September 14, 2009

Extreme Leisure: Half-Dome for Dummies

A 17 miles, 14.5 hour hike up and down a rocky mountain with a 4,800" elevation gain is not typically the first thing that comes to mind when you think of leisure. However, since most Half-Dome climbers aren't getting paid to scale that beast, I suppose it technically is. ..and this is the story about my recent experience making the trek without having any training, being over weight, having had 4 hips surgeries, and in the company of 4 dads.

If you read an guides on climbing Half Dome they will usually suggest buying hiking shoes and gear long in advance so that you can break them in and test them out. I bought my shoes, Camelback, trekking poles, and water bottles 4 days before. I recommend not doing this. This should give you a good idea of just how prepared I was for this venture.

Parking to Trail Head
We arrived at our parking space around 6 a.m., sunlight was just barely peaking over the valley walls. The first portion of the Half Dome excursion is the excessively long journey from the car to the trailhead, for some reason there is no parking close to the beginning of the was a fun portion of unneccesary walking with 50 pounds on your back that I was very much looking forward to on the way least there was no incline.

The Mist Trail
The actual trail begins with steep yet paved trails up through the valley. It was at this portion of the hike that I was most discouraged and feared that I would not make it very far. My faulty hip was getting too tired to fast, fortunately, no other portion of the hike (exluding cable climb) was as rigorous. The paved paths turn into rocky man-made steps up along the cliff next to 2 water falls. The motion of my leg climbing steps is much easier on it than climbing stepless inclines, so I was reinvigorated by this new section and by the natural beauty of the stunning waterfalls. Here is where you meet a lot of kids on unserious hikers just making the couple hour journey up to see some waterfalls. There were also some non-English speaking Japanese people, clearly not dressed for this activity, that became our hiking buddies for a goo portion of the Mist Trail.

Little Yosemite Valley
When you reach the top of the waterfalls there is a bathroom. A bathroom that signals the beginning of the flattest portion of the trek, something I'm very grateful for. It was at this bathroom that a very fit dad and his two kids warned us of the "Step of Agony" refering to the sub-dome portion of the trail we had yet to face. This was definitely the part of the trail I was fearing the most, much more than the cable climb, and these kids only sealed the deal. The valley portion of the trail has soft sand for the mule riders taking their trip up to the dome in luxury. The sand his hard to walk through but if you're lucky a harder trail will have been blazed to the side. It was at this portion that it was obvious that the beefy spaghetti sauce we had all eaten for dinner the night before may not have been the best idea. much farting...John Muir would be displeased by our pollution.

Switchbacks to the Sub-Dome
After you hike through the valley you reach a endless trail of swithback leading up to the mountain's crest. Taking lots of breaks you meet a lot of different people passing you and we also met our first people coming back down. There was a pair of young guys who had been on the top of the dome for sunset. A guy and his dad who had been hiking for 30 days at that point, starting from Oregon and heading to their destination, a wedding in Mexico. By this point I was a machine in constant movement of the hills, the rest stops became the hardest part of the climb because starting up again was getting too difficult. On the mountain's crest we could see perhaps one of the most beautiful landscapes my eyes had ever seen.

The Sub-Dome
This was by far the portion I was most fearing, but as we sat on a log resting before tackling this portion we were taken aback by a man wearing flip-flops. He was French and obviously in excellent physical condition. He is also most likely the only person to ever refer to climbing Half Dome as "some little steps and zen a cable thingy." Those crazy French! So we began the dome ascent, and it turns out that it is not at all the most terrible part of the hike, an actually quite fun! Just don't trip or it will be a very steep and painful fall. I was extremely invigorated by how easy this portion of the trail was and ready for the real dome.

Some little steps and cable thingy.

The Dome

After hiding my trekking poles under a rock, I put on my gloves and attacked the dome. Pulling my self on the metal cables between wooden 2 x 4's, It seemed simple at first. It was only half way up, as my arms were starting to get tired and the rock was only getting steeper with the end seemingly getting farther, I realized that I had put myself in a life threatening situation. It's a long way to fall. And the scariest part is when people are passing you on their way back down. But I finally made it just in time before my arms fell off. And actually, the view from the top of the dome wasn't that spectacular and the top is just a rock, nothing too beautiful. The view from Glacier Point which you can drive to is better, which isn't to say it isn't beautiful atop the dome, it is, its just nothing more amazing than something you can drive too. The only reason for going to the top is for the accomplishment of saying you have made it there, and the honor of buying the shirt in the gift store when you return to the bottom. It was at the top of the dome that I realized the only thing more terrifying than coming up the cables, was going back down. Almost 90 degree angles of slick rock while you cling to a slick cable. One mistake equal dead, one mistake for someone above you also equals dead for you. But I got down, after some real breath-losing moments. And I can say that I will never be climbing those cables again, I want to live, there is no reason to risk my life like that. If you choose to climb the cables be absolutely sure you can, if you have any qualms don't do it! I wouldn't recomend anyone do it, I think there should be more warnings as to the difficulty of this task, but watching so many people going up and down constantly can give a false impression of how easy it is. You have your life and others in your hands. I fully endorse hiking up to the bottom of the cables, because it is amazing and beautiful and exhilarating, but the cables, meh.

Down the Mountain
Going down was pretty uneventful other than viewing the bear that we probably got too close too. Also there was a group of kids going up that were planning on being on top of the dome for sunset...stupid! Anyone who is going to climb those cables in the middle of the night is just stupid.

John Muir Trail
When we reached the bathroom at the top of the mountain we had a nice chat with two actors on their day off from the Rancher Ned show and we game them beef jerky. Here we chose to take the John Muir trail to the bottom rather than the Mist Trail passed the waterfall, it is a couple miles longer but much less steep. Although we finally got back long after sunset in the dark, I am so grateful we took this path. This ended up being my favorite part of the trail. It consists of epic Lord of the Rings style paths carved into the cliffs and as we passed some epic vistas at sunset while a forest fire bured on a far off mountain side I wished I had brought a boom box with me so I could blast that epic Lord of the Rings score...I'll have to do it next time.

We finally made it too the bottom alive, a bus happen to go by that took us right to our car, and then we had an amazingly delicious mediocre meal. ...and then we bought our t-shirts 10 minutes before the store closed.

Here is what I advise if you plan on taking the ultimate casual hikers excursion. Go on some practice hikes, take a lot of water, take a lot of protein bars and energy foods, don't push too hard, just "stroll with a goal," rest every hour or so, and get some trekking poles if you can, I probably wouldn't have made it to the top without them, they take so much pressure off your legs. Have a positive attitude, talk with the other people on the trail, you should have a great time, just don't climb the cables unless you know you can handle it.

In the end I proved to the world, my family, and myself that I can do a 17 mile hike without training and that I'm maybe in better physical condition than one might think, at least in better condition than my dad. I'm ready to hike some more.

Leisure on!


  1. Congrats!

    Rick Deutsch ("Mr. Half Dome")
    Speaker, Adventurer, Author
    "One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome"
    . . . . getting you to the top of YOUR mountain.

  2. wow, congrats on making the trek! I didn't know about your hip problems, just makes it an even bigger accomplishment!