Sunday, October 11, 2015

Tips for Hiking the Half Dome

See that guy on the edge of the cliff? That's my amazing Husband and we just hiked the Half Dome! If you're here reading this, then you already know that the Half Dome is an experience of a lifetime. You also know that it's definitely not one of those things you can just show up for, it requires lots of planning and preparation. We spent many an hour researching ahead of time, so we did a lot of things right. We also did a lot of things wrong, which is why I think that it's important to pass along what we learned to other Half Dome hikers.

Secure a Permit
Anyone is allowed to make the trek to the Half Dome itself, but you must have a permit to use The Cables. Rangers are randomly assigned to check for permits and on the day of our hike, we saw several people turned away. You can take a chance, but why on Earth would you want to hike all that way and risk not being able to finish? Everything you need to know about securing a permit can be found here

Start Early 
The sooner you start, the better because you do not want to be on the subdome/cables when it's dark. On average, this is a 10-14 hour hike. Thanks to sick me and a wrong turn, it took us 15 give yourself plenty of time.

 Where to Stay
 Since you're leaving early, you will want to spend the night before your hike in Yosemite. The park is massive and spending an hour+ driving to the trailhead is not unheard of. For proximity, the best place to stay is the Upper Pines Campground. The John Muir Trailhead via the Mist Trail is on a road just behind campsites 151-179 at Upper Pines. We were fortunate enough to stay here and it was only a 5 minute walk to the trail. If camping isn't for you, then stay at the nearby cabins in Curry Village or grab a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel. 

Make Sure you're Ready
One of the worst parts of hiking the Half Dome was seeing people turn back, especially since that meant one less permit used. The Half Dome hike is grueling and long and physically demanding. That being said, it's also doable. As a novice hiker, I had never hiked more than 5 miles before challenging the Half Dome and I could barely walk the next day, but I did it. If anything, conquering the Half Dome is more about the mental aspect than anything else. Anyone that is in shape is capable of hiking the Dome, it's just a matter of getting past the part of yourself that says you can't do it. 

 Respect the Mountain
This should go without saying, but please be safe during the Half Dome Hike. In other words...Don't Die! People perish here every year and most of these deaths are due to carelessness. People have been swept up by the waters of Vernal Falls, lost their grip while climbing the cables, or simply leaned too far over the mountain to capture the perfect photo. Hiking the Half Dome is about challenging yourself and you should have as much fun as possible. But don't forget that this hike is regularly rated as one of the most dangerous in America. Always pay attention

Beware of WildLife
The Black Bears vs. The Squirrels: Who is the real enemy? 
When it comes to wildlife, people are most worried about seeing bears, but the black bears in Yosemite are gentle giants. It's a great experience to encounter one of them. As long as you don't leave food out or agitate a bear directly, it's unlikely they will come near you. And if they do get dangerously close, it is fairly easy to scare off bears with loud noises. The real threat are the squirrels. Yep, the squirrels... Like many hikers, we left our daypack at the base of the dome while we climbed the cables. We returned to find this...
The squirrels had unzipped our backpack and broken through two ziplock bags to steal some almonds from us. We saw them making off with all kinds of goodies from other backpackers was quite the show.

Hiking Gear
Having the right gear with you will make your hike go smoothly and keep you safe. 
Should you use a Harness/Carabiner/Etc.? 
This is the most controversial question. And if it makes you feel better, then by all means, strap onto the Half Dome cables. But in reality, they weren't designed for this and wouldn't necessarily support the weight of a fall. In our opinion, the only thing that it will do is slow you down and give you something else to grapple with while you're climbing the cables. 

When we were on the cables, there was never a point when I didn't have both hands holding on. Constantly, strapping in and out between the steel poles would require only holding on with one hand. In some ways, I actually think this is more dangerous, which is probably why the majority of people don't connect themselves to the cables. 
Hiking Shoes
Do not wear regular tennis shoes during the Half Dome Hike! Between the wet stairs of the Mist Trail and the slippery granite beneath the cables, normal shoes just won't cut it. Trust me, when you are on the cables, there is very little keeping you from falling. And having the right footwear may make a big difference. Hiking boots are best, but we found that our hiking sneakers did the trick as well.
The metal wiring of the cables (you know the part you hold to keep from plummeting to your death) are thick and hot and will rip your hands apart. Wearing a well gripped glove will provide you additional support and make ascending the cables that much simpler. At the base of the cables, there is a pile of gloves left behind by generous hikers, but this pile is also known to be infested with rats. We recommend that you bring your own gloves, silicone-lined ones are the best.
Trekking Poles
We had never used trekking poles before, mostly because we didn't fully understand how useful they could be. We picked up a cheap pair of trekking poles the day before our hike and they were the Best. Purchase. Ever. The poles helped support our weight on the way up the mountain and made the trek down easier on our joints. I don't know how well we would have fared without them, using trekking poles is worth considering.
We started our hike in the dark and ended in the dark.
Thankfully, we had headlamps and flashlights with us so this wasn't a problem.
A proper daypack has a secure place for trekking poles and houses a water bladder. Additionally, our daypack provided ventilation, which helped us stay cooler along our hike. 
Emergency Kit
Anytime you are hike, you should bring an emergency that includes both medical supplies and emergency gear like waterproof matches. For a hike as long and strenuous as the Half Dome, I would recommend having a kit ready.

Fuel & Water
It's likely that this hike will take you all day, which means several meals. We took along 3X what we would normally eat during the day and we finished it all!!! But don't just pack anything, take foods that will replenish your body without weighing it down. As a reference, our food for the day included Fruit covered with Almond Butter, Mixed Nuts, Sandwiches, Cliff Bars, and Beef Jerky. Basically, we consumed a lot of protein and high energy calories throughout the day. 

Drinking Water
We saw someone faint from dehydration and I wasn't surprised because this is the #1 reason why people get sick during the Half Dome hike. On average, it's recommended that people bring along 2-4L of drinking water for the day. That being said, I drank 6L and Husband drank 7.5L. It's impossible to know how much water you will need and carrying an endless supply is not feasible. As there are only a few potable water stations during this hike, take along iodine tablets or a water filtration system that will allow you to use the fresh water streams. And fill up every chance that you have because the water sources can be spread out.

Don't underestimate Anything
We made a wrong turn coming down the mountain and ended up adding a few miles/hours onto our hike. Thankfully, we were prepared for this with plenty of extra food, warm clothes, and flashlights to help us descend down the rest of the mountain. As much as you plan things, you are outdoors and never know what may happen.

Take Care of your Fellow Hikers
When we were coming down the cables, there was a woman having a panic attack. As a result, it slowed everyone down. Instead of being agitated, everyone worked together to help keep her calm and support her getting down the mountain. You can never anticipate what will happen or how you will react to a situation, but I loved that everyone worked together to get her down. I really believe that a big part of why so many people make it through this hike safely is because we all take care of each other.

I hope our tips help and encourage anyone who is considering hiking the Half Dome because this was without a doubt one of the best experiences of our lives. It's amazing and breathtaking and you will come down that mountain with a sense of accomplishment and confidence that you didn't have before. 
Happy Hiking!  

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