The single scariest thing I’ve done in my life, and the nearest to death I’ve ever been, is hiking Half Dome. In the rain.
But let’s back up.
I love Yosemite. I’ve been an avid hiker, camper, and backpacker there since I was a kid. Tuolumne Meadows. Tioga Pass. Wawona. The Valley. Tenaya Lake. Yosemite Falls. You name, I love it.
We won the lottery with a permit date set for Friday July 10th.
Let me preface that I knew what I was getting into: I’ve hiked Half Dome before.
I had planned a trip while in grad school in 2010, before the permit system was in place, for whichever willing suspects in my cohort would agree to hike this magnificent beast with me. And it was strenuous and beautiful and exhausting and exhilarating and wonderful. And a little bit scary – that is, if you’re not afraid of heights — while descending the cables on the way down. (Spoiler alert: if you’re afraid of heights, this is definitely not the hike for you.)
And I’m not a total idiot or a complete novice when it comes to the outdoors.
And I don’t have something to prove or summit fever.
So when the week leading up to July 10th proved to be rainy with angry thunderstorms, our group of ten grew weary of our chances of reaching the summit come permit day. We had a fairly wide range of fitness levels and comfortability with heights among us. Even if it had been the best of weather conditions, some folks had already been considering hiking only a portion of the trail and leaving the cables out of the equation.
Because attempting Half Dome is not something to be taken lightly. The mountain has claimed several lives and has resulted in numerous injuries over the years. Most of these have occurred during bad weather, with lightning electrifying the cables and striking people directly, and rain changing the already steep incline into an extremely slick and slippery vertical nightmare.
So I was adamant that no one from my group would die on my watch. Or even come close. But I failed my group in that respect, and for that, you can call me an idiot of great proportions.
When prepping the group, I had advised them on what gear to buy and items to pack. On the list, I had suggested a rock climbing harness as optional, with sturdy carabiners to clip into the cables. I hadn’t worn a harness when I hiked Half Dome the first time, nor I had noticed anyone else wearing one that day, and I had been just fine. Hence the optional part. But given how large our group was and not knowing precisely the level of everyone’s fear and fitness levels, I suggested if anyone wanted a safety net, then buying a harness was a good idea.
I had also suggested purchasing gloves as optional. Again, I hadn’t brought my own gloves the first time and had been fine, because there is a large pile of gloves at the base of the cables that you can borrow. Granted, they are used, sweaty, stinky and some have lost their grip. But I’m not a germaphobe, and I presumed we would be able to rummage through and find enough decent gloves for the group to make it up and down safely.
That wasn’t the case.
The night before the hike, it dumped rain. By 7pm, we were still trying to locate everyone in our group who was coming in from various locations – San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles – because service was slim to none. The few of us that had found each other at the Ahwahnee Bar knew we had to make an executive decision on whether to hike or not, and then track down the rest of the group to deliver the verdict.
Remember my adamancy on safety first?
We decided that there was a 99.9% chance that we wouldn’t attempt the cables. But since the weather report predicted no rain until the afternoon (although it would still be chilly and overcast for July), we agreed that we could at least embark on part of the hike, starting at the Mist Trail and up to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. And if it was miserable and wet, we’d don our ponchos and march on back to Curry Village.
Given that we had altered our game plan to not include the full hike, we decided we didn’t need to rise as early as our original 5am start. If you’re hiking all the way up to the top of Half Dome, you want to start before sunrise to give yourself enough time to make it back before nightfall. During the 10-14 hour trek, you gain over 4800 feet in elevation and travel up to 17 miles round trip, depending on what route you take. By this point, our enthusiastic group of ten had dwindled to a cautious six. The other four decided to sleep in and stay (semi)warm in their Curry Village tent cabins and do a shorter day hike instead.
So at 6:15am, we struck out on the trail.
It wasn’t raining, but it was chilly and gray. We walked quickly to warm up, and before we knew it, we had blazed by both Vernal and Nevada Falls. On my first ascent of Half Dome in sunny, warm weather, we had stopped numerous times to enjoy the views and eat snacks. But this time, we were cold and wanted to keep ahead of the weather, so we rehydrated and refueled on the move.
We slowed down our pace a bit when we reached Little Yosemite Valley. Mule horses passed us with their sturdy footing. We stopped to gaze at our first full view of the backside of the dome. We took silly photos.
And then voilà! At 10:55am, we came into our first distant glimpse of the cables, with an ever-so-faint view of itty bitty bodies going up.
