By: Kim Yamauchi
From Lottery to Summit: Our Epic Half Dome Adventure
Last summer it was Mt. Whitney, this year, Half Dome. Craig (my husband) climbed Half Dome over 30 years ago (“before Kim” and yes we’re old!), but I still had not climbed Half Dome. There is a spring lottery that happens in March, so we registered for the lottery where you can request multiple dates and multiple tickets for those dates. Unfortunately we did not get a permit last spring for any requested dates.
A Stroke of Luck: The Daily Lottery
Just after labor day, we were again talking about Half Dome, and realized you can apply for a daily lottery ticket 2 days prior, as a secondary option to the spring lottery. We both went online to our recreation.gov account and entered the lottery for Sunday. Although Craig was declined, I ended up getting two permits for us!
Saturday morning we packed our little RV and headed to Yosemite Valley. We were fortunate to find a campsite for our RV for Saturday evening. This gave us a place to park in the valley, sleep, but would need to move the RV before setting off in the morning.
The Epic Ascent: Before Sunrise at Vernal Falls
We awoke at 4am, had coffee and breakfast, packed a lunch, snacks, and our water, and headed to the trailhead around 5am. There were a few others heading in the same direction, in the dark, and we eventually made our way to the Happy Isles/Vernal Falls trailhead and started our ascent.
This hike is stated as a 14-16 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 5000 feet. We were tacking on an extra 1 ½ miles from the Curry Village parking lot, so planning on ~18 mile day. They also state 10-12 hours for this adventure, so really hoping to be closer to 10 hours.
The morning was beautiful, the weather was perfect. Slightly cool but not cold, and cloudless skies. The Vernal and Nevada Falls section is quite steep, gaining 2000’ of elevation over just under 3 miles. This is the mist trail, paralleling the falls, with over 600 granite steps. These steps can be wet and slippery, but the views are incredibly beautiful. As the sun started to come up, Half Dome was casting a shadow across the valley, meanwhile illuminating a golden Half Dome.
Once at the top of Nevada Falls, the trail flattens out as you pass Emerald Pools and hike around the backside of Half Dome. The next few miles pass fairly quickly as the route takes on a more mellow ascent.
Finally Little Dome comes into view, and we can see human forms ascending the stairs that have been cut into the granite. This appears incredibly challenging but once we made it to the bottom of Little Dome, I realized it was much less perilous than it appeared from a distance. We started our hike up the series of steps, and were surprised at the number of people already descending. It was only 9am. Talking with some of these people, we realized some people camp overnight, splitting the hike into multiple days. Others began as early as midnight.
Scaling Half Dome's Cables
Once we made it through Little Dome, we were at the bottom of the cables for Half Dome. One couple was on their descent. We waited for them to finish, and then we jumped on for our ascent.
Surprisingly, we were the only two on the cables, which is a pretty incredible experience. Gloves for the cables are a necessity. I had my Ace Hardware work gloves which worked beautifully. Craig’s Hestra gloves didn’t quite provide the grip that was needed, and said they were a bit slippery. Slipping is not what you want as you climb up the pure granite face. The ascent up the cables took us about 10 minutes and then we were on the summit of Half Dome!
What an incredible view of the entire valley, looking across to Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and the beauty of the entire region.
We had our lunch, replenished our hydration packs with my bottles of water, took lots of pictures, and then eventually headed back down the cables. I think traversing down the cables is actually more uncomfortable than going up. Looking down the shear granite face can be a bit discomforting, especially if you have issues with heights. Eventually I turned around and realized that facing into the wall worked best for me.
The hike down Little Dome to the top of Nevada Falls was fairly non eventful. The trail was not busy and we were enjoying the late morning and still comfortable temperature. Once we hit the top of Nevada Falls, the trail became very busy. This is a very popular day hike, so this section becomes quite busy in both directions.
When we came to the top of Vernal Falls, we actually chose the “winter route” with fewer people and away from the granite steps. What we didn’t know (and what the ranger didn’t tell us), this direction adds an extra 2+ miles and ~500 feet of elevation. The ranger said, “it’s a bit longer and has a little climbing in the beginning”! Definitely an understatement, but we did appreciate being away from the crowds. We eventually made it to the bottom of Vernal Falls, to the Happy Isles trailhead, and realized we made the trailhead round trip in just around 8 hours! Quite an achievement, especially for Craig! We ended up with a round trip of 18.72 miles and 5827 feet of elevation gain.
What’s in my pack:
Lots of water with Skratch lemon lime hydration mix. Craig is not a hiker, he has a bad back, so I told him if he carries his hydration, I will carry everything else. He had a 3L hydration pack. I also had a 3L hydration bladder that was part of my larger Dueter day pack. Both bladders were filled with the Skratch Lemon Lime mix. But knowing that sometimes your body just wants pure water, I carried 4 additional soft sided ½ liter water bottles including one with a filtration cap (in case we needed more water on the trail).
I brought my Leki Ultratrail FX.One carbon running poles and found they were very helpful. I finally convinced Craig to use one too, so we actually both hiked with one. He later agreed, said it helped on the up, and then helped with balance on the down. Our lunch consisted of sandwiches, chips, and gummy bears for dessert. I also carried assorted gels and bars in case we needed some extra fuel. I packed a lightweight jacket for myself, Craig said he did not need one. And then our gloves for the cables, a brim hat, beanie, sunglasses, headlamps, and sunscreen.
In the end, we used all the water except for ½ liter. We ate the entire lunch, a few other bars, chips, and gummy bears! Be careful with your food as the little chipmunks are very aggressive! They kept trying to get into my pack and grab my food while we were sitting and enjoying our high elevation lunch.
Reflections and Future Plans
Doing it again? I wouldn’t change much. The early morning was great, and the sun came up shortly after we began our ascent up Vernal Falls. We were on the summit before 11am, and back to our vehicle by 3pm. We actually drove out that night as we only had a campsite for one night. Next time I would try to have a campsite for at least 2 nights, eliminating moving everything in the AM to a parking lot, and then being able to relax post hike, enjoy the valley, and stay another night.
Author: Kim Yamauchi
Kim is an avid outdoor enthusiast and enjoys playing in the mountains whenever she has the chance. You’ll find Kim trail running, hiking with her dog, and mountain biking in the summer. In the winter months, Kim enjoys skiing of all types – whether skate skiing on the Nordic trails, touring in the backcountry or charging downhill at our local resorts. When she’s not out playing in the mountains, she works from her home office for Oracle NetSuite.