I had barely unpacked and recovered from Burning Man, when a friend invited me on another irresistible adventure: Yosemite, where he was planning to hike Half Dome with his soon-to-be-ex-wife!
I knew nothing about the Half Dome hike other than that it was legendary and probably an ass-kicker; added to the excitement of camping with a couple in the throes of divorce, how could I say no?!
If you don’t like to read, check out my vlog about the hike…..otherwise, keep reading 🙂
Yosemite was on my list of places to explore anyway; I grew up in northern California, so of course I’d visited the park here and there over the years. But I’d never really spent any time hiking or camping there, and honestly didn’t understand what the big deal was; I mean, there are beautiful mountains everywhere in the West — what’s so special about Yosemite?!
Well…..now I know!
Having been to many National Parks — most recently Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Glacier — I can say with authority that Yosemite definitely IS something special! I guess it’s the way all those crazy sheer granite faces loom over the beautiful, forested valley; the landscape is exceptionally dramatic. And no crazy sheer granite face is more dramatic than that of Half Dome; at 8839 feet, it’s not the highest peak in Yosemite…but it definitely dominates the landscape!
Anyway, not really knowing anything about the hike or what I was getting into, I packed my gear and cruised back north up U.S. 95 and over Montgomery Pass to the Eastern Sierra — the same pass I’d just crossed a couple weeks ago, when I explored that abandoned brothel and that abandoned casino ghost town (both were still sitting there silently baking away in the high desert sun, but I had no time to stop; I was on a mission!).
I rolled into this little town called Lee Vining, just outside the eastern boundary of the park, and hit up the Mono Cone for a delicious cheeseburger, fries and hand-made milkshake before heading into Yosemite — it’s bear country after all, so to minimize my risk I didn’t want to bring much food with me. After inhaling everything in about 30 seconds, I continued on my way and cruised over Tioga Pass into the park, where my friend had reserved a campsite at the Upper Pines campground.
As it happened, my bear precautions were all for naught — when my friend and his wife got back from their day hike (thankfully, their divorce is amicable) he grilled a tri-tip steak on the campfire…then devoured it with a Buck knife, splattering bloody juices all over the picnic table anyway. To distract myself from the fear of a midnight mauling, I whipped out my phone and started reading up on the Half Dome hike, which we were set to tackle the following morning.
I’d been looking forward to the hike ever since my friend invited me…but what I read that night got me really pumped!! First off, the park guide rated it as “Very Strenuous” — always a chub-inducer! I get so bored on those regular-ass old hikes; I like a challenge! For a day hike, I prefer a minimum of 10 miles roundtrip — plus at least 1,000 feet of elevation gain (I like to work my glutes)! Well, the Half Dome hike is about 16.5 miles round trip — with 4,800 of elevation gain! In other words…..dream hike!!!
Second, there was apparently some kind of extra-burly steep portion at the end that required hauling oneself up steel cables bolted into the rock face. FUN! I started reading all these stories about people who had slipped and fallen to their deaths…and that REALLY whetted my appetite to hike this beast 🙂
My friend and I planned to set out at 6:30am the following morning; his wife had thought better of it, and decided to stay in the valley while we two fools climbed the mountain. So I hit the sack early, and the next morning awoke before dawn to prepare.
Now, I’m a pretty hardcore hiker; I’ve done the Grand Canyon rim-to-river and back in one day (a comparable 17.3 miles/ 4300′ elevation gain), as well as having summited our local beast, Mt. Charleston (16.5 miles and 4278′) a few times. So I figured Half Dome would be cake — all I packed was my kid-sized Camelbak with 1.5 liters of water, 2 Kind bars, a Coke, an apple and a small baggie of trail mix. Just in case, I also strapped a headlamp and a pair of old tennies to my pack…but I wore my trusty Teva Mush flip flops, as I sincerely hate wearing shoes, and am a fairly accomplished flip-flop hiker (I recently did the Grinnell Glacier trail — 11 mi/1600′ elevation gain — in another pair of Teva flip flops).
I did briefly consider bringing more water — they recommend carrying 4 liters per person! But I am at least 50% lizard after living in the desert so long, and I have never needed the recommended amount of water at Burning Man — I always end up with way too much. And besides, my friend had a water filter with him…and assured me that I could use it to refill my pack along the way.
