AN AMATEURS GUIDE TO HIKING THE HALF DOME
I can't remember how I first discovered Yosemite National Park, but it was love at first sight.
The iconic symbol of the Half Dome stood towering above the surrounding mountains, screaming at me to climb it. Then I read it was climbable...and well, thus the Half Dome hike dream began.
However, being from Michigan there wasn't exactly anything around to practice-hike on and with this being my first big hike I think it's safe to say we completely underestimated the difficulty. Walking miles on the flat ground seemed easy, hiking miles upward is a whole other story.
So if you are like I, and want to start off mountain hiking with a bang I'm here to help with the good, the bad and the ugly.
Researching Yosemite National Park, I had no idea how crowded the valley floor was going to be. I didn't expect a full grocery store, multiple restaurants, gift shops, and swimming pools. So when you think you're hiking backcountry and you need to stock up...you really don't. Just bring enough nutritional snacks to last on the big climb.
After flying into San Francisco, we headed out to the valley pumped and ready to start an adventure. Well, our dream of camping secluded under the stars was heartbreakingly squashed about 2.7 seconds after entering the valley. Unfortunately, the park employee I had talked to on the phone months before our arrival must have been new. After being informed reservations in the campground were offered, but not required was not-so-true we were over an hour away from the closest campground with any room too spare. And when they meant you could catch a spot at Camp 4 if you came early enough (because it is a non-reservation campground), they didn't mean before noon...the line usually starts for that camp around 5 am and only the first few usually get a spot.
(Starting point of the hike is the green valley in the bottom left corner)
Ignoring the potential shit-show of a vacation ahead of us and the fact we were homeless for the next four nights, we drove between the giant granite walls completely baffled this gem has been hiding on the west coast all of these years. (Now I see Yosemite everywhere, was I just blind before?!)
Since all valley lodging was booked, we had no idea of our next plan. We were set to begin our hike up the Half Dome the next morning and since climbers receive a date-specific hiking permit to climb months before, we couldn't leave the valley and come try another day. Driving around a campground I asked my dad if we should try making friends with some fellow adventurers in hope of crashing on their beloved campsite. Well, perfect timing came too when we stumbled upon the nicest family from Las Vegas, who despite the strict rules of the National Park, let us pitch the tent behind the camper and cross our fingers no one noticed (Sorry Yosemite! We were desperate).
Sitting around the fire that night, we chatted with our new family over an amazing cup of Mexican hot chocolate. Seriously, guys, this drink was created by God himself...it's like the Zac Efron of liquids. So good.
The morning plan was to get up at 4:45 am and head to Camp 4 to wait in line until they let the newcomers in at 8 am and then throw our pile of crap in a site and start our hike. Laying in my sleeping bag in line at 6:15 am, I watched the darkness slowly turn to dawn over the thousand foot cliffs at my feet. Then I peered over to the giant peak of the Half Dome and realized if we were to wait until we got into the camp, we would never make the summit in time. Most people say that if you don't reach the peak by 3:00 pm, you're in danger of getting stuck in the night of the High Sierra's.
Scaring the people next to me who had assumed I was in a dead sleep I rocketed up from my sleeping bag and ran over to my dad who was reading a billboard next to the line.
"I'm not missing the summit for a campsite."
I didn't have to argue with him at all, and just like that we marched out of the line and jumped into the car in route to the trailhead.
Although this is only the beginning of our camp troubles, moral of the story for camping at Yosemite: MAKE RESERVATIONS!
We set our first foot on the trail at 6:30 am where the sign read: Half Dome Summit 7.8 Miles. The morning was cold so we dressed in long sleeves and sweatshirts, which we figured we would store away later in our backpacks. Well, turns out we sweated through them in the first constantly-inclined mile. But not only had we already made the mistake of too many layers, but we also immensely overestimated our ability to carry everything we had in our packs. That lead to a bathroom break just beneath Vernal Falls where we stashed all of our warm-weather wear under a storage box to collect on our way down. No matter how cold you are at the beginning...don't over pack or you'll be carrying unneeded weight up an already treacherous climb.
At the same rest area just below Vernal Falls is the last source of clean water until you return after the summit. Which means there are a solid twelve miles of non-stop ascending and descending. Either bring a water purifier to use on rivers or make sure to bring more than enough water. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in the mountains with dehydration.
After you leave the restroom sanctuary, the steeper inclines and rocky steps begin that lead you up and next to Vernal Falls, then another 1.2 miles to the top of Nevada Falls. The hike is hard work, but extremely doable. Up past these waterfalls are other trails day hikers without Half Dome Permits use, so traffic will be greater than higher in the mountains.
After Nevada Falls, the trail flattens for about a half mile...enjoy it! This section is known as Little Yosemite Valley and can serve as a campground for backpackers. We considered staying here until the decision was ruled out after realizing we would have to hike everything needed up four miles of steep steps by the falls, because that high in the mountains there are no stores or restaurants to serve your needs.
So far on the trail, we were tired and had made relatively good time. It was about 11:30 am and we had a set time to arrive at the summit by 1:30 pm.
Well, as soon as the incline started again...I started realizing how much we underestimated the mountain. By this time we were thousands of vertical feet high and where the air was much thinner than at sea level. Michigan is relatively low and our bodies were not used to the high altitude air, which was the most difficult part. It is hard to train for thin air when there are no mountains to train on. Others who have been in high altitudes before seemed to walk by relatively unaffected by the height. But for our two untrained bodies...it was the first time we had experienced strenuous body work above 8,000ft.
The trail twisted and turned for hours, although we seemed to get nowhere. We would walk for 20 seconds and be so out of breath a 2-minute break would have to be taken. Not realizing our exhaustion was purely from the altitude, we had decided to take a longer 15-minute break in hopes of regaining strength. We sat next to a log, attempted to choke down a protein bar and eventually fell asleep into short cat-nap in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.
Back on our feet no more than 20 minutes later we had walked a whole two minutes before we were twice as exhausted as before. The nap did nothing to help but was successful in making the hike even harder. One of the main mistakes that lead our exhaustion was lack of nutrients. We had packed multiple protein bars, nuts, and fruit bars but by the time we had reached the top of Nevada Falls the site of any food made our stomachs churn, which ended in very little to be eaten for the rest of the day.
At this point, my dad was starting to lose hope of making the summit. Here we were, two totally unprepared beginner hikers attempting to climb one of the most dangerous hikes in America. We'd never climbed anything before, sure we loved hiking but back home we would be looking at elevation changes no greater than 500ft, not thousands. It seemed as if we had done nothing right and it was clear by this time there was no chance of making our 1:30 pm summit goal.
On a break of frustration as other hikers passed my dad put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he would wait here and that I should make the summit without him.
Oh, hell no.
"Shalee, I keep looking at the top, and it's not getting any closer."
"Then stop looking at it!"
I angrily paraded another 100 feet up the trail before surrendering to my screaming lungs. My dad caught up and begged me to go, where I was persistent that I would not go without him. I knew how much he would regret it if he stopped now. I got this trip for him as a Christmas Present, and I didn't fly us all the way out here to quit so close to our goal. I understood his pain, but the top was within reach and I'm one stubborn daughter. So we continued on one step at a time.
Reluctantly we made our way up the trail and after taking over two hours to hike under two miles...we were at the sub dome. The sub dome consisted of an almost vertical wall up a rocky slope which were climbed by small indents made to use as steps. It was 2:00 pm and I knew if we were going to make the top we would have to push. The sub dome is relatively safe as long as you stay on the intended stairs and watch your step. Any foolish playing or misstep could send you down the slope side.
And then as soon as you make the top of the sub dome you see the massive stone in front of your path. It's almost vertical side is your last and final challenge. Once you make it up, you're at the top, you've done it.
However, it's not that easy. In order to successfully make it to the top, you must climb within the cables on the side of the dome. If you attempt anything outside those lifelines, you're plunging down a rocky cliff until you meet hard ground thousands of feet below. Gloves are vital when climbing the cables because without them your hands will be so torn that blood and blisters will be your consequence. Take one step at a time, remember that a poorly thought decision can have a deadly consequence.
Eventually, after hundreds of feet of heart-pumping climbing, we had made the summit at almost exactly 3:00 pm. PRAISE THE LAWD.
The view is absolutely-so-freaking-incredibly beautiful. After almost giving up, wanting to kill each other and thinking we were going to die we were standing on top of California. The first thing I did was walk to the far side of the dome, plop down on the rock and call my aunt. "We made it!" I told her, where she replied "You did? Congratulations! Glad to be back down?"
"...yeah, we're only at the top."
After making her worry with our phone conversation and reassuring her we wouldn't get stranded on our way down or eaten by a bear we only spent about 30 minutes at the top, smiling cheek to cheek and taking pictures on the edge of thousand-foot cliffs (because why not?). My dad thanked me for forcing him to the top because he already knew how massive his regrets would be otherwise. Seeing his face after completing a huge accomplishment was well worth making him hate me on the way up. We bid farewell to the top and began our journey back to the valley floor, thousands of vertical feet below.
The decent on the cables was actually scarier than the ascent and the rest of the hike down was just as long, but not as grueling. Our breathing had adjusted to the height, but our legs were screaming in pain from non-stop climbing since 6:30. We stopped only twice on the way down, knowing that we were racing sunlight. Shortly before 10:00 pm, we took our final steps onto the valley floor.
We collapsed into the car and sat there motionless for minutes before realizing our need for food. Since 12:30 pm we had eaten only a few nuts next to a river on our descent. Starving we pulled into the pizzeria parking lot where our legs were so cramped from the climb we could barely walk (seriously we looked pathetic). I thought I was going to throw up, but I knew I needed to eat. Well, next thing you know the entire greasy cheese pizza that was in front of me was gone. Who stole it?! Nope, just in my stomach.
That pizza made my life. My stomach just growled thinking about it. Still doesn't beat that hot chocolate though...
Being totally unprepared to hike something of this scale was a challenge that I loved more than anything I had ever done before. That day on June 13th, 2013 we successfully made the summit of our first mountain by hiking over 18 miles without any previous training or experience. The people we met on the trail, the bears and even the cute little squirrel who tried eating my M&M at Nevada Falls, I loved it all. I love climbing, and the Half Dome officially switched that passion on for me. I constantly look at bigger, tougher mountains in my future. It has even led me to a goal of climbing Kilimanjaro in a couple years (and this time, I'll hopefully be a little more prepared).
So for anyone looking to complete the Half Dome hike, do it! Make sure to apply for a hiking permit, which usually needs to be done in March. About 50% of people who apply actually get permits, so it's never guaranteed. It is something you will never forget and not regret. I hope this post gives you what not to do and how to maximize your enjoyment. I cannot tell you these words give you what to expect because no matter how hard and how often you read it, there is knowing until you begin. Being able to climb this amazing wonder is a risk worth taking, however, the dangers which lurk on the trail should be taken seriously. Hundreds of people are rescued every year, some with severe injuries. The sub dome and Half Dome are climbs that can take a life and the altitude can lapse judgment. Be safe and enjoy the view! It's worth it all.
Lastly, I would like to thank the amazing family from Las Vegas. You guys opened your camp and gave us hospitality on a night that could have potentially ruined our climb. Your stories, food, and laughs have stuck with us since the trip and I hope someday you stumble upon this post and we are able to reconnect. Thank you.
Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.
In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.