Half Dome P1K SPS / WSC

Wed, Jun 18, 2008

With: Ryan Burd

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Fri, Apr 11, 2003
later climbed Fri, Jun 8, 2012

With three days to head to the hills, Ryan decided tackling Half Dome would be a neat idea. I was pretty sure he'd struggle trying to do it as a dayhike, but as an overnighter it should be within his growing abilities. We could backpack in to Little Yosemite Valley, then climb Half Dome the next day. When we stopped at the Wilderness office just inside Yosemite Park on SR120, I was dismayed to find all the permits for starting from the Valley unavailable for the next two days. The Glacier Point TH was also full. Mono Meadow was the only TH that was available, so I took a permit starting from there. As we got back in the car and continued driving towards Yosemite Valley, I had no intention of starting from Mono Meadow - it would add several unwelcomed miles to the hike and I couldn't see how it would make any difference if our destination was still going to be the same. I probably should have just driven to the Happy Isle TH and started from there, but I decided I would have less chance of a ranger encounter if I started from Glacier Point. So we drove the extra 45min or so up to the end of the road, parked, and started off shortly before noon.

It was warm at 7,000ft and with the fire from year's past having burned much of the hillside heading down to Illilouette Creek, there was little shade for us. Ryan, deciding not to bring a hat (Dad needed to allow him to learn a lesson here), got the worst of the sun. Luckily most of the trail is downhill, so it wasn't too bad. We found it very scenic, with fine views of Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and as we got lower towards the creek there were good view spots for Illilouette Fall as well. We took a break in the shade just across the bridge, watching the many visitors come and go along this popular trail.

The next section was the only uphill, about a mile and half's worth, and it was about as much as Ryan could stand with the pack. To help him through the ordeal he would continually ask how much further, whether we were half way done, and any of a dozen other ways of asking "Are we there yet?" After patiently doing my best to answer these questions as calmly as I could for the first two dozen times, I asked him to imagine what it must be like for a Scoutmaster to take nine boys on their first hike (which he's slated to participate in the following month). His eyes lowered as he quietly said, "Pretty tough." I suggested he needed to learn that the inquiries weren't going to make the trail any shorter, and if he really wanted to impress the Scoutmaster he'd keep quiet during the hike, suck up whatever discomforts he's pressed with, and leave it to the other new scouts to drive the Scoutmaster crazy. This didn't exactly stop his questions, rather he spent more time trying to creatively ask the same thing in a more convoluted manner, in way of disguising his purpose. When we finally reached the highpoint of the trail more than an hour later, it was all downhill to the top of Nevada Fall and smooth going. There were tons of day visitors to the area, and Ryan later admitted feeling pretty good being the only kid wearing a backpack. We took another break here, Dad resting in the shade while Ryan scouted the banks of the Merced River in search of fish. None were spotted. It took us another half hour to skirt the SE side of Liberty Cap and make our way to Little Yosemite Valley.

A ranger stopped to chat with us as we arrived, and of course asked if we had a permit. He was a friendly, younger ranger, and I happily pulled the permit from my pants pocket. He looked at it briefly, commented, "Mono Meadow," then began to say it was OK if we stayed at Little Yosemite Valley because it wasn't very crowded today. Huh? It took only a few seconds to realize his misunderstanding, so I offered, "Mono Meadow is the trailhead, not the destination. See - it says here that we plan to camp at LYV." He still looked a little confused, which I took to mean he didn't know Mono Meadow was a TH. But it was all squared away and we were on our way to camp.

There were several dozen parties camped at LYV, which seemed a lot to me, but then it looks like it could hold three times that amount. We selected a site near a bear box at the edge of the camp boundary to allow us some quiet. After setting up the tent and storing our food away in the metal box, Ryan made a beeline for the river, fishing gear in hand. The fishing didn't go well. There were no fish to be seen, fewer to be caught, and Ryan began to have doubts in the marketing slogan of PowerBait - "No fish can resist it!" We took a break (ok, I was taking a break all along because I'm not into fishing) to eat dinner then went back to try the fishing again. The mosquitoes began to come out in droves, biting Ryan on the back of the neck half a dozen times before he would give up the effort (didn't want to use bug spray - too smelly). Back at camp the mosquitoes weren't much better, driving me into the tent for respite. Ryan tried his hand at whittling a stick, but gave up after thirty minutes or so. We had hoped to have a campfire, but individual fires were not allowed and the communal firering near us was already occupied by a larger party. Foiled.

