Conquering Half Dome -- and the fear of falling

When a simple hike turns into a paralyzing ascent, a father has to overcome his terror.

By Don George
July 31, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Sometimes we know a journey will be a grand adventure -- the three-week expedition I made a few springs ago along Pakistan's avalanche-laden Karakoram Highway to enchanted Hunza comes to mind. Other times we know it will be a little one -- on a business trip to Paris this January I was content with stumbling onto a wonderful ancient restaurant and a precious new park I'd never known about.

But sometimes our trips surprise us.

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I recently returned from a five-day family excursion to Yosemite. It was supposed to be a little camping lark, but it turned out to be a much grander -- and much more terrifying -- adventure than I'd ever imagined.

The trip seemed innocent enough: Our plan was to drive to Yosemite on a Saturday, spend the next three days camping and hiking to the top of Half Dome, then hike back to our car and drive home on the fifth day. This would require three days of four to six hours of hiking. The only moderately troublesome part would be the final ascent of Half Dome, that iconic granite thumb that juts almost 9,000 feet over the meadows and waterfalls and lesser crags of California's Yosemite Valley. But I had seen pictures of the cable-framed walkway that leads to the top of the mountain, and it didn't look too difficult. My wife and I felt confident that our 8-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter could handle it.

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So off we went. We made the winding drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Yosemite National Park in about four hours. It was a splendid day, all cotton-candy clouds against a county-fair sky. Eating carrots and apple slices in the car, we sped through the suburbs and into parched golden hills, and before we knew it we were off the main highway and passing hand-painted signs advertising red onions, fresh-picked tomatoes, almonds, peaches and nectarines. Our eyes lingered on the weather-beaten stands, where we could see shiny red mounds of tomatoes and green mountains of watermelons, but we pressed on.

We reached Yosemite as the sun was setting, picked up our trail permit, pitched our tent, cooked a quick camp supper and went to bed.

Our plan was to get up early, hike more than halfway up -- to the highest source of water on the Half Dome trail -- and camp, thereby minimizing the distance we would have to cover the next day before making our assault on the peak. If you're young and strong, or old and foolhardy, you can hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome and back in a day. In previous trips to Yosemite we had met people who had done just that; they would leave at daybreak and plan to get back around dusk. But we wanted to take it easy on ourselves. We also had built in an extra day so that if for any reason we couldn't make Half Dome the first time, we would have a second chance, so we weren't in any hurry.

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The next day took longer than we had planned -- as it invariably does. By the time we had gotten the kids rousted and had packed up our tents and ground covers and cooking gear, it was about 10 a.m and the sun was high and hot in the sky.

We set off along the John Muir Trail, winding into the rocks and pines. The first section of this trail is still a little like Disneyland, and you pass people in flip-flops and even occasionally high heels, sweating and puffing and swigging fresh-off-the-supermarket-shelf bottles of Crystal Geyser.

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After about a half hour's stroll you reach a picturesque bridge with a fantastic foaming view of the Merced River cascading over the rocks -- and a neat wooden bathroom and a water fountain that is the last source of water that doesn't have to be filtered. The flip-flops and high heels turn back with a grateful sigh at this point, and the few people you do pass hereafter on the trail exchange friendly nods and greetings and the smug satisfaction of getting into the real Yosemite.

Then you walk and you walk and you walk, stepping heavily over rocks, kicking up clouds of dirt that settle on your legs and socks and boots. Occasionally you'll be cooled by a shower of water trickling from high rocks right onto the trail, or by a breeze blowing unexpectedly when you turn a corner. But for the most part you step and mop your brow and swat at mosquitoes in the patches of shade and take swigs of water, careful to roll the water in your mouth as your long-ago football coach taught you, until you're surprised by a dazzling quilt of purple flowers, or a tumbling far-off torrent shining white and silver and blue in the sun, and you stop and munch slowly on Balance bars and dried apples and nectarines and notice how the sunlight waterfalls through the branches of the trees.

