Monday, October 18, 2010

Half Dome: Did I mention? I'm afraid of heights . . .

I kept hearing about "Half Dome" when people would talk about Yosemite. I was always intrigued and thought I would see what the big deal was.  As I researched hiking Half Dome in Yosemite, I found many blogs, a few articles, and lists about the dangers of this climb.  Coworkers would talk about the stories of hikers witnessing people slide off the edge to their deaths and their own adventuresome tales of making to the top and back down again safely, getting lost and having to find their way back to camp in the dark with flashlights.  Not to mention, there are two large waterfalls and a rushing (raging in the spring) river to consider, which has claimed hundreds of lives of healthy people, just out for a day hike.  The warnings to proceed with caution and care are very present.

The hike is a 14-16 mile round trip, normally, depending on which trails you take.  Jeff and I hiked up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail, so, including our 1 mile each way trip between the car and trailhead, our trip was probably around 18 miles.

Vernal Fall

Vernal Fall
After our 1 mile 10 minute warmup to the trailhead in the cool 50 degree air at 6:55 am and as the valley had a dim, blue light dawning, we hit the Mist Trail, still a little sleepy but excited to get to the top.  At a pretty good clip, we headed up the paved path towards Vernal Fall.  It's a 0.8 mile hike, uphill and very steep at times.  But, the views of the rapids and the eventual view of the fall is magnificent.  Vernal is a 317 foot fall and hikers climb over 600 steps of varying heights to reach the top of the fall.  I think this is the third most challenging and heart-pumping, hard-breathing, leg-burning part of the Half Dome hike. But, the view and roar and occasional crack of water hitting the rocks below is beautiful and distracting.  The hike then passes Emerald Pool, a very rich green-colored pool the water seems to rest in in before it reluctantly falls over the edge of Vernal Fall, and then up along the gentle granite slope the water recreationally seems to slide down into the pool.  We cross a bridge and begin a less difficult climb up to the next rock stairs up to Nevada Falls which is about 1.9 miles further along the trail from Vernal Fall.  This is another very beautiful fall and much higher than Vernal at 594 feet.  It's another great place to take in the view of the valley you just came up, listen to the rush and roar of the water sliding over the edge and down the granite cliff.  After a bathroom stop and visit with some mountain climbers headed toward the SW wall of Half Dome to climb (brave chaps), we headed through Little Yosemite valley along the Merced River for a bit, we enjoyed about a mile of a sandy, flat hike (easy, breezy after 3 miles of up!).  We hit one of the forks in the trail:  left to Half Dome ( ! ); or, right to Tuolomne Meadows (only something like 22 miles away . . . no big deal . . . ).

Nevada Falls

Up the trail to the left we go and begin the rest of our uphill-for-four-more-miles hike, on thin air. Huffing and puffing through the trees we clip along, like we're in a race because we always do everything fast and competitively.  We soon realize we will give ourselves heart attacks if we don't pace ourselves a little slower breathing the 8,000 foot air up the steep climb of trail and steps of rocks of all different shapes and sizes.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of up, we reach the bottom of the Sub Dome.  We wonder at more amazing views and scout out the rest of our climb.  We could barely see a few little specks of people on Half Dome working their way slowly up the cables and could see a handful others working their way back and forth up and down the switchbacks on the Sub Dome.  We catch our breath and begin making our way up the Sub Dome.  "Oh, this is easy enough . . ." I thought, initially.  But, as we starting gaining more elevation pretty quickly, and the trees were getting smaller and smaller below us, with no cable on the outside of me, with nothing but steeply sloping granite and gravel, and a panoramic view of the entire valley below, I became dizzy and my fear of heights started to play with my head.

Sub Dome and Half Dome behind.

A little pale and scared before
the ascent!
We hiked up the stone steps on the Sub Dome, up, up, up and the cliff seemed sheerer and sheerer to me.  After trying to fight back all the thoughts of "If I slip, I die and go splat!" and thinking the same things for Jeff, I began singing my old high school fight song in my head (what a lame way to distract my brain) and we made it to the top of the Sub Dome.

With only 400 feet up a 40-50 degree slope left to go, which looks like 1,000 feet at a 75 degree angle when you're standing at the bottom watching very small people make it up the final slope of the dome at the top of the cables, this required mustering every ounce of courage I had.  I was plain scared and my eyes were probably huge under my sunglasses!  This is the the second most daunting view of the hike (guess what the first is?!).  Jeff didn't seem bothered at all!

We had our short break, ate some Shot Blocks, and Jeff asked, "Are you ready?" and smiled . . .

"Nooooo!" I screamed in my head, but I told Jeff, "Yeah . . . "

We put our gloves on and walked up to the cables, looked up and grabbed on, one hand on each cable.  The slope was gentle for a few feet of the cables and then began up.  Grab with both arms, take a step on the not-so-traction-provident granite slope and take a little step up. Grab, pull, step. Grab, pull, step. Grab, pull, step.  There are boards about every 8-15 feet so the cables are like a long ladder.  I didn't feel comfortable putting all my weight on my feet because my shoes would slip a little when I would push off, so much of my propulsion up was from the use of my arms and pulling myself up.  The air kept feeling thinner, we kept getting higher, and we were to the 50 degree point about halfway up the dome. My arms were falling asleep from being above my head most of the time and my heart was pounding.  I'm not sure if it was fear, being tired and/or hungry, thin air and hard physical work, a little stomach problem or all of the above, but I became dizzy and nauseated for about 2 minutes and I thought I might have to turn around.  Thankfully, it passed quickly and talking to Jeff helped, so we continued up.

