Permits tucked away in our packs, we boarded the bus to the Happy Isles trailhead in order to begin the steep four-miles and change ascent to Little Yosemite Valley backpacker camp.
We climbed hefty carved stairs up 2,000 feet from the valley past Vernal and Nevada Falls and alongside the Merced River.
We arrived at the campground, which was enclosed in a grid of massive felled trees. We found a nice little spot to call home for the night and set about the usual preparations of building our fort and assembling dinner.
The temperature dropped into the high 20s and we debated calling it a very early night until we wandered by the community fire. Greeted by the warmth of the flames and a circle of friendly faces from all reaches of the country, we settled down to make some friends.
Gathered around the fire we met folks from various reaches of the country, as far as Alaska and as near as San Diego. We all shared our plans the day – many with sights set on Half Dome, some planning to explore some nearby fairly chilly swimming holes, and others with distance across the mountains in mind.
Josh and I planned to do a double summit: Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest. It was an ambitious day, so when we were finally able to bear parting with the warmth of the fire and the wonderful company, we found our way to our tent, planning to wake before the sun.
When the alarm blared its early-morning alert, my eyes blinked open to a stunning darkness. My nose was icy cold. I could feel the wall of cold air that my warm exhale met in the pre-dawn air.
I burrowed deep into my sleeping back to warm up my nose and prepare for the morning, murming to my partner that it was “time to make moves.”
Bleary-eyed and a bit chilly, we stuffed our packs full of supplies and made our way out of the camp by light of our head lamps – the sun was also trying to shake the draw of slumber, with the early hints of light casting through the trees.
We had just about three-and-a-half miles to cross before we would hit the famed cables of the Half Dome ascent, our first summit. We walked briskly, trying to keep ahead of the 4 a.m. risers who had left from the valley. This hike is reknown, and because of that, rather crowded. Beating the crowds means you don’t have to share the cables, which are, admittedly, rather treacherous and certainly both a phsyical and mental challenge.
The sooner we arrived, the more space and the more we controlled the pace. But that three-ish miles had to be earned with about 2,900 feet of ascent, starting immediately.
Half Dome sits at 8,839-feet high with the last four hundred feet climbing straight up the mountain side, assisted by cables so that you don’t need to use rock climbing equipment. Every few feet there is a wooden board that is bolted into the moutain where you can prop yourself to catch your breath.
The approach is tough and not for the faint of heart. When we arrived at the base, I immediately put on my gloves, strapped on my pack, and grabbed the cables.
I didn’t want to allow time for my mind to decide that I didn’t want to make the ascent (a conversation I had with myself about midway up).
I high-fived a girl from our camp who stood there, trying to determine if she was going to do it. I told her I was scared, too, and together, we began our ascent.
I led, at apparently, a blistering pace. Fear is a good motivator. And before we knew it, breathing hard, fighting fatigued arms, and questioning our decision-making paradigm, we were nearing the finish line.
I joke – but it is not an easy hike. People have died on this hike.
One thing that I found rather refreshing was how honest people are at the summit. As we cast long and happy gazes out across the valley, we voiced our nerves about the descent. Standing at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, only with people who had just accessed the summit the same way you had, is a safe space to share your fears.
But, this was not our only summit of the day. So after a hearty snack and wandering around the rocky face, Josh and I began our descent amidst the hoardes of early risers who were now making their ascent.
Coach Josh helped us navigate, one wooden resting spot at a time. Once you’re on your descent from Half Dome, you’ve got a lot more experience than most of the people on the rise.
Together, we found our way back to the subdome.
Grinning ear to ear, we took our rest and regrouped to make our move toward our next rise into the clouds.