As storm clouds brew over Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome mountain, two brothers face the climb down of their lives… and, their very lives depend on it!
Story by Delano Lavigne | Photos by Ryan Carlton & Delano Lavigne
The canopy of the early morning’s darkness rests heavily over Lower Pines campground, as my alarm sounds an unwelcomed but expected 3 a.m. call. I listen through the walls of my tent for any sign of rain or wind, both of which would encourage me back to the comfort of my sleeping bag. But the air is quiet, and its stillness broken only by the tranquil sound of the Merced River flowing past the campground.
I exit the tent and expectantly find my brother rustling in his sleeping bag, as he too is bound to this early morning rise. We sit and drink our tea in silence, and I start to imagine what adventures await the innumerable families sleeping peacefully in their tents, RVs and luxury campers nearby.
Who will raft down the surging river, catch a prized rainbow or brown trout, step over the edges of Yosemite Falls, or catch a glimpse of a yellow breasted western tanager? All of which seem, at the moment, far more enticing than our planned adventure, which is to climb Yosemite National Park’s iconic Half Dome mountain.
But I do not linger on the fleeting wish for an easier day’s adventure, and instead join my brother in putting on weighted backpacks, as we begin the three-hour trek to the base of the Dome’s Northwest Face. Our heads heavy from an anxiety-filled night of sleep, we walk in silence, allowing the predawn aura of Yosemite, the United States’ oldest, and in some ways most esteemed, conservation areas, to wash over us. It’s not until the first rays of sun crest over the park’s famed Sierra Nevadas that run along the country’s southwestern flank that we break from the shackles of the early morning’s torpor and end our ritual of silence.
We begin by talking about the day’s plan, which narrates like a grocery list of climber’s garble: First 100 meters somewhat devious, then a rope swing followed by a big sandy ledge, tiny alcove, Thank God Ledge, loose chimney, bad bolts, and on and on. But soon our conversation turns, as it always does, to family, friends, life and love. We embrace, if not look forward to, this moment of calm, where we can extend our adventure beyond climbing and toward the exploration of the self, of our brotherhood, while together.
My brother and I have been climbing together for more than 15 years, and it has always been more about connecting in a manner that opens our spirits to adventure. Suddenly, again, our conversation shifts, as we come into clear sight of the almost 700-metre piece of granite slab towering over us. There she is—the Half Dome, resting beautifully, half broken with her Northwest Face keeping a watchful eye over Yosemite Valley. A once solid dome of granite is now split in half, bearing its heart to all of Yosemite Valley’s visitors.
There are countless domes in Yosemite National Park, and they are undoubtedly one of its most unique attributes—but Half Dome stands apart. Standing 2,694 meters above sea level, it not only provides visitors with a glorious view but an incredibly unique landscape, especially for hikers. It’s a mountain of pure, solid and smooth rounded rock, molded by receding glaciers with absolutely no vegetation and no shelter. Hikers find themselves moving across a sea of granite for hundreds of meters in all directions, an experience more akin to climbing than walking.
In an instant, I’m transported away from the safety of the trail and comfort of our conversation toward the uncertainty of climbing the formidable mountain. I take a deep breath and dispel any self-illusion that our plan for the day was actually a sunrise trek to Mirror Lake. Our morning march finally turns uphill, and we begin the final hour of the trek to the base of the mountain. We move across the almost 1,000 meters of moderate to difficult hiking terrain with a sense of purpose, navigating wet slabs and broken rock quickly and carefully.
We know that the sooner we are climbing the sooner we are on the summit, and the sooner we are off the mountain the sooner we are safe. We stop only to refill our water bottles with the fresh spring water that abounds in Yosemite.
At the base, I am not surprised to find three other teams preparing for the climb. Although we began the day from our camp in Yosemite Valley, many climbers make the long approach to its base the night before, maximizing the hours of daylight they have to summit. But despite the added effort it takes to climb Half Dome in a day, our strategy seems to be paying off. Other than an equally eager Spanish team that is only a few meters below us, we are the first ones on the mountain and free to climb at our own pace.
