For twenty years my husband has had the yearning to stand atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This bucket list item catapulted to the top of the list last year on a rafting trip when he was inspired by an older raft-mate, who regaled all of the brilliance and wonderment the hike had to offer. “That’s it. I am doing this,” my husband said.
Because Brent and his brother, Dirk, often do adventurous things together, he inquired as to Dirk’s availability. Unfortunately, after a conversation with his knees, Dirk had to forego. I then became the next candidate. I don’t know if it was the properly timed inquiry, after several sips of a martini, or my suppressed sense of adventure, but somehow I agreed. I probably should have done some research first! However, we readied ourselves for the arduous hike up the side of a mountain, in the hot middle-summer weather of California.
Now, recently having finished Half Dome, a few essentials are still fresh in my memory. Tips, if you will, that could make conquering Half Dome a little easier.
Note: Any long hike is likely to run more smoothly if you adhere to some of these recommendations. So, whether you yearn for the “bald head” of Half Dome, or you have your eye on some other summit – sit back, snack on trail mix, and learn the “ins and outs” of conquering the one-day round-trip hike to Half Dome!
Nine Essential Tips For Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome
(Note that all “Tip photos” are from our nine prep hikes. Get it? Nine points, nine prep hikes? Clever huh? )
Tip 1 – Permit and Planning: The hike to Half Dome is breathtaking. This culmination consists of a strenuous, cable-based, four-hundred-foot climb to the top of the dome. Being allowed to use the cables involves a fancy lottery permitting process. Due to crowding, the forestry service limits daily climbers to 300. If you would like to hike next summer, applications will be available next March. You will need to go online to apply. You will also need to have at least three date choices in mind. It appears that this lottery sells out very quickly! Frequently check to see when the applications are available, and apply as closely as possible to that time.
Note: On the day of your hike, take your ID, and proof of permitting purchase with you to the park. We could not print out an actual permit, and it appeared that many other hikers also had this issue. As long as you have your ID, and application number, you are golden! There is a “forestry dude” who will check you off, that sits under a tree, approximately 45 minutes away from the cables, with an IPAD, and a poorly penned mystery novel.
Click HERE to learn more about the permitting process.
Tip 2 – Training: Training is imperative if you want to enjoy your day. Although, most people we saw, along the trail were in good physical shape, some were not. In fact, there was one petite smiley girl, who was wearing Converse, and carrying a grocery bag with glazed donuts, chips, and soda for sustenance. I could not resist. I asked, “Are you going to the top?” She replied, “Yes!!” After we had summited, eaten lunch, taken pictures, and traveled approximately an hour down the trail, we crossed paths with the pretty girl again. This time, she looked a little “worse for wear.” I still thought she was going to make it, but it wasn’t going to be pretty for her on the way down. She was already out of food and was moving very slowly.
Remember, it is one thing to hike the six hours up, but you must conserve energy to make your way down the steep terrain for another four to five hours. For this, you must train. Here’s the good news. My husband and I only did one hike a week, but with increasing intensity and distance. The longest hike we did was 10.5 miles with 3,800 feet of elevation gain. Half Dome is 16 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation gain. In retrospect, we did fine, but I probably should have completed one or two longer hikes. These preparatory hikes were as valuable for our calves, as they were for planning what food to take, and how much water we needed to drink!
For more details on training for Half Dome; click on the links below:
Tip 3 – Equipment: Part of the way through our training, we decided to try hiking poles. I never really understood how they benefited hikers, but oh my Lord! It. Was. The. Best. Purchase. EVER!! We decided to spend a little more on our pole purchase because we did not want to have problems with them along the trail, and we wanted to be able to pack them more easily onto the sides of our packs. So, if there is one piece of equipment you should purchase for this hike or any long hike, it is hiking poles. These poles are incredibly stabilizing while heading up. They even help pull your body up the hill when you get tired. Moreover, these poles evenly distribute the work between your upper and lower body so that your legs do not tire out too quickly. Also, on the way down they stabilize so that you can come down safely, and more quickly. I have terrible knees, and these poles take a large amount of stress off them. I did not have perfect form with my poles, so if you want to learn more click HERE.
You will also need the following equipment:
- A good daypack, with a place to secure your poles, for when you are not using them.
- A headlamp or flashlight (Always a good idea – in case you are caught coming down a little late).
- A good camera or GOPRO.
- A water filtering system, if you choose to purchase it. (See the water section below).
- A small first-aid kit with Band-Aids, blister care, tissues, etc.
- I loaded the app STRAVA on my phone and used it to track our time, mileage, and elevation. I was able to track the whole day without losing battery because of my MOPHIE phone battery charger.
- GLOVES: You will need to bring gloves for the cables. These cables are approximately an inch thick, and WILL tear your hands apart if you don’t have protection. Gloves will also “make or break” the effort you put into hauling yourself up and down the 400 feet. We were ill-advised and took traditional gardening/work gloves. There is a pile of gloves at the bottom of the cables. They are not only nasty, but they also serve as housing for rats! Unfortunately, I had to use them anyway because it was more important to get up the cables safely. The gloves you want are pictured below, and can be purchased at any hardware store.
Tip 4 – Clothing: My priority was to be functional and still win the “Cutest Hiker Award!” Some bearded, gnarly, hiker guy about half-way up, passed us, took off his sunglasses, checked me out, and said, “Nice skort!” I think that pretty much secured my nomination. Depending on the time of the year, the temperatures vary dramatically. We started out at about 58-62 degrees and ended up at 100 degrees. Make sure that you take quick-dry, comfortable, non-chaffing clothes with you. Don’t forget to layer. A bandana and hat are also great accessories to bring along, as well as, a good pair of polarized sunglasses. It was also nice to have a change of socks for the way down. The Merced River, 2/3rds of the way down, is a great place to soak your tootsies and put on fresh socks. Trust me – you will feel like a new person!
CUTEST HIKER AWARD GOES TO…
Tip 5 – Water: I completely obsessed over this one. I read everything I could on this topic, but the recommendations varied. Some people suggested that you take 2-3 liters with you, while others suggested, at least, one liter, per two hours, which is about five liters. Still others suggested at least 7 liters for the day. The truth is -water requirements are totally person-to-person dependent. Determine whether or not you will want to drink a lot of water in the heat. I do, so I took a 3-liter camelback and two 1.5 liter side-bottles. I drank one of the side-bottles in the first 2 miles and filled up again at the last potable water station, near Vernal Falls. I came back with a little water left over, but I could not accurately tell how much was left in my hydration pack. (Now there is a million dollar idea!) If I were to do it again, I would plan to take 7 liters (7.4 quarts) of water. Also, I would carry more water, rather than mess with potting water. We did carry a little mini-filtration unit but did not need to use it. (The only place to filter water is the Merced River.)
Note: Water is heavy! During your training hikes, practice carrying many liters of water. It took us a few hikes to get used to the weight. Also, don’t forget your electrolytes! Supplementing with electrolyte powder, periodically, along your journey, is important because you will be sweating from exertion, and heat. There are lots of options out there, but I encourage you to stay away from the ones that contain a lot of sugar or chemicals. My practice was to drink one-half of my side bottles, and then add electrolytes, and then finish the rest. I repeated this process with the other side bottle, which helped me stay balanced. Getting enough electrolytes will ensure better “post-exertion recovery.” Translated, your legs won’t scream quite as loud the next morning!
Tip 6 – Food: I was obsessive about the water, but, I was way more obsessive about the food. If I am caught hungry, it is neither pretty nor pleasant. I was very concerned that I would not have the “right” foods or enough foods for the energy requirements of a hike like this. I wanted the day to be mostly Paleo, so we experimented with a lot of options. Here is a photo of the food finalists that made it into the packs on hike day. The day was completely Paleo with the exception of the celebratory martinis at the car at the end of the day!
Tip 7 – Pack Items: This hike is a long haul. It takes most people between 10 and 12 hours to complete. We thought we were in pretty good shape, and could get through it more quickly, but it took us eleven hours! We made two 20-minute stops on the way up, and two on the way down. There were, of course, a couple of shorter stops, in between, to look at all the amazing scenery! We hung out at the top of the Dome for about an hour. We enjoyed the view although forest fires were at play as we ate lunch. We then headed back down. Before the hike, we played around with what to pack. As I mentioned earlier, most of the pack weight consisted of water and food. I put all of the food in a large Ziploc bag. I also carried additional small Ziplocs for trash. We packed paper napkins, and a small package of Kleenex (for potential pit-stops along the way, or for poorly supplied bathrooms). I packed a tiny first-aid kit that contained a few Band-Aids, etc. Both my husband and I packed small Pezel headlamps, in case we got caught on the trail at dusk. Thankfully I packed a change of socks (a Godsend!), and a couple of layers of clothing to throw on towards the end of the hike. We also brought hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen and carried gloves for the cables, of course!
