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Yosemite National Park - Half Dome (via the Cable Ladder)                       timberlinetrails.net
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Of all the High Sierra
smooth granite domes,
Half Dome is by far the
most well known and
photographed of them
all. Rising nearly 4,800
feet above the valley
floor, it's sheer

Of all the hiking possibilities in and out of
Yosemite Valley (arguably) Half Dome is the
most exciting. I know of no other trail in
Yosemite, that has the combination of such
beautiful land and water scenery, incredible trail
engineering and yes, the adventure of a 400 foot
vertical gain on a 45 degree slope up smooth
granite via a cable ladder.

All the above makes Half Dome a "must do
hike" for all those who are willing (and capable
of) putting in the necessary hard work to gain it's
8,800 foot summit.

Your hike up Half Dome starts at shuttle stop
#16 in an area known as "Happy Isles" located in
the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.
But before we get started, there are a few things you need to think about. First, how about your physical condition? The Yosemite
Visitors Guide describes the Half Dome hike as the most strenuous day hike in all of Yosemite. You will be traveling on foot anywhere
between 14 to 16.3 miles round trip (depending on which trail you take), and gaining nearly 4,800 feet of elevation. Needless to say, it
is a serious hike. Most folks who are successful in making the summit take between 10 to 12 hours to complete the it, so you will need
to set a day aside to make your attempt. Next, is whether you are subject to
Altitude Sickness at moderate elevations. If so, you will
need to take a bit more time to acclimate.

If the above seems a bit intimidating, or if you have younger folks along, there is the option of backpacking up to "Little Yosemite
Valley," camping there, and then completing your summit bid on Half Dome in the morning. This splits up the hike into about two
equal parts. This approach would make things a lot easier if you are not quite up to a single push to the summit. If you adopt this
method of attack you will need a wilderness permit for an overnight stay in Little Yosemite Valley. You will also need to protect your
food (and ultimately the bears) by carrying a bear box (required), because bears certainly frequent this area of Yosemite.
After considering your physical conditioning and your ability to hike at moderate altitude, you will also need to plan for what you are
going to take along on the hike. I would recommend a good pair of lightweight hiking boots with a sole that affords a good grip on the
rock. This is not only important for the trail, but will be much more important when it comes to your travel up the smooth granite on
the cable ladder later on. You also should bring appropriate clothing for the time of year and current weather conditions. The top of
Half Dome can be a good 15 degrees cooler than
the valley floor, and it can be a whole lot windier
up there, so plan accordingly. I would also carry a
decent day pack with food and a gallon of water.
It is very easy to get dehydrated in the mountains,
and running out of water is no fun (and can be
dangerous) when it comes to any outdoor
endeavor.

Over the years, I have found that carrying a day
pack in the form of a "Camel-bak" is the best way
to carry water. Having a tube right there available
to sip on at any time is the best way to stay
properly hydrated. I would also carry a map,
compass, and headlamp just in case. Not a whole
lot of chance of getting lost (with the multitudes of
people on the trail) but it is just plain good practice
to carry these items. A headlamp is a must,
because you never know how things will unfold.
If something goes wrong, or if you have
overestimated your abilities and get caught out
there in the dark, a headlamp would become a
vital piece of equipment for enabling you to get
back down the trail.

Lastly, you may want to consider taking a pair of
gloves for gripping the cables on the last section of
the climb to protect your hands. If you are
somewhat apprehensive when it comes to heights
and falling, I would recommend having a climbing
harness, a couple of
carabiners, and some
webbing to attach yourself to the cables as you
ascend. This will add a good deal of protection if
you apply the gear properly.

The above would be my recommendations for
what to take along. But ultimately, you have to
make your own choices and be
responsible for them. The next
order of business is deciding
which trail you will take (
The
Mist Trail, or the John Muir
Trail). From the Vernal Fall Foot
Bridge (above photo) you will be
able to get a beautiful view of
Vernal Fall (left). After the foot
bridge, the trail then divides. The
fork to the left takes you up the
Mist Trail, and the one to the right
takes you up the John Muir Trail.

So which trail do you take? Here
are a few considerations. The
Mist Trail is shorter in distance,
but it is not necessarily faster. I
find that it depends on how many
people are on the trail at any given
time, and how comfortable you
are at ascending large uneven
granite steps.        

