Half Dome via The Cables
Updated: Sep 4
Date: July 21, 2022
Distance: 16.68 Miles
Total Elapsed Time: 16h 12m
Total Moving Time: 10h 22m
Highest Elevation: 8,832 Feet
Elevation Gain: 5,020 Feet
Trailhead: Trailhead Parking Lot, Near Upper Pines Campground
Previous Ascent(s): N/A
The Golden Ticket
It's still hard to imagine, but this entire adventure started with an unexpected Facebook message in April asking if I'd like to hike Half Dome! My friends Sue and Kevin had a permit for July 21, and they told me one spot was for me if I wanted it; heck yeah! This would be my first visit to Yosemite National Park, and I was jazzed. Hiking Half Dome has lingered on my bucket list as a close second to summiting Mount Whitney (which I'm scheduled to do in August!).
My loose schedule was to drive to Midpines on Tuesday the 19th, do the Half Dome hike on Thursday, perhaps hike to Clouds Rest on Friday and return home on Saturday. The "in-between" time I would spend searching for survey marks and completing some smaller hikes in the Park. On the drive home Saturday, I would stop in Frazier Park and hike Sawmill Mountain as it's one of the peaks on my SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge (but that's another trip report!)
Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort
We stayed at the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines. This was a very cool resort, with a mix of cabins with private suites, tent cabins, and youth hostel-style dormitory rooms; there were even vacation rental units available. We had a hostel room that could sleep five. The perspective in the pictures below makes it look bigger than it was, and we did need minor Tetris skills to stow all our gear, especially when we added the coolers, but it worked out well. There were two common access bathrooms at the end of the hall (as well as some downstairs that were accessible from outside by keypad code). Surprisingly, the arrangement didn't pose much of a problem, and I never needed to resort to using the downstairs facilities. Even though the downstairs shower likely had better water pressure than ours!
I grabbed a top bunk (first pic) and found it quite comfortable, especially with the air conditioning vent right above my bed! I have to think hard about the last time I slept in a bunk bed, and it was likely back in the early 80s when I was living in the dorm at my first permanent duty station in the U.S. Air Force. 🤣
I flip-flop between referring to the "Bug" as a resort and a hostel, the terms seem at opposite ends of the spectrum when describing accommodations, but I found elements of both here. Most of the units seemed to be carved into the hillside, and I got my share of stair climbing in just walking between the Spa, the June Bug Cafe, our dorm room, and the Ridgetop overflow parking area where we watched the developing Oak Fire rage on Friday only a few miles from the resort.
I booked a couple of appointments for the private soaking tubs in the spa, large stainless steel soaking tubs with my choice of bath salts and essential oils. Trust me, after a full day of driving; a muscle relaxation/rejuvenation bath was just what the doctor ordered! The atmosphere was serene, and I felt every bit like a "resort" guest. The night before our hike, I took advantage of the energizing soak to get my mind and body in the right space for the challenges to come.
The drive from the hostel to the Park takes about an hour with no traffic, and thankfully, there were few people on the road at 4:00 a.m. We arrived at the Trailhead Parking lot a little after 5:00 a.m. after a mostly uneventful drive; we encountered a large blowdown tree inside the Park that almost completely spanned the road! In the dark, traveling behind Kevin's car, I didn't see the tree until he swerved to miss it; thankfully, I was paying attention and mirrored his move, narrowly missing the huge tree. You could tell by the scattered tree limbs and debris on the road that at least one person had hit it! 😬
We parked, geared up, and headed towards the Mist Trail trailhead; I clicked the record button on my GAIA GPS App at 5:35 as we set out across the parking lot. We crossed the Happy Isles Fen Boardwalk and followed the trail to the official trailhead. The beginning stretch seemed more like a walk through a city park, but the paved trail soon gave way to hard-packed decomposed granite, dirt, and rocks. The walk through this section was picturesque, right down to the first restroom we passed that looked like a rustic stone cottage.
