When I was 14 years old, my parents took me to Yosemite National Park for the first time during a road trip from my home state of Alaska to California. Driving into Yosemite, the walls of granite stretched my imagination. The valley felt as grand as the Alaskan mountains I was used to, with peaks as rugged and daring, but painted with a completely different texture: granite. Yosemite captivated me.
As an eighth-grader I had chosen photography for a semesterlong project. With my Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera in hand, I wandered around Yosemite’s meadows, participated in a photography walk and studied Ansel Adams’s images in the park’s gallery. During this visit, my understanding of and relationship to photography deepened.
Watching the light hit Half Dome at sunset, I felt the same awe that Adams must have felt, the inspiration that compelled him to drag his 4x5 view camera around Yosemite Valley. To cap our visit to the park, I hiked Half Dome with my parents. Being at the summit felt like the culminating experience of our trip. After the hike, looking up at the swaths of granite from the valley floor and knowing I had stood at the top earlier in the day produced a magical feeling.
Now, as a freelance photographer based in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to borrow a friend’s built-out van and do a multiweek road trip. I knew I would want to visit Yosemite, and I lucked out getting a last-minute campsite.
As I headed toward the park in late September, my mind was on Half Dome. The timing of my visit would mark 14 years — half my lifetime — since I had last done the hike and fell in love with photography.
I knew that permits acquired through a lottery system are required to summit Half Dome. Driving into Yosemite, I asked a park ranger at the entrance what the odds were of getting a permit. She told me it was about a 10 percent chance. She had not been able to get a permit yet this year and said she has wasted a chunk of money on the lottery (it costs $10 to enter). She recommended that I not enter, saying, “Unless your heart is set on Half Dome, I’d suggest a different hike.”
Knowing the odds were slim but still set on it, I entered the lottery on Saturday for Monday’s hike. Disappointed after that attempt failed, I accepted the prospect that I might not get to summit Half Dome on this trip. But I thought I’d try one last time. So on Sunday, I put my name in the digital hat and waited. When the email came in with the word “congratulations” in the subject line, I felt elated to get to return to such a special place.
Most Half Dome hikers start around 4 or 5 a.m. to avoid the midday heat on the ascent of the 14-to-16-mile trail with 4,800 feet of elevation gain, a climb that takes most people 10 to 12 hours. A friend of mine recently made an earlier start, around 2:30 a.m., see the sunrise at the top, which inspired me to get going even earlier. And to my delight, I realized there was full moon on Monday night — I’d be hiking under the full moonlight on Tuesday morning.
So around 2:50 a.m., I started off on the trail. The moon was so bright that I opted to hike without a headlamp for most of the ascent. With my eyes adjusted to the dark, the granite glowed under the night sky. Normally on such a popular hike, there would be hundreds of people on the trail. But on the way up, I was nearly alone. A few times, I caught up to other hikers and we chatted in the dark, reveling in the serenity.
Just before 7 a.m., I reached the base of the cables. I put on a pair of gardening gloves that I had brought to help grip the thick wires, clipped in with a carabiner as a precaution and started up the steep incline. Just as I neared the top at 7:05 a.m., the red sun began to peek through the dark sky, obscured by wildfire smoke. Not quite the clear sunrise I had hoped for, but beautiful in a different way. Being alone at the top felt magical — true solitude in an otherwise crowded national destination.
As hikers arrived at the summit, I was able to watch everyone celebrate in their own way. James Parli of Milwaukee and Andrew Garton of San Diego cracked open Pabst Blue Ribbon beers. “Still cold,” Parli said as he sipped the brew. Cristian Silvestre from Portland, Ore., lay back on the cool granite and rested his eyes. Dani Murphy of San Diego, in her 10th year in a row hiking Half Dome in honor of her late husband, Ron Murphy, searched for the rock she had left on the summit years ago with his name.
After two hours of watching the light change and the hikers come and go, I began the descent, passing hundreds of people headed up (the ranger on the trail told me about 300 people got permits for the day). Hiking with hundreds of others around was a big contrast to my early-morning solo journey.
After reaching the valley floor around 1 p.m. and grabbing an ice cream cone in Yosemite Village, I went to find Dani Murphy and her group at her hotel in El Portal, just outside the park, for a dip in the pool and a cookout — they had extended the invitation on the summit.
Afterward, I headed back into the park to sit in a meadow on the valley floor and watch Half Dome as the sun set. One of my favorite things about hiking peaks is the perspective it brings. It’s an opportunity to be present for every step of the hike, to experience each moment of awe and exhaustion, of hunger and relief, of joy upon reaching the top, and to become more aware of your thoughts on the trail. And after the hike, you can look up at the summit and know that you carried yourself that whole way. It’s a chance to see and experience the journey from a different angle.
As I sat staring up at Half Dome, I also thought back to the 14-year-old me sitting in the same place half my lifetime ago. And here I was, still reveling in the beauty of the granite walls and still deepening my relationship with photography.
Marlena Sloss is a freelance photographer based in northern California. She previously worked as an intern at The Washington Post. You can see more of her work on her website, here.
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