At some point in my recent life, I got an idea in my head that I wanted to take on the personal challenge of reaching the top of Half Dome in Yosemite. I’m not sure how this idea came into my head exactly, but when I foolishly verbalized this out loud, Monica made a vow to help me reach my goal. Having spent nearly a lifetime exploring and backpacking in the Sierras she was familiar with the terrain, climate and elevation challenges. This trek would be especially challenging for me because I have a pulmonary condition known as fibrosing mediastinitis. I have pulmonary artery stents that keep blood flow to my left lung. High altitudes are typically not my friends. I notice I become short of breath at around 6000-7000 feet. The elevation of Half Dome is 8836 feet. Also, I am not a fan of hiking uphill. Fortunately, what I lack in speed and stamina I make up for in strength.
The hike from the valley floor to the top of Half Dome is 8.2 miles, and a 4800 foot gain, one way. This was enough to make me forgo the whole affair. Monica came up with an alternate plan that would be less physically daunting for me. She discovered that we could start our hike from Glacier Point, which is 3200 feet above the valley floor. The plan would be to hike a mostly downhill trek along the Panoramic trail, cross the Illilouette basin, then make a short 400 foot elevation grade to the top of Nevada Falls and then into Little Yosemite Valley where we would camp for the night before making the 3 1/2 mile uphill hike to Half Dome. We would then trek the 3.5 miles back to LYV, spend the night again and hike out the following day, descending the 4.2 mile Mist Trail back to the valley floor. Not only did she plan to the perfect route, she made sure we had all the required permits.
My friends, Karen and Kc, agreed to join me on my adventure. Neither of them had ascended Half Dome either and this would be Kc’s first visit to Yosemite. Monica had ascended to the top of Half Dome several years ago and decided she would get me to the top of the subdome and then I would be on my own.
On Friday morning, we headed drove out to Glacier Point where we donned our backpacks and headed down the 7.5 mile Panoramic trail to our camp at Little Yosemite Valley. The views wer stunning. We could see Half Dome, as well as Nevada and Vernal falls from the trail. Near the end of the hike I was feeling really tired and my pack was feeling really heavy. I began to question the whole idea. The night before, Monica and I had seen t-shirts that said “I MADE IT TO THE TOP OF HALF DOME.” We also saw a shirt that said: THIS BODY ATTEMPTED TO CLIMB HALF DOME. I called it the default t-shirt and I was determined to not have to get that shirt!
We made it to camp, made our delicious dehydrated dinner and nipped a bit of Maker’s Mark before spending a little time at the community fire pit. I turned in earlier than everyone else and slept like a rock.
I had high aspirations of getting a very early start on Saturday morning to hike the rest of the way to Half Dome. I knew Kc and Karen would be way ahead of me and I wanted to get a head start. Fail. Monica had a foot injury and was in a significant amount of pain. She was afraid she wouldn’t make the hike, but decided to tough it out because she really wanted to get me up to the subdome. Monica assured me that we had plenty of daylight and that a steady climb would lead to success.
Karen and Kc were way ahead of us. Karen called back to me and said she would be waiting at the top of the cables for me. We reached the base of the subdome where the ranger checked our permits. Several hikers were gathered at the base, unable to continue because they were not aware that they needed permits.
Our ascent was slow. The subdome was daunting, especially to Monica who wasn’t sure her foot would hold up.
The granite face was steep and exposed with uneven and sandy steps.
The view was magnificent. I was surprised at the number of people that struggled and were overcome with fear about the heights. I have absolutely no fear of heights and it makes me a little insensitive to other people who do. I figured by this time Kc and Karen were at the top of the dome.
A few times Monica almost turned around and I gave her my blessing because her safety was more important. I was determined to get to the top.
We reached the top of the stairs and then the subdome became bare granite.
We finally reached the top of the subdome where I came face to face with the cables. As we approached, we spotted Kc coming down. I was a little crestfallen because I knew they had probably grown tired of waiting for me. Realistically, I couldn’t expect them to wait all day. People were gathered at the bottom of the cables, studying them. One group of girls that we had run into several times on the trail were sitting on the rocks, looking up. They were too frightened to go up the cables. I thought it would be a real shame to get his far and not summit. Kc came down and told me that Karen was still up on top, waiting. I tried, in vain, to encourage the other girls to go with me. “Are you scared?” Monica asked me.
“Nope,” I said, as I neared the cables. “I have to get moving if I’m going to meet Karen.”
As I started up, I noticed a guy in his late 20’s standing at the base of the cables, looking upward. I had spotted him on the trail before. He was wearing one of those three wolves howling at the moon t-shirts. “Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.
“God didn’t give me enough strength to get up there,” he told me. He had decided not to summit.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” I said.
He shook his head and I started my climb, which quickly became very steep. At several points the wall was nearly vertical and I learned what the term “death grip” really was. I had wondered how people fall off the cables, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that one slip could easily lead to a 4000 foot plunge. I saw a lot of fear in people. One woman muttered, “this is insane.” People were coming down the other side of the cable. One guy was sliding on his butt. Some were coming down forward while many others came down backward. Everyone seemed to have their own technique.
I managed to let go of one cable in order to snap a picture of my ascent.
About 2/3 of the way up, I saw a familiar figure. “Tami Jo,” the voice said. I realized it was Karen. She was beginning her descent. I had missed her by just a few minutes.
“You finally gave up on me?” I asked as we both suspended from the cable.
“Nope,” she said. “I’m going back up.” Instantly, she turned around and went back up the cables. By the time I reached the top, she was waiting for me. I couldn’t believe she went back up. We spent nearly an hour together, exploring the top. At one point I said, “Well, Karen, are you going to hike up here with your girls?”
“Hell no,” she replied. “Let them get their own bucket list.”
The diving board.
Me, on the diving board, a mile up from the valley floor.
Karen and myself on top of Half Dome.
As Karen and I were exploring the top, I was surprised to see the guy in the three wolves t-shirt. “Wow,” I said. “I guess God gave you that strength after all.”
He said, “Yes, but I have to thank you for the encouragement.”
That made me feel pretty good.
The descent on the cables was less nerve-wracking than I thought it would be. I had Karen laughing because I harassed (read: encouraged) the people who were making their ascent. Many of them were anchoring themselves to the cable with carabiners with looks of sheer terror on their faces. “You’re almost to the top,” I’d say to them. “Keep going. Free beer and hot wings.”
I think some of them believed me.
Karen was not as thrilled about the whole thing, mainly because the gang of Barcelona tourists that NEVER SHUT UP were on her back, literally, on the way down. Karen was not amused by them leaning on her on the cables. When we reached the bottom, we could not find Monica or Kc, as they had decided to go ahead and get down off the subdome. I knew Monica would be waiting for me at the ranger post.
Mission accomplished! Coming off the subdome.
We were all invigorated by the experience. None of us are very sure we would want a repeat performance, but I have to say it is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve accomplished.
Back at camp, we celebrated with bottle of wine that Karen had been toting. We laughed a lot and learned about each other’s anxieties. We were all pretty hungry. Karen said, “All I had today was a Luna bar.”
“You did that whole hike on a Luna bar?” Monica said.
“Not only that,” I said. “She climbed Half Dome TWICE and she carried five Spaniards on her back on the way down.”
“We should write to the Luna bar company.”
Most of all, I’m glad I didn’t have to get the default t-shirt.
Please enjoy the slides: