Words by Eva Glasrud, Photos by Justin Smith
Ridiculous things happen at Half Dome.
The very first time I did this 20-ish mile hike — all uphill one way, all downhill the other, with a glorious flat-ish spot in the middle — I was brand new to California. I’d been here maybe three days, and my crew coach brought the team out to do the hike.
So… that was pretty ridiculous.
Another ridiculous thing to have happened: A few hours into racing and panting up this mountain, we ran into our school’s sailing team — bouncing and bubbling down the Mist Trail. The sailing team. It made no sense.
(I later learned that they’d started their hike the previous night — so they were at Half Dome for sunrise! An activity I promptly added to my bucket list.)
At the conclusion of my timed Half Dome experience, one thing was clear; I needed to go back ASAP and do it in my own time, savoring each giant pinecone, lookout point… and, who knows? Maybe even bears.
Unfortunately, school was starting, so the soonest I could possibly make it back to Yosemite was Thanksgiving break. Now that I’m an adult with a car, I almost find this unbelievable… but I actually hitchhiked there, from the San Francisco Bay Area, in the rain, in the middle of the night.
When I arrived just after dawn the next morning, I grabbed a tent cabin at Curry Village, took a quick nap, and explored some trails in the Valley.
The next day was the big day: Half Dome, take two.
I’d travelled there with this guy, Mike. We were buddies by the end of the trip — but at this point, we were more “strangers who’d met in the dining hall.” I’d seen him come in a few times, cheeks red, a giant smile on his face. And as I began planning my epic Thanksgiving Yosemite trip, something about that smile told me he was the one I wanted to share it with.
So one day, when that smile came bursting into the dining hall, I introduced myself and my plan, and that was that.
So now, here we were. Ready to Hike Half Dome. We were only running a few hours behind schedule (you tend to oversleep after a hitchhiking near-all-nighter). The air temperature was decently warm for November — meaning it was raining, not snowing, in the Valley. We swung by the mountain store to pick up some lightweight plastic ponchos, then started on our way.
Everything was just as beautiful as I’d remembered — but way less crowded, because it was November, not September (which, I later learned, is way less crowded than June-August). And, when you’re able to take breaks to snap photos and enjoy the scenery, it’s actually much more pleasant than racing to the top.
A few hours into our climb, we reached the elevation at which rain turns to snow — a welcome respite.
We continued on, through the flat little open part and back into the woods, where switchbacks awaited. And then —
A clearing! We’d reached the subdome!
Which didn’t mean we were there. The subdome is no cakewalk, as you’re still climbing a pretty steep grade, using narrow steps cut into the granite. Up, up, up, up, up, then down, down…
And then we were finally at the cables of Half Dome!
During the main season, the cables are held at waist-height by poles. But in the off-season, the cables are “down,” meaning they’re still there. You just have to pick them up.
Because we’d gotten off to such a late start, the sun was beginning to set already. A cold, strong wind was cutting through our clothes and straight to our moist flesh. We hadn’t seen other hikers in hours. Some thick clouds were rolling in. And there was definitely some ice on the granite, thanks to the day’s rain/snow combo.
I told Mike that I wasn’t so sure about this. It just seemed kind of… dangerous?
“Eva,” he told me, after extensive back-and-forth, “In my family, it’s important to finish what you started and see things through.”
“Fine,” I finally conceded.
With that, I put on my gloves and began hoisting myself up the subdome, slightly annoyed.
I could hear Mike breathing and stepping behind me.
About 300 feet into the 400-foot ascent, I heard a thunk… and a sliiiiiiiide.
I turned around and saw Mike sliding down the granite until he disappeared into a cloud.
Once, when I was in middle school, I’d gotten locked outside as a tornado ripped through my yard. Holding onto a tree (which wobbled like rubber in the storm) for dear life, I’d laughed. Not because watching farm equipment and lawn furniture blow over the roof of my house was funny… but because of… shock, I guess?
The same thing happened when Mike disappeared into that cloud. I laughed. Like a totally horrible person. It wasn’t funny. I just didn’t know if he was alive or dead. But after a few seconds of laughter, I abruptly stopped myself. If I laugh, I realized, I could slip, too.
Composing myself, I began descending the cables. When I reached the spot Mike had been when he fell, I noticed little bits of yellow snapped on the rock. Of course — his poncho was yellow.
A little further down, I began seeing little bits of blue fabric snagged on the rock. His jacket, under the poncho, was blue.
Further, still, I started seeing red — his long sleeve.
Just as I was beginning to worry that Mike was a goner, there he was!
Scrambling from rock to handhold to foothold, he was making his way back to safety. When we were finally reunited at the base of the cables, he told me,
“As I was sliding towards the edge, I saw that I was heading straight for a boulder. And I thought, That’s either going to break my fall, or it’s going to break me.”
Luckily, it only broke his fall.
The hike down was more unpleasant for him than me, as he was sore from his fall and the clothes on the left side of his body had been torn to shreds. But… I suppose we learned some important lessons?
One. Listen to your gut. I was mad at myself for letting someone convince me to do something I didn’t think was safe.
Two. Be prepared. The vast majority of hikers do Half Dome without any kind of equipment, and hardly anything ever goes wrong. (Though, full disclosure: people do die on this trail every year, whether from falls, heart attacks, or lightning strikes.) However, a few outdoors-people I know — like, really experienced ones, not total noobs — prefer to do Half Dome with either a quickdraw or a prusik, just in case.
Three. Ridiculous things happen at Half Dome.