Half Dome hike will be one my 10 best hikes. The trail weaving through the vertical granite valley was beautiful and memorable. The experience became epic and unforgettable once we arrived at ‘the cables’.
The hike is long, strenuous, and treacherous. It is also scenic, exciting, and rewarding. It is a 17 mile round trip trek that ascends almost 5000 vertical feet to the summit of Half Dome. To achieve the summit not only do you need to be in good physical shape, you need to have the confidence and mental toughness to survive ‘the cables’. Hell, just getting a permit to attempt ‘the cables’ is a challenge. We started applying 2 days before we arrived at the park and it took us 5 tries to finally win our permit.
The National Park Service (NPS) estimates the average round trip hike to take 10-12 hours. We decided we should be on the trail early. The alarm jolted us awake at 3:45 am to a crystal clear 34 degree morning. In late September, dawn was still more than 3 hours away. We needed the early start because that time of year only allows only 12 hours daylight and, according to the NPS, we might need all of it to complete the round trip hike. It was more than an hour’s drive from our campsite at the eastern edge of the park to Yosemite Valley and we still had to negotiate the construction that seemingly consumed every road in the valley to finally achieve our parking spot which was more than ½ mile away from the trial head.
We hit the trail in the dark around 6 am. We walked the well constructed trail as it followed the Merced River as it cut its way through the granite landscape. The trail was steep but wide. Stones had been erected on the trail to make it feel like it was just an unending series of steps leading up.
In the dark we just kept our eyes to the ground and kept our legs churning. As dawn broke, beauty of the area began to reveal itself. Mature tree sprouting between slabs of rock. The Vernal Fall appeared dropping 300 feet on its way to the valley floor.
We passed the Emerald Pool and arrived at Nevada Fall. Even though the volume of water flowing in the Merced is very low at this time of the year, the falls are impressive.
We continued up the John Muir trail and passed though the Little Yosemite Valley on route to the crux of the climb ‘the cables’. ‘The cables’ are just that, cables. They run up 400 vertical feet straight up the domed face of Half Dome.
(If you look closely at this picture, you can see only 5 hikers total on the cables. Three hikers are near the bottom, 2 coming down 1 going up, and two hikers at the top just completing the cables)
The steep smooth granite of the domed surface looks like it should only be attempted by experience technical climbers. Ones who are harnessed, roped, and place technical protective gear (nuts, cams, carabineers, quick draws, etc) to ensure safety. Standing back and taking in the view I was wondering if we had bitten off more than we could chew. The initial confidence we could actually make it to the summit came from knowing that thousands of people make it to the top every year. With so many summiters, how hard could it really be?
Danger (over 60 people have perished on this climb primarily from climbing outside the cables or being struck by lightning during bad weather)
After all, we are experience hikers. That was until I actually stood at the beginning and looked up. It was much steeper than I thought it would be. It was steep enough that someone falling off the cables would not be able to stop until the bottom (if they were lucky enough not to roll off the edge and fall even further). Also, someone falling here would be falling from directly above and may initiate the domino effect on climbers below.
The cables (In this picture 44 people are on the cables. Some are going up, some coming down)
The cables run through vertical steel poles and are bolted directly to the mountain. The cables are about ¾” diameter steel and are probably strong enough to keep a Boeing 737 from sliding down the granite face. The real challenge of the cables is they are semi slippery. We all brought gloves to protect our hands in anticipation of the cables being rough, but we did not factor in the slick nature of the cable. The good news is that both Kayla and Vickie had sticky leather palms in their gloves that gave them a solid grip. Mine were cheap leather work gloves but I wasn’t concerned (yet) because I have decent hand and upper body strength. Besides the most important thing when rock climbing is strong legs, good shoes, and proper foot placement.
The steel poles the cables run through are inserted into holes drilled directly into the rock and placed, about 3 feet apart in parallel, at intervals of 10-12 feet. They seemed just a little too wide as I was climbing up with one hand on each cable. But it seemed too narrow when we had to pass people still climbing up while we were on our way down. A wooden 2 x 4 is strung between the poles on the uphill side and placed directly on the surface of the rock. They are held to the poles by a couple of screws and steel straps.
I don’t know how deep the holes are drilled into the rock or if the poles are somehow attached in the holes, but if you pulled on them any other way than straight down the fall line…….they moved. I felt one of the poles move significantly for the 1st time about halfway up on the steepest section. A jolt of adrenaline initiated by fear instantly spiked my heart rate. The blood pounded in my veins and I could feel the thumping in my ears. I focused, took a few deep breaths, and waited for the adrenaline to burn out. Rationally I knew the poles and cables were solid, but deep in my animal brain I was unsure.
Once I had regained control of my heart rate and breathing I continued to head up. It was at this point that a younger guy decided he’d had enough and turned around. He told me his boots were just too slippery on the rock and he wasn’t comfortable enough to continue on. I wasn’t rationally concerned about this because I felt good (strong legs), had approach shoes on (good shoes) and rock climbing experience (foot placement). Soon after he retreated, my downhill support foot slipped from underneath me. Both hands my hands clamped onto the cables like a lobster on a fisherman’s fingers. My feet fumbled to regain solid footing. The adrenaline surged again. That is when doubt and uncertainty crept into my conscious.
I looked over my shoulder at Vickie and Kayla coming up the cables behind me. That is when I became truly afraid. I wasn’t worried for my safety. I was confident I could and would make it no matter what the circumstance. I began to worry about them. What if something happened to one of them? That would be more than I could take. The most important pieces to my life’s puzzle were ascending right behind me. Maybe this hike was too much adventure. This is my fault. How could I be so careless with the risk? I shouldn’t have allowed them to come. My mind went back to my experience on Mt. Shasta with a father and son that ended with extremely tragic results.
I had to push these negative, destructive thoughts from my conscious. They wouldn’t help anything, especially not here and not now. I had to live in the moment. I needed to convey confidence in myself and in them. They both deserved more credit than I was giving them. I knew this was well within their ability and their comfort zone. They both know their limits and would have turned around if they thought it was more than their ability.
I decided to mentally break up the remaining ascent into sections, one set of poles at a time. I just needed to maintain sharp focus to move 12 feet to the next safe spot and then regroup. Then, just repeat this 20 more times and I would be at the top. This necessity to concentrate is one of the things I love about hikes like this. Concentration burns the experience into memory.
We attained the summit around 10:30 am. On the summit I casually asked each of them what they thought of the climb. They agreed it was fun and challenging, but neither one had even a minor slip or any problems at all. They confirmed my confidence in them and allowed me to relax and enjoy the accomplishment of reaching the summit.
We stayed on the summit for about an hour. We had lunch, took pictures, relaxed and enjoyed the view.
Then we started back down the cables. The descent proved much easier than the ascent. We were moving quickly (and safely) down until we caught up to a lady who was having a tough time. She was fatigued from the upper body strain. She was moving slowly from one set of poles to the next and taking long rests to regenerate her strength. The traffic ascending the cables had also dramatically increased. We each had to share our solid perch at each set of poles with someone who was ascending. She kept apologizing for being so slow, but I reassured her that we were in no hurry and that she could take as long as she needed to get safely down. When we made it to the bottom of the cables we celebrated!
We were just over halfway through with our hike. We still had 8 miles to go and needed to lose 4500 more vertical feet. For us, trudging down seemed to take longer than the trek up. It was likely because we were worn down from the physical exertion of the hike and mentally anesthetized after the challenging portions were completed. We had switched to auto pilot. We safely reached our vehicle at 2:30 pm, 9-1/2 hours after we started. I thought back to the previous day in the valley when we stopped and talked to the Friends of Yosemite Search & Rescue who had a booth set up to raise safety awareness (& money) in the valley. They told us that they answer hundreds of hiker assistance calls each year, many from this hike, mostly from hikers who have underestimated the difficulty of the hike, or overestimated their ability or endurance.
I reflected that night upon the wisdom of the decision to attempt a potentially dangerous hike with my wife and daughter. My conclusion is that risk is a part of adventure. This doesn’t mean I take risk lightly, it is actually the contrary. But we always embark on any endeavor trying to know the risks and make sure they are within our abilities and experience. The memories earned are the ones we will remember long after our bodies can no longer attempt these types of adventures. Life’s journey can’t just judged by time we are allotted, it should be evaluated be by the sum of our experiences.
Here is some helpful Information if you decide you would like to experience this adventure:
Permits can be obtained two ways. The 1st way is to reserve months in advance when National Park Service (NPS) holds its preseason lottery for 225 permits per day. It is $4.50 to enter the lottery and then $8 per hiker one the permit is awarded. The 2nd way is to apply 48 hours in advance to be awarded one of 50 permits that are reserved for the short term lottery. A group leader is designated in the application process and if they are fortunate enough to win a permit, the NPS allows up to 6 hikers in a group. The group leader has to bring the permit and a photo ID with the group on only the predetermined day to be allowed to even get close enough to look closely at the cables. Then you have to muster the gumption to actually attempt the cables.
Be patient. Plan for plenty of time on the cables, some people will be very slow and extremely cautious. Just be patient and supportive.
Bring good gloves, preferably with good grip in the palms.
Climb pole to pole. Don’t attempt to pass.
Some folks used a carabiner system as a safety line to clip onto the steel cables. It is a good idea for extra safety, but make sure you know how to use it. Half the people I saw doing this didn’t do it properly. (not wearing a harness, not using a two biner system so they would be protected as they unclipped and re-clipped as passed each pole.
Only attempt the cables under optimal conditions. You will be very exposed on the rock. Rain will make the granite slippery and lightning conducts on steel cables and wet rock. You can always come back another day.
Instead of retracing the same route on the ascent, take the longer way around and down the John Muir trail. It will be easier on the knees for the descent.
Take the time to watch the 9 min 42 second video about the hike: https://www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm?id=F891355F-F836-4D0A-7305CFA1E09D497A
Yosemite is a very busy national park, so make your reservations well in advance.
MAP of Yosemite Valley: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/YOSEmap2.pdf
The website for the Friends of Yosemite Search & Rescue is http://www.friendsofyosar.org Feel free to donate to a good cause. We did.