After four hours we reached the halfway point at Little Yosemite Valley. It's a popular camping spot with loosely demarcated camping areas -- framed by fallen tree trunks, with rock-outlined fire circles and tree stumps for tables and stools -- plus a resident ranger, an outhouse and easily accessible water in the form of the Merced River fast-flowing by. We hadn't really prepared for the trip physically, and were already grimy and sweaty and exhausted. On top of that, we had received conflicting information about where exactly the last source of water on the trail would be, so rather than press further up, we decided to stop there for the night. Tomorrow we would rise early and climb Half Dome.

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We had planned to get up at 6 and be on the trail by 8. Again, reality intruded, and we got up at 8 and set out for Half Dome around 9:30. This was not wise. We had never hiked this trail before and didn't know how long it would take or what obstacles it would present; besides that, we'd been told that the best time to climb Half Dome is the morning, since clouds tend to come in by the afternoon. Weather changes quickly in the mountains, and you don't want to be anywhere near the summit when the clouds come in, rangers had said. The mountain is a magnet for lightning. All Half Dome hikers are explicitly told that if they see rain clouds on the horizon, they shouldn't attempt the ascent. Lightning strikes the dome at least once every month -- and at least a few careless people every year. Even the cables that run up the final 800 feet of the slope are lightning magnets.

So we wound up through the trees as fast as we could. We passed through deep-shadowed, pine-needled stretches of forest path like places in a fairy tale, and we emerged onto sun-blasted stretches of rock that offered amazing views of the surrounding peaks -- and of Half Dome towering precipitously into the sky.

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We reached the base of Half Dome, after a final, extremely arduous half-hour zigzag trek up a series of massive steps cut out of the stone, at about 1 p.m. Clouds were massing to the east and to the west, but we pressed on. A motley pile of gloves left by previous climbers lay at the spot where the cable walkway began. We chose gloves we liked, grabbed hold of the cables and began to haul ourselves up.

This is when our little lark turned into a grand adventure.

In the pictures we had seen before the trip, the cable route didn't look all that daunting. Basically, they showed a gangplank-like walkway with thick steel cables running along either side that stretched up the slope of the mountain. In the pictures, hikers with day-packs strode confidently up the slope as if they were out for a Sunday stroll.

Somehow the pictures hadn't prepared me for the reality. The cables are set about four feet off the ground and are about three feet apart. As a further aid to climbers, wooden planks connected to the posts that support the cables are set across the mountain-path at an interval of about every four to five feet. This is not as comforting as it sounds.

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I'd read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about 60 degrees. In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall. That doesn't seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room. From the plushness of my couch, with a soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, 60 degrees hadn't seemed too steep -- but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep. I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain -- and I thought, "This is a really stupid way to die."

"Why," I continued, "am I consciously choosing to risk my life like this? What's the point? All it would take would be one slip, a hand loosened from the cables." I could already see myself sliding down the face of Half Dome, grabbing frantically at the smooth surface, thudding-scraping-bumping along the rock until, if I was really lucky, I managed to grab a bloody finger-stub handhold on the rock face or, if I wasn't really lucky, I just slipped off the face of the rock, with all the assembled climbers gasping and screaming and my wife and kids yelling not knowing what to do, how to prevent my fall, and then it would be a brief free-fall flight before bone-crushing oblivion. Hopefully, I thought, I will pass out before contact and die relatively peacefully.

All this flashed through my mind as I stood at the base of the cables. "What are we waiting for?" my daughter asked impatiently.

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"We're waiting until we grow wings," I wanted to say.

But she was ready -- ah, youth, that hath no fear -- and began to scramble up the slope. And then my wife went. And then my son started -- a little apprehensively, being 8 years old and all. But he was on his way. None of them seemed to understand that what we were doing was inherently suicidal!

Still, they were gone, and there really was nothing to do but grab hold of the cables and start to pull myself up this suddenly stupid and hateful mountain.

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The whole thing seemed so absurd -- dying to prove what point? Hadn't I evolved beyond this kind of macho risk-taking decades ago?

Somehow the fact that all kinds of people, from baseball-capped teens to silver-haired seniors, had scrambled up that day and were now headed down the very walkway I was staring up, and that numerous others were perched on the face of the mountain in mid-ascent a dozen yards above me, scrambling up even as I quaked -- somehow this was of no comfort.

