cable handrails on the side of Half Dome in 1919. Avoid going on Saturdays, when the number of hikers triples compared with other days.

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IF YOU GO:

WHEN TO GO: Depending on snow conditions, the cables are generally up from Memorial Day to mid-October. Check www.nps.gov/yose to be sure.

A seven-day park admission costs $20 per car.

TRAILHEAD: Drive past the Pines campgrounds and look for the "Trailhead Parking" sign. From the parking lot, it's about a half-mile walk to the trailhead at Happy Isles.

WHAT TO BRING:

-Wear a sturdy pair of hiking boots along with sweat-wicking clothes. Put all of the following gear in a backpack that has a waist strap and chest strap:

-Two-liter water reservoir

-Water purification tablets or filter (Katadyn Hiker works great)

-Two 20-ounce Gatorade bottles

-Snacks and a lunch

-Hat, sunscreen and sunglasses

-Extra pair of hiking socks (not cotton)

-Hiking poles

-Work gloves (for the cables)

-First-aid kit

-Lightweight flashlight or headlamp (just in case the sun goes down before you get down)

-Lightweight jacket or fleece

-Waterproof map

-Toilet paper (need I say more?)

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