Our first day in Yosemite Valley had been a good one. With record snowpack and a warm spring, stream flows were at extremely high levels and the waterfalls were spectacular. Waterfalls that hadn't been seen in years were back. We were there at the right season during what might be the best year of our lifetimes for seeing Yosemite's waterfalls. Now all we needed was one day of good weather, with blue skies and bright sunshine, so that we could get good photos of all the classic views of Yosemite.
We got it.
Our plan for the day was to do the Yosemite Falls Trail. Although it's one of the most popular trails in Yosemite Valley I had never done it before. The few times that I had come to Yosemite Valley in the past I had been there to climb Half Dome. Back in my younger days I was much more focused on mountaineering rather than just hiking. I had never really given the Yosemite Falls Trail much thought. Besides, when I had been to the valley before it was always late in the summer when Yosemite Falls had almost dried up. Although it's very high, I had been more impressed by Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls.
This time it was different. Yosemite Falls was at full flow. It was quite a sight from the valley floor and I was eager to hike to where we could get a close up view.
We weren't in a hurry to get started. The trail is at the west end of the valley so we would be looking into the morning sun in the east. Not the best light for photography. Yes, we would beat the crowds with an early start but we opted for better pictures instead. We had time so we started with breakfast in the hotel bar. No, it's not what you're thinking. They served coffee and pastries.
After a light breakfast we hopped on the shuttle for a ride to the trailhead. It's near Camp 4, the large backpackers campground at the west end of Yosemite Village, which is famous as the place where rock climbers stay when they are in the valley. It was packed full and there was a line of about twenty or thirty people waiting for the tiny office to open to see if they could get camp sites.
Camping would be a lot cheaper than our hotel, but a quick stop at the campground bathroom before starting our hike convinced us that the crowded conditions in Camp 4 weren't ideal. It was what you would expect when way too many people are using a public bathroom that doesn't get cleaned often enough.
The Yosemite Falls Trail starts in the trees behind Camp 4 and begins climbing right away, gaining elevation steadily with lots of switchbacks. There aren't any views at first since the trail is in the woods, so we just concentrated on walking and plodded along slowly. Still, it wasn't long before we were breathing heavily. It wasn't until we had hiked about a mile and a half and gained a thousand feet of elevation that we finally emerged from the trees just below Columbia Rock. It's an impressive viewpoint and suffices as the destination for hikers who only have limited time. Or limited ambition.
Below us was the large meadow near Camp 4. Directly across the valley was the impressive face of Sentinel Rock. The Steck-Salathe route, first climbed in 1950, is one of the most famous pioneering rock climbs in Yosemite. Rated 5.10, it's not difficult by today's standards, although it took five days to climb on the first ascent. Now climbers routinely free solo the route.
Just to the right of Sentinel Rock was Sentinel Falls. It's a seasonal waterfall that dries up during the summer. Now it had a lot of water flowing and was quite a sight, dropping 2200 feet in a series of falls. The Pohono Trail, which starts from the Glacier Point road and travels along the south rim, passes above the falls. It's definitely on my list of trails that I'd like to hike. Maybe on my next trip to Yosemite.
To the east was the head of Yosemite Valley. All of Yosemite Village, the campgrounds and stores and hotels, as well as thousands of cars and people, were pretty well hidden in the trees. The Park Service tried to regulate all of the development in the valley, limiting its visual impact. It's not completely pristine, but it still is a beautiful mountain valley.
In the distance we could see peaks of the Yosemite high country, 9,092 ft Mt Starr King and still farther off, 11,522 ft Mt. Clark. Both were still completely covered with snow. Rising over the north rim of the valley, we could just see the top of North Dome, another incredible viewpoint that Sandy and I hiked to five years before.
But with all of that, the scene was dominated by Half Dome. It's one of the most unique, and most recognizable, mountains on earth. As much as I have traveled and hiked in mountain areas around the world, it is still one of my favorite mountains.
The view of Half Dome from Columbia Rock stirred a lot of memories from my past trips to Yosemite. It was the first major mountain that I ever climbed. In the summer of 1976, while I was a graduate student at Stanford, I came to Yosemite with a friend who was visiting me from Wisconsin. Our intention was to climb Half Dome. We were going to backpack to Little Yosemite Valley and camp there. The next day we would climb Half Dome and return to our camp, and then hike out on the third day. Unfortunately things didn't go exactly as we planned.
