Why you shouldn’t go up the Half Dome cables

I’m not afraid of much. Not spiders, or snakes, or heights, or being lost, or getting punched in the face.

I realize this makes me sound like a hard, emotionless dude, which isn’t the case.

So when you’re planning a trip to Half Dome, one consistent theme you’ll encounter throughout is the dreaded cable discussion. Will you go?  Will you stay back, wishing you could muster the courage?

The hike up is beautiful, no doubt.

Behold! The sacred Half Dome cables!

To the left of the cables? Death. To the right? Death.

My wife and I sat at the base of the cables for a good hour, watching one fatigued, but determined cable-goer after another tackle the route like pros.

“Oh, come on, you must go up!  You hiked all this way just to quit now,” they said.

Thing is, we didn’t mind “quitting” below the cables. Getting there was inspiring enough. This portion of the hike resembled an amusement park ride.

We saw people walking on the outside of the cables, people slipping on the rickety 2x4s “bolted” into the rock, people gripping the cables for dear life.

At this point, I can officially say I was scared contemplating my next move. I really wanted to see the top like everyone else. And after much debate, we finally decided to give it a shot. I went up first, with my wife right behind me.

Blood pumping, head spinning, muscles acting funny.  A board slips out of the rock, and I’m thinking “to hell with this” but I press on.

Then a petrified lady wearing a fanny pack working her way down the cables clamps onto me for support. She’s mumbling something, and I’m wondering if I’m to die here on this blasted rock. I am now officially freaking out.

That’s it. We’re done. We made it not even halfway up before turning around. Maybe if we had the cables to ourselves and a chance to contemplate the scene in silence, we would’ve made a different decision. But a long lunch and a sunny nap below the cables wasn’t so bad either.

If you have conquered the Half Dome cables, I want to hear from you. Was it worse going up, or coming down? Do you value your life? Do you think I’m overreacting?

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19 comments

  1. Amazing experience! I think I’d have been hanging out at the bottom with the cupcakes too…….weird that you should post this because I’m having a bizarre idea today about trying to arrange a trip to Yosemite over Christmas. We’ll see if it all pans out, or if I have to leave it until another time since it’s such short notice.

  2. I’m getting ready to head up there myself next summer. I’ve been hiking all over California and I’ve yet to do Half Dome, so I think I am going to have to scramble up the cables. When I climbed Whitney, the cables on that trail had an 800-ft drop on one side and the trail was covered with snow so the path was at a 45 degree angle… it can’t be as bad as that, right? Do you do a lot of hiking?

    1. Really, the biggest challenge has to be the people. Sure, the cables aren’t installed so great, the rock can get slick, and the fall would be horrendous. But I’m sure I could conquer the fear associated with all of that if I had the cables to myself.

      But when you have people grabbing onto you for support, that changes everything! There are so many petrified people on those cables.

      With that said, you’ll do great if you already have experience with the Whitney cables.

      And yes, we hike whenever we get the chance. We actually applied for a Whitney permit this past spring, but got denied. Boo.

      1. We got denied the first time, too, so we ended up postponing for a year then reapplied and got denied again. We called the station everyday until we got a date, which was luckily only a few days after our first choice. Just gotta be persistent.

      2. I hiked up to Half Dome from curry village yesterday! Yosemite is absolutely beautiful.

        After subdome I really started to see the cables in the distance. We saw like you all sorts of people go up from a pregnant lady to little old men.

        So we put on gloves and headed on up! Well about 15 2×4’s up I got absolutely petrified! I have never ever experienced what I was feeling before. I felt a spike of adrenaline from fear and immediately had acute senses. I started to tremble and thought if I fall I might cause others to fall as well. I noticed my tight grip on the cables, how vertical I was standing in the scorching heat and how heavy my day pack was.

        I had to go back down the cables I did not feel safe at all, simple as that.

        I am an avid hiker and trail runner since childhood, We have hiked Mount Whitney in a day during Winter of 2010 and Summer of 2011 but never have I been stricken with fear. The root of my intense fear was because at a certain moment from observing others and my situation I did not feel safe and once I didn’t, I headed back down.

