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Preparing for Yosemite’s Half Dome Hike

Q+A  April 27 2011
 — By Jeanette Kozlowski
Preparing for Yosemite’s Half Dome Hike

Mr. Half Dome Rick Deutsch

There’s a big difference between aspiring to do something and actually doing it. Rick Deutsch is quite familiar with that difference. So much in fact, he doesn’t shy away from putting people on the spot with an in-your-face, seize-the-day attitude.

That sheer determination is what helped him hike the legendary Half Dome at Yosemite National Park not just once or twice. Oh no. People wait their entire lives to climb the granite rock formation. And Deutsch has made that taxing, treacherous journey up and down 28 times.

It was 1990 when Deutsch made his first hike up the Half Dome. Now almost two decades later, he recalls that hike as the initial push to motivate his future pursuits—and to help others achieve their lifetime goals. Part-time adventurer, full-time motivational speaker. Deutsch has written two books about his Half Dome experiences and gives more than 40 lectures a year on how to make it to the top.

Even early in the morning Deutsch radiates energy and passion.

How did you acquire the name Mr. Half Dome?

Well, I claimed it because I just wanted it. I wrote the hiking guide to the Half Dome, and I’ve done the hike 28 times. I have a dedicate website for Half Dome. I’ve read all about the history, geology and people related to Half Dome — it’s my passion. So, I decided I needed a brand and that made a lot of sense. And Half Dome was NOT cut in half by glaciers.

One bit of advice is “someday” never comes. When I first did Half Dome, it was 1990. Prior to that, I said there is no way. If you’ve seen the pictures, it’s pretty scary. And it’s a very long hike. It just takes a lot to get up there. When I got on top, I thought: “Geez it was hard, but wow, this is really great. I’ve got to start doing things in my life.” I actually wrote out a bucket list then, before the movie came out, of course. And I carried that for 20 years while I was working in the computer industry in Silicon Valley.

When you write down your goals, you realize that there’s just not enough time to do them all. It’s easy to say: “Someday I want to do the pyramids,” or “Someday I want to see the Taj Mahal.” You need to write it down and look at it, and look at it … and say, OK, June of 2013. That’s when I’m going. A list in your head is useless. That someday will never come and then you are old and feeble. Life’s too short. My life motto is “Carpe Diem,” it means Seize the Day. Half Dome has got to be written down on your list that you actually write down. A lot of people say: “It’s on my list.” What list?

How long is the hike?

It starts down in the valley; the main valley of Yosemite was carved out by glaciers. The valley itself is really neat. The hike starts there, and it goes up … one way is about 7.5 miles to get to Half Dome. The rock itself lies almost a mile above the valley floor. Between going up and down, you are close to 10,000 feet of ascent and descent. It can take the average person about 10 to 12 hours. It’s a long day hike. Most people do it in a day. In 2010, 40,000 people did it. The numbers are down because that is the first year they’ve had a permit process to go up the final 400 feet, which is assisted by cables.

Thousands of hikers a year use Half Dome's cable system to ascend the granite rock formation.

Have there been a lot of accidents on the Half Dome? Is that why they enacted the permit?

Yes and no. There aren’t that many accidents. I’ve documented the accidents off the cables in my website. From when they put those cables up in 1919 until 2007, nobody fell at all during the hiking season. The support poles are removed but the cables lie on the rock. The cables are only up from mid-May to mid-October. If they left them in the pole supports during the winter, the avalanches would rip them apart. They physically take the poles down during the winter. The cables lay there year round. People have gone up when the cables are laying down, and there are no restrictions in doing it. Unfortunately, two different women six months apart during the winter fell doing that. When the rock’s wet, it’s extremely dangerous. And the Half Dome was wet the days they went up.

When the cables are up for summer use, only two people have died using the cables during the normal summer situation. In 2007 a Japanese man who fell off the cables to his demise. His party of 5 drove up from Santa Clara after working all day on a Friday. They left at 1:30 a.m.; it’s about a four-and-a-half hour drive. They got to the park  at about 6 a.m., ate some sushi and then the five of them went up. First timers. They took about 8 hours to get to the cables, which normally takes about four. They went up the cables in a crowd at about 2 pm. My theory is that the guy fell because he was dehydrated and exhausted.

In June of 2009, I was there the day a man fell. It was a decent day with 20% chance of thunderstorms. At about 11 am clouds started to move in. A moisture laden cloud danced with the top – it moved in and away. We got down at about noon because the clouds were physically touching the cables, but  people were still going up in shorts and T-shirts. Well, when we got down off the rock and started to hike back in the forest, it started to hail, which is freezing. There were still people going up. And then it rained the rest of the afternoon. About 3 o’clock, I heard a helicopter and they don’t do that for training. And that’s what happened. A man fatally fell.

Just a week earlier, a woman fell in similar bad weather — but she miraculously lived. She had severe trauma but is still with us and is recovering slowly. There are not that many accidents actually, but because of these falls, it had a lot of visibility in Congress and what not. People who go up when the weather is really bad aren’t very prudent.

What the park service had to do was come up with some part of a process to eliminate crowding that could occur in an emergency situation. The NPS conducted intensive trail studies and announced that the 2010 season would require permits on weekends and holidays.  Nobody fell in 2010 with permits. But reports came out on the usage, and it turns out that weekends when permits were required were a piece of cake. They gave out 400 permits, but only close to 300 people showed up. During previous years they were pushing 800 to 1,000 people on the cables in a day. So for 300 people to go up in a day means that the crowding had subsided. But what happened was that the people who couldn’t get permits went on weekdays. So Monday and Thursday just really got out of hand. For 2011, permits are required every day and they are gone in minutes.

 

Mr. Half Dome and his passion

What are some pointers for first time Half Dome hikers?

Before you go, I suggest buying my book because it’s the only hiking guide for the Half Dome. Anyone can do the hike physically with three things:

  1. Education - Learn what you are getting into. You’ve got to understand water treatment. Your boots are a big part of it. That’s one of my big three — water, hiking boots and hiking poles. You’ve got to learn about weather … if there’s any sign of bad weather, you get your butt in the other direction. You don’t go up when it looks like rain. 2 died on top after being struck by lightning in1985.
  2. Preparation - You’ve got to get your lower muscles in shape because it’s a very long day with that vertical assent. It just knocks you out. And going up the cable system? Its 400 vertical feet at a 45 degree angle. That’s really steep and scary. You’re doing that for 600 feet along the cable system. Get your body in shape, not only your lower body, but your upper body, too. Although you want to use your legs, you will have to use your upper body to pull yourself up the cable. There are techniques to go up and down. The stairmaster is great for strengthening your uphill muscles, but it does nothing for the downhill. Downhill is a killer on that hike. The problem is, you don’t go down faster than you go up because you are on a granite wilderness trail. A big factor is your knees. Young people don’t realize that the knees are where most of the stopping takes place. When you are going downhill, that force is transmitted right to your knees. I highly recommend hiking poles when coming down. Without them, your knees are really going to take a beating.
  3. Motivation – Don’t do it because Rick Deutsch says you should do it. Do it because you really want to do it. Don’t do it because your friends are going. People who are adverse to altitudes and heights—don’t do it. I get Google alerts for any mention of Yosemite or Half Dome and I see it on folks bucket lists. No. 11 – Go to Rome. No. 12 – Hike Half Dome.

Has anyone hiked the Half Dome more than you?

I’ve ran into a couple of people who have done it over 50 times. This one guy lives in a Central Valley town called Modesto and he told me that he has done it like 52 times. He leaves from his house and drives two hours, does a 12 hour hike or whatever it takes him and then drives home.

And there are guide services that take people up. They have gone up a lot more. My thing is that I am not a only hiking person by any means. I just do this as one of the things I do. I bicycle, scuba dive, kayak, run, have some classic cars and rent motorcycles… I have many other interests. My life is not like a hiking guru. Twenty-eight times up Half Dome ain’t bad though. I did it three times last summer. That’s the most I’ve ever done in a summer. 2 were back-to-back weekends. When I first started doing it, I thought once a year … if I can do this once a year, that’s going to keep me in shape. By training for it, it puts me in better shape than guys who are just out there watching TV.

You mentioned Vasque Breeze is your favorite. What makes this boot special?

You’ve got to have proper fitting boots. When you go downhill, you’ve got to have room in your toe box. Because if you are coming down and the toes are hitting the end of your boots from the steepness, your toenails can turn black, and they might even fall off. It’s a miserable day.

Boots feel great when you are trying them out in the store. But you need to get on an incline board and make sure they fit properly. Blisters are caused by heat, friction and moisture. What I recommend is a product called Body Glide to lubricate your feet with. Put that on first. And then a thin, liner sock then a mid-weight sock. That will prevent blisters and make life more pleasant.

