How to Dominate Half Dome

As I write this, I am 38 weeks pregnant. I solo hiked Half Dome in Yosemite National Park a little more than a year ago. When I found out I won the Half Dome lottery, I cried tears of joy and said to my sister “I think this is how normal women feel when they find out they’re having a baby”. Now having experienced both sources of excitement I can confirm, the emotions are pretty similar in both scenarios. I have the same thoughts: I am thrilled! I am terrified! Wait, do I have what it takes to do this?

The moment you find out you’re in!

Tears of joy

DO look down!

If this picture freaks you out, you might be thinking “nope, I definitely can’t handle it!” but before you abandon the idea, read a little bit more, because this is the adventure of a lifetime and it’s something I am so very proud of accomplishing. I would love for you to cross it off your bucket list.

Getting the permit

There are multiple ways to secure a permit through the Half Dome Lottery. There is a preseason lottery that takes place every March and there is a daily lottery throughout the hiking season. There is an option for backpackers that utilizes a separate system via the wilderness permit process.

225 permits are granted per day via the preseason lottery and only about 50 are granted per day via the daily lottery. What is really interesting is those daily permits are granted based on cancellations from people who won the lottery earlier. So if you do chicken out, notify the park so another hiker can get your permit!!

The term “daily lottery” can be a bit confusing because you don’t get the permit and hike that day, you actually get notified if you got a permit two days in advance. For example, if you get notified on Wednesday, your hike will be on Friday.

Half Dome is one of the most coveted hikes in the world and the crew at Yosemite National Park knows it. They even put together this breakdown of statistics to help you understand your odds.

It costs $10 to get apply for the permit and another $10 when your permit is granted. Best $20 you will ever spend!!

So let me tell you how I got a daily permit! I actually drove to Northern California with my sister, without a permit but a whole lot of hope! I applied for the preseason lottery in March and in April, I learned I did not win. My sister being the awesome person she is, was still down to drive up to Nor Cal for a little adventure in Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. (A huge shout out to sister Jackie for being spontaneous with me and helping me prepare for Half Dome. She’s THE BEST!)

*If you don’t want to hear about our trip and want to focus on HD, scroll down to “preparing for the hike”*

We road tripped for about 9 hours from Phoenix. If you don’t know this about me yet, I love being on the road and always prefer to drive!

The views from the Lodgepole Campground at Sequoia National Park

We stayed in a hotel our first night and that is when I submitted my application. The next day we went into Sequoia and stayed at the best campsite ever! We stayed at the Lodgepole campground and it was stunning. A river runs alongside it and the views are just majestic!!

My sister Jackie & I exploring Sequoia

We also took some time to explore the amazing trees and climb Moro Rock. Then we hit the road for Yosemite and starting planning for my big hike.

Campgrounds in Yosemite were all reserved and we did not get any first come, first served openings so I ended up splurging on a hotel outside of Yosemite. You do what you must when hiking Half Dome is on the line!

Preparing for the Hike

Here are my essentials for hiking Half Dome:

-Gloves- they are required for the cables. I actually lost my gloves somehow on the hike up and it was horrifying to think I may not be able to finish the climb due to my loss! Some hikers coming down gave me their gloves (I was so grateful!). The gloves I wore were similar to those pictured above and they’re work gloves you can get for a great price at a home improvement store.

-Dry Bag- Learn from my mistake… if going up the Mist Trail (we’ll talk more about this in a moment) bring a dry bag. I got my ass kicked by the waterfall and was SOAKED from head to toe about 1-2 miles into the hike. Everything I owned was soaked too. I have a medium sized Sea to Summit dry bag that I use for kayaking and I majorly regret not bringing it because my M&Ms got soaked in my backpack and I wa freaking out over my cell phone getting wet.

-True Hiking Shoes- My biggest pet peeve is hikers not wearing proper shoes. Half Dome is not the place to wear Converse, ok? In my opinion, the Salomon Speedcross 4 is the greatest trail shoe ever made. I do not like shoes that come up over my ankle so I prefer more of a trail runner to a hiking boot. This shoe is comfortable and grips the ground so well it gives me tons of confidence on every trail (especially while I’ve been hiking pregnant). Salomon has come out with the Speedcross 5, but I am so loyal to my 4s, I have yet to try them out. I’ve been wearing the 4s for two years now and I am just in love with them. These shoes are made for both men and women. My husband hikes in them too!

-Food- lots of food! I get SO hungry on hikes and I know this about myself so I packed protein bars, fruit, M&Ms and Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets + barbecue sauce. Thank goodness my sister packed my nugs in a baggie so they didn’t get destroyed by the waterfall. It took me about 7-8 hours to complete this hike so I drank a lot of fluids and ate all my snacks in that time. (For liquid I had my Camelback, an extra bottle of water and a gatorade.

-Camera- This is the time to bring the good camera or splurge on new gear. If there was ever a time you want to make sure you have great pics… this is it! I brought my GoPro Hero6 and got a clip so I could secure it to my backpack when I recorded my way up and down the cables. I didn’t have someone to hike with me so I don’t have the greatest pics but I am so glad I brought my GoPro.

The Hike!!!

Worth the wake up call

The day of the hike I got up at about 2:30 am. At the time I was working on a morning newscast as a weather anchor, so the alarm clock felt normally for me. I needed to get ready and eat then drive about an hour to the trailhead from my hotel. I started the hike in the dark at about 5am. I highly recommend starting very early. Plus, watching the sun peak through and define Yosemite’s rock formations while you drive into the park is a stunning sight. I also loved seeing the climber’s light on El Cap. That drive in was so surreal… my jaw just kept dropping as bits of sunlight revealed more beauty.

