Hiking Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park

A peak experience.

Half Dome, located in Yosemite National Park. Available for purchase as a digital file.

I’ve hesitated to share the following experience for a while now because the fewer number of people who are in the know, the less competition there is for those of us already taking full advantage. After thinking deeply about this dilemma though, I finally concluded that this particular undertaking was just too special to hoard, and so here I am now, alerting anyone who’ll listen to the existence of this unforgettable adventure:

Half Dome in the distance, taken from Tunnel View scenic viewpoint. The rock formation on the left is El Capitan.

Located at Yosemite National Park in California, the mountain peak known as Half Dome looms large over the valley floor. Though this rock formation is far from a secret for veterans of the American outdoors (or fans of Ansel Adams’ photography), when it comes to aspirant’s like me who are just learning the wonders of spending time basking in quiet, fresh air, being made aware of Half Dome is revelatory.

"Moon Over Half Dome", captured by the famous B&W nature photographer, Ansel Adams. Upon his death, Adams' ashes were scattered around the peak.

While the climb up to the summit isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, the more I learned about the hike, the more I came to recognize it as the embodiment, literally, of a peak experience. That’s decidedly high praise for a single hike, I know, but understand this: there’s no rolling out of bed and hitting the trail with this trek – considerable planning and effort are both required to accomplish the feat. Fortunately, it’s precisely because of these necessary preparations that the payoff is so satisfying in the end.

Although any visitor to Yosemite National Park is freely allowed to make the 8-mile long, 4,800-foot ascent from the valley floor up to the base of Half Dome whenever they please, beginning in 2011 the park started requiring an exclusive permit to access the specially designed cable system, and thereby the final 400 feet leading to the summit.

The base of the cables leading up to the Half Dome summit.

Prior to 2011, full access to Half Dome via the cable route was open to anyone who made it to the base of the imposing rocks. This meant that on its most crowded days, upwards of 1000 people would try to climb to the summit, creating long wait times and potentially dangerous conditions on the steep and narrow path.

The line for the Half Dome cables, pre-2011. Photo by the NPS.

To combat this issue, Yosemite instituted a permit system and set the limit of people who could access the cables at 300 per day, going so far as to station a park ranger at the base of the dome to check hiking credentials.

To obtain one of these coveted permits, at the $10 price point it’s not affordability that’s the obstacle; instead, it’s the manner in which the park distributes the permits that determines who will get one.

During the month of March, Yosemite National Park opens a lottery to award permits for Half Dome, and anyone interested may fill out an application on behalf of as many as six people, while specifying up to seven preferred hiking dates. Once the document is submitted, the final step of the process is to cross fingers and sell souls in the hopes of becoming part of the ~30% of people who get lucky and win the sweepstakes.

But overcoming those unfavorable odds and winning the right to scramble up the last 400 feet to the Half Dome summit is ultimately useless if the 16-mile round trip (which features nearly a mile of elevation gain up to the base) is too much to bite off and chew. For this reason, training plenty beforehand – whether it be it by taking actual hikes, or by regularly dialing a treadmill up to a double-digit incline – is bordering on mandatory.

A great visualization of just how far above the valley floor the mountain peak resides.

This preparation for the exertion of the hike can be a lot of work, but it’s not just the physical side that is built up during this process; the mind is also learning to become properly tuned to the level where it can handle being on a trail for hours and hours at a time without issue.

To build the body, set a specific goal for hiking or incline walking; to build the mind, push the body’s specific goal a little further each time. Confidence in one’s capability grows out of past experience, and traveling up to Half Dome is much smoother if the proper training’s been done before ever setting foot on the actual trail.

Vernal Fall, on the hike up to Half Dome. Barely a trickle compared to what it can be (as evidenced by the large stain on the rock.)

A secondary aspect to the mental side of the hike is in recognizing that Yosemite National Park is home to real nature, which can translate to real danger for those who don’t grasp that. To put a fine point on it, outright questionable decision-making, such as trying to get an “epic” selfie while hanging off a cliff or wading into rapids at the top of a waterfall, can result in death. A spokeswoman for Yosemite named Kari Cobb once summed up the park well when saying, “We are surrounded by rushing water and 3,000-foot cliffs, and the power of nature is very intense. Yosemite is one of the most beautiful parks; it isn’t something to be afraid of. But it is something to be respected.”

For those who haven’t been unintentionally scared away from the hike, a detailed guide to the before, during and after process to summiting Half Dome can be found at Hikespeak.

Half Dome, as seen from Sub Dome. It's even more intimidating in person.

As for my personal perspective, as someone who’s been there, done that, here is an assortment of specific observations about the trek that I believe are worth underlining:

  • Wear sturdy and broken-in boots. The hike becomes a lot longer than it already is if you roll an ankle or develop a blister in an uncomfortable spot.
  • Pack plenty of water, probably more than you think you should. Though your bag may be a bit heavy initially, your load will lighten as you deplete your stores, and it’s far better to end the hike with leftover water than it is to begin the 8-mile descent moments after realizing you just gulped down the last of your H2O (whoops!)
  • Bring grip gloves to use on the cables. My hiking group stopped at the final gas station before entering Yosemite to fuel up our cars, and we made a last second decision to purchase gloves there, which went on to be the best decision we could’ve made. I read a slew of summaries before the trip that detailed the experience on the Half Dome cables, and many of them implied that gloves were totally optional – the way I see it, my group was able to completely avoid the potentially hot and rough feel of the cables on our sweaty, bare hands for under $5. Though I did see some people navigate the cables fine without gloves, to me, the choice of whether to wear them isn’t one – just do it.
  • Do not attempt to use the cables if it has rained or it looks like it might. While slipping and falling from the cables is rare, it still happens. Of this small number who have lost their lives on the final ascent to the peak, the majority have occurred because the person slipped amidst wet conditions. Summiting Half Dome may be legendary, but it’s not worth losing your life over. 
Personally, I couldn't imagine making this ascent without gloves.

So, there it is, the secret of Half Dome’s existence, laid bare. Though my chances of winning another permit one day are reduced when more people enter the lottery, those who choose to accept the charge of taking the trip will have to make sacrifices of some kind in order to spend time in this wondrous sector of nature, and the world as a whole is better off when more people orient their brains towards these types of transcendent personal goals.

A job well done. I couldn't have been happier (or more relieved!)

I hesitate to publish any more words about what the journey to Half Dome is like (he declared, after writing hundreds of them), because I’m a believer that this type of experience can really only be understood through first-hand participation. With that in mind, I’ll leave it at this: the sense of accomplishment I gleaned from my Yosemite adventure has lived on within me for years after the fact, and it shows no sign of fading away any time soon. Is this not what each of us searches for?

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