Life As We Know It: May 26, 2014
Nobody I know has a more abiding love for the great outdoors than my daughter.
Sheila, now living in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and two beautiful children, practically grew up in Yosemite National Park. No temple made with human hands, John Muir once wrote, can compare with Yosemite.
Sheila loves the place, regardless of the time of year. The roaring waterfalls of spring and early summer, the brilliant colors of Yosemite Valley in the fall, and the quiet stillness of a snowy winter give each season a special beauty.
Towering over us on every visit was Half Dome, a massive mountain of granite left behind after glaciers carved out the magnificent valley. We were aware that people climbed the thing on its rounded back side, with the help of cables at the very top, But it was never anything I figured we would actually try to do. I figured wrong.
Not long ago Sheila issued a challenge to her dad. “I’m going to climb Half Dome,” she said. “And so are you.”
So there we were, Sheila and her husband Kevin, both 41, and me, somewhat older, standing at the Happy Isles trail head at 5:30 a.m., ready for our assault on Yosemite’s most iconic landmark.
We were looking at a 16-mile round trip, roughly 7-½ miles up, most of it on the Mist Trail, and 8-½ miles back down on the John Muir Trail. Along the way we would experience almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and we were trekking on what would be Yosemite’s hottest day of the summer -- 96 degrees.
At times the steep grade was almost more than my old legs could bear,. Early in the trek we had to climb 700 rocky steps up to and past Vernal Falls. Occasionally we rested, usually to refill our water bottles from the Merced River or a small stream near the trail, purifying before drinking.
The round trip should take 10 to 12 hours, our guide book said, in order to be back in the valley by nightfall. A couple of hours in, we were behind the recommended pace.
By mid-morning, my son-in-law, hauling a heavy backpack, was wearing down. Eventually he decided, wisely, that he would stop. I pressed on with my daughter.
Finally, what’s known as the “sub dome” appeared, a smaller version of Half Dome which must be traversed to reach the infamous cables. Traversing the sub dome means climbing another 800 steps of varying heights cut into the granite. There are no handrails and the steps are so narrow they require single-file passage. One good bump from a passing backpack and somebody in Toledo would be writing my obituary.
After seven miles of climbing, my legs had turned to jelly. I made a decision to stop. Sheila, physically fit and with the strong legs of a skier, did not. We hugged, and I watched her head up the sub dome’s endless switchbacks.
It was her dream of a lifetime -- her Mt. Everest -- to reach the top. At the cables, which are anchored in the granite, she pulled herself up -- at a 45-degree angle -- the last 500 feet to the summit.
Then we started back down, another eight miles downhill, which was just as tough as the climb up.
What should have taken us 10 hours took 14, but we have a shared experience we will never forget.
I learned something important about myself that day. I pushed my body beyond any physical barrier I could ever have imagined confronting at my age. More importantly, watching Sheila’s triumph taught me something about a father’s love. Her success meant that I had not failed. We had both climbed the mountain.