So, we set off from our campsite just after dawn — around 7am. It was chilly, so I wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt, which I later tied around my waist; I did not bring any other type of warm clothes, although come to find out the risk of getting caught in a storm is very real up there. I guess I was lucky!! It actually turned out to be the perfect time of year for this hike — the weather was mild, and the trail wasn’t nearly as crowded as it would have been in the summertime. (If you are planning to attempt this hike, I recommend coming sometime after Labor Day…but before Columbus Day, when they take down the cables for the season.)
Now, I am a hardcore hiker. I’m not the fastest, or the craziest — I enjoy a bit of bouldering, but I’m certainly not an adrenaline junkie when it comes to scaling sheer cliffs or anything like that. But what I do have is amazing stamina; I can hike at a pretty decent clip for miles and miles, even (especially) on an uphill climb. And so far, I HAVE YET TO MEET my hiking match — they ALL poop out on me sooner or later. ALL!!! (The last time I did the Grand Canyon, I thought my younger attorney buddy might finally top me — but I ended up smoking his ass on the ascent. The ONLY person I have ever hiked with who truly kicked my ass was a photographer by the name of MG Imagery, with whom I hiked down to Arizona Hot Springs once.)
Anyway, my hiking style is to attack the shit out of the difficult parts — just blast up the steep sections full-bore, so that I get my heart rate going and can take advantage of my momentum, such as it is. On this hike, if it had been up to me, I would have hauled ass at a pretty good clip, with only one or two piss breaks, until I reached the base of the cables — I find that method easier. Of course pretty much everyone I’ve ever I’ve hiked with prefers to take frequent breaks…and I hate that style of hiking; all those breaks chip away at the momentum I’ve worked up, and I feel that the hike is actually more difficult that way.
But the friend I was hiking Half Dome with was a special case: he had recently lost 80 pounds the old-fashioned way, via diet and exercise, and was hell-bent on summiting Half Done — it had personal significance for him, as he’d failed his last attempt; he hadn’t successfully summited since he was 17. Also, he just happens to be an excellent photographer………so if I wanted any cool art nudies along the way, I would have to stick to his pace 🙂
So, in between overly frequent breaks for food, rest and nudies, my friend and I made our ascent. Along the way, we passed through some of the most magnificent scenery I’d ever witnessed; it was really a fantastic hike! Lucky for us, we were attempting this summit on a weekday at the very end of September; if you try hiking Half Dome on a summer weekend (or even a summer weekday), the crowds can be unbearable…and we would never have been able to shoot any nudes (as was the case when my sis and I hiked in Glacier and Yellowstone this summer). Also, when you get to the top there can be a 45-minute wait to climb the cables — the hike is so popular that it creates bottlenecks at the very top.
To alleviate these bottlenecks, the park service now requires every Half Dome hiker to get a permit for the cables portion of the hike, and they only issue a certain number of permits per day. As mentioned, my friend had secured permits for us…but there was no one checking for them along the way, so I’m not sure how hardcore about it they are. I do know that if you’re caught without one, it’s something like a $5,000 fine…so I’m glad we had ’em!
In any event, I can definitely see why they implemented the permit system — those cables are sketchy as fuuuuuck!!!! I thought I had brass balls…..but OMG, the last part of this hike definitely tarnished them.
As mentioned, I’m fairly hardcore — but climbing these cables was probably the freakiest thing I’ve ever done!! Basically, the last 400 vertical feet of the hike require you to sort of hoist yourself up along a 45-degree slope of granite that has been weathered very slick by the thousands of people who have climbed it; the aforementioned steel cables are strung along each side, about 3 feet apart, so you can hang on for dear life while you pick your way up. Every 12 feet or so the cables are threaded through steel poles jammed loosely into holes drilled in the side of the mountain, and braced between each set of poles is a very weathered wooden 2 x 4, very loosely bolted to the base of the poles, which you use to step up on.
Now, 45 degrees doesn’t sound that steep, and in fact even looking at it from the side isn’t that daunting….but I’m here to tell you, when you are looking straight up a sheer, smooth granite mountain, it’s steep as fuck!!!
I had planned to wear my tennies for this portion of the hike…but upon further inspection, I felt it would be easier to just do the cables barefoot; it seemed much grippier that way. So I tied my flip flops to my Camelbak alongside my tennies, and hauled ass up the mountain…trying not to look down behind me. I just wanted to get to the top as quickly as possible and get it over with!!!
