Summiting Half Dome: Failure, lessons, second chances

In Hiking, Trip Report by Andres Vourakis1 Comment

After a very rough year of minimum outdoor exposure and a lot of time spent sitting in front of a computer studying and working, I felt as if something in my life wasn’t quite right. I looked back at all the things I had accomplished in that short amount of time and even though I felt immensely proud of myself, I couldn’t help to also feel a void. All the sacrifices I made were necessary to accomplish my educational and professional goals, yet I also knew that I had silenced my adventurous heart for too long and something had to be done.

I woke up one morning feeling energized by a sudden desire for a new challenge. Immediately, I grabbed my computer to search for inspiration. After a few minutes of anxiously searching the web, I found exactly what I was looking for: embarking on a 3-day solo backpacking adventure to Yosemite National Park and climbing the infamous Half Dome cables. I wish I could articulate why I decided to do this trip alone, but all I can say is that it felt right, so I went with my gut feeling.

For the next three weeks or so, I did tons of research to find all the essential gear for a 3-day backpacking trip. I spent countless hours reading articles and watching YouTube videos to find the best quality gear at the most affordable price — after all, I’m just another broke college student. But that wasn’t the hardest part of my preparation for Half Dome. Things got interesting once I started filling up my backpack with weight and went on day hikes around several trails in Orange County. The soreness I felt all around my body made it difficult to leave my bed every morning, but it meant I was getting closer to the big day. I did my best to not only gear up and prepare physically, but also to gather as much information about my destination.

Three weeks went by quickly, and before I knew it, I was getting into in my old Honda Accord at 4:00 AM and heading to Yosemite National Park.

I vividly remember the night before heading to the cables. I set up camp at Backpackers’ Campground and sat down at one of the wooden picnic tables to eat dinner. I felt nervous thinking of what awaited for me between the mountains, and looking around I wondered if anyone there felt the same way. All those thoughts made it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Nonetheless, I was up by 4:30 in the morning and on Mist Trail by 5:00 AM sharp.

The first mile on Mist Trail was not very kind to me and my 40+ pound backpack. The steep paved trail leading up to Vernal Fall Bridge welcomed me with 400 feet of elevation gain that had me breathing heavily and my legs trembling. But I kept pushing through and managed to continue my way past the bridge and towards the top of Vernal Fall. Despite the rough start, I felt strong and determined to reach my destination. As Vernal Fall appeared past the trees, I was mesmerized by the beauty that stood tall in front of my eyes, but alas, the trail wasn’t done with me. I stood looking up at the endless stretch of stone steps leading to the waterfall and may have cried a little (inside of course).

Vernal Falls and Stone Steps. Photo Credit: David Fulmer

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in over my head, and I had underestimated the difficulty of my adventure. With 1,009 feet of elevation gain to Vernal Falls, it was no surprise that my legs felt heavy and I was forced to stop every few seconds to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my eyes. Reaching the top of the waterfall after such intense struggle wasn’t so much a relief as it was a heartbreaking realization that I wouldn’t be able continue for another six miles and finish what I had set out to do.

I decided to continue to the top of the second waterfall, Nevada Falls, and head back down to the valley after lunch. And so, with my head low and a feeling of deep frustration, I was back on low ground by around 1 PM that afternoon.

Top of Nevada Falls

My first trip to Yosemite National Park was bittersweet. It took me a few weeks to assimilate my experience and understand how much I had gained from my failed attempt to summit Half Dome. These are some of the things that stuck with me the most:

Give yourself enough time to prepare

Yosemite wasn’t my first adventure, or my first hiking/camping experience for that matter, but Half Dome was on a whole other level. Those few weeks of training were not enough to get me in the right shape and I certainly could’ve used more time to prepare. Having the patience to give yourself enough time to prepare, physically and mentally, is not easy, but it will pay off in the end.

Hiking alone is HARDER than you think

Besides the obvious risks of hiking alone, there is the mental aspect to it. Even if you are the most prepared hiker out there and things go according to plan —  which they usually don’t — you have to keep in mind that the intensity of the adventure will escalate simply by the fact that you only have yourself to keep you going. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain magic to hiking alone with your thoughts and I certainly don’t regret my decision of going solo, but I know for a fact that being accompanied by my friends would’ve made the experience a lot less harsh and helped push me a bit further.

Be willing to try!

Maybe I knew deep inside from the start that three weeks weren’t enough to prepare for such an adventure. Maybe I was blinded by my eagerness to escape my routine and experience something new. Nevertheless, I am extremely happy I was willing to try, to not let fear of the unknown hold me back. I don’t have the regret of not trying, so I encourage you to put yourself out there, no matter if the odds are against you.

After a long year of dreaming about going back to Yosemite to finish what I started, a few friends and I decided to adventure together and summit Half Dome.

Photo Credit: Belinda Suos

Overlooking the beautiful valley from more than 8,000 feet above the ground was a cathartic experience that took me almost 2 years to gain. I will forever be grateful I had the courage to try.

Comments 1

  1. Hi, Andres! This is a really inspirational story! I admire your will to overcome “failure”, although I will call it learning. I was wondering, how you packed the second time? You mentioned that your backpack was a little bit of problem first time?

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