Hanging out on Half Dome

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of United States  , California
Monday, September 12, 2011

Bidding goodbye to Jacky & Ping and heading off to Yosemite we realized that having had so long with friends & family this was the first time it was just the two of us since we'd got to the US and bought The Tank. It felt a bit strange but also kind of nice.

We arrived in Yosemite in the gathering dark, lowering fog and freezing rain and absolutely hadn’t accounted for how busy it would be - it was already mid-September, for goodness sake! We’d opted to head for the more remote, higher and colder eastern side of the park in Tuolomne Meadows but even over here all the campsites were full.  Luckily Sarah was able to sweet-talk the host of the campsite into letting us camp on the edge of a 'closed campsite’; there was a massive puddle which would have been a problem in an American-style huge RV camper but didn’t pose any issues for our tiny tent.  Setting up in the dark we realised this was going to be a cold, cold night and it didn’t disappoint. Suspecting that the camping temperature was going to be a little different to what it had been in Arizona we had purchased an extra sleeping bag to use as a blanket on top of our trusty summer ones and a small fleece blanket each. Even with this stuff we were cold. Really, really cold.

It was also our first experience of camping in bear country and all of the mucking about this entails. You have to put all food, toiletries, chewing gum or anything at all with a nice smell that the bears might associate with food in a bear-proof locker next to your campsite and  be very careful to clean up after eating and put every last speck of rubbish or food in a bear proof bin. There were pictures everywhere of cars that have had their doors ripped off and the insides gutted or completely shredded tents to deter you from cutting corners. Sure enough early our first morning we awoke to the sounds of our neighbours in the campsite banging pots and pans and shouting trying to scare off a big one-year old black bear that had come snuffling right around our tents.

Anyway, we were in the park because we wanted to get ourselves a back-country permit to hike for a few days out from the meadows and across much of the breadth of the park to the main Yosemite Valley, hopefully climbing the famous Half Dome mountain on the way through.  This used to be quite an easy process but there had been several deaths in the park already this year, some of them on Half Dome and as result a new permit system had been implemented for anyone wanting to go up it.  Inevitably trying to get a permit meant either having been very organized several months ago or showing up and queuing at the permit office to get one of the limited permits released each morning for the following day.  At first we thought we were going to have any luck when the people at the front of the queue told us they were waiting for all the tickets for the walk that we’d been thinking of, but luckily the permit people were able to get us permits for an almost identical but slightly long hike, including the Half Dome summit.  Hurrah!  It was even worth the slightly scary and very lengthy lecture from the park ranger on backcountry camping rules in bear territory.

After a last minute provisions run back down into the nearest town (having realized we had no toilet paper or plastic bags to keep our stuff dry - a major problem as the weather forecast looked dodgy to say the least) we had time for a short climb up a nearby mini-dome to get a taste for what hiking Half Dome might be like before another arctic night spend shivering in our summer tent.  It was not fun getting out of our sleeping bags in the morning to pack up the tents with numb hands in the early morning!  Having just managed it we headed off to the trailhead where we scoured the Tank for anything that might smell nice to a bear, lugging it over to a bear locker then setting on off up the hill out of the Tuolomne Meadows valley and on our way.

Having not hiked with a full pack of camping gear since South America we had forgotten just how much harder it is with a extra 15kgs on your back and found the first few miles of climbing really quite tough. By the time we stopped for a break at the top of the first big pass though we realised that we were moving at quite a pace and perhaps slowing a little would be allowed!  We passed around the spectacular Cathedral peaks and went past beautiful and empty alpine meadows, once again marveling at the lack of people around.  We saw maybe 2 or 3 people total all day and didn’t pass anyone coming the other way until an hour before we camped, despite how manically busy the rest of the park had been. Whatever you say about the US National Park Service (Bill Bryson, whose travel-comedy books we had been listening to on the drive, has a particular beef with them) it is amazing that you can turn up, grab a permit for a few dollars and head off into clearly signposted and utterly untouched areas like this even in one of the busiest national parks of all.

