On Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome
By Robert Ross



It was my wife who first suggested we hike Half Dome in Yosemite. I chuckled, and thought “this will pass”. After all, it’s a sixteen-mile roundtrip hike, eight miles straight up, and eight miles straight down. But as the weeks progressed, I noted that she was increasing her walking distances and even driving out to this “mini mountain” located east of San Diego (Cowle’s mountain) for some steep trail hiking. After realizing she was serious, I was soon on board for this adventure.

We began training in earnest for Half Dome about three months before the big event, eventually increasing our walks to twelve miles, and our Cowle’s mountain hikes to about four hours of very strenuous hiking, once or twice a week. Not wanting to let age stop us from our goal, we increased our walking distances gradually over time to avoid any stress-related injuries.

The description of the park as a “place of rest” by John Muir, the famed naturalist, became a reality as we entered Yosemite National Park from the South entrance. The smell of the pine trees welcomed us and the miles of trees that lay ahead and to our sides calmed the anxieties of the upcoming hike.

Yosemite receives around four-million visitors a year, and during the hiking season, when Half Dome is accessible, it is estimated by the Forest Service that about fifty thousand people a year attempt the ascent to the top of Half Dome. A little less than 5 percent fail to make it to the top. The Half Dome hike is 8.2 miles one way from the Valley floor to the top, with a very strenuous 4,800 ft. elevation gain.

It is always a good idea to check with the Forest Service, both before and after arriving, to ascertain the weather outlook for the week. Weather does, and should, play a critical role in any hiker’s plans.

In the book, “Shattered Air”, writer Bob Madgic, a Half-Dome climbing vet himself, recounts an ill-fated climb up Yosemite’s famed Half Dome mountain by five experienced hikers in 1985. Two of the hikers were killed by lightning and three sustained life-altering injuries. The hike was described in the book as “one of the most calamitous... of all time”.

The morning of the hike, the anxiety coupled with excitement was palpable. A series of mishaps, like missing the 7:00 a.m. shuttle bus to the trail head, delayed our start by an hour. Starting at 8:00 a.m. was late by most standards, but a start nonetheless.

The shuttle bus in Yosemite Valley is free, stopping at hotels, tourist destinations and most campgrounds. The shuttle runs from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

After a last-minute check of supplies we began our trek. Supplies to take, as we did, were a couple of day packs, plenty of water and a water filter, food, windbreakers, rain ponchos, gloves for the cables, sunblock, fresh socks, and flashlights in case we ended up hiking after dark.

The Half Dome hike is steep, mostly up hill, with very few flat areas. It was, from the get-go, a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type of hike. At the one-mile mark, we were faced with the decision of taking the precipitous, often dangerous steps of the Mist Trail, or adding an extra mile on our journey by taking the safer, less steep John Muir Trail loop. We opted for safety.

By the four-mile mark we had passed Vernal Falls and were at the top of Nevada Falls. It was time for a short break. There are three offi-cial restrooms on the Half Dome hike. The first is at the one-mile mark, the second was at the top of Nevada Falls, and the third was yet to be reached in the Little Yosemite Valley.

The effects of altitude made the two-mile stretch from Nevada Falls to and through Little Yosemite Valley feel very long and arduous. We skirted the Little Yosemite Valley campgrounds, where backpackers are allowed to camp, and headed up, then up some more, and up a little more. I commented to my wife that “It’s just a little further, right over the lip of the hill, we’ll see Half Dome.” It seemed like another hour had passed, and I repeated the mantra “It’s just a little further, right over the lip of the hill, and we’ll be looking at Half Dome.” 

We were both quite tired, and beginning to question what we were doing. Ahead we spotted a hiker coming toward us. Eager to find out that Half Dome was “just ahead — just over the lip”, we asked, “Well, how much further to Half Dome?” The hiker replied “Oh, it’s about two and a half hours away.” “Over two hours!” we both, in unison, exclaimed.

We bid our fellow hiker a “good hike” and kept going, one step at a time. In spite of the overwhelm-ing sense of discouragement we both felt, we had invested too much time and energy to turn back.

After a couple more hours of hiking we arrived at a wooded area where the redwoods and pines abutted against a treeless granite mountain which was referred to as “the switchbacks”.