I was scared. I wasn't exactly convinced I was going to die -- I thought I probably had a chance of making it alive -- but I felt I was consciously subjecting myself to an experience that could really kill me. This was my idea of a vacation? Whatever happened to a full-service beach resort and little cocktails with bright paper parasols?

But so we started. My first few steps were leaden. My hiking boots kept slipping; my arms, which hadn't done anything all day, suddenly felt dead-tired and couldn't haul up the dead weight of my body. In a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy, I kept slipping and sliding, just as I thought I would. I was utterly miserable.

One thing you should never do -- or at least one thing I should never do -- when climbing Half Dome is look around at the view. The view is what can kill you. You stop and brush your brow with your sleeve and your eyes steal a look to the left and whoa! It's a long, long way down. Your view drops right off the side of the cliff to green trees the size of matchsticks and postage-stamp meadows. You don't want to see this and you definitely don't want to think about it. I swayed and held onto the cables and stayed frozen, letting other climbers brush by me, until the dizziness and the wave-swells in my stomach stopped. My mouth was drier than I could ever remember it being before. My arms ached.

After about 15 wooden planks, my son and I paused. My wife Kuniko looked down from a perch a few posts ahead. "How are you feeling, Jeremy? Do you want to keep going, or do you want to stop?"

"Say you want to stop, Jeremy," I prayed. "For the love of God, tell her you want to stop!"

He was undecided. I was probably green in the face. "How are you doing, honey?" Kuniko asked, concern creasing her face.

"I don't know," I said.

We looked around and saw bulbous black clouds blowing swiftly in. "Maybe we should head down," Kuniko said.

"Yes! Yes!" a little voice inside me said.

"I want to keep going!" Jenny said.

"No, I think we should head down," Kuniko said.

"I think so, too," I said, whining with as much authority as I could muster. "I don't like the look of those clouds."

So, much to Jenny's loud disappointment, we slid down -- which was almost as terrifying as hauling up, except that now your body was helping gravity pull you to your death.

At one point I really did completely slip -- my feet just went out from under me, I landed with a sacroiliac-smacking thud and before I knew what was happening I began to slide down the face of the mountain. Luckily I managed to stomp the sole of one boot squarely against the iron post that supported the cable, thus stopping my fall. Mortality had never seemed nearer.

I lay on the side of the mountain for a few minutes, trying to slow my heart, waiting for my arms to stop shaking.

"Are you all right?" people asked as they stepped gingerly by me.

Then I said to myself, "Just go down slowly, one by one," and I did. And suddenly I was at the bottom, stepping off the last plank onto level rock, and I was sitting down and sluggishly taking off my gloves and Jenny was asking, "Dad, are you OK?"

The hike back to camp seemed about 10 times longer than the morning's walk. My head was black-clouded with doubts and fears about attempting the climb again the next day. What a stupid way to die, I kept thinking.

But at the same time I felt that I had to do it. The kids were going to do it, everyone was doing it -- I couldn't say, "Gee, I think I'll just stay down here and watch."

So even though I knew I was putting my life unnecessarily at risk, I also knew I had to make the climb.

I tossed and turned for hours that night, thinking about that blasted slippery-slope cable walkway. I knew it was virtually all mental, that I was psyching myself into failure. It didn't matter. I couldn't magically find the switch in my mind.

After a fractured sleep we woke up and retraced our path of the previous day. I wish I could say that everything had changed, that I had come to peace with the idea of climbing Half Dome and had found a deep pool of confidence in myself, but I hadn't. I had made up my mind to climb Half Dome, but I was fundamentally unsettled about it all.

Still, everything seemed a little more propitious this time. We got an earlier start and so we were passed by only a handful of day-hikers, which felt good. The sky was a broad expanse of blue, with only a few puffs of white here and there. I was hiking strongly, and we covered the same territory in about an hour less than the previous day. We reached the arduous rocksteps at about 10:30 and were at the glove-heaped base of Half Dome by 11:00. We paused to take some deep swigs of water and eat an energy bar, and then we were ready.

Jeremy and Jenny set off first, fearlessly. Kuniko and I had decided that I would go up next, so that if I slipped, she might be able to help me. I swapped the thick leather gloves I had used the day before for lighter cloth gloves that permitted more feeling in my fingers. That seemed to help some.

