Hiking Half Dome is always a challenge. Making a hard choice could save your life

Here’s how to and how not to hike Half Dome at Yosemite safely

A hiker who fell in Yosemite National Park while using the Half Dome cables died on May 22, 2018. This National Park Service video explains how to be careful while climbing the attraction.
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A hiker who fell in Yosemite National Park while using the Half Dome cables died on May 22, 2018. This National Park Service video explains how to be careful while climbing the attraction.

The most important piece of information anyone can possess about hiking Half Dome is knowing when to turn back.

Making that tough choice could save your life. Particularly on the 400-foot cables section that connects to the summit of the iconic Yosemite Valley monolith.

Wet conditions that exacerbate the slipperiness of smooth granite, polished thousands of years ago by glaciers and today by the shoe soles worn by thousands of hikers ascending and descending the cables each year, are a factor in many of Half Dome's accidents and fatalities.

Inclement weather appears to have played a role in the death of 29-year-old Ashish Penugonda of New Jersey, who slipped and fell from the cables section Monday afternoon during thunderstorm activity. Penugonda was identified by the Mariposa County coroner.

Monday marked the eighth time someone has died from a fall on the Half Dome cables, which were originally erected in 1919. Four of the deceased were either climbing or descending during wet, slippery conditions. (Two of these deaths occurred during the offseason, typically from early October to mid to late May, when rangers remove the stanchions that hold the cables at waist level as well as the 2 x 4 planks laid across them that hikers use to brace their footing.)

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Half Dome, which rises 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley, is one of the world's most popular hikes but can be dangerous in wet weather, which exacerbates the slipperiness of the smooth granite. Craig Kohlruss ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Rising nearly 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome also behaves like a natural lightning rod during spring and summer thunderstorms, which are common in the Sierra Nevada. Lightning strikes have been the cause of three summit fatalities, one in 1972 and two more in 1985 (as chronicled in the book "Shattered Air"), as well as one death on the cables.

Whenever someone dies while hiking Half Dome – thankfully this is the first time that's happened since 2011 – questions are raised about safety and what the park service could be doing to better protect and warn visitors.

I'm firmly entrenched on the personal responsibility side. Yosemite isn't an amusement park, and park rangers aren't babysitters. Everyone who visits is ultimately responsible for their own well-being.

For many people, standing atop the sprawling, 13-acre summit of Half Dome represents a lifetime achievement. But no tick on a bucket list is worth losing your life over. It's up to every hiker to understand his or her own limits. Which is why knowing when to turn back is the most important decision you can make.

The east face of Half Dome, as seen from the top of the granite staircase. The cables section climbs the final 400 feet to the summit and is as steep as 45 degrees. Fresno Bee file

I've seen people make the arduous 7- to 8-mile hike from Happy Isles (depending on whether you take the Mist Trail or Muir Trail), reach the base of the cables and stop dead in their tracks at the imposing view. "Nope, this isn't for me," they say aloud or to themselves before deciding not to proceed.

Smart move.

I've also seen people arrive at the cables as storm clouds gather and decide to go up anyway, ignoring both the entreats of fellow hikers as well as the metal plaque the park service installed to warn of the dangers.

Sheer stupidity.

Since 2012, as a result of a visitor use study, permits have been required to hike Half Dome via the cables. Only 300 people per day are allowed. But whether this has increased or decreased visitor safety is a matter of debate.

While permits have alleviated the problem of overcrowding – it used to take up to an hour to ascend and descend the cables during peak-use times – the system has also created added pressure to complete the hike.

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A hiker stops to pose for a photo before making his way down the infamous cables section on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Bryant-Jon Anteola The Fresno Bee

Because permits are difficult to obtain via preseason and daily lotteries, as well as being non-refundable and non-exchangeable, people don't have the option of trying again on a day with better weather. Since another opportunity isn't guaranteed, more people are willing to assume the risks of climbing during threatening or inclement weather.

Which, as we saw earlier this week, can be a tragic mistake.

Whenever people ask for my advice on how to successfully hike Half Dome, the first thing I tell them is to get a sunrise start. Although thunderstorms can occur at any time, they are much more frequent in the afternoon. That means the odds of being engulfed by bad weather are lower the earlier you arrive at the base of the cables. Try to get up there before noon, and don't linger on the summit if you spot incoming clouds.

More sound advice: Wear shoes with grippy soles, bring plenty of water and a pair of gloves, be patient with fellow hikers who may be slower than you and don't pass people by venturing outside the cables. (I don't believe harnesses are necessary.) But when it comes down to it, good judgment is the best safety measure. Know when not to go.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee