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I'm a huge mountain fan and I'd really like to go to the Half-Dome in Yosemite National Park. Since today I only did some hiking tours in the Alps and therefore I don't really know what I should expect from this mountain.

I'm free from giddiness and I think I'm also sure-footed. I don't have problem to make hiking tours with 2000 meters ascent in one day. Are these preconditions enough for this tour or do I have prepare by myself? And what weather (particularly temperature) can I expect on the mountain during the summer month? Do I need warm clothes as in the high Alps during summer or is it considerably colder/warmer?

As you can see from the photo below the last part of the tour goes over sheer rock where you can help yourself with a steel rope. I'm really not afraid of that because of myself, but isn't it dangerous if someone falls before me? I think in reality this path is even steeper than it looks on the photo. So my question is: Are there a lot of inexperienced tourists there that may cause a possible risk? And is it always that crowded?

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2 Answers

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I have hiked to the top of Half Dome twice, once in September 1996, and in June 2009. I didn't do any particular preparation either time; however, I was prepared for a long day hiking, and had reasonable fitness. If you've hiked in the Alps for 5 hours or more in one day you should be ready to tackle Half Dome.

You should prepare for the weather with appropriate clothing and planning. It won't be cold in summer months, but it can be very windy so take a wind-stopper vest or similar to put on when you stop for a break and at the top. Similarly, summer thunderstorms can move in very quickly, so you'll need a raincoat.

However, you must plan to allow for the weather. Arrange to have at least two days when you could make the hike, and pick the day you go according to the weather forecast. You must plan to be make it to the top and be off the summit before any thunderstorms arrive. On my second trip, we were just starting down when it began to rain, with thunder and lightning coming soon after. Later, I heard a rumour that a hiker had been struck by lightning on the summit and killed that afternoon. (If you have enough energy for two big hikes, I recommend the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls on your alternate day, as it has good cover so lightning is not a major risk, except for the very top.)

As well as picking a day with a good weather forecast, plan to start early. At my reasonable hiking pace, and stopping plenty of times for photos and to rest, I took 11-12 hours each time, starting from and returning to Curry Village. Aiming to start at 6am is a good bet. (Some very fit people travelling light start at 3am and make it to the summit in time for sunrise, so that could be an option as well.) Whenever you start, carry a headlight so you'll be able to hike in the dark if it comes to that.

Naturally you will need good hiking boots; the most uncomfortable part for many people is the hike down, where a proper fit is most important. For the cables, bring tough gloves as well; I used bicycling gloves with leather palms, which worked quite well. Yes, there will be inexperienced tourists, but not too many, as a hike that long and challenging requires commitment, and most people without hiking experience will be deterred. I think the risk of someone falling just in front of you is very slight. If it does happen, you should be okay as long as you are able to hang onto the cables with both your hands. The posts supporting the cables also provide a place to brace yourself.

But be prepared for the cables to be much more crowded than in the photo; I was stuck for 10 minutes while someone ahead overcame their fear and was able to continue. However, with the introduction of permits, the hike should be less crowded than I've experienced.

Rather than carrying water for the entire day (and taking it up the cables to the summit), I recommend a couple of bottles along with a water purifier so that you can fill them from one of the streams. Bring a sports drink to replenish electrolytes as well. Bring a good lunch and snacks as well, and ensure you have a good dinner the night before and a proper breakfast before you start or early in the hike.

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Indeed, the prospect of someone else falling and leading to a 'domino effect' is frightening. When I was there, I saw someone drop a water bottle. It bounced a few times and then plunged thousands of feet down the granite face.

The National Park Service has recognized that the Half Dome ascent has become too crowded, and recently began requiring permits for the hike. It appears that they are currently considering what scheme to implement for the coming summer. The Half Dome Permits website currently (Dec 2011) says:

The Half Dome cables are down for the season. A long-term plan dealing with management of and access to the Half Dome cables will be released shortly.

If you are concerned for your safety, you could wear a climbing harness. Attach a length of webbing, and use a caribiner (or two). Clip onto the cable.

The clothing of the people in the photo looks reasonably appropriate. It will be warm/hot during the day while you are exerting yourself, but will get cold at night, or when you stop for a break. Bring a warm fleece pullover for these times. As when hiking anywhere, you should bring sufficient clothing so that you could spend the night without excessive discomfort. Bring a poncho or other rain gear. If a thunderstorm occurs, descend immediately to below the tree line to avoid the risk of being struck by lightning.

The hike is not technical, but if you are not accustomed to the altitude, it can be difficult and slow-going; unless you are in very good shape, you will probably need to stop frequently to catch your breath. Start the hike at dawn. Bring a flashlight in case you have to make your way back at night. Bring plenty of water, a good lunch, and some snacks.

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