Midnight on the Trail to Half Dome
By KEEN Fan Michael Estrada
Start time: 12:00 a.m.
Hiking Distance: 16.4 miles (we actually did 22 due to an injury)
Elevation Gain: 5,500+ feet
End time: 2:00 p.m.
By the numbers, this was our journey up and down Half Dome.
Our plan was not unusual. Many folks start at night in order to avoid the heat and crowds. The heat makes the hike long, salty, and somehow more sandy than usual. The crowds on the other hand, make climbing up the cables on Half Dome all the more worrisome. You not only need to worry about your own safety heading up or down the cables, you also need to keep an eye on everyone else, too.
The only difference in our plan was that we started a bit earlier – or late depending on how you see it: midnight, a 12:00 a.m. departure from our cabin with a 12:30 a.m. start from the parking lot.
6:00 P.M. (ARRIVAL IN YOSEMITE/CABIN)
We arrived at our cabin on Tuesday afternoon with only 6 hours before the start of our hike. Most of us prepped our gear and headed to sleep. Since all we’d done was drive, though: I couldn’t sleep.
And apparently no one else could either. Eventually I found out that most folks ended up laying there, awake and imagining what was to come. No sleep - what could go wrong?
In case you’re curious, this is what some of us packed for the hike:
Provisions like nuts, bars, energy chews, crackers, cheese
2 to 4 liters of water
Gardening Gloves for the cables
Multiple clothing layers
Headlamp or flashlight
First aid kit
Hat and/or beanie
Trash bag aka poop bag
If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. This isn’t a hike to take lightly, especially in being prepared for the cables that go up Half Dome. We planned pretty well, especially since many of us had injuries in some way. Three of us had braces, and it’s safe to say our knees weren’t in the best shape.
We left the cabin at midnight, promptly. Our actual start time was about 12:44 a.m., though. We got to the parking lot around 12:30 a.m., donned headlamps and tied shoelaces, and grouped up. 11 people total. A solid crew. Also a big crew, lest any bears cross our starry-lit path.
The first part is just about getting to the start of the trail. We parked at the Trailhead Parking near the Upper Pines campground, and walked to The Mist Trail. The steepness begins immediately from there: there’s no easing into it.
About an hour in, though, we stopped. Melissa had an unhealed sprained ankle before the start of the hike, and it was throbbing madly. We discussed what we could do — we were already 2 miles deep and it was only 1:30 in the morning. There are no people around, but there is wildlife. Having her head back alone could be risky.
After considering whether we could ease her ankle in any way, we realized it wasn't gonna happen. Her ankle wasn't going to make it. My best bud Brian, Melissa’s boo, was going to go back with her. It meant losing two people on something we’d all planned together to do for months.
After chatting it through, I said I’d go down, too. I wasn’t sure if we’d return at all but I didn't want to do the hike without Brian and if we did choose to return, it’d be better to have two people do the hike.
So, at 1:30 a.m., the group split up. 8 continued on, and 3 returned to the parking lot. We had walkie talkies to chat and check in. We said we’d let them know the plan when we got back to the parking lot. Even at the beginning, going downhill was brutal on the knees. I dreaded that hour walk back, especially that we'd only just gone up it. We got back to the car at about 2:30 a.m.
Two – thirty – a — m.
By then, we figured Brian and I could return on our own. We’d already added an extra 4.5 miles but it could be done. Maybe we could even catch up and make sunrise. Brian put in the GPS for the cabin, Melissa clipped in her seatbelt, and I downed my coffee. We'd been awake for 20 hours at this point and we were only just restarting the whole hike.
Even at night, Yosemite is magical. There was something about the stars, the crush of a hidden waterfall, and being alone with nothing but you and your best bud to keep you company.
We start out again. Just the two of us with no moon in sight. Two hours after our original start time, the real journey begins. I'd done the first part of this hike before plenty of times, as an environmental educator leading trips for middle and high school youth. So luckily, in that respect, I felt pretty comfortable going up the first couple hours.
We hit the hour mark where we left the group at good time, and began the misty journey alongside Vernal Falls. Although we could hardly see it, the waterfall was magical. It had a faint glow to it under the stars, and the crash of the water masked our heavy breathing and fears alike. I gotta say, even at night Yosemite is magical. There was something about the stars, the crush of a hidden waterfall, and being alone with nothing but you and your best bud to keep you company.
