Go Outdoors: Ordinary joes can climb Half Dome

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Half Dome (Lindsay Wienkers | Collegian)

Although I cannot put an exact time or location on when I first saw Half Dome looming over Yosemite National Park, I can explain the feeling my brother, Henry, and I had when the massive rock formation came into our view – complete and utter awe. In fact, Yosemite itself, specifically Yosemite Valley where Half Dome is located, is so beautiful that Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864 to preserve its beauty. This eventually led John Muir’s drive to make the National Park system the way it is today.

The two of us decided to go backpacking in this National Park, not only for its historical significance but because, for many backpacking enthusiasts, Yosemite National Park is on the bucket list. In fact, between both backpacking lovers and those who have recently found the beauty of the outdoors, there are about 4 million visitors each year.

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Weeks before the trip, we were both planning out different trails we would try to fit in during our five-day hike. No matter which website I looked up with all the “must see” places in Yosemite, Half Dome appeared. Of course, we were interested, so we looked more into it. Although it seemed very appealing at first, almost each and every website we looked at made us both uneasy, almost to the point that we did not want to even try and attempt the hike.

Half Dome is a massive rock formation standing over 5,000 feet in the Yosemite Valley. Although once considered inaccessible, Half Dome now has cables to allow the thousands of adrenalin-loving hikers to climb the beauty. Some websites suggest that one should train weeks, or even months, before hiking Half Dome, while others mention that the only individuals who should attempt to hike it must be in half-marathon shape.

Not only did this deter us both, since, at the time, Henry and I would probably be sucking wind after a 20-minute run, but we had also read some horror stories about the massive rock. There were instances where, because of an unexpected storm that had rolled in, people had to spend the night on top of the rock because climbing down the cables would be too dangerous. In another case, it was even said that Half Dome was one of the most dangerous hikes in North America due to people have accidently fallen off the rock before.

However, even with all the stories and fitness suggestions about Half Dome, Henry and I decided to go through with it and acquire passes. We got ours by going onto the website and applying to their pass lottery. Like the winners we are, we won the lottery and were granted the pass. However, with the vast amount of people climbing Half Dome that day, it seems that everyone can be a winner in Yosemite National Park.

Unlike most people who attempt Half Dome, we did not start from the Happy Isles lot, which is the trailhead for Mist Trail. Rather, we hiked in the day before via Glacier Point and stayed at Little Yosemite Campground. By doing so, we cut 7.2 miles off of the 14.2-mile journey. This decision also allowed us to get good rest,as we were still not sure how hard it would be, rather than leaving around five a.m., which is the suggested time of departure when starting from Happy Isles Parking Lot. The morning of our Half Dome hike we packed gloves for the wires, our passes, cliff bars, sunscreen and about 150 ounces of water for both of us to share.

The beginning of our hike, so about 3.6 miles in, was made up of gradual switchbacks through a forest. After about two or three hours, the terrain changed from trees to rocks that increasingly grew in size. This next section, both Henry and I agreed, was physically the hardest. It was comprised of rock stairs that were of all sizes. Our thighs burned and we had to take multiple breaks while ascending.

However, the most mentally challenging was when we reached the top of the stairs and Half Dome was about 100 yards away. The people climbing up on wires looked like ants. From that distance, the rock looked extremely steep, so much so that it seemed our arms would be doing most of the work because we would literally be pulling ourselves up the rock with them.

However, as we got closer, the gradient slowly decreased enough so that Henry and I were both comfortable to climb it. Going up the wires was not nearly as scary or hard as I originally thought. I did not look to my side very much, though. My eyes were focused on the rock beneath my feet. Climbing up the wires took us about 20 minutes, and it would have even been less if the people in front of us did not stop so frequently.

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Us on top of Half Dome with the view of Yosemite Valley below. (Lindsay Wienkers | Collegian)

After the wires, we had made it! Half Dome was very large on top, enough so that it would take a few minutes to walk from one side to the other. The view of Yosemite Valley was incredible. Not only did we experience an awe like we did when we first arrived at the park, but we also were relieved. The hike was not nearly as challenging as we thought.

The way back down, as to be expected, was much easier – considering it was mostly all downhill. However, a lady suggested that instead of going down the wire facing the ground, I should turn around and go facing up. I found that method easier and not as frightening.

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Although I know that just because this experience turned out to be much easier and less scary than expected for both Henry and me, that may not be the case for everyone. However, if you are in moderately good shape, relatively mentally strong and have a desire to climb Half Dome, you should do it. It was an experience that I will always remember.

“The mountains are calling and I must go”

– John Muir

Collegain writer Lindsay Wienkers can be reached at blogs@collegian.com.