“Half Dome is the ultimate Yosemite day hike – the one you can’t die without doing, and the one you’re most likely to die while doing” – Unkown
Over the past 20 years, I have made many trips to Yosemite national park. Each time I have gazed at the top of the imposing Half Dome rock and wondered what it would be like to stand on top. Of course, knowing that a climb involves one of the hardest hikes in the park meant that I never got around to actually doing it. Until this summer. Thanks to a bunch of motivated friends, I was able to cross this one off my bucket list!
Sunday, August 7, 2016 –
We stayed the previous night at a motel in Merced, which is about 90mins from the valley. We left the motel around 3 am and reached the parking lot near Happy Isles bus stop along the valley floor route at around 4:30 am. We had a few protein loaded snacks and started hiking around 5 am. One of the most beautiful times in Yosemite is around dawn. Nature is slowly waking up & the tourists are still sleeping. Perfect time to enjoy the plentiful natural beauty.
Starting from the trailhead, the hike climbs very quickly over a short period. Multiple layers of clothing are very rarely needed beyond this point. We took the John Muir trail up. It’s a slightly longer way but I would definitely recommend it over the Mist trail.
We kept going up the trail till we came to the top of the Nevada falls. By then the trail starts to flatten out and the vistas are beautiful. Catching the sunrise above the Nevada falls is an incredibly inspiring and beautiful site.
From here on, the terrain starts to change a lot. The trail flattens out and technically you are in a forest but there is not much shade. The ground is mostly sandy and takes a lot of effort to walk through. For me, this was the most boring part of the hike. I resorted to listening to some music I had on my iPhone.
Next, I would say is the hardest part of the hike. This is the climb up the sub dome, which is basically 200 feet of climbing up not so small Granite stairs. There is not a hint of shade and the elements are bearing down on your back. Oxygen is slightly starting to drop off since its getting close to 8000ft and you can definitely feel the impact. I was drinking a lot of water on this stretch and stopping every five steps just to catch my breath.
Next up is a walk on a Granite rock with nothing to hold onto, and copious drops on either side. This is the “dip” between the two humps leading up to Half Dome. The gradient is slight but definitely noticeable. I took my time on this section of the hike trying to walk zig zag to not feel the fear of falling off.
Just past this section, you get a first view of the base of Half Dome with the 450 ft cables hanging off its side. From here on it’s as much as a test of your willpower as it is of your upper body strength. If you just drop me in front of the rock today and ask me to climb, I am going to say I would have to be crazy to climb up. But by this time I had walked almost five hours and I was not going to go back without climbing the rock!
So we got on with the task of making our way up the rock. There is enough space at the base to leave things that your don’t really need at the top. I suited up and put on the gloves and harness that a friend had lent me. Off we went to up the rock.
There is a set of cables that are permanently tethered to the rock. Also anchored to the rock are wooden planks that roughly serve as platforms to hold your feet. During summer the rangers hook up poles about 10-12 feet apart to hold up the cable.
My strategy was to go one gap at a time. And and it does require a lot of upper body strength. Also, the same path is used by people coming so you have to wait and give them the way. About one-third of the way up the rock becomes fairly steep and the surface is not entirely surfaced as they are natural dips. We made our way up arduously along the cables. Climbers all along the way encourage fellow climbers and help them along. I gave up on using the tethers as it was challenging to hook and un-hook them for each pole. Just decided to hold on the cables for dear life.
Finally, we made our way all the way to the top after about 30 minutes of climbing.
The space at the top of the rock is surprisingly large. Especially so because looking up from the valley floor it seems like there would not be much space at the top. Most groups take lots of photos and selfies. Some of the more adventurous ones go all the way to the edge and do yoga poses and other kinds of ridiculous feats. We took the requisite selfie’s and group photos.
I ate a peanut butter jelly sandwich that I had packed and it felt delicious! Honestly, I didn’t feel a sense of euphoria having made it to the top, as I had expected. I was really happy we had made it to the top, but the biggest thing on my mind was that we still needed to make it back. Would I have enough strength left walk all the way back to the base?
We stayed at the top for about 4o minutes and the started the climb down. Coming down the rock in an interesting proposition. Luckily I met an experienced hiker at the top who gave me the best advice – come down with your face to the rock and not looking down at the valley. He told me to just focus on the feet and rock. I followed that advice and was able to make my way down to the base without freezing up. Yeah!
Following this is another 4-5 hour hike back to the valley floor. I would highly recommend taking the John Muir trail back. We took the Mist trail and that almost killed the knees. It’s a lot of steps. There is one point where it actually goes up and that was really hard. I also ran out of stored water along this leg, even though I had packed about 4 liters of water. My friend had some left over and he shared it with me so I got lucky. It is important to stay hydrated at this stage so it’s a good idea to pack lots of juicy fruits to eat during this section.
As you get close to the top of the Nevada falls, there are lots of tourist groups and hikers that you start running into. Gave me a bit of boost as I was thinking that if kids can make it all the way here, I can surely make it back. The first water stop back is at the top of the Vernal falls, and for me, it was surely a welcome site. The water felt very refreshing and replenishing. Also, along the way you can dip your feet in a section of the Yosemite river. This is a really great stop to have.
From here on it takes about another hour or so to get back to the parking lot. We made it back around 5 pm – almost exactly 12 hours since starting out. And I never felt so exhilarated seeing a car in the parking lot!
On the way back we stopped at an Indian place in Merced and gorged our way down a ton of delicious naan’s and paneer dishes. Each one rich in butter and totally deserved.
Overall, the hike up Half dome is an extremely challenging yet satisfying experience. I would highly recommend it for any hiking enthusiast. Feel free to leave me comments or questions below and I will try my best to answer. Good luck!
As noted by my Fitbit – 50757 steps 19.6 miles 12 hrs. The pedometer app on my iPhone had slightly different reading, but close enough