Half Dome

May 24 and 25, 2009

May 24

On a rock climbing trip over memorial day weekend with Marie Cardenas, Kristian Eide and Larry Wright, I wanted to spend one morning hiking up Half Dome.  It had been a couple years since I did it, and I wanted to see how fast I could do the hike, both up and round trip.  My previous record was 2:55 to go up in 2000, a long time ago, and I was in very good shape that summer having done a lot of cycling.  I felt like I was in pretty good shape this year as well, and although I doubted I could break my personal record I thought I'd at least get an idea of where I stood.

This was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, likely one of the peak days of the entire year to do this hike, so I knew I had to leave early to beat the crowds.  Nicely we were staying at North Pines campground (the first time I've camped in the Valley), the closest place to the trailhead.  I think I set my alarm for 4:30am but ended up waking up earlier, and made it to the trailhead before 4:40.  I needed to use a headlamp for the beginning, and otherwise travelled very light, with about 2.5 liters of water (I thought I could probably get by with 1 liter but wanted to carry enough to make sure--I think I ended up drinking about 2 liters but could have survived with one liter, especially if I'd drank more before starting), a few snacks (I now eat very lightly on hikes), my fleece, a rain coat, and a few essentials.  I can't remember if I brought my wool hat and gloves or not.  Anyway my pack was quite light.

I felt great starting out--very light, like I was almost floating up the mountain.  A wonderful feeling.  It's hard to believe I once thought this was a difficult hike.  I didn't take any pictures, since I've done the hike so often and taken plenty of pictures before, but I did use my Garmin Forerunner 305 watch to record the route and my times.  The data is below.

Note that the total distance according to the watch is 13.39, not far from the 14 miles the trail is advertised as.  Looking at the route on Google Earth (see the picture above) there were clearly a lot of minor position errors, and the watch lost the GPS signal near the end (the next day as well!) so the distance there is off (note that lap 13 should be the same length as lap 1, so it is 0.2 miles too little--everything else corresponds well and so is likely accurate). Certainly the times are accurate, and the distances likely not far off overall, so this should give a good idea of how the hike went.

Lap 1 was to the first footbridge.  This is one place I figured I could pick up time over my 2000 trip, since on the latter I'd started hiking with my friend Lora Danley, and she went very slowly.  At the bridge I decided to abandon her and go as fast as I could to the top, but it probably took over 20 minutes to do this first segment that time.

Lap 2 is to the top of Vernal Falls.  If I thought I was going to be alone on this hike I got a rude surprise as there were already some big slow groups going up the the Mist trail using headlamps.  I didn't lose too much time passing them, though.  Both falls were as impressive as I've ever seen them, but I went up Vernal in the dark and wasn't sure how much mist there would be so I put on my raincoat just in case.  It turned out to not be too bad (not much wind) and I didn't use the raincoat on the way down.

Lap 3 was to the top of Nevada Falls, and Lap 4 the long flat section along Little Yosemite Valley (which I refer to as the "Beach" due to the thick sand on the trail).  Here was another place I could pick up time.  I noted in my 2003 trip report that "I'd guess getting in better shape I could cut my roundtrip time down to 6 hours, or maybe even 5:30, but that would be about the limit for me without running, which I'm not about to do."  Well here was the difference--I actually do run now, and here was a great place to do it.  It was more like a slow jog, but still faster than walking.  Lap 5 was from the 2 mile marker to the base of the cables, where I found a pair of decent gloves.  Then Lap 6 was to get up--almost 10 minutes, not very good, although it might have been more like 15 minutes in 2000.  I stopped the lap timer at the top of the cables (rather than the true summit) and my time was 2:32, easily beating my old record.  I was elated.  It took a couple more minutes to get to the summit, and although I'd had the cables to myself I noted that there were about 8 people on the summit, some of them asleep.  A couple guys told me they'd slept around the saddle the night before and climbed earlier in the morning.

I briefly enjoyed the views, put on sunblock, and ate some snacks, staying on the summit only 13 minutes.  I then proceeded down.  Laps 8 to 13 correspond symmetrically to 1-6.  I found my descending technique and ability to be enormously improved from before.  I could go quickly and comfortably down the steep sections, and wondered why they'd bothered me so much before.  On the flatter sections I could just run down.  I'd read in some running book that downhill you need to make sure you are going with the flow of the mountain, and I concentrated on doing this.  I was quite successful, I think, and it felt very comfortable to go down, with no feeling of real impact on my feet and knees.  For the first time I made it down quite a bit faster than going up, in 2:07.  My total time, including that on the summit, was 4:52, far better then my previous best of 7:40 (in 2003) and better than I even thought I could do.

It was terrific to do this hike as I'd been feeling badly about how terrible I still am at climbing.  The hike reminded me that I was once really terrible at hiking as well, taking forever to descend the Half Dome trail the first time (almost 10 years ago!) with terrible knee pain.  I've come a long way as a hiker, and I'm sure with a lot more experience I'll improve greatly as a climber as well.  There's still a lot of room for improvement for my own time doing this hike.  I'd try to carry even less (just one liter of water and not a full backpack, which is awkward when running) and for every section I'm sure I can improve my speed.

I was hoping to get back to camp before everyone else got up, but I got there around 9:40 or so and they'd been up since 9.  Still they were surprised to see me so early (I'd told them I thought I'd be back by noon), and I had time to relax before we went climbing that afternoon.