There was palpable excitement. Are we actually going to be able to do this?? We had settled on the fact that we weren’t reaching the top that day. We looked up. No rain seemed to be approaching. It was still morning. But the skies were foggy and gray, and it had been raining all week. Hmmmm.
Then we spotted a Ranger and a National Park Service Rescue member. People were buzzing around them wondering if they thought it was okay to attempt the cables.
And this is where the story turns.
The NPS Rescue fellow and the Ranger seemed nonplussed. They issued no urgent warnings. There was no checking of people’s equipment. They merely said the rain would be coming in after 1pm, and to make sure you were down the mountain before then. And, to go at your own risk.
I was waiting to hear “the rock is slippery and extremely dangerous” or “we strongly advise against climbing the cables today” or “if you don’t have a harness in these conditions, today is not your day”.
But we got none of that. No urgency. Nothing.
If the authority figures weren’t concerned, then it was okay to go, right? The whole point of them being this high up on the trail would be to deter people if the conditions were too dangerous, right? They’d want to be more persuasive to save lives and to save themselves from tricky rescues….right???
So that’s when we thought we had the green light.
The Ranger said it was about twenty minutes from where we stood to reach the sub-dome, and in total about an hour before we would reach the top. So on we trekked.
Now, what people don’t tell you is that hiking the sub-dome is also a feat. There are steep switchbacks that make you pause to catch your breath. Rewarded by insanely awesome views.
And in some sections, there is no trail at all. You must scramble up an exposed rock face to reach above the tree line.
And then we got there. The fabled cables. There were people going up and down the rickety, one-lane highway, but nothing compared to the zoo I had experienced during my first trek. The weather, combined with the permit system, had done a good job of keeping crowds low.
We should have immediately gone up if we were going to go at all. But we were hungry and took out our PB&J’s and trail mix and jerky for a quick refuel while we waited for the last member of our group to reach us. When he arrived, he said he was too fatigued and didn’t want to do the cables at that point. So we took a group photo to capture the victory thus far.
And then we were down to five. The two girls from the group who had harnesses put them on. That just left me, my sister, and the other guy in our group without any safety net.
At this point, a huge fog cloud rolled in. It was thick like pea soup and slowly took over the mountain so you couldn’t see the cables anymore. We looked at each other nervously. We were getting all suited up, but what about this new development? We pitied the people hanging off the cables at that point, absconded by the fog — we didn’t want to be up there in that situation.
And then it blew by quickly, and all seemed clear again. This was it. It was now or never.
We walked over to the pile of gloves. My sister and I hadn’t brought our own because a) I had felt confident we could find good pairs like I had done before and b) I never dreamed we would be climbing in such poor conditions. The other three group members had either bought or borrowed gloves from friends.
The pile of gloves was drenched. You could tell other hikers had tried to shelter them from the rain by tucking them under a partial rock overhang, but it had been raining for days. Luckily, a hiker just exiting the cables asked if I wanted his pair — dry, grippy, and all warmed up. I took them. That just left my sister. We dug and dug and picked out what we thought were the best, but they were still wet and cold.
And then we began. I remembered the way up wasn’t the hard part. So it didn’t surprise me that we shimmied our way up fairly quickly. It was scary if you looked down, but we just kept plodding on. Hand-over-hand up the one cable line. I was pleased with how well my borrowed gloves gripped the cable, and I was thankful I had bought a new pair of Merrell hiking shoes[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B004D7RL80″] with thick tread. Thank god for those shoes.
At the top, the views made us catch our breath. With a 360-degree-view of the National Park, it was stunning. We took a short rest and a snack break. Then my sister and I walked to the infamous overhang to a take a few quick pictures. A fat, furry marmot made his debut to delight hikers who had reached the top.
And then it started to rain.
The two girls with harnesses were already trotting to get to the top of the cables. We schlepped on our day packs and walked quickly to catch up. At that height, mountain weather can change swiftly and fiercely. We had a long way down, and the rain would make the granite rock dangerously slick.
Everyone else had the same idea, and what had been a mostly crowd-free cable on the way up was already turning into a bottleneck on the way down. The line-up for our group on the descension was as follows: the two girls wearing harnesses, our guy friend, me, and then my sister.