Jeff handled the ascent very well, of course.  He wasn't as afraid as I was, and although I won't speak for him, I will say, I could tell he was concentrating. : )

Twenty-five or so minutes after we started up, we finally made it up the 9 miles, 4,700 feet and the final 400 feet and 90 degree, I'mean, 40-50 degree slope of dome and were up top!  What a view, what a relief, and how exhausting, mentally and physically.  We congratulated one another, I laid immediately down, Jeff walked around, we took pictures, and we listened to others congratulate one another for making it to the top and marvel at the wonder around them.  Wow . . . we couldn't believe the view, were happy we made it, and were very tired.

After about an hour on top, we decided to work our way down to have lunch below the Sub-Dome (we wanted all of the danger of that out of our way).  So, we walk back up to the cables, look below at the little dots of people below us and try to see over the hump that slopes so quickly you can't see all the way down (this would be the most daunting view of the hike!), turn around to face the dome to slide down, holding on for dear life. Thankfully, going down was not nearly as frightening nor physically challenging as up.  I held onto the right cable, my cap shielded the view of the rest of the valley from my eyes so I would not see what I could tumble down to in an instant, and I took baby steps as Jeff waited patiently for me to catch up with his sliding down the slope.  We passed several going up this time (we didn't meet any on the way up), encouraged them to hang in there and that it "gets better and down is much easier."  One woman, just as she passed us, began crying, saying wanted to turn around to her husband (it really is scary!), as their little 10 year-old boy followed her.  And then one Persian man passed us as he would run up a few steps (this was still the 40 degree slope).
Hanging on for dear life!

We made it down both domes, not slipping (praise God!), not tumbling 1,000 ft to our deaths, as a few have, and happy it was behind us.  Lunch, then our 4 mile hike back down, down, down, to the pool just above Nevada Falls to recharge, take some ibuprofen, and rest our feet and knees.  Jeff pumped some water for some college boys who didn't take their gallon of water per person up with them, chatted with them, crossed the river over the bridge, and headed down the John Muir Trail back to the Valley Floor.

Eighteen miles.  4,700 feet up and back down again. Eleven hours.  Four hours in the car back home (probably not the way to do the ride home). : )

If you are in Yosemite, and want the challenge of a lifetime, Half Dome is it.  It is the hardest hike of the Valley and probably the hardest hike I will ever do.  If you do decide you would like to do it, train for it and get prepared. It is not easy and at times, dangerous even for those in excellent shape and even if you aren't afraid of heights.  You have to want to do it and you must be in shape for it.  Many have had heart attacks climbing the cables and healthy folks have made fatal mistakes on the hike and in the valley. Be prepared!

So, every experience should have a lesson learned, right?  I would say probably the obvious:  overcoming fear and the rewards thereof.  It was an amazing experience and, although not always "fun," it was mostly fun and worth it.  We hurt, could barely move after for about half a day, but we got to see things otherwise unseen by us, challenge ourselves and test our limits.  We got to do something big together and work as a team.  There is also a camaraderie between those who have shared the same experience that is fun to relate with others you may have nothing else in common with.  I have also never done something that was viewed as "dangerous" (other than driving the highway to work every day). Kinda fun, but won't be something I do often.

Here are more pics of the adventure:

We didn't take any without me in it, here,
but this shows the sheer rock face on the dome.
"The Saddle" between Half Dome (left) and the Sub Dome (right).
If you look closely, you can see hikers hiking the cables.
These are the climbers we met at Nevada Falls.
They climbed the SW side of the Dome while we did the cables.
More pics of the trip here. Click on the first photo to view a larger version and then click "next." : ) 

This is a San Francisco Chronicle article called "Danger on the Dome," if you're interested in reading more about it:


  1. It sounds like you are more afraid of heights than I am, yet I'm not sure I could do the cables.

  2. Hello, Great write-up. I couldnt feel my legs while reading the cable and descent part. I pretty much imagined myself in that place and felt my legs shaking. :-).
    But I still wanna do it. I am afraid of height but always wanted to be in the heights and enjoy the beauty up there. What would you say to overcome the fear. you mention some prep work is needed, what are some of prep work ? I am more worried about dome part. any dos and donts ?
    appreciate your comments. thanks.

    1. I just realized you commented (several years later!)! I hope, if you have hiked Half Dome, it went well! If not and it's still on your bucket list, I would say prepare by doing some longer challenging hikes to get your joints in prepared (the knees, hips and feet really take a pounding) and get your climbing legs ready by hiking up some hills or mountains. We hiked Mission Peak a few times, which is a local difficult hike with 2,000 ft of ascent and is about 6 miles long to prepare. Make sure your heart is in shape, either by hiking some difficult hikes, running, cycling up hills, etc. I would make sure you have some upper body strength, as well, to support yourself climbing up on the cables (I've always done pushups and dips, and this seemed sufficient). Best of luck!