Half Dome

Amy, enjoying the views from the top.

Amy, enjoying the views from the top.

The image of Half Dome, an iconic landmark of Yosemite National Park in California, is displayed on the Macintosh computer screens in Bata Library at Trent University. Passing these computers now, I’m taken back to a year ago when I first entered the library. It was early September 2015 and I was just beginning my Master of Arts Degree in English.

I’ve always used PC computers and I was surprised when I saw Half Dome glowing on the Macintosh screens. But it wasn’t my ignorance of this detail that made me acutely aware of the desktop background.

Two weeks before school started, I had stood at the very top of that iconic peak, perched out on an overhang with my arms triumphantly raised in the air.

In the spring of 2015, I decided that before I moved back to my hometown of Peterborough to return to school, I needed an adventure. I had spent a year sitting at a desk in an office on Bay Street in Toronto, working long hours but only just making rent, and I needed to move - physically and mentally.

Yosemite National Park had recently become a place of inspiration for me, fuelled by a developing interest in rock climbing and a longtime love of mountains. The need to hike alone was inspired by re-readings of Cheryl Strayed’s recently published memoir Wild and the overwhelming sense of suffocation that modernity and constant connectivity can sometimes produce.

Sitting at my desk at work, I decided that I had to hike Half Dome before I began school.

Within three days of finishing my job in mid-August, I was on a plane with a friend headed to British Columbia. We spent time camping and hiking in Squamish and Whistler on the mainland, in Tofino and Juan de Fuca Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, and we flew up north to visit friends in Kitimat.  After a couple weeks of long hikes, ocean-side camping, and surfing frigid Pacific waves, we made our way back to the Vancouver airport. I said goodbye to my friend, who flew home to Toronto, and I got on a plane to San Francisco.

Yosemite exudes the spirit of adventure, with rock climbers hanging from the unforgiving rock walls and hikers challenging their limits on one of the most daring day hikes in the United States.

I spent a weekend in San Francisco, then picked up my rental car and drove the three hours east to Yosemite.

Admittedly, I was a bit ill-prepared for this trip: all campsites in Yosemite Valley, to my naïve surprise, had been booked months in advance, and the hike up the cable route to the top of Half Dome requires a permit, which also sold out months in advance. Luckily, I was able to get a tent site at Crane Flat, about a 30 minute drive northwest of Yosemite Valley. While it was hot during the days, Crane Flat is 6,200 feet in elevation, making the nights unexpectedly cold for summertime.

Getting my hands on a permit was harder. Every year the National Park Service holds some permits back from sale so that those of us who haven’t planned ahead are able to apply to the daily lottery. After setting up my tent, I drove down into Yosemite Valley to ask about the permit application process.

A view of El Capitan

A view of El Capitan

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

Words fail to capture the immensity that is Yosemite. I remember turning the bend in the road that beholds the view of El Capitan on the left, Half Dome lingering in the distance, and Bridalveil Falls on the right. Driving down into the Valley, the car radio turns to static, the signal barred by towering granite cliffs, and in the silence of the descent, you can understand how the park has become a place of mythmaking.

Yosemite exudes the spirit of adventure, with rock climbers hanging from the unforgiving rock walls and hikers challenging their limits on one of the most daring day hikes in the United States. I met a rock climber who was also hoping to climb the cable route on Half Dome, and he provided me with the number to call about the permit. After entering the lottery, all I could do was wait and hope I’d be able to accomplish what I set out to do.

Half Dome can be reached by two connecting trails from Yosemite Valley. The Mist Trail is shorter, steeper, and more scenic, passing by Vernal Falls. The John Muir Trail is a more gradual incline, but adds just over 2kms to your hike each way. The two trails meet at Nevada Falls, forming a loop, from where you can continue onwards to hike to Half Dome.

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls

I decided I would chose the steeper, but shorter, Mist Trail, which would make the round trip hike to the top of Half Dome roughly 22.7km.

To experienced mountaineers, Half Dome is puny. But to many hikers, it represents a feat of courage and endurance. Once considered impossible to ascend, climbers in the latter half of the nineteenth century began climbing the route with the assistance of ropes and bolts drilled into the rock, setting the foundation for the present cable route I intended to hike.  