May 25

Although I was exhilarated to have done the Half Dome hike so quickly, I was a little sad as well--it seemed as if my favorite hike had now simply turned into a race course, and perhaps I couldn't enjoy it anymore as I once had.  However Kristian and Marie were thinking of doing the hike themselves the next morning, and I thought why not join them?  I could go at a leisurely pace, enjoy the scenery, and see the hike through their eyes.  Alone I probably can't resist trying to go as fast as possible, so the obvious solution is simply to go with others.

This would be Marie's second time to do the hike and Kristian's first.  Marie had done the hike 4 years ago taking 11 hours roundtrip to do the longer Muir Trail both ways (17 miles roundtrip versus 14 for Mist).  I suggested they do the Mist trail, which is still in my opinion far superior, both ways, and Kristian could try the Muir trail (which does have a few additional nice views) some later day.  Kristian and Marie want to do Snake Dike, which is a long day and involves hiking up much of the trial and descending all of it carrying climbing gear, so I thought it would be good to get them to work on their hiking speed before this and try to do the roundtrip in 7-8 hours.  This was accomplished as we completed it in 7:58, including 51 minutes on top while Marie did her yoga poses. 

I was much sloppier with timing than the previous day.  For example Lap 5 is going up the cables, but I forgot to start the time until we were partway up so you need to add a couple minutes.  Note that lap 3 is longer than the previous day.  This is because we followed some other people onto a side trail and had to backtrack (I don't understand why the total distance is then shorter than the day before!).  I didn't press lap at the 2 mile to go sign in either direction it seems, and was perhaps a little sloppy with laps on the way down as well.  But the overall time and up/down times are of course right.

This is the first time I've ever done Half Dome two days in a row, and it was great!  I was a little worried I'd injure myself, but fortunately I was fine.  My knees were a little sore after the first day, and something strange was going on with the right leg on the backside just above the knee region.  Some muscle or ligament or whatever seemed to be vibrating off and on.  I'm not sure what caused this or why it happened--maybe I'd pinched a nerve and somehow control of that muscle or whatever got confused.  It was annoying but didn't hurt at all, and doing the hike again didn't seem to affect it; it went away in a few more days.  I actually felt better after the second hike than I did after the first one; it was a lot more leisurely and of course the first day had warmed me up!

We'd gotten parking in the day lot near the trailhead (the first time I've parked there) which was great because we could get back to the car quickly and get out of the valley before the traffic got bad.  A wonderful three-day weekend in Yosemite


I never really kept track of how many times I climbed Half Dome, but now that it seemed I'd done it about 10 times I wanted to see if I could figure out how many times I'd actually climbed it.  So I went back and looked through old email to find whatever references I could to hiking up the mountain.  And indeed I managed to find references to enough hikes that I can be sure I've been to the top at least 9 times!  It's possible there are more, and I'm particularly unclear about the 2000-2002 period, but outside that everything should be accurate.   It's surprising that I can't find a reference to hiking Half Dome in 2001, but I was busy taking an intensive complex analysis course at Stanford that summer to prepare for returning to grad school, so maybe I just didn't have time.  I went to Yosemite often during these summers, sometimes a half dozen times or so, but did a lot of other hikes as well so not just Half Dome.  I've done parts of the Half Dome hike, such as the Mist trail to the Panorama trail, but in this chart I'm counting only the times I made it to the summit.

For some hikes there are trip reports which can be consulted.  I didn't really start keeping track of my times until 2003.  The first hike I believe took over 10 hours; my friends were very slow going up and I with my knee pain was very slow going down.  For the 2000 hike I walked to the first footbridge with Lora Danley, then went ahead and asked her to meet me on the summit.  Unfortunately she went the wrong way and took the Muir trail up, so although I waited for a long time (probably over an hour) on the summit she never showed up.  I descended and ran into her somewhere around the picnic area and we went down together; she still hasn't summitted.  I recall there being a big traffic jam on the cables that time, and I was eager to get past it quickly as it was clear I could get to the top in under 3 hours.  I asked a guy in front of me if I could pass him, but he said no as the jam extended a while above him.  So I went outside the cables (still holding on) and bypassed everyone that way.  I distinctly recall the guy apparently swearing at me in German.

In 2002 I did the hike alone, and the next weekend went with friends Takehiro and Kazumi Okamoto visiting from Japan, but they weren't in good shape and we turned back a little after the beach section (and before the 2 mile marker, I believe).  After that my trips are well documented.  It's certainly possible there's one more trip in there somewhere, but for now I'll just say I've climbed it 9 times.

Number Date With Route Time Up On Top Time Down Total time
1 8/18/99 Karen and Eric Twietmeyer Mist up and down       10 hours?
2 9/25/99 Kyoko Leo Mist up, Muir down       10:57
3 8/26/00 Lora Danley (parts) Mist up and down 2:55      
4 6/13/02 (alone) Mist up and down ?        
5 6/16/03 (alone) Mist up and down 3:45 0:20 3:35 7:40
6 9/14/04 Aaron Reite and Will Conley Snake Dike up, Mist down 9:50 1:10 3:30 14:30
7 5/21/07 Kaya Yuki Mist up, Muir down 3:44 0:37 3:46 8:07
8 5/24/09 (alone) Mist up and down 2:32 0:13 2:07 4:52
9 5/25/09 Kristian Eide and Marie Cardenas Mist up and down 4:02 0:51 3:05 7:58