Hiking Half Dome
To be honest, this is probably the least amount of planning that has ever gone into one of our hikes, and it was also the hike that probably required the most amount of planning of any of our previous hikes. I do NOT recommend doing that. It was a mess from the beginning, being that it was a totally spur of the moment decision. It is difficult to plan much of anything right now, given that I am still going through IVF treatment, and the schedule of appointments, drug protocols, and such can change on a whim. Since we were unsure of when my transfer protocol would start, as well as when I would need to pull back on my workout intensity, it made sense to just go for it if we really wanted to do a hike this intense before the weather changes and before I'm not allowed to for a while.
So we did.
On Sunday Sept. 26, I was able to book a hotel room in Yosemite at the Yosemite Valley Lodge for the following night. That is pure luck. The hotels in the park are, typically, booked solid in the summer and early fall. The trailhead is about 3.5 hours away from us, and we knew that we would need to start early in the morning to get a full 17+ miles in, as well as driving back home by a reasonable time. It made the most sense to find a place to stay that was close to the trail. Most places were completely booked, but I stumbled across a room at the Lodge for Monday night, and went ahead and booked it. Pro-tip- plan this out MUCH earlier than we did and stay at the Ahwannee. It looks much nicer and is the hotel I would have chosen if there had been any availability. Unless you’re a camper, then obviously do that, since it’s way cheaper. I’m not a camper. I like beds, comfy pillows, good food, and warmth. Sue me.
To hike to the summit of Half Dome, you have to acquire a permit to use the cables. They only allow something like 200 permits per day. There are a couple of different ways to get a permit. The first is to be selected in a lottery at the beginning of the season. You apply early in the year, and if you get selected you have TONS of time to plan your trip. Obviously, I didn’t do that. I didn’t even know I wanted to hike this trail earlier this year. Hell, I didn’t even know I’d be living in California again by the end of this year…The second way to obtain a permit is to do the daily lottery. For the daily lottery, you create an account with recreation.gov (free), apply for the Half Dome Cables permit (there is a place to write how many members will be in your group, so the permit applies to all members of your group), pay $10 and wait. You submit your lottery application 2 days before the day you want to hike (before 7pm EST), and they select the winners that same evening. Shawn and I both applied for Tuesday, September 28. Of course, I got denied. However, Shawn’s application was accepted, so we were in! If you are accepted, you pay an additional $20 fee, and you are good to go. There are ways to transfer permits or share your permit with people on the trail who don’t have them, but this process confuses me, so don’t count on me for that answer. Check out the Hiking Guy blog for all his tips. He is WAY more experienced than I am.
So, we had a place to stay, and we had our permits. This shit was happening. I spent a large part of Sunday night researching the trail, figuring out what we would need, what to expect, and trying to psych myself up to hike for 10-12 hours (which is how long most people take to complete the trail). I made a list of all the things we would need. We were planning to start the hike at 4am to beat the crowds to the cables. That meant it could be COLD when we started. I packed a ton of jackets and layers to be able to take on and off as we went. I planned out the snacks I would take- my favorite is dried mango, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the summit, a protein bar, plus grapes and dark chocolate for after. Shawn gets a footlong from Subway with all the meat on it and a couple bags of sour worms. I think we packed around four liters of water apiece, and I also had several Nuun tablets for electrolytes.
We use hiking packs with the refillable bladders (I think it’s a gross term also, someone should change it) in them, and stuff our snacks and supplies in there too. The blogs I read mentioned that you shouldn’t attempt the cables without gloves, so we had to buy those. We found some at Walmart with a grippy material on the palms and fingers for like $5-$6. You can also order some like these on Amazon for around the same price.
Since we were planning to start at 4am, before the sun came up, we had to pack our headlamps as well. Hiking in the dark is, actually, pretty damn cool. Before I ever hiked in the dark, I thought it would be terrifying, but it’s actually pretty peaceful. The headlamp is super bright and makes it easy to see the trail in front of you. It’s definitely worth experiencing at least once. Although, if we ever stumble across a bear or a snake or some shit like that in the dark, I’ll probably change my mind real quick. So far, it’s just been mountain goats (in the Grand Canyon), and they didn’t attack us, so we’re still good.
Monday (day before the hike), we ran around town like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to find all the things we needed before we left town. We had to get Tucker taken care of, I was starting a drug for IVF to control my cycle and had to get that from the pharmacy so I had it for the next day, we had to pick up food for dinner that night, grab breakfast for the next morning and snacks for our packs, stop by Dick's for hiking supplies, and buy gloves. We FINALLY left town around 4pm to drive out to Yosemite. Talk about disorganized. I was stressed the fuck out. But we made it. We were committed now.
