(Longer than usual post, but an important story.)
Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome is not for the faint of heart. It’s challenging. That’s why I set the goal to do it this year.
We set out at 7:00am yesterday to do the 8.5 mile mountain hike to the base of Half Dome. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy as we approached the top. Pete had done this before and was willing to lead me up the final stretch – two cold steel cables anchored in the rock, with wooden boards spaced 8 feet apart to help with footing. Traction is usually not a problem with good shoes on rough granite. I put on my leather gloves, pulled the drawstring a little tighter on my hood, and started the ascent with my buddy Pete eight steps in front of me.
We made it about half way up, roughly 200 feet. That’s when the hailstorm started. Hail? How did a 20% chance of precipitation turn into a hailstorm?! I set this goal back in January, to hike a total of17 miles including the summit of Half Dome. Now Mother Nature was throwing me an icy curve ball. But when the going gets tough, I’m supposed to keep going, right?
We were scaling a nearly vertical granite wall like Batman and Robin climbing up a Gotham building, but there were no funny celebrities opening the window to say hello. Instead we were being passed by inexperienced and underdressed tourists as they slowly slid by us on the way down. Yosemite is crowded with hundreds of hikers in June… but this was not what I expected. I’m confident in my own strength, but didn’t anticipate the lack of strength in those around me, the narrowness of the two cables, and oh yeah… the wet, pea-sized hail. This was indeed turning into a dangerous situation. If anyone fell, they could easily take me down with them. Looking left and right I realized there was nothing to stop a slide down the sheer stone wall. I looked up ahead, to see an unmoving mass of at least 100 people disappearing into the cold, cloudy mist. No pain, no gain, right?
As the storm began to get worse, fear began to ripple through the long line of descenders. Fear of lightning made the people at the top yell down at the others to hurry. The yelling created even more panic. A young girl in sandals slipped right beside me. She reached up to grab the cable with one hand. My gut instinct was to reach out to help her. But both my hands were locked in a grip on my own cable holding my full body weight, so I could not reach her. She luckily got helped up by a guy just behind her. Don’t tell anyone, but my determination just turned to fear.
When I got to the next board, I looked up at Pete. I don’t know what was showing the most tension, the steel cable or Pete’s face. “Hey Dave, are you SURE you want to do this?” He had done it 3 times before, and didn’t want to deprive me of getting there my first time. But I got the hint. It was up to me to turn around or keep going.
I remember asking another hiker earlier if the summit was worth it, and he had said “Oh yeah, you don’t want to come this far and NOT go to the top!” But now that I was hanging on a slippery granite cliff in a hailstorm, every step seemed to have a diminishing return. I looked up at the mob of people disappearing into the mist above, which obscured any view I might have had from the top anyway. Pete looked me in the eye one more time, “It’s up to you Dave, but I really don’t think it’s worth it.” That was my moment of truth. I wisely chose the better part of valor, and we retreated back down to the base.
I wish this story had a happy ending. We eventually made it down to the valley floor just fine, but 20 minutes after we left the cables, sadly, one of the other hikers did not. We saw the helicopters and rangers hustling up the trail, and got the final news when we reached bottom. My heart goes out to the family of the guy who didn’t make it. It also served as a sobering reminder that I made the right decision to turn back when I did.
I was expecting to learn a lesson yesterday about how to keep going when the going is rough, but I actually learned the opposite… when to stop. I’ve always heard that if you really want to do something, model after someone who’s done it before. But the same goes for knowing when to change course. My fellow thrill seekers: when something just doesn’t feel right, I encourage you to trust your instincts and more importantly trust the person who’s been there before. What is your life worth to your family?
Thanks again, Pete.