July 16, 2007

Half Dome

We're just back from a fantastic weekend in Yosemite, where we hiked Half Dome (Google Search, Google Earth link). If you haven't already, I strongly suggest installing Google Earth and clicking on this link: the 3D view of the Dome is absolutely gorgeous (and remember you can tilt the view with Shift-Arrow Up/Down).

Unless you live in California, you have probably never heard of Half Dome. It's not the highest peak in Yosemite Valley, but it's famous for the hike that leads to its top, which is also said to be the most difficult in the entire park.

Here is the outline of our hike:

  • Total distance: 17 miles.
  • Vertical gain: 4800 feet.
  • Total time on the hike: 13 hours.
  • Quantity of water consumed: about a gallon.
  • View from the Spring Board on top of Half Dome: jaw-dropping.
Fortunately, there are several stages along the way that make the experience quite rewarding, even if you decide to turn around before you reach the top:
  • After the first 1.5 mile, you reach Vernal falls, which towers above the Happy Isles while giving you a good idea of what a vertical drop of gushing water can look like.
  • 2 miles later, you arrive at Nevada Falls, which is just a bit higher than Vernal Falls but offers an equally stunning view of the valley and a vertical drop that will make you dizzy if you lean forward too much.
  • The next 4 miles meander through Little Yosemite Valley and are fairly flat. This section allows you to walk around Half Dome in order to orient you toward the side that can actually be hiked (the side that is facing the valley is a vertical drop that attracts rock climbers from around the world).
  • The mile that follows starts going up more severely, but the beautiful pine trees and occasional view of the valley below give you a good reason for stopping and catching your breath.
  • Then you arrive at the bottom of Half Dome and you are facing your next challenge, sometimes referred to as "Quarter Dome". It's a series of very vertical steps carved inside the granite that allow you to climb over the first hilly part of the Dome. This section in itself would be enough for a casual hike, and it certainly got all of us out of breath by the time we reached its top.
  • And finally, you're at the bottom of the Dome. By then, you only have about nine hundred vertical feet to overcome to reach the top, but the incline there is above fifty degrees, so a pair of metal cables have been drilled into the rock to allow climbers to get through this last section. It's imperative to bring gloves with you or depend on the kindness of strangers who would be willing to part with theirs (it's actually quite common). This part of the hike is not the hardest per se, but it will certainly put your vertigo sense to the test, especially when you climb it down (hint: do it in rappel. It's not just that it hides the scary sight of the void beneath, it just makes the climb down much easier).
The hike is certainly strenuous, but nobody in our little group can even be remotely called a hiker. Yet, we pulled it off, and with us, dozens of other courageous hikers of all ages and fits that we saw along the way. Don't let this description intimidate you, this is something that everyone should do at least once in their life.

An unforgettable day.

Posted by cedric at July 16, 2007 09:16 PM


Last month, someone slipped and fell to his death while climbing the cables.


"An average of about 10 to 12 people die in Yosemite each year, but very few fatalities are on Half Dome, Freeman said. Since 1971 there have been nine falls, including Nohara, but only three of them were fatal, all within the past year. She said Nohara's death was the first on Half Dome where other factors, such as bad weather, did not play a part."

Posted by: herve at July 17, 2007 09:18 AM

Defn. one of the rewarding hikes I have ever done in the past. Another challenging hike if you are interested, do the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

Posted by: Gaurav at July 17, 2007 02:38 PM

Half dome is the highway tourist trail. If you are looking for something streneous:hike the mt whitney in one day :)

Posted by: at July 18, 2007 07:41 AM

Half Dome is the toughest one day hike form the valley floor. There are lots of multi-day hikes all throughout the park.

Plus, I was much more comfortable going down the cables head first. Maybe that was because I was on the outside...

Posted by: Jason Untulis at July 29, 2007 11:23 PM

The hike and stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel was one of my best memories about Yosemite. Hiking in the Shenandoah National Park (the Blue Ridge Mountains) is tougher due to the humidity. Getting out of the office to see the best parts of California is always important.


Posted by: star at August 6, 2007 05:49 PM

You do not need to live in California to have heard about Half Dome. The first time I saw images of Half Dome was when studying the stunning photography technique of Ansel Adams. See also http://www.anseladams.com/.

Posted by: Andreas Guther at August 26, 2007 10:15 PM

Hi Cedric,

I don't live in California but have heard of and hiked Half Dome. The cables can impress newbies but are not bad compared to some of the via-ferrata we have in Yurope but the death obviously shows the dangers are real. Mt. Whitney is a harder slog, mainly due to the long traverse at the top and the altitude. The permit system for Whitney trail is also somewhat complicated.

Posted by: David George at September 1, 2007 08:26 AM

Hiking in the Shenandoah National Park (the Blue Ridge Mountains) is tougher due to the humidity.

Posted by: ska at February 14, 2008 06:29 AM
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