The drive out there is WEIRD. I don’t know if we were just avoiding traffic, although we came a pretty similar route on the way back, but we took SO many back roads in the middle of nowhere. I guess it makes sense, though, for a National Park to be in the middle of nowhere…whatever. It just felt like a roundabout way to get somewhere, and you also go up all these windy ass roads where you start to feel nauseous from all the turns. But when you get through the windy roads and start to get closer to the park, it is BEAUTIFUL. Absolutely gorgeous. Next time, I want to be an annoying tourist and stop at all the little turn offs and take ALL the pictures. I feel very similar feelings when we drive through Colorado. It’s just indescribable. I just want everyone to go there and experience it, because words and pictures just don’t do it justice. It’s that spectacular. So many people that I have talked to that have lived here for long periods of time told me they’ve never been to Yosemite. This shit happened in Colorado too. I think I experienced more of Colorado’s magnificence after living there for 2-3 months than like 75% of the people that live there for long periods of time. WHY!? Please go enjoy what this country has to offer. It is SO beautiful and it doesn’t get enough credit because the political landscape and the news and the pandemic and all the bad shit that is going on in the world clouds our judgement of what this country is. We live in an incredible place and you can easily be reminded of that by going out and spending some time in nature. It’s like medicine for the soul. Damn, I sound woowoo as fuck.
Anyways, it was getting pretty dark by the time we made it through the gates of the park, so I really didn’t get to experience much that night. We have friends coming up in a few weeks, and we’re going back to revisit Yosemite, so I am so excited to get to see even more beauty. We got checked into our hotel, organized our hiking packs and laid out our clothes, showered, and went to bed early with a 3am alarm set.
It’s funny how easy it is, at least for me, to wake up at 3am for a hike. I think it’s the adrenaline, knowing that I’m about to do some badass shit that gets me so amped that I don’t even feel tired. Nope, the tired comes later, on the way back down, when all you want is a shower, a good meal, and a bed. NOT TO MENTION, as soon as I turned a light on, I heard something rustling in the trash bin. My heart legit stopped, y’all. Shawn heard it too, so I knew I wasn’t imagining it. I was frozen in place so I made him go check it out. Look, I know we’re in nature. It’s a hotel, but we’re in the middle of the woods, on the ground floor, and there’s no AC, only fans, so the rooms are ventilated. It still didn’t make it any less surprising or scary for me. IT WAS A FUCKING MOUSE. In the trash can, just scootin’ around, probably looking for breakfast. No thank you. I stood up on the bed looking at Shawn, like, you’re going to handle this shit, right? He tipped the trashcan, and that mofo raced out into the bathroom, which is the next place I needed to go…fantastic. I literally set up a barricade of cushions and pillows and opened the front door to guide it outside if Shawn could get him out, but the mouse was no where to be found. If there was any question about it, I was wide awake at this point. Thanks, mouse. I cautiously got ready and ate my Perfect Foods Bar for a quick breakfast. I swear, I kept thinking I was going to turn around and see Mr. Mouse chowing down on some crumbs I dropped or something, but he didn’t come back. We packed up, loaded the car, and drove to the trailhead (about 15 minutes from the hotel).
It was pitch, freaking black outside. It’s cool because you can see a ton of stars out and the sky is just beautiful. Although there were some cars parked at the trailhead, we didn’t see any other people right away. Many of those cars were probably people camping along the trail somewhere. It was chilly, probably around 45 degrees, but not horrible. I had chosen to wear pants, a tank top, a light jacket, and a heavier jacket, plus a headband that covered my ears. I didn’t wear gloves (which I usually do), and my hands got pretty cold several times. Not sure if I’d change anything though, because once you start going uphill (which happened pretty quickly with this hike), you get warm, fast.
The initial hike from the parking lot to the first part of the trail is relatively flat. We parked in Curry Village and hiked in from there. It was about 3/4 of a mile to the actual start of the Mist Trail which begins your ascent up to Half Dome. Once you get to the Mist Trail, which you can only use if you start it before 6:30am, because they close it between 6:30am and 4pm each day, it’s a STEEP three miles of stairs and rocky switchbacks that take you along two waterfalls- Vernal and Nevada (which we really missed out on since all of this section was completed in the dark for us and the trail was closed on the way back). Over the course of these three miles, you gain 2500 feet of elevation, and your legs are freaking taxed. You literally feel like you’ve been on the stairmaster for HOURS. I’m always very humbled by sections like this. I feel very fit and strong, but hiking up 3 miles of stairs gets the heart rate going pretty damn high. We definitely had to take several short breaks to catch our breath, especially on the steeper sections. I largely considered stripping down to my tank top, but was worried about getting too cold, so I kept my light jacket on the whole time. The only problem was that I ended up sweating a TON, so I got pretty chilly in the flatter sections later on. We passed a pretty large group of hikers on this section and while they were ahead of us, they illuminated one of the waterfalls on the cliff to the left of us. It was pretty freaking cool.
