How Half Dome Taught Me To Be a Better Hiker
By Kayla Moxley, Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador
Since the beginning of my hiking journey, Half Dome has always been one of those intimidating adventures reserved for the experienced hikers. After hearing countless stories of hikers falling off the dome in treacherous weather or how hard the stairs are on the Mist Trail or how difficult the cables are, climbing Half Dome had never crossed my mind as something I could conquer. Shortly after I started hiking regularly, my mother had confided in me that she had Lupus and had some other health issues related to her diagnosis. As an avid hiker, she wanted to push past her health issues and climb Half Dome before she turned fifty years old.
Together we decided we would at least try to apply for permits and see if we could cross it off our adventure bucket lists. Both of us did a ton of research, watched numerous videos on YouTube, wrote out a perfect plan for the application process, a workout plan, and we sent each other pictures and stories of Half Dome. I had never been to Yosemite National Park, but growing up in Northern California, I was so excited to finally see it in person and I was even more excited I was taking on this challenging adventure with my mom.
There is an overwhelming amount of information on the application process for the permit lottery. On March 1, 2017 I applied for a permit for a group of four and named a friend of mine as the alternate leader while my mom also applied for a permit for a group of four with her wife as the alternate leader. Between the two of us, we had applied for a total of eight days in hopes of winning a permit for one day. We each paid a $4.50 application fee and crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. On April 12, 2017 we both received an email telling us to log into our Recreation.gov accounts to view our lottery results. We called each other after we both got off work and checked together while on the phone. My mom and I both won our first choice and we both did our happy dance on the phone even 390 miles apart. We took the next few weeks to decide whose date would be a better fit to get some training in and do some research and we decided to hike on August 16, 2017. We were so engulfed in our research and planning, we almost forgot to actually purchase our permits by the end of April!
After reading blog after blog and overwhelming myself with the overload of information, I found the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge put on by SoCal Hiker that trains hikers for significant elevation gain and longer miles. I had a theory that by climbing the six mountains in this challenge, it would make the long trek up to Half Dome significantly easier so I can save my strength for the cables. I incorporated doing the stair climber into my gym routine by adding a minute to my time on it each workout. Every blog about Half Dome said that upper body strength was important for the climb up so I incorporated more arm workouts into my routine. I constantly communicated with my mom how important it was to do longer hikes with more significant elevation gain and she did great with finding hiking groups near her where she could challenge herself with increasing difficult hikes. In July, my mom called me to tell me she rolled her ankle during a long hike and that she no longer felt comfortable hiking to Half Dome. It broke my heart to not be able to do the hike with her, but she insisted I continue with friends.
So I posted in Girls Who Hike LA to see if anyone wanted to join me and luckily I found three girlfriends who I’ve previously hiked with who wanted to join me in this adventure. Together all four of us planned our trip including staying at Half Dome Village in a heated tent cabin, who would drive and at what time, who was bringing what. The four of us had a group text that was just full of statements of our excitement and anxiety of this trail. While I was heartbroken that I wouldn’t be helping my mom fulfill her dream of hiking Half Dome, I sure was glad that I had a trail tribe to support each other on this journey.
Summer came and went and I finished the Six Pack of Peaks in preparation for the Half Dome adventure. I felt ready as ever for this challenge. I took the time off of work, I had my bags packed, my maps were printed and studied, I had all the gear ready to go. We drove up to Yosemite National Park and I was like a little kid with my face glued to the window as soon as we got to the park. We stopped a few times along the way just to admire the natural beauty and take pictures.
Eventually we arrived at our campground and was able to meet up with the rest of our group, but our excitement wouldn’t allow us to relax and get the rest that was much needed for the long day ahead of us. We placed everything scented in the bear locker provided and headed off to dinner and see if we could find any cheesy souvenirs to commemorate our adventure. After dinner, we met with the ranger on site and asked about the weather concerns we had when we saw there was a 30% chance of rain around 1 pm. The ranger had suggested we leave as early as possible to avoid any chance of being on the subdome after 1 pm so we collectively decided to start our hike at 3 am. The night came and went and we excitedly awoke at 3 am and started our trek in the dark. The hike started out immediately uphill and our group was already exhausted from not sleeping from excitement and starting out with a steep incline. Hiking through the dark, we were all stopping and turning at every noise and rustle in the bushes, assuming a bear would be waiting for us around the corner.
After some time hiking in the dark, we reached the stairs on the Mist Trail. It was terrifying climbing those stairs with our only field of vision being from our headlamps. We hiked in a single file line so no one would be left behind and we could hear the rush of a powerful waterfall and we were refreshed with a coat of mist on our faces. We stopped to squint our eyes to see if we could see the majestic waterfall, but we muttered to ourselves “we’ll see it on the way back” and continued on. Our main goal was to get to the cables long before 1 pm when the thunderstorm was supposed to roll in. The dark was brushed away with the sun peaking up over the valley and we all were in awe watching the sunrise and seeing the beauty of the trail. Since we started so early and hiked slowly, we were the only ones on the trail and we were in complete solitude. The day went on and the trail continued to kick our butts and empty our lungs with every gasp of air to make us believe we were out of shape. The trail became our therapy as we all talked about personal things to distract us from the trail and to kill the time. At one point, I found myself skipping along a stream in a valley because I felt so euphoric after finding a flat spot of the trail and probably a bit delirious from little sleep.
After a few hours and many stops along the way, our group reached the subdome. Looking back, I trained so hard for the trail and the cables, but no one warned us about the subdome. Our bodies were exhausted and naturally I have a rational fear of heights. There were no cables or steps to help guide you up the subdome but it was just as steep. My anxiety kicked in and with my adrenaline rush, I followed the hikers before me and literally crawled up using my hands. I was too nervous to stand up and forget where my center of gravity was because one misstep and there’s not much room for forgiveness for clumsiness. Climbing up the subdome, I found several other hikers with the same fear and it was so comforting that we all encouraged each other and cheered each other on when we eventually reached the cables.
When we reached the cables, I was in complete awe. With steep drop offs on both sides of the rock, I was surprisingly not scared of the height. As I climbed up the first few planks of the cables, I thought to myself, “hey this isn’t so bad. I psyched myself up for nothing”. All of my blog reading about how slow it is to get up the cables were absolutely true. There was traffic going up and down the cables and people shuffling around each other, but no one seemed bothered to be in each other’s close personal space because we were all in this doing the same challenge. The first half of the cables, I found relatively easy. By the halfway point, I turned around and saw the clouds moving in quickly. My anxiety kicked in and I said I can’t be on the cables while the clouds come in. It was just too big of a risk and I am in nature’s home and I needed to respect it. I made the decision to turn around and wait for my group at the bottom of the cables. I took my hiker tourist pictures at the bottom of the cables and went to take a quick cat nap. I was incredibly disappointed in myself for not going all the way up the cables, but looking at the view, I noticed I made it up 2/3 of the cables and I reminded myself I could always try again next year. It will be a good excuse to continue to push myself to hike harder hikes.
Some of my group came back down and we talked about the cables and the hike. When the rest of my group came down, it started raining while we were still on the granite rock. We hiked as fast as we safely could down the subdome as we heard thunder rumble above us. We hustled to get below tree line and we stopped to take a breather and congratulate ourselves for avoiding a thunderstorm on Half Dome. We hiked in the rain and enjoyed the scenery coming back down the trail.
We were so ready to be back to camp and we were daydreaming and describing what we wanted to eat first when we returned. Our group broke up into two smaller groups and I stayed in the slower group to enjoy my last few hours I’d be in Yosemite, knowing I wouldn’t be returning until the next year. We took a “packs off” break near a ranger’s station in this beautiful wide meadow next to a stream. As we were snacking, I saw my first bear in the wild and I jumped with joy. I shouted to the hikers behind us on the trail and admired her beauty from afar. Her ear was tagged and I didn’t feel scared of her as I thought I would. In that moment, I felt like I was home and that maybe nature was respecting me for respecting it first by not completing the cables during a storm. After the bear took off, we continued our hike as it poured rain. I wasn’t even in a panic or uncomfortable hiking in the rain. I welcomed each rain drop on my skin because I just had this feeling of content being in nature by ourselves on the trail. Maybe it was the sense of accomplishment of hiking seventeen miles, but I wanted to take in all of the beauty of the trail and of Yosemite. In my head I was already planning my next trip for next year.
When we returned to the trailhead, we plopped down on a bus bench to wait for the next bus to take us back to our campsite. We hiked seventeen miles, all day, and we (mostly) climbed a huge granite rock. We were able to cross off a huge bucket list item that is likely on every hiker’s bucket list. I wasn’t even back to my campsite yet and I was already excited to return to do it again next year and hopefully make it all the way to the top. The whole way home, I scrolled through my phone to look at all of the pictures I took and I realized that even though I was being a little harsh for not finishing the cables, I am lucky enough to be able to climb seventeen miles and even part of the cables. I am lucky enough to see one of the most beautiful trails I’ve been lucky enough to walk my boots on and I can’t wait to return next season. Nothing will put your life into perspective like a challenging hike to prove your mental toughness to yourself. If you do Half Dome this year, maybe you too will find yourself stronger than you believe and that you can really do anything you put your mind to.