Hiking Half Dome: Part 2 – The Cables and Summit

First, check out part one of this epic day hike.

It is far too steep to travel the shortest distance to the summit. Instead the path loops around to the east side of Half Dome before the final ascent over granite begins. The trail slowly hooked around the giant monolith, first north, then west, and then a little south. At one point we were greeted with our first view of the dome in hours. It was the backside, so it didn’t look like the famous image of its western face. We were happy to finally see our goal, but it looked near impossible to climb to the top from where we stood. It was so steep and smooth; I just couldn’t imagine this working out for me.

After fully wrapping around Half Dome we reached Sub Dome, also known as the shoulder of the larger Half Dome. There was a warning sign on the trail. It stated that people have been seriously injured and killed from being on Half Dome and Sub Dome during and after lightning and rain storms. Thankfully the sun was shining brightly on our approach. Moving onto Sub Dome brought us above treeline, except for the occasional straggler.

We were so close to the end, but the hardest parts were saved for last. There were still 900 feet left to climb, and they are unquestionably the hardest stretch of the entire hike. We were essentially at the homestretch, but in truth we were only almost halfway since we would have to repeat the entire trek to return to the trailhead. I was looking forward to being finished with all the uphill travel. But I would come to learn that the long way down is just as challenging.

We passed the warning sign and began to ascend Sub Dome. The only way to climb this beast was to slowly and deliberately climb one steep rock staircase after another, and another and another for as far as I could see. These were quad-burning, steep-stepped switchbacks. There was rarely any railing or anything else to hold on to for assistance.

Since we were above treeline and in the open on Sub Dome we had amazing views of the surrounding landscape. I admired the scenery, but only briefly because the granite steps required extreme caution. A missed step could easily result in a bad fall and a very serious injury or worse.

The rocky stairs were similar to those along the Mist Trail. Those stretch on for a long time, too, but I don’t think they can compare with these. For one, by the time we got to Sub Dome we were already exhausted from the day of hiking. There are also railings, rocks, and mountain walls to help along the Mist Trail.

My body handled the first seven miles of the hike quite well, but the steps destroyed my calves and quadriceps. The steep granite staircases appeared endless. We climbed around 500 feet in elevation along those steps, which probably equaled out to more than 600 stairs. The grueling exercise felt more like torture than anything else. By the time I was halfway up Sub Dome I had fallen behind Joe and Kate. I saw them a couple switchbacks above me. They waited patiently at the top, while I inched my way up the last excruciating set of stairs. The final steps were the steepest (of course). I didn’t think I would be able to lift my leg up and over the last couple stairs.

As hard as those granite steps were on my body they were almost as draining on my mind. They required complete focus as I climbed the hundreds of exposed steps to conquer my fear. The higher I got and the steeper the slope behind us, the more frightened I became. I have a very real fear of heights and it threatened to get the best of me there. I took it slow, one step at a time, using my trekking poles to help balance as my knees grew wobbly.

Once I reached Joe and Kate we walked over to a solitary tree. We rested in the shade for a few minutes to catch our breath and regain some strength. My rubbery legs were throbbing. As I laid under the tree all I could think about was the fact that I was going to have to return down those same granite stairs in the near future. I was dreading the thought. As hard as it was to ascend them, I was confident that I would reach the top. However, between the steepness, the immense drop-offs, and my fear of heights I had no idea how I was going to make it back down. I tried not to think about it.

A short break and some adrenaline were enough to get me get back on my feet to proceed. We picked up our pace as we made our way across Half Dome’s saddle to the infamous cables. The saddle was a broad sunken area. It was smooth, gently curved granite. Large boulders were sprinkled about the saddle. There were sprawling views to both sides of us. Rugged peaks and granite domes spanned the horizon. As impressive as the views were, I knew they would only get better atop the regal dome. The granite was smooth, but it was dry so it wasn’t difficult to traverse. It was a little steep at times and required a little bit of a scramble, but it didn’t take us long to cross the saddle.

We arrived at the base of the infamous cables. There was another warning sign there. It stated not to proceed past the sign if there is “a thunderstorm anywhere on the horizon.” It also cautioned that Half Dome has been struck by lightning every month of the year. The sky remained clear and inviting, so we proceeded.

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Before us, secured to the side of Half Dome were two steel cables. They were held up by waist-high metal poles. They were a couple inches wide and braided like a thick rope. The two cables ran parallel to each other, about three feet apart, down the steep slope of the dome. Wood 2x4s lay across the granite surface between the cables every five feet or so. If you stand back and gaze up at the whole cable system you’ll notice that it resembles a very tall ladder. In fact, it stretches on for a total of 400 feet to the summit.