I’ve been through many boots, and they are great for the first five or six months. What I found was one thing that I don’t like are boots with grommets for laces. Somehow I can feel it over time. They irritate my upper foot. Another pair that I had was flexing in the wrong place. My left foot is a little smaller and when I was walking, the boot would flex a little higher than it should instead of flexing at the metatarsal. It was actually hitting the tendon on my big toe. I did a pretty massive hike downhill. The toe started hurting like mad. I toughed it out, and I kept walking and walking. I got tendentious and needed cortisone shots when I got home.

I got into these Vasque Breeze probably three years ago, and they were just great. They are very lightweight. I mean, the Breeze name means something. They are Gore-Tex, they fit great, no break-in—you just put them on and go. In fact, I did a trip to Yosemite, and camped there. When I got home, I unloaded all my stuff, and I did not have my boots in there. I had somehow left them up there. I went and bought another pair the next day. They were $140 boots, but to me they were worth it. They have just worked out so well for me, when people ask for recommendations, I will say Vasque Breeze.

The sunrise shadow of Half Dome taken from the top.

How can an active adventure help improve someone’s psyche?

It’s a goal and a journey. Everyone needs goals in life, which I mentioned before about creating your life list. Unless you have things to shoot for, you are kind of walking in quicksand. By picking a something, you have to have a purpose to get up. It doesn’t have to be hiking related at all. It could be working with kids in Ethiopia or developing a new process at your job or selling hiking books. Whatever your thing is.

Your passion is basically what you would do if you didn’t get paid. So it might be flower arranging; it might be working with old people—whatever it is that rings your bell. If you pick a goal, set it, you can take steps to get there. Like I said, there is education, motivation and preparation. Those are all good attributes to have in life that are transferable to your work or your family.

The second thing I like to recognize are the obstacles in route—going up Half Dome is a major obstacle, even mentally. Knowing that I have to train for it keeps me at it. You are going to run into obstacles all the way along your life. Recognizing them and taking steps to overcome them will be better for you.

And there’s this whole motivation thing—why does someone want to do something? There has to be some internal motivation that sparks you to pursue your passion with enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about wanting to go up the Half Dome. Doing something massive like that, or riding 100 miles on bicycle or swimming in a triathlon. Whatever it is, I think everyone needs goals to pursue. That’s what makes life fun. If you don’t have life goals, then what are you doing here? Just getting up, going to work, going home and going to bed.

What’s next on your bucket list?

I have not yet been to the Antarctic and I have not yet been to the Amazon. I’ve had time to focus and go through my list with lots of check marks. The list is not static. I added Petra in Jordan a few years ago and now I’ve been there.  I started mine when I was 40 and I am 62 now. It’s not my wife’s list, it’s not my brother’s list—it’s my list. Things that I want to do.

I have some things you might consider stupid, like the Indy 500. Many people might think that is a dumb goal, but it’s something I had wanted to do. I’ve done it. So, you sit down, and write down the amount of years on the left side of the column. Then on the next column you put all those things you ever wanted to do. When you write them down, you will find that you have too many things for the number of years available. Eventually you realize that most people only get two weeks, three weeks or even four weeks vacation.

What you start to find out is that you have a limited amount of time, which means that you probably can’t go back to places. The top place I’ve ever been to is Egypt and the pyramids. I really got into that. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get back twice with the cruise ship lecturing that I’m doing. You’re going to find that the odometer of life clicks a little faster than you want it to. Carpe Diem.

Images via Mr. Half Dome’s Facebook Fan Page

(6) Readers Comments

  1. Pingback: Vasque to Update Breeze in 2013 | Hiking Boots News

  2. I’m hoping to get picked from the lottery, my son and I are excited about hiking half dome, I will definitely pick up a copy of your book. Hoping for Mid June hike. Any information is always welcomed. Thanks for the great write up on Half Dome.

  3. My two cents after taking this hike. Forget the hiking poles, makes you look like a rookie, slows you down with weight you don’t need, doesn’t help anything, ties up your hands that should be free. Next, forget the silly boots, this is a very technical hike when it comes to your feet. There are very few flat surfaces for you to step, you will be placing your feet constantly on uneven surfaces. I would go with a light weight WP Mid hiking shoe.
    Other than this, Mr. Half dome has it down, hands down. Mind you this is only my opinion. Stop waiting, just do it.

  4. Pingback: Coming Soon: Vasque Updates Classic Look | Hiking Boots News

  5. Rick’s book is a must read for anyone planning to hike Half Dome. It’s an easy read, incredibly helpful and full of so much info on hiking in general.

  6. That was a neat article. I don’t like to think about how little time is left for each of us on this planet, so that part was sobering. Finances are another factor in getting through your bucket list. With kids and college educations and other commitments, sometimes you have to factor that into the equation. But he definitely does make you want to go do something…anything!!

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