In the morning when I expected to receive my permit results, I got in the car and drove to a section of the road leading to the Valley where I knew my phone would pick up a signal. I parked as the sun was coming up, waiting for the messages to start popping up on my phone.

There, in my email, was the result of my application to the lottery: I was granted a permit for the following day.

I breathed a sigh of relief and was giddy with excitement. I spent that day making sure I had everything that was recommended for the hike. I bought a pair of gloves at a store in the Valley (recommended for the cables), timed out when I should leave my campsite in the morning, and terrified my parents by texting them to say I’d be hiking to the top the next day.

The National Park Service advises that you allow ten to twelve hours to complete the hike. In addition to lots of food, four litres of water is recommended, given that there are no fill stations on the route. The next day I got up at 5:00am, packed up my stuff and was at the base of the trail at 6:45am. As I was filling my water bottles at one of the fill stations, I met an older man from Germany who was also hiking to the top. We wished each other good luck and said we hoped we’d see each other on the trail.

The Mist Trail was steep and my muscles ached before I reached Nevada Falls. From here the incline is more gradual, followed by a flat stretch of trail, and then gradually steepens again as you get closer to the Dome. The trees become sparser as the ground becomes rockier, until you’re standing out in the open far above the treeline. A few hours into the hike, I was approaching the base of the cable climb.

The cable route is open from the end of May to mid-October every year. The park strongly enforces that hikers should not climb if there is a chance of rain that day, and most definitely not attempt the route when the cables are down. More than twenty deaths have occurred on Half Dome, many from hikers falling off the cable route.

The cable route is only a few feet wide. I could see why the need for a permit was enforced: the route was crowded with climbers trying to make their way up while others were trying to get down. Occasionally I’d look around at the expanse of granite hills and the long way I had come. The feeling that with one wrong grip I could fall off the side of the Dome was both frightening and thrilling.

The feeling of reaching the summit is simultaneously a proud and humbling moment. I spent time refueling at the top, watching a group of boys around twenty years old open beers and cheers each other as I cringed at the thought of being even slightly impaired on the climb down.

At one point on the ascent, a climber’s water bottle fell from his bag. Time seemed to stop and the reality of the danger was brought to our collective attention. Everyone paused and watched as the bottle fell quickly, bouncing down the steep rock, until it disappeared over the edge of the Dome. In the quiet that followed, I’m sure every one of us realized that with one small miscalculation, that could be us.

As I reached the top, it wasn’t my legs that ached but my arms. I hadn’t expected to use so much upper body strength on the climb, which is true testament to the route’s steepness. I made my way to the tip of The Visor, an overhang about 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley, and raised my hands above my head as a fellow hiker snapped a picture of me.

The feeling of reaching the summit is simultaneously a proud and humbling moment. I spent time refuelling at the top, watching a group of boys around twenty years old open beers and cheers each other as I cringed at the thought of being even slightly impaired on the climb down. I sent my parents a text saying I made it to the top, to ease their worrying, and then began my descent, shimmying down the cables as others attempted the climb.

The Visor - Looking 4800 feet to Yosemite Valley below.

The Visor - Looking 4800 feet to Yosemite Valley below.

When I was amongst the trees again, I saw the German man coming towards me, walking poles in hand as he slowly but steadily persevered. He said I was the first person he saw returning from the top and asked if he could take a picture of me for his trip album. He was endearing as he fumbled with his camera to replace the batteries and then excitedly snapped a picture of me.

I often wonder if I’m in a photo album he proudly shows to friends and family in Germany, a sweaty blonde girl covered in dust from California’s orange sand, a huge grin on my face having just completed the difficult section of one of the most iconic hikes in America.

In total, the hike took me eight hours. I returned to my campsite, and eventually packed up to return home to begin my studies.

The image on the screen of the Mac computers at Bata hasn’t changed in the last year, but I have. It became a frequent, reassuring symbol of the perseverance and self-reliability that I gained on that hike, and that I needed to be reminded of when putting in long hours at the library this past year.

There is a sense of finality in passing the computers this time. A few days ago, I submitted the final paper for my degree, finishing what I began a year ago the moment I decided to hike Half Dome.

Contributed by Amy Bowen - @amymbowen

Amy Bowen is a graduate of Trent University and currently teaches Communications at Fleming College in Peterborough and Lindsay. She has also written for GreenUP, an environmental non-profit in downtown Peterborough.

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