What I learned from hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome

Half Dome Yosemite National Park What I learned hike Hiking
Half Dome (right) can be every bit as difficult to hike as it is beautiful to look at if you don’t prepare yourself. Photo: Lisa Petersen

A few weeks ago, I made the trip out to Yosemite National Park to meet up with my extended family.

As part of our vacation, my aunt, who grew up visiting Yosemite frequently, booked permits for 12 of us to hike Yosemite’s famous Half Dome. Nobody in my family knew a single thing about Half Dome, but my aunt, who wasn’t planning on hiking with us, described it as a roughly 16-mile hike that wouldn’t be too difficult.

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I figured the hike would be a bit like a really long walk, but nothing too strenuous. I grew up hiking in the hills near my home in Connecticut, and while I realized that the Half Dome would be significantly larger than what I had hiked, I shrugged it off as not too much trouble. Wrong.

Half Dome Yosemite National Park What I learned hike Hiking
Turns out the hike was a little more than we planned for. Photo: Lisa Petersen

The hike ended up being closer to 20 miles of hell, and for five days after completing it my calves felt like they were in vice grips.

While I could have prepared better for my trip, there are just a few things you just don’t know until you’ve completed the adventure.

Chances are you don’t know how good of shape you are in

Half Dome Yosemite National Park What I learned hike Hiking
My dad leading the charge up to the top of Half Dome, a climb that can be a bit hairy when wearing worn down running shoes. Photo: Lisa Petersen
I thought I was in pretty decent shape. I was wrong.

In retrospect, it probably would have made more sense to do some amount of hiking to condition myself prior to tackling the Half Dome. No matter how good of shape you’re in, unless your flexing those muscles you use for hiking regularly, tackling the Half Dome can be a challenge.

Another good idea would be to grab a decent pair of hiking boots for the cable section, where you’re expected to climb roughly 700 feet of a smooth granite 45-degree rock face to reach the top. My 2-year-old pair of running shoes were constantly slipping on the face, which was just a tad hair-raising given the view.

Get some rest before going on the hike

My aunt told the 11 other hikers and me that we would need to be at the trailhead at roughly 5:30 a.m. if we wanted to make it back to our cabin in time for dinner.

While that was a bit ominous, we all kind of just went about our business as usual, which during family get togethers basically adds up to playing cards and drinking beer. That was stupid.

RELATED: Massive rock slab from face of Yosemite’s Half Dome

I went to sleep near midnight, and while I joked I was carbo-loading as I sucked down a couple porters, there was nothing funny about waking up before the sun rose feeling a slightly dehydrated and starting on a 20-mile hike.

It sounds obvious, but if you’re attempting a big hike, get to bed early and drink plenty of water the night before.

Everyone needs to carry their own water

Half Dome Yosemite National Park What I learned hike Hiking
The water feeding Nevada Falls (right) would be our first time drinking water again on our descent. Photo: Lisa Petersen
According to the National Park Services, every person attempting to climb the Half Dome should bring a gallon on water (4 liters) for personal consumption. Here’s where we screwed up.

Instead of everybody bringing backpacks, many of us wore Camelbaks that held anywhere from one to two liters of water. The people who were unlucky enough to draw a short straw and wear a backpack during the hike (myself included) had to bring up a bit more than four liters of water, but ultimately, we were nowhere near the gallon we each needed.

As a result, we ran out of water shortly after summiting, and while getting up the rock face is tough, getting back down is just as bad, especially when you have no water for a dozen sore, tired hikers. We had to hike for a few miles without water until we reached the Merced River, which we seized upon as if it was a mirage in the middle of a desert.

So, make sure you and everyone else you’re with packs a backpack. Camelbaks are great for carrying a couple liters of water, but a gallon of water weighs roughly eight pounds. For a dozen hikers that means 96 pounds of extra weight, which is unrealistic to expect to carry if you only have four people carrying backpacks.

Don’t be an idiot and forget to bring a phone or camera

Half Dome Yosemite National Park What I learned hike Hiking
Standing on the Diving Board on top of Half Dome is less fun when you forget to bring a camera. Photo: Lisa Petersen
Having a general idea that I wouldn’t want to be carrying too much extra equipment on me during the hike, I, like an idiot, chose to not only leave my digital camera at home, but also my iPhone.

This was a bad idea.

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places in America, and the Half Dome offers unparalleled views of the park. While it’s great to take it all in while you’re experiencing it (or whatever hike you choose), having some photos to remember it by is also fairly important. Also, top of the Half Dome is one of the only places we found in Yosemite with decent cell service, so you can call all your friends and brag about looking down on all of Yosemite Valley.

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