Want To Test Your Relationship? Hike Half Dome With Your Partner.

This article originally appeared on Backpacker

In our travel column, assistant editor Emma Veidt answers your hiking questions and shares travel hiking tips with the help of a rotating cast of experts.

In a way, someone's hiking behavior can read like a horoscope. Do they bound ahead of you on a hard hike, leaving you in their dust? They're toxic; avoid them at all costs. Do they try to stop at every overlook and take in the views? They're likely observant and don't take anything for granted. Do they have a first-aid kit and plenty of snacks to share? They're someone you need in an emergency.

I've gone on hundreds, maybe thousands, of hikes with different people throughout my life. I've backpacked with close family members, traveled all around the country on hiking trips with my best friends, and regretted swiping right on plenty of awkward first date hikes. No matter the situation, I've come away from each of them with a better understanding of my companions.

Spending time in nature is how my partner, Aaron, and I really bonded. Our third date was an all-day bouldering trip to Joshua Tree, and since then, we've gone on plenty of outdoor adventures throughout southern California. Some have been absolute sufferfests, most were just a fun way to get away for the weekend. The biggest test of our relationship, however, was our hike on Half Dome this past September.

We've been dating for a year now, and this five-day trip to Yosemite was going to be our first vacation together, just the two of us. It was Aaron's first time in the national park. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been--my family spent many of my childhood summers camping in Yosemite. I was excited to share my favorite spots with Aaron, but during this trip, we would both be hiking something for the first time: Half Dome. This trail was always an abstract concept to me, especially because I had entered the permit lottery five times already with no success. As soon as we won permits earlier this year, Half Dome became very real, but not always in a good way.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I visualized myself dying nearly daily. I pictured myself passing out from anxiety and tumbling down the dome, someone tripping and bumping me off my path, really any scenario that resulted in me freefalling into Yosemite Valley. This isn't a common thing that happens on Half Dome, but logic is no match for anxiety brain.

The morning of the hike, we set off at 6 a.m. and followed a trail of headlamps from the Camp Curry area to the Mist Trail. The first bit of light in the sky was peeking over Half Dome. I preferred it at night when the granodiorite rock blended into the dark sky; with the sunrise peeking over it, I couldn't ignore how much bigger it was than us. We looked at each other, giddy and exhilarated, pointed to the top of the silhouetted dome. "Wow,” I said. "We're going to be up there later today."

In a couple of hours, we'd also find each other at our physical and emotional lowest.

nevada fall, yosemite
Nevada Fall partway up the hike to Half Dome via the Mist Trail. (Photo: Emma Veidt)

At the start, it was great. We were chatting with other hikers, taking silly pictures, and finding picturesque spots to gaze at waterfalls and down handfuls of trail mix and Trader Joe's Scandanavian Swimmers. Our plan was to mosey: This hike was a celebration of all the hard training we've done, so why rush? When we reached the steep section past the ranger's quarters before the subdome, I started to falter. Perhaps it was the lack of protein I'd eaten that day, the lack of sleep, or the fact that an abstract daydream of a rock in my mind was becoming real before me, and I had to scale it. Suddenly, I started to question Half Dome veterans who told me the cables section wasn't as bad as it looked. I was looking at it, and it looked bad.

I made a passing comment to Aaron about how the people climbing the cables looked like ants ascending a vertical wall. He asked me if I wanted to turn around--not in a leading way, but in a supportive way. No, I said. I was scared, but I wanted to keep going. I don't know if I was telling him or myself.

I've dated hikers in the past who disregarded my nerves on the trail or made me feel bad about slowing the adventure down--sometimes saying I soured it completely. Hiking partners shouldn't do that, and certainly neither should romantic partners. On-trail safety also means feeling emotionally secure around the person you're with. Hiking (and romantic) partners should be willing to accept news--like that you're nervous or having second thoughts about continuing--without acting selfishly or vindictively. They should push you, but not beyond where you feel safe.

half dome cables
The lunchtime view that freaked out the author. (Photo: Emma Veidt)

We agreed to keep going, and around lunchtime, we made it to the base of the cables. We decided to take a lunch break there and regain our strength before making the final ascent. That was a bad decision: My mouth got dry watching people slip up or down the 60 degree slope -- some with already bloody skinned knees and palms -- and I lost my appetite knowing I was about to join them. I could feel my breath getting shallow and my mouth drying up. I put my peanut butter sandwich away and looked at Aaron. My anxieties were coming back, with a tinge of preemptive regret, and it was clear he was having similar thoughts.

In that moment, turning around was a real possibility. We watched a few people approach the steep cables section and decide not to continue. Aaron turned to me and said, "It's ok if you don't want to do this. I'll stay back if you do." I offered the same sentiment in return, but we decided to continue up the cables.

Going up, I had to remind myself to breathe. I've never been so focused and so dissociated at the same time: I tried not to think about the risks, even as I paid close attention to my footing. Before we started, I told Aaron to go ahead of me, so I could ascend at my own pace, and he did, but he shouted back to me at every checkpoint: "Still there?" "How are you doing?" "You can do it." All I could muster in response was a wobbly, high-pitched "yeah."

Along the way, as I death-gripped the cables, I realized something: I wouldn't want to do this hike with anyone else. In a moment where we were both in physical and emotional distress, there was still care. That is all I could want in a partner at home and on the trails.

emma and aaron from the top of half dome
The author and Aaron on the Half Dome summit. (Photo: Emma Veidt)

At the top of Half Dome, we honored our usual summit tradition of Facetiming our parents, having a snack, and taking a nap. When it was time to go down the cables, our roles of "nervous hiker" and "supportive hiker" reversed. I'm generally a calm downclimber, but having gravity work against him gets Aaron nervous. We faced the rock, held onto the cables, and started walking backward. On the descent, I tried to give Aaron the same amount of encouragement that he gave me on the ascent.

On the hike back to the valley floor, we weren't huffing and puffing as much as we were on the ascent, so we chatted more. We talked about things that annoyed us, things that made us happy, our life goals, our adventure goals. Yes, it's easier to get to know someone on the trail because it's a shortcut to seeing their key values and behaviors, but for me, it's also more natural for me to share something personal while hiking side by side or single-file versus sitting across the table from someone at a stuffy coffee shop.

Overall, we hiked 18.5 miles that day from our campsite at Upper Pines to the top of Half Dome and back, with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain along the way. The whole hike took us 14 hours (there were plenty of bathroom breaks, naps, photo stops). As we reached the final portion of the Mist Trail, we realized the time: It was pushing 8 p.m., and most places to eat in Yosemite Valley were closing soon. Our bones were creaky, our tendons were tight, so we had to hustle or else eat something cooked over a camp stove. We speed-hiked to Curry Village Pizza Deck and split a large pizza.

Maybe it was the absolute calorie deficit, or the fact that there was hot honey on the pizza, but it was one of the best meals I've ever eaten. We ate in silence as we rolled our arches out on my recovery lacrosse balls under the table. My muscles screamed and you could smell my sweat from miles away, but in that moment, I felt completely content, and Aaron did too.

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