We eagerly drop our fully loaded packs and immediately begin sorting through the gear—engaging in the necessary ritual of what’s called “racking up.” One belay device to me, one to my brother; quickdraws and camming devices to him, extra-locking carabineers to me. We put on harnesses and helmets, tie into the rope, double-check each other and begin.
My brother, as planned, takes the lead. He moves quickly, leading us through the first 300 meters. As a professional Canadian mountain guide, my brother is not only happiest in the mountains but incredibly confident, especially on terrain often described as “somewhat devious.” This is never more apparent than when we arrive at the Robbins Traverse, named for Yosemite rock-climbing pioneer Royal Robbins, which was once considered the “most audacious” pendulum in Yosemite.
To complete this section of rock, we climb above our belay, trending right along the wall, and then lower ourselves a few meters, before rope swinging across a completely blank section of rock. You begin the Royal Robbins pendulum much like you begin swinging on a swing set—except you’re hanging from a harness, 300 meters above the ground. You build momentum by first running left, then right, and back left again, as far as you can. And just when gravity is about to pull you back, turn, let go of the rock and jump.
Gravity builds the momentum, and lets the rope momentarily suspend you in mid-air—so you can embrace the exposure that comes with flying off the ground, attached to a rock by a rope less than ten millimeters wide. When your feet touch down on rock, you push your legs as hard as you can—running horizontally across vertical rock, until you find something, anything, to latch on to.
Following the Robbins Traverse, and after about five hours of nonstop climbing, we are half way up the Northwest Face and take a much needed break. We share a few sips of water, some trail mix, and a wonderful view of Yosemite Valley and the Yosemite high country, both of which comprise the park. I think how amazing it is that such a wild place exists, how fortunate I am to be here, and how it’s not difficult to see why Yosemite has been officially protected by both California and federal law since 1864.
My brother and I refocus on the climb, looking up to a series of chimneys, alcoves and broken ledges. I take one last sip of water and watch him pick through the trail mix for all the chocolate pieces, before turning to the rock to rack up—it’s now my turn to lead us up the mountain. I dip my hands into my chalk bag, step off the comfort of our big sandy ledge and start to climb. It feels great to finally be going up: to be immersed in a sea of grey, yellow and green granite, and to find serenity in the challenge of vertical movement.
But as many adventures go, serenity is hard to find, and even more difficult to hold on to, especially as I step back and observe myself stuck, scared and frozen to a narrowing ledge 600 meters off the ground. My heart is beating fast—really fast. I can feel it pounding in my ears, hands, and chest. Panic radiates from my stomach toward my feet, as if a dam inside me has broken and I am left flooded with fear. I close my eyes and do my best to slow my breathing, take control of my heart rate, and eliminate the sensation that I am about to take the biggest fall of my life.
Yet as I breathe my chest expands against the bulging granite, which further weakens my centre of gravity. A second dam breaks and again, I am flooded with fear. I shoot my eyes open and work toward regaining my composure, trying to take shorter breaths as I slowly—very slowly—reach down to grab the lip of the 16-centimeter wide ledge in what feels like a contrived and poorly practiced yoga pose. But again I feel my body begin to fall backwards, in what would undoubtedly be an ungraceful back dive into open air.
I begin to question why I ever came to this place, to climb this rock and explore these mountains, rivers, and valleys. I try and remember and reconnect to the feeling I had when I first arrived here just a short week ago.
• • •
It had been raining for days, a downpour that seemed to anticipate California’s looming winter drought, and when we rolled into Yosemite it gave no indication of stopping. Our windshield wipers struggled to keep up, and I was left straining to get my first glimpse of Bridalveil Falls, home to “Pohono,” the guardian spirit of the valley.
I bounced from one side of the car to the other, searching for some evidence that the mountains, ancient sequoia trees (apparently, the largest trees on the planet) and long reaching waterfalls of this prolific valley I have so longed to visit exist beyond my imagination, beyond the cloud filled sky. I stretched my neck across the driver’s seat, forcing my brother to navigate the park’s windy roads with my brimming and anxious smile obscuring his vision.
He recognized the expression on my face, likely because he’d once experienced it himself, and forgivingly pulled the car over so I could finally be immersed in the spectacle of one of Earth’s most beautiful places. I stepped into the rain, and it is as if I had stepped into a landscape sculpted by giants; a landscape that seemed to transcend its physical manifestation and reach toward the spiritual.
But that feeling is far away from me now, as I stand face planted against the upper reaches of Half Dome, balancing on a shrinking ledge that is no wider than a ladder rung. I feel anything but spiritual. In fact, I feel, as ironic as it is, given I am more than 600 meters off the ground, firmly rooted in the physical realities of my increasingly precarious predicament.
Not only have I climbed myself into what feels, looks and sounds like a dead end, I am poised to find myself trapped in a fierce thunderstorm—neither of which are uncommon nor surprising, especially in Yosemite during the spring. The Sierra Nevadas, which guard the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park, are high enough in elevation and accumulate enough snow during the winter that when the wind blows from the east it often carries with it cold, wet air.
By the time the wind hits Yosemite Valley it has descended more than 3,000 meters in less than 20 kilometers, making these storms fast moving and, as the park’s rangers warn, severe. In fact, it is not uncommon, as I am about to find out, that you might experience a veritable four seasons of weather on the very same day.
And though these storms—especially the ones that leave us vulnerable to harm—are never welcome, they are an important element of the adventure, an expression of nature’s raw power, of our desire to engage with it in all its manifestations. The key is to ensure they’re not the cause of a misadventure.
I remain determined to avoid making today’s climb a misadventure—despite the baleful clouds that dance around me, despite being frozen to the side of the mountain, despite the fatigue of eight hours of continuous climbing, despite wave after wave of fear surging through my body. For a fleeting moment, I imagine myself to be super human. I imagine jumping backwards into open air and dropping down to catch the lip of the ledge like Jason Bourne, or some other fictional super spy.
But I know better than this. And with the first drops of rain, and the realization that the five pounds of metal gear I am carrying are a perfect conductor for the electric charge building around me, my tentativeness is replaced with instinct. Instinct tells me to ignore the alarming distance between me and the ground; to ignore the few hundred feet that remain between me and the summit; to ignore the storm; and, ultimately, ignore the fear that is crippling my body.
Instead, it tells me to look west towards the granite giant known as El Capitan; to look down toward quiet Tenaya Creek and its origins in the less frequented Mirror Lake; to root myself in the beauty and wildness of this land, and finally, to take control of this endeavour.
I gingerly move backwards, my heels taking hold of more rock, and in an instant what was once a flood of fear is now a river of adrenaline. I drop down and take hold of the rock with my hands and monkey-bar my way across the ledge. Finally, I am able to secure myself into the rock, and yell down to my brother that he is on belay and secure to climb up to me. My brother meets me at the far end of the ledge, and I greet him with a grimacing smile. He reciprocates with no words, but offers a look of uncompromising affinity, born from a lifetime of kinship and years of climbing experience.
Again my brother takes the lead, on what is now wet slippery rock. After only a few feet, he pulls over a small ledge and is out of sight. I put my head down, and anxiously wait to hear that he is secure at the next belay. Ten minutes pass, then 20, and I am finding it difficult to suppress the increasing sense of urgency in our situation. All I can do is quietly wait, as a temperate breeze turns into a cold wind and rain suddenly turns to snow.
After an hour, I finally hear the welcome call, “Secure.” I slip my heels back into my wet shoes, do my best to control my shivering and move as fast as I can. When I pass the small ledge that had kept my brother hidden from sight, I’m ecstatic to see him crouching with a wide smile just below the summit.
I move even faster now, and after another 30 minutes of tenuous climbing, my brother and I reach the summit. With great relief we untie ourselves from the rope, let the immediate threat of the now-obvious impending storm subside, and enjoy a few moments of our summit success.
• • •
The summit of Half Dome is unlike any I have been on, and is likely one of the most unique summits in the world. Like a guardian, the mountain stands resolute at the far end of Yosemite Valley, 1,500 meters above the valley floor—almost as if protecting Yosemite’s 3.7 million annual visitors.
For those willing to make either the absolutely gorgeous hike to the summit via the cable route, or to summit via one of its many technical rock-climbing ones, they are greeted with a full panoramic view of Yosemite National Park’s 3,027-square-kilometre unique terrain. As for me, I am rewarded with a spectacular view of the highest peaks of California’s tallest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada.
I look southwest across the valley to the park’s most popular viewing spot, Glacier Point, and imagine a line of cars looking back at me. And then I cannot resist stepping toward the Dome’s edge; a naturally occurring diving-board-like precipice that leaves nothing more than 40 centimeters of rock between me and the valley floor, about a kilometer and half below.
I feel weightless, elevated and content, standing over the vertical face I was tied to for more than ten hours. I steal another moment to enjoy the view, and to imagine the valley below as it may have been before it became a park; before there was ever a highway, let alone three, cutting through its mountains; before there were three hotels, two permanent villages, two gas stations, a bar, cafeteria, three grocery stores, school, hospital and even jail.
I imagine the valley’s original inhabitants as they may have lived here before California’s gold rush in the mid-1800s brought Ahwahnee, or “place of the gaping mouth,” as the Miwok and Paiute peoples called the valley, an onslaught of non-Native visitors.
My brief respite is interrupted by the peculiar sensation of something scratching under my helmet. Out of reflex—from that unmistakable feeling of an insect crawling up one’s shirt, or a spider web wrapping itself around one’s face—I smack my helmet with an open hand. But my head continues to scratch, and I’m suddenly and quickly thrown into a fury of fear as I realize the scratching is an electric charge building around me, that lightning is primed to strike, that my brother and I are the two highest points on this peak.
Precariously standing inches from the edge, I yell across to my brother “lightning!”
Without a moment’s hesitation we launch into a full sprint toward the east flank of the Dome. We are frantically looking for the only descent—two industrial-sized steel cables that run the length of the sloping east face. Meanwhile, the mix of rain, hail and snow continues to fall, exaggerating our superconductor status.
We are like two wounded gazelles, chased by hungry lions in their prime. It’s an absurd and terrifying moment—we are the two highest points on one of the most prominent peaks in Yosemite National Park, carrying pounds of metal equipment, drenched by an unexpected storm, scrambling for two highly conductive cables. The irony of the situation is not lost on me—the one thing that can save us, a route down away from the storm’s likely striking point, is a metal cable begging for an electric charge.
I cannot help but question why I ever chose to come here. This is neither the adventure I had expected, nor planned. But there is no time for doubt, and reflecting on the day’s events must be put on hold. For now, this is all a quick reminder that the summit of Half Dome, like many mountains, is more than a place of incredible beauty: it’s a wild landscape that offers visitors no shelter in a storm. I understand now why the park’s rangers have begun to limit the number of daily visitors to the summit—for all its beauty it is also a foreboding place.
As traffic has increased over the years so has the number of accidents; now, access to the Half Dome is restricted to 300 visitors a day, accessible to hikers only via the cable route. Much like the Hillary Step on Mount Everest, the Dome has a 100-meter section of steep rock that often finds visitors bottlenecked along the highly exposed east flank of the mountain.
On any given summer day there can be a line of hikers waiting to take hold of the bolted cables and foot boards that the park installs each spring to protect hikers from falling off the smooth granite dome. After a hundred years of foot traffic, the granite has become polished like glass and what was once an unassisted, albeit steep, hike to the summit has become a highly managed walk in the park, so to speak.
For me and my brother, the climb is no walk in the park—the mountain feels more akin to being inaccessible, especially when we arrived at the cable point only to discover we were too early in the season: rather than being upright the cables are lying flat on the rock, and the foot boards, rather than being every five feet apart on the east face, were simply not there.
We pay little attention to these details, but note an increased sense of exposure—we are now forced to clip ourselves directly onto the cables, so if we slip on the wet polished rock we do not barrel role to its base. Before attaching ourselves to the cables, we hesitantly slap them to see if they are carrying a charge. In a flash I’m reminded of when I was a young boy and my brothers and I would dare each other to touch the electric fence used to keep the goats from ravishing our garden.
Each time, without fail, I would experience a rush of anxiety and fear that if not for the unremitting pressure of three older brothers would have surely encouraged me home, unscathed.
Today I am left with no option, and in some ways have a newfound appreciation for shocking myself willingly all those years ago. It was a practice, albeit inadvertent, in overcoming fear, which has helped me realize that sometimes when we adventure in the wild we need to put fear aside and take risks in order to save ourselves in the long run.
Luckily, the cables for the time being are safe and we continue our descent. We each take hold of one, turn our backs to the ground and slide down as fast as we can. The friction between my hands and the cable begins to burn through my thin leather gloves. But I feel the electric charge dissipate around me, and ignore the increasingly painful sting of metal burning my hands.
Then, only 30 minutes after summiting, we are on the ground and able to take shelter under a giant sugar pine tree. Almost drunk from hours of being consumed by fear and adrenaline we collapse at the roots of the tree and lie motionless as we steady to the realization we are now, finally, safe. (As safe as one can be, under the canopy of a giant sugar pine tree in a storm!)
As I lay on the ground, I again feel weightless as the burden of fear and the instinct to survive lift. I think of how impossible it seems that on any other day there could be hundreds of hikers casually making their way to the top of Half Dome—the idea stands in stark contrast to my own immediate and terrifying experience. Yet the uniqueness of our experience has been defined by the weather—I know that, too. Even those who decided to make the shorter hike to the top of Yosemite Falls, or to the youth camps that inhabit the park, or came here today just to explore the sequoia groves surely had their adventures usurped by this unexpected storm.
Despite being held siege by that storm, I recognize how lucky we are to be alone on this spectacular mountain. In fact, I revel in it, because I know that in a place like Yosemite, being alone and completely isolated is hard work. Even when climbing some of the most challenging rock faces in the world, or backpacking through pristine meadows or wading across stunning glacier fed rivers, most adventurers still have access to the amenities afforded by a life of luxury.
I’ve adventured myself enough to know that even when you’re offered that rare and special feeling of isolation, of being completely free of worldly stresses and wholly connected to nature, you can finish the day by walking the aisles of a grocery store or drinking a beer in front of a hockey game.
Yet that is a juxtaposition many people experience when they visit Yosemite. The park’s unparalleled beauty and ease of access reflect a contradiction that is increasingly common in a society that values wilderness experiences conveniently packaged by national parks. The irony, however, is that without the manicured experience of a national park, we may actually run the risk of having no wilderness left to enjoy.
I am thankful for being in this park. Rather than improvising our ten-kilometer return hike to camp, we can follow a well maintained trail that, even if it were dark, would reduce our risk of getting into more trouble. It means that I can have a cold beer followed by a warm shower when I return to camp. It means my brother and I can call our mother and let her know we are safe.
The hike back is a happy one. I’m in that indescribable place of contentment—the one that follows the rush of adrenaline, the relief of being spared from nature’s awesomeness, the exhaustion from hours of physical and mental exertion. I can now freely enjoy the beauty of this amazing park.
Perhaps sensing my freedom, the sun breaks through the clouds, and we are greeted with a gorgeous view of Little Yosemite Valley. It is a quiet valley cast in a golden light, with tall grass dancing in the wind and the Merced River quietly flowing toward Nevada Falls. As if placed by an artist, the sierra butterweeds, lupines and castillejas paint the meadow yellow, purple and red.
I think to myself, “This is why I came here.” There is so much beauty, so many equally amazing ways to enjoy it. I am reminded of this even more so as we come across a lone hiker who seems destined for an adventure of his own, as he passes us in silence, shouldering a pack loaded for a week’s journey into the backcountry.
We continue down the trail, passing Nevada Falls and soon after Vernal Falls, finding dozens of other people making their way back to camp. Then, when the trail turns from hard-packed dirt to concrete, we know our adventure is nearing its end. My brother turns to look at me, a coy smile playing on his lips.
“Well, did we get an adventure?”
I stop to consider. “Sure did—maybe not the adventure we’d planned. But sure as hell the adventure we wanted.”
- Delano Lavigne is an expeditioner and mountain climber. This article first appeared in Outpost magazine and has been adapted.