Half Dome is an icon in the most iconic of national parks: Yosemite. Even if they don’t know what the hike entails, visitors often cite it as a goal--until they learn it requires 17 miles of trekking with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
Even though I’d summited Half Dome twice previously, I decided to summit the massive granite monolith again with YExplore, a professional guide company specializing in Yosemite National Park guided hikes.
We met before sun-up in a parking lot near Happy Isles, most of us greeting each other for the first time. Our paths lit by headlamps, we began our journey to the top of Half Dome led by John DeGrazio, experienced guide and owner of YExplore. Early morning light found us at a stairway of steep stone steps, some a foot high. At the top streamed Vernal Fall, the first of two waterfalls we’d visit. The trail wound along the contours of the mountain. As we climbed, we stopped often to look back at the cascading water behind us where the light created soft rainbows in circles around the pool at the base of the fall.
The sun crept above the horizon as it cast a golden glow over the surrounding landscape. Ancient oaks spread leafy branches to frame the view of Nevada Fall and the trail ahead with vibrant fall colors. Our knowledgeable guides identified Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and other mountain peaks as well as plant and tree species as we walked.
The terrain changed from granite staircases to the soft dirt trails of Little Yosemite Valley as it skirted the Merced River and wound in and out of dense forest.
We didn’t need jackets, but fall temperatures remained cool enough for a comfortable hike. We stopped to enjoy a light snack two miles from the summit. As we sat on logs lining the trail, John prepped us for the remaining climb. Throughout the hike he identified each section on a scale of 1-5 with 1 the easiest and 5 the most difficult. Upcoming we would tackle the most difficult section of the hike, the narrow, winding staircase (minus guardrails) up to the subdome and then the cable section on which we would crest Half Dome itself.
At this point we dragged ourselves upward, our feet sore and muscles aching. But with John’s years of experience of 145 summits up Half Dome, he urged the group on to a place he called “Motivation Point.” There the view opened to reveal a fantastic view of our target. At that sight we picked up some pep in our step. With a renewed sense of determination we scrambled up the subdome and found ourselves at the base of the cables. Keeping us eye-on-the-goal, John didn’t allow any second thoughts. Instead he instilled confidence in us, and we approached the climb steady and sure.
We pulled gloves from our bags as John gave the crew a thorough lesson on the best way to get up the cables. One by one we climbed, John offering help as we went. I brought up the rear, so I could grab photos and video along the way. We used the right-side cable to haul ourselves up while other hikers made their way down on the left. Twenty minutes later, after words of encouragement from our guides, we exchanged high fives on the 13-acre plateau of Half Dome.
There is something special about achieving this together. We may have started as strangers, but we returned as friends. For most of the group, this was their first time to the summit of Half Dome. Seeing the looks on their faces when they realize the grandeur of their achievement is a wonderful feeling.
We relaxed on top of Half Dome, basking in breathtaking views, snapping photos and laughing. We pulled out a snack and enjoyed lunch while gazing down into Yosemite Valley. John passed around bites of delicious dark chocolate, a perfect energy boost for the trek back to the valley. After a few more photos, we packed up our items and began the trek back.
I learned a few things along the way.
•The best chocolate is dark chocolate handed out at the top of Half Dome.
•Even though I am an experienced hiker with lots of miles under my belt and two previous Half Dome summits, I still had things to learn from the professional guides of YExplore.
•From John I learned to practice stepping with intention and found I had more get-up-and-go, placing my feet firm and flat, utilizing proper breathing techniques.
John knew exactly how to motivate, excite and encourage when needed, allowing each participant to achieve his personal best. YExplore truly knows the tricks to make Half Dome a reality for determined hikers.
What a fantastic day! I highly recommend joining YExplore for your Half Dome adventure.