This staging area is where hikers were assessing their own state of readiness and stamina, and where fellow hikers who had just completed the Half Dome hike were handing out words of encouragement. “Incredible, great, you can do it!” were common declarations.    

The switchbacks are part of a granite hill, a football field in height and steep, perhaps a fifty-degree ascent. The granite steps and switchbacks were quite daunting from the base.

On the switchbacks we began to see some of our fellow hikers fall by the wayside, so to speak. One man was lying on his back. When asked, “Are you O.K.?” he replied, “I think the altitude is getting to me.” We noticed his lady friend further up the switchbacks. She was walking ten steps or so, then sitting or lying on her back in any crevice or step she could find. When we passed her, her comment was, “My stomach is cramping.”

There are search and rescue teams and medical personnel available on the Valley floor. In case of emergencies, they need to be summoned by fellow hikers. Once you begin the Half Dome hike, you’re essentially on your own.

After the switchbacks, there was a short, thirty or forty-yard hike down into a saddle where one could see the gloves — perhaps a hundred or so in a couple of piles. Most were inexpensive gardening gloves hikers had left behind for their fellow hikers to use on the cables.

Arriving late in the day (2:30 p.m.) had its advantages. There were perhaps six people total on the cables. During the summer months, a ranger said there are so many people on Half Dome, the cable wait can be as long as an hour. At this point, both my wife and I felt a surge of adrenalin. We had arrived! It had been a very long day and we had only 400 feet or so to go.

We had our own gloves, and after assessing things, it was ...right hand on right cable, left hand on left cable, hold on tight, pull and walk five or six steps, then rest, and repeat the pattern. As we met some hikers working their way down the cables, there would be a conversation that went that went something like this. “O.K., I’ll scootch over and hold onto the right cable, and you pass me on the left.”

We arrived at the top of Half Dome at 3:00 p.m. After admiring the “truly magnificent view”, El Capitan to the west, Merced Canyon and the Cathedral range to the east, and Yosemite Valley spread out below, we asked a fellow hiker to take our picture. It was getting late and time to head home. There were many miles to go and only so many daylight hours left.

The hike down the mountain was, as the hike up, long and arduous. With steep downhill trails, there was a continual jarring of the knees. At 7:00 p.m. with daylight gone, it was time to get the flashlights out. From that point on, we slowed our pace considerably. The last mile of the hike felt like it was at least five miles long. We arrived at the Happy Isles trailhead at 9:00 p.m., in time to catch a shuttle back to our campsite.

The following day we celebrated our achievement by having breakfast at the Ahwahnee Hotel’s five-star-rated restaurant. The Ahwahnee offers a breakfast buffet at $19.95. Both the Yosemite Village Lodge and Curry Village offer meal options to fit the budget-minded hiker.

For those contemplating a Half Dome adventure, Yosemite Valley has a variety of accommodations from the historic Ahwahnee Hotel with rates starting at $350 a night, to inexpensive campgrounds at $20 a night. In between these two extremes are the Yosemite Lodge with 226 rooms, prices ranging from $130 to $170 a night. Curry Village has 628 guest accommodations, both tent and wood cabins, ranging in price from $39 to $113 a night. Prices for accommodations fluctuate, depending on the season and weekday versus weekend.

We had settled in at Housekeeping Camp which charges $42 a night (midweek rates), a step up from pitching our own tent. Each cabin at Housekeeping is concrete with three solid walls, a canvas roof and a curtain as the fourth “wall”. They provide metal beds with a thin mattress, table, benches and a fire pit. From Housekeeping we had excellent views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome, with the Merced River meandering by our doorstep providing comforting sounds to lull us to sleep at night.

The days that followed gave time for reflection. Was the hike worth it? We both agreed with an overwhelming “Yes!”  The preparation, the anticipation, the excitement was an adventure that could not be replaced. Would I do it again? Yep! I am already planning for next year’s hike. What would we do differently? More training, starting six months in advance, leave earlier on the hike, at daybreak, and spend more time at the top, admiring the view!

Half Dome calls to the adventurous hiker. It is definitely challenging, requiring planning and preparation — but it’s doable.

Robert Ross can be reached at:   

Copyright  2007 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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