The reason the cables are necessary is that the slope to the summit is at a 45 degree angle, and sometimes closer to 60 degrees. The granite is smooth and can be incredibly slippery and dangerous when wet. If it weren’t for the cable system set up by park rangers, hikers would require mountain climbing materials. That would greatly reduce the amount of people that reach the top of the world-renowned Half Dome. The cables are attached to the dome year-round, but are typically only elevated atop the poles from May through October. The hardiest of hikers continue to summit the dome when the cables are down, but it is not recommended.

At the bottom of the cables was a massive heap of old, used gloves. Most were gardening gloves, but there was a large assortment of styles and sizes. Gloves are extremely helpful when using the cables, because the braided steel can be extremely rough on your hands.

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I was in awe of the cables. The more I looked up at them, the more terrified I became. My fear of heights was overwhelming me, but the fact that I had hiked so far already and had just 400 feet between me and the summit empowered me to continue. I realized that the longer I contemplated the climb, the more I questioned whether I could do it, so I couldn’t wait any longer. We each took some gloves and grabbed hold of the massive cables.

My legs were still in agony from the granite stairs on Sub Dome. I tried to walk up the ladder, clutching the cables with all my might, but my legs did not want to move. I recognized that I was going to need my mind to overrule my body in order to have any chance at making it to the top. Thankfully I was able to power forward with my arms instead of my legs.

I had one arm on each cable and pulled myself up the side of the peak the best I could. I moved one arm at a time, always making sure to have three points of contact with the cables and granite, whether it was two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot. I pulled my upper body forward and followed quickly with my feet. As sore as my legs were, my arms felt powerful as I flew up the cables using all the arm strength I could muster.

We encountered a few traffic jams on the way up. In those instances I stepped to the side and clung tight to one cable, while several hikers descended the opposite cable. It is best to stay between the two cables, allow faster climbers to pass if possible, and be patient with slower hikers. Things can get dangerous if you’re not extremely careful. More than a few people have fallen off the cables to their death over the years. When I was climbing up someone dropped their water bottle. I watched as it bounced down the curve of the dome before disappearing into oblivion.

At one such traffic jam I talked with a man and his teenage son. They were both wearing jeans and I recall thinking they must be roasting in the heat. The father was also climbing using his bare hands, which caught my attention. I had gloves on and my hands still hurt like hell. The man told me he was a carpenter all his life so his hands were extremely tough.

While I waited to continue up, I had a chance to look around. The views were expansive, the High Sierra stretched out for miles. I was surprised by the view, because I had been so focused on the task at hand. It was the first time I took my eyes off the cables and the granite beneath my feet since I started the final ascent.

Some people were really struggling to pull themselves up the cables. The thin air at 8,000 feet was a big factor. So was fear. Several hikers were frozen in terror, though they usually started moving again after a few minutes of encouragement from fellow hikers. Frankly I’m surprised I wasn’t too scared to move.

The middle of the cables was the steepest part of the route. It felt almost vertical, but in reality was probably about a 60 degree grade. Most people only went a few feet at a time in that area before stopping to stand atop one of the 2x4s to rest. I, however, could not handle stopping, because that allowed my fear to escalate. I had to continue moving, and do so quickly.

About halfway up, I waited for some people to come down the cables and then I really sped up. More than anything, I just wanted to get off those nerve-racking cables. But the only way to do that was to get to the top as fast as possible. So as physically and mentally demanding as the process was, I summoned all my remaining strength to race up the final 100 feet to the summit.

I nearly collapsed from exhaustion once I reached level ground. The final 900 foot climb over the steps and cables required gut-wrenching focus and backbreaking labor. I was so relieved to be done climbing. Joe and Kate joined me a few minutes later. They didn’t look nearly as drained as me, but they were definitely feeling it, too. We congratulated each other with high-fives and hugs. As triumphant as I felt, my sense of relief was stronger.

It was just before 3:00 p.m. when we reached the summit of Half Dome. That meant it took us about six and a half hours. That didn’t seem too bad. We figured we had enough time to relax atop the dome for a while before heading back down. Going downhill would likely take less time and get us back to the trailhead before dark.

The summit was much different than any mountaintop I had seen before. It was mostly level and enormous, at least a few acres in size. Multiple football fields could fit atop Half Dome’s spacious summit.