Like I do when cycling Double Centuries (200-mile events), I break my hikes into segments or milestones. Rather than focus on the almost 17 miles and 5,000 feet of vertical gain I would cover today, I mentally broke the day into five smaller sections: the Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Little Yosemite Valley, Sub-Dome, and Half Dome itself. Along the way, I'd pause to take pictures, enjoy the beauty of the Park, rest, and snack.
The Vernal Falls
The paved and beaten path quickly transitioned to more than 600 granite steps that led to the top of the Vernal Falls. I suppose the Mist Trail was so named because the trail follows so close to the falls that under normal water conditions, the trail is enshrouded in mist and spray from the falls. Today, however, the steps were bone dry, which made for safe (and dry) passage. Descending on these stairs when they are wet would be a tricky proposition.
As a group, we had discussed bypassing the stairs on the return trip, instead connecting with the John Muir Trail (JMT) as that route included switchbacks rather than stairs. After what would promise to be a long day, ending on the stairs would be unnecessarily brutal on our knees. As I passed each, I made a mental note of the two JMT connections, the one below the falls and the one above.
I've always been more of a peakbagger than a waterfall chaser, so I was duly impressed by the falls despite the low water levels, and I was constantly stopping to take pictures and video. It's just as hard to pick a favorite as it is to capture the beauty of the landscape in a single frame, a feeling that I would have all day long, but this was one of my favorite videos of the Vernal Falls.
My group was perpetually ahead of me, given my slower pace and stopping frequently to take pictures, I usually refer to this as "hiking solo with friends" 🤣 however they were waiting for me at the top of the falls. I reached the top of the falls at 7:20 am, covering the 2.5 miles and 1,100 feet of vertical gain in an hour and forty-five minutes. My crew headed out as I took more videos and pictures from the top, watching and listening to the water as it flowed over the Silver Apron into the Emerald Pool. I had contemplated stringing my hammock up in the trees next to the water's edge, but I knew I'd pay for any unplanned delays on the backside of the hike, so I grabbed a few more pictures and started the next segment to the trail split for Nevada Falls.
I spent about a half hour putzing around the Emerald Pool, and I hated to leave, but the next section of climbing was calling. A well-defined trail of small rocky switchbacks worked its way up, but I don't recall it being as elaborate or purposeful as the steps in the previous section. Honestly, I was focused on getting to the trail junction where the route would level out as it crossed Little Yosemite Valley. As such, I didn't take as many pictures on this segment; I stayed focused on the trail and was "leap-frogging" a family of five on their way to Nevada Falls.
There was no need to check my GAIA GPS as I went, the trail was easy to follow, and I knew I had to climb a total of 2,000 feet from the valley floor to Nevada Falls; this section covered 1.5 miles and 900 feet of gain. Steadily working my way up, I reached the trail junction in an hour and fifteen minutes; at 9:00 a.m., the tough part was done (at least until I reached Sub-Dome). I recorded this video of Nevada Falls on my way up; I figured I'd be able to get views from the top on my return trip. As it turned out, I skipped the JMT section and descended the way I came saving an extra 1.5 miles of hiking under headlamps at the end of an already long day. 🤷🏻♂️
Little Yosemite Valley
I stopped briefly at the trail junction with the JMT that led to the top of Nevada Falls; again, I expected to descend that route, so I wasn't too concerned about going to check it out now to get pictures. I dropped my pack, took out a few snacks, and checked my water supply. It had been a cool morning, and most of the hike had been in the shade, so my hydration bladder was still mostly full. I had started with 3 liters in the bladder and 1 liter in my collapsable bottle (with electrolyte mix). I finished the electrolytes while I had my snack and planned to filter water to top off before leaving the valley.
The next section promised to be hot but relatively flat, an acceptable trade-off with the constant climbing I had done up to this point. Thankful that I brought my Gossamer Gear UL Umbrella, I attached it to my pack strap before crossing the valley. I received a lot of envious looks from thru-hikers and day-trippers alike, and more than one person wanted to know where they could get one! I've said it before; this umbrella is a game changer. The silver reflective material usually nets a 5-10 degree temperature differential and allows me to feel all the breeze without the sun beating down on me.
