* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 8,842 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 4,800 feet
* DURATION: One Day
* SNAPSHOT: A demanding walk-up in the heart of America's climbing capital
YOSEMITE is the epicenter of American climbing. One glance at California's granite Eden proves why legendary rock rats like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, and Jim Bridwell have called this place home. Don't worry: We're not going to scare you senseless by recommending an assault on Half Dome's Northwest Facethe famous route pioneered in 1957 by Robbins and his buddiesright out of the gate. Your mountaineering curriculum begins with a modest but challenging scramble up the relaxed side of Half Dome, a 4,800-vertical-foot ascent topping out on the roof of the park. If the views here don't ignite your passion, might we suggest bass fishing? If, however, you're suddenly overcome by a vision of your trail-hiking self morphing into a seasoned technical alpinist who knows his adze from a hole in the ground, then brace yourself for a lifetime of high-mountain thrills. Half Dome will introduce you to fundamentals like pacing, cardiovascular conditioning, and exposurebasics that apply to all the climbs that follow. Just don't blame us if you feel the need to move to Yosemite. As Royal Robbins once said, "climbing isn't just a sport; it's a way of life."
** The Route
Thunderstorms are notorious for smacking Half Dome's summit by midafternoon, so depart by 6 a.m.a.m. to get up and down the CABLES ROUTE before the fireworks start. From the Happy Isles shuttle stop in eastern Yosemite Valley, the 16.4-mile round-trip passes the cool mists of Vernal and Nevada falls, and ambles through red firs, Jeffrey pines, and alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers in late spring. Switchback steeply up through the conifers, repeating (to yourself, please) the mountaineer's mantra: "unhurried haste." The homestretch takes you up 800 vertical feet of exfoliated granite, where you'll be aided by carved steps and a cable handrail. Here, on 45-degree slabs that would otherwise require a rope, harness, and rock protection, you'll get your first taste of big-mountain exposure. Test your stamina by pushing up to the 8,842-foot summit: a 16-acre pulpit with 360-degree viewsincluding a stirring prospect of El Capitan across the valley. Feeling cavalier? Peer over Half Dome's sheer granite face to the valley floor almost 5,000 feet below. By the time you finish the last climb on this list, you'll be skilled enough to consider fixing your own route up that vertical wall.
GUIDE The 30-year-old Yosemite Mountain-eering School & Guide Service, accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association, runs trips up Half Dome and many other peaks in the park. Guides teach pacing, conditioning, weather reading, and rudimentary mountain safety. Full-day rates are $150 per single person, $90 per person for two, $80 per person for three. (209-372-8344, www.yosemitemountaineering.com)
Perfect for overnight trips, the sleek OSPREY ECLIPSE 42 expands to 2,600 cubic inches. ($169; 970-564-5900, www.ospreypacks.com) Stay dry in ARC'TERYX's SIRRUS SL Gore-Tex shell if you get ambushed by a squall on Half Dome. Watertight front, pit, and pocket zips provide extra ventilation once the sun returns. ($300; 800-985-6681, www.arcteryx.com) A pair of durable, surefooted LOWA TANARK boots will get you up the peak's granite back side with ease. ($170; 888-335-5692, www.lowaboots.com)
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