Once we made it through that incline, we were blessed with a little one mile break along a decently flat piece of the trail called Little Yosemite Valley. There was a campground here, along the Merced River, which housed the last actual bathrooms before the cables. There’s one at the beginning of the valley and one at the end. If you ever go, use them BOTH on the way back down. I had to pee SO bad coming back down, which put me in the WORST mood. I used the one at the campground, but not the one at the other side of the valley, and I really regretted it. By the time you hike back down, there are so many people hiking, it’s almost impossible to find a place to hike off trail to pee, and the next bathroom is FAR.
After Little Yosemite Valley comes The Climb. The Climb is the section of the trail leading up the back of Half Dome. It’s about 2.5 miles long, with 1800 feet of elevation gain. As you’re completing this section, you can catch glimpses of Half Dome and Sub Dome through the trees to your left. At this point, the sun was coming up, so we were able to turn our head lamps off and actually see what we were in for. It started to feel more and more real. Tons of switchbacks and forest scenery later, you finally make it to the Sub Dome section.
The base of Sub Dome is where we met the park ranger that was checking permits for the cables. They check your permit (a phone screen shot works fine), and match the name on it to your ID, and then you are free to continue on. Sub Dome was probably the most challenging part for me. By this point, you’re pretty high in elevation, over 8000ft, and the air is much thinner than when you started. Much of this section of the trail is steep granite steps, cut into the side of the mountain. Then, towards the end of this part of the trail, you are essentially climbing straight up the bare granite surface to get to the base of the cables. Not gonna lie, I stopped a LOT on this half mile (400ft of elevation gain) section, because even though you are so close to the top, it feels like you have so much further to go at times. There’s also the nerves of the cables starting to sink in, and you can see them now, so it’s beginning to set in that you are about to do that, and it looks terrifying.
When we finally made it to the top of Sub Dome, we were by ourselves at the base of the cables, stopped to have a snack, and saw about 3 or 4 people coming down the cables. We decided to hang out and watch them descend before we got started. I am totally the person who watches others do something and says to myself, if they can do it, I can definitely do it too. It’s what’s helped me get through a lot of things with IVF as well. So many others have gone through this too, and I am a strong ass woman, capable of many things, so this thing isn’t going to defeat me. We walked up to the cables and got started.
The cables span about a third of a mile up a slick, granite rock face, gaining another 400 feet of elevation before summiting. The cables are anchored into the granite, and about every 10 feet (sometimes a little longer), are attached to poles (drilled into the granite) that hold them up. In between the sets of poles is a 2x4 wooden board, which offers a resting point for your feet on the way up. The boards are WOBBLY, since they are only attached by a small metal bracket. Especially on the steeper sections, you use a considerable amount of upper body strength to, essentially, pull yourself through those areas. We stopped a LOT, especially on the more slick, steep sections, to rest on the boards and shake out our arms. I was SO grateful for the gloves we bought, because those cables would have shred my hands apart. I was gripping HARD. Probably harder than I needed to, but also, I was hanging off the edge of a mountain, so, I was trying not to, you know, die or something. Since we were the only ones on the cables going up, we got to use both sets the whole time. If there are others on the cables, you are supposed to stay to the right and use only one cable. I feel like this would have been way harder, so again, I think leaving earlier is smart.
We hiked on a Tuesday, so crowds were also way smaller, but I had read that the majority of people start between 5 and 6am. Hiking Guy recommends starting at 4:30am, so we started at 4. If you hit the crowds that arrive at the cables between 11 and 2pm, you could have 50-60 people trying to ascend/descend the cables at once. Not only does it make it more dangerous (falling gear/water bottles, people bumping into each other, trying to make room for people passing you), but it also backs things up. That means you could be waiting for 15-20 minutes in line to start, and it could take you 30-60 minutes to ascend- think people having to rest, people having panic attacks, people deciding to turn around, etc. It took us about 15 minutes to ascend. AND we were completely alone at the top. It was GLORIOUS.