Mist Trail - 14 miles round-trip        John Muir Trail - 16.2 miles round-trip       Mist Trail up and John Muir Trail down - 15.1 miles

Now at first glance it would seem best to take the Mist Trail. But as mentioned above, there are other factors involved. Firstly, the
crowds. If there are a lot of people on the trail (like on the weekends) things can grind to a halt. The Mist Trail is very steep, and it
gets very narrow in sections. When this happens, it is inevitable that you are going to run into people that are very uncomfortable with
the steep narrow granite stairways that frequent many sections of the trail. When this happens people can either end up blocking the
trail for a portion of time, or will continue at a painfully slow pace (at best). This can impede your progress considerably. Getting
around people who are in this fearful condition is not easy, and doing so could create a dangerous situation if you force your way
around other people on the trail (not to mention the poor back country etiquette of doing so).

All the above being said, if you want to take the  
Mist Trail  for your hike up Half Dome here are my
recommendations.

1) Get an early start (
no matter which trail you take). Most
people who are out for a nice hike on the Mist Trail
do so in the later morning hours. By that time you
are long gone. On top of all this, most of the trouble
occurs when people are coming down the Mist Trail.
This happens in the early to late afternoon hours.

2) Do not use the Mist Trail to descend from Half
Dome if you are in a hurry. Even though the Mist
Trail is shorter in distance (
than the John Muir Trail), it is
much less crowded and it is much smoother going.
You can make quick work of it if necessary (
especially
when going down
).
In conclusion, if you have never hiked the Mist Trail, I would highly recommend it. It is more exciting than the John Muir Trail (when
going from the Yosemite Valley floor to the Half Dome cut off trail), and the views along the way (especially of Vernal and Nevada
Falls) are hard to beat. Additionally, even though the Mist Trail is shorter in distance, it is more arduous than the John Muir Trail, due
to the many steep stair sections composed of uneven granite blocks. However, if you are in excellent condition, the steep steps can
help you gain altitude very
quickly. If this sounds
troubling, then you may be
better off with the John
Muir Trail
 (however, if you are
uncomfortable on the Mist Trail,
you will be absolutely terrified on
the Half Dome cable ladder).

So after weighing in all the
facts, the John Muir Trail
turns out to be the faster of
the two trails. I have been
up both trails several times,
and I can safely say that the
John Muir Trail is the
quicker option of the two.

To the right you see a photo
of Nevada Falls (as seen
from the JMT). The upper
two photos are also views
from the John Muir Trail.
For much more on the Mist Trail,
please check out our write up on this
beautiful pathway by
Clicking Here.

At the top of Nevada Falls the Mist
Trail ends by joining the John Muir
Trail. From there you will continue
on it until you reach the Half Dome
junction cutoff trail. The photo to the
left shows a couple of the Merced
River tributaries joining up before
cascading over Nevada Falls as
shown in the image below.

You do not want to play around in
the water here. If you should loose
your footing the consequences would
be dire. Over the years, people have
gone over the falls and to their deaths
as a result of not having respect for
the fast moving water.
Once past Nevada Falls, you are at about the half
way point in terms of distance. The trail marker in
the in the upper left image, informs you that you
have 4.5 miles to go. However, these last 4.5
miles are the most difficult.

But initially, you get a small break from your
earlier climb to the top of Nevada Falls. This is by
way of a near level hike through Little Yosemite
Valley (as shown in the photo to the left). This
would be the logical campsite area for those who
are making a two day event out of hiking to the
top of Half Dome.

There are plenty of good spots to set up a tent
here, and there is also a restroom available.
Combined with the restroom, is a little ranger
station
(but the Ranger Station is not alway manned).
Little Yosemite Valley is the last official camping
area before making your push to the top of Half
Dome. The park service also posts a sign to let
you know that camping above 7,600 feet is
prohibited on the Northeast Shoulder of Half
Dome (as well as camping on top).

Many years ago on my first trip to the top of Half
Dome, I noticed a few campers all set up on the
summit of Half Dome. A cool idea, but for
reasons as stated in the notice to the right, this is
no longer allowed.

After exiting Little Yosemite Valley, your progress
will turn upward and you will pass through a
beautiful forested area as shown in the image
below.
About midway between Little Yosemite Valley
and the top of Half Dome, you come to the
junction where you will leave the John Muir Trail
and proceed up the Half Dome cutoff trail. This
cutoff trail takes you to the base of the cable
ladder on Half Dome. It is about 2 miles long,
and leads you through some very steep terrain.

Once you are at the base of the Sub-dome, you
will be greeted with the sign shown to the right
notifying you that proceeding past this point
during or after a lightning or rain storm could be
fatal. I have to say that most deaths on Half
Dome are a result of people ignoring this
warning. Several people have been killed as a
result of lighting, and others have slipped and
fallen to their deaths on the cable ladder section
due to wet conditions. No summit is worth that!
Climbing the Sub-dome of Half Dome entails a steep section of granite steps.
There are little or no handrails here and care must be taken so you do not trip
(especially on the way down). Falling here could result in a nasty injury or
worse. Also, be considerate of others, and do not try and push your way
around people. Doing so would certainly create unnecessary danger to all
involved.

At the base of the Sub-dome, you have 900 vertical feet to gain. Five
hundred of the 900 feet are on the Sub-dome as shown in the images,
who are afraid of heights.
To the left and right you
see the difference in traffic
based on the time of day.
Our mid June 2009 trip to
the top of Half Dome was
done on a Saturday
(weekends in Yosemite are
very crowded) .

We started from the
Yosemite Valley floor at
4:00 AM, and reached the
base of the cables at 8:30
AM. The view to the left
shows you the traffic at
that time of day. Later,
after ascending, spending
about an hour on top, and
then descending, it was
approximately 10:25 AM.
Check out the difference in
the foot traffic in the photo
to the right vs the one on
the left. Needless to say,
get an early start.
Above you see a photo of the back side of Half Dome. At this
stage, you have about 2 more miles to go. An opposite view of
the Dome is from Glacier Point located on the other side of
Yosemite Valley.
In the image just above (in the
foreground), you will see hikers at
the base of the main dome. In the
distance (looking in the opposite
direction of the main dome), you
see a group of people on top of
Half Dome's Sub-dome.

Turning around and now facing the
opposite direction (from the image
above), you see the infamous cable
ladder and a hoard of people
heading to the top of Half Dome.
Notice the slope just to the right of
the cables. It gives you a good idea
of just how steep this section is. It
is 400 vertical feet laid out along a
45 degree slope of hardened
granite. Very impressive sight
indeed. Some hikers choose to call
it a day at this point. Mostly those

At the base of the cable ladder is a pile of old
gloves. Many hikers spend lots of time rummaging
through them (trying to find a pair that both fits
and are not to grungy). The park service is not to
keen on hikers leaving their gloves behind to rot at
the base of Half Dome, but nevertheless, the
practice continues.

We brought our own gloves, and also packed
them out. My two sons used theirs, but I found it
best (personally) to go up the cables without them.
I got a better grip that way. But if your hands are
somewhat soft, then you will want to use a pair of
gloves. The cables are capable of producing some
good sized blisters if you hands are not up to the
challenge. Also bringing your own gloves saves
time by not having to search through the pile.
and the remaining 400 feet will be gained on the
Half Dome Cable Ladder. In the photo just
above, you see my son Ben looking down the
Sub-dome section. Note the considerable
amount of elevation gain in such a short
distance. This part of the climb will surely  take
the wind out of you if you go too fast.
But if you do get caught in a traffic jamb on the cables, you need to remain calm and proceed as best, and as safely, as possible.
Even though you may see a few brave souls moving outside the cables, this is not recommended. Should anything go wrong, you will
have little to stop you from falling all the way to the bottom (and most likely to your death). You will also loose the aid of the 2x4's,
that provide for a nice little rest stop when needed. The granite rock is pretty slick, and as mentioned in the beginning, good gripping
soles (on your footwear) is very important for obvious reasons.
Yosemite National Park Half Dome Trail Map used with permission.      http://www.nationalgeographic.com/maps
Northwest Face is an inspiring site for the multitudes of visitors to Yosemite Valley.  In the year that the Civil War ended in 1865, the California Geological Survey reported the following after viewing the imposing site of Half Dome. "It is a crest of granite... perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot."  But just a short 10 yeas later in the month of October in 1875, George Anderson reached the summit by drilling and placing iron eye bolts into the smooth granite to assist him in his success (he placed the eye bolts about every 5 feet or so, and then stood on his last bolt placement, while drilling in the next). Later, in 1919, his method was adopted by the Sierra Club who placed a pair of post-mounted steel braided cables near Anderson's original route. Today, this setup is known as the Half Dome Cable Ladder Route.

