Monday, May 18, 2009

Half Dome: New old pictures and a repost

A friend from seminary posted a couple of pictures from the famous hike to the top of Half Dome. I've stolen them from him to post here. :) I don't think he'll mind.

In this photo, we're on the way to top, taking a break. I'm in the front on the right-hand side, in case it isn't obvious.

And here's proof that we made it to the top...well, I guess you'll have to take my word for it if you haven't been there yourself.

And below, I'm republishing a post from the first blog that I wrote about four years ago. It was a post that gave me my first real glimpse of the power writing had to change my life. The memory of that hike helped empower me in some very important ways. I'm so grateful to be reminded yet again of that great experience.

Half Dome

I used to have a poster print of a famous Ansel Adams photo of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It was displayed in my office for years, a reminder of the most difficult and rewarding hike of my life. I often looked at the photo with a great sense of accomplishment and pride in what I achieved the day I reached the summit.

The Half Dome hike is about 17 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of about 5000 feet. A lot of the trail consists of steep stone stairs. Near the top, the grade lessens, but the distance is increased over a long series of switchbacks. The last 400 yards is straight up a sheer granite face at a 45-degree angle. To get to the summit hikers have to grasp two taut cables in their hands while carefully climbing cable rungs that are fastened to the rock.

The scenery is amazing. Ansel Adams has popularized many of the more magnificent views in black and white photos of the area. There are few places I've been that match Yosemite in its number of breathtaking, awe-inspiring scenes. Along the trail to Half Dome's summit, hikers are treated to several beautiful waterfalls (depending on the time of year), a crystal clear river, flora and fauna of many varieties, much of which remains unspoiled in spite of heavy foot traffic along the trail.

I started the hike with a group of friends early one summer morning. We camped out at a friend's house near the park entrance the night before to be sure we could start as soon as there was enough light. There were about 10 of us, allowing for hikers of varying fitness levels to stay in different groups without slowing down the stronger hikers.

Hiking is usually a solitary activity for me, but I stayed with some friends in the front group for most of the hike. Occasionally I dropped back or pushed ahead a few yards to have some time to myself. I hiked up the trail moving from one group of friends to another, enjoying a chance to get to know them better, then taking some time to myself to enjoy the beauty of the valley.

At various points along the trail, beautiful sweeping views of the Yosemite Valley are opened up through gaps in the trees. Each one invited us to rest. I was consumed with the landscape. As I looked out at the horizon, I measured the increase in elevation from the last view, wondering how much farther we had to go. The density of the forest and the position on the adjoining mountainside make it difficult to keep Half Dome in view for a large part of the hike. All that we had to assure us that we were headed in the right direction were a well-maintained trail and other hikers who were coming and going along the way.

Just before the switchbacks start, there is an opening that beautifully frames Half Dome, teasing hikers with a view that makes it seem just minutes away. As I recall, we were still about an hour and a half from the the final climb to the summit. The muscles in my legs were burning and shaky when I reached the cables. I wasn't sure I could make the climb, but I couldn't give up. I put on some leather gloves, positioned myself in between friends, and slowly started the ascent up the cables. My fear of heights overwhelmed me at several points and I froze, unable to move up or down. Each time a friend from behind reminded me to look at the rock in front of me and nothing else. If I looked up, I got dizzy. If I looked down, I started shaking. From time to time, I would have to let go of one cable to make room for a hiker coming down the face. Accustomed to repelling and having a rope to hold me in place or catch me if I fell, the experience of being on the side of a slick piece of granite with no harness or safety rope frightened me terribly. As I came to the last cable rung and saw that one step up would put me on flat ground, I reached with every ounce of energy I had left to hoist myself to the top. A few steps forward brought me to the rock's edge and the most spectacular view I've ever seen.

I couldn't breath. When I looked up, I saw nothing but sky and clouds and solitary birds circling in the wind. The sky was bluer and the clouds closer than any I'd ever seen. When I looked out, I saw the vastness of the Yosemite Valley stretching for miles in front of and around me. Trees and rocks blurred together, creating a view much like an impressionist painting. Though surrounded by friends, I felt completely alone, invisible, humbled. I found conversation impossible, so I walked to a place where I could sit alone for a few minutes. I contemplated the landscape and felt myself slowly disappear, swallowed up in a place bigger than me, a place so enormous that it was scarcely aware of my presence. I didn't want to leave.

It had taken us five hours to reach the summit from the trailhead. Some of the group stayed behind at a rest area just before the switchbacks. They were worn out and tired from the hike up, so they decided to conserve what energy they had left for the return trip. There wasn't much time to stay on the summit. We rested awhile and started the descent. When we reached the group waiting for us, someone suggested that a few of us hike ahead to catch the last shuttle bus to our cars in order to avoid increasing our hike by another two miles. Two others and I agreed to retrieve the cars. We started down the trail, moving swiftly and carefully.

I walked on ahead of them for awhile to think about the experience of reaching the summit. I could hear my friends playfully arguing about some weighty theological issue. I stayed just aware enough of their banter to know that I was not losing them. My vision was narrowed by my thoughts. I had little awareness of what was around me except for the trail directly ahead.

An hour or so down the trail, I was startled back into a keen sense of my surroundings when I heard in a quiet, but stern voice, "Don't move!" I stopped dead in my tracks, just in time to hear a rattle. I carefully surveyed the area around me. My eyes landed on a rattlesnake about a foot ahead and to my right, ready to strike. My arms and hands drew up in a defensive move as my body pulled back. All the blood drained from my face, leaving me pale and cold. I stood motionless. One of the friends behind me walked in an arc to my left so that he could get down-trail and warn other hikers to stop. The other friend, still about six or seven feet behind me, reached down to pick up several rocks. One by one, he threw the rocks to make noise in the leaves on the ground behind the snake, eventually scaring it away. Assured that the snake was gone, I finally moved. I walked back to my friend and collapsed in his arms as he hugged me. Other hikers joined us, led by the friend who had gone down-trail to warn them. The friends excitedly recounted the details of our encounter with the snake.

Speechless again, I quietly contemplated how the guys who were so far behind me saw the snake before I did. I pulled myself together and started back down the trail. We reached a calm pool in the river a few minutes later. The guys wanted to swim for awhile, so we took a break. I sat down on a rock at the river's edge and watched them, still aware of my increased pulse and shallow breathing. The sun was shining through the tops of the trees, warming me as I laid back on the rock. I took deep breaths, in and out, to calm myself. I slipped my shoes and socks off and dropped my aching feet into the icy river, slowly swinging them in circles to keep the blood flowing. The river refreshed us, and the warm sun and cool rock calmed me.

We got back on the trail. I was tired and sore. My knees ached from the strain of climbing down stairs. No longer able to escape into my thoughts, I was hypnotized by the steady rhythm of my steps. I would stop for a few minutes and start up again, trying to keep my stiffening muscles from freezing. When I felt like I couldn't take another step, I remembered our plans to stop for ice cream on the drive home. The hike ended at the shuttle bus stop with ten minutes to spare. We returned to the trailhead with our cars to meet an excited group of friends as they emerged from the trail. The drive home was energized by each one's tales of conquering fear and fatigue. Our lives were joined by a common experience, our friendships forged along the steep, rocky trail, deepened by the joint effort to get everyone up and back again safely.