Past Vernal, I knew we had to meander along the water to find the next part of the trail. Once we hit the fork and went left, however, it would be new territory for Brian and me both. 10 minutes in, we lost the trail. Going straight was useless, the trail hits the water and peters off. Going left, nothing. And going right?
Well, going right looked like there could be a whole lot of something in the trees that we didn't want to find. Brian checked his map. It looked like we needed to do a u-turn of some kind. I followed his lead through a narrow, hardly discernible gap between some trees. Within a few steps in, we found the trail again. Whew. Brian thankfully hit the mark. I was more thankful than I cared to admit at the time. In putting my head down trying to make up for lost time, I’d gotten lost. Just lost. But on we went. We were good
Soon, after climbing a few stairs (read, a ton), we hit the halfway mark and the last toilet. We passed some climbers who were trying to ease their own nerves. As a friendly gesture, we gave them some aspirin and bid them good wishes.
4.5 miles to go. We hadn't been able to reach the rest of the group via walkie talkie since Vernal Falls. We were on our own and it was only 4:20 a.m. After eating some ProBar chews (Strawberry then Blueberry flavor, highly recommend), we pushed hard for the next hour and a half, stopping only to put on another layer as we got some colder temps in the alpine meadows. Not sponsored at all but I love ProBar chews.
When 6 a.m. hit, the sky began to ease its grip on us, revealing the first glow of the morning. At this point, we’d been awake for 24 hours, trudging uphill without any break. Our quads were tired, our minds were tired, but the day was only just beginning. Once we got sight of Half Dome in front us – far but in front – we tried to radio the crew. They answered. Brian asked them to call out my name to see if we could hear them within distance.
Far near Sub Dome, my name rung out.
We grinned and yelled back. We were close! And we'd closed the gap. Somewhat…
At that point, I think we both expected to be nearly done. We were basically there. Basically. Then we came upon Sub Dome. I hadn't done my research on it so I thought it meant we were done. I was wrong. Sub Dome is the last ridiculously steep stair climb before Half Dome. It’s the cruel joke before Half Dome that leaves you winded and demoralized. You climb uneven but brutally massive and tall steps and, at the very end, the stairs disappear and you scramble up what feels like a sketchy granite plane teasing you to turn around.
We didn't but it did hurt.
The sun peaked out on us at Sub Dome. We missed the sunrise at Half Dome but at that moment it didn't matter much. The sunrise poked me in the eyes and I was grateful. It was a beautiful moment. We were nearly there. Truly nearly there.
We top Sub Dome. The crew cheered us in. They looked spent, as did we. But the journey wasn't over. As I got to the crew, I finally got a look at what these cables were all about. I'd seen a couple photos, sure, but they didn't do them justice. At all.
It didn't look like a slightly steep ascent – it looked like we were about to run headfirst into a polished, vertical granite wall. I'd might as well have brought my climbing gear. I wasn't ready. (PSA: Some people do bring harnesses and carabiners to clip in. If I ever do it again, I’ll bring it. Actually bring two carabiners so you can always keep one clipped in.)
For some reason, we decided to go for it right then and there. After hiking for approximately 7 hours straight and already covering nearly 13 miles (mind, the hike is usually only between 16 to 17 miles), we were going to rally against the wall immediately. Okay, we rested for like 12 minutes but what’s 12 minutes after 13 miles?
I'll say this: if you can take stuff out of your pack and leave it for your return down, do so. The extra weight is hazardous.
I was carrying two heavy lenses, two cameras (one was small but I totally forgot I even had it and didn't even use it!), 2 liters of water (weight) that I didn't drink on the way up, snacks, a tripod, extra trail shoes just in case, gloves, an extra small pack for one of the lenses, and I don't know what else, but the pack was HEAVY. Big mistake.
I made my way up quickly. At first. Then, the shoulder fatigue from lifting my backpack to shimmy up the cables hit. And it hit hard. About 30% of the way in, I stopped for a minute. A long minute. My arms couldn't hold themselves up because my shoulders were too tired to lift the 32L backpack that was filled to the brim. I'm relatively fit. I climb, and the hike didn't leave me sore the next day. But it was something about shrugging and slightly lifting that backpack two inches that left me devastated.