Each year in the month of May or early June, the Yosemite Rangers set up the uprights and place 2x4's across them to provide a
resting spot for hikers ascending the dome. Then in late October, the uprights are taken down, and the cables are laid to rest flat
against the granite. This is to discourage attempts up this route during the off-season months.
Happy Isles Shuttle Stop#16
Early Morning Photo of Restroom at the end of the first foot bridge leading to the Mist or John Muir Trail
Vernal Fall Footbridge
Beautiful Merced River with
Vernal Falls in the background.
Hikers on early portion
of  John Muir Trail.
Hiker nearing the top of Nevada
Falls on the John Muir Trail.
Views in both directions along
the John Muir Trail  (JMT)
Nevada Falls as viewed
from the John Muir Trail
Here are the Facts:
The Merced River Cascading over Nevada Falls
Hiking through  Little
Yosemite Valley
Hikers approaching the Half
Dome cutoff trail after exiting
Little Yosemite  Valley.
View of the backside
of Half Dome
Climbing the granite  
steps of the Sub-Dome
Top of the Sub-dome
Half Dome's Infamous
Cable Ladder
Cable Traffic 8:30 AM
Cable Traffic 10:25 AM
In the photo to the left and in the one above you see the difference that an hour
or so makes on a busy spring or summer day in Yosemite. On the left you see
my sons heading up the cables at 8:30am, and in the photo just above, you see
difference in traffic only an hour later that same day.

What complicates this whole situation further is that those ascending are now
running into hikers who are descending the cables. It is in situations like this, that
people are tempted to go outside the cables (but don't give in to the temptation).
After an enjoyable stay on the
summit of Half Dome, now
comes the task of getting down.
After a fairly quick climb to the
top (under less crowded
conditions), things have now
changed. There is a fair amount
of traffic coming up, and this is
when things get  interesting. In
order to keep things moving,
both parties must now move to
one side or the other in order
for passing to take place.

Patients is needed here,
because being in a hurry can
create additional danger. So
take your time and enjoy the
view. Also notice that the
cables seems to disappear off
the cliff in the distance. But
take heart, as you progress, all
things will come back into
proper perspective.

Half Dome has a very large summit indeed. I
have read estimates of anywhere between 5 to
7 acres in total (and I thought
Mt Whitney had
a large summit area). Needless to say, we did
not make any real assessment of the acreage,
but rest assured there is plenty of room up there
for any size group that you can reasonably
imagine (with plenty of room left over for
several games of football).

On a nice day, you can take quite a stroll
around the place. This is another reason why
you want to get an early start on Half Dome. It
gives you the extra time to enjoy the many
views and the large summit area of Half Dome
(that's if you have any energy left over after the
long hike to the top).
While walking about on the large flat summit of
Half Dome, you will find that some people have
put in a good deal of effort to construct some
pretty elaborate cairns. Usually we find just a
simple stack of rocks marking the summits (here
and there) in the
Sierra Nevada. But people have
gone a little overboard here. Not much chance of
getting confused as to whether or not you are on
the top of Half Dome.

Years ago people used to camp on the top of Half
Dome (plenty of room to do so). But today this is
prohibited (as mentioned above). Not only did the
campers cut down six of the seven trees, that grew
on the summit of Half Dome, but the volume of
human waste became another overwhelming
problem to contend with.
Looking Southeast from the
summit of Half Dome you see
several very well known peaks of
the Sierra Nevada.
Mt Ritter being
the most distant here is the highest
peak in Madera County at 13, 157
feet above sea level. It is located
in the
Ansel Adams Wilderness,
and along with Yosemite, it is one
of the finest backpacking areas in
all of the
Sierra Nevada.