There is nothing like summiting after a long, brutal hike like that. You are WELL rewarded with the sweeping views up there, and all the photos we took didn’t do it an ounce of justice. It. Was. Incredible. I celebrated with my PB&J, enjoying the views, and reflecting on all that work we just did to get there. It’s no easy task to buy in to those cables with a grueling 8.5 mile hike with over 5000 feet of elevation gain, to then hang off the side of a cliff at a 45 degree angle for 15 minutes, using all your strength to pull yourself up to the next resting board. It was AWESOME. So worth all the sweat and stress getting there.
On the way up, someone told us that the more difficult part was actually descending the cables. I completely disagree. I even faced down the mountain the whole way, which some people will think I’m crazy for, many people face backwards (towards the mountain), so they aren’t looking straight down off the cliff. I liked it better because I was using a different set of muscles (that weren’t tired) to get back down. Going down for me was a breeze. If you are afraid of heights in any way, then I would definitely say face backward going down. Otherwise, it's pretty cool to see what's going on around you.
Now the rest of the descent, was AWFUL (don't let this picture fool you, I may have still been riding the high, which ended shortly afterwards). Coming down the cables and Sub Dome wasn’t too bad, because you’re riding this high of “I just did this crazy, fucking cool thing, and I can’t wait to tell everyone about it.” Then, you hit The Climb section, and it’s pretty boring: just forest and switchbacks going on forever, and the exhaustion is beginning to set in, and you just want to go home, and things start to go downhill (no pun intended HA).
We made it to Little Yosemite Valley and I used the restroom, but skipped the one at the end (stupid, don’t be like me). When we made it through this section, the Mist trail that we had originally taken was closed off, so we had to detour through the John Muir trail. It adds about a half mile extra onto your total distance. UGH. It may not seem like much, but when you’ve been hiking for 7 hours, you just want to get the fuck off the mountain. Plus, by this time I had to pee. There was no where to go, because there are people everywhere at this point. It’s a beautiful day, probably around 65 degrees by this point, the sun is out, there are waterfalls and beautiful mountains all around, people are coming out in droves to this super popular trail. So I am just praying that my legs will hurry up and get me to a bathroom ASAP. Also, my knees are killing me from the downhill. I’m just over it.
One day, I would love it if I could just enjoy the way back a tiny bit. We passed a beautiful waterfall, and the mountains in the background are gorgeous, but I was just mad the whole time because I was exhausted and ready to find a bathroom. LOL. But seriously.
By the end of that 3.5 mile section, we were basically running to get out of there. I found the bathroom, thank GOD, and we hiked the last little bit of mileage to our car. We fucking did it. Over 17 miles and 8.5 hours of beauty, accomplishment, pain, amazement, and pride. Hikes like these make me so grateful for the work I’ve put into my health and fitness. It’s these things that provides me with the ability to tackle such a feat. For that, I am proud.
Also, not a chance in hell would I have done this hike without Shawn. He pushes me (and I push him) to start and finish these things. We feed off of each other’s energy in the best ways to create an awesome experience every time we hike somewhere. He is by FAR my favorite hiking buddy, and we make the most incredible memories together. Although I would NEVER do that particular hike again, not because it wasn’t amazing, but I’ve been there, seen that now (and I’d rather attempt another 17 mile crazy hike instead), I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who is considering it. On the way down, we came across a guy that was on his way up for the FIFTEENTH time. Why? I have no clue. The hike back down, alone, would dissuade me from ever even thinking about doing it again. No way, Jose.
Some tips if you DO choose to go on this one:
Have multiple people apply for the permit to give you a better chance of selection.
Pack more snacks and water than you think you’ll need.
Bring salty foods and/or electolytes, because I felt pretty shaky a few times, but felt much better after getting some electrolytes in me. Nuun is the best.
Bring a pack big enough to stuff your extra layers in, because you WILL want to shed them at some point.
Use every bathroom along the trail, even if you don’t really have to go.
Wear shoes with excellent grip. We wore trail running shoes and felt great the whole time. DO NOT wear regular running shoes; you will regret it.
Start EARLY, definitely before 5am. It will help you avoid crowds at the cables.
Go on a weekday if you can, since it’s a little less busy.
Stay overnight, at least the night before, to be closer to the trailhead.
Spend lots of time at the summit and enjoy every second of that impressive accomplishment.
Another couple little notes, the cables are only up from the Friday before Memorial Day through the Tuesday after Columbus Day. People still hike it when they aren't up (but that's dumb as hell IMO). The majority of deaths that have occurred on this trail have happened when the cables are down. I also read that the only reason the cables still go up every year is because there is a law that doesn't allow you to alter things within National Parks. Something like this would never be allowed to be created today. I love that. It makes it feel even more badass.
Half Dome is definitely one for the memory books, folks. My first trip to Yosemite did NOT disappoint, and I cannot wait to go back and see more.