Hiking & Backpacking / Outdoor Adventures

Epic Yosemite: Climbing the Half Dome Cables

Approaching the Half Dome cables

After seven days in Yosemite, I’m getting back to this dubious business of living in the “real world.” Back to emails, and voicemails, and stacks of snail mail, and TV shows sitting on the DVR (well, those I’ll take).

But in between all of that, I’m starting the daunting task of downloading, browsing, and editing all my pictures from the last week… a few hundred of them off my camera and the hub’s camera, from our entry trailhead at May Lake in the High Country all the way to our exit trailhead at Happy Isles in the Valley. (More from those in a few weeks… if I’m lucky!)

The impetus for this trip was my friend finding out back in April that she’d won the Half Dome lottery to climb the cables. We were excited but hesitant about the 16-mile hike… while completely doable, it didn’t sound very appealing to hightail it in and out of the valley in a span of 12 hours. So Will and I decided to turn the opportunity into a trip we’d always wanted to do: one week in the Yosemite backcountry, culminating in the climb up to Half Dome.

We would camp in Little Yosemite Valley (the closest starting point to Half Dome) and have a leisurely hike to the cables the next day, reducing our round-trip total to just 7 miles instead of 16. And, we’d have the freedom to go at any time of day, rather than being limited to a sunrise start time like most other people doing the in-and-out in a day.

The trail to Half Dome

On a Monday afternoon, we were incredibly lucky to be the only ones on the cables and have the whole dome to ourselves. After making it to the top and back, I’ll be the first to admit: I highly underestimated Half Dome.

I knew a few friends who’d climbed the cables, and I’d remembered seeing pictures of kids clambering up the slope and ultralight hikers wearing their “barefoot” shoes on the approach, all of which made it seem like Half Dome would be a walk in the park.

But I also think quite a few people bail on their permits, or reach the base of the dome and then turn back. If anything, the hike up the subdome seemed far more strenuous than the cables themselves.

There wasn’t a ranger to check our permits that day (at least, not that late in the day by the time we got there) and it seemed like everyone was coming down the same moment we were going up.

The first haul up Half Dome (on a section called the subdome, elevation 7,900 feet) was a series of steep switchback stairs carved out of the granite, some of them over a foot tall.

Hiking up the subdome

Granite staircase

While channeling our inner mountain goats, we had views over the entire eastern side of the park, including a peek at our previous campsite on top of Cloud’s Rest.

View of Cloud's Rest from the subdome

View of Yosemite from the subdome

Hiking up the subdome

Climbing the subdome

Climbing the subdome

Climbing the subdome

Half Dome

About 500 feet of vertical later, we reached the base of the cables. In front of the route lay piles of old leather work gloves, free for the borrowing.

Approaching the Half Dome cables

The cables on Half Dome

Pile of old gloves at Half Dome

The cables loomed 400 feet up a granite slab, worn smooth from thousands of hikers ascending this same route over and over again for the last 90-some years (when the cables were first installed). Looking up, my first thought was… What the f@%k!?

Climbing the cables on Half Dome

The route seemed to disappear straight into the sky, at a much steeper angle than I’d expected. I’d assumed the cables were only in place as handrails of sort, but with the slope angled at 45° to 50°, you definitely needed to use the cables to climb the whole way (and good, grippy gloves are a godsend). Not only that, wear great shoes and trust your feet… and maybe do a few chin-ups or push-ups to prepare yourself, because that’s pretty much what you’ll be doing for 400 feet.

Every 10 feet or so, poles were put in place with flimsy little wooden boards on the granite to help you gain some footing. Climbing the cables took a lot of upper body strength, but if you focus on just taking deep breaths, moving from one board to the next, pinning your feet against the poles for support as you ascended, it was a manageable feat. (Some people harness up and clip in to the cables as they climb — via ferrata style — but I don’t think it’s necessary unless you’re really afraid of heights.)

Ascending the cables on Half Dome

Wooden planks and steel cables on Half Dome

Half Dome cables

Half Dome cables

I can’t imagine what the cables must have looked like earlier in the day when throngs of tourists were moving up and down the dome, or what the route used to be before the permit system was in place. To climb the cables with hundreds of other hikers in front of you and behind you seems like a nightmare. I’d read stories of hikers getting aggressive or impatient, or trying to pass the slower hikers, or even climbing outside of the cables — seriously? There are no mistakes on Half Dome. Getting cocky on the cables is a sure way to take yourself out or even worse, take someone else out.

So with our group of seven, I was so grateful to be the only people climbing up the route that time of day. We took our time, giggled and chatted, and enjoyed the views over the park. All of us made it to the top with a final exhilarating scramble to 8,840 feet above the world!

Making it to the top of the cables

Half Dome summit

Half Dome summit

It’s rather unbelievable that no one was on the summit with us, and we still had a few hours to spare before sunset. We had Half Dome to ourselves! What amazing luck. We rested, snacked, took pictures and made friends with the resident marmot.

On top of Half Dome

Yosemite valley is far, far below

The Visor on Half Dome

The Visor on Half Dome

The Visor on Half Dome

Yellow-bellied marmot on top of Half Dome

Making friends with a marmot

This little guy (one of many yellow-bellied marmots in Yosemite) was curious and mischievous, and you could tell he was used to human interaction. He walked right up to us, posed for pictures, and we even found him snooping in one of our packs. We gave him some water and named him Hal F. Domé. (Cheesy, I know.) He definitely needs his own Facebook page!

Yellow-bellied marmot in Yosemite

Marmot on Half Dome

Curious marmot on Half Dome

Portrait of a marmot

Giving water to the marmot

Giving water to the marmot

After spending a couple of hours at the top, we started making our way down the cables with plenty of light left in the day. Because of the steepness, it was much easier going down backward. By the time we reached the last 30 feet of cable, we could turn around and simply walk down the slab facing forward.

Descending the cables

Descending the cables

Descending the cables

Half Dome success!

Heading back to camp

We practically skipped back to camp in Little Yosemite Valley, and just after the sun set, we threw ourselves into the (very cold but very refreshing) Merced River for a celebratory soak.

Half Dome… success! Another one to cross off the life list! (And if you’re looking to cross it off your own list, this is the best map and guide I’ve found that describes the trail and its history.)

Trail map: Click here
Segment log: 7 miles with 5,380 feet elevation change
Next segment: Little Yosemite Valley to Happy Isles and home sweet home

Read the full “Epic Yosemite” series:

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »