by Rachel Bradsell
It’s a 45 degree ascent, 400 feet of slick granite, and two wire cables securing hikers from a deadly fall. Outfitted with used Nikes, paper thin gardening gloves, and enough water to flood the Great Lakes my Chinese class charged ahead. Two FBI agents, an aspiring diplomat, and a Fulbright Scholar were among this group of language enthusiasts; all committed to traverse a gigantic stone ridge shooting thousands of feet out of the Yosemite Valley Floor- Half Dome.
As the sun’s rays heated our brows, sweat beads trickled and our quads fatigued, we took one more picture before the final ascent. Standing in a row, eyeing what was already a spectacular accomplishment (9 mile hike) our fingers clench the swaying cable; a lifeline warranting safety during this finishing climb where body meets sky.
Our nerves quicken. Brave smiles mask all fear. Believing in the “me” we turn around, eye the peak and scream.
“Jia you!” (pump the gas). Familiar voices echo into our hearts. The back packs hang heavily. We engage our spirits and shake all tremors beseeching our knees.
Step, pull, grip, stand, exhale. Keep the back straight, eyes focused; maintain the weight, steady your footing.
“Don’t use your arms too much, pulling will only tire you out,” announces FBI.
I’m thankful for the tip since my limbs certainly kill and I feel vital muscles starting to give.
“Crap, don’t let go!” There are people behind me and others directly in front.
Careful not to trip, sneaker to sneaker, the metal line jerks. A few worried wails. It’s such a nice day, the foot traffic daunting, and the climb so narrow. Less than one foot of maneuverable space between you and shaky posts pierced into the depths of granite, securing the thin cable. People moving up and those trekking down begin to rub shoulders and dangerously brush toes.
Almost losing my grip I look up. A man in his 80’s accompanied by daughter and grandchild are climbing down. Appearing safe and smart because ropes and carabineers fasten their bodies to the wire. I watch coveting their security in the midst of my free fall stance, willing my faith.
The bag full of water and excess power bars is pulling my back down. I stare and patiently wait for them to pass. Thirty seconds turns to forever as the biceps burn and excitement to reach the top churns; smelling the view.
I look right. The sun is so warm and bright. Five feet from the cable is a cowboy hat, angled in solitude; the wind unable to lift its brim. Reminding me of life beyond the dome, I jokingly challenge a friend to retrieve it. While death is a mere trip away, he, a surfer and musician gasps with nervous laughter and graciously declines.
We’re almost there. The roaring skyline of white and blue dipping into majestic pine is within eye squinting sight.
As my moist toes rub against particles of sandy grain and the blisters swell, I’m reminded of our past six hour trek.
We began at 8am, led by the FBI and as might be expected made some incorrect turns. Usually the day hike is 17 miles. That is if you’re completely sober and sane. But for us, last night’s camp keg stand, finishing a bottle of Captain Morgan’s and warming ourselves amongst the fire-pit-pleasure of each other’s company, 17 turned into 20. We’re told to head back by 1pm if the peak is not in sight. Thanks to our “big brother” trail-reading analysis, headaches and a few over extended breaks we caught sight of the dome around 2:30.
A deer here, a marmot there, calming streams, green foliage; we hiked, climbed, until our virgin calves could take no more. Finding restroom resolution, relief behind a tree or a comforting shrub. As committed as we were to memorizing stroke counts and lessons by Confucius, we were adamant,
“There’s no turning back.”
Thirst, sweat, pain, smells of rum- all indifferent to us. “Reach the dome,” was our delirious mantra as we marched through the unfamiliar, occasionally speaking Chinese.
Some maintained a fixed speed, while others “pumped the gas” achieving a mighty 15 minute ascend. Then, we regrouped, rested on boulders, sipped H20, and gorged our guts with beef jerky and warm tuna sandwiches— for the aspiring vegetarians tuna never tasted so good.
Also, from the perspective of a foot walking commoner, as the path continued steeper, the terrain shakier and the forest darker, the prevailing questions, “What did I get myself into?” More importantly, “Can I trust these people with whom I feel so lost?”…coursed through my veins like lit dynamite.
Turn upon turn, another tree, another rock, stuck in a forestry maze, there was no end. Yet, a twisted ankle took one more step and a blistered toe accepted another thump. Caring for each other by rectifying the confidence with funny words, FBI offering to take an extra backpack or statements of love when wails of weakness and giving up set in--we became family.
Finally those last yards, 8,836 feet arrived quicker than the past mile glided goodbye.
“I can see the dome!”
In the heat of exhaustion we look up, a blinding white light and blue periwinkle sky outlines a peaking smooth ridge of grey; astounding. Energy returns.
Time ticking, we traversed hell to reach paradise, and now the top, the dome is real. Sustaining the beat of our steps and ignoring all lung-gasping-pain, we walk, closer.
I’m standing on the steep ridge. Body tipping I lean forward one last time and dig my heals onto sloping granite. Controlling the shift of my weight, toes tight, the wind picks up and the rickety wire sways. My muscles are jelly.
Forehead burning I unglue my foot stepping gaze and glance. The stone wall curves, blue! The buzz, the angst to see beyond the grey flushes away all pain. Finally! A flat massive landscape miraculously appears. I swallow, the sun is warm. Stepping faster, pulling my weight, I’m stronger. Releasing the cable, I straighten my body. Free! Run, actually gallop. It’s huge, it’s open; it’s gorgeous, a world on top of another.
I love you! The musician speaks to me.
A life of unpredictable majesty. The beauty- so natural. A Picasso, a Monet, words from Hemingway, nothing could speak of this mind blowing grandeur. Spinning in the wind, I walk to the ledge, drop my back pack, and undo the braids in my hair.
“Jia you!” The noise rumbles into disappearing landscapes.
Squirrels, birds, people basking, lounging on rocks, some reading, others exploring, and cairn farms ubiquitous—all coloring beauty into this magical, extraordinary human spot. The view, the ridge most rewarding. It is the height of our hike, captivating, breath taking.
Sitting in the sun of victory, we rest separately together. Some explore, some digest their long awaited Coors. The clouds swim beneath our feet; bathing in success and munching on Sun Chips we smile and photograph memories.
Certainly perched above the arms of gravity- summer 2007, the year that colored heaven. Monterey School of International Studies. Our Chinese now enhanced and Fall rolling in like “marching ants.” From this stone ridge I stare, breath, accept. A new frontier. For one speechless second this dynamic odyssey called life, paused.
“Half Dome” a timeless symbol, a feeling of then, an eternal strength now.
About the Author
I'm 26, born on Pearl Harbor Day, 1981. BA from American University, share an Emmy, have a minor in Mandarin Chinese. Love Edamame and will never stop hiking.