My family and I just got back from Yosemite, after a multi-generational hike to the top of Half Dome. This granite dome that sits 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley is often the face of the park and its most unique feature. Some super ambitious people climb Half Dome starting from the bottom of the Valley, but we started our hike from Little Yosemite Valley Campground. Since this was my first time climbing it, I thought I’d share with you some general advice and tips for climbing Half Dome.
Plan what time you want to be on top of the dome and schedule your departure time accordingly. We left Little Yosemite Valley campground a bit after 6:00 AM and were on top of Half Dome by 10. My group stayed up top for less than an hour, was at the bottom of the cables by 11:30 AM, and walked into Little Yosemite Campground by 2 PM. This was also in July, during an extreme heat wave when temperatures ranged from 80°-105°F during the day, even at higher elevations. The heat was ungodly. Looking back, we should have left as early as possible, like 4 or 4:30 AM. At 7 AM the heat was horrible and we all ran out of water during the hike down. (Some of us even carried 3-5 liters!)
Hiking early also allows you more time to ascend, decreases the chances of running into an afternoon thunderstorm, as well as limiting the number of people on the cables with you. More people are on the cables from 11 AM – 2 PM than the other hours of the day.
Unless you are a glutten for punishment, I don’t recommend starting all the way down at the Valley floor (Happy Isle). You have to be in PEAK physical condition and be able to carry around 10 liters of water, electrolytes, food, and more during a hot climb to the summit. My crew was fairly well rested and it took us about 4 hours to get to the summit from the campground, 1 hour on top, and back at camp in about 2.5 hours. That’s 7.5 hours from the campground! If you’re climbing from the bottom, ascending 4800 feet and hiking 16-17 miles total, you may need a headlamp (and an IV!) on the way down. Give yourself the best opportunity to ENJOY the hike by not making it an all day affair. You may hike all day and give up a mile from the cables, or just be too exhausted to continue, let alone head all the way back down. I would only attempt the full all day hike unless you’re a marathoner, elite athlete, or in peak physical performance.
Yosemite National Park recommends hikers pack only 4 liters of water when climbing from the Valley (Happy Isle) to the top of Half Dome. During the heat of the summer, this is NOT ENOUGH. My family of 4 carried a total of 11 liters and we only hiked to the dome from Little Yosemite Valley, which is located at 6,100 feet. Those that start from Happy Isle and the Valley floor have a starting altitude of 4,000 feet. Granted we experienced a rare and extreme heat wave, but it’s always better to have more water than you need. I recommend climbers carry at least 4-5 liters for just themselves, if climbing in the summer from Little Yosemite Valley campground. Yes, I know water is heavy, but there is no water source on this hike after the campground. None.
If you are hiking from Happy Isle (Valley floor), there is treated, clean water at a drinking fountain near the Vernal Fall Footbridge. After that, there is no other clean water source on the hike. You have to filter Merced River water.
If you start from Little Yosemite Valley Campground, there also is no treated, clean water source there. At the campground, the Merced River is your water source, so be sure to bring some kind of water treatment so you can clean and filter your water.
Because high numbers of daily hikers caused perilous conditions, Yosemite National Park instituted a permit system for Half Dome in 2010. You must have a permit to summit the dome. A lottery opens up in March for those planning the hike ahead of time, and there is also a daily lottery where you must submit your request 2 days prior to the day you want to climb.
You should know that a Park Ranger sits at the shoulder of Half Dome making sure those that continue to climb have the proper permission to do so. There are signs all along the trail reminding hikers that you must have a permit to go up Half Dome. You will be turned away if you don’t have one.
However, I have heard of people waiting near the Park Ranger and seeing if anyone with a permit has an extra spot in their party. Lots of time, people bow out of climbing or don’t come with on the trip so there’s an unused space available. If you climb up to the shoulder of the dome without a permit, it’s worth a try to see if anyone has a free spot.
Tip – The Park Ranger will have an iPad with permit information on it, so just in case you forget your permit, they will have your information in the system. However, it’s always better to carry it, just in case!
For our hike from Little Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome, we each carried a small, lightweight pack. As I mentioned, I recommend 4-5 liters of water per person (if climbing in the heat of the summer from Little Yosemite Campground) so use that pack to carry it up, as well as some electrolytes and snacks. (Also pack your harness and via ferrata lanyard if climbing with protection. See paragraph below.) Be sure to have sunscreen packed and wear a hat. Half Dome and it’s shoulder is HOT and exposed to the sun. There is hardly any shade after you emerge from the tree line during the middle hours of the hike; and if you’re hiking in the summer, the heat can just beat down on you. Stay protected from the sun!
Also, be sure not to have anything in an outside pocket of your daypack. This also goes for pants and jacket pockets. Because of the intense angle you’ll be climbing, loose items will likely fall out and be gone forever. In fact, we heard someone’s water bottle fall from their pack onto the granite and everyone on the cables and below watched that bottle “clunk, clunk, clunk” down the rock, scaring us all into reality.
TIP- If climbing from the Valley floor, be sure to bring water treatment so you can filter water from the Merced River.
In my opinon, the ‘shoulder’ of Half Dome is the hardest part of the hike. Many would agree. At the base of the shoulder, a Park Ranger checks permits. This is also where hikers emerge out of the tree line and onto the granite. You can see the area in red in the photo below.
This area is difficult because:
Most people wear hiking boots or gym shoes to climb up Half Dome. Wear a pair of these shoes with great grip. Be sure to also bring good gloves. Not everyone understands the need for gloves when climbing Half Dome, but you need them to prevent blisters and raw palms. The cables that help you ascend are made of steel. There is no plastic or protective coating on them. As you pull yourself on the cables, gloves will protect your hands. Climbers often have a ‘death grip’ on the cables, both ascending and descending, so do yourself a favor and get comfortable, grippy gloves. Even though the park doesn’t approve of this, there is often a pile of leftover gloves at the base of the cables. So, if you forgot gloves, you might get lucky and find a pair that fits.