Another interesting peak is Mt
Clark located in the Southern end
of the park. This 11,522 foot peak
was first climbed in 1866 by
Clarence King and James
Gardiner of the US Geological
Survey via the class 3 Southeast
Ridge.
The Lyell Fork of the Merced
River with its high remote peaks
(as shown in the photo to the
right) was among Ansel Adam's
favorite areas in Yosemite . In
1934, he led a Sierra Club outing
to the Lyell Fork. During that time
they climbed a then unnamed
peak called Adams (also known as
the Tower in Lyell Fork). Later
that evening, they agreed that the
peak should be called Adam's
(after the leader of their
expedition). But the problem was
that the U.S. Geological Survey
did not permit naming features
after living individuals. So the
peak did not officially become Mt.
Ansel Adams until 1985, a year
and one day after his death.
Now looking Northeast, we see
the peaks that are located in
Tuolumne Meadows come into
view. One of the most interesting
here is North Peak. This 12,242
foot peak is very accessible from
the road and the peaks fine
couloirs are very popular among
ice climbers. You can get to the
base of North Peak from the
road in less than a half day, and
you will pass through some of
the most beautiful pristine
meadows in all the Sierra
Nevada. If you are not into ice
climbing, there are other
non-technical routes up the peak,
and you will not be disappointed  
if you choose to hike or climb to
the top of North Peak.
Check out the incredible view in the photo to
the right looking straight down into Yosemite
Valley 4,800 feet below. Climbing the sheer
Northwest Face of Half Dome has to be a real
adrenalin rush.

The first technical ascent was in 1957 via a
route pioneered by Royal Robbins, Mike
Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. The route they
took is now known as the Regular Northwest
Face. Their 5-day epic was the first Grade VI
climb in the United States.

Todays elite Yosemite climbers, can scale the
face in a matter of two hours or less. It seems
incomprehensible to me that anyone can
achieve this kind of speed on such a difficult
route.
  • elevation faster due to the many large granite steps. The
    other downside to the Mist Trails is that it becomes
    congested by late morning and this turns it into the slower
    route when compared to the John Muir Trail. So if you are in
    a hurry, the JMT may be your best bet. If not, then the Mist
    Trail is a good option for it's scenic beauty (this is not to say
    that the John Muir Trail is not beautiful).
  • If you have younger folks along (or if you are not in quite
    the physical shape you would wish), then you may want to
    consider camping at the half-way point at Little Yosemite
    Valley to make things easier.
  • Make sure to bring a good day pack with at least a gallon of
    water, unless you bring a water filter to replenish your supply
    along the way. Also bring a lunch to munch on. Dress
    properly for the current or potential weather conditions.
    Layering works best. Remember, the top of Half Dome can
    be between 15-20 degrees F cooler then the Valley Floor
    below. And make sure to bring a headlamp with you, just in
    case things do not turn out the way you expect. This way
    you will have a light source to enable you to get down.
  • Make sure to get an early start. The average hiker takes
    between 10-12 hours to make the round trip from the Valley
    Floor. Starting early helps you avoid the crowds. We started
    at 4:00 AM (with headlamps) and were able to make the top,
    spend some time there, and then get back down to Happy
    Isles by 1:30 PM. We used the John Muir Trail both ways
    (since just a month earlier, we went up the Mist Trail). An
    early start has a lot  going for it.
  • Do not attempt to climb Half Dome if the cables are down,
    lightning is a threat, or if a storm is on the horizon. Signs
    warn you of this, and it is just plain common sense to
    abandon your climb under these conditions. I have heard
SUMMARY:

