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The wind was beginning to pick up and it was getting chilly, so Andy, who had taken the lead, suggested that we head down the rock so we could start the 8-mile journey back to the car. After all, we still had a five-hour drive ahead of us that evening.
I changed my socks, strapped on my backpack and got ready to leave. I knew going back down the cables was going to be fun, but I almost forgot something very important. The rock! It was still in my backpack and. I told the others and asked them to wait while I found the perfect spot to leave the rock.
I set it on a boulder and took pictures of it for the memorial. Then, I left it there, along with the painful comment that nearly destroyed my life. I didn’t even look back. It was no longer my burden.
I walked toward the cables with what I had dubbed the “Fellowship,” Andy, Bre, Mike, and our new addition, Ms. Rosemarie, who had decided to ride back to L.A. with us.
I was again first to get on the cables. Going down wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The biggest challenge getting down was the crowd. There were people coming up as we descended and everyone had to stay inside the cables, so it got a little congested. There were occasional weirdoes climbing up outside of the cables and they were pretty much free to do so since there were no rangers present to monitor the situation.
When I reached Sub Dome, I took pictures of everyone as they came down from the cables. The mission had been accomplished and I felt so much lighter.
Although I ate some of the food I carried in my backpack and drank more water, the reason my backpack was lighter was because of the burden that had been left behind. The rock was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, so it wasn’t very heavy. However, what the rock symbolized in my life was a heavy burden and it was now gone.
To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
Isaiah 61:3 (New King James Version)
I took a few pictures, ate a little bit and drank some water. It’s easy to become dehydrated at high altitudes and develop altitude sickness, which I was prone to. However, the altitude no longer affected me. I was wired and ready for the cables.
It was a comfort to me that the cables were so crowded. I knew that if I happened to slip and fall, there would be people behind me to break that fall. I didn’t want that to happen, of course.
I rejoined the group and saw that Bre was talking to a lady that I had met previously on the trail. Her name was Gretchen and she was sitting on a rock at the base of the cables. Apparently, she and her husband had gone up the cables together and Gretchen got scared early in the ascent.
She decided she couldn’t do it and came back down. Her husband continued up the cables and was probably at the top already. Now, Bre was trying to encourage her and talk her back into going. I got after Gretchen. (If you look to the right of the crowd in the picture above, you’ll see Gretchen sitting on the rock. She is wearing a white hat and a dark blue jacket.)
“What do you mean, you’re not going up?” I said. “You have to go up. If I can do this after all that I went through back there, you can do it, too. I am not going up those cables without you, Gretchen. You’re with us now, and we will help you.”
I was determined to not let Gretchen sit on that rock and miss out on her victory. I meant every word I said to her, that I was absolutely not going up those cables without her. She was one of the people who encouraged me way back when I was contemplating giving up and I was giving it back. She must have realized that I wasn’t playing and that I wasn’t going to leave her alone because she got up and stood with us in line. I was so happy that she chose to give it another try.
Andy agreed to go up behind her and act as a safety net, while I went ahead of everyone. I was first on the cables and Gretchen was right behind me. Bre and Mike followed behind Andy. I looked fear in the eyes and laughed in its face.
About halfway up the cables, I felt confident enough to take out my camera and snap some pictures. Yep, I know it was probably foolish of me, and I saw no one else doing this, but I just had to get those spectacular shots. I even snapped a picture of myself on the cables.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Psalm 23:4 (New International Version)
We rejoined the guys and headed toward Sub Dome. To say those freakin’ steps were brutal is an understatement. The best way that I can describe them is that they were stairs carved into a huge rock leading straight up into the sky, or so it seemed. They made the Mist Trail and Nevada Fall steps seem like steps in a kiddy park.
I saw healthy-looking, athletic people stopping multiple times on the way up to catch their breath. And, of course, every couple of steps, I had to stop. I kept waiting for Bre, Andy or Mike to complain or say something, but neither of them did. They were so patient and true examples of God’s love and grace.
