The Half Dome hike is one of Yosemite National Park’s most popular attractions, and with good reason: Millions of Yosemite Valley visitors gaze up at one of the world’s most beautiful, recognizable rock formations and dream of standing on top of it. The hike to the summit, though long and grueling, does not usually require technical mountaineering skills and is accessible to a wide variety of fit adventurers. During the busy summer months, Yosemite manages Half Dome crowds in two ways:
1) Permits are issued to limit the number of people on the rock face at any one time, and
2) Two large, steel cables are erected to form a kind of handrail that helps to protect the final few hundred feet to the summit.
But summertime Half Dome permits can be hard to come by, and even if you hit the jackpot, you might find yourself marching up the sacred monolith in a long line of fellow pilgrims, deflating your sense of high adventure.
To avoid the crowds, enjoy great weather, and have an experience that is different from most, it is possible to climb Half Dome via the cables route even after the cables have been “taken down,” which typically happens around Columbus Day. The cables don't actually go anywhere, but the National Park Service removes the metal supports that make them into a handrail. With the supports gone, the heavy cables simply lie on the rock.
After this point, the NPS ceases to issue permits to climb Half Dome. Is it still legal to climb? Yes, but according to the official Yosemite website as of August 2016, “The National Park Service strongly discourages hikers from attempting the cable route when the cables are down.” Hikers shouldn’t attempt Half Dome without the protective handrails: The route is steep and exposed, and attempting it without the handrails or protection could lead to serious injury or fatal falls. But for climbers who have been properly trained and who have the right gear, a unique opportunity exists. With the right preparation and protection, this approach can be an unforgettable experience.
By employing a basic rock climbing protection system, it is possible to safely scale the Half Dome cables route even after the cables have been taken down.
CAUTION: Accept the following recommendations at your own risk. Climbing Half Dome is dangerous under any circumstances and has resulted in fatalities. Though the cables route is not a Class V climb, the methods described here are technical rock climbing methods. Be sure your group includes a competent climber and be sure everyone attempting the climb is proficient in these basic skills.
The most often-cited method of protecting this climb is to attach yourself to the cables using prusik hitches and slide them with you as you climb. For safety, bring two prusik loops so that you can pass joints in the cable by tying in above them before untying below them. In this way, you are tied in to the cable at all times.
1) Do not attempt to climb Half Dome if there is a weather system moving in or if the mountain is wet, snowy, or icy.
2) Recommended gear for this climb includes, at a minimum, a climbing harness, two prusik loops of about 20 inches (folded length, not circumference), two locking carabiners, and a pair of leather gloves to protect against stray wires poking out of the cables. You might also consider a helmet, rock shoes, backup gear, and any other equipment you feel is appropriate to the situation and your skill level.
3) Make yourself familiar with the basic prusik hitch and be proficient and confident tying and untying it before getting to Half Dome.
4) At each joint in the cable, tie your free prusik loop to the cable above the joint, connect it to your harness with a locked carabiner, and perform a safety check before untying the lower loop.
5) The cables are heavy. It gets tiring to pick them up off the rock as you climb and advance your protection. While on the rock, you may see speedsters attaching themselves to the cable using only a runner and a carabiner to clip to the cable. Among the disadvantages of this system is that a fall would result in a slide to the next cable joint below you, which could be a substantial distance and could result in a catastrophic shock load to the runner, which is typically made from static material not designed for such a load. In addition to the much higher safety of the prusik system, it has the advantage of allowing you to lean back in your harness to gather your wits and strength while the prusik hitch grabs the cable for you. This can be invaluable to a successful climb.
If you research this topic further, you will find a wide variety of opinions on the advisability of attempting this climb in this manner. The discussion is primarily relevant to beginners and non-climbers, as experienced climbers will find the techniques to be basic. We recommend that you do any additional research you feel is appropriate and exercise your own judgment regarding safety.
I did this climb over a Halloween weekend and it was one of the coolest experiences I've had in the outdoors. The weather was gorgeous (crisp and clear), and there were maybe a dozen other people on Half Dome. We were neither crowded nor rushed, and it was encouraging to have others around.
My wife and I are experienced backpackers, but we had only a bit of gym top-roping experience and almost no outdoor climbing experience. We brought along a friend who is not an expert climber but who had done the "cables down" climb before. We studied and practiced the safety systems extensively before going to Yosemite.
As an inexperienced climber at the time, Half Dome was intimidating. When you get to the dome it is big, steep, and exposed. But as we got tied in and began to feel secure, the climb became absolutely exhilarating. I was engrossed in the experience, keyed up, and thankful we weren't marching up the route looking at someone else's rear end. I felt comfortable in the system described here and enjoyed its advantages, including the ability to rest. We had an awesome climb, and I left the hike hooked on technical rock climbing and craving to learn more. Since then I have become a proper climber and taken big steps forward in my skills and experiences.
Because it was such a moving experience for me, I offer these suggestions here-- hesitantly, because of the risks involved, but also enthusiastically. Whatever you choose to do, be smart, be safe, and enjoy yourself.