Iiro Half Domella

How I Hiked Yosemite’s Half Dome – and you could too!

Yosemite Half Dome
Our goal: Yosemite’s Half Dome in all its glory!

I don’t remember exactly how we got the idea to hike Yosemite’s Half Dome. I think I spotted the hike in some magazine, and although I’d never heard of it before – hey, I’m from Europe! – we were already planning an adventure to California and it sounded like it would fit right in. While researching, I ran across an article in Backpacker, calling it one of the most dangerous hiking routes in the US, and that sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it?

In order to do the hike, you need to take part in the Half Dome Permit Lottery, arranged around March each year, and if you’re lucky, you’ll win a permit to hike up those cables. There’s a limit of one ticket per person, so we put in two, and one of our tickets won a permit that covers a maximum 6 hikers. I recommend putting in more than one ticket if you really want to do this!

Yosemite Half Dome leirintäalueelta nähtynä
Half Dome (2695 m / 8844 ft) as seen from our campground

We stayed the night before our climb at Curry Village tent cabins, a very short way from beginning of the trail. We were aiming to start off before sunrise, but we made the mistake of not preparing with our own breakfast and had to wait until 7am to get some from Curry Village’s Coffee Corner. (They have pretty good lunch bagels you can pack as take-away on your hike!) If you’re coming from sea level, sleeping in Yosemite Valley is a good idea to get yourself at least a bit accommodated to the thinner air.

Bussia odotellessa Yosemitessa
Waiting for the shuttle bus from Curry Village to the trailhead at 7.30am

We were three of us on the trail: Iiro, Aki and I. Only Iiro had the courage to leave in shorts, but he made the right choice. In less than an hour, Aki and I were changing our long pants into shorts and packing away our sleeves. It was a great mid-August day with sunshine and warm temperatures predicted for the day, so we were really in luck.

Vaatteidenvaihto Half Dome Traililla

The very beginning of the trail was fairly easy, but it quickly turned into stairs and our calves and quads were feeling it. Unless you’re in really good shape (like Aki was), this is a hike you should train for. I had been a regular at Step classes, hiked along the Ardennes and followed a 6-week program that I can fully recommend. Iiro, living in Georgia at the time, had climbed up Kennesaw Mountain at least once a week. Maybe thanks to our efforts, we passed a group of Asian girls at Vernal Falls – but at the same time, one woman passed us running up the stairs, so we definitely could have been more in shape, too.

Vernal Falls on Half Dome Trail, Yosemite
Stairs at Vernal Falls
Vernal Fall, Yosemite
If you don’t want to hike all the way to Half Dome, hike to Vernal Falls. The trail up there is beautiful!

I had trained for the hike with a backpack full of water, and my backpack on the hike ended being around 9kg (20lb). We’d taken with us 6 liters of water per person, and all of us had around two thousand calories worth of nuts, energy bars and trail snack that we stopped to eat around every 45 minutes. This was a pretty good pace for us, because it kept our energy levels high despite the intensive climb, and it also gave us a chance to catch our breath at regular intervals.

Vaellus Half Domelle
We got all our snacks from Costco, which had a great variety of stuff at bulk.
Vernal Fall, Yosemite
Vernal Falls from above. 1524 m.
Pause on top of Vernal Falls, Yosemite
You don’t especially need a topo map on the trail, but it was great to be able to check how long we still had left to the top.

After Vernal Falls, it was a similar effort to make it up to Nevada Falls along some tight switchbacks, but then it got easier. At an altitude of around 1800m, after climbing up 600 meters (around 2000ft) and hiking for 4,2km (around 2.5 miles), all of which took us several hours, we reached Little Yosemite Valley, a flat portion of the trail in a forest which felt like dancing on clouds compared to the climb we had just done. At this point, we finally saw Half Dome for the first time after leaving the trailhead.

Iiro pointing at Half Dome
There it is!

After a couple kilometers in the valley, the trail continued climbing up. All the while we’d seen other hikers on the trail, but now we really started reaching slower hikers who had left already before dawn. Considering how tough the trail was, it was surprising that the hikers ranged from kids to retirees and everyone in between. All the better to them!