Finally, we saw the light and the end of those crazy steps. What was funny to me was that I had miraculously gained a fresh wind. I also didn’t fear heights as I thought I would up there, at least not where we were thus far. We hiked up Sub Dome to the saddle, which connects Sub Dome to Half Dome, the “mother lode”, as some call it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We had finally made it to the cables. There was a line, so we didn’t get to just latch on and go up. We had to wait a while. However, the wait turned out to be a good thing. A very good thing, indeed.
It took a while for the caffeine in the Gu drops to take effect. By the time I got a fourth of the way up the steps, I wanted to curse. That’s how brutal the steps were to my already aching body. I had to start singing. I remembered singing in the choir at Lakewood Church in Houston when we sang worship songs on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights at choir practice. I pictured myself standing in the choir loft with my beautiful brothers and sisters, my hands lifted high, praising and worshiping God. Whenever I felt that curse word coming on:
“Glorify your name, glorify your name, glorify the name above all names.”
And one of my favorites:
“Sing over me songs of deliverance. Lord, cover me with your mighty hand. Sing over me, God of the second chance. Sing over me once again.”
The next phase of the journey took us through Little Yosemite Valley, a virtually flat place where the trail is laden with beach sand, which is somewhat difficult to hike through. Our group reassembled at a rest spot and then we headed further up the trail. At this point, we were beginning to gain altitude, and by the time we reached the switchbacks coming up out of the Valley, I felt it big time.
My initial perception of this part of the hike was that it was going to be fairly easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was the part where I encountered hell and some awful thoughts began churning in my head.
Ms. Rosemarie and I hiked together until we met up with the rest of the group at the Vernal Fall Bridge. I had made it a point not to take many photos on this hike since we had done a portion of the trail earlier in the week and I had already taken, literally, hundreds of photos. My aim was to concentrate on the hike itself and not worry about trying to be the next Ansel Adams.
The sun had come up by the time we made it to the bridge, so we put away our headlamps. The next leg of the journey was the Mist Trail, which would lead us to the top of Vernal Fall. This was my third time hiking the Mist Trail, the second within three days that week. On the Mist Trail was a seemingly endless set of about 700 or so stone steps that passed right in front of the seriously gushing Vernal Fall.
The reason for the trail’s name is that you get doused with mist from the waterfall as you proceed up the steps. Depending on the time of year you go, the mist could be refreshing or it could make you turn into an icicle. Most people wear ponchos or some other type of rain gear when going up the steps. I wore my poncho, but even with that protection, I was soaked to the core.
I got separated from the group on the Mist Trail steps. Even Ms. Rosemarie passed me up this time. It wasn’t because I was taking pictures, though. I got left behind because of the frequent stops I made to catch my breath. Those steps were no joke. I was also feeling more and more fatigued. The lack of sleep was catching up to me in a major way.
Finally, I reached the top of Vernal Fall where I got to take a bit of a break with the rest of the group. After we passed the Emerald Pool, which is a cool-looking emerald colored body of water that supplies Vernal Fall with its beautiful, gushing torrents of water, we began the ascent up toward Nevada Fall and another set of stone steps. There were probably about as many steps there as at Vernal Fall, if not more.
After we crossed over the Silver Apron Bridge, I fell further and further behind and became so fatigued that I was a bit disoriented. I was coherent, for the most part, just extremely exhausted. I made slower progress and became worried that I would never catch up to the group.
Before I completely gave out, I remembered the Gu drops I had stashed into my backpack. Filled with caffeine, Gu drops give you a fresh wind when you feel like you’re on your last leg, which I certainly was at that point. I ate a package of Gu drops as I walked through a section of trees. I could hear the waterfall nearby and when I got a visual of it through the trees, I knew I was getting closer to the next segment of stone steps.
I cringed at the thought of tackling yet another set of those atrocious steps when I already felt like I had been run over by a truck.
We had just left the Happy Isles Nature Center and arrived at the trailhead. The steady incline began shortly afterward and, as I foreknew, I began to lose the lead. I had such a rush from being in front of the group that I hiked faster to try and maintain the lead. That was a bad idea. I was already tired from the lack of sleep and by exerting myself so much at the beginning, I used up what little energy I had in reserve and became instantly exhausted.
