Climbing Half Dome (the Dome) has NEVER been on my bucket list – not even for a second. I have a ridiculous fear of going down hill and a fear of heights. Until I went to Yosemite National Park this summer, I didn’t know what Half Dome looked like or really what the hoopla surrounding it was all about.
How did we get to the top? I would say the whole thing was dumb luck and a little bit of insanity (on my part – Greg is the sane one). On what was supposed to be our last day in Yosemite Valley, Greg and I hiked up the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Nevada Falls. If you can find the strength, go about a half mile beyond the falls, there is clearing on the left where you can catch a glimpse of the Dome.
Just as we were about to head back down to the Valley and leave the park, a group of 4 burly, tattooed guys came to enjoy the scenery. One of them had binoculars and was chatting away about how he wanted to climb the Dome but was always afraid to do it. He handed the nocks over to me and low and behold, I was instantly inspired to make it to the top (not sure why, I was stone-cold sober and there was no betting involved). I could see people grasping on to cables, slowly inching to the top.
The most famous part of this hike is the cables that cover the last 700 feet of the climb to the top. The cables are about 30 inches or so apart – wide enough for a death grip with both hands and just wide enough so 2 people can inch past each other coming and going. Wooden boards have been strategically placed about every 10 to 15 feet so you can stop and rest if needed. The incline on this stretch of the climb is anywhere between 45 and 60 degrees. It is so steep in some areas, you literally have to pull yourself up to get to the next wooden board.
Insanity ensued and we immediately hiked down the Mist Trail, (a must do if you have the fitness to climb/descend stairs) determined to find a way to secure a permit. As soon as humanly possible, we went to the National Park Service website http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/halfdome.htm to do more research on the climb and the permit process. We heard from various climbers, you could get one through a lottery process 2 days prior to the day you want to climb. What we found was this: The website sucked (maybe we are just incompetent) and finding a way to apply for a permit on line was a ridiculous waste of time. After a very long day of hiking, discouraging discussions with Park Rangers, and the website debacle, we had given up on our 3 hour dream to climb the Dome.
As we are literally driving out of the park at around 11 am the next day, we stopped by the Ranger Station to inquire about climbing permits for a future visit. Coincidentally, at 11 am, they start issuing backpacking permits for the following day. Before I knew it, the heavens opened up and we were issued a backpacking permit for the Little Yosemite Campground. Then I heard the most precious words. The Park Ranger said, “And by the way, if you want a permit to climb Half Dome, it will be an extra 5 bucks.” We quickly jumped on the offer, spent one more night in the Valley, packed up our crap and hiked back up the JMT to the base camp campground the next day.
Key Tip: Apparently, if you can get a backpacking permit, you are automatically allowed to climb too assuming the allocated number of permits for backpackers has not been reached. In addition, Park Rangers are stationed at the base of the sub-dome trail head and track the number of climbers in a day – they have a list of people who have been issued permits. Bring your ID with you, they will ask. If for some reason someone has backed out of the climb, you may be able to take their spot. This is risky but something you could try at the spur of the moment if you were so inclined.
The thing about this hike (outside of the fact that it will jack with your mind when you see how steep the final ascent is), is that there are many inexperienced, unfit people out there making the pilgrimage to the top of the Dome and many of them start from the Valley. Starting from the Valley is a very ambitious plan – if you decide to do it this way, please don’t wear converse tennis shoes, flip flops, cotton shirts, or carry a little 16 ounce water bottle for the very difficult 17 mile journey. You will create a safety hazard for you and those around you. I would also avoid climbing in the rain with lightening present.
Key Tip: Bring A LOT of water with you, gloves with fingers else your knuckles may get shredded, wear the ‘stickiest’ shoes possible as the rock is very slick with overuse, and read the National Park Service website I noted above before you attempt this hike. I would also recommend getting a campsite at Little Yosemite Valley so you can break up the hike – if you are in your 20’s, it probably doesn’t matter. If you get a campsite, start early, this will give you the luxury of having the cables all to yourself. It starts to get crowded about 11:00 am when all of the ‘Valley’ hikers have made it to the cables. Also descend backwards. Some people recommended going down sideways – they must have been on crack – can’t imagine how that would be a good idea. To each his own.
After we accomplished our dream of reaching the top of Half Dome and descending without incident, I realized that I can eventually overcome my fear of going down hill and if I go slow enough without panicking and remaining focused, I can pretty much do anything I set my mind to. It’s part of the life bus philosophy – jump on the bus and enjoy!