Half Dome: Part Three

(Flip back to Part One and Part Two of the story to see what you missed.)

So here we were at the base of the Half Dome cables, which, just as advertised, were not officially up for the season, but were instead just laying flat against the face of the rock. And off on the horizon, grayish and not-too-pleasant clouds seemed to be gathering and, more importantly, heading our way. So we decided to get up to the top and back down before we took an extended break for lunch instead of our original plan of having lunch first.

And despite the fact that the climb was not officially open, there were probably a couple dozen other brave adventurers around us in various stages of the climb: some already going up, a couple already heading down, the rest of us either readying ourselves for the climb or recovering from the finished effort. And it was then that we noticed a few things:

  • We were under the impression (from various readings and anecdotes) that it was about a 45 degree climb up the side of Half Dome. And this was indeed true—for the very first part of the ascent, where it was just picking up from the saddle between Sub Dome and Half Dome. But then it got steeper. And not just for a little while, but basically the entire rest of the way until just short of the top, at which point it flattened out again…

  • …and standing at the base of the ascent, we finally realized just how high a climb we had left. 400-something feet up the side of this giant hunk of rock, in fact. Reading it and saying it is one thing. Standing at the bottom of it and looking at what felt like straight up at it was quite another thing altogether. Oh. Dear. Lord.

  • One thing we noticed was that a number of other (smarter?) climbers had clipped themselves (via carabiners) to the cables with a short length of rope, with the other end attached to either a double-length of rope around their waist or to a safety belt. Pretty smart, as it gave them an extra point of contact. Us? No such safety line. Our entire means of safety was our ability to hold onto the steel cables and pull ourselves up and down them. That’s it. One slip of the grip or one loss of footing, and adios—and in a rather permanent way.

So, of course, we started up anyway.

Seriously? This was really a good idea?

Rather, I should say my sweetie started up, as there was never any doubt in her mind that she was going to the top come hell or high water. Me, I was a bit less sure—and by “a bit”, I mean it was 50-50 as to whether I’d even make the attempt. But in the end, I started up behind her.

The first 50 feet or so were okay for me. Then it got steeper. And, of course, it got higher. And it’s not like there are any convenient places to stop on the way up—you’re basically left with finding little ledges and crevices (some only an inch or so wide) on which to perch yourself for a couple of minutes to catch your breath. And these havens are infrequently spaced along the side of the rock, averaging maybe every 50 feet or so. About a hundred feet up or so, I discovered something about myself…

…and that is that I am apparently deathly afraid of exposed heights. Now I don’t have a problem with heights in general—the higher, the better, in most cases. As long as there’s solid ground beneath my feet, bring it on. But as I was perched on an inch-wide sliver of rock, hugging the side of this gigantic hunk of granite 100-some-odd feet above where we started, I made the epic mistake (as it turned out) of looking down—and I froze. The wind, the height, the realization (again) that I was the only thing keeping myself from falling… it all hit me, and I about peed my pants at this point.

Well, crap.

My sweetie was apparently having no such issues, as she had sped a bit ahead of me. Another 50 feet or so up the climb, my arms decided that they were starting to get tired. Ho–… ly… shit. I am so going to fall. I called up to her and told her that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up, as my arms were just burning. (Tell me again why I haven’t been going to the gym? Anyhoo…) And she could hear the quite real fear in my voice and told me (and rightly so) that if I wasn’t absolutely sure, I had to turn around. And I have to say that right at that point, I was about to start back down. But at the last minute, something made me pause, and that same something told me that I’d be kicking myself for however long if I didn’t do this. A very macho and very stupid something apparently, but it won out. So very lamely rationalizing it to her (“but you don’t have the camera!”) (or perhaps I was further rationalizing it to myself), I took a very deep breath and hauled ass as fast and as steadily as I could muster to the next waypoint I had picked further up the rock.

And that’s how it went: I’d reach one of these minuscule places to pause, pick my next minuscule place to pause (which usually involved me calling up to her “how far til the next ledge?”), take a deep breath, then power up hand-over-hand as quickly and as steadily as I could manage, never stopping and (God forbid) never looking around or down until I got there. At which point I would stop, quite literally hug the side of the mountain, and hope and pray that I could make it to the next waypoint.

Did I mention that my sweetie was apparently having no such issues? ’cause she wasn’t, as she soon climbed out of my sight as she passed over the steepest part and onto the flatter shoulder just short of the summit. I could still hear her (and thank God for that, as knowing she was ahead of me was the only reason I could keep going at this point), and with her encouragement, I finally passed over this steepest section myself. A short scramble up the shoulder (which gave me no issues, as I could once again place both feet solidly down on the rock and more or less walk myself up), and I was… rather, we were finally there. 8800 feet up in the air and on top of Half Dome.

Looking across (and down at!) Yosemite Valley from atop Half Dome.

Looking upstream (and again, down at!) the Merced River valley from atop Half Dome.

We may as well have been on top of the world. It was glorious.

(On to the big finale…)