Our Misty Half Dome Summit Attempt
Half Dome is a mountain that is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. The iconic mountain is probably the most recognizable landmark in Yosemite National Park, and each day of the summer season hundreds of people make summit attempts. About 50,000 hikers climb Half Dome every year. In 1919 year, the Park Service added metal posts, foot rungs, and cables that allowed the steep granite dome to be climbed without the use of technical climbing gear. Each year the cables are put up in the spring and taken down in the winter before the snow flies.
Besides the obvious draw of views from the summit of Half Dome, the route passes Vernal and Nevada waterfalls. The trail climbs thousands of granite stairs built into the side of steep slopes, follows the beautiful Merced River, and leads you through towering ponderosa pine and sequoia forests.
The hike up Half Dome is so popular that the National Park Service has implemented a permit system for the cables at the summit as well as for Sub Dome, the smaller dome prior to the summit. We visited Yosemite in early October with Ian’s family, right before the cables were pulled down for the winter season. Most of the permits are awarded months in advance through a lottery system. We were able to obtain a walk-up backcountry permit a couple of days before our hike to allow us to make a summit attempt.
The trail doesn’t require a permit until you get to the Sub Dome of the mountain, so you could still enjoy most of the hike without one. Our permit was checked by a park ranger near the Little Yosemite Valley Campground on our way down the mountain. We were certainly glad that we had the permit, because the group of hikers coming down behind us didn’t have one! You can be given up to a $5,000 fine or six months in jail for not having a permit!
Hiking Half Dome is strenuous, although we did not find it to be particularly technical. The hike is over 17 miles long and you gain 4,800 feet of elevation. On the other hand, since this is one of the most popular trails in the park, it’s a very well built trail, with stone stairs, switchbacks, and even a few bathrooms!
Although the cables are probably the most intimidating part of the hike for most people, the majority of rescues on Half Dome are related to dehydration and unpreparedness. Ian and I are in pretty good shape for hiking and have done some very challenging hikes over the past six months of traveling in our van. Ian’s sister and dad who hiked with us specifically trained for Half Dome by hiking Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park multiple times in the months approaching our Yosemite trip.
It rained most of the time we were in Yosemite, so rain gear was a must for us and should be for anyone hiking Half Dome since afternoon storms are common near the summit. The dome is nearly 5,000 feet higher than Yosemite Valley, and extra layers should be packed, because it’s colder and windier on the exposed dome. Most hikers also bring a pair of leather gloves to use on the cables, although I ended up using mine just to keep my hands warm!
We each brought about a gallon of water, but I also packed some lightweight Aquamira water treatment drops in case we ran out of water and needed to get some from the river. You will also want plenty of food to fuel you to the top and a small first aid kit. One thing people may not realize is that if you have to go on the trail you can bury your solid waste in a cat hole, but you have to pack out the toilet paper. Fortunately it did not come to that for any of us, because there are several bathrooms along the way. You definitely wouldn’t want to forget a Ziploc bag though, in case it did come to that!
Since Half Dome is such a long day hike it takes between 10 to 14 hours for most hikers. You will want to get an “alpine start,” which just means starting really early. We started our day at 5:15 am with Ian’s entire family eating breakfast inside our van. It was pretty funny to have everyone gathered around eating instant oatmeal in such a small space. I think it was the only time that we’ve “entertained” in our van.
We hit the trail around 5:45 am, stopping of course for the obligatory photo at the trailhead sign. Of course that photo didn’t really turn out because it was still completely dark. We hiked in the dark for about the first mile, before I was able to turn off my headlamp.
The hike begins on the Mist Trail, leading you past Vernal and Nevada Falls early on. This first portion is very steep, but it is also paved until you reach the bridge and bathroom at the base of Vernal Falls. There is also potable running water here.
It was predicted to rain all day, and the sun rose accordingly. While I wish I could say we witnessed a red sun rising above the misty Vernal Falls, that was not the case. The sky just kind of slowly transitioned from black to gray to white.
Still Vernal Falls was pretty even in the dim morning light. The water just falls off the edge of a sheer granite wall that has been smoothed and colored by years of tumbling waters. What was most impressive to us about this waterfall, though, was the rhythmic sound it made as it hits the rocks at the bottom of the wall. It’s nothing like the soothing sound of many waterfalls—it’s more of an erratic thwacking sound. The water was running very low when we were visiting in October, so we may not have had the typical Mist Trail experience. The only mist we experienced was from the sky, not from the waterfalls.
To reach the top of Vernal Falls, you climb up many steep granite stairs. Some are built into a narrow ledge along a cliff with just a metal railing to hold onto. At the top of the falls you can walk along a guardrail that allows you to explore the top of the waterfall, but not get too close to the edge.
