This is Part 2 of 4, about the true stories of climbing up and down Half Dome.
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[In case you have not read Part 1, here are the links to Part 1’s blog, video (that has the most videos and photos of Yosemite), and podcast.]
Half Dome, a unique stand-alone colossal piece of granite, has its own magic. There is nothing like Half Dome anywhere else in the world. People die climbing Half Dome every year. But it is so awe inspiring, some people climb it again and again.
Towards the peak, the elevation gain was more than 1,000 feet within less than one mile. After strenuously climbing up a very steep rocky trail to the top of the Base Dome, looking up at the climbers on the hanging chains of Half Dome, they all looked exactly like a line of ants.
Climbing Half Dome is symbolic of life experience: it takes endurance to get there, it takes perseverance to climb the Sub Dome, and it takes faith and will power, as well as mental, psychological and physical strength to reach the top. But perhaps more challenging, is descending gracefully and graciously after achieving the apex. Both ascension and descension require overcoming fear and self doubt. It is more psychological than physical.
Perhaps I overestimated the difficulty for climbing Half Dome and over prepared for it, after hearing from people who had previously climbed it how scared they felt. I did invoke my faith at the steepest part of the climb while using chains to pull my entire body upwards about 120 degree incline with my arms and hands (using sticky gloves) on the chains. I was saying along each step: “Lord. Be. With. Me.”, until reaching the next wooden bar to step on and rest. I really did not find it very difficult to climb up.
Standing on top of Half Dome felt like standing in the clouds, gaining God’s view, and feeling God’s breath. Cheek to cheek with the vast blue sky and the brilliant white clouds, prayers CAME TO ME automatically, without wanting or thinking about praying. I called out to the sky above: “God! …Oh My God!… Thank you!”
I realized why it was from the top of the mountain that God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, why Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount, why the prophets appeared on mountain tops, and why Jesus went to the wilderness (instead of a man-made temple) after his baptism, for 40 days and 40 nights, and was tempted there by demons there.
At 8,800 feet above sea level, the view of the glacier-carved deep valley was breathtaking. Only the grand hands of God could have broken solid granites so wide and deep. It was awe-striking.
On top of the Dome, there was a large area of unmelted snow. My friend Gary, who led his own son and 6 employees to the top, and who climbed Half Dome about seven times before, joked: “Good for downhill skiing!” Yeah, that would be the jump of a lifetime.
Climbing down Half Dome backward while holding onto the chains turned out to be easy for me, but not as easy for many others. I had warned my son several times not to look down, and he obeyed. I looked down a couple of times, and was not a bit scared. I found the granite under my boots quite assuring, and the chains through my sticky gloves coordinated with my confident steps. I had to warn myself not to descend too fast, but to take my time to make sure each step is solidly grounded before taking the next step downwards. I waited for my son above me, kept telling him “You are doing great!” “You are doing great, Daley.”
Below me, there was a family of mom, dad, and two young teenage children. I could hear the middle aged dad and husband saying to his kids and wife: “Yes, keep your feet on the board, … rest if you need to…” “Mom is doing OK? “ and she answered: ”Yes.” He kept asking his wife and kids, over and over again, and the wife kept answering “Yes, I’m OK”. He was trying to make them feel less afraid and more protected, until they all safely reached the bottom of the chains. Hearing his loving voice was assuring to all of us on the chains, even though we were not his intended audience. What a great husband, father, and all around American guy!
While I was on the chains waiting for my son, to my big surprise, a few young men were descending the steep rock without even using the chains! Looking closely, I found them to be rock climbers. They had been climbing the face of Half Dome since morning, in a “bare knuckle” fashion, with only their ropes, many carabiners (or hooks), and other rock climbing gear. After reaching the top they were descending now at about 4pm, briskly walking down the steep granite with the agility of a mountain goat. They exuded confidence, pride, and satisfaction. I could not even imagine how challenging it would be for them to rock-climb the face of Half Dome! All of these young men were short, lean, muscular and tanned. Their BMI must be around 18, without any trace of extra weight.