I’ll just stick with Ms. Rosemarie, I thought. Rosemarie is a beautiful woman in her mid-70s, who accompanied us on the hike. This was her fourth trip to Half Dome. She was my inspiration. I believed that if a 70-something-year-old woman could do that hike, then why couldn’t I,being less than half her age, do it too?
Rosemarie knew the art of pacing. She steadily walked at the same pace, using her walking stick, and never stopped. I also knew the art of pacing. I had trained for weeks at the gym on the treadmill with the incline as steep as it would go. I practiced my breathing technique as well. However, training doesn’t amount to anything if you don’t utilize the skills you learned.
There I was, keeping time with Ms. Rosemarie, and thinking of my mission to Half Dome. The trek was a mission for me. Other than food and water, my backpack contained another piece of precious cargo. Just as Frodo’s mission in The Lord of the Rings was to take the One Ring back to Mordor to be destroyed, I carried something that I wanted to leave at the top of Half Dome, which represented a piece of me that needed to be destroyed.
First of all, I have a back condition called scoliosis. It’s not some contagious or debilitating disease. It just means that instead of being straight, my spine is curved. It has never hindered me from participating in any of the activities I like to do, but I try not to lift or carry things that are too heavy.
Second, I was tired from lack of sleep and my energy level was probably at just 35% or less at the beginning of the 16-mile trek. Come on, let’s say it altogether: C-R-A-Z-Y. Third, the big toe on my right foot was broken years ago and healed wrong, so occasionally, I have pain when I put too much pressure on it, such as when I do strenuous hikes.
When I was in my late teens, I trained in figure skating and also joined a company ballet troupe. Although I was never a skinny girl, I was much smaller than I am now, so I was able to do those activities successfully. Somehow, and apparently without my knowledge, I fractured my toe. My guess is that I must have broken it while dancing en pointe in ballet class, or maybe during one of the tough rehearsals for a production. Yeah, somebody say, “Ouch!”
My ice skates were too sturdy and stiff for me to have broken a toe that way. To make a long story short, my mom took me to a podiatrist after I had been complaining of moderate to severe pain for a while. I had an x-ray done and the doctor told me that my toe had been fractured at some point and had healed incorrectly, causing the pain. He told me that he could re-fracture the toe and allow it to heal normally, or he could leave it as is and I would experience occasional pain. I chose the latter.
To this day, I still experience that occasional pain in my right foot, but it doesn’t prevent me from hiking or any other exercise. However, the hike to Half Dome was pretty miserable because I had hiked earlier in the week and aggravated the toe. The one day of rest in between didn’t help much, so I tried my best to ignore the pain.
The fourth challenge was that I wasn’t in the greatest shape as I had not participated in the rigorous training schedule that our leaders had designed for Team Half Dome several months prior to the hike. I went on a few more hikes than I normally would and chose some fairly difficult ones to do, but there’s nothing like getting up at 5am to run up and down stadium stairs to get you ready for the Mist Trail and Vernal Fall steps, as well as the dreadful Sub Dome steps.
My fifth and final challenge, which was perhaps the greatest one of all, was that my backpack was overstuffed. Our leaders, who didn’t accompany us on this hike, had told us in our briefing not to fill our backpacks up with too much water because there were people hiking with us that had water filters. We would be able to refill our Camelbaks with spring water along the way if we ran out.
Well, I wanted to be over prepared rather than under prepared, so I packed a lot of food and filled up my 2-liter bladder with water. (For those of you who are non-hikers, the “bladder” I’m referring to is a sack that you fill up with water that fits into a special slot in a backpack with a tube that allows you to conveniently drink water while hiking.)
In addition to that, I carried an extra liter of water in a plastic Camelbak bottle. I packed all those things because I didn’t really know what to expect on this hike and didn’t want to be out in the wilderness starving and/or dehydrated. I later discovered why our leaders advised against overstuffing our backpacks.