“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
I’m lucky to have thru- and day-hiked some of the most remarkable outdoors on the planet: the Rockies and Appalachians in North America, Patagonia and the Inca Trail in South America, the Alps and Mont Blanc in Europe. I’ve even hiked the ancient Kumano Kodo in Asia, which is considered the oldest designated hiking trail in the world.
But last month I hiked the most demanding (if not deadly) day hike in my life so far: Yosemite’s Half Dome, located in the soaring Sierra Nevadas of California. I stress soaring because, at nearly 5,000 feet tall, Half Dome is twice as tall as the Grand Canyon. In fact, at an average of 3,000 feet tall, Yosemite’s granite canyons are some of the most dramatic you’ll find anywhere in the world.
That’s why I’ve been trying to get one of Half Dome’s 300 daily permits for years. I’m not the only one. Another hiker I befriended on the trail had been trying for 10 years. It is that coveted—but oh so worth it if you have the mental and physical fortitude.
What you need to know
Hiking to Half Dome is no joke. As you approach the summit some 4,800 feet and eight miles beyond the trailhead, you basically start rock climbing the length of a football field along sketchy looking cables to reach the top. Known as the Cable Route, this hike has claimed the lives of 60 reported people since records first began.
Depending on the route, Half Dome is either a really long and arduous day hike or a really hard half-day hike (for layover backpackers). Yosemite opens the cables from May through October and awards 250 preseason daily permits in March, plus an additional 50 permits the day before.
After unsuccessfully trying to get advance permits on two separate occasions, my party headed to the park anyways with hopes of scoring one of the precious day-before permits. Thanks to the nearby Oak Fire, which deterred many visitors, we actually did. Early the next morning, we awoke to mostly clear skies and drove to the Happy Isles trailhead parking lot for our 12 hour and 16 mile round trip hike along the Mist Trail, which took us past two stunning waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada) to the tippy top of Half Dome.
Although our party was all in good shape, this endurance hike challenged all of us. It even took the life of a woman in her 30s that we encountered on our way down.
Death on the mountain
Although demanding, slippery, and sometimes even deadly, virtually every Half Dome hiker makes it out alive. Although Yosemite doesn’t publish detailed numbers, just one in well over 100,000 hikers per year dies on average (about the same as Utah’s Angel’s Landing, another popular but deadly day-hike that’s not as demanding as Half Dome). Although sobering, those are terrific odds—10 times safer than driving a car, in fact.
But sadly on the day we hiked, an unresponsive woman in her 30s was airlifted off the dome after running out of water. She apparently lost consciousness and died descending the cables an hour after we left. It wasn’t until the next day that a man from our hotel told us he was held on the summit for two hours while Life Flight tried and failed to resuscitate her. She was pronounced dead and lifted from the mountain, the man said.
I don’t know the exact cause of death. News reports have yet to surface online, which isn’t uncommon with outdoor deaths. But I understand the concern. Although I’ve never been scared of heights, my wits were rattled for the first time ever while looking down from 4,000 feet. From nearly 5,000 feet at the top, I blurted, “This is nucking futs.”
All in all, I’ve never hiked, attempted, or witnessed anything like Half Dome. The same is true of the many strangers we crossed who encouraged each other while climbing up and down the cables. We even met a group of heroic men who raced back up the cables to help secure the unconscious woman until paramedics arrived.
In both life and death, Half Dome must be respected. I am stunned by it.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.