One of the decisions you’ll need to make during your John Muir Trail thru-hike is whether or not to take a detour and hike to the top of Half Dome. If you haven’t already decided, here are a few thoughts.
First, a bit in the way of description for those who may not be aware of what is involved. If you’re not an experienced climber, the only way to the top of this most famous Yosemite landmark is via the northeast shoulder of the mountain. Along that route are twin cables, running up the steep granite face, to the flat (and surprisingly large) top of the dome.
Although the cables are installed all year long; they are not “set-up” until the spring. Once the snow accumulation is gone, Rangers suspend them several feet off the ground, on metal stanchions mounted into the granite. Wooden boards are laid across the bottoms of the stanchions to brace against as you climb. The stanchions and boards are removed for the winter, usually sometime in October.
The slope, in places, exceeds sixty degrees. I have never seen a photo that does the true nature of the climb justice. Many people, when they first approach the bottom, turn around and leave—deciding that the incline is a bit more than they had signed up for. (Truthfully, I was almost one of them.)
Gloves (to protect your hands from the cables) and shoes with flat, sticky soles help considerably.
The top is amazing, and, in my opinion, well worth the trouble. One doesn’t often look down on El Capitan, and the views of the valley floor are incredible. Don’t miss the opportunity to get on your belly and scoot to the very edge for the view straight down. (Just make sure that no more than your head is hanging over!)
But should you do it during your John Muir Trail thru-hike?
If it takes a ton of money or travel time for you to get to Yosemite National Park, and you don’t expect to be able to return to the park in the next year or so, go ahead. Scaling the cables is an amazing adventure. It’s scary, but relatively safe, and it provides a tremendous payoff for just half-a-day of delay. (I say it is relatively safe, but there have been a few fatalities over the decades of use. There is little room for error on the cables. Should you slip and let go, the odds are against you.)
I also believe that the cables are the “firefall” of the twenty-first century. (More on the firefall, if you have never heard of it.) In other words, I think the days of the cables are numbered. They have always been a thorn in the side of a certain element within the National Park Service, and in recent years they have instituted a permitting system to regulate access. In short, if you don’t do it when you have the chance, you may not get the chance again, after the government’s mighty thumb rubs out the option to do so.
Should you decide to try, there are a couple of problems of which you should be aware:
One last comment on permits: the current policy, although I could find it written nowhere, is that if you have a wilderness permit to hike the JMT you automatically get a Half Dome permit. Be sure to ask the Ranger when you get your JMT permit, though, to either annotate it on that permit, or to give you a different permit for Half Dome.
Update on the permits to climb Half Dome via the cables (as of April 2013): the NPS has cut the number of permits from 400 per day to 300 per day, and Wilderness Permit holders no longer automatically get to climb it. One must annotate Half Dome on the reservation request, or get it added to a walk-up permit. There are only 75 set aside for WP holders, so there is no guarantee that you will get your permit.
Ultimately, my advice is this: if you can arrange to do the Half Dome hike at another time, skip it during your JMT thru-hike. If this is going to be your only chance, don’t miss it!
Good hiking, Ray