Yosemite’s Half Dome Full Bore: 16 Miles, 4737 Feet

It’s definitely a hike. Getting to the top of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome summit requires a sturdy body and a sound mind. Successful summits also include sticky-soled shoes, grippy gloves, a water bottle, and a lottery ticket. That’s right. Access to the summit is awarded by a lottery process through Recreation.gov for a modest fee. Two hundred and twenty five hikers and seventy-five backpackers win each day.

Assuming you’re a lucky winner, preparation to climb the rock is essential. The route is a 14 mile round trip hike from Mist Trail, 16 miles round trip from the John Muir Trail, and 20 miles out and back from Glacier Point. Add 4,800 feet of vertical and the value of physical prep looms large.

The hike takes between 10-14 hours for the average hiker, devouring much of the available daylight during the season when the cables are up. Cables? Yes. The last 400-foot climb owns a 5.4R degree of difficulty. In climbing language, that means a little help is essential, especially for occasional hikers. In 1919, the Sierra Club installed a series of poles, connected with cables, that assist this last section of the hike. About ten feet apart on each side of the path, the cables allow a non-technical climb to the top.

Once there, however, the experience is surreal, with astounding views of the surrounding landscape that provide a lifetime of good tales to tell. On the way up, exquisite views of the Vernal and the Nevada Falls contribute to the iconic hike. It is truly an epic route that comes with incredibly rewarding feelings of accomplishment, etched with appreciation and respect for this commanding landscape. Read “not for sissies” and “hit the gym” into this preparation. Why?

In addition to the length and duration of the hike, upper body strength comes in handy on the cables should a fellow hiker above lose balance, tumbling down toward unfortunate souls below. Good advice includes donning a personal via ferrata set up, with harness, absorptive lanyard, clipped to the cables with carabiners to ensure safety.

The cables are only up from Memorial Day to about Columbus Day, unscrewed from their secure positions for winter. Climbing this stretch in winter requires ice axes and crampons, along with nerves of steel. Yes, summer is a bit more crowded, but also so much safer.

Additional points to note include bathroom accessibility. Plan for a two hour hold during the cable ascent, viewing, and descent, as there are no facilities. Taking care of business at facilities at Vernal Falls, or at the top of Nevada Falls is the right thing to do. Also, carry a flashlight and/or head lamp. Things happen. Should the route run long, the last section is much easier to navigate with a little light on the trail.

Beginning from shuttle stop #16 at Happy Isles trailhead, there is a half mile strut to the start of one route. Two others are options, but increase mileage, time, and switchbacks. Beginning at dawn, or even bit before, has its rewards, as many fellow lottery winners will still be deciding what to have for breakfast.

Should storm clouds appear, despite your diligent pre-hike weather check, plan to delete the cable section from your climb. Lightning loves Half Dome, and rain-slicked surfaces amp up the danger of slips and falls. Wait for weather and make good choices. Half Dome and Yosemite National Park have been there a long time, and will patiently invite a better day another time minus the electrical thrill.

The last note: don’t forget your camera. This climb will perhaps be the most exquisite landscape you will ever have the privilege to view.

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