Half Dome, 30 June, 2000:
We got a late start headed up the 3.5 mile
climb to Half Dome from our Little Yosemite Valley campsite. The
day was beautiful, the temperature in the high 70s, with the daily
thunderstorm just beginning to gather to the south and east. It
is an arduous dry climbing trail to Half Dome, with one small spring
a mile from the top being the only source of water. We passed occasional
day-hikers coming down the trail, many with children as young as
8 years. As we got closer to the top, we passed a stream of perhaps
40 hikers coming off the rock, and several of them told us the Ranger
was not letting people on top due to the approaching thunderstorm.
We pressed on, figuring we would get as far as we could.
Half Dome is actually two domes of granite,
with a narrow saddle between. The first, smaller dome is climbed
by negotiating 24 switchbacks of uneven rock steps, no railing,
with a spectacular view rewarding those who make the ascent. At
the base of the stairs there is a sign warning you not to proceed
further if there is any thunderstorm activity visible anywhere out
to the horizon. We were met by Ranger Rick escorting the last of
the hikers off the top of Half Dome. There were 4 other young people
there, trying to decide whether to go on up. Ranger Rick looked
me straight in the eye and said “I strongly advise you not
to go up there today. There is a thunderstorm approaching, and you
don’t want to be up there when it hits.” We paused,
and decided to go up the smaller dome and decide from there. When
we started climbing, the 4 others followed. When we reached the
saddle between the 2 domes, the other 4 went ahead up Half Dome.
The “trail” up
Half Dome cannot be adequately described, it can only be experienced.
The ascent is made using a walkway consisting of 2 steel cables
about 2 feet apart, held about 3 feet high by steel posts drilled
into the rock at about 10 foot intervals. At every other post there
is a 2X4 attached at the bottom of the posts, forming a short step
between adjacent posts. As became apparent during the descent, these
steps are there to stop the inevitable slides as your shoes slip
on the granite. And slip you will, as the granite slope you are
climbing is inclined an actual 45° for nearly 100 yards. This
pathway, with the cables, was built in the 1920s, and the granite
surface has been worn down by 80 years of climbers.
At this point we had been watching the approaching
squall line, with lightning striking the ridgetops perhaps 3-5 miles
distant. We still had a narrow cone of blue sky and sunshine directly
above. Russ and Chris both looked (up!) at the cables and voiced
concerns about acrophobia. We were at the point of decision. We
watched the 4 climbers ascend into the sun, and I said, “Well,
I’m going up.” The others followed. That point, we all
agreed later, represented the single stupidest thing any of us had
ever done in our collective lives. We selected gloves from the pile
at the base of the cables, and began the climb.
Now, on 45° (some sources on the internet
mention a peak slope of 55°) slope you can’t even stand
up. So the cables are used to pull yourself up, with your weight
about equally split between arms and legs. Once you get about 1/3
of the way up, you can see the cables sloping away and you assume
you’re almost there. Then it gets really steep. I voiced encouragement
to Chris and Russ behind me. No option now but to finish the climb.
At the halfway point, we reached the party of 4 who ascended ahead
of us. They had started down immediately after reaching the top,
seeing what we could not, the approach of low thunderheads from
the south. As we passed them, I recall the glassy stares and the
deathgrips on the cables, and one of them sitting on the rock hugging
the post. Not happy campers.
We did reach the top, at 8842 feet. It was
rather anticlimactic. The views are breathtaking to be sure,
but we were, shall I say,
pressed for time.
We found ourselves surrounded by rainsqualls,
our little window of blue sky shuffling off towards the north, with
dark clouds and lightning approaching. We took a few pictures, with
each of us picking a different spot from which to view the valley.
It was at this point that 2 things happened.
I was near the vertical drop, by the granite slab placed (presumably)
near the edge to afford a safe viewing spot, when I heard a low
I checked my digital camera,
the only electric item I had with me. Nope, not that. I looked down
into the valley to see if perhaps something very loud down there
might be the source. No again. Then I noted a cleft in the rock
to my right. As I approached, the hum got louder. It sounded rather
like a bad ballast in an old fluorescent light fixture, and seemed
to emanate from the cleft… At the same time, Russ looked overhead
and noted lightning arcing from cloud to cloud perhaps a mile distant.
The wind was picking up, and with it came the first wisps of rain.
We both called for Chris, and the 3 of us headed down the cables
Russ led the way down, followed by Chris
As they dropped out of sight
over the slope, I was able to take 2 photos, the last from perhaps
¼ of the way down. By that time, the rain was heavy enough
that I bagged my camera and continued down. The trip down the cables
entered into a new dimension of BAD. Russ and Chris later admitted
to stark terror. I recall feeling only that I was the one who urged
us forward, and if anyone got hurt I would carry the burden for
the rest of my life. Under these circumstances, slight injury was
not likely. Death was. For the very cables that formed our lifeline
down the rock also carried the means of our electrocution should
lightning strike the dome during the 20 minutes it took for the
descent. During that time, I can’t recall any sound, but Russ
tells me there were perhaps a dozen lightning bolts from cloud to
cloud in the area, some directly overhead. I remember none, such
was my concentration on my grip on the cables and on my footing
on the granite.
As we each approached the steepest part,
footing became tenuous indeed. Several times our feet would slide
completely out from under us, leaving us dangling by the grip our
hands could manage on the wet cables. At the halfway point, our
hands and wrists were so tired that slipping feet resulted in a
slide down the cables to the next post, our hands slamming into
the cables and threatening to break our grip loose completely. At
one point, Russ stood on one of the 2X4 steps, let go the cables,
and hugged the rock, resting his hands and laughing hysterically
to keep from crying. It was that bad.
There are 2 methods of handling the cables.
Both involve going down backwards. You can pull up on them, pushing
down with your shoes to gain needed traction on the slippery rock.
This helped until your feet did slip, then you found yourself in
freefall as the slack in the cable allowed you to drop perhaps a
foot before taking your weight once more with a jerk. Really dicey.
The other method has you taking more of your weight through your
arms into the cables, taking weight (and traction) off your feet.
Slips are more frequent, but there is less free fall. Neither method
is at all satisfactory, I might add.
This 20 minutes was the longest 3 hours
in any of our lives. The tension, the physical strain (particularly
toward the end, as fatigue took its toll), and the constant battle
between the need for speed and the need for care. It was in all
the most frightening non-instantaneous experience of our lives.
It was akin to that moment of sheer panic in a car crash when you
realize that you are just about to get hurt, bad, when time seems
to slow to a crawl and things happen is slow motion. The difference
is that things really are happening in slow motion, with time stretching
We did reach the bottom safely, and made
a swift retreat to safer ground. On the way back to the campground,
we met a young excited Ranger who asked us if we had heard of someone
being struck by lightning on Half Dome. We allowed as how that must
have been us, as we were the last ones up and the only ones there
during the lightning activity.
The next day, hitching a ride from the Valley
back to Tuolumne Meadows, we were picked up by 2 separate Park employees,
one of whom asked if we had heard that someone was struck by lighting
yesterday on Half Dome (yes, we heard…), and the other a rock
climber who related his personal experience of having been struck
while on a climb of El Capitan. We didn’t relate to either
just how close we came, or just how stupid we were…
©Dave Norton 2000