Something you should know about the cables. There are metal poles drilled into the surface of the granite dome, with thick wire cables attaching them. And at each of the poles, there is a tiny wood slat connecting the two, that serves as a foothold. But the distance between the wood slats is rather large. Some of the wood pieces are wobbly or missing entirely. And parts of the cable aren’t as taut as you’d want them to be when hanging at a near vertical angle off the side of a mountain.
There is also only one way up and one way down. Usually hikers climb up on the right cable and down on the left. So yes, you are fearful of your fellow hikers — you don’t want them idiotically passing you on that narrow lane, and you wouldn’t want someone directly above or below you to lose their footing.
And so we began what was to be the longest, most emotionally draining, psychologically taxing, and physically exerting hour of my life.
At the very top, where the cables and the wood start, we had to hang out while the line below us made their way slowly down. In that moment’s pause, I asked my sister how she felt her gloves were holding up. She said they were pretty wet and that her hands were getting cold. So I took off my left glove and swapped with hers. Brrr. She was right, they were soaked through. And I looked at the padding on the palm. The blue grip was slightly shredded and worn thin. I tested the hold on the cable. It wasn’t even half as grippy as the gloves I had been wearing. I shivered. I was thankful that we had swapped, so now at least we both had one sturdy glove.
I dropped down on the first wood slat that starts curving out at a vertical angle. Then I waited. No one wants to move until the next wood slat is open. You don’t want to be hanging out in the middle of two poles with just the wire supporting you. So getting down is a very long process, with each person waiting for the person in front to get to the next safety step.
I looked down at the others. The girls in harnesses were safely clipping in at a methodical pace. Good. I felt like I didn’t have to worry about them. My guy friend – unharnessed like me – looked up with a weak smile. It was drizzling lightly. We had to get off this mountain.
I started to descend to the next wood slat, gripping so tightly with my right hand (the good glove) that my knuckles must’ve been turning white. Then, my foot slipped. Oh Jesus. The rock was already getting slippery. And that was with shoes with really strong traction. And we were still at the tippy top. And we were not even at the most vertical section. How the hell was I going to make it down all the way like this?
I looked up and waited. It was my sister’s turn to go the next length. She took a step and both of her feet slipped – a lot. She gasped, scrambled back to the wood slat she had been standing on, and froze.
“I can’t do this!! My feet are slipping. I have no traction. I can’t get down!”
Oh mother of god. I could see the panic rising in her. This is not the place for an anxiety attic. Then her face fell. It crumpled into a sob, and I could see the tears welling up. I looked up helplessly. I could see the line of hikers behind her shifting uneasily as they became aware that someone in front of them was barring their exit. Then I looked down to my friend just below me.
“You might need to get down this mountain fast and issue an SOS.”
I had been scared about my safety a minute before. But adrenaline mode kicked in, and all of my focus turned to my sister. I couldn’t worry about me. I knew I was the only one who could get her off the mountain. I had to talk her through this.
And I wouldn’t leave her either. That was not even a question. So if I couldn’t get her down safely, we would both hang precariously off that mountain, growing colder and more fatigued as the rain continued to fall. There was no cell service up there. And even if there had been, there was no guarantee that the park service would risk sending up a rescue team if visibility and conditions were too unsafe.
“You can do this. First, let’s take a few deep breaths together, ok? Deep breath in. Deep breath out.”
After a minute, she was able to calm her breath, but she was still shaken.
“I know how you feel. My shoes are slipping too. But that’s okay — you’re strong, you can use your upper body strength to get you down.”
I was talking out of my ass. I had no confidence that any of this was okay.
“We need to work on your technique. Your feet are too sideways and you aren’t bending your knees enough. I know it may seem scary, but you have to position your feet more vertical, like you’re rappelling down. You’ll be more stable that way. Watch me.”
I left the safety of my wood slat to climb down to the next. My feet slipped a little but I crouched lower and hung on tight. Then I looked up.
“Ok your turn. I’m going to talk you through it. If you lean against the cable with your hip, it’ll give you more support. That’s it. Lean in. Always have one hand firmly gripping the cable before moving the other hand. Take it slow. You’re halfway there. Take smaller steps. That’s it. You’ve got this. Two more steps. One more step. You’ve reached the wood step. Take a breath.”
And that is how we proceeded the entire way down. I didn’t know how many more sections there were left at that point. Forty? Fifty? I would descend one section, reach the wood step, catch my breath, and wait. And then I’d talk my sister through that section. She started improving her technique and gaining a little more confidence.
