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Climbing Half Dome? What You Need To Know

Making it to the top of Half Dome is a breath-taking achievement. Literally! For those of you who want to take on this challenge, there are some things you’ll need to know. So let’s get the facts from someone who is still resting up from his trek to the top this past weekend, Tim Madden. But first, some pertinent information:

You can’t just show up and take a hike; you have to have a permit to climb Half Dome. This applies 7 days per week when the cables are up. According to the National Park Service, “This is an interim measure to address crowding and safety along the Half Dome Trail while the park develops a long-term plan to manage use on the Half Dome Trail.”

So what they’ve been doing is having a preseason lottery in March, where people can apply for 6 permits (6 people) and for up to 7 dates. A maximum of 300 day hikers and 100 backpackers are allowed each day on the Half Dome trail above the sub-dome.

I sat down with Tim to talk about the process and his day on Half Dome. We started with the lottery process.

“To increase our odds of being chosen, I applied for a permit as trip leader with 6 people, as did my wife Susan,” says Tim. “There is a ranger at sub-dome checking for permits. After you’ve climbed sub-dome, packs can be left at the base of the cables.”Half dome view 1 - tim madden

If you missed out on the March lottery, don’t worry. You still have a chance in the daily lottery where approximately 50 permits are available each day during the hiking season. These permits are available based on the estimated rate of under-use and cancellations.

Two days before your hike, you can apply for a permit. Say you want to hike on a Thursday. You would apply on Tuesday, and receive an email notification telling you whether or not you have been issued a permit late Tuesday night. You can also check on the results online or by phone the next morning. The application period starts midnight and goes until 1:00pm Pacific time. According to the Park Service, “As of mid-June, an average of 86 permits have been available each day. About 21% of lottery applications are successful, on average.”

Keep in mind that “permits for the Cables on Half Dome are not transferable. Any resale or auction of permits will make the permit/contract null and void.”

So, you have your permit, and you’re ready to set off on your adventure. Tim’s best advice – be in shape!

“If you are going to do this, don’t do it casually. It is a great experience but you have to take it seriously; this is not a day hike for just anyone. You need to be in shape and be prepared.”

Half dome view 3 - tim maddenIt is about a 17 mile round-trip hike to Half Dome. You will be gaining elevation (for a total of 4800 feet) most of your way to the top. Not for the faint of heart or the committed couch potato.

“On our hike, we saw that some of those walking up didn’t have a pack or water. It seems that the more serious hikers begin early in the day, and it was on our way down that we began to see people who did not seem to be prepared for this arduous trek.

“We started from the Happy Isles parking lot and went up the Mist trail, which is difficult because of uneven granite stairs. Some are 3 inches high and some are over 12 inches, making it a strenuous hike.”

Water from the Merced River is available up to Little Yosemite Valley, however you should treat this water by boiling, using iodine or using a giardia-rated water filter. Drinking untreated river water can certainly ruin your day if you develop a nasty water-borne illness.

“We each carried 4 liters of water. We also packed fruit and high protein snacks and ate throughout the day. Make sure you wear the proper shoes – hiking boots or good walking shoes with a lot of tread. We passed people along the way who were actually wearing flips flops.”

Be aware that there are no trash cans on the route and no trash service is provided.

“Pack your trash out with you. It was very disappointing to see that people had just left their trash along the trail or in the nearby woods, particularly in such a beautiful setting. There was a guy at the top drinking a celebratory beer (stupid when you are 8,835 feet high). He finished the beer, crushed the can and left it laying there. A member of our group picked up the can and set it on the guy’s backpack.”

According to the National Park Service, “Most hikers will take 10 to 12 hours to hike to Half Dome and back, and some take longer. If you plan on hiking during the day, it’s smart to leave around sunrise (or earlier) and then have a non-negotiable turn-around time.”

Tim and his crew set out early. “We left at 6:00 a.m. to try and avoid the heat of the day. We started back down about 1:30 p.m. and by that time it was getting pretty hot.”

The part of the hike that everyone talks about is the last 400 feet to the summit – the ascent up the cables. There are two metal half dome cables - tim maddencables that allow hikers to climb that last, very steep push to the summit without rock climbing equipment. It is rather amazing that relatively few people have perished on the cables, however injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly.

“People were very respectful and patient during the entire hike, and you find that you are passing and being passed by the same people throughout the day.When we got to sub-dome it seemed that all the activity on the cables had stopped. It appeared that someone had perhaps gotten scared and people had to wait until they were ready to go again.

“When you are using the cables, you are pulling yourself up. There is a pole about every 8 to 10 feet and a 2×4 on the ground on the uphill side. You take about 3 to 4 steps in between each pole. I wore gloves, however I ended up taking them off because I felt that I got a better bare hand grip on the cables.

“Some people used body harnesses and carabiner’s which they attached to the cables as a matter of safety. One of the seemingly unprepared groups had attached a rope around their waists and then attached a carabiner, however it seemed that if they had fallen, the rope may have ended around their necks or squeezing them to death at the waist.

Half dome view 4 - tim madden“The climb from sub-dome to the top of Half Dome takes about 45 minutes. Once we reached the top the view was magnificent, almost indescribable. There is a lot of room at the top, much more than I would have anticipated. It seemed to be about the size of a football field, I think there were about 100 people up top while we were up there. We hung out, took pictures and rested at the top for about 45 minutes before beginning our descent.Tim and Susan Madden on Half Dome cropped

“On the way down you are basically in a controlled slide. Even though the conditions were dry, it is very slippery. We decided it was easier to back down than risk slipping. This is a dangerous climb and you are aware of the danger at all times. I was concerned about Susan and my daughter Lauren (dads and husbands worry) but they made the decent with ease.

“The way down is killer on the knees –you are tired from hiking 6 hours and then you are fighting to keep from slipping. We took ibuprofen through out the day (hoping to make sure we could walk the next day) and we had started taking a glucosamine chondroitin supplement about 2 weeks prior to our hike. We also decided to come down using the John Muir trail which is a little more forgiving on the knees.

“We attempted the hike last year and only made it as far as sub-dome. There were storm clouds in the air and we were concerned about rain and it became a safety call. My wife Susan says that sub-dome is the worst because the steps are very narrow and there are no handrails.”

To sum it all up, this is a 12 hour grueling hike and other than a few 5-minute rest stops, they were almost constantly moving. Tim does not have any plans to climb Mt. Everest at this time. Maybe Mt. Whitney next year.

Tim Madden on Half Dome 7-7-12Susan says she has climbed Half Dome and does not feel the need to do it again, although Tim says that he would be willing if a family member wanted to make the trip. And one more thing – believe it or not, cell service is available on Half Dome!

Some people believe that no one ever landed on the Moon. I asked Tim if he and his family really made the climb; his response was to say that he has the pictures to prove it. You be the judge.

According to Tim, “Being at the top of Half Dome is like being on top of the world.”


How to Apply for a Permit
To apply for a permit, visit http://www.recreation.gov or call 877/444-6777 (call center is open from 7 am to 9 pm Pacific time; online requests can be made any time during a lottery period).

One comment

  1. Congratulations! Quite the achievement! And I sincerely and hostly appreciate the danger factor assessment… seems so many folks talk about this being a stroll in the park – sounds like it is not. The hard on the knee part also leads me to determine – not probably going to be something my bff will be able to do. Great article!

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