By the time we picked up our keys for the lodge, it was beginning to get dark in the mountains. We all checked our sleeping arrangements for the night and packed our bags for the hike next day. We got up about 2 a.m. and reached the trailhead parking lot in Yosemite Valley by 4. Then it was off to Happy Isles trailhead, about a half-mile from the parking lot. We turned on our headlamps and started talking in loud voices to warn any bears in the area.
The trail immediately starts to climb from the trailhead but the first mile up to Vernal Falls Bridge is paved. We made it up there in no time and filled our water bottles at the last treated water supply. After a short distance the trail splits into two, Mist Trail going steeply along Vernal Falls, and John Muir Trail taking a more circuitous route to the top of Nevada Falls. We chose the shorter but steeper Mist Trail, as our legs were fresh and we wanted to save time.
We could see the silvery silhouette of Vernal Falls as we approached, and, since the wind was light, we climbed up to the top without getting soaked. We caught our breath up top and checked to make sure that all team members were keeping a good pace. We watched in awe at the force of the water as we walked along the Merced River, stopping by Emerald Pool and Silver Apron. It was tempting to jump over the guard rail into the water, but the recent news of three eager hikers who were swept over the waterfall to their deaths served as a sharp reminder not to try anything silly.
The trail started climbing steeply along Nevada Falls. The switchbacks up to the top of the falls were tiring. Soon we found ourselves at the junction where the John Muir Trail meets the Mist Trail. We had covered roughly 2.5 miles in more than two hours and felt quite good about the hike so far. After a brief rest, we walked toward Little Yosemite Valley, where the river flows over a flat stretch. We filtered water into our bottles and continued. After about a mile, the trail started climbing again.
We reached the bottom of the sub-dome, where one of our hikers, who had developed cramps in his legs, decided to rest. The others continued forward over the most difficult section of the trail. Sub-dome is adjacent to Half Dome, and the climb is very strenuous over near-vertical switchbacks. We finally reached the top of the sub-dome, nearly six hours into our hike. We rested briefly near the saddle leading up to the cables section of Half Dome.
It was there that we got our first good look at the "stairway to heaven" - a set of cables running three feet apart over waist-high poles at 10-foot intervals. The 600-foot section looked very intimidating, and it was good that we had safety harnesses to prevent an untimely death if we were to slip on this steep stretch of granite. The weather gods had been kind to us, with not a single cloud in the sky, as a slippery surface would have made the climb riskier. We quickly decided who would go first and started to pull ourselves up the cables from one pole to another. Each set of poles has a wooden board between them where one could rest for a while before continuing. Since the traffic was light, probably due to the introduction of permits, we managed to get to the top in 20 minutes. After we reached the summit we realized how sore and sweaty our hands were from gripping the cables. Our cellphones could find a signal up top, so we called our near and dear ones to let them know that we had made it. The panoramic view was amazing.
After spending half an hour at the top, we started our descent. The cables were more frightening going down. We tried to keep our eyes focused on the next rung and slid from one pole to another. After a harrowing 20 minutes, we were down at the saddle. We climbed down the sub-dome to meet the remaining member of our group, who was feeling much better after the long rest. We all started back slowly and made it down to the trailhead before sunset. It took us 14 hours to do the round-trip hike to the summit of Half Dome, covering nearly 16 miles.
We had survived the "stairway to heaven," and pledged never to try anything so dangerous again.