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Half Dome, majestically dominating the Valley landscape at 4,737 feet above the valley’s base, is the most famed and recognizable feature in Yosemite National Park. With its imposing flat front and its awe-inspiring height, this is clearly one of the most unforgettable stops on our Yosemite tour. Originally called “Cleft Rock” by the Miwok Native Americans, this natural wonder’s unique shape has been a fascinating feature of Yosemite Valley for centuries.
The western face of Half Dome is an enormous sheer rock face made up of pure granite. Although many visitors mistake its hemispherical shape as being the result of a full dome losing its northwest half spontaneously, this is a common misconception. When glaciers still dominated Yosemite Valley, creating many of the most well-loved rock formations and indeed the valley itself, one particular glacier’s gradual movement across the front of Half Dome over thousands of years gradually ground down the rock face into the sheer, vertical drop we know today. Another theory is that small fractures in the rock let water in and, upon freezing, expanded, thus making layers of rock sheer off the front of the “dome.” But even this may be somewhat of an optical illusion. Seen most easily from another stop on our tour, Glacier Point, the back of Half Dome is in fact not as rounded as usually thought. From that vantage point, it is clear that the formation’s the humped back is almost as steep as its front except at its very zenith, meaning only about 20 percent of the rock was ever actually worn away by the glacier’s movement, not a full half as usually thought.
In 1873, Yosemite Valley explorer John Erastus Lester wrote in his book “The Yo-semite, its History, its Scenery, and its Development” that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible.” Its craggy rock face, slick granite, and steep ascents were and are a formidable challenge to even the most experienced explorer, but now there are several ways to summit Yosemite’s most awesome monument to natural wonder. More than ten rock-climbing routes lead up the sheer face of the rock’s northwest front; these routes must only be attempted by very experienced climbers as it is an extremely demanding course both mentally and physically.
There are also several ways to hike Half Dome, all culminating in a common 425-foot, 45-degree ascent. The only aid hikers have to overcome this obstacle is a set of metal cables on posts going up the rock face, which allow climbers to effectively pull themselves up to the summit. The National Park Service rates all hikes up to Half Dome as “Extremely Strenuous,” and experienced hikers advise hikers to take a few days to complete the ascent. Although the start point is just over two miles away from the summit, the rock formation requires the trail to consist of mostly switchbacks, making the total mileage a formidable 8.5 miles. Those who reach the top, however, agree that the incomparable views are worth the effort.
There have been several fatal falls during hikes, but the vast majority of accidents occur because visitors do not follow guidelines for when and how to climb. Stepping outside of the metal cables can be very dangerous because the rock is so slick that, once you have slipped, stopping yourself from falling is very difficult. Additionally, it is a very bad idea to climb in rain, thunderstorms and colder months, as rain and ice make the granite especially slick. Rangers emphasize that accidents like these are easily avoided by following simple precautions during visitors’ ascent and descent of the rock.
But Half Dome is just as famous for its aesthetic beauty as it is for its difficulty. Famed nature photographer Ansel Adams captured the formation’s delicate beauty in countless iconic photographs. Often highlighting the contrast between the vertical face’s texture and the smooth continuity of a cloudless sky, his photographs truly capture the majestic beauty of all Yosemite’s natural attractions, especially the austere wonder of the famous Half Dome. Romantic painter Albert Bierstadt also created many famous depictions of Half Dome, emphasizing its astounding size and imposing features to show the domination of nature over man.