Trail Choices

You have some options when you hike Half Dome. You can take the Mist Trail up or you can take John Muir Trail up. Eventually they both meet. An experienced hiker I met earlier in my trip recommended I take the Mist Trail up when it was still a little dark so I could fully enjoy the gorgeous views of John Muir Trail on my way down. It was great advice, except as I mentioned earlier, I got absolutely soaked on the Mist Trail. Friends I know who’ve taken the same route had no problem going up and staying mostly dry. I, however, got slapped in the face repeatedly by waves of water and walked through a few inches of water. The Mist Trail is filled with steps so this part is actually a bit strenuous. I was definitely flustered.

Hiking up Half Dome consists of 15 miles trekked out and back with a 5200 foot elevation gain. With stopping for a long time at the top to enjoy my accomplishment, it took me about 7-8 hours to complete.

There are parts of the hike, mostly right after the waterfall, that are not well marked. I always recommend downloading a map on the All Trails app so you can tell if you got off the path at any point.

Once the trails merge and the hikers from Mist and John Muir meet, you’ll start seeing a lot of fellow adventurers. I made a lot of friends on the trail and as a solo hiker, that’s part of the fun! Most of the terrain is pretty gentle and the elevation gain feels slow and steady until about the last mile to the cables. That’s when you are climbing bigger rocks and handling tougher terrain.

A tough stretch of the hike right before the cables

The Cables

As you approach the cables, park rangers will ask for proof of your permit. My phone actually had a bit of a meltdown and at the last second I almost couldn’t pull up my permit digitally. I would highly recommend bringing a printed version to avoid any tech issues. Also, bring your ID! They will also check to make sure you have gloves.

Shortly after you check in with the rangers, you’ll get your first view of the cables. Stop to take this sight in because it’s truly amazing to watch hikers climb vertically up this incredible formation.

Now it’s your turn! Don’t overthink it and freak yourself out. JUST GO!

The cables are 400 feet long. That’s how long you will be climbing vertically. Honestly, I don’t think I would have been strong enough to handle the cables if I hadn’t been doing strength training and indoor rock climbing regularly. I would recommend 3-6 months of upper body strength work before attempting the cables. There are some wooden planks placed on the rocks every now and then so you can stop and be supported. A few times I needed to give my arms a rest so I would wrap one arm around the cable and let the other one relax, then switch until I regained my strength.

Most of the time you will be able to hold onto both cables but when you pass someone going down you will need to move off to the side and cling to just one so they can have the cable on the other side. There will probably also be some pushy people who decide they need to rush and go around you. Be prepared to pause and hold onto one cable exactly where you are to let them get around.

You will run into people who aren’t being careful enough. I think people get freaked out coming down, just want off, and rush (and ok, some of them are just rude). It is so important in these moments for you to focus on your foot and hand placement and avoid getting distracted by the behavior of other hikers. I remember when I was in Driver’s Ed in high school, my teacher preached “defensive driving”. I’m a big believer in “defensive hiking” in these situations. Be aware of people who are making poor choices, do what you can to avoid them and when you can’t- be prepared to minimize any risk they pose to your safety.

Here are a couple videos from my journey going both up and down the cables.

Making it to the Top

Once you arrive at the top of HD, it’s an emotional experience. You just accomplished something super challenging (and dangerous)! Take a moment to congratulate yourself and realize you just had one of the most coveted experiences on Earth!

I was amazed by how large the area you can roam around really is up top. I found a quiet spot away from everyone where I could eat my Chick-Fil-A.

I highly recommend packing cold chicken nuggets

Knowing I not only physically accomplished the climb, but that I did it alone and showed up to Northern California without a permit made me really proud. I was so determined to make this happen in June 2019 and I did it!

Heading Down the Cables

Going down the cables is very mentally taxing for a lot of people because looking down at those heights is not for the faint of heart. I found it to be the most exhilarating part of the entire experience. The views are unforgettable so no matter how scared you feel, hold on tight to those cables and stop to soak in the view for a moment.

I very often sat down and sort of scooted my way through the descent. Do what works for you and makes you feel safe. Remember, other people will be going up!

Make sure you watch the video I linked above of going down!

John Muir Trail 

The heavenly views on John Muir Trail

Just take a look at that picture for a moment because it will do a better job of capturing the beauty of this section of trail than my words ever could. In this photo you are seeing Liberty Cap (the rock formation) and Nevada Fall.

Throughout the hike you cross a river, run into waterfalls and beautiful rock formations and see gorgeous foliage everywhere. It is unbelievably breathtaking.

Even if you don’t hike Half Dome, do this trail. You will love it.

After the Hike

There’s nothin’ better than a post hike beer

Make sure you get some to go!

At this point you deserve a beer and it HAS TO BE this one: Half Dome California Wheat from Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company. I met my sister at Curry Village Pizza Deck in the park and had the beer on draft and scarfed down some pizza. It was the perfect post hike delight! I also took home a bunch of cans of Half Dome Cali Wheat. If you like Hefe’s you will absolutely love this beer.

Make sure you have some comfy shoes or sandals to slip on after the hike because your feet will be sore. Going down the cables at that funky angle is not kind to the feet.

A year later

Maternity photo taken by Jose Ochoa

Now in summer 2020, I am scheduled for induction to welcome my baby boy within a week of writing this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about labor. To be honest, I have a lot of fears about childbirth. I’m afraid of the pain and the things that could go wrong. In the past few days I have found great comfort in thinking about what my body has accomplished while hiking and what my mind has overcome on the cables of Half Dome, the ropes of the Moanalua Valley Trail and the chains of Angels Landing. Just like when I hiked those trails, I’m not sure exactly what to expect, but I do know I was made for it.

Thank you for reading about the greatest adventure of my life. Please join me on Instagram to continue the conversation.

Say Something