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One Board at a Time

I pulled the dark green book from its place in the closet and placed it beside Tolstoy, Hesse, and a Sierra Nevada natural history book in my orange backpack. The engraving on the spine is gold and reads My First Summer in the Sierra -- John Muir.

In another bag, socks and shorts, long-sleeved shirts and sweatshirts were crammed together like many individual shoots in a carpet of moss. A camera bag nearby held my Canon Rebel XS, my lovely digital SLR. Boots and a sleeping bag and a CamelBak pack filled with water sat nearby, yearning for the cool mountain air, almost as much as I was.

We left home and didn't stop until we reached a little town called Escalon. We bought diet Cokes and a container of fries, knowing the fries would be burned off the next day. Yosemite was still about 100 miles away, but home was far behind us and our destination lay ahead. At the forefront of our minds was the 17 mile hike to Half Dome we would be taking tomorrow--a 12 hour hike that would bring forth tears, aching knees, and a sense of accomplishment, one that wouldn't be entirely felt until some of the pain had worn off.

The alarm went off at 4:30 A.M., and I rolled the sleeping bag that much farther over my face. The tent-cabin (which had a heater--that had been disconnected for summer) was quite chilly, but the coffee my dad made helped a little. We had bought a breakfast burrito at the store the night before, and we set it on top of the coffee maker in hopes it'd warm up a little. It was delicious, despite the cool patches.

The trail head was a short walk from the parking lot. The 6 of us--me, my Dad, my step-mom Pam, her dad, her brother Steven, his wife Michele--set off, layers on and our breath expelling clouds of water vapor in front of our faces. Across a bridge, along the river, and then we reached the sign warning of bears, explaining the cables, and outlining the trail rules. It all lay ahead, the first stretch a steep incline surrounded by mossy rocks and trees, damp in the morning air.

Another sign outlined the trail--the locations and their distances. It was 8. 2 miles to Half Dome, which doesn't sound like so much at that point. But believe me, it's a lot longer than you'd think.

We reached the Vernal Fall bridge, in awe at the amount of white water rushing beneath us from the waterfall in the distance. (Before dubbed "Vernal" in 1851 by Lafayette Bunnell, a Mariposa Brigade member, the majestic fall was called Yan-o-pah, or "little cloud.") It's still pretty early in the season, so water throughout the valley is gushing.

We chose to take the Mist Trail to the top of the falls, figuring it'd be better to go up the slippery stairs, rather than down on the way back. We put on our ponchos and rain jackets and set up the gigantic stairs, sprayed by the water as though it were raining. The dark stairs and moisture-absorbing plants nearby reminded me of something from Ancient China. My dad's bright yellow Yosemite poncho didn't really add to the whole ancient part, though.

The falls reminded me of something Siddhartha realizes in Hesse’s novel: that water continually moves, but is continually there. That it is transient and always changing, but constantly filling the space. That we are always changing, never the same, always becoming something else, both physically and mentally. It was nice to have an enormous model of the concept right in front of me.

From there, we continued past Emerald Pool, where people in the past have thought it'd be a good idea to go swimming or climb over the guard rail and dismiss the warning signs, perhaps forgetting that just down the way there's a gigantic waterfall that slams into the river and rocks below. These people die, falling to their death in the falls or slamming into rocks along the pool's edges. Really, now, people?

We continued, reaching Nevada Fall not long after. Then we climbed some stairs. About 49573948503485 or so of them. They reminded me of the steps in Tibet Jon Krakauer describes in Into Thin Air, and so the step area became known to us as Tibet.

After the steps came the final restroom of the trail. It had solar panels on it, but I couldn't imagine why--there wasn't lighting or anything requiring electricity inside the restroom. The sign at the top of the steps told us we had about 4 more miles before Half Dome itself. And we'd only hiked 2.5--that made me a little weary. We've only gone 2.5 and we have 4 more to go!? I thought. No way, man. Fortunately, a long stretch of flat trail lay ahead, so the going wasn't too tough.

We passed Little Yosemite Valley and the trail began to climb, leaving the open meadow area for woods. The shade increased and roots carved through the trail, a lovely design along the forest floor.

Hunger and tiredness caused us to rest for a few minutes. I had some trail mix and wrote in my journal. My hands were puffy from the altitude and a deficiency of electrolytes, so writing was a little difficult. I took a strawberry kiwi Gu for some energy and then we continued up the trail, seeing more and more people coming down—a sign that we were getting close.

We finally reached the base, a clearing with some logs for sitting on and remarkable views, despite the heavy fog. We munched on some bars in the freezing cold, wondering if the large black raven we saw was a sign of something ominous, and Pam’s dad decided he’d stay back and wait rather than hike to the top.

The carved steps before the cables are brutal. Breathing becomes labored and anxiety about heights settles in for those who think too much about it. People are coming down as you’re going up, adding to the stress. Michele had to turn back from the overwhelming drops on either side of the mountain. I broke down a minute later, sitting to the side and crying. My legs were burning, my lungs were hurting, and I generally felt as though I’d die if I had to go on. My dad and Pam waited with me for a few minutes. And then we pushed on.

There’s no way you can understand the enormity of the cables if you’ve never been to the saddle of Half Dome, staring up at the little people in the line, like ants crawling up a vast edifice of gray. That image of the people on the side of the mountain, the open spaces beside the rock where the ground drops out and you’d die a terribly wind-swept death is forever seared into my memory. The feeling of dread brought tears again, as I realized that if I wanted to be able to say I’d made it to the top of Half Dome, I’d have to become one of those ants, one of those climbing up the mountain for no reason other than bragging rights and a view.

So we pushed on.

The pile of gloves at the base of the cables is colorful and varied. I pulled one glove on and found it was wet, and decided I’d stick with my bicycle gloves. My dad went first, stepping onto the first board and grabbing a hold of the right cable. I followed him, and Pam after me. (Steven had gone ahead of us and was on his way up the cables at that point.) The anxiety dissipated for a few minutes as the rock beneath my feet stayed fairly gradual, each board an island of security. But as the climbing became more vertical, the incline becoming steeper and the distance from the safety of the flat rock increasing, panic crept back into me. My decision to wear bicycle gloves, the kind where your fingers are exposed, was a bad move. My fingers soon became frozen and achy and I hoped they wouldn’t become too stiff to hold on.

Dad took the pictures on the cables. I was too busy holding on.

A woman in front of us decided to turn around. She wasn’t hysterical or anything, but she knew she couldn’t make it. And then these idiots came rushing up the cables on the outside, bypassing the line and cutting in front of my dad, forcing him to move to the left side. I wanted to scream. They endangered our lives and forced us to move our hands just so they could get to the top faster. I told them they were idiots and couldn’t just cut in front of us and force my dad to move. They just smiled at me like they were dumb or something. I continued to call them idiots.

To make matters worse, a pole came out of the rock and slid down the cable right in front of me, knocking a board out of its place. I practically hyperventilated, freaking out and saying I wanted to turn back. The fog was creeping in beside us and I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest. Dear God, please don’t let there be an earthquake, please don’t let someone fall and knock us off, please don’t let the poles slip out again, please don’t let the cable snap, please don’t let us die! I waited until a board opened each time the line moved. “One board at a time” became the motto. And at each board, I stopped and prayed, shaking my fingers to get them to heat up and breathing warm air on them to keep them limber.

At last the top arrived, the ground leveling and the cables going into the rock. The view was incredible and the fog had cleared enough for me to see the valley below. I took some pictures and breathed. I made it. I thought, And we didn’t die.

The climb back down the cables proved easier than going up; the stairs, too, were easier on the way down. I munched on an apple at the base before we set off for the valley, an 8-mile hike that would prove to be a knee-jammer.

Some rain made Tibet slick and the John Muir trail that we took instead of the Mist Trail went up instead of down, for quite a while. Not something you want to encounter on the return trip from Half Dome. Finally it descended, switch-backing along the mountain for much too long. My knees felt as though the bones had been chewed upon and ground up, and it was hard to keep my eyes open from exhaustion. Vernal Falls bridge finally came into view and then it was just a short jaunt down a paved trail to the valley floor.

While walking to Steven’s car, some men in the road began running toward us. “A bear! There’s a bear!” We looked to some boulders where the men were pointing and saw a big brown bear perched upon the rocks, right beside a campground. Some rangers, in their hats and ranger outfits, came up behind it and the bear charged across the road, right in front of where we stood. One of the ranger’s hats fell off as he ran after it and another held a taser gun. “He ran across the road!” A female ranger shouted. And they all rushed into the woods after the bear. It was highly comical and incredible to see a bear that close-up.

That evening, we had lunch at the Curry Village buffet restaurant. $12 for all you can eat—tacos, pasta, salad, cake, soda, hot chocolate, coffee, rice—it was utterly delicious! I played around with my little cousins Justin and Alyssa, and then we went back to our tent-cabin and went to sleep.

The next morning we grabbed some coffee and a bagel, and then went into the store for an “I made it to the top” bumper sticker and a Half Dome bookmark made of wood. We bought my sister a deck of animal cards and searched for a t-shirt, finding nothing suitable. After checking out, we drove to Yosemite Village and ventured into the market. I found the shirt I was looking for: “I made it to the top,” Half Dome Hiker’s club shirt. Perfect.

The Ansel Adams gallery was really neat, especially for a photographer like me. I bought a $10 reproduction of an Ansel Adams shot of Half Dome and the moon. It’s going on my wall above the bumper sticker.

I recall visiting the Indian museum as a kid and was excited to see it again. We peered at a guest book that supposedly had John Muir’s signature. Dad and I couldn’t find it. The Indian village was exactly as I’d remembered it. My legs hurt too much to walk around to all of the displays, but I read about incense cedar (and later read about it in My First Summer in the Sierra). The informational center had a 3-D model of the valley, and I was able to see where we’d hiked the previous day. Wow-ee. I took a picture with John Muir, and then had some lunch at the Ahwahnee.

On the drive home, I saw a field of sheep and was reminded of Muir and the sheep he was with in June of 1869. I had been reading his entries from June 4, 5, and 6—quite fascinating to read what someone had written on that day 140 years ago. On June 6 he had found “a lovely lily (Calochortus albus) in a shady adenstoma thicket near Coulterville,” and had been camped at Greeley Mill. Right near the field of sheep where I’d been reminded of Muir, I saw a sign for Greeley Mill and Coulterville. It was as though Muir was still there, just down the road in a meadow near the sheep, searching for flowers and identifying trees. I wished I could go visit him and rest my tired legs at his camp and discuss Yosemite and its unsurpassed beauty.

Check out Jim Ott's article about the same trip with quotes from this post:
Half Dome fears founded, yet conquering it is a lesson learned


  1. What a great post! You've done a marvelous job capturing the trip. Your eye for detail is amazing. And I love how you've woven into the story elements from Hesse and Muir.

    This was my fourth trip up Half Dome, a place where, in my own teen years, I discovered much about myself and my willingness to brave the steep and slick granite to achieve what is difficult to put into words.

    One of those trips I did solo. My parents gave their blessing, and off I went, a high school boy running much of the 17 miles to get to the top and back before 2 p.m. In those days I tackled adventure head on. I was immortal, it seemed to me. I remember leaping upward along the cables to the top (there were no other hikers as I recall), eating a sandwich I'd saved in my pack for just that moment, gazing out into the valley toward El Capitan, then flying down the back of Half Dome, onto the trail, down the Mist Trail, and back to the tent cabins in Curry Village. Alive, strong, young, fulfilled.

    What a blessing for me to be able to accompany Pam and Melissa on their first trip up to Half Dome. And how wonderful to have Melissa capture it here in words and pictures.

    It was a trip we will never forget.

  2. WHAT A REMARKABLE READ! love this story melissa! the organization, the pace, the wonderful narration, the pictures..

    it is a tie! -when i ask whether i should congratulate you on the hike itself

    or the beauty of the story it inspired

    God sure has gifted you with a talent for writing -and must be smiling with the rest of us

    congrats and love to you and your family -wonderful to go along for the ride

    without going along for the ride.

    love yosemite! -and you've done her such justice here ~s.

  3. Melissa,

    You have written an account that would make Jon Krakauer proud! As a matter of fact, it was so vivid that I now know (just like I knew I would never climb Mt. Everest after reading "Into Thin Air") that I'm content to read about others climbing Half Dome! Thanks for saving me a lot of agony!

    Beautifully written and wonderfully achievement!

    Big Congrats!

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  5. Melissa,
    Wow, great story, incredibly well written! I felt like I was there. I have not made it up Half Dome yet as I've always been in the company of others who think Vernal Falls is the top! And as much as I've read and heard about the "Half Dome Hike" in the past, now I feel I know what to expect when I eventually make the journey.

    I loved the bear story too!


  6. Melissa,

    You have an extraordinary ability of being able to capture a moment, a feeling, an experience, and put it into words. On top of that, your writing displays a level of maturity far beyond your age. I was simply blown away with how you would interweave your story with references to other people (Hesse, Muir, Krakauer) and their experiences. What a gift you have.
    It is also noteworthy that during your ordeal, you had the presence of mind to know you should take a "strawberry kiwi Gu" to avoid bonking. You are more perceptive in this area than . . . many others.
    Steve Sherman

  7. I'm a first time visitor to your blog. Your wonderful descriptions of your hike up Half Dome truly made me feel like I was right beside you (except my knees didn't hurt...).

    Wonderful, picturesque, magical writing.

    Congratulations on your achievement, too!

  8. Melissa- this is such a fantastic story about our experience. I am so proud of you, and-being the one who chickened out, I know what an achievement this was! thanks for the great writing on our journey.
    oh, and you forgot to write that I was almost the bear's dinner!

  9. Oh, yes, Michele's right! I forgot to include that when the bear ran by, he ran RIGHT behind Michele--close enough that she could have reached out and grabbed him--and she didn't even notice!

  10. Melissa,

    Quite an impressive accomplishment to make it to the top of Half Dome...and back. But more impressive was how you vividly captured this trip and made it come alive for those of us who didn't make the hike.


  11. Melissa, I'm impressed with your scarfascinating (scary & fascinating) depiction of your "hike" up Half Dome. Your writing is superb and fun. Thanks for sharing your adventure. I admire your openness when admitting to giving in to emotion most people won't share with strangers. I've only had the pleasure of admiring Half Dome from the valley floor. Yosemite's an old "haunt" of mine. I remember when we could leave our purses and belongings unguarded in our housekeeping tents and go play all I dating myself? I look forward to another... "Adventures With Melissa."

  12. Melissa,

    What a great description of your "adventure". It brought back memories from my first trek to Half Dome OH SO LONG AGO.

    I am preparing to tackle the Dome for the second, most likely final, time, this Fall.

    I will definitely be thinking of your descriptions as I struggle upward and onward.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and your beautiful talent for putting it into words for many of us to enjoy!

    Nickie Hoppe


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