I knew it was all mental, but that knowledge wasn't helping much. It was still terrifying. But this time I thought: If you just focus on each step, you'll be OK. Don't think about the slope to the left or the right. Don't think about what's beneath you or how much more you still have to go. Just focus on each step, step by step.

I took my first step and pulled myself up by the cables. Took another step and did the same. Took another step and I was at the first wooden plank.

I repeated the process, planting my foot slowly, making sure it was secure on the rock face before using my arms, then pulling myself up to make the next step. Three steps and I had reached plank No. 2.

It seemed easier than yesterday.

Gradually my body relaxed. The tension left my arms and they didn't ache. The fear left my legs and they were more flexible; I was finding secure sole-holds in the rock. I didn't slip, and I was learning to focus my breathing and energy in discrete spurts of arm-pulling.

The trick, I thought, is to restrict the world to the small plot of rock in front of me and the cables on either side, to extend my arm about 10 inches up the cable, like this, grab tight hold of it, secure my grip, like this, say "OK, now!" and pull -- ugh! and up! -- and then pause a while to catch my breath and coil my energy, and then repeat the process, hauling myself up, step by step.

I reached the point where we had stopped the day before and dimly recorded that it had been much easier so far. If I could just focus on each rung.

I kept pulling myself up, foothold then handhold, plank by plank. At one point, with a quick glance up, I realized that Jenny and Jeremy, who seemed to have sprinted up the slope, had disappeared. They were already running freely around the broad summit. Somewhere inside me, I registered the fact that I was going to make it, too.

There were still a few tricky places -- places where a two-foot fissure appeared between the part of the slope-trail I was on and the slope where the trail continued. Here I had to simultaneously pull myself over the displacement and up the slope, a doubly difficult and slippery task.

But by focusing precisely on what I was doing -- plant the foot there, make sure it's secure, OK, now pull yourself up on the cable, move your other foot forward, pull yourself up again -- I was able to make it without slipping.

There was one particularly steep step where I felt my arms begin to falter and in mid-stride I felt my body begin to sway backward, as if my arms weren't going to be able to pull my body up. Death flickered in my brain and in a millisecond I thought, "You've GOT to pull yourself up" and the adrenaline zapped through my arms like lightning and I forced myself -- brain and arms pulling together -- to the next rung. The prospect of death had glimmered, but it hadn't paralyzed me as the day before.

After about 25 minutes I reached the point where the summit begins to taper off and the angle eases. Another ten wooden planks and the end of the ascent was in sight.

I almost ran the last few steps, so exhilarated to have made it to the top. Jenny and Jeremy saw me from their post at the peak and came jumping over the summit. We gave each other big bear hugs.

"You made it, Dad!" they said.

In another few minutes Kuniko came to the top, grinning widely.

We explored the summit, took in the extraordinary 360-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks, piney slopes, glistening waterfalls and green meadows far below.

And we felt on top of the world.

We shared a celebratory chocolate bar I had stuffed in my pocket, and after a half hour snapping photos and walking to the extreme compass points of the peak, we heard thunder to the east and saw black clouds massing, moving with deceptive speed our way.

We shared a huge family hug and set off.

Jenny and Jeremy fairly skipped down the slope -- or at least that's the way it seemed to me. I slipped and slid -- three times I slowly let myself down on the seat of my pants from one rung to another -- but never lost control and within about a half hour I was standing again on level rock, tossing my gloves into the heap, my heart pounding wildly and my head splitting-spinning with the triumph.

I had done it! I had overcome all those fear-boulders that we throw up in front of ourselves, that keep us from doing the things we are capable of doing.

We had climbed Half Dome, and from now on, whenever we looked at that stunning granite jut from afar, we would have the joyful and astounding knowledge that we had once stood on that very peak, looking down on the whole world around us. We had conquered the slippery slope of Half Dome, and we would have much to celebrate that night.

It seemed symbolic of so many things in life, and I was just beginning to enjoy the light-footed walk back to camp and to feel the success suffuse my body from the top of my head to the tips of my fingers and toes, when Jeremy turned to me and said, "Dad, can we do this again next year?"


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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