The haul to Half Dome

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK— In 1870, California's top geologist described Half Dome as "perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which has never been and never will be trodden by human foot."

Josiah D. Whitney underestimated man's ingenuity. Five years after he authored those words a Scottish carpenter named George Anderson spent a week drilling eyebolts into the rock and setting fixed ropes on Half Dome's east face, the one hidden from the valley floor.

Today, Half Dome is nothing less than the signature Yosemite hike and one of the most famous in the world. On virtually every sunny day in summer and fall hundreds of people reach the summit, grasping a cable handrail near the original ascent route to pull themselves up the treacherous final section.

Because of its extreme length, difficulty and exposure, this hike isn't for everyone. But for those who do make it, the scenic and personal rewards are plentiful.

Because no one wants to be turned back by afternoon thunderstorms, make sure to get an early start — no later than 7 a.m. From Happy Isles, ascend the broad footpath to the Vernal Fall bridge and continue past the bathrooms and water fountain to an important junction.

Both the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail reach the top of Nevada Fall but go about it in different ways. The Mist Trail is shorter but ascends a steep stone staircase that is often wet and slippery. The Muir Trail is 1.2 miles longer but offers better views and climbs well-graded switchbacks. (Friendly advice: Take the Mist Trail up and the Muir Trail down. Your knees will thank you.)

The two trails join up above Nevada Fall and continue climbing gentle switchbacks to Little Yosemite Valley. This crowded camping spot is a favorite of backpackers and food-marauding bears alike.

Stay left at trail junctions in Little Yosemite Valley and pass near a solar toilet before resuming the ascent. After 1 1/2 miles, you'll leave the Muir Trail and pass through red firs and Jeffrey pines, occasionally getting a glimpse of Half Dome's east face. More climbing along a broad, lightly forested slope reveals breathtaking views of Clouds Rest, Mount Hoffman and Tenaya Canyon.

Now things start to get interesting. Officially on the shoulder of Half Dome, dirt quickly becomes granite as the trail snakes its way up a steep stone staircase. Watch your footing on every step and don't get caught up in the awe-inspiring vistas.

At the top of the staircase, the notorious cables are your final obstacle. If you didn't bring gloves [leather or dimpled cloth work gloves are best] be sure to grab a pair from the pile. You'll need them, because from here it's an upper-body workout.

Grab the cables with each hand and begin pulling yourself up the rock, which is as steep as 45 degrees in some sections. When passing a hiker headed the opposite direction brace your feet against the 2x4 wooden beams fastened to each post. A firm grip is essential since a fall could be fatal.

After 440 feet of hoisting, you'll reach the summit, which is surprisingly large and flat. Most hikers climb to the dome's high point on the north end, where some brave souls peer over the lip for a view of the sheer northwest face.

The 360-degree panorama from the summit is nothing short of exhilarating. Allow ample time to soak it up before descending the cables, which can be just as spooky as climbing them.

All that's left now is the long hike down. Congratulations. You've more than earned several trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Curry Village.

Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on September 20, 2006.