Take a Trek

Day 1: Seed of Doubt

Happy Isles to Half Dome to Clouds Rest Camp
Day: 11.1 Miles
Trip: 11.1 Miles

When I crawl out of my tent, Derek, Ladd, and Ruby have already packed up and left the Yosemite campground, along with 99% of the other hikers that stayed here last night. Apparently, I overslept. The one person that I speak to, while breaking down my site, is a disgruntled man, who warns me of a mosquito apocalypse that he spent the last three days walking through. “There’s so many mosquitoes up there! Clouds of ‘em! I had to wear a head net, because I kept eating the damn things!” I hope the disgruntled man is exaggerating; if not, I’ll take the free calories.

The Northern Terminus

The Northern Terminus

The first eight miles of the JMT share the footpath used by day hikers and overnight hikers to access the popular Half Dome Trail. I’m surrounded by swarms of these people for most of the day, often answering questions, such as “so, what do you do for food out there?” or “aren’t you afraid of being eaten alive by a bear?” Statements, like “I’d be scared shitless to do something like that by myself”, often follow these questions. Such sentiments only deepen my anxiousness to get into the backcountry of these mountains.

Leaving Yosemite Valley

Leaving Yosemite Valley

During my climb out of the valley, I pass a young man with an undeniably familiar face. I can’t imagine how I recognize him, so I turn my head to take another look. I instantly recognize his faded, red Osprey backpack and realize that he is the creator of a very popular JMT documentary that I watched on Youtube before I left Vermont. The chances of seeing him out here, or anywhere for that matter, are so miniscule that I can’t control my urge to acquire his attention. “Hey! You’re that guy from the Post Holes Documentary!” Without delay, he turns around and meets me in the middle of the trail. The young man tells me he’s returning from a multi-day hike in the Sierra Nevada and wishes me well on my journey. “You’re going to have an awesome experience,” he says. It’s so ironic and unbelievable that I just met this guy. If you’re interested in watching an awesome documentary about a solo JMT thru-hike, I highly recommend checking out his film here.

By mid-afternoon, I’ve reached the intersection for Half Dome Trail, a two-mile detour off of the JMT, which climbs over 1,800 feet to the popular summit of Half Dome. Most JMT hikers, including myself, take this side trip, as the summit of this distinct granite rock is infamous for it’s 360-degree view of Yosemite National Park. Most JMT hikers also choose to drop the majority of their gear, before making their accent. I can’t tell you why I choose to hike those two miles with a full pack, but I can tell you this: climbing Half Dome, with thirty pounds worth of gear and provisions is ignorant, arrogant and unnecessary. If I make a worse mistake than this one, throughout the remainder of my trip, I’ll be a sorry man.

Summiting Half Dome

Summiting Half Dome

The sketchy thing about summiting Half Dome isn’t necessarily the 45-degree pitch that you climb, or the steel cables that you hold onto so that you don’t slide off of the smooth granite surface and plummet to your death. The sketchy thing about climbing Half Dome is the people in front of you and behind you while you’re making your final ascent. There’s no room to maneuver yourself around other people, when you’re using the cables, so when someone freaks out and stops moving, you’re forced to patiently wait. I can assure you, people do freak out on those cables, and being patient when you know you are so vulnerable isn’t for the faint at heart. Patience becomes even more of a virtue, when the sky starts turning gray and you realize that one of those mid-afternoon thunderstorms that everyone warned you about might be heading your way. The idea of being stuck on the side of a 9,000-foot dome of exposed granite during a lightning storm is, well, slightly terrifying.

Walking the Cables of Half Dome

Walking the Cables of Half Dome

I’ve been looking forward to standing on top of Half Dome for as long as I can remember, but when I finally get here, I can’t wait to get back down. The view is amazing, a byzantine labyrinth of bizarrely shaped domes and peaks splayed before me in all directions, but the sky is turning darker by the minute, and I promised my Mom that I wouldn’t die on this trip. I snap a few pictures, hang out for all of five minutes, and quickly begin my descent.

A View From Half Dome

A View From Half Dome

When I arrive at Clouds Rest Campground, I’m exhausted to the point of wobbling and shaking. I just climbed 5,000 feet, on exposed trail, under a cloudless afternoon sky. My head is throbbing, as I fumble through the process of purifying two liters of water and setting up my shelter. I pop a few aspirin, hydrate, and eat as much gorp as my stomach can handle, before crawling into my tent and stripping off all of my clothes. A seed of doubt has been planted in my mind, and I need it to be gone when I wake up.