Glimpsing the cables for the first time, my eyes filled with tears, an involuntary and unwelcome response to the daunting task ahead. We’re going to climb that? No way. No freaking way. I wasted no time verbalizing this opinion, stating that not only was I not going to climb the cables, but no one was. Zach immediately fell silent, uncertain exactly how to break it to me that he definitely was going to the top. My dad was less sensitive. Are you kidding me? I didn’t come this far to turn around here. Defeated, my eyes drifted downward as I thought about the day. We had been hiking for 5 hours, covering 8 miles and nearly a mile of vertical climb. Remarkably, the physical demands of this hike were not the issue here. After hiking nearly every day for the last two months, I was adequately prepared. But my unanticipated physiological response to the heights and danger of the cables stopped me dead in my tracks.
This particular hike had been looming for nearly four months, the one and only thing that we had planned and scheduled before our trip began. Yosemite’s infamous permitting system was the culprit here. They no longer grant unfettered access to the iconic Dome’s summit, rather allowing only 400 people per day.* This number is deceiving, however, as climbing the cables of Half Dome is no joke. It’s not for the weak or the lazy and it is definitely not for the clumsy or, as I was to realize, those with a fear of heights. At least three people have died this summer alone, falling hundreds of feet from the towering granite summit. To ensure our place on the Dome that day, we had reserved permits months ago. My dad and uncle had flown out from NJ to spend the week with us and, of course, make this incredible climb.
I quietly announced that I would not be going with them to the top. I could tell Zach was considering offering some words of encouragement but he said nothing, unsure if pushing me at this moment was the right thing to do. Filled with jealously, I watched my dad and Zach march confidently towards the final ascent. How could they be so calm when I was filled with such crippling fear? I turned around and sat down. I considered for a moment hiking back down the most recent bout of stairs, feeling I could not even watch them go up. After a minute of sitting there by myself, I experienced a hint of the regret that was sure to consume me if I failed to accomplish this final task. I stood up, put my gloves on and began walking towards the cables, trying to hold my head up as much as possible. But a quick glance toward the vertical climb stopped me once again. The internal struggle that ensued over the next 40 seconds surely made me look schizophrenic. Pacing back and forth, my mind raced in a frantic effort to make a decision. Soon, they would begin their ascent and if I changed my mind after that I’d have to make the climb by myself. Almost as suddenly as I decided I couldn’t go, I decided I absolutely HAD to go.
Whether it would come by hiking through the heart of grizzly country, going off trail in unknown terrain or climbing a 45 degree pitch of exposed granite with nothing but a measly cable and my own strength to keep me from falling, I knew this trip would push my limits. I accepted this as part of the deal, coming neatly packaged with a destination unknown. Perhaps what I didn’t anticipate was how intense and emotional these struggles would be. And the fact that some of the most rewarding moments of the trip for me have come after a successful confrontation with these fears.
For us, this particular confrontation came at an appropriate time, as this unforgettable day in Yosemite Valley marked our 100th day on the trip. With the summiting of Half Dome checked off our list, we turn now to the next big challenge on the horizon: the border crossing in Tijuana. It seems only natural that just as we start getting the hang of things in the U.S., just as we hit our stride, we will once again thrust ourselves into the unknown. As we await a new country, new language and new culture, we feel ready for the challenges ahead. Though it’s always hard to shake the feeling that we could and should have done more, it’s time now to be confident in the many months spent researching and planning for this phase of the trip.
*If 400 people seems like a lot, you are absolutely right. Half Dome is not a hike chosen for its solitude and remoteness. Reaching the top can feel like a Jersey mall during the holidays. There are scores of people, eating lunch, taking silly photos and talking on their cell phones (yes, you even get cell service up there). Prior to the permitting system, the summit could see as many as 1200 people in a given day.