Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Half Dome, Yosemite Nat'l Park: 06/23/2013

Beth and I just got back from a week of hiking, climbing and peak scrambling in Yosemite National Park. This and the next few posts will be from that trip.

Vernal Falls
With its sheer face rising more than 4,800 vertical feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome is an icon that belongs on every hiker’s must-do list. Though it appears inaccessible without technical rock climbing skills, cables up Half Dome’s steep east face provide hikers with a spectacular route up the final 400 vertical feet to the summit. The hike’s popularity, along with a history of fatalities, led the National Park Service to establish a permit system in 2010. When we scored a permit in this year’s pre-season lottery, we planned our Yosemite trip around hiking Half Dome.

Hiking towards Vernal Falls on the Mist Trail, en route to Half Dome

Looking over the brink of Vernal Falls
Facing an 18-mile round trip with almost 5,000 feet of vertical, we got a reasonably early start, hitting the trail at 7:30am. In the first 4 miles the route passes two of Yosemite’s signature waterfalls – Vernal Falls, with a drop of more than 300’ and Nevada Falls with a drop of almost 600’. Known as the Mist Trail, the trail comes close enough to the falls that it’s impossible to avoid being sprayed. The Mist Trail is usually crowded with tourists, but in the early morning we had it nearly all to ourselves.

Crossing the Merced River on the Mist Trail below Nevada Falls

Merced River, between Vernal and Nevada Falls

Beth hiking up the switchbacks alongside Nevada Falls

The top of Nevada Falls is roughly the halfway point with 4.5 miles to go
Above the falls, the route follows the Merced River for a bit before ascending to Half Dome’s forested northeast shoulder. Here, with Little Yosemite Valley’s granite walls, the smell of the Sierra forest and the sound of flowing water, I felt like I was in my second home. Except for the Adirondacks, I’ve spent more time hiking, backpacking and climbing in the Sierra Nevada than any other mountain range. Beth has spent a bit of time in the Sierra Nevada too, but since we had never visited Yosemite together this seemed like a trip that we had to do.

Half Dome's southeast face. The cables route can be seen as a faint white streak rising from the notch on the right. Snake Dike, the only moderate (5.7R) technical climbing route up Half Dome, ascends the skyline on the left.

Getting closer...

Half Dome and its sub-dome from the northeast

Occasional views of Half Dome through the trees provide motivation to keep pushing up the trail. Finally, at the base of the sub-dome, the character of the trail changes. Emerging from the forest, the trail climbs steeply up an open rock saddle - the sub-dome - leading to the base of the cables. Views from the sub-dome are almost as good as from Half Dome’s summit, with panoramic vistas to the north, south and east, and an in-your-face view of Half Dome’s summit monolith and the cables to the west.

Beth hiking up the sub-dome's steep rock steps, Clouds Rest in the background

Topping out on the sub-dome. Tenaya Canyon and Clouds Rest in the background

Indian Paintbrush growing among the rocks

The cables rise up the final 400+ vertical feet of Half Dome's northeast face

Ominous clouds stacking up against the Clark Range

Interestingly, many of the hikers we encountered along the Half Dome trail seemed inexperienced and less than well-prepared. Perhaps that’s a by-product of the permit system: people enter the lottery, get a permit, and just go for it. As a result, a fair number of hikers never make it all the way to the summit. That’s probably for the better, since the final ascent up the cables intimidates many hikers. Actually, it’s the climb back down the cables that really seems to sketch out most hikers: fear-frozen hikers are often stalled out along the entire length of the descent. The best advice for anyone who is uncomfortable with the exposure descending the cables is to walk down backwards.

Yours truly climbing the cables

Beth at the top of the cables

Summit view towards Clouds Rest and the Cathedral Range

Me perched on Half Dome's visor, El Cap and Yosemite Valley below

Climbers finishing up Half Dome's 5.10 Regular Route

Even though this was my fourth time up Half Dome (three hiking, one rock climbing), the summit views were as spectacular as ever. Yosemite Valley lies nearly 5,000 feet straight down, with El Capitan guarding its western end. Nearby, Cloud’s Rest rises straight up from Tenaya Canyon, its summit a thousand feet higher than Half Dome’s. In the distance are Mount Conness, the Cathedral Range and the Clark Range. Peering down the vertical north face, we saw a pair of climbers on the final two pitches of Half Dome’s Regular Route, a 23-pitch, 5.10c route first climbed by Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas in 1957.

Beth descending the cables. Walking backwards is the best strategy.

Crossing the sub-dome on the way back down

A final view of Vernal Falls on the hike out

Hiking back down the Mist Trail

I’d be happy to stay on top of Half Dome for hours, but clouds were beginning to stack up against the Sierra crest. Lightning and slick granite make Half Dome a notoriously bad place to be in a thunderstorm. And with dinner reservations at the Ahwahnee, we had a schedule to keep. So after enjoying the summit for 40 minutes or so, we headed back down the cables and retraced our route back to Yosemite Valley, finishing up at 6pm.

Fittingly, our room at the Ahawahnee faced Half Dome's north face


  1. Nice TR and pictures, Jeff. We may be visiting Yosemite this fall, so this is great information. Had no idea the HD hike was 18 miles!

    1. Yeah,it's a pretty long day. Check into getting a permit as soon as possible. The cables are up until early Oct.

      If you've never been to Yosemite, it is a fantastic, must-visit place. When your trip gets closer I can give you a bunch of hike suggestions and other beta.

  2. Wow, great photo and story journey of your trip. Beth is amazing, hiked it Like a boss! Did she wear a harness and cable belt? Im 53 and my sister in law and I are wanting to make the trip. I am in relatively good shape, jogging, yoga and being active... However, my concern is I won't be able to do it all in a day ... It's quite far... I enjoyed you article.. thank you both for being a couple who loves & respects nature...

    1. Yes, Beth is amazing! No harness for the cables up Half Dome, but we are both experienced climbers comfortable with the exposure. Sounds like you are fit, so I highly recommend giving it a try. Start early and pace yourself. Take your time on the return. Good luck, and thanks for reading.