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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Mist Trail, Half Dome, CA

Swallowed by Sierra scenery

by: Kelly Bastone

Mist Trail, Half Dome, CA (Michael Clark)
Mist Trail, Half Dome, CA (Michael Clark)

The Hike The iconic symbol of Yosemite grandeur, Half Dome just begs to be climbed. The seven-mile route to this granite landmark via the Mist Trail sees 2,500 to 3,000 people per day during summer weekends, making it the most heavily trafficked corridor in the park. People endure fatigue, altitude sickness, and dehydration in their determination to stand atop Half Dome's broad 8,836-foot-high crown. Steel cables bolted into the granite assist climbers up the final 400 vertical feet, but the combination of high, open rock and metal fixtures makes this a lousy place to get caught in an electrical storm. And once the raindrops start falling, the rock becomes treacherously slick. Yosemite's search and rescue team responds to 300 incidents each year–more than any other national park–and not surprisingly, Half Dome claims its share: six deaths since 1995.

Exhibit A Rescuers had to rappel 800 feet to recover the shattered remains of Japanese hiker Hirofumi Nohara, 37, who cartwheeled 1,200 feet down Half Dome's sheer face into the granite ravine below after trying to squeeze past hikers ahead of him on the cables. Alas, the fatality didn't surprise park employees, who've seen people do many stupid things to earn their "I climbed Half Dome" T-shirts. "We see people taking risks [to claim one] that they might not ordinarily take," says ranger Scott Gediman. In 1985, five hikers defied signs of a pending storm and marched up Half Dome only to get blasted by lightning. Last year, three hikers in three separate accidents fell to their deaths from Half Dome's upper reaches; two had attempted the route when the cables were down, and they lost their footing on the wet granite. On crowded weekends when hundreds of hikers clog the cables, it's impossible to make a fast exit when storms threaten. Says Gediman, "I've been on the cables when they were so packed with people I couldn't move up and couldn't move down–it became real dangerous."

Survival Plan Assess your fitness level honestly: The Mist Trail is a rigorous hike. And leave early–no later than 5 a.m.–to give yourself the best shot at completing it. Hike on a weekday between late May and early October, a period when the cables have generally been installed. Assess the sky before you commit to the cables, and never climb them when the rock is wet: That's when almost every fall from Half Dome has occurred.

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Sep 22, 2012

Just summited half dome 9/20....nothing like it! Did the entire round trip in 9.5 hours from the valley floor. Having said that, experience is required to do this climb...I've logged lots of miles in the sierras, Adirondacks, and the cascades and this one does challenge more than the prepared...

1st Time Hike
Aug 12, 2012

My daughter age 9 and I just hiked the dome and it will be one of the best memories we will ever have.

Michael B
Aug 11, 2012

Blah blah blah...I hiked HD 37 years ago when I was 21. It was no big deal then. Spent the night up there. No permits. Well I'm 58 now and have tried it from Glacier Pt twice. Only made it about half way between LYV and SD. It was simple at 21 but it's kick ass now. BUT... I'm still goin up that sucker. Just have to restrategize. Don't be stupid yooz!

Adventure Hiker
Jul 15, 2012

Observe all the dead lightning scarred trees as you stand on the saddle before the final ascent. If the weather at all looks doubtful, look at the dead trees again before deciding if you should really be going up. Turning around is an option... the rock will be there for a long time.

Rick Hilts
Apr 22, 2012

Restricted numbers on the Half Dome trail gets my vote, not taking down the cables.
The cable path should be moved over to the left a little bit to put the cable trail on rougher granite.
I realize the effort of drilling new holes on one new side for the cable stantions.
I think the most dangerous part of the rock accent and decent is the shoulder section of loose, decomposing granite before and after you leave the glove pit staging area.

Rick Hilts
Apr 22, 2012

Restricted numbers on the Half Dome trail gets my vote, not taking down the cables.
The cable path should be moved over to the left a little bit to put the cable trail on rougher granite.
I realize the effort of drilling new holes on one new side for the cable stantions.
I think the most dangerous part of the rock accent and decent is the shoulder section of loose, decomposing granite before and after you leave the glove pit staging area.

Sam, California
Sep 25, 2011

Did this hike Yesterday; midnight hike. We left at 11PM and got up to sub-dome at 4:30 am with ample food, rest, water breaks. As we headed up the SD, the clouds looked to be coming in so we headed back down to wait it out to see if they passed; around 5:30 a couple guys from the group hiked up and checked, after directing to another group headed up earlier the clouds, it looked to be clear for awhile. We headed up and got to the cables by 6 and all nine of us were up by 6:20; the skies still clear, and the sun about to rise. It was absolutely amazing in every way possible. We stayed up for a few hours to have breakfast and watch the sunrise.

