Guiding a 70th Celebration On Top of Half Dome
by John P. DeGrazio
“What is the age of the oldest person you’ve ever guided up Half Dome?” I often get this question, and here’s the answer I always tell. “Let me tell you a little story about a man named Stanley Kowalczyk.” Stanley Kowalczyk has more determination in his little finger than most people have in their entire body. Stanley loves Yosemite, and he decided to celebrate his 70th birthday with a visit to his beloved national park and an attempt to summit Yosemite Valley’s most recognizable landmark, Half Dome. This story is more than just Stanley and his epic journey, but also about a group that ranged in age from 19 to 70 but worked together as a team to reach the summit.
The day started as all other summit attempts begin at our meeting location with introductions and a safety orientation. During the introductions, we learned about everyone’s age, background, and various hiking experiences that would be shared throughout the rest of the day. It was a game of one upmanship as we made our way around the group starting with the Fergusons who were in their mid forties. Then came the Uhler clan with ages ranging from 50 to 62. Ed was confident he was the oldest in the group until we turned to Stanley who announced he just celebrated his 70th birthday. Then we turned to Jennifer, our assistant guide who hadn’t turned 19 yet, and you could cut through the tension with a knife. Ok, not really, but some fun comments did follow. As we hiked to the trailhead, we shared more stories, and when I announced I grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, Bob Uhler quickly turned the conversation into a lovefest for the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. I was happy to oblige.
It was a fantastic day for a hike, and everyone kept an even pace working together to reach our shared goal. The miles started adding up and so did the soreness for some of our group members. Stanley confided in me at our rest stop with just under two miles to the summit that things were becoming more difficult. I explained to him that safety is our number one priority and asked him if he wanted to continue. He affirmatively replied as if it weren’t even a question. Our pace had slowed a bit on the upper mountain, but that is natural with just about every group. I assured everyone we were doing well and were soon at the base of the Sub Dome.
We took our time making it from the Sub Dome to the cables, and stopped for our last safety orientation below the final 600 foot ascent. On the cables, we worked as a team going board to board in a methodical fashion. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen so many different approaches on the Half Dome cables. While, technically there is no wrong way to ascend them, I believe strongly in pulling yourself up using only one cable on the right side. I’ve seen countless people trying to navigate their way through this steep section by grabbing both cables and trying to swing themselves upward. I find two problems with this method. First, this becomes very tiring and burns out your forearms quickly. Climbing the cables requires both arm and leg strength, and, just as in rock climbing, I like to rely more on my legs because they are a lot stronger. This also allows me to reserve my arm strength for farther up the line when we pull ourselves up over some three foot granite steps on our route before we reach the summit. The second reason I teach our groups to use one cable is what goes up must come down. As in other hikers. When up climbers and down climbers both want to use both cables, it creates a huge logjam. If everyone stayed on one cable when there is two way traffic, there would less time that hikers will be stuck on the steepest, slickest part of the climb. It makes sense and can help prevent fatigue. What I love about sharing some of our techniques with others who are not in our group is the reactions we receive. The vast majority is receptive to our concepts, and many thank me at the top. Others, well, you can’t please everyone. My only goal is to avoid stress and make this a safer environment for everyone.
After several extended breaks on the roughly 60 boards leading to the summit, we made it. Stanley and the rest of our group were overjoyed. It was truly a special moment as Karen, Ed, and Bob unrolled a homemade banner in a tribute to their dad. Bob even removed his favorite Bruce Springsteen t shirt from his pack to wear for this special occasion. Karen’s husband Kevin and their friend Matt also joined in the celebration. Greg and Stacey were giddy as they hopped on all the rocks as they posed for their victory photos. Then there was Jennifer who hardly broke a sweat. I was happy to share this moment with every member of our group and honored to be the lead guide for a moment that was so special to everyone. Before we descended, I kidnapped Stanley and forced him to sit in a spot that was fitting for his accomplishment. He regally accepted the challenge and gazed into the Tenaya Canyon with amazement. We took a long time descending that day, and all were delighted to reach the parking lot. It was another spectacular day in Yosemite and one each of us will never forget.
YExplore Lead Adventure Guide John P. DeGrazio has reached the summit of Half Dome more than one hundred 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.