Hiking Half Dome was one of the scariest and exciting things I’ve done in my life. I was also lucky to have two friends join me on this adventure!
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF MY TREK TO HALF DOME!
I split this nearly 17-mile hike into a two-day backpacking adventure, although there are plenty of people that finish this hike in one day (it will take you about 12 hours if you attempt it in one day). The first day of the hike is just over 4 miles (and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain) on the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley, an idyllic but well-established campground that’s only yards away from the Merced River (your last point for water before heading to Half Dome). I haven’t hiked with a full pack in a couple of years and this part of the hike felt like a long, never-ending climb. Although the last mile to camp is on flat terrain, it’s also sandy and makes the hike feel longer than it should take. Last year, I visited Yosemite in May (at the height of a snowmelt after record-breaking snow over the winter) and the hike to Vernal Falls was nothing short of spectacular. The falls were raging and every inch of the Mist Trail was covered by the water spray. There were rainbows galore. On this trip, the fall was impressive but not as mighty and I managed to spot one rainbow at the base of Vernal Falls.
After taking a long break at the top of Vernal Falls, we made our way to Nevada Falls. Although you get a brief reprieve from the stairs, they start again in less than half a mile. Unlike the climb to Vernal Falls, the stairs on the Mist Trail is on switchbacks which can make it a little easier psychologically to keep climbing. After setting up camp and eating our dinner of Ramen noodles, we settled in for the night.
The next morning, we started our hike to Half Dome at 5:30 in the morning. I made many rookie mistakes on this road trip, among them was forgetting to pack my headlamp on this hike. Note to anyone hiking in the dark, cellphone flashlight is not a great substitute for a good headlamp, but I was able to make due for the first 30 minutes of hiking in the pitch dark. As many hikers do, we left our camping equipment and took our fairly empty packs with snacks and water.
The first part of the hike to the sub dome is not nearly as arduous as the rest of the hike. It was by far the easiest part of the two-day trip. However, once I reached the base of the sub dome, the most difficult part of the hike began. The narrow stairs that take you to the sub dome, twist and wind but never seem to end. After the long and arduous trek, I found myself at the base of Half Dome, both awed and nervous for the remaining 400 feet to the top. I could see the cables and planks and small figures, almost like ants, making their way up the nearly 90-degree slab of stone.
We figured the order in which we’d travel – I would be last. Just a few feet into the climb, misadventure struck! My padded garden gloves were too slick and my hands were slipping on the cable. Although I didn’t want to get behind my friends (I am a slow hiker!), I wanted to at least try to find some sturdy gloves. I climbed back down and luckily the first pair of gloves at the base of Half Dome fit my tiny hands really well (hikers leave their used gloves behind although the park service highly discourages people from doing this).
The hike from the base to the top of Half Dome is only 400 feet but it made up with the feeling of sheer terror and panic I felt as I was slowly moving along from plank to plank. There were several points where I just held on to one side of the cable with both hands looking down and then up wondering if making it to the top was worth it. The advice I’d gotten before the hike was not to look down. However, as I would look down I realized I’d climbed further up than I would think I did, which gave me the confidence to keep pushing. The scariest part of this hike comes at the halfway point – where the rock is slippery and the poles holding the cable are wobbly. Thankfully, at this point, a gentleman making his way back down from the summit shared with several hikers nearly having a panic attack, including myself, that he felt that way too at this exact point but it would get easier after a few more planks and all would be worth it when we made it to the top. He didn’t lie!
Once I was past the slick part of the rock, the rock seemed to be less than a 90-degree angle and I felt less exposed. The climb itself also felt easier physically. Before long, I joined my friends at the top of Half Dome. It was an unbelievable experience to be standing at the top of this famous rock that I had admired for so long! Half Dome is one of my bucket list items and it definitely felt like I’d crossed it off.
After the exhilaration of standing at the summit, I made my way down slowly. I walked backward, as many hikers do, which made the climb down less terrifying and more physically manageable. We were all prepared for the hike to our cabin to be easy and quick – so we took the shorter John Muir Trail rather than tackle the stairs of the Mist Trail and put more strain on our screaming knees! The second misadventure of my hike came at this point. The climb down was unrelenting and long. I had to will my feet to move because they were tired from carrying the weight of the pack. There were more than many fleeting moments when I was tempted to just chuck my pack down the cliff. It really felt like a psychological war with the trail. I haven’t had this feeling of such misery and hardship since my Appalachian Trail hike. Just as then, I had to take breaks and deep breaths and will myself to focus on taking the next step. In the midst of this psychological battle, I stumbled upon a mother bear and a cub. Although they were very close to the trail, there was enough traffic and noise to keep them away from us. I have not had a sense of relief so complete and sense of accomplishment so great as the one I felt when I reached Happy Isles many hours later!
Despite the pain and misery, this was one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve completed. I’m not the fastest or strongest hiker, so I get plagued my self-doubt in the middle of tough hikes, but they also remind me to trust my body to do what it needs to do and that it will carry me to the heights and distance that I want to travel. It also reveals the psychological and physical force within me.