After about 30 minutes, I reached the sign that signaled the last water source for those going on to Half Dome. I filtered a bottle to top off my hydration bladder, then filtered another to take with me. It was 4.5 miles to Half Dome, which meant 9 miles back to the water source; in retrospect, I should have brought one of my 2L storage bottles, but 4L would have to get me through that 9 miles.
I continued across the valley and stopped in the shade at around 7,000 feet, at the base of the switchbacks that began my next segment to Sub-Dome. I'd covered three more miles and added another 1,000 feet in vertical gain in the two hours and fifteen minutes I'd been moving. With only two miles to the summit, I decided this would be a good spot for lunch. Surprisingly, I found I had cell service, so I sent a few pictures and text messages to my family to let them know I was doing well and closing in on my goal. After lunch, I made some adjustments to my knee brace, geared up, and started the trek to the base of the Sub-Dome, where I would meet up with the rest of my crew and get the mandatory safety briefing for climbing the cables.
I arrived at the base of Sub-Dome at 1:00 p.m. to see my friends waving and calling out to me. I hadn't seen them since they left Vernal Falls, so I imagine they had a good rest while waiting for me to arrive. They had already checked in with the Park Ranger, so I just needed to listen to the safety briefing before starting up Sub-Dome, but I need a snack and electrolyte break. I finished my snacks and was ready to go in about 20 minutes, but we waited a little longer due to the timing of groups coming and going.
My crew was well rested, and it was no surprise that they spirited up the Sub-Dome quickly; this climb was only 500 feet of vertical gain in 0.31 miles, but some say it is more challenging than climbing the cables to Half Dome. The route is mostly on steps hewn from the granite, with a few sketchier sections where the steps disappear, and you are crossing smooth granite. No handrails, no cables. Of course, the order of my day continued to be "Slow and Steady." I carefully picked my way up the side of the dome, pausing periodically to make sure I was following the right track, finally cresting the top and seeing my team resting by a boulder.
I knew the views from the top of Half Dome could not be surpassed, but I still stopped along the way up Sub-Dome to take in two views and snap some quick pictures: Clouds Rest and Little Yosemite Valley with the Cascade Cliffs as the backdrop. One used the wide-angle feature on my iPhone (28mm), and the second was with the telephoto feature (77mm).
Once I met up with my team, we sat for about 45 minutes watching people go up and down the cables and congratulating those we recognized as they returned successfully. Despite the time of day, there appeared to be a lot of traffic on the cables, but it didn't look like anyone was moving for a while. As we watched and listened to reports filtering back from people just coming off the cables, one or more people were experiencing anxiety on the descent and had created a bottleneck. After what seemed like forever, they started moving again, and everyone made it down safely. During this process, we had been kicking around all the variables, pros, and cons of a late afternoon ascent with the volume of traffic on the cables. Each of my team independently decided that today was not their day.
I respected their decisions and let them know that I was still going for it. I put my climbing harness on and swapped lanyards with Sue since she wasn't going up and had a lanyard much lighter than mine. (Sidebar: I couldn't find a lightweight lanyard on short notice, so I purchased a construction-grade shock-absorbing fall protection lanyard at Home Depot. It would have worked fine; it just weighed at least twice what the PETZL Scorpio Vertigo Via Ferrata lanyard weighed! 🤣)
They cheered me on and took photos as I started my ascent.
According to the Park Service, the final 400-foot ascent up the peak's steep (45 - 60º) east face follows a pair of metal cables raised on metal posts that lead to the summit; between some (but not all) posts is a piece of wood bracketed to the post. This cable route was constructed in 1919 by the Sierra Club and had a major renovation completed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); and has become one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite National Park.
But Is It Safe?
A permit system was instituted in 2011 to control access to the route, limiting preseason permits to 225 hikers per day, with a daily lottery available to distribute canceled permits. Prior to the permit lottery system, it wasn't uncommon for 1,000 people a day to make the journey on a summer weekend.
There have been 13 fatalities on the cable route since it was established in 1919. Of course, a single fatality is one too many, but given the volume of people that have climbed this route over the years, that seems very low. The cables are bolted into the granite face of the dome, following much the same route as the first ascent by George Anderson in 1857. They are raised to waist height and supported by metal posts between May and October; the posts are removed during the winter (the cables remain bolted to the rock face, and you could technically still use them.) The most significant factor in fatalities on the climb is the weather. Wet conditions and the presence of lightning should be avoided at all costs, yet many deaths have occurred because people were climbing, or were caught, in hazardous conditions.
