Conquering Half Dome

Half Dome’s shark fin-shape is one of the most striking and recognizable rock formations at Yosemite National Park. It is also one of the most difficult hikes in U.S. national parks, notorious for its steep, 400-foot gain over 0.25 miles to the 8,836-foot summit. To assist hikers, waist-high stanchions are placed into pre-drilled holes and threaded with braided steel cables. Each year, the cables and stanchions are put up in late spring and taken down in early fall. In order to climb the cables, hikers must have a permit they can apply for in a lottery on www.recreation.gov.

So how did we end up hiking Half Dome? When we moved to California, I was determined to hike to summits—ones that would push my limits, ones that I could train hard for, and ones like Mount St. Helens that I had done in Washington State. Having new hikes to work for was a way to cope with moving to a new state and a way to continue my love of hiking in California. After doing a bit of reading, Half Dome and Mount Whitney seemed like the most exciting and obvious choices.

Half Dome from the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. April 2018.

So when the Half Dome preseason lottery opened in March, I filled out a permit application, choose seven dates between late May and early October, and submitted it. In mid-April, I received an email saying I had won a permit for Saturday, September 22nd. I was shocked to have won one at all, let alone one of my Saturday choices so Onur could come with me. Yippee! Half Dome, here we come…

Since our permit date was near our anniversary, September 1st, Onur and I decided to make a weekend out of it. We stayed at a beautiful bed and breakfast called the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn, literally 2.4 miles from the Yosemite National Park entrance on El Portal Road—super easy and convenient. The owners, Liz and Ron, are locals who’ve lived and hiked in the Yosemite area for years. They are exceptionally friendly, knowledgeable about Yosemite, and make healthy breakfasts! The tea and coffee were strong, the vegetarian quiche was hearty and delicious, and the rooms sunny, airy, and lovingly furnished. We loved leaving our porch door open at night to listen to the Merced River. Liz and Ron’s cat, Nemo, was adorable, too :)

The Half Dome hike is 14-16 miles round-trip depending on the route you take. We took the Mist Trail up and John Muir Trail down for a 16.5-mile round-trip, 5100 feet cumulative elevation gain hike. The reason for the extra mileage is because we started from the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking Lot, the closest parking lot to the trailhead and a 0.5 mile walk away. We began at 5:30 a.m., reached the cables a little after 9:30 a.m., made it to the summit at 10:10 a.m., and were back to the car at 4:00 p.m. All-in-all it took us 10.5 hours.

While we did successfully hike Half Dome (woo!), we learned valuable lessons too:

1. Strength training would have helped. I hadn’t expected to use my full upper body to pull myself up the cables almost the entire way. There is only a narrow 2 x 4 wooden plank every 10 feet or so, so you rest on the 2 x 4 and then pull yourself up the cables to the next one.

Onur descending the cables.

2. Harnesses are a good idea. I had read that most people do not wear safety harnesses up the cables because it “slows down” the flow of traffic. But everyone was going slow, and Onur and I looked on at the few people wearing harnesses (maybe 5 out of the 50 hikers we saw on the cables) as the smartest of the bunch. We’ll wear them next time.

3. Grippy shoes are a must! The granite rock between the cables was so much more slippery than we expected. We asked a ranger about it and she said it was from years and years of hundreds of shoes climbing up the narrow space. At many points, you cannot hold your body weight up on the slope—it’s that steep and slick. It was one of the scariest hiking experiences of my life.

4. …and grippy gloves, too. As I was climbing the cables, my grip kept slipping and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it wearing the basic landscaping gloves I had gotten for a Mount St. Helens climb. I pulled them off and stuffed them into the base of a stanchion (Another hiker helped me stuff them in my pack on the way down—it was too steep and too dangerous to do anything else). Thankfully, I had purchased grippy gloves for Onur at Home Depot the morning we left for Yosemite. He climbed up next to me, gave me one of his gloves and that’s how we got to the summit: each wearing one of his gloves.

5. Going down is easier, but not easy. On the way down, I still needed to use my upper body to hold my weight on the cables as I descended each 2 x 4. I chose to go down backwards, like on a ladder. It was definitely easier than going up. At the same time, I wanted to be careful and respectful of the people climbing up. The way it played out was that at each 2 x 4, I would look down and communicate with the person coming up. We would decide who would move—either she would come up, or I would come down. Then, I would confirm: Okay, I’m coming down on your left-hand side. After I descended to her 2 x 4 safely, she would go up. And that was the majority of the descent. Just about everyone was friendly, polite, and supportive on the cables.

6. Building in a long rest break would have been nice. Although Onur and I started at 5:30 a.m., we both agreed that starting even earlier, at 5:00 a.m at least, would have been nice to build in more rest time on the ascent. We only took short, 5-10 minute breaks. A longer, 20-minute break would have been worth it to break up the long, 7.0-mile approach to Half Dome.

In a nutshell, this hike was hard! We were exhausted by the end of it. At the same time, it was a rewarding experience, especially to have done it with Onur and to have celebrated our anniversary at a national park, like we did at Zion last year.

Where to next year? :)

 
conquering half dome