Tip 8 – The Strategy: I quelled my anxiety by strategizing what types of things to take on the hike (i.e. what snacks to take with us). I used an excellent resource entitled, Yosemite’s Half Dome, by Rick Deutsch. His book was all I needed to help prepare, but I also researched online blog posts, which I found very helpful. I believe the biggest strategic move a person can make is determining the start time. Had I not read about the best time to start this hike, I probably would have started much later. Most people suggest approaching the cables before noon because it gets very crowded. They were right. We hiked on a Monday, alleged to be the least crowded day of the week. We got to the cables at 11:00 am. There were only about ten of us on the cables at once, which made it easy to pace ourselves going up. By the time, we had had lunch and came back down the cables were full. When you are tired and want to keep your momentum, crowded cables are exhausting. So, if you want to get to the cables at a decent time, I suggest you start your hike no later the 6:00 am. This allows for frequent stops, steady pace, and a very comfortable, uncrowded ascent to the top.
I am going to state the obvious – this hike is VERY long. In fact, it seems to go on forever. BUT, it is an extremely varied terrain that breaks the long walk up quite nicely. You will climb about 1,000 stairs, walk over sand, boulders, and loose gravel. You will also walk along a river, two waterfalls, and smooth granite. I found the change in scenery made the hiking trip progress very quickly. It is also important to remember that you have been planning for this, and your adrenaline, anticipation, and everything that goes with this type of physical event is in high gear. Adrenalin has an amazing ability to carry you further than you ever thought possible. Along the trail, we saw a variety of climbers such as a 6-year-old, and a brother and sister who were 59 and 61 years old. Stats reveal that MOST people make it to the top, so just pace yourself and enjoy the day!
Back to the cables – There is a strategy concerning getting up and down the cables safely. Munch on a light snack, and sip on water before you start the ascent. On the way up, place a hand on each cable, or go hand-over-hand on one cable. I found both ways to be equally helpful. As people come down, you may have to move aside and hold onto just one cable to let them pass. Fortunately, there are two-by-fours nailed into the granite at reasonable intervals on which to stand and rest. You will need these to break up the climb. I suggest two positions, as you come down: (1) facing the granite, and descending one cable, like you are repelling or (2) side-stepping down, hand-over-hand, on one cable. Either way, you will use one cable to come down. It is important to communicate well with the people on their way up the cables so that you understand how you will be passing each other. Although it is rare to experience injuries while on the cables, historically, there have been disastrous accidents when using the cables inappropriately, or unsafely. Note: Use caution at all times!!!
Another strategy that I used during the day was to stop and eat a light snack, every two hours. For hydration, our rule was to drink approximately a liter of water, every two hours. At each break, we also stretched our legs. I don’t recommend sitting for too long because it can be awfully hard to get those muscles moving again.
Tip 9 – Post-Hike Accouterments: My husband and I nailed this perfectly. We bought a disposable cooler for the back of the rental car. We also purchased a couple of bags of ice to keep the post hike food and beverages cool. We placed extra bottles of water and several ice packs (i.e. for icing sore knees after the descent) into our cooler. (FYI- ice packs work well when you strap them on with an ACE bandage.) We munched on snacks (not jerky!) and enjoyed a celebratory cocktail at the end of our hike. Our most important post-hike accouterment – FLIP FLOPS!! Trust me – your feet will jump for joy!!
Some last but not least items:
Thankfully, there are a lot of bathrooms along the way. They are clean and pretty well-maintained. Be sure to practice proper bathroom etiquette, if you decide to use a “natural setting” for your potty-break. Also, don’t forget to check the location of the trailhead the day before. I am glad that we did that in advance instead of looking for it at 5:30 am. As advised by all Half Dome authorities, if it looks as if it may rain or if there is any chance of thunder turn back immediately! The cables are not safe when it is raining, thundering, and/or lightening outside.
Finally, have a wonderful time at Half Dome! We did, and I hope you will share with me your exciting adventure!
Do you have an adventure planned? I challenge you this week to think about a challenge for yourself. Is there a trip or an experience you have had tickling the back of your mind? Think outside the box! This was certainly not something I had thought I would do. What are you going to do? I would love to know.
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