Above Vernal Falls is the beautiful but treacherous Emerald Pool. The river runs into the pool across the Silver Apron, where its water runs down a smooth granite slope that is temptingly similar to a waterslide. While the pool looks still, there are strong deep currents that have caused even strong swimmers to be swept over the waterfall or to drown in the cold water of the pool itself when they are unable to swim back to the shore. On our way back down we saw foolish people ignoring the many signs posted near the water and swimming in the pool anyway.
After crossing the footbridge across the Merced River, you continue to climb stone staircases as you approach Nevada Falls. The 594-foot waterfall free falls for about the first 200 feet and then hits a rock outcrop, which causes it to spray out at an angle. The trail passes the base of the falls, and then the hike splits to the left as it begins to curve toward the backside of Half Dome. There is a pit toilet at the top of Nevada Falls.
Beyond Nevada Falls, the trail is actually pretty flat until you reach the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers’ campground. Then the switchbacks begin! I thought that this section was quite a bit easier than the really steep steps by the waterfalls, but it’s also much higher in elevation at this point. Ian and I had been at around 5,000 to 8,000 feet for about a week prior to our hike so we were somewhat acclimated, but Ian’s dad and sister who live at sea level said they started to feel the altitude mildly at this point.
The Sub Dome
As we got nearer to the Sub Dome, it got mistier, until we were inside the clouds covering the valley. Looking out in all directions, it was just a complete white void. This “view” was actually really cool, but it was also a good indication that we probably would not be able to climb the cables due to wet conditions. We talked to a few hikers who were already coming down, and they said it was just too slippery to go more than a few planks up the cables.
You arrive quite suddenly at the Sub Dome, and very quickly you are just on open bare rock. The slope is incredibly steep, but there are granite stairs built onto the slope for the first part of the Sub Dome. You reach a point though where there are no longer any steps, and you are just walking on the bare side of the mountain.
The granite on Sub Dome isn’t as slick as the rock on the cables, because people are more dispersed in where they walk, unlike on the cables where a two-foot-wide polished track has been worn by years of hiking boots. However, there are little pea-sized gravel pieces on the surface of the rock, which makes it slippery and a bit scary to walk on.
The most frightening part is that all around you the dome just drops off into nothingness, and for us it was a total white void surrounding us. I’m not sure if the cloud cover made it better or worse. But after just a few terrifying minutes of hiking, we were on top of the Sub Dome.
The Half Dome Cables
Once you are on Sub Dome, you are looking the cables square in the face, although for us clouds mostly obscured them. Those cables and planks appear to go straight up. To reach the cables, you have to cross a narrow saddle with steep drop-offs on either side.
We talked to the other hikers hanging out at this spot, and they said the furthest anyone had made it was about five planks up the cables before deciding it was too wet and slippery from the mist and the heavy rains the day before. We decided that we wouldn’t make any attempt on the cables, because of the wet conditions.
It was definitely disappointing to not be able to summit, especially because it wasn’t outright raining, but the rock was still very wet. However, we knew that of the six deaths that have happened on the cables since 2006, five were caused by wet conditions. We wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the view from the top because of the cloud cover anyway. Still it’s always hard to turn back from something you have been anticipating for months.
Lots of people were taking photos on the bottom few rungs however, and we even saw a proposal up a few planks up the cables. (That must have been the most nervous eight and half miles that man has ever hiked!) We decided not to wait in line for the photo op, because pizza down below in the valley was calling our names.
For me, descending from Sub Dome until you reach where the steps left off was the scariest part of the hike. It felt like if you slipped at all, you would just keep sliding! I even had to scoot my butt down in one spot where fear totally overtook me. Everyone else in our group was fine though.
We descended the switchbacks and flat portion of the trail past the Little Yosemite Valley campground easily. The trail really began to get busy with other visitors around Nevada Falls. We were pretty footsore and knee-tired at this point, but it was satisfying knowing that we had hiked so much more than the other hikers who were only going to the waterfalls—and it was only early afternoon! My knees were definitely feeling the descent when we hit the pavement at the base of Vernal Falls. That last mile actually felt more physically taxing to me than any portion of the climb up.
Once in the valley, we got pizza and beers at the Half Dome Village Pizza Patio. Ian and I split a pizza that was piled with toppings called the Tresidder, and pizza has never tasted so good! (If you visit the Pizza Patio, make sure to ask for the “TreeSlider” Pizza.) Despite being unable to climb the cables to the summit, we still felt very accomplished by our hike up (most of) Half Dome.