Yosemite had been on fire since July. Now it had reopened, yet its riverbank was still dotted with dozens of fires like a grove of neglected campfires. My friends and I silently drove past the entrance. Were we really going to hike in this?
A Breakthrough Beginning
April 12, 2018, was a remarkable day.
After three years of unsuccessfully entering the Mt Whitney and Half Dome lotteries, I opened my email to see the opening phrase “In regards to your Lottery Application.”
We were one of the fewer than 20% of applicants who were going to hike Half Dome.
As the icon of Yosemite, with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain, this hike was initially declared “perfectly inaccessible.” Yet, today, hundreds of people hike this daily.
“For most, it is an exciting, arduous hike; for a few, it becomes more of an adventure than they wanted. Indeed, park rangers assist hundreds of people on the Half Dome trail every summer.” – NPS
Like many iconic hikes, this is a dangerous, sometimes deadly, adventure. As one website puts it, this “is the ultimate Yosemite day hike – the one you can’t die without doing, and the one you’re most likely to die while doing.” The same website claims that there have been over 20 deaths “on Half Dome itself,” many of which include being struck by lightning or – sickeningly – sliding off.
Yet getting the permit was just the beginning. We still didn’t have a place to sleep.
A few days later, my friends and I woke up on at 6:45 am on a Sunday morning to reserve the campgrounds, on four different browsers. Within 20 minutes, we had four nights reserved, but they were in three different campsites (yes, it’s really that difficult: “nearly all reservations for the months of May through September … are filled the first day they become available, usually within seconds or minutes”).
With the reservations and permit in hand, we were ready to begin training. During the summer we hiked local trails such as Cucamonga, Baldy, and the unsurpassed (and under-visited) Twin Peaks. I became a regular at my gym, asking trainers for advice on calf and quad exercises.
The hard part, we thought, was over.
Where There’s Fire
Then, a few weeks before our hike began, a “searing early summer heat wave” hit California, turning Los Angeles into triple-digit temperatures (111 degrees Fahrenheit in our city). Days later, the fires began, including an uncontained one in San Bernardino that “indefinitely” closed a trail we had planned to hike as training.
There was also a small, threatening wildfire in Yosemite, named the “Ferguson Fire,” and it had only been seven percent contained when I noticed it on Inciweb.
All of a sudden, the Ferguson Fire flared up, and the park was evacuated and temporarily closed with a promise to reopen “at least” on July 29. Then, August 3. Then, August 5.
Finally, the U.S. Forest Service closed Yosemite indefinitely.
Our friends and I reluctantly began discussing alternative plans for our time off work.
Reconsidering Our Arrival
Then the unexpected happened: the park said they would reopen on August 15. We were due to hike the day after.
But there was another problem besides access to the park: smoke was still lingering in red and orange “unhealthy” zones, comparable to a bad day in Beijing. And park webcams revealed grey, hazy views of the valley. We began checking the air quality daily, sometimes hourly.
Our friends and I met one more time, two days before the reopening, and deliberated: how risky did we want to be? With our work schedules cleared and our bags packed, we agreed: we were going to at least attempt to summit. After all, we could also try the next day; there may be extra first-come, first-served hiking permits.
I took my own precautions, visiting a hardware store to buy a respirator mask.
Emerging Through the Smoke
So here we were, driving into the park on an empty road, watching the flaming glow of the fires across the Merced River. I adjusted my mask as the smoke breezed into our car.
Our campground was half-empty, advertising “SPACE AVAILABLE.” We noticed dozens of names on the board; no-shows.
Whether we were ready for it or not, we had the campsite and the permit.
It was time to prepare for the 4:00 am hike.
A Long-Expected Trek in the Woods
By the time our alarms had rung, I doubt we had slept much. Though tired from the drive the evening before, we put on our backpacks and boots and began what would be a 14-hour trek.
In the dark, with headlamps.
We slowly walked up past the two waterfalls – Vernal and Nevada – reaching the top of Nevada Falls by sunrise. The rocky stairs on the Mist Trail were nearly a foot tall and each step took me seconds, making me breathe hard.
“These are built for giants,” I joked and stopped yet again for another break.
Early on, my friends had surpassed me, but we met at the top of Nevada Falls for a banana and granola bar. By then, each of us was nearly finished with our first of four liters of water. The air felt clear up there, and I decided to remove my mask. I never put it back on.
Once we reached the plateau above Nevada Falls, we had a pleasant walk for miles on a floor of soft dirt, pine needles, and tree roots. The morning sun began to glitter through the canopy of pine branches. Easily, this was the most peaceful hike I’ve walked in months.
This hike was only improved upon when we walked past a quiet campground on a riverbed. The river was nearby and we agreed to return on the way down the mountain, to filter and refill our water.
A Daring Final Ascent Up the Rock
After seven hours of hiking, we arrived at the base of the Half Dome cables. Here, at last, was the reason we had applied years in a row for a permit, the reason we had taken a chance to ascend in a smoky forest, the reason we had decided to take this difficult road.
Half Dome was indeed a beautiful destination, and awe-inspiring. It appeared in the air like the crest of a petrified wave, caught before a break.
Now, to climb it.
Multiple blogs and videos will warn you about this set of cables. We had heard the warnings, and had even purchased rock climbing harnesses, rope, and carabiners in preparation (“So sensible,” hikers muttered as they walked past us).
What we didn’t expect was how daunting it was to walk, often on your tiptoes, while frequently sliding backward. In addition, we had to pull ourselves upwards from one wooden plank to the next.
At a couple of points on the cables, I stopped and looked down. This was a mistake, as my fear reflex anted up, and I began breathing rapidly. I had not been rock climbing for years, and my response had not yet calibrated.
With the verbal support of Javier, and others below me, I was able to focus again on my feet ahead of me and to haul my body upwards and onto the summit of Half Dome.
We reached the top at noon.
The hike down was equally daunting, particularly as sliding down a mountain is not pleasant. But we had planned well, and our harnesses kept us secure.
At the river, we took an extended break to filter water – for ourselves and a group of East Coast college students who had only brought one liter with them each – and to put our feet in the snowmelt waters.
When we arrived at our campsite again, there was still daylight enough to gather a change of clothes for the showers.
And then we found the one fast food place open past 8:00 pm in the park, and had a large pizza next to the thru-hikers.
Best day ever.
A Beautiful Destination
Years ago, while searching for inspiration, I came across a quote:
“Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.”
This rang true for me; there were moments where I had experienced challenges, only to persist.
Completing graduate school.
Moving across states, or countries, for a new job.
Maintaining a relationship with someone you love.
These roads were, as a good friend once told me, valió la pena. Worth the trek.
In hiking as in life, stay on the trail. The summit’s just ahead.