We had set out early because the weather had been much nicer in the mornings than the afternoons and we wanted to get as close to Half Dome as possible before camping so that we could be up it early the next morning before the crowds arrived from the other side of the valley later in the day. Happily having made good time by 4pm we were able to set up camp on a rocky hillside with a fantastic view of Half Dome sticking up ahead of us - just as a great mass of black clouds was starting to gather behind us and make ominous rumbling sounds. After an hour or so of heavy showers which we used as an opportunity to have a refreshing (if bloody cold) al fresco shower, the rain eased and we even managed to have a camp fire before retiring to our tent as it got dark. We had covered 17 miles, including a significant up and down, with our big packs and were, as well as being quite proud of ourselves, utterly bushwhacked.

When you are out backpacking in bear country it is compulsory to take a bear canister; basically a big thick plastic can with a screw on lid. You then have to squish all of your food, rubbish and smelly stuff into and then leave it a little bit away from your tent at night so you don’t get any large, hairy, rather scary visitors in your tent. In the night, we woke up at one point thinking we heard some rather alarming snuffling right outside the tent. We shook it off and told ourselves to stop being paranoid and went back to sleep. When we woke up in the morning the bear canister had been visited, examined and left about 50 yards away from where we had left it (the Yosemite bears have learnt to check that they’re properly locked). Gulp.

We had set the alarm for a perhaps rabidly early 5:00am and after grabbing a day pack and quite a lot of shining torches all around the campsite looking for lurking dark shapes, we set off in the dark towards the summit of Half Dome, still checking the shadows.  Happily the last night’s storm as bad as the weather got and it was a gorgeous day.  We expected to join a queue of similarly keen hikers with headtorches winding their way slowly up the path towards the famous chain climb up the exposed face of Half Dome but there was no one around. We couldn’t believe it. It was a fairly tough 1000m or so vertical climb from where we had camped but we didn’t really notice as we were excited and full of adrenaline the whole way up because as the sun came up it became apparent that it was a going to be a beautiful start to the day and it was looking like we would be virtually the only people on the top.

The chain climb itself was fantastic – hauling yourself up the very steep (nearly vertical is some places) rock face pulling on the chains staring up into the bright blue sky and then finally coming over the top onto the dome itself is a highlight of our whole trip we won’t forget in a hurry. Credit again to the US Park Service for making such a beautiful and spectacular place accessible to virtually anyone, they even had a whole bunch of gloves at the bottom to help you pull yourself up the chains - amazing.

At the top, there were only 3 other people who had been up there for sunrise and left pretty much as we arrived, leaving us with the whole of Half Dome and the stunning views of the Yosemite Valley below and the mountains we had come across behind. It was amazing. After wandering around the top and taking a lot of photos on various precarious looking rocks, we settled down with a breakfast and watched the light get brighter as the sun moved across the valleys and the colours changed all around us. We assumed that the hordes would be arriving any minute. They didn’t. We spent a full hour and a half up there on our own without another soul. Unreal. Finally people started to arrive and, after getting one of them to take a photo of the two us, we headed on down, passing the crowds of people that were finally starting to arrive. By the time we reached the bottom of the climb we could look back up and see a continuous line of people queuing to get up the chain section.

We had a few miles of backtracking to go and pack up the campsite and donning our packs and heading on. The walk down from Half Dome and into Yosemite Valley surprised us in many ways. Although we had been expecting an average stroll down it was a beautiful walk down through meadows and fields, then down into canyons and past two huge waterfalls and into the deep valley itself - only slightly ruined by increasing crowds as we hit the valley. It was also a fairly rugged decent, particularly with a big backpack and was definitely a knee-cruncher, as the hordes heading up the hill from the valley were clearly discovering.  By the time we got to our campsite we were utterly knackered after two long days but had enough energy to get ourselves to the shower block and then the bar for a couple of, we felt, well deserved beers. We had after all covered 35 miles and goodness knows how many vertical metres in two days of hiking with all our camping gear.  And what a hike it had been.

The next day, after a very good nights sleep in the relative warm of the valley, we caught the daily shuttle bus from Yosemite Valley back across the park to Tuolomne Meadows and found The Tank, thankfully, unmolested by bears. We then drove all the way back again and up around to the other side of the valley to do a short 2 hour walk to stretch our aching legs taking in Taft Point, an awesome ledge sticking out a 1000m or so above the valley floor, and the Sentinel Dome, a small and accessible dome that nevertheless had fantastic views back to Half Dome and the hills behind. We sat and enjoyed lunch looking out at Half Dome and the route we had taken the previous 2 days feeling pretty happy with our Yosemite experience.  But now it was time to head on for another hot shower and a proper warm bed!
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