It was my first ever backpack trip. I had a brand new backpack, purchased from Toys'R'Us for $20, that I had never even worn before. My friend and I put on our packs as we got on the shuttle. It was crowded and we had to stand. We were so excited about our first backpacking trip that we wore our packs for the whole ride over on the bus. By the time we got off at Happy Isles Trailhead we were overheated and exhausted. We had to take our packs off and rest before we could even start hiking. It was not an auspicious start.
It didn't get better either. It was a very hot August day. We had driven up from sea level in Palo Alto that morning with no acclimatization. We hiked way too fast on the steep uphill trail, in a hurry to get up the mountain. By the time we reached our campsite in Little Yosemite Valley we were both completely nauseous from overheating and altitude sickness.
The next day there was no thought of trying to go to the top. We just staggared back down the trail and drove home.
It wasn't a very good start to my backpacking and climbing career. It was unsuccessful and physically uncomfortable. It would have been easy for me to be discouraged and give up on the mountains. I had lots of other interests. But as miserable as that first trip had been, I was smitten. I was determined to go back and climb Half Dome. My friend had to leave to go back to Wisconsin so that night I was on the phone to my brother Mike. I convinced him to come out to California to visit me as soon as possible.
Two weeks later I was back in Yosemite again, trying to climb Half Dome with my brother. It took us three days. The first day was a backpack up the John Muir Trail to Little Yosemite Valley. It's less than five miles but twenty two hundred feet of elevation gain. Hard work with a heavy pack, but unlike my first attempt, we took it slowly, drank a lot of water, and didn't have any problems.
The next day we were anxious to get started for the summit. We left early, just carrying day packs for the climb. From our campsite, we had another three and a half miles and twenty seven hundred feet of elevation gain to go. The trail climbed steeply uphill between Half Dome and Clouds Rest, but was nothing unusual.
About nine hundred feet below the summit, we reached the subdome, where the climbing started to get more interesting. For the next five hundred feet, we climbed up steep granite steps until we reached a broad, level shoulder. From there we could see that we only had four hundred feet to go up the final dome. We were at the base of the famous cable route.
From the shoulder we friction climbed up smooth granite slabs inclined at a forty five degree angle, which would normally be considered a technical rock climb and would require climbing gear for safety. But in 1919 the Sierra Club installed heavy steel cables on the side of the dome. Since then, the Park Service has upgraded and maintained them. In the summer they put in poles so the cables are about waist high. We held on to them like a railing. Every ten or twelve feet there was a wooden plank where we could stand and rest. This makes the route feasible for hikers as well as climbers.
Even with the cables, it was an exhilerating climb up to the top. Not to mention going down again.
The biggest problem we had was passing other people. No one wants to let go of the cables when they are high above the shoulder. Crowding on the cables got to be so serious that in 2009 the Park Service started to require a permit for Half Dome summit climbs. On a busy day, as many as 1200 people were climbing the cables, creating a real safety issue. Now only 300 permits are issued for each day.
Along with Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, Half Dome is one of the most spectacular but also one of the most serious hikes in the US. People have fallen off the cable route and been hurt or killed. Routes like this are not unusual in other parts of the world though. It would only rate as a very easy Via Ferrata in the Alps. It's nothing compared to some of the crazy routes like Mt Huashan in China or the Caminito Del Rey in Spain..
On our climb, my brother Mike and I made it to the top and back to our camp again without incident. The next day, we hiked out and headed home. It was my first climb of a major mountain and an incredible experience.
But that wasn't the only time I climbed Half Dome. In 1999, I came back to Yosemite with my sons, Tim and Mickey. I was trying to get them interested in hiking and climbing but wasn't having much luck. So I proposed a trip to Yosemite to climb Half Dome. I thought that the trip that got me started in the mountains might do the same for them.
We started by climbing Mt. Hoffman. That was a good warmup and so next day we went to get our backcountry permits for Half Dome. There were quotas for each trailhead. The permits for Happy Isles were all gone but we did get a permit to leave from Glacier Point. That was just as well. The route was a little different than last time. We started at almost the same height as Half Dome, descended to cross to Little Yosemite Valley, and then had a long climb back out on our last day. Oh yeah. In between, we climbed Half Dome without any problems. Mickey did amazingly well considering he was only nine years old at the time. It was a good climb, and my sons enjoyed it, but it didn't get them excited about hiking and climbing the way I did. Oh well, I tried.
I have many memories from our summit day but one surprising one has really stuck with me all these years. After we had reached the top and were on our way back down to our camp, we stopped and talked to an old man on the trail who was on his way up. He told us that he was ninety two years old. He was hiking all by himself. He was two days from the road, many miles of trail and thousands of feet of climbing from the trailhead. He was obviously one tough old guy.