Harmaaorava Yosemitessa

The last official toilets we’d seen were at Nevada Falls, so potty breaks in the bushes were a thing at this point (and if you don’t need them, you haven’t drunk enough water). And here’s a word of warning to you: while I was doing my business in the woods, I heard a buzzing noise, and then a horrible pain in my bicep. I didn’t stay to figure out what kind of insect had bit me, but instead I got back to the trail as fast as I could and for a while could just lay in the ground trying to wish the pain away. We had some ibuprofen with us, which took a while to settle in, but antihistamine would have been an even better addition to our first aid kit.

Patikointi Half Domelle

Matka Half Domelle
Mount Broderick. Half Dome is not the only halfish-dome-shaped mountain around here.

When we finally reached 2300m, the views really opened up. We were a bit worried to see dark clouds in the horizon, because the rule is that you should never climb Half Dome if there’s any sign of thunder on the horizon: the mountain attracts lighting to it like honey attracts bees, and several hikers have died in lightning strikes. This is also why you should reach Half Dome before noon, because afternoon thunderstorms are common in the area. We only reached the check point at half past noon, and I’d say that’s around as late as you should get there without turning back.

Melkein Half Domen päällä
Later we realized that the “clouds” were actually smoke from wildfires in the area.
Park Ranger at Half Dome
Park Ranger checking permits just below tree line. The ranger had a list of people who’d won the permit, but we had our own print of it with us just to be sure.

At the ranger check point, we rested for a while and prepared for the final ascent: summiting Half Dome. First 150m (500ft) were a tougher-than-tough climb, the latter 150m were pure crazyness.

Yosemite Domen alkupuolikas: switchbackeja ja lisää switchbackeja (kuva: Aki)
On the way up the switchbacks
Pitkä matka alas
I have a fear of hights that isn’t very strong but started to get the better of me when we got above treeline. This is why all of the photos above treeline have been taken by Aki, because i couldn’t stop anymore to take photos.
Switchbackeja kiivetessä piti pysähtyä haukkomaan henkeä parin metrin nousun välein
The other reason was that i was in too bad of a shape to do anything but put one foot ahead another and try to catch my breath.
Siinä se edessä häämöttää: köysirata!
Almost done with the switchbacks, and the 150m-of-pure-craziness is already visible ahead of us.

The reason why Half Dome is one of the most dangerous hiking routes in the US is the last 150m meters of it: The Cables. Sure, you could sprain your ankle, fall and hit your knee or suffer from dehydration on other portions of it, but if you fall at the Cables, you fall down. Like really down. Like almost a mile down. Basically, it’s a “make a mistake and die”-portion: you hold on to two cables that ascend up the rock at a 70 degree angle at its best. Every couple meters, there’s a wooden plank where you can stay for a moment and catch your breath, but not for long because there’s people behind you who want to get up – and other people descending the same route.

Half Dome Cables
When we looked at photos of the Cables before the hike, we thought they were taken from an especially dramatic angle or something, and they’re probably not as dramatic in real life. Well, they are. Every bit as dramatic. This is a completely realistic photo of what it’s going to be like.

The wind at the Cables was so strong it was hard to stay upright, and all around me the rock plunged into sure death. From the switchbacks, I crawled on all fours towards the Cables, until I got behind a large boulder and broke down: I can’t! This is horrible! There’s no way I’ll get up there, I’ll just slip and fall and die! This is it, I’m done!

“No you’re not, you can do it,” Iiro told me and after a moment of coaching got me to continue. “Just keep your wits about you, hold on, and if you slip, I’ll catch you.”

Viimeiset 150 metriä ylöspäin
So up i went. Maybe one climber out of a hundred had any safety gear with them.

Climbing up was tough but in the end, not as nerve-wrecking as I had thought. I had bought some garden gloves from the internet which had perfect grip and slowly but surely a foot at a time I ascended. At the Cables, you really don’t have time to fear, because all your concentration will go into the climb itself: always one hand at the cables, passing by people coming the other way, going from plank to plank. I tried at first to hold on to both cables, but soon I let go of the other one and just hung on to one with both hands, holding it under my arm and pulling myself up.

