Ain't No Mountain High Enough
My biological clock is ticking. It’s not about starting a family. It’s about starting to do the things I’ve always wanted to do before my body says, “Not so fast, sister.”
I love hiking, exploring and a good challenge. So I take one on.
For my 55th birthday I tell my trusted sherpa and husband, Gary, that I want to climb Half Dome in Yosemite.
It’s the ultimate hike with an Insanity Rating of 9 out of 10. It has been said that it’s the one hike you have to do before you die. And the one you’re most likely to die doing.
To climb this crazy gigantic monolith you need a permit from the National Park Service lottery system. Most people apply online during the pre-season lottery, March 1-31, in hopes of securing a date for the late May to early October climbing period.
We miss the initial application period – too much procrastination and daily distractions – but enter the daily lottery. The hitch: if you win a permit, you must hike Half Dome the very next day. And, if it is summer, campsites along the trail are almost sure to be reserved, requiring the 14.2 mile round-trip hike be completed in one day.
In mid-June, I come home from work and Gary tells me we hit the jackpot: We scored a permit.
We quickly pack bags and day packs, jump in the car and drive five hours from Los Angeles to Yosemite. We pick up our permit at a ranger station, sleep in a tent, and then wake at 3 a.m. to begin our hike up the Mist Trail.
It’s cold and completely dark. All I see is the shafts of light from our headlamps as we start the 7.5-mile trail up to the base of Half Dome.
It’s not an easy hike. There’s an elevation gain of 4,800 feet from Yosemite Valley floor to the top. In other words, it’s nearly all up hill.
I know I can do this.
A few miles in my muscles start aching, but when the sun rises over the peaks a feeling of joy washes over me and provides an added boost. So do the roar of waterfalls.
We hike across meadows and through trees until we emerge into a clearing.
There, before us in the distance, is an imposing granite monster with what look like tiny ants crawling up the backside to the top. Those, I realize, are the other hikers. I start second guessing myself. I’m hot and exhausted. I’m looking up and thinking, “Maybe I can’t do it.”
We scramble up and across stone switchbacks and finally make it to the base of Half Dome. That’s when it gets real.
Younger hikers on the way down swagger past us, echoing the comment of a park ranger checking permits.
“Don’t sit too long looking at it,” they say, “you’ll back down.
“You gotta go for it.”
They toss us their gloves, adding, “They’ll give you a better grip on the cables.”
With every ounce of courage I pull on my daypack and walk toward the steel cables running through poles planted about shoulder width apart all the way up to the top.
“I’m right behind you,” reassures Gary. He looks as uncertain as I feel.
The summit is only 400 feet away, but it’s the most challenging 400 feet of the entire hike – and of my life. What the hell was I thinking?
I don’t stop. I don’t look up. I just go. One foot in front of the other, holding on for dear life. All I can think about is getting to the top.
My adrenalin is in overdrive, my heart is beating like thunder as I ascend in 10- to 12-foot increments to rickety-wood planks between the cable poles.
Ten very vertical feet from the top, my hands and arms shake from fatigue. I’m frozen. I can’t catch my breath. I don’t think I can go on.
“You can do it," people at the top yell encouragingly. “You’re almost there!”
But I can’t move.
“You’re okay,” Gary says from behind. “Just breathe. Just breathe.” It was like Lamaze class, but I was at nearly 9,000 feet and clutching steel cables.
I’m not quite sure how, but I summon the strength to pull myself up and take the last steps to the summit. Other hikers cheer as tears roll down my face.
I take a few minutes to catch my breath, and then I start to realize what the hell I just did. An amazing sense of accomplishment and euphoria overcomes me. My mind – and every ounce of my body -- has been tested. I feel powers I never knew I had.
I think, If I can do this, I can do anything… and I will.
The clock is ticking.
Top Three Tips for Hiking Half Dome
- Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Read everything you can online about the hike before going. Starting with this National Park Service video.
- Try to secure your permit through the pre-season lottery. Unlike the Daily Lottery, you'll have time to reserve accommodations and arrive a day or two early to rest for the hike.
- Get on the trail by 4 a.m.. You'll want to be hiking down by early afternoon to minimize the chance of encountering storms.