Winning the lottery

The sun sets on Half Dome from Mirror Lake

On Monday, we loaded up the car again (minus our trusty rooftop carrier and several hundred pounds of stuff) and left San Jose for our next stop: Yosemite National Park. Brandon grew up going to Yosemite, but I had never been. He was probably as excited to show it to me as I was to see it, and let me tell you it did not disappoint. I don’t think I’ve said “wow” as many times in a day as I have in this park. It is absolutely incredible.

If you know Brandon or I at all, you know we have a thing for getting to the tops of mountains. One of our goals for this leg of the trip was to get a permit for the cables on Half Dome, which would allow us to summit one of the most iconic mountains in the world. The park grants permits via lottery, with chances to win either before the start of the season or two days prior to your hike. We were too late for pre-season, where 75% of the permits are granted, so we took our chances in the day lottery where last year’s average success rate was 31% on weekdays and 12% on weekends. Brandon and I both submitted applications for a Tuesday hike with three people (our friend Matt was going to drive over from San Francisco for the occasion), and mine was a winner! We spent Monday night settling into our tent cabin at Half Dome Village, cooking a hearty meal at the base of El Cap, and agreeing on a 9am departure from the village the next morning.

We awoke to a cool 60 degrees in Yosemite Valley on Tuesday morning and hit the trail after grabbing breakfast and coffee from Half Dome Village’s grocery store. We only left fifteen minutes after our planned departure, which is pretty darn good considering our track record thus far. We hiked about .75 miles to Happy Isles, the official start of the Half Dome hike, and joined the throngs of people on their way to Vernal and Nevada falls via the Mist Trail. Seeing both of these for the first time in person helped me understand why the trail is crowded. The reward-to-effort ratio is high, with incredible views of waterfalls, granite cliffs, and valley vistas around every bend.

Thoroughly misted from the trail to Vernal Falls, we stopped for a quick snack and some more photos of the impressive rapids before venturing onward. We still had 5.8 miles to the top of Half Dome! We took our time along the entire trail, mostly because the views warranted photo stops frequently along the way. I’ve also learned from previous hikes not to underestimate the importance of frequent water and snack breaks, so I had no problem being the voice of the snack stop. Brandon and I filled up 6 liters of water at the bottom of Vernal Falls, which was just enough to keep us adequately hydrated until we reached the bridge again some 15 miles later. In retrospect, it would have been better to carry at least 8 liters between the two of us to avoid rationing during the descent, but it probably only cost us minimal extra soreness. Here is a packing list and Six Tips for anyone considering this hike!

We made good time from Vernal all the way to the sub dome area, traversing past Nevada Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley, and in the shadow of nearby Cloud’s Rest. The majority of the hike gains about 1,000 feet per mile, respectably steep, with the exception of the entirely flat Little Yosemite Valley and the final summit push of about 1,000 feet in a little over a half mile. The weather added another element of challenge with the temperature increasing from that cool 60 degrees in the morning to 90 degrees by midday. The breeze near the top provided a nice respite from the scorching temperatures through Little Yosemite.

It’s a good thing they regulate the Half Dome cables with permits, because the route was crowded regardless. The cables are hoisted by poles spread about four feet wide and spaced about eight feet apart, and the route accommodates both up and down traffic. This makes for a bit of a dance when hikers cross paths in opposing directions as each negotiates their grip on the cables in passing. We were behind a group of hikers that had harnessed up and clipped into the cable, a method which while very safe was also decidedly slow. It took us about 45 minutes to ascend the cables to the top, about 20-30 minutes slower than we had expected. Our pace didn’t hamper our feelings of relief and elation at the top, but the looming descent did temper the mood ever so slightly.

After another well-deserved snack break and some incredible views, it was time to stomach the trek back down the cables at just after 4pm. Sure-footed Brandon led the way, since he was the Half Dome veteran of the group, and Matt brought up the rear with me in the middle. It’s best to descend with your back to the base, which aligns your grip on the cables better with your center of gravity. I was slipping on the steep granite but got the hang of it about half-way through after Brandon provided the counter-intuitive advice of leaning back to allow my boots more direct force against the mountain. We celebrated at the bottom with fist bumps and high fives as well as our summit beers, which we wisely decided were best consumed once safely down from the cables.

Our descent was uneventful, as any good descent should be, and we decided to take in some bonus views by hiking the John Muir Trail instead of the Mist Trail at the Nevada Falls split. We had Nevada Falls to ourselves for our final snack break, and the rest of the hike was a race against sunlight, hunger for the pizza waiting at the finish (which we collectively named Frank), and the cartilage remaining in our knees. In the end we prevailed and Frank was ours, just under 12 hours after beginning our journey. We all agreed that this was not your standard day hike and patted ourselves on the back with a pint (or two) of beer.

Hike stats: 16.9 miles, 4,800 feet of elevation gain, 11 hours 30 minutes. Woo hoo!

In case you want to try it yourself:

Our hiking route from Half Dome Village
Elevation profile of the hike


6 thoughts on “Winning the lottery

  1. What a wonderful story of your day! I cringed a little bit with the picture of the cables on the way down….yikes! Doing all that in 90 degree weather adds another level of challenge. What an accomplishment…..


  2. I’ve mad that trek twice back in the days before permits. Very crowded! Very challenging hike but well worth it! Congrats on winning the lottery and making the trek!


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