Difficulty: Very strenuous. It’s long, it’s steep, it’s exposed.
Distance: Our route was 16 miles, starting from the hiker’s lot about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. We ascended via the Mist Trail and descended via the John Muir Trail, which is a slightly longer but slightly easier route.
Elevation: 4,800 feet gained and lost.
Location: The classic route begins at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley.
It’s impossible to think of Yosemite and not picture Half Dome. It’s iconic; a centerpiece admired from vista points all around Yosemite National Park.
Many visitors come home with photos of the massive granite dome. Fewer come home with the bragging rights that they make the hike to its summit, a hike voted one of America’s 10 most dangerous by Backpacker Magazine.
This year was our turn.
For our fifth consecutive visit to the park, we scored permits for the steel cables that run up the side of the dome, making the summit accessible to hikers who are fit and/or determined and/or crazy enough to attempt it.
We got to the trailhead around 5am and finished the hike around 5:30pm. Headlamps lit the way for the first hour or so.
Summiting Half Dome is a badge of honor among hikers. The hike had become so popular that, according to a National Park System study, up to 1,200 people a day were attempting the cables. Congestion and noise ruined any possibility of a wilderness experience. Not to mention the peril of a crowded, slow-moving queue of people on the cables.
Fortunately, in 2012, the park instituted a strict permit system that allows only 300 hikers on the cables each day, which makes for a much safer and more pleasant experience. Though, some may argue that “pleasant” could never be the right adjective for the ascent of a 54-degree incline up the side of a slick granite rock.
But it’s really not these final 400 vertical feet of the hike that make it such a challenge.
By the time you reach the cables, you’ve already completed a strenuous 8-mile hike on a very steep trail that gains 4,400 feet. (For some perspective, that’s 3 times the height of the Willis Tower, or 3.5 times the height of the Empire State Building.)
The flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley after 4 miles of nonstop ascent is a sweet relief.
You’ve also carefully navigated the exposed, rocky switchbacks of what is known as the subdome, seen in the photos below.
As you approach the base of the cables, at best, your muscles are a little tired. At worst, you’re dehydrated, out of food, and have blisters on your feet.
It’s here that the cables really come into focus.
Hikers contemplate the cables.
Many turn back at this point, the steep incline just too mind-blowing. We considered it ourselves. Others retreat after making it partway up, and not only for reasons of fatigue or fear. Both decisions are totally respectable. It’s good to know your limits.
What proved more daunting for some was the simple fact that your life is in the hands of those who are above you on the cables. If someone were to slip, to lose their grip, they’d be hitting you on the way down as they go slip-sliding off the slippery rock face.
Is the person ahead of you getting a cramp in his leg? Is someone making such slow progress that your arms are getting too fatigued as you wait for them to move on up? Is someone in such a hurry she tries to squeeze pass you with a giant overnight pack that knocks you off balance? All three of those things happened during the 30 minutes we spent ascending the cables.
A lot can go wrong that is simply out of your hands.Climbing the cables requires faith in the ability and cooperation of those around you. Amazingly, accidents on the cables aren’t that frequent. And the sense of camaraderie as you share this incredible experience with others is kind of special.
On the surprising large and flat 5-acre summit, you are treated to 360-degree views of the most beautiful land our country has to offer.
While you’re up there, pause to consider the visitors on the valley floor, 4,800 feet below. Picture those that have pulled their cars to the side of the road at Olmsted Point off Tioga Road to the north, or at Glacier Point to the south. They’re all looking at Half Dome. And you’re on top of it.
Enjoy that feeling while you can, before you remember that you’ve still got another 8 miles and 4,800 feet of descent ahead of you.