Then a thick cloud started creeping in, overtaking the mountain. I looked down at my buddy. We searched each other’s eyes. There was nothing that needed to be said. I could see the deep worry stitched there.
From farther down below, one of my friends wearing a harness lost her footing. Both of her feet flew out from beneath her, and she swung on the cable line. Luckily, she had a strong grip, and the safety of the harness. But what if she hadn’t? What if that had been my sister?
We reached the most vertical area of the climb. Unfortunately, this is where some wooden slats were missing and the cable was looser. And there were some uneven sections of the granite, so you had to maneuver taking a big step down.
If I had been wearing a heart monitor, I might have logged a near heart attack at that point. The fear for myself that I had been pushing down because I had been focusing all of my attention on my sister suddenly leapt up into my throat. I started losing my footing more often. Both of my gloves were now wet and the cable was slick. I slid down the cable on a few of these sections, as both my feet and hands couldn’t maintain a grip. All I could do was go with gravity and wait until my feet touched that small, but solid, step sanctuary.
And those were the sections I thought my sister wouldn’t be able to make it. That I might horrifically witness one of my best friends setting free of the cable and tumbling down the mountain.
Like a terrible omen, someone’s water bottle from way up above came untethered from their pack. And I watched in the silence as it bounced and rolled down the length of the dome and disappeared into the abyss below.
Please, don’t let us die today.
At this point, a man who had been wearing a harness on the way up decided it was too unsafe to continue and was going to head back down, but he offered up one of his ropes and carabiners. I immediately jumped on the offer and asked if he could help attach it to my sister. He climbed up next to her, made a makeshift belt with the ties from her backpack, and then attached one carabiner to her and the other to the cable. Around the same time, our other friend had been given a rope with carabiner, and he had clipped himself into his belt. I breathed easier. Even if I was the only man flying free, I was happy knowing that everyone else in my group was out of serious danger. (That said, we had no idea how well those ropes would have held since they weren’t attached to a true harness system. But I was thankful they had something.)
So we continued down the mountain. And I just kept talking. Talking to her. Talking to myself. Lean in. Hold on. A few more steps. One more step. Wood slat. Breathe.
After an eternity, I looked down and saw that the other three in our group had made it to the bottom and they were coaching us along. When I hit solid ground, I threw off my gloves and looked up. My sister had only two more sections to go.
When she finally stepped off the final wood slat to stand in front of me, I clutched her hard and never wanted to let her go. We stood there at the base and sobbed into each other’s arms. I told her I was so sorry. Sorry for putting us in such a dangerous situation. Sorry for not having been a better leader. I don’t know how long we stayed there holding each other. But at some point, the rest of our group came over and piled into a group hug.
We were exhausted. My arms and legs were shaking from straining for the last hour down the dome. But we were only halfway done with our hike. We still had to get back down to Curry Village.
It was raining more steadily, so we put on our ponchos and trekked as fast as our legs could carry us. After what we had just gone through, though, nothing else could phase us. We had our eyes on the prize: warm showers, reconnecting with the rest of the group who had stayed behind, and a victory dinner at The Yosemite Lodge.
I can gladly say I will never hike Half Dome again. I’m glad that I got to experience it once in beautiful weather. But I’ve had enough of a scare for a lifetime. I’ll stick to more solid ground in the future.
My advice if you plan on hiking Half Dome:
- Never, ever go in poor weather conditions. It isn’t worth the risk. Sunny, clear, and dry days only.
- Purchase a sturdy climbing harness. Black Diamond is a trusted brand to keep you safe.
- Bring your own set of gloves. Make sure they have a really good grip, like climbing gloves or heavy duty work gloves.
- Wear shoes with great traction, like the Merrell Waterproof Hiking Boot. No sneakers. And no old shoes that have lost their grip.
- Train prior to the trip. You want to be in the best shape possible for the 10+ hour journey, elevation gain, and the strength needed to pull yourself up and down the cables.
- And of course, make sure to get your permit. You can apply for one during the March lottery, or during the summer hiking season, you can apply for a daily permit 2 days in advance. If you go without a permit, you could face major fines or even jail time.
Please note: I hold the deepest regard and respect for Yosemite’s Park Rangers. They are friendly, informative, and downright good people. After college, I even had an application in hand to be one. My only suggestion is that they issue more urgency to folks attempting Half Dome, particularly in inclement weather. Sure, there are signs, and hikers should be responsible for their own actions. But people are more inclined to trust their local Park Ranger.