  • Half Dome is arguably the most adventuresome day hike in Yosemite. The trails that lead to the cables section of Half Dome,
    navigate through some of the most beautiful terrain to be seen anywhere on earth.
  • The park service considers the Half Dome hike to be the most strenuous day hike in all of Yosemite National Park.
  • There are two trails that lead to the top of Half Dome. You can take either the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail to
    accomplish your goal. Each has it's advantages and disadvantages. The Mist Trail is shorter (14 miles round trip vs 16.2) and
    is more scenic in the opinion of most visitors. But the downside is that it is more strenuous due to the fact that you gain
  • stories of people who died attempting to go to the top of Half Dome with the cables down, and have heard of several deaths
    due to lightning. On top of this, there have been at least 5 hikers who fell to their deaths while on the cable ladder as a result
    of wet slippery conditions during or just after a rain. The last death reported was just a week before we hiked to the top of
    Half Dome in June of 2009. A hiker apparently slipped on the wet granite going up the cables just after a rain storm. Again, do
    not attempt to climb the Half Dome cable ladder if a storm is threatening, conditions are wet, or if lightning is a possibility.
  • If you are afraid of heights or are very subject to altitude sickness (at moderate elevations 8,800 Feet), then you will most
    likely want to skip going to the top of Half Dome. The cable ladder ascends 400 vertical feet at a 45 degree angle and it can
    appear very intimidation (especially when descending) to any person who is fearful of heights.
  • The Yosemite rangers usually erect the cable ladder by mid May, and then take it down by late October. If you are planning to
    hike to the top of Half Dome (and your plans are close to these dates), then it would be wise for you to call the Yosemite Park
    authorities and inquire about the cables. Early spring and fall weather will determine when the uprights (that elevate the cables)
    are installed or taken down.
  • As always (when on the trail, and especially when going up and down the cable ladder due to the extra danger), be considerate of others. I have
    seen people in very fearful conditions both on the Mist Trail (in the steep narrow areas), and even more so on Half Dome's
    cable ladder. You really need to be patient with these folks. Do not add to their fears by rushing them or pushing your way
    around them. Rather offer them a kind word of encouragement or a helping hand if they are open to it.

Well, that's about it for Half Dome and the Cable Ladder. Hope this write up has been helpful to you. If you are in fairly decent
condition (and are not fearful of heights), then a climb up Half Dome will be an unforgettable experience. Thanks again for joining
us on our adventure up Half Dome.
Hikers near the edge of
Half Dome's Summit Visor.
Another view of the back
side of Half Dome from
the Half Dome cutoff trail.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, George Anderson was the first to climb Half Dome. James Hutchings, who witnessed
Anderson's epic first ascent up Half Dome wrote the following account in "The Heart of the Sierras"

Until the fall of 1875 the storm-beaten summit of this magnificent landmark [Half Dome] was a terra incognita, as it had never
been trodden by human feet... This honor was reserved for a brave young Scotchman, a native of Montrose, named George G.
Anderson, who, by dint of pluck, skill, unswerving perseverance, and personal daring, climbed to its summit; and was the first
that ever successfully scaled it. This was accomplished at 3 o'clock P. M. of October 12, 1875.

The knowledge that the feat of climbing this grand mountain had on several occasions been attempted, but never with success,
begat in him an irrepressible determination to succeed in such an enterprise. Imbued with this incentive, he made his way to its
base; and, looking up its smooth and steeply inclined surface, at once set about the difficult exploit. Finding that he could not
keep from sliding with his boots on, he tried it in his stocking feet; but as this did not secure a triumph, he tried it barefooted,
and still was unsuccessful. Then he tied sacking upon his feet and legs, but as these did not secure the desired object, he covered
it with pitch, obtained from pine trees near; and although this enabled him to adhere firmly to the smooth granite, and effectually
prevented him from slipping, a new difficulty presented itself in the great effort required to unstick himself; and which came near
proving fatal several times.

Mortified by the failure of all his plans hitherto, yet in no way discouraged, he procured drills and a hammer, with some iron eye-
bolts, and drilled a hole in the solid rock; into this he drove a wooden pin, and then an eye-bolt; and after fastening a rope to the
bolt, pulled himself up until he could stand upon it; and thence continued that process until he had finally gained the top—a
distance of nine hundred and seventy-five feet! All honor, then, to the intrepid and skillful mountaineer, Geo. G. Anderson, who,
defying and overcoming all obstacles, and at the peril of his life, accomplished that in which all others had signally failed; and
thus became the first to plant his foot upon the exalted crown of the great Half Dome.
Half Dome Summit Plateau
Descending the Cable Ladder
Unlike the past, all people using the Half Dome Trail above the subdome must have a permit in possession 7 days a week. A maximum of 300 permits will be issued each day (225 permits are for day hikers, and 75 for backpackers). The park service has also instituted a lottery process. There is the pre-season lottery in March, but after the cables are put up, a lottery is conducted each day. During the pre-season lottery, you can apply for a permit for 6 people and choose 7 dates to try for. Above Info from the Yosemite NPS For more information on Getting a Half Dome Permit  Click Here