      3. Hey, thanks for stopping by Jeanelle! I know exactly what you’re talking about when you say you “did not feel safe at all.” I’m confident in my outdoor ability too, but when you have 100 knuckleheads scrambling on the same slick rock, gripping tightly to the same tenuous cable, the chance of something bad happening seems to multiply. I would go up the cables if I had them to myself. Would you?

  3. Damn. That looks like a hell of an adventure! I haven’t climbed it but I’d sure want to! Muscles acting funny? Yea, I recognize the symptoms! Ahah.

  4. I loved the ending of this post =] I made it up to the top right before the cables once, but I was just too tired to go up and didn’t feel like it was really worth it. Wasn’t too scared though… saw all those people going up and figured I’d be fine.

    Tell me, how do you find the time to go on all these adventures!

  5. Oh it’s far worse going up. Coming down is a treat. The traffic was horrendous going up and I got stuck in a number of traffic jams where I had to just hang on and hold tight for five minutes or so. I appreciate that people need to be safe and take their time but the pace going up was just WAY too slow. I traveled all the way from Pennsylvania to visit Yosemite and hike Half Dome so there was no freaking way that I was going to be deterred from going up those cables. It was definitely worth it! It’s not as dangerous as it looks and the view from the top is amazing.

    1. I’m glad you went up! The people factor kept us from going up. Otherwise, I’d have no problem giving it a go. Did you get to do anything else in the area while you were in Yosemite?

      1. Oh yeah man, I spent a whole week in the area. Hiked Hetch Hetchy, spent some time at Mono Lake, hiked up to Lembert Dome in the high country, and spent a little time at Olmsted Point. I would have loved to do the Cathedral Lakes hike but it was late May and the trail was covered in snow. I’d love to come back someday and spend some more time in the high country as well as hike part of the John Muir Trail.

  6. Hey Eric!
    Good stuff man. I get your point about choosing which risks to take. We all should know our limits. So far, I like to think I’m on the ‘knowing my limits side’, like you.
    My wife will typically disagree.
    That being said, my wife and I climbed that sucker a few years back.
    The inexperienced “climbers” are really what makes it dangerous. We waited for a break in the traffic and still ended up getting stuck in a cluster of people freaking out. Ended up powering around them because they started getting a little clingy.

    Still worth the experience.

  7. Im terrified of heights. Its only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I dont get vertigo but I sometimes lose the ability to progress…even on a 10 foot ladder.

    My coworker once convinced me to join her climbing gym and while I really liked bouldering, my one and only attempt at climbing the wall was pretty embarrassing. I made it maybe 30 feet up and though I knew what my next move was supposed to be…I couldn’t do it.

    A bunch of people had gathered below me sensing that I need encouragement to either make the next move or let go and be lowered via belay. I couldn’t do anything. I held on until I couldn’t and then “fell” off into an unspectacular safe lowering of the rope.

    I cancelled my membership shortly after that.

    Rewind 6 years and Im with a group of friends who are leaving California for the east coast. Our last trip was to hike Half Dome in the two day fashion. I did no research and at this point I wouldn’t say I had a crippling fear of heights, but then hiking != climbing in my mind.

    We got to the cables on the second day and I do remember being terrified. Most of my party went before me and my friends wife and I were trying to decide if we were going to even attempt it. We started up and at maybe 30 feet she called it off. I kept going but I know I pissed so many people off because I was going so slow.

    When I got to the top…

    I guess Im supposed to say I felt proud or the scenery was amazing. Im probably supposed to say I wasnt pissed off at the dudes kicking a soccer ball to each other running towards the edge not looking. Nah.

    I hated it. All I was thinking is, “Fuuuuuck. How am I gonna get down?”

    I did somehow and I made damn sure my friends didn’t chastise the person we were with that didn’t do it.

    I still sometimes have nightmares about that shit. For me, it wasnt worth it.

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