So the answer is yes, it's safe, with the understanding that you must use good judgment, know your abilities, be prepared mentally and physically for a very strenuous and demanding hike, and know when to turn around and say "not today."
Rock climbing gear (harness and a shock absorbing lanyard system) is not required, and many people forgo this safety gear, but I used it for my climb and unequivocally would do so again.
My stats on ascent surprised me when I sat down and calculated them. I didn't have anyone directly in front of me, so I could control my pace. I did encounter a few people as they were coming down, and I always gave them the option of passing me or letting me pass them; it was about an even split. I covered the 400-foot ascent in 37 minutes, including stopping twice to let people pass me on their way down and letting one person behind me come around and pass me on the way up.
I had my full pack; however, I left my trekking poles, umbrella, and heavy lanyard below with my friends. I wore half-finger leather climbing gloves and my AKU Alterra GTX hiking boots. I worked up the right side cable using a hand-over-hand method, mostly using upper body strength to pull me from post to post. I hooked my leg around the post while transferring the lanyard carabiner on the cable from one side to the other. This system worked well, and I found myself cruising up the cables.
My Ascent As Viewed From Below
Thanks to Kevin for taking these pictures of me making my ascent. The first woman I met on my way up simply sat down and clung to a post while I passed by; others wanted to keep moving, and I hooked my leg around a post while I waited for them to pass by. There were two guys behind me; the one directly behind me passed me just before I reached the top, and the other guy never caught up to me (noted in my pictures above). The last picture in this series is me cresting the top just before going out of sight from below, I still had a ways to go, but it was more level and easy walking.
Half Dome SUMMIT!
First things first, my Live Feed from the summit! This is unscripted and a little shaky; I was tired, dehydrated, and probably rambling a bit (as well as calling the Via Ferrata Lanyard setup a Frittata!) 😂🤣
I spent a little over a half hour on the summit, wandering around, taking a few pictures but mostly trying to soak up the views. The photos and videos don't do it justice; you have to experience it. Looking over the edge, 4,000 feet down to the valley floor, was amazing.
I remember telling someone at the summit that this was a "one-and-done" summit, I put a check next to that item on my bucket list, and it wasn't likely that I'd be back. As I prepare this trip report, go through my photos, and re-experience the day, the fatigue, dehydration, and overwhelming sense of accomplishment I was feeling may have colored my perspective.
I realized after I got down that I had not taken near the photos or videos I'd wanted to. I was too focused on getting back down as I still had 8.5 miles to hike, and I knew I'd be slow. Perhaps, I will go back, maybe camping in Little Yosemite Valley and making Half Dome a doable day hike rather than a 16-hour epic adventure. Who knows? 🤔
For now, here are some of my photos from the summit; I toted Sue's trail buddy Smitten to the summit at her request. She and George had photos together on Mt. San Jacinto, and now they can add Half Dome to the album. 😉
What goes up, must come down, and down I went! I found that the descent was easier than the ascent, if only because I had gravity working with me. 🤣 I walked over to the point where the rock pitched down, turned around, clipped onto the cable, and started down backward. However, I found that my boots didn't have the same traction going down, and I quickly slid to the next post, the cable zipping through my gloved hands. 😬
I transferred my carabiner to the other side of the post and reevaluated my process. I applied pressure to the cable, pushing it down as I backed up step-by-step. This allowed me to stand more perpendicular to the rock face, and I didn't slip as much, so I kept at it and managed to fall into a consistent pace. About halfway down, I shifted my grip to hold a cable in each hand, pulled each towards me, and backed down. This was the most efficient and fastest way down with no one else on the cables. I descended in 22 minutes.
Once off the cables, I turned and headed back to where I'd left my crew, but they had already gone; my gear was sitting on the rock where I left it, and a kid was sitting nearby, likely waiting for someone still at the summit. I gathered my stuff and headed down the Sub-Dome, thinking my friends were waiting in the shade near the point where we checked in earlier in the afternoon. I stopped briefly at the top of Sub-Dome to put my other knee brace on, then continued.
