My last post I talked about, as the old song puts it, “the things you do for love”. In this one, I speak instead of what love does for you.
I did not want to hike Half-dome. That I knew. I saw the pictures of people climbing the steel cables to the top and knew that was not for me.
For those unfamiliar with name of Half-dome, you will perhaps recognize the picture of it. It competes with El Capitan as the most famous mountain formation in Yosemite, and indeed in all of California.
It is possible to hike to the top of Half-dome. The Parks Service has installed cables on one side of the dome (more on these later). But it is not easy and not for those with fear of heights.
About that last point. Somewhere along the road to being a middle aged pastor, I lost the fearlessness of youth. I remember some rather stupid stunts in high school, and cliff climbing in the black hills when I was in college, but that was a long time ago. I was young and single and irresponsible. The term “cost-benefit analysis” had not yet entered my calculations. Lately I find that things that did not bother me at twenty years of age now give me the willies. Extreme heights are one of those things.
So climbing up some steel cable to the top of Half-dome was not just outside my comfort zone. It was not even in the same area code.
But my son and I had made a trip to Yosemite to do some hiking, and God opened the door for us to climb Half-dome. The very nice woman ranger at the wilderness office told us this was the most popular hike in the state by far, and that normally it would take a six month wait to get a permit to climb it. But we unknowingly hit the window of opportunity exactly right: the summer crowds were gone now, and the cables would be taken down in two more days (because of weather). She seemed surprised to find that she could hand us two tickets to Half-dome jolly on the spot.
Joe and I were both pumped about the idea; in our enthusiasm we signed up. We spent that night in a hotel (it was already late in the day) then got up the next day at 5:30 to eat breakfast and drive back to the park.
As soon as we started hiking we felt our legs and lungs start to burn. The trail climbs almost five thousand feet, which is like climbing the Sears Tower three times over (and back down again). But we saw why it was so popular: not only the challenge, but the beauty. The trail passes two of the most magnificent waterfalls I have ever seen. The first is the Vernal falls, seen here:
After the two falls, and an elevation gain of about 2200 feet, we arrived at the backpackers campsite in Little Yosemite Valley. This campsite is for those backpacking in the high country, and is very primitive (no running water, tables, etc…). There were two communal fire rings that we looked forward to (since the night was expected to be near freezing). We left out packs there, and just took a smaller pack with a lot of water and some food. Joe happily agreed to perform Sherpa duties, so I could make the rest of the climb without extra weight.
After a long, steep climb, you come to the shoulder of Half-dome, which is a steep rock field, into which stairs have been chiseled. This part was perfectly safe, but physically exhausting, especially at this altitude. I felt done in by the time we reached the upper dome itself, and then I saw the cables.
Two steel cables at waist height curve up to the summit. The same cables are used to ascend and descend, so sometimes you can only use one. Part of me really did not want to do this. But I knew this was going to be one of my last times with Joe before he went in the navy in January, and I really wanted to share this experience with him. So I prayed (again) and grabbed a cable.
I refused to look at anything beyond my feet on the rock. We slowly made our climb. In a few spots it was exceptionally steep, and my boots lost grip; it was pretty hairy. But after about a half-hour we made it to the top. I had so much adrenaline in my body I could have jumped with joy. I settled for a high five with Joe.
The beauty was indescribable. From Half-dome, you look down upon Yosemite Valley and are able to trace out the streams, waterfalls, and rock formations that make that valley a wonder of the world. We had seen the valley from beneath, but its vistas were blocked by trees and cliffs. To see it from above was so different, so much more wondrous.
I thanked God for giving me the health to get up here, and for sending Joe to push me (way) out of my comfort zone. I was glad beyond words to share this time with him.
On the very edge of Half-dome, there is an outcropping called “the visor” that forms the point of the dome. Here is Joe and I on that.
And here is a studly man thinking profound thoughts on the visor.
After almost an hour of admiring the views and taking pics, we descended down. This was actually easier than going up, especially since at this time in the day there were few people ascending (thus you could use both cables).
We got back to camp and fired up Joe’s micro burner, and we had some warm food. Darkness came soon after, and the warmth of the communal fire was very welcome. It was very cool to sit around this fire and talk with complete strangers: a doctor from San Francisco and her daughter, a university administrator from Manhattan, and couple of Canadians, and a young married couple from L.A. It was pitch black by 7:15, so we were a little surprised to see a young couple walk into our fire circle from the direction of the trail. They explained that they had stayed too long, and now had to get back to the main valley where there car was. But they had only meant this as a day-hike, and thus had no lights and no warm clothes. They thought about trying to make it down on borrowed flashlights, but soon gave that idea up when it became apparent they might get lost. It turns out that he had proposed on the top of Half-dome (she said yes), and thus had other things on his mind than hiking logistics.
The campfire folk rallied around the lost lovers, and we all pitched in. I had brought two sleeping bags (remembering how cold I was a few nights ago), so I gave them one. I also gave them my coat and some food. Other people gave them a sleeping pad and some more clothes. Thankfully the young married couple from L.A. had a four person tent, and offered to share (Joe and I were under a tarp again). This seemed to take the worry from Lea’s eyes (she did not like the idea of sleeping in the open in bear country).
In the morning we broke camp, had a good talk with Jesse and Lea, and made our way down by the John Muir trail. Later that day, we drove around the park a little, and took in two vantage points. It was an incredible feeling to look at Half-dome from glacier point, see the valley floor, and know you climbed from that valley to the top of the dome.
I wonder how many of our grandest experiences of beauty and joy are just held hostage by our fears, waiting to be seized when someone pushes us well, well outside our little comfort zones.
Thank you God, and thank you Joe!
Some extra Pics: