I have hiked Half Dome twice. The first time I didn't summit, but the second time I did. As someone who has experienced both failure and success on Half Dome, let me tell you--this hike is BRUTAL. If anyone tells you "It's not that bad!" punch them in the face. Hiking 4800 feet in elevation over eight miles is no joke, and that's not even counting the climb at the end. I have to steal a line from Melissa M from her review of Mt Whitney: reviewing this hike is like discussing childbirth. That metaphor is spot on. The experience is painful and terrifying, and nothing can prepare you for it other than going through the experience yourself. In the end, though, it's worth the effort. I won't belabor the details of the first few miles of the hike, as that is the Mist Trail, and you can read the reviews for that section under its listing. The Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls is a great hike, and if you feel utterly exhausted at that point, you might as well stop there, because the remaining Half Dome trail doesn't get any easier. Getting to the top of Nevada Falls is a real accomplishment in and of itself. But if you DO continue...you keep going and going and going.
The trail winds its way up and up through the forest until it feels like it will never end and you have used every ounce of energy. At about the point where despair sinks in, you step out of the forest onto granite, and the views take away what little breath you have left. The moment when the Sub-Dome and cables come into the picture is really...well...it's a moment. My guide called it "Motivation Point." I call it, "Are You Fucking Kidding Me?! Point." In all seriousness, many people turn around at the base of the Sub-Dome after seeing with their own eyes what lies ahead.
Because if you carry on, you are about to climb OVER 400 STEPS straight up the side of granite rock with no railing or handholds of any kind and a drop on either side that you don't want to think about. Before you reach the top of the Sub-Dome, though, the end of the step and you have to traverse the granite slope on your own (this part is known as "The Slabs"). Many people claim that the Sub-Dome is the most challenging part of the hike (though I disagree). Once you crest the dome, you cross a wide saddle, and the cables lie before you. There are lots of beautiful places to sit on the seat and near the base of the wires, and you will see lots of people here hanging out on the boulders and taking advantage of every inch of shade. Why are these people hanging out here? You might wonder, instead of at the top? Well, that's because the second they get a close-up view of the cables, many people sit down and give up. I mean they only take one look and give a great big "NOPE!" If you're wondering why someone would hike all this way to give up at the last 400 feet, then you have never seen the cables. Sixty poles on each side hold up the wires that are your lifeline to climb the side of Half Dome. Most BUT NOT ALL of the poles anchor a wooden slat that allows you a place to rest. These slats are simple 2x4s--that is, you have two inches of width on which to rest your feet in between sections of cable. The rest is up to you. You have to pull yourself up to that very, very, very, steep rock, polished smooth by decades of hikers, with only a steel cable and wobbly poles to grip to prevent yourself from a thousand-foot fall.
I guarantee that no matter how good your shoes, you will slip at some point. Everybody does. It is NOT a good feeling. Does it seem like I'm trying to scare you away from the hike? I'm not. It's just important that everyone who attempts it goes in prepared so that they don't end up panicking. Every time I have been on the cables, I have gotten stuck for a long time while somebody below or above me has stopped the line, clutching a pole or both wires, unable to will themselves to move due to the overwhelming, pants-shitting fear they are experiencing. Do not judge these people too harshly. Panic is a natural and rational reaction to hanging off of a four-thousand-foot rock. You should be especially kind to them and offer them soft words of encouragement. You should do this, not only because it makes you a good and kind person, but because your safety depends on the behavior of those around you. Help each other stay calm. Help each other succeed. When you DO get to the top, it is WORTH all of the effort and the fear. The summit itself is not scary at all. Of course, you can walk out to the edge and dangle over if you want a thrill, but most people kick back and soak in their victory. There is no way around it...you have accomplished something great, and that is an incredible feeling. Here is the excellent advice that I heard from many people regarding this hike: Trust your shoes. Trust the cables. Trust yourself. If you can do this, you will make it.
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