03 Jun 2013 02.02.03 PM
The iconic summit of Half Dome used to receive up around a thousand people each day climbing up the steep side of the granite giant. Just a couple of years ago, the National Park Service put a stop to the huge numbers of hikers and has limited this by the use of permits, issuing around 350 permits per day. Hiking Half Dome without a permit can result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail. While a permit may take some time to get, they are only about $15 and not worth a large fine or jail time. There is a campground about half-way along the trail, Little Yosemite Valley, and permits are also required to camp here since it is a very crowded and popular campground. Ironically, now that there are more strict stipulations in place which make it more difficult to hike this massive icon, many more people actually want to accomplish the climb.
It is no easy feat, between 14 and 17 miles round trip and 4,800 feet in elevation gain from the valley floor, with the summit at 8,842 feet, and most people choosing to do it in a day. Most people can complete the hike in 10 to 12 hours, so be sure to leave around sunrise so that you are not hiking back in the dark. There are 3 main routes that converge at the top of Nevada Falls, the most popular being the Mist Trail which is also the shortest and most scenic. The Muir Trail departs from the same trail head as the Mist Trail and adds about 1.5 miles each way but is not as steep. The Glacier Point route has less climbing but is still difficult due to the added length of hiking. The NPS advises hikers to have a non-negotiable turn-around time, in case you do not get to a certain point at a certain time, do not risk hiking in the dark and turn around. Also, be sure to have a headlamp or flashlight, with extra batteries, a topographic map and a compass, along with the knowledge of how to use them.
There are many types of people on very different fitness levels that have hiked and were able to summit Half Dome although it is advised that people who are going to be hiking Half Dome start preparing a few months ahead of time. You can start preparing by hiking. Going to the gym will only do so much to get your body ready, so it is recommended that if you do not already have comfortable hiking boots, get a pair and break them in with short hikes and gradually move up until you are capable of completing 15 miles in one day. You may also want to prepare your arms, as they will have to carry a majority of your weight going up and coming down the cables.
As for equipment, you do not need heavy duty, waterproofed hiking boots, lightweight hiking boots or even trail running shoes with some tread are generally recommended. People have done this hike in sneakers, but it is advised against as the steep granite side of Half Dome can be very slippery. Good hiking socks can also help, giving more cushion while avoiding cotton socks which can cause painful blisters. You should also have a light jacket for the early morning part of the hike and in case it is windy at the summit, otherwise shorts and t-shirts are fine for summer hiking. Again, try avoiding cotton clothing and wear synthetic wicking clothing to keep comfortable in a wider temperature range. Most of the trail is open and exposed to the sun and being at a higher elevation, the sun is stronger so make sure you bring sunscreen, a sun hat and sunglasses. Some recommend getting a simple harness to attach to the cables and although it is not required, it may be a good suggestion for those that may get weary climbing a steep, slippery slope.
One of the most asked question is how much water to bring. It is advised that you drink between 2 to 4 quarts of water, keeping yourself hydrated by taking regular sips and stop in the shade where possible. Some hikers and campers drink water from the Merced River, above Nevada Falls, if in need of water. If you do drink river water, make sure to treat it with either iodine or a filter system as there can be diseases in the water that will make you sick. The only treated water available on the trail is at the Vernal Falls footbridge, which is less than a mile from the trail head. Another illness, aside from dehydration, that people encounter hiking Half Dome is altitude sickness which can cause severe headaches and nausea and sadly the only remedy is to descend immediately. Heat exhaustion and hyponatremia (low electrolyte levels) can also be common occurrences among ill-prepared hikers. As for food, bring sandwiches and light snacks, such as fruit and low fat energy bars, since you can easily burn 2,000 calories or more completing this measurable adventure.
The cables that help hikers get up the last 400 feet are usually put up around Memorial Day and taken down the day after Columbus Day, with weather conditions permitting. The NPS strongly advises people to not climb up the dome when the cables are not in place, although there are those who have mountaineering experience that have been able to summit the dome without the cables. It is recommended that you have gloves to protect your hands going up and coming down the cables that can get as steep as 45 degrees. Be patient climbing the cables as there are going to be slower hikers, and if you are a slower hiker then try to allow the faster hikers to pass, when possible. Always remain on the inside of the cables as people have slipped by straying to the outside of the cables.
Definitely check weather conditions before starting the hike as rain and thunderstorms can make this adventure extremely dangerous. If there is any sign of a thunderstorm, the NPS states that you should turn around and descend back to the valley floor since Half Dome is easily struck by lightning and gets struck throughout the summer. If the ground is wet, then attempting to ascend the granite slope becomes much harder and extremely slippery. As you descend, be sure to take your time since there are many areas that can be steep and also since the trail can be very crowded.
Hiking Half Dome can be the ultimate adventure as long as you and your group take the necessary precautions and come prepared. Bring plenty of water, snacks and your wits to ensure that you will have a great experience on one of the country's most popular hikes. With panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra and looking over Vernal and Nevada Falls, you definitely do not want to forget your camera. As long as you come prepared and listen to the advise given by those that have climbed this monster before, then a spectacular adventure awaits you in Yosemite National Park.
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