You can do it, almost there, coming down is easier, the hikers descending kept telling me, and before I knew it, the rock started leveling out, and the planks and the cables ended. A couple more meters of crawling on all fours, and then I was there.

Jiihaa!
Woooohooo!
Half Domen päällä
Half Dome summit!
Näkymä Half Domelta Yosemitesta
Our packs and a breathtaking view.
Yosemiten laakso ja Half Dome
Chillin’ at Half Dome

View from Half Dome

Iiro kiipesi Half Domelle

All of the celebrational photos here feature just Aki and Iiro, running around the summit, taking photos and eating a relaxed lunch with the best feeling ever: we did it! I, on the other hand…

Jenni feeling ill on Half Dome
I feel like throwing up don’t talk to me

After all that stress and exhaustion, I was feeling dizzy and felt like throwing up. My head hurt, stomach hurt, I could eat less than half of my lunch and most of the time at the summit I spent laying down as still as possible and trying to calm my raising heart. Every once in a while I peeked under the scarf on my head to take a look at the views, and yeah, despite my feeling, this was still worth it.

View from Half Dome, Yosemite

View from Half Dome, Yosemite

Jenni at Half Dome, Yosemite
Finally i got up and posed. “Safely” on top of the summit and not on the ledge.

The descent really was easier than the ascent. Aki even got some photos of it, which was nice, because I would never have taken my hand off the cables.

Ja takaisin alas

Älä katso alas.
Don’t look down.
Älä päästä irti.
Don’t let go.
Kestääköhän tämä?
The cables were actually pretty wobbly, which didn’t ease my mind at all.

When we finally got down, it was like a weight coming off my shoulders. That was the hard part, now it was just a 7 mile hike to the bus stop.

Joku virnistelee, joku ei
When we got down the cables, we met the ranger on his way up to check nobody had been left behind.

On Half Dome's Shoulders

Hiking through Little Yosemite Valley

There’s not much to tell from the way down. Climax of the trip was over, and now we just wanted to get to camp as soon as possible to rest our feet and enjoy a couple victory beers. I think I was the most energetic of us, having gotten over my fit of nausea. Aki had a blister on his foot and Iiro had spent his last drops of energy getting down the cables.

Iiro hugging a tree at Yosemite

Taking a break at Little Yosemite Valley

Peura Yosemitessa

We had all felt the day in our knees, so instead of taking the stairs down, we took the longer John Muir Trail that wasn’t as steep. Now I wouldn’t make the same choice again, because those two extra kilometers with the setting sun and running out of drinking water (yes, we all did – take more than 6 liters on a hot day) felt reeeeaally loooong, and to top it off, we got a bit lost. We finally made it back to camp around 7.30pm, exactly 12 hours after we’d left. Pizza had never tasted as good.

Lizzard at Yosemite

Nevada Falls, Yosemite
Nevada Fallsffrom John Muir Trail
Nevada Falls, Yosemite
Nevada Falls a bit further off

25 kilometers back and forth, 1500 meters of ascent, and 12 hours on the trail. This is probably the craziest and most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve also jumped from an airplane. It’s also one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve done

Would I go again? I doubt it. I think this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and that was really what it was. But you should go! Start planning your next summer’s adventure and, come March, take part in the lottery. And then train, prepare, train, and hike. You won’t regret it. Good luck!

Kävelemämme reitti kartalla. Paluumatkalla kiersimme vesiputousten ohitse kiipeävän Mist Trailin John Muir Trailin kautta.
The route up is marked in red.




2 thoughts on “How I Hiked Yosemite’s Half Dome – and you could too!”

    1. I think the lottery is one big reason why people pass on going up there, because it’s hard to plan so long beforehand. If you don’t manage to snag a ticket, there’s always a possibility to get one the day before, but I’m not 100% sure how that works.



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