Thick black clouds are already crashing against the grey bulk of Mt. Dana when we begin the run down the mountain. The wind whips past, running fast from the coast, pushing the first winter storm of the season west up Yosemite Valley, whirling around the base of Half Dome.
Pine needles fall in masses, covering the bare ground with a carpet of sienna gold. The air is thick with the smell of snow and rain and the sun, hot enough to go shirtless only a few hours ago, has gone home. This new cold bites hard. Thunder rumbles to the south.
It’s time to go.
Scattering off the sheer rock slope of the dome like rabbits, we throw ourselves down the granite steps carved into the rock. The wind pushes and pulls and tears and cries. Small rocks spin into the air, picked up and thrown by our feet and the wind. The wind sounds like a dragon let out if its cage, roaring with a kind of wild and cantankerous joy. We fly before it, pushed down the mountain, slamming over the steep rock steps carved into the mountain, slowing only enough to prevent an inglorious crash to earth.
Down, down, down, the steps drop off the dome and finally hit bare dirt. Cedar and fir and pine above us bend and twist and sigh in the wind. The trail at the base of Half Dome splits down here. One trail sheers west down to Yosemite Valley, another branch heads up to Clouds Rest, 3,000 feet above us where we spent the last night, and where we left our packs this morning.
We pass other hikers, bound west for Yosemite Valley and their warm dry cars and hotels on the valley floor, only seven miles away. But not us. We’re headed for the car and trailhead at Tenaya Lake tonight — ten miles away, 4,000 feet up, 3,000 feet down — and it’s already past noon.
We head northeast, spinning dust and pine needles under out feet and into the air, climbing steadily up through a land of giant cedars. The air is thick and damp, smelling of pine and rain. To the south, through the trees, the spires of the Sierra above Mammoth and Lee Vining are black, already swathed in the fast-moving clouds. The trail steepens and we climb more slowly now, battling increasing wind and cold.
It’s Oct 3. The sun was hot the day before. It was the last day in a series of unusually warm, late September days and we climbed the seven miles from Tenaya Lake to aptly-named Clouds Rest in shorts and sandals, seeking shade wherever we could find it. But our permit to climb Half Dome came though for today, and after a year of waiting for it, it had to be today. With so little time to prepare, we decided to forgo the long drive from Mammoth to Yosemite Valley, usually the beginning of the traditional, nine-mile hike to Half Dome. Instead we started from Tenaya Lake, only an hour’s drive from Mammoth. The route from Tenaya is several miles longer, but with a shorter drive, it seemed it would all come out even.
Until the wind hit.
The spine of the world
The cedar and fir give way to higher elevation lodgepole and juniper as we hit the 10,000-foot elevation mark at Clouds Rest. The wind is far more fierce up here, and it’s cold — ice cold. By now it’s 4 p.m., the sky is a deep grey-black and we are still seven and a half miles from the car. We gather packs stashed under a silver granite boulder and struggle into down jackets and gloves and long tights and raingear, the wind nearly lifting us off our feet.
Normally, I hate to put on my pack, the little instrument of torture that it is, but today, I welcome the weight and warmth of it against my back, anchoring me to the earth.
We pass the little side trail up to Clouds Rest and head down toward Tenaya Lake. Last night, we climbed this same trail, walking out on the narrow granite spine of rock that soars above Yosemite Valley from the north, towering 1,000 feet above Half Dome. When we reached the trail to the edge of the viewpoint where the rock walls on both sides drop thousands of feet straight down, I nearly stopped right there. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights? Well, I am. Not terrified, not completely immobilized like some, no, but still, afraid.
But just at that moment, the clouds came in: deep, thick, magenta clouds winging up from Yosemite Valley. Pink, gold and cream colors swam through the sky in the light of the setting sun. They filled the valleys on both sides of the narrow spine, wreathing me in rose and gold and indigo and I couldn’t see what I was so afraid of — that 4,000-foot drop to the bottom of Tenaya Creek below me. Ahead of me, to the west, the tip of Half Dome showed through the clouds, an island in the cloud sea.
The show continued for the next half hour, the setting sun turning the clouds to deep violet and indigo, then to silver grey, then to white. Beauty triumphed over fear. We found a flat spot there, on the spine of the world, and I made my partner sleep on the side nearest the edge of the dragon’s back. We set up a tent in the whipping wind and slept like babies under the Milky Way, the half moon gleaming through the night.
The next morning, when I looked down at Half Dome, I thought if I can sleep up here, on a seven-foot-wide ledge suspended above thousands of feet of emptiness, I can climb that mountain.
I can climb Half Dome.
It didn’t work out that way. The dome did its part; stood sturdy and strong and unmoving, waiting for me with eternal patience. The steel-strung cables did their part; stood stalwart and true. The other climbers did theirs; encouraging each other, encouraging me. The rangers did their part, making sure we put water bottles inside the pack so they didn’t fall out on someone’s head, checking permits, waiting with weary calm for the daily wave of climbers and wannabe climbers to go home and leave them in peace.
But the wind howled like the caged dragon it was and laughed at me clinging to the cables at a 45-degree angle. Come with me, it said. Come with me and fly.
When I almost accepted the invitation, I knew it was time to go back down. I wasn’t the only one and a mass of us turned back, feeling less foolish for the company.
The top of Half Dome will have to wait for another day.
Descending from Clouds Rest now, the trail swings into the trees once again. The evening deepens and grows even colder. A few raindrops gone to snow hit my face, chilling me even further. Almost running now, trying to eke out that last bit of light before headlamps are needed, we pass by the glimmer of Tenaya Creek on the left, the black outline of lodgepole on the right. In the distance, the red taillights of cars travelling down from Olmsted Point shimmer through the dark like fireflies.
The wind calms as the dark settles down for the night. A light rain begins, misting the black with silver. We finish the last mile to the car guided by the gleam of headlamps, two small, warm animals walking through immensity, leaving summer behind, headed home.
Get out there.
Take the Tioga Pass Road/S.R. 120 W west into Yosemite National Park Drive 17 miles west to the Sunrise trailhead just west of Tenaya Lake and park there.
Caution: A map and good map skills are essential, due to the many trails radiating out from this route. Overnight permits are also required, if you don’t intend to do the entire 24.6 miles in one day. No overnight car parking is allowed on the Tioga Pass Road after Oct. 15, including at trailheads or parking areas.