I don’t recall why I decided to climb Half Dome. After all, at that time I wasn’t the least bit interested in hiking at all. Somehow the notion grabbed me, and I was intent on successfully summiting the iconic formation.
My son, who was 13 at the time, and I met with an expert on hiking in the area. He gave us some gear to borrow and some tips on what to bring in our backpacks. In the summer of 2009, we spent the night in Curry Village which was the closest campground to the trailhead. We got up early the next morning and were prepared to leave when we noticed a mother bear and her cubs outside of our cabin. We waited impatiently at the window until they were far enough away to safely leave.
From the trailhead you cross over a bridge which has a breathtaking view of Vernal Fall. As you ascend from the Yosemite Valley floor you reach a split in the trail. If you choose the John Muir Trail it will be physically easier but longer with several switchbacks. The Mist Trail is shorter and steeper. Depending on the seasonal weather it can also be more slippery in places. I’ve hiked/climbed Half Dome four times. Each time I’ve chosen a different ascent and descent trail. I find the best for me is to ascend Mist Trail and descend John Muir Trail. The reason is because it’s easier to ascend slippery steps and paths than it is descending them. Also, as you’re descending it’s hotter in the day and John Muir has more shade.
The hike can easily be done in one day if you leave before dawn. I’ve found it easier to stay at Curry Village the night before and then enter the trailhead at around 5 am with a head lamp. You can also leave from Fresno if you start out at about 3:30 am, but that makes for a very long day. Another option is to hike to Little Yosemite Valley which is roughly halfway to the Half Dome cables. The upside is that you have an easier hike each day and you reach the cables before the trailhead hikers arrive leaving it less congested. The downside is that you have to pack in and pack out camping gear to spend the night.
My preference is to spend the night in Curry Village pre-hike and drive home the day you descend.
The cables. In 2009, the first year I went, the cables kicked my butt. I was in good physical shape but didn’t realize how much the final ascent depended on upper body strength. It was literally the most difficult physical activity I have ever done. It was shear willpower that got me to the summit. My son, however, scampered up the cables with the greatest of ease. He was annoyed at all of the people slowly pulling themselves up the cables and decided to go outside the safety of holding onto both cables and just used one cable outside of the rudimentary stairs. Later, I learned that people had died losing their balance this way which to this day makes me shudder.
Over the next year I routinely did push-ups. In 2010 when my son and I went up for the second time and the cables were a breeze. On this hike we took my nephew. He was a collegiate football player who had purposely gained weight for his position. While he was in perfect shape for football, he was in terrible shape for a 16+ mile hike with a 4,800 foot elevation gain. He needed lots of breaks and had difficulty catching his breath. He called the trail a ‘hell hole.’
Each year we went up, there was an increasing number of hikers. The cables became so crowded that you could be stuck on them, semi-vertically holding on, for over an hour before summitting. They finally instituted a permitting process to control the amount of people. I’m opposed to permits as a general rule, however, in this case it makes sense. After summiting with less than half of the hikers on the cables as in years past, it was so much easier and faster. The very best part of the entire hike is repelling down the cables. To me it’s my reward for the journey. With less people to avoid, the repel is even more delightful.
Reaching the top of Half Dome was exciting the first time. We sat up there eating lunch and looking out over Yosemite Valley. We had cell service at the top (no service during the hike) and let our family know we had made it. We snapped pictures and returned home. The subsequent times the summit was less impactful. By then, once we reached the top we would take a picture and then head down, not even stopping for lunch. It was just a notch in the process at that point.
The Merced River is usually close by on the hike. On the way out it’s nice to stop at the river, take your shoes and socks off and cool your feet in the ice water for a bit. It’s also a nice place to have lunch. Some people will take a swim but when there has been a heavy rainy season the water is too swift and I find it too dangerous to chance. The river feeds the Nevada and Vernal Falls. If you’re swept away you will end up in bits and pieces and it will be virtually impossible to have much of your body left to recover from the river.
Packing is a strategy in and of itself. Water is the most important thing. Yes, you can get water from the Merced River but you should filter it before drinking. I found it easier to bring 16 oz plastic bottles of water. The bottles are light weight when empty so your load is much lighter as you drink water. You’ll need more water ascending than you will descending. There are no garbage cans on the hike so everything must be packed out. Keep that in mind when bringing hard boiled eggs, oranges, bananas, etc. The more peeling and prepping you can do before hand, the better. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are great because they don’t need refrigeration, they are filling and provide nutrients to fuel your day. The first year I over packed. By the fourth time my load was much lighter and more efficient. There are hundreds of blogs regarding what to take. I suggest picking a few to read and then pick out what makes sense to you.
The Falls are beautiful and the pool at the base of Nevada Fall looks so peaceful and inviting. It’s neither. It’s the feeder to the second waterfall, Vernal and you will die. Pay attention to the signs and warnings. They’re legitimate.
The cables are no joke. Respect them and you’ll have no problems. Bring gloves for a better grip. There is also a pile of used gloves at the base of the cables if you forget yours. I buy the cheap garden gloves. They are trashed by the time I’ve descended from the cables and I can just throw them away later.
The permitting lottery starts early in each calendar year and sells out the first day. The process changes frequently, especially because of the pandemic, so keep checking the website. Decide if you’re going to stay at Little Yosemite Valley and/or Curry Village before the lottery opens up. You’ll need a permit to camp at Little Yosemite Valley. You’ll need a reservation to stay at Curry Village. Permit and reservation availability fills up quickly. Depending on weather, the cables, and therefore permits, are available from Memorial Day through September. If at any time there is lightening the cables are closed and you’re simply out of luck. Permit requests can be made at www.yosemite.org/wildtrails/permit
Decide carefully who you want to bring along with you. You’ll be with them for 10-12 hours with no respite. If they’re annoying normally, it will be amplified under these conditions. Trust me.
If you’re on the fence, think about how pleased you’ll be with yourself the next day. Temporary difficulty, rather it be mental or physical, is temporary. The memory of a successful adventure will last a lifetime.