On the way down, I noticed a helicopter circling and ultimately landing not far from the check-in spot. The helo was gone when I finally made it back to the trail. Two CalFire folks were standing by a pile of gear and told me to clear out as the helicopter was coming back to pick them up. I learned later that they had performed a rescue for someone that had a heat-related illness. I passed two more groups of CalFire personnel on my way back to Little Yosemite Valley, but they appeared to be involved in a training exercise.
The Return Trip
At this point, my immediate focus was to get back to the water source and filter enough water to get back to the car. I had been rationing my water throughout the day, but I knew I was running low. I maintained a good pace considering I'd been up since 3:30 a.m. and had successfully hiked the cables to Half Dome on a sweltering hot day, but I ran out of water about a mile from the river. Not optimal, but manageable.
At the source, I completely refilled my hydration bladder, made a bottle of electrolyte mix I drank on the spot, then filtered an extra liter for my collapsable bottle. Refreshed, somewhat confident that I had enough water to drink freely the rest of the way, I pulled my headlamp out of my pack and headed towards the JMT intersection at the top of the Mist Trail. Based on my pace, I expected to have about an hour and a half under headlamps.
When I reached the trail junction, the JMT option was 4.0 miles back to Happy Isles, while the Mist Trail (the way I came) was only 2.5 miles. I didn't give it a second thought; I headed back down the Mist Trail, opting for the "devil I knew" in the shorter route, especially since I had an additional mile and a half from Happy Isles to the Trailhead Parking lot.
My only real concern about descending all those stairs was how my knees would hold up. I had done remarkably well on both the cables and Sub-Dome, so I was deliberate and careful as I descended and didn't have any problems. I covered the four miles in under two hours and was back at the car before 10:00 p.m. I still had an hour's drive back to the hostel and REALLY wanted to get something to eat, but at least I had completed the hike.
There was nothing open on my drive back to the hostel, so I continued into Mariposa, looking for a 7-Eleven or something where I could get some food. I eventually found an all-night liquor store where I bought some chocolate milk and chips. It was almost midnight when I finally walked into our room. Much to my chagrin, the power and water had been out all day! UGH! So much for that hot shower to wash off the day's grit. Still, I was content. It had been a long day, but I had conquered the cables. It wasn't the longest hike I'd done or the highest peak I've summited, but it WAS a unique and rewarding experience.
Relive® 3D Video of Today's Hike
The Day After
I had originally planned to hike Clouds Rest the next day, it was another challenging peak on my list, plus there was a survey mark to be recovered at the summit. 😉 However, given the long day and energy I expended on this hike, I chose to take Friday as a "Chill" day and spent the day in the Park looking for survey marks and taking pictures of the sights in Yosemite NP. I recovered 38 survey marks this past week in total, so expect an upcoming article detailing those recoveries.
Driving on Wawona Road, I noticed a huge smoke plume from a new fire and stopped to take pictures of it. At the time, I thought it was the Washburn Fire flaring up again, but I would learn on my way back to the hostel that it was a new fire, the Oak Fire, that started about 4.5 miles from the resort!
As I was leaving the Park, I paused to get a photo near the entrance sign at El Portal; notice the difference in hue caused by the smoke in the air combined with the afternoon sun!
There were large electric signs outside the Park indicating that Highway 140 was closed; I was unaware of what was going on, so I stopped at a gas station near El Portal and learned of the fire in Midpines. Concerned if I could get to the hostel, multiple people assured me the fire was closer to Mariposa and that I would be able to get to the Yosemite Bug. The first image was my view as I turned into the entrance road of the resort. The remaining photos were taken from the Ridgetop parking area above our dorm unit.
Water and power were still out at the Resort, so I decided to leave Friday night, driving to Fresno, where I got a hotel room for the night. I slept in Saturday and headed home, stopping over briefly in Frazier Park to hike Mt. Pinos and Sawmill Mountain, Sawmill being on my list of hikes for the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge; but that's another trip report! 😉