When we said goodby to him we headed on down and he kept going up. Later that evening, in camp, we talked to some people who said that they had seen him as far as the top of the subdome. They didn't know if he made it up the cables to the very top or not. I hope that he did.
I still think about him. Over time he's kind of become my hero. As I get older, I hope that I will still be going up big mountains when I am ninety two.
An interesting thought struck me later. The first time that I climbed Half Dome, I was twenty three years old. The second time, I was forty six. I seem to be on a twenty three year cycle. That means that the next time I will be due to climb Half Dome, I'll be sixty nine. That isn't that far off and I am definitely planning to go for it. And then I will be due again when I am...ninety two! Maybe then it will be me that someone meets on the trail. I will be the Old Man, still going up the mountain that day.
I sure hope so.
Meanwhile, back in 2017, I was still standing at the viewpoint at Columbia Rock. I could have stayed there all morning, admiring Half Dome, reminiscing about the times that I had climbed it. But Sandy and I still had more hiking to do. After taking pictures it was time to get moving again.
The trail went back into the forest again, following a gradually rising shelf. The woods weren't as heavy as they had been below so we occasionally still got great views through gaps in the trees. Yosemite Falls was somewhere ahead but wasn't visible yet, still around a corner. But as we hiked further we could hear the falls and knew that we were getting close.
Next we were supposed to pass a short spur trail that went to an overlook of the lower falls. I was hoping for a view of the upper falls and both lower falls all at once. But I never saw the trail junction. It didn't really matter because we turned a corner and suddenly there was a tremendous view of the upper falls right in front of us. We pretty much stopped in our tracks and just admired the view for a few moments. We could see the entire length of the upper falls. There was a lot of water going over the edge and the falls were an incredible sight. There was a loud roar from the falls, and a slapping sound as sheets of water hit the rocks at the bottom.
The trail continuted to head closer to the falls. It got very close before turning sharply and climbing the slope to the left. With so much water going over the falls the air was filled with spray and a lot of it drifted over to this part of the trail. The rocks were wet and slippery so we had to be careful. We put on our jackets to try to keep dry although it wasn't nearly as bad as the Mist Trail the day before.
Now we were climbing the cliff that the falls were plunging over, just to the left of all the water. We were looking at the falls from the side, part of the way up. The impressive view is shown in the photos but what doesn't come across is the sound, how loud the roar of the falls was. For that you need to watch the video that I took of the falls. Turn your sound up all the way as you watch it to get the full effect.
We finally climbed above the mist and were in the warm sun, where we dried off quickly. Half Dome looked spectacular looming in the distance behind the falls. About this time Sandy's foot started to bother her. We were about at the level of the top of the falls. Sandy decided to turn back before her foot got worse since we still had a long way to go down. I went a short distance farther, but decided it would take too long for me to get up and around to the falls overlook. I turned back too and caught up with Sandy before long.
After passing through the misty section again, we stopped in the sun where we had first seen the falls. It was a beautiful day and the views were incredible. I stared at Half Dome and the valley and thought about my previous trips here over the years. I wondered how I had not known what a spectacular trail this was.
Sandy started back and I stayed to take a few extra pictures. On the way back I looked again for the lower falls overlook. When I was looking at what might have been a side trail, another hiker said "that's the old path to the overlook". I followed it and sure enough, in about fifty yards I came to some exposed rocks with a small guard railing that looked down on the lower falls. There wasn't much space. There were two or three people having lunch there and I could barely fit. After I took my pictures and moved away from the edge I noticed another person waiting for my spot. There wasn't even room for one other person there at the same time. It was cool to see the lower falls from above, but I was disappointed that you couldn't see the upper and lower falls at the same time.
After my diversion to the overlook I didn't catch up with Sandy till well below Colmubia Rock. When we were finally down we waited for the shuttle, but when it came there were so many people we just decided to walk back to the hotel. It was a good idea. On the way back we finally got our only view of the upper and lower falls at the same time. We also got perhaps the best, up close view of Half Dome across the meadow near our hotel. It's the view that is featured on the park webcam. In fact, I even spotted the webcam mounted on a cabin at the edge of the meadow.
It had been a great day in the mountains. We had seen Yosemite's waterfalls put on perhaps their best show ever. We had a remarkable view of Half Dome and the whole Yosemite Valley. I got to remember past climbs on Half Dome. Sandy got to see Yosemite Valley for the first time. The crowds were a pain but the mountains had been incredible. We finished the day with a glass of wine and some snacks in the bar of our hotel.
Now I have another good hike to remember when I go back to climb Half Dome when I am sixty nine.