At that moment when I stopped, I thought I might fall. I couldn't easily lift my arms to maintain myself secured to this vertical wall I'd decided to ascend with no rest. I had to rely on my legs being secure against the two-inch-width of the plank, more than my arms, to rest. It was sketchy and I don’t recommend.
I calmed myself. I'd been here before with other sports. The metaphorical wall had combined with an actual literal wall. Great. Brian called out from below asking if I was good since I'd suddenly stopped for a while. I replied and said I just needed a “moment”. A nice moment with me, the wall, some cables, and tons of gaping nice air all around. A moment for sure.
Wear grippy rubber shoes. The granite is slippery. I had KEEN’s Explore shoe, and it was one of the best decisions I made on the whole trip.
From there, I decided to pace my uphill intake to 5 planks per break instead of going nonstop until I couldn’t. I'd go up 5 planks, which are the only real foot holding you have on the way up, and take a minute breather. This prevented me from getting overly winded and it made for good time.
In the end, we summited in under 25 minutes, roughly speaking. If I had any tips, it would be to have a light backpack, buy some gardening gloves, and if you're on the shorter side height-wise, just grab one cable instead of two. It was easier for me to hang onto one cable and rappel up than to use both cables and be outstretched. I'm 5'7", by the way.
Also, wear grippy rubber shoes. The granite is slippery. I had KEEN’s Targhee hiking boots, and it was one of the best decisions I made on the whole trip. At the top, I finally drank my water so that I wouldn't have to carry it any longer. Somehow it made sense that the water would be less weight to carry in my belly rather on my shoulders.
The Finish Line
Finally, once everyone had summited, we ate, laughed, took silly photos, some folks went out to the "diving board", and we rested for the first time since 12:30 a.m. The only thing that slightly hampered the mood is that we now had to go down those same cables and do the hike all over again. For the cable-descent, I side stepped the way down and made it pretty fast, under 15 minutes. A lot simpler than going up despite my fears at first. Some folks went backwards somehow, others forward. Side stepping is the best of both in my opinion and I only used one rope, again.
Other than the descent down the cables, which was sketchier because there were now other people on the cables going up, the second half of the hike was fairly uneventful. Beautiful but uneventful. The very hectic pre-dawn journey eased into a normal midday hike in Yosemite.
Nearly 6 hours after all that, we finished the entire hike. The way down was hot and salty. It also was brutal on all of our knees. To us, it was harder than the ascent. Supposedly, rather than the Mist Trail you can go down the Nüümü Poyo (The People’s Trail in Paiute). The Nüümü Poyo is also known as the John Muir Trail, and it adds 1.5 miles to the descent. BUT: it isn't as steep. If I could redo it, I would have taken the 1.5 over the steeper, shorter side.
We got food at Half Dome village and took it back to the cabin. We showered, ate, and soon, after over 36 hours of being awake from Tuesday morning to Wednesday evening, we slept. We slept hard.
22 miles of hiking and not a blister to be had in KEEN Targhee hiking boots.
Pro tips, in short
Early start: Go early to avoid crowds on the cables. The first half can be done in 4.5 hours, especially with a small crew.
Gardening gloves: Take gardening gloves for grip on cables.
3L water: Take more than 3 liters of water in case you need to backtrack and add more miles.
Permit: Have a permit! There was a ranger checking on the way down.
Pre-hydrate: Be hydrated BEFORE the hike. I always try to treat my body well before doing anything strenuous.
Layer up: We all started with only our light layer on because it was very warm out. As we got higher, we put on another layer. The alpine meadow area got chilly for a bit.
If rain, no summit: If it’s raining, don’t go at all. Trust me on this one. Thunderstorms can and have killed people on Half Dome. I’d also follow this rule, if there’s clouds, don’t start the cables in case it rains.
Harness: Even though we didn’t, I’d use a harness next time. Why risk it?
Comms: Use walkie talkies in case you get separated.
Fitness: Be ready to pull yourself up those cables with little support from leg strength. You can take as many breaks as you want but mind that there might be other people coming up and down.
Safety first: It’s not worth putting your life at risk. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go. It is not worth it.
Rubber: Grippy shoes! Most definitely grippy shoes