One of them allowed me to take a photo of him. I felt completely fine letting go of my grip on the chains, taking out my cell from my fanny pack around my waist, taking a few snapshots, and putting my phone back, with only my feet on the wooden board across the bottom of the chains on the huge slab of granite about 100 degree vertical.
My son was hanging onto the chains for dear life, holding both chains with both hands with gloves and both arms, and his upper body stretched out over the chains. His body language told me that he was scared. He later recalled that he was feeling gravity pulling him down. Slowly he came down, and completed the last step at the bottom of the chains. What a sigh of relief!
It was late in the afternoon, we took our time on top of the Sub Dome and lingered a little too long. Everyone gradually left, we were the only ones left up there. All the sun bleached granite rocks started to look the same, in all directions. Where is the trail going down?
We could not find the trail. For a while, we both felt the fear of being stuck half way on Half Dome, and there was nobody around. No one could hear us. The night there would be so cold that it would be unsurvivable without bringing our below zero degree sleeping bags.
Thanks to my previous training, I remembered that when lost, the first thing to do is to sit down and relax. Have something to eat or drink. Then start to think, and do not let panic hijack thinking about and recalling solutions. So I said to Daley: “Let’s sit down and relax.” I then quoted FDR: “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” He snorted.
My eyes were searching for anything that would look different from all the other rocks that would mark the trail down. Among the randomly scattered slaps of weathered granite rocks, there seems to be a patterned layout at the front right, about 70 feet away. I said to Daley: “That looks man-made, let’s check it out.” Indeed, it was a man-made path leading downward. We found the trail!
Descending the vertically steep rocky steps of the Sub Dome, with only granite rocks on one side to hold onto, was not a cakewalk. There was no margin for error: miss or stumble even one step, you can lose balance and fall to your death. I led my son with my example of extreme caution, and kept telling him: “slow and steady.” “One step at a time”. “Lean inside onto the rocks.” “Slow and steady.” “Watch out here, don’t slip..”
At the bottom, after completing the last step, we threw our arms in the air and screamed: “We did it! We did it!!” We hugged and hugged. I said this to my son: “Daley, you did it! If you can climb Half Dome, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
That night, I had some strange and scary dreams. Even though consciously I did not feel fear when climbing up and down Half Dome, my subconscious was feeling and processing certain fear only revealed in my dreams.
I can understand why some people go to climb Half Dome again and again. There is hardly a better way to deal with one’s own fears, self doubts, and demons. The feeling of cheating or beating death with one’s own efforts empowers and uplifts one’s spirit. There are also thrill-seekers, of course.
Two friends of mine filled my four-person wilderness permit by day-hiking Half Dome and returning home the same day. The National Park Service considers ascending the 4,800 feet and traveling the minimum 14.5 miles to Half Dome’s summit from the Valley, “one of the most challenging day hikes in any national park.” Both of them had climbed Half Dome before, one of them multiple times.
For 15 years I was trying to climb Half Dome. At first, I couldn’t go due to my rotator cuff injuries resulting from being hit by snowboarders from behind while skiing in Tahoe. I was leading a boy scout co-ed high adventure crew, but I could not make it to Half Dome since the most dangerous part needed powerful arms to pull the body up. It took five years for my shoulders to recover, and then I could not get the permit. At 62, I finally got the permit. For half a year before this trip, I was training weekly to climb mountains and lifting weights, to make my dream come true.
I can do it again and again if I want to. But there are more unexplored places for me to go, with finite time and physical capacity remaining, Half Dome for me, once is enough.
On the way back to the campsite, I prayed to God for good weather the next day, when we would hike up Clouds Rest. “Please God, please hold the rain, and let us see Clouds Rest.” Little did I know how close we were to being struck by lightning on top of Clouds Rest the next day.
Stay tuned to Part 3 coming up, or read it on 10PlusBrand.com/blogs.
To watch part 3 as a video (that has way more spectacular videos and photos of Yosemite)
To read part 3 as a blog
To listen to part 3 as a podcast
© Joanne Z. Tan (Written June 22 – July 6, 2023) All photos by Joanne Tan or her designee. All videos by Joanne Tan, all rights reserved.