Hiking Half Dome During the Peak of California Wildfires and During Covid-19 –Yosemite National Park

Let’s start by making sure everyone is on the same page. For anyone who doesn’t know what Half Dome is, here’s a picture:

At almost 9,000 ft elevation in Yosemite National Park, Half Dome is a large, bald granite dome that has a sheer face on one side and is rounded on the others. It is an iconic part of the park, and each day, about 300 people get to climb to its summit.

So why did I choose to climb this beast when California had wildfires that were spreading Covid-19? Oh wait, do I have the saying backwards. Well, if we reverse it, we have another true statement. Covid-19 was also spreading like wildfires at the time! Anyway, to answer the question, my friend and I went on this trip because she was lucky enough to get a permit to do the hike through the National Park lottery system. Like I mentioned, only 300 people can do this hike per day, and to do it, you need to obtain a day permit for a specific date. These permits are fairly difficult to get with only a 24% success rate on weekends in 2018, for example. For more information on how to apply, check out the National Park Service website here.

Our main concern with going on this hike was the smoke in the air. We went in October 2020, and at this time, the air quality throughout California was changing daily, even hourly, and some areas were extremely bad. The chart to the left describes the rating system for air quality (AQI) and many parts of California were in the red and purple zones.

As a personal travel planner, I like to plan my own vacations and my client’s vacations with as little risk of needing to change plans as possible. If there is something that could really be affected by weather or something outside of my control, I like to have a backup plan in place. In this situation, I had very little control. My friend and I already agreed that if the AQI was a red or purple, we would not go on the hike. If it was orange, we would assess the situation when we got there.

My friend lives in the San Francisco area, so we checked the air quality before we left. If it looked bad at this point, we had a backup plan to go to the coast and beaches instead! However, once we left, the risk was that it got worse and it would be too unsafe to hike once we got there. It would have been a lot of driving and wasted time for nothing.

Here’s what the map looked like when we left. The little green circle that the arrow is pointing to, that’s Yosemite. We took our chances and decided to go for it.

By the time we got there, 5 or 6 hours later, the air quality had changed significantly. Now, Yosemite was under the yellow/orange area. At that point, there was nothing we could do about it, so we set up camp, went to bed and hoped for better air quality in the morning. Our hopes were dashed when we pulled up this map in the morning:

If you happened to notice the time stamp, you may have noticed we were trying to make the decision to hike or not at 3am in the morning. Half Dome typically takes about 12 hours roundtrip, so it’s best to get an early start. Yosemite’s air quality was entirely orange, with red not too far away. We decided to start the hike, and once it was light out and we could see the smoke better, we would choose to keep going or turn around. Of course, we would be upset if we had to turn around, but we were preparing ourselves for that possibility.

I also decided to wear an N95 mask. Based on Yosemite’s Covid-19 rules, masks were not required on hikes when you were not close to or passing other people. However, N95 masks keep out small unhealthy particles, which is what smoke is! It definitely made breathing harder, but as soon as I took it off, I could immediately smell more smoke, so it was helping.

Finally, a breakthrough! As it got lighter, we could see that as the elevation increased, the smoke seemed to lessen. We also both were feeling okay; no headaches or any other adverse symptoms from breathing in the smoke.

Now, onto the fun part. There was less smoke at the top, but the last part of the ascent is the steepest. So steep, that there are actually cables to help yourself up. I’m usually not afraid of heights, however, going up these cables was terrifying, and a lot more difficult that expected. The cables are not just there to hold onto for balance; you actually need to pull yourself up, so there was a lot of upper body strength needed.

Was the view at the top worth it? Yes! Here are some pictures!

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