The Glow of Half Dome
By John P. DeGrazio
Every story worth telling is crafted from an experience replete with highs and lows that are accompanied by the pain and triumph that ultimately go along with them. Humility will let you remember but not dwell on the negatives while relishing but not overstating the positives. It will also teach you that no matter how proud of your accomplishments you may be, there are always people out there achieving greatness under circumstances much more difficult than your own. This is not meant to diminish what you have done. Instead, it is a way to reflect and appreciate every opportunity to be great.
June 28, 2008 started the way many epic adventures begin, early. As I arrived at Glacier Point to meet Stephanie at 5 am, I was prepared to lead her on our 10 mile expedition from the Panorama Trail to Nevada Fall, then on to Half Dome. Some prefer this 20 mile roundtrip adventure to the shorter but steeper trek from the valley floor because it is traveled by fewer people, has less elevation gain, and provides world class, you guessed it, panoramic views. I was happy to see that Stephanie was on time, and I was prepared to get an early start when I received my first surprise of the day. She had convinced her friend Ryan to join her, but he was running a bit late. Shortly after we became acquainted, a car pulled into the parking lot and a muscular figure appeared from the shadows. He quickly approached us, and we were ready to make haste. Initially, I thought this was going to be a relatively easy attempt to hike Half Dome.
Ryan was bursting with energy and even offered to carry Stephanie’s gear for a little while to make up for lost time. He was also a profession photographer, and despite our delayed departure, he insisted we paused for a few more minutes to capture Half Dome silhouetted in the fiery glow of yet another spectacular Sierra sunrise. It was impossible to deny Ryan’s charisma and this opportunity to make a dramatic image.
As the sun rose above the high peaks, we continued on the trail toward Illilouette Fall without further incident. We hit our first snag on the climb from the bridge up to Panorama Cliff. Ryan felt some discomfort in his legs. He had been racing ahead of Stephanie and me for the beginning of the trek so he could capture more photos. He returned Stephanie’s pack to her as all the momentum escaped our group. Ryan kept to himself for the next half mile, but we could tell something was wrong as our pace slowed considerably. Once we arrived at Nevada Fall, Ryan admitted to suffering from leg cramps. This is a sign of dehydration and must be addressed immediately. He began to hydrate by drinking extra water and ate some salty snacks. I began to monitor him more closely from that point.
If you are in this situation, you must try to hydrate immediately with more than just water. Electrolytes are a must and can be found in many forms. As a result of this trip, I carry extra electrolytes to share with our groups as well as other hikers along the trail.
We were on our way traversing the John Muir trail while meandering alongside the Merced River when we witnessed our second amazing photo op of the day. A sow and her cubs were eating an early meal of plant shoots in an area between Liberty Cap and Half Dome. Several people stopped along the trail to witness these rock stars. It was still relatively early so the cubs glowed in the warm sunlight. We were all in awe as we snapped away for several minutes. All good things must come to an end, and Mama Bear sensed the growing crowd so she called to her babies. They reluctantly followed her up and over the rocks for a chance to recommence their breakfast without the bustling crowd.
Ryan’s condition worsened as we reached the 2 mile marker, and he complained of severe pain. He also admitted that he drank 3 Red Bulls over the past 12 hours since his red eye flight landed in San Francisco. He did not consume any of these ‘energy drinks’ since he met up with us, but the damage was slowly being done. I have learned many things throughout my experiences on this hike, but there is nothing more important than what I will share right now. NEVER, under any circumstances, should you drink these types of beverages while hiking in elevation. Dehydration is a serious hazard while participating in outdoor activities, especially at higher altitudes. A Brown Unversity health information web page shows these highly caffeinated drinks are dangerous for many reasons, including causing “dehydration of the body”. Of all the items you should bring on this hike, Red Bull, Rock Star, et al, should NEVER be one. Ryan learned the hard way as we continued to the summit while he spent the next couple of hours resting.
Once we reached the summit, we noticed a red clad crowd gathering on the dome. Stephanie and I were offered and accepted our own “Exercise Your Heart. Share The Beat.” t shirts. Part of the requirement was to help the group form the shape of a heart on the summit of Half Dome. Kelly Perkins, a heart transplant recipient, was set to complete a two day climb of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, and we became part of the group that greeted her. Kelly became the first person to climb the face of Half Dome with a heart transplant. This was after she completed the “easier” hiking trail route in 1996, just 10 months out of the hospital with her new heart. Serac Adventure Films chronicled the event, and we are in photo #10 in this gallery, an historic aerial shot of the group atop the dome. It was an amazing accomplishment and a truly humbling experience for all on the mountain that day. Sharing Kelly’s joy in connection with our own was an introspective moment. There was no need to compare the circumstances surrounding our chance encounter. We were all there with a shared sense of achievement and purpose. It was a transcendent moment.
Witnessing a glowing Kelly Perkins address the crowd was about all the emotion we could handle for the day. These three encounters had us feeling incredibly fortunate despite the apparent sensory overload. We met up with Ryan and began our ten mile journey to Glacier Point. He benefited from the rest, but we decided that a swim in the Merced River might help him recover more. The water was so inviting, we all jumped in to cool off from a long journey. At that point in the excursion, we knew our pace would be glacial and expected to hike out in the darkness.
To this day, hiking back to Glacier Point that afternoon and evening remains one of the biggest challenges I faced as a guide in Yosemite. Ryan suffered greatly as his legs failed him. We literally carried him up the mountain for the last mile and a half of hiking. Throughout the seemingly endless ascent up the Panorama trail, I never once though of my own pain. I was aiding a hiker who needed a rescue. I thought of the strength of Stephanie for being the other pillar to support her friend who literally could no longer use his legs. I also thought of the strength it took Kelly to reach her dream. I found other distractions as well. I can now look at the face of Half Dome from that trail and will forever be able to tell someone precisely how close we are to finishing the hike. Through this taxing struggle, I never thought of it as my worst experience on Half Dome. Quite contrarily, I often reflect on it as one of my best.
Please visit this site if you would like to make a contribution to Kelly Perkins Moving Hearts Foundation which was established shortly after her climb. If you are interested in reading about more experiences at Yosemite, please read here as well as an overview of all the hikes at Half Dome.
YExplore Lead Adventure Guide John P. DeGrazio has reached the summit of Half Dome more than 100 times. In this series, he will share stories from some of the most interesting journeys along the trail of Yosemite’s most popular peak. He will reflect on some of the most inspirational moments he has shared with hundreds of others while achieving their lifelong dreams. John will also share tips on how to properly prepare for such a long, arduous trek while providing insights on how to successfully complete this quest. He’ll also discuss changes to this hike he has witnessed throughout the years as well as many interesting encounters along the way.