Alas, it’s not all that easy to haul ass on those cables — in addition to your fellow climbers making their ways up, there are also people coming down from the top at the same time, and you have to pass each other by letting go of one side of the cables. YIKES!!! Even barefoot, it was really sketchy. In retrospect, I would recommend wearing some kind of really grippy climbing booties if possible — even regular hiking boots seem like the treads wouldn’t stick enough. I mean, this surface is smooth!
Worse, thunderstorms often pass through the Yosemite valley in the afternoons…making the granite even slicker!! And even worse, the cables (and Half Dome itself, for that matter) act as a giant lightning rod; people have gotten fried to death multiple times while attempting to hike this trail during a storm!!!
Between the lightning strikes, slippery rock face and sketchy-ass cables, I was astonished that a public park in a country as litigious as the United States allows any Joe Schmoe who comes down the pike to hike this trail. I mean, really!! It reminded of some sketch-ass hike in Mexico or Italy or some other place where if you fall, it’s your own fault and you’re shit out of luck. But here in the U.S., where people sue the park service for failing to trim tree branches that fall off, occasionally killing hikers/campers?!?!?! I couldn’t believe it! I mean, they did have several warning signs posted along the trail….but that didn’t seem to stop any of the many hikers of varying age and level of physical fitness I personally witnessed climbing this beast. WOW!
Anyway, my friend and I eventually hauled ourselves to the top of the cables….and it was alllllll worth it. Standing there atop Half Dome was a pretty cool feeling! There’s this one sort of rock ledge up top that projects out over the valley like a diving board, and if you walk out onto it, you appear to be floating in the void. Of course I had to get naked and go pose for a nudie on that!!! Even better, my friend did the same — to celebrate his remarkable weight loss, he also dropped trou and posed for a triumphant nude on the diving board (technically I think they call it the Visor; the diving board is somewhere else on the mountain). It was really exhilarating!
But, as exhilarating as it was hanging out on the top of the world, there were clouds gathering in the distance that were making me kinda nervous….so I kept bugging my friend that we should get going. He blew me off repeatedly, assuring me that the clouds were too far away to hit us…but finally around 3pm he gave into my incessant nagging, and we began our descent.
I found descending the cables to be much easier than going up — at this relatively late hour, there was only one lonely guy climbing up (with his pregnant wife waiting anxiously at the base of the cables, LOL), and only one other guy coming down behind us. So the cables weren’t crowded; I was able to grab one in each hand, and facing the mountain, make my way down barefooted with relative ease.
Once we got back to the sub dome, I felt a lot better — but we were still above the treeline, which means we were still at higher risk of being struck by lightning. A few raindrops did fall on us, but we finally got back down off the subdome into the forest without incident — and now I just wanted to haul ass back to camp and beat up a second tri-tip and some wine that my friend had brought!! I had a headlamp with me so hiking in the dark wouldn’t have been the end of the world….but still, I just wanted to haul ass as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately for me, my friend wanted to enjoy the scenery — and of course we also had to stop a couple more times for nudies 🙂 Sure enough, it got dark when we were only at the top of Nevada falls, with another 4 miles to go! So we switched on our headlamps and hiked along in the dark, which admittedly was fairly treacherous on some of those steep stone stairs and switchbacks…maybe especially so in flip flops.
But astonishingly, along the way back down in the pitch darkness we encountered several other hikers coming up! One cute young backpacker couple claimed that “night hiking is the best!” (I guess it’s one sure way to avoid crowds), and a couple other guys were just hiking along in the darkness like it was no thing at all. Best of all, when we got to the stairs beside Vernal Falls, we encountered an adorable dad and daughter who were camped out for the night at the side of the trail — snuggled up in their sleeping bags, boiling water on a little campstove by the light of their headlamps. We stopped to chat with them for awhile, and they were so cool — their entire family assumed nicknames from Don Quixote, moved into an RV named Rossinante, and now they chronicle their adventures on a Facebook page called Chasing Windmills RV Living! Awwwwwww!!!!! Why can’t I have a family like that?!!?
Anyway, we finally made it back to our campsite around 9:30pm…by which time we were just too exhausted to cook any tri-tip, so I had to settle for a partly-moldy Trader Joe’s chicken wrap. This is an unfortunate pattern in my hardcore hiking experience — I usually get done too late or am too cheap to spring for a really good meal afterwards. This must change!!! The next major hikes I’m planning are Havasupai Falls, Mt. Whitney and possibly a third Grand Canyon rim-river-and-back, this time in flip flops…and as dog is my witness, I am definitely making plans for a SOLID FUCKING MEAL after each of them!!! Too bad the Mono Cone was so far away from Yosemite Village — I would have really enjoyed that!
As it was, I had to wait another 2 days before returning to Mono Cone on my way home (which I did, and it was fabulous). The day after hiking Half Dome, my friend and I did a shorter hike up Lembert Dome; we wanted to stretch our muscles, to keep from getting stiff — and it totally worked; I never really did get sore at all, except for a bit in my calves. Anyway, while up on Lembert Dome I figured I might as well pose for some more nudies — and wouldn’t you know it, there was another chick up there who was a nude model as well, and she whipped off her clothes and posed for my friend too! Far out!!!
After that, we finally went back to camp and had our steak and wine, and it was fantastic. We happened to be camped next to a really cool guy named Greg, and he joined us by our campfire and we all had a fine time. I’m not really a fan of these über-popular tourist campgrounds where you’re jammed in cheek-to-jowl between other groups, but in this case it really worked out, cuz he was cool as hell! (I’m not sure our neighbors on the other side felt the same way though, LOL.)
The following morning I packed up my gear to head back to Vegas — but before leaving, my good old frenemy Alex (with whom I used to hike and camp back in 2014, and who used to work at Yosemite) tipped me off to a secret nudist swimming hole up in the hills behind the Majestic Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee, but some douchebag concessionaires who lost their contract claim they own that name). Alex said that if I asked the valet attendant, they would point me in the right direction of this secret trail.
So my photographer friend and I drove over to the hotel, and I asked one of the valets for directions. At first he wouldn’t tell me: “Ahhh…that’s a locals’ secret. I can’t tell you.” “Come on, man!! I’m a nudist — I wanna soak naked!!” “Uhhhhh it’s a really dangerous trail, I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.” “Awwwwwww come on; I just hiked Half Dome in my flip flops!! I promise I can do it!”
Finally he coughed up the info, and my friend and I headed up what was indeed a very steep trail, which led to a little rock outcropping a few hundred feet up the side of a mountain. This clearing is one of the few private places in the Valley that gets full sun, so is a popular sunbathing spot for employees and locals…and indeed there was another kid snoozing there on his lunch break. The soaking pool, alas, was pretty dried up this time of year — but in July, supposedly, the waterfall that feeds it has a much heavier flow, and as the water splashes allllll the way down from the top of the mountain it is warmed by the sun-beaten rock face, so that by the time it fills the pool it’s the perfect temperature for a summertime soak!! Fantastic!
Anyway, it was really hard to leave this beautiful place — especially as the leaves were just starting to change, and I would have loved nothing more than to hole up in a cabin there for another month or so, and watch the show. But I had to get back to Vegas for an event the following day, so I headed out in the afternoon, stopping to grab some more delicious food at the Mono Cone before making a sunset pit stop at the Ancient Bristlecone Forest in the White Mountains.
I had been wanting to visit this forest for years, because it is said to be home to the oldest known living thing on earth — a bristlecone pine tree that’s over 5,000 years old! The previous record holder was a tree in the same area named Methuselah, around 4800 years of age — wow!!! Unfortunately, both of these specimens remain anonymous and unmarked, to prevent them from being vandalized; back in the 1960s some ding-a-ling grad student chopped down another 4000-year+ bristlecone to study it, so they want to prevent anything like this from happening again, I guess.
Let me tell you, that forest is fabulous!! It’s waaaay out in the middle of pretty much nowhere, about an hour or more east of Big Pine in this mountain range that straddles the weird no-man’s-land that is the California/Nevada border….way up at 10,000 feet! I got there just in time to haul ass around the 4-mile loop trail in search of the elusive Methuselah, before it got dark and I had to head back to Vegas. But it was totally a worthwhile stop…and besides, it helped me digest a few of the 10,000 calories I had just stuffed in my face while driving down U.S. 395 from the Mono Cone 🙂
So anyway, that was my Yosemite adventure. I am now officially obsessed with Yosemite, and with the whole U.S. 395 eastern Sierra corridor in general — it’s a great place, and home to more hot springs than you can shake an incense stick at! In fact as I was hauling ass along the highway stuffing French fries into my mouth at a furious pace, trying to make the bristlecone forest by sunset, I passed the turnoff to Keough Hot Springs….and it took everything I had not to turn my truck off the road and go investigate! Arrrrrghhhh!!
But just like with not knowing the exact location of Methuselah, I guess it’s cool to still have some mysteries out there……..it just gives me future adventures to look forward to 🙂