I suggested we might get up early to start hiking by headlamp since we were going to bed so early. Ryan liked the idea. I set my alarm for 3a, then tossed and turn as it took us both several hours to fall asleep. Even with a pad under my sleeping bag I don't sleep very comfortably in a tent, a main reason for my disdain for backpacking in favor of dayhiking. Such are the discomforts one must bear sometimes for the sake of the progeny. 3a came along eventually, but Ryan wanted to sleep more, so we didn't get up until 4a. It was still quite dark at that time, but it would soon enough start to grow light.

It was very enjoyable hiking in those early morning hours. We got to watch the full moon set and the stars fade in the coolest time of the day. We didn't wear our fleece for long and were soon in just tshirts as the trail started up in earnest. To our surprise we came across a pair of headlamps heading down the trail around 4:30a. The young women had evidently climbed Half Dome in the moonlight - that would have been a special treat as well by the light of the full moon. Without a pack Ryan had little trouble with the more than 2,000ft of gain to reach peak. Daylight overtook us as we climbed to the ridge where we could see down into Tenaya Canyon to the north. From afar we watched a dozen climbers making their way up the cables on Half Dome's east side in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise (we'd have had to start at 3a to watch the sunrise from atop).

Sunrise caught up with us as we were climbing the switchbacking stairs up the shoulder towards the base of the cables. There was an elderly trio atop the shoulder with a mess of gear from the other twelve who had gone up the cables. The shoulder was as high as these three planned to go. We walked over to the base of the cables to select a pair of gloves from the huge pile that has collected there over the years. Ryan was a bit nervous about climbing the cables, but once at the base where he could see the angle was not as vertical as it had appeared, he began to enjoy the moment. It took a little more than 30 minutes to climb to the top of the cables, passing a few wary climbers on the way up, and a few others who were going back down. They all looked far more nervous about the arrangement of cables, poles and wooden beams that comprise the climbing route. Where the cables end, the granite slope rolls off to a gentle final climb to the summit. A well-fed family of marmots were the first ones to greet us, though this did not solicit a free handout from us. Ryan had no compunction about walking over to the edge at the highest point to peer over the 2,000-foot drop off the North Face. It made me nervous, and I asked him to step away from the edge some.

The party of twelve that had come up for sunrise were mostly lying among the rocks and sand about the summit - sleeping. Evidently they hadn't had as much sleep as Ryan and I. The two of us went over to an overhanging portion of the summit commonly referred to as the Diving Board (though the actual feature with this name is some 2,000 feet lower on the west shoulder of the mountain). Here we pulled out a camp stove, boiled some water and ate a breakfast of oatmeal and donut holes. The views about us were grand, of course. Better than I had expected actually. When we had driven up the previous day, the sky was very hazy from controlled burns taking place in the park and I expected today to be no different. But there was no sign of smoke anywhere and we could see as clearly down to the Valley floor as we could to the High Country around us. In fact we could easily see the Coast Range more than a hundred miles to the west, usually hard to see even on good days.

After breakfast we took some photos from our perch, then wandered around the other parts of the summit, first checking out some lingering snow patches (too hard to make a snowball with), then observing some of the few remaining trees on the summit, and lastly taking in the massive modern art display in the form of cairn art. Most were stacks of rocks designed to be as high as possible without tipping over, though other creative entries included a re-creation of England's Stonehenge and a well-engineered curved archway.

When we started back down the cables around 7:30a, Ryan was in front so I could get some pictures of him. I only got one, however. I had forgone gloves so that I could more easily take pictures while on the cables, but with bare hands I could not descend as fast as Ryan who figured out fairly quickly that he could let the cables slide through his hands on the descent, clutching them for braking as needed, much like the cable cars of San Francisco. Consequently he beat me down by a good margin since I had to travel down hand over hand. On our four mile trip back to camp we passed more than a hundred other people making their way to Half Dome. This is one popular mountain. We were lucky to have only a few people on the cables while we were going up and down, as later in the day it can be quite a traffic jam, taking more than an hour to go up or down.

Back at camp, it was decision time. We had planned to spend another night here and Ryan was looking forward to more fishing. I reminded him of our friends the mosquitoes, and it was clear that he was torn between the two. We decided to pack up camp and then do some more fishing on our way back, easy enough since we had no deadline for getting back. It would have been unfair to expect Ryan to hike back up to Glacier Point after the eight miles we had already covered today, so I suggested we could go down to Yosemite Valley, shorter and all downhill. We'd then find out if a bus could get us back to Glacier Point, or failing that Dad would climb back up to get the car.

We stopped to fish a short ways downstream from camp where the water ran slow, deep, and very clear. We could see a handful of fish, about 6-8 inches in length, plying the waters for insects being swept down with the current. Unfortunately the fish wanted little to do with the bait we presented them with, and though every now and then they would swim over to have a look, none were biting. Worse, Ryan had trouble casting from the tree-lined shore, getting the line tangled more often than it actually made it to the water. "I'm a disgrace to fishermen everywhere," he commented, exasperated. After more than an hour he decided to call it a day, though not before wishing he had a gun, dynamite, and other illegal means of extracting the fish from the river.

The hike back to Yosemite Valley, about four miles in all, took us a little more than two hours to complete. Along the way we passed by hundreds of other hikers out for the day to see Vernal and Nevada Falls. Ryan felt special once again, being the only kid with a backpack that we saw all day. The water was running high in the river and over the falls, and consequently the Mist Trail lived up to its name, fairly saturating everyone going up and down that portion of the trail that goes nearest to Vernal Fall. Ryan managed to catch a lizard, one of dozens we saw along the way, and this seemed to satisfy his hunting instincts that went unmet with the fishing effort.

Back at Happy Isle at the east end of the Valley, we caught the shuttle bus back to Curry Village. We found that the only buses going up to Glacier Point were tour buses, and since my wallet was back in the van, we had no money to pay for a ride back up there. At Curry Village we stopped at the Guest Lounge, a large building with tables, chairs, puzzles, historical artifacts, and other items to entertain guests there. We took off our packs and I left Ryan there while I was to hike back up for the car. I told him it would take two hours to hike up and an hour to drive back down, three hours in all. He wasn't terribly happy about it, but we didn't have many options. I left him my watch so he wouldn't fret about what time it was, wondering why I wasn't back yet.

The route I took up, the old Ledge Trail, is a long-abandoned trail that goes fairly directly from Curry Village up to Glacier Point. I'd been on the trail a number of times in the past, so had no worries about finding my way. I took a water bottle, a camera, and the car keys. There had been a good deal more rock slides since my last visit, helping to obscure the lower part of the trail that much more as the route is slowly being returned to its natural state. There was evidence of others, some pruning of overgrown bushes, and lots of the original orange paint that helped mark the route (paint is no longer used by the Park Service in this way). I was able to make the roundtrip back to the Valley in about 2.5hrs, and Ryan was happy to see me a bit earlier than expected. We had a shower, got a snack at the village store, then drove back to San Jose. We stopped in Oakdale for gas, dinner, and Ryan's first Frappuccino from Starbucks - a special treat I offered him for climbing Half Dome in fine form. Next time we go back there we're going to try it as a dayhike, but not for another year or two yet...


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Wally comments on 06/26/08:
Bob, I have vicariously followed your Sierra adventures over the years and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your taking Ryan, you son, along. Since he was a baby, I have also been very involved in my son's life and I think it makes for a happier adult when they grow up. Ryan is a lucky young man. I made my annual trek to the Mammoth Lakes Basin in early June, tried to fish the upper lakes and ran into a bunch of snow and ice on the lakes. But always magnificiently beautiful. I'll continue to periodically log onto your site and see what you're up to. Good climbing, Wally Newman kelliandwally@yahoo.com


Tom Kenney comments on 07/03/08:
Thanks, Bob, for taking the trouble to document your journeys so thoroughly!

This one is a great read. My first 'real' backpack trip was with my family back in the '70s - we hiked from Touolumne Meadows down to the Valley, and had a very close bear encounter one night. It was a very exciting trip, and both my brother and I got that same special feeling from doing such a long multi-day hike at our young ages (8 and 5 yrs). Also, my parents managed to arrange a vehicle swap midway with someone they met at Sunrise HS Camp, which saved someone a bus or 'thumb' trip back to Touolumne. Ahh...those were the days.

Cheers, and happy hiking!
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