When you ascend Half Dome with the cables, you are pulling yourself up with your arms, then stepping up the rock. It’s best to be in great physical condition whenever you hike Half Dome, but since there is an element of ‘pulling yourself up,’ just be sure not to skip your upper body workouts before the climb.
Once you hike out of the tree line, finding a good place to urinate becomes complicated. When you reach the shoulder of Half Dome, you won’t find much privacy. And there’s also no privacy on the summit. Just be sure to plan out bathroom stops before you leave the tree line.
Because I was a nervous first-time climber of Half Dome, I looked into safe ways to climb up. I realized that the safest way for myself and my family to hike was with a climbing harness and Via Ferrata lanyard. We each purchased a well-fitting harness and via ferratas prior to the hike and packed them in our daypacks for the Half Dome climb. At the base of the cables, we put on the harness and looped the webbing of the via ferrata into it. (It helped that there was an experienced rock climber in our family that could help us with this!)
This system protects you from a serious fall because as you climb, you use the carabiners on the via ferrata to clip onto the cables. The Via Ferrata becomes your lifeline if you slip and fall because its bungee cords and spring absorb your fall and help you stop, but not too suddenly as to seriously injure yourself. Don’t just wear a harness and clip on a line for security. The line might break or cause you trauma from a sudden stop. Via ferratas work by depleting the energy of the fall, while keeping the climber and their equipment intact.
To be honest, I felt a bit silly to insist on climbing gear to safely ascend Half Dome. But, as my immediate family and extended family members were all summiting together, we all wanted a confident, positive climb. It turns out, while we were climbing, other people commented on our gear, saying that using the via ferratas was a smart idea. In fact, we weren’t the only people using them! We also saw a couple of other climbers with the harnesses and via ferratas as well.
Not only did the safety gear bring peace of mind, but it greatly increased my confidence on the rock. I was definitely less scared, knowing that I was always clipped in. This allowed me to have a much more enjoyable hike up Half Dome, as I didn’t have a ‘death grip’ on the cables. I could confidently look down and enjoy the view while ascending/descending, and not worry as much about my other family members during their climb, knowing they were safely clipped in as well.
You don’t have to clip in every time, but just knowing that you have a means to be safe when you feel uncomfortable, takes immense pressure off and allowed me to fully enjoy the experience.
Whether you climb with or without protection, the first few sets of cables are at a minimal incline. They are a good place to practice your climbing technique. If you have the Ferrata, practice clipping and unclipping from the cables. Get used to gripping the cables and pulling yourself up.
Give the person in front of you one full cable length of space if possible. About every 8-10 feet, metal poles are anchored into the rock and these hold steel cables. Usually, at each set of poles, there is a wooden 2×4, which gives you a place to rest your feet and a chance to catch your breath on a solid, secure area. It’s best to have a full cable length between you and the next climber so you don’t have to stand on the wood together. When the climber in front of you leaves their 2×4 to continue up or down the dome, then you can leave your 2×4 and ascend/descend to your own. It’s just better in this situation where you have people climbing up and down at the same time, to not have two people going the same direction standing on the same block of wood.
If there is no block of wood, test the metal pole before putting your weight on it. As I mentioned before, usually there are wooden 2×4’s every 10 feet or so along the cables. Sometimes, the wood is gone and you have to climb up 2 or 3 sets of cables until you get to stand on a board. If you don’t want to go that whole distance in one straight shot, you can stop where a board would normally be and rest your foot against the vertical metal pole. Be sure to test that pole before putting any of your weight on it because they are often loose and can even become unanchored.
Patience is key! When you climb the cables, you won’t be alone. There will be people in front of you, people behind you, and people going down while you climb up. Everyone on the rock is learning how to ascend or descend the cables properly so give them ample space and time. Sometimes people will suddenly get scared and stop, need a breath, or want you to pass. You will most likely hit delays while people pass each other, get tired, etc. I’ve heard stories about people getting into arguments on Half Dome years back when anyone could climb and there was no permit system. Fortunately for us, all the climbers were friendly and supportive of each other’s efforts for a successful ascent and descent.
Please don’t be stupid and climb on the outside of the cables. It’s one thing to STAND on the outside to allow people to pass, but if you’re climbing up or down while on the outside of the cables, you can distract or bother other climbers, when they should have 100% of their attention on climbing.
Climb down however you feel comfortable. Some people descend looking out, some descend looking at the rock, as if climbing down a ladder. Some people switch directions at various times. There is no right or wrong way to climb down. Just take your time and be comfortable with your direction during descent.
One final note about climbing – Never, ever attempt to climb Half Dome when it’s raining or a storm is approaching. Not only does rain make the already smooth granite surface more slippery, it can affect your grip on the cables. You also don’t want to get struck by lightning when climbing metal cables or completely exposed on a rock above Yosemite Valley. It’s not worth your life.
My most important tip for climbing Half Dome is please, be serious about this hike. This is not a family jaunt. People have died or become seriously injured on Half Dome. Be sure you are in GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION, properly dressed, properly outfitted, and respectful to others when climbing Half Dome. Be sure to pack out all trash and leave the land as you found it.
I know this was a long post, but I wanted to make sure I shared ALL the information I could about this epic climb. It definitely does not disappoint! Half Dome provides beautiful views of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountain Range and gives you amazing appreciation for nature.
If you have any other recommendations for climbing Half Dome, let me know in the comments.
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