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A Half Dome Adventure that's Full of Surprises
March, 2021 - Issue #197
courtesy of shutterstock
courtesy of shutterstock

The climb up Half Dome is as much mental as it is physical. Sixteen miles of hiking and 4,800 feet of elevation gain require fitness and training. But it's the last 400 feet that get in your head.
It's the "cables" section you always hear about. Twin threads of braided steel cable snake up the granite face, allowing hikers to haul themselves up the 45-degree pitch without technical climbing gear.
Standing at the bottom, it looks vertical, and that optical illusion gave me serious second thoughts. I had navigated the cables on a previous trip but seeing them again filled me with doubts. Could I push the fear away and keep moving forward?
I paused to collect myself and concluded I had no choice. I was going up.
The summer before, my son Drew and I attempted Mount Whitney, but with the summit in view, a thunderstorm blew in and smothered the peak in angry gray clouds, forcing us to turn back.
Over the winter, we applied for Whitney permits to give it another go. But we also set our sights on Half Dome - and those were the permits we scored. My daughter Laurel wanted in and so did my wife, April.
Now, here I stood, faltering so close to the finish. Drew and Laurel were committed to reaching the top. There was no way April would let them go without a parent - and she stated definitively she would not be that parent. That left me.
I pulled on leather gloves - they're a must to protect your hands - and briefed the kids on how to navigate the ascending and descending traffic on the cables. Then we entered the gauntlet. The cables run through the tops of metal poles sunk into holes in the granite. A 2-by-4 sitting on the rock perpendicular to each set of poles serves as a step. The best way to ignore the anxiety-inducing height and exposure is to keep both hands on the cables and go from one board to the next until you're at the top.
So that's what I did. I looked down only far enough to check on Drew and Laurel behind me. My singular focus worked - too well.
When we reached the top, I finally turned around to take in the view. Where blue sky had arced above Yosemite's superlative skyline, a towering thunderstorm now marched at us from the east. In my focus on making it up the cables, I hadn't seen it coming.
The obvious danger was being exposed to lightning on the tallest peak around. But what really spooked me was descending wet granite. The well-trod path on the rock is worn smooth. That's why the boards are crucial. They give your feet purchase on the rock. I didn't want to imagine how difficult it would be to safely navigate down in the rain.
After gazing at the clouds to get a sense of how fast they were coming, I decided we had time for pictures. The three of us stood on the edge overlooking Yosemite Valley and asked a fellow hiker to snap a few shots. After returning the favor, we joined the crowd queuing up to get down ahead of the storm.
It took longer than I wanted it to, but we made it off the cables before the rain came. The first drops began to spit before we hit the tree line and by the time we reached the cover of the pines, rain fell steadily.
We still had miles to go before we reached the van parked at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley. But the hard part was over. We conquered the cables and won a race with the rain. The rest was all downhill.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic.

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