This hike CAN be dangerous, it's just being smart about your own actions and what's a smart thing to do. Go with a group that has some experienced hikers, we went up with six experienced hikers, one who had never climbed HD, and three who have never climbed HD or any thing to this level. The hike is in physical demand for there is a lot of elevation climb and the steps can be hard on the joints.

The clouds weren't omnious, but we weren't about to risk our lives; be smart. We stayed at the top for about 4 hours and headed down around 10:30. By the time we started trekking down the sub; clouds were moving in fast. We warned everyone going up because an hour later in the LYV, it was pouring. By mist trail: thunder, lightning, hail, and a slippery trail being shared by hundreds at 3PM. Even then the Mist Trail becomes very dangerous with all the traffic and i just don't understand the need of parents to keep trekking up the trail with the winds coming in too and their children wearing shirts and shorts.

In short, be smart, pack the necessary items, plenty of water; more than enough.

The midnight hike was perfect because we couldn't see what was ahead of us-nothing to deter our motivation--with a perfectly cloudless and star filled sky. THe most difficult thing about this hike during our breaks was how cold it actually was, I brought probably 5 different kinds of layers and went through every one of them in different mix and matches. It added some weight to my pack but so glad I brought every piece.

Sep 24, 2011

I've hiked Half Dome several times. The first time I was in my 40's started at 5AM at Happy Isles and returned by 3PM. Fortunately there was only 1 person hiking down Half Dome when I started up and I hiked down the Dome before there were any crowds. On top I could see a huge fire just outside of YV. I got down to the campground and found the Valley exits closed. The next morning the rangers came by and said everyone had one hour to get out. There was fire close to the car and smoke everywhere during a scary ride out.
My last hike to HD was done in 2009 in May. I started from Little Yosemite Valley and was up and down to LYV by 1 PM. Though no rain was forecast, it poured from 2PM to 4 PM. I did the count from flash to thunder and when it got to 1 I was very scared. I packed up and hiked out after the rain stopped and rain into two young fellows that were starting up Half Dome when the lightning started to hit. They ran down not making the peak but happy to be alive. Start early, get down early. Take some minimal survival gear, thermal blanket, etc. You can't trust Mother Nature.

Sep 06, 2011

Honestly I've walked on wet granite and it is really, really frightening. I had two hiking poles and it didn't matter, I could have lost my footing at any moment. Just don't do it. If it's wet, just go back and try it another day. It's tough enough when you're on regular granite that is well worn. 18 people have died this year in Yosemite because they took stupid and unnecessary risks. No hike is worth losing your life.

bud phillips
Aug 11, 2011

I went up HD a month ago in July, 2011. Left the TH at 5 AM and was back down by noon. The permit system is done entirely on-line, with no first-come, first- serve daily permits. The limit is 400/day, many of whom I think do not get to HD because of the elevation gain. The NPS is doing an environmental assessment to determine future management.

Have no doubts about the danger of this hike. Having done eight of Backpacker's ten most dangerous hikes, I think HD is by far the most dangerous. It is a strenuous hike to get to the base of the cables, and the cables are a steep 35- 40 degree 400 feet to the top. The granite is well worn by the thousands of shoes/boots that have gone up and down it. 35-40 degrees may not sound like that steep, but doing it on polished granite while hanging on to steel cables, passing or waiting on other users going up or down the cables, and the exposure, will get the attention of most hikers. My admittedly small snapshot of seven users going up the cables after I got down, included two who were "scared sh----ss" (their words) and one who came back down after getting perhaps a quarter of the way up. And, coming back down will be scarier than going up for most people. If you plan to go up, start early with the right equipment and water, be in good shape, wear the correct footwear, watch the weather, and take your own leather gloves for the cables. The pile of used gloves at the base of the cables could be subject to wind removal - take your own that fit. Watching the weather is especially important. A hiker died coming down the cables a few days after I went up, and probably fell because the granite was slick from a recent storm, according to the NPS.

However, after watching so many hikers over the years who overestimate their abilities, are ignorant about the right equipment and footwear, and the males who are driven by testosteronic ego to do stupid things, my recommendation to the NPS is to remove the cables. I think the human race apparently just ain't that smart and some will screw it up and die. Rocky Mountain NP removed a set of cables on the North Face of Long's Peak several decades ago - Yosemite should do the same.

Gary Ungricht
Aug 04, 2011

I have summited Half Dome, four times, during my life time. The last time was in June of 2010, at the age of 60 years. This is a very strenuous hike, requiring stamina and perserverance. Each time, I started at Glacier Point and ended at Happy Isles. I paced myself, particularly taking my time to climb the subdome. These are a must: ample water, very good hiking boots, small flashlight, mosquito repellant, food, a hiking buddy, and,by all means, a camera.

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