There were a lot of people up there, but it didn’t seem the slightest bit crowded because the area was so vast. It wasn’t only people up there exploring and admiring the infinite views. There were a couple of squirrels scrambling across the granite expanse. We also spotted one fat and furry marmot. It looked like a twenty pound hamster. The squirrels and marmot were begging for food and trying to sneak some away from unsuspecting hikers. I kept one eye on the scavengers and the other on the astonishing views.

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There were full 360 degree panoramic views. The entirety of Yosemite National Park was spread out before us. There was an endless assortment of gray peaks and green valleys. I separated from Joe and Kate and walked around the summit by myself, marveling at the views.

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Glacier Point was nearly eye-level to the southwest. To the southeast I could see several gray mountains off in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Out to the northeast were the many peaks beyond Tuolumne Meadows. Cloud’s Rest, Tenaya Canyon, and Olmstead Point were closer in that direction. And directly west of us and almost 5,000 feet down was Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan at the opposite end. I could just barely make out some of the roads and buildings. Looking straight down at the valley was dizzying. I had to step back from the edge.

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The views were incredible and we certainly earned them. I had never seen panoramic views like those of the Sierra Nevada. The rugged snow-capped peaks and round domes filled the horizon in every direction. It was like a sea of pointed gray peaks, broken up by contours and curves separating the mountains.

As amazing as the views were, something else was on my mind almost the whole time I was on the summit. I was completely dreading my return down the cables and the hundreds of exposed granite steps. As hard and frightening as the ascent was, I was pretty sure going back down those parts would be even worse. Some people say that by facing your fear you can conquer it. I faced my fear in climbing those steel cables and I was petrified to return to them. One way or another I’d have to do it, so I tried to enjoy my experience on the summit in the meantime.

After walking around for a while I reunited with Joe and Kate on a large boulder for an early dinner in the sky. I let my backpack fall off my shoulders to the granite with a thud. I felt like a burden had been lifted off of me, although I knew the weight of my pack would come back soon.

We each pulled our steak sandwiches out of our backpacks and dug in. The steak was leftover from our previous night’s dinner. It tasted good at first, but the steak had a bit more substance than I would have preferred at the moment. A simple turkey sandwich might have been better, but steak sure seemed like a good idea at the time.

Before we finished eating Joe reached into the depths of his backpack and pulled out three bottled beers. That was a welcome surprise and a great way for us to celebrate our feat. Our beers also made us the envy of Half Dome hikers. Multiple people approached us asking if we had more beers and even if we would sell ours. They were not for sale, because at that moment they were priceless. Mine sure hit the spot, but it was because of the idea of it and the location, not the beer itself. After spending hours in a backpack it was no longer cold. And after hiking over eight miles and climbing almost 5,000 feet up, more water would have been the best medicine. Beer actually dehydrates you, so it really wasn’t a good idea at all. However, just like the steak, it sure seemed like a good idea at the time.

We took our time to finish our beers to fully appreciate them. It was also then that we checked our individual water supplies. I was pretty low on water, I’d guess I had about 25% left of what I started with. Joe and Kate had even less remaining. We hoped we would require much less water going downhill, but we still had far less than we’d prefer.

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14 thoughts on “Hiking Half Dome: Part 2 – The Cables and Summit

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  1. I was lucky enough to climb Half Dome 4 times when I was a young man! Your story brings back ALL of the memories!! I agree, the stairs leading up to the dome were the Hardest part! I never had any issues with the cables….I always felt they were one of the funnest and almost easiest part. That said I was not quite as fearful as heights as you sound! I love those views from up top!! GREAT Story!!

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  2. Congrats to you on making that climb! I am not sure I could overcome by fear to go there. Our daughter just made the hike and I swear your words echo hers. She said the cables were enough to do her in but thankfully other hikers came along and assisted her to the top.

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  3. Wonderful post series, Matthew. Thanks for a vivid virtual hike. I sure clung to the cables with you all the way up. Congratulations on summiting this special place.

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  4. I’m on the edge of my seat reading this series. I really admire you for doing this, but after reading this I know that I would never do it. I would be petrified, and I think I’d be stuck up there forever, too afraid to come down. 😉 Looking forward to reading more of this nail-biter story!

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    1. Thanks Heather! I’m glad you enjoy it. The last part should come tomorrow. I took it all from the book I wrote, just broke it up so it wouldn’t be super long… still three long posts though. It was definitely the hardest (physically and mentally) hike I’ve completed. It shocks me that it’s easy for some people.

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