You Always Remember Your First Time
By John P. DeGrazio
It’s got to be at least 95 today. I think my sweat is sweating. I need to change this shirt. It stinks. And where did all these people come from? This trail is packed. Making our way down this longer trail was harder than I imagined, especially with no water. Why didn’t I just drink the iodine water? My left knee is barking like my dog when she sees a squirrel running through the trees outside my apartment window, but I’m going to try to ignore it. It’s not working. At least I have these raisins to suck on. Wow, did we do a lot of things wrong on this trip, but we made it to the top. What a view! What’s next?
It’s hard to believe that was already 11 years and over one hundred times ago. Half Dome has been calling my name ever since we planned that fateful Yosemite trip for the Fourth of July weekend in 2003. It was a trip that changed everything. I went from being an adventurous weekend warrior to dreaming about starting my own adventure company in a matter of 12 hours. My questions went from asking about how long was it going to take to how can I find a way to come back here. Permanently. In retrospect, it was a magical day.
The day started early. 3am! We stayed in a quaint little B&B that rented their private guest house to our rowdy (hardly) group of 5. They couldn’t believe that we chose to forego breakfast (definitely the best part of any B&B) in order to start our pre dawn hike. Our lodging was relatively close to Yosemite Valley in terms of mileage but the lower speed limits on windy roads left us preparing for additional drive time. We drove through Mariposa to pick up the rest of our hiking team and were in the Valley by around 6am.
The hike began up the Mist Trail and we made steady progress to Nevada Fall. Looking back at these photos of Vernal and Nevada, you can see this was a pretty healthy snow year.
We posed for a quick photo along the trail and parted ways with Catherine and Alice who were content with reaching the top of the waterfall before taking their time heading down the JMT at a leisurely pace.
They were determined to enjoy the rest of the day back at the lodge and more importantly, go to the store to prepare for a feast when we returned.
Cindy, Rod, Dave, Ram, Ed, and I continued on to the summit and trudged our way up to Sub Dome. At that point, Cindy found the comfort of a shady Jeffrey Pine to read her book and recharge her battery. Rod had reached down for his last ounce of energy and decided it was time for us to leave him behind as well. We tried to convince him to stick it out but eventually relented and moved on without him. We were down to four. On the Sub Dome, our legs and lungs began to burn. Step by step, we were accomplishing our goal.
Facing the cables for the first time was a bit unnerving. We settled down on a rock and removed our suede garden gloves from our packs. The cables were difficult. So difficult that I remember thinking that I might not have what it takes to make it to the top. This, of course, was crazy talk since I had already accomplished a much more difficult summit in Mt. Rainier; but doubt is a real thing and can strike at any time. We huffed and puffed and made our way up the chaotic cables to the top where Ram immediately plopped himself down on a nearby rock. Elation overcame us all, and we were quickly scampering around the summit posing for victory photos. I remember that feeling like it was yesterday.
Back then I saw it as conquering the Dome. A transformation occurred many years later in how I viewed this accomplishment, but the feeling of unbridled excitement remains with every successful summit.
We ate our lunch along with our cans of peaches, and took some more photos before retreating. We returned to the cables and gleefully witnessed Rod making his final ascent. It was an amazing story, and one that helped shape my outlook as a guide. Rod had never given up on the climb, he just needed a little more time to make it. Knowing what I know now, I would have been more assertive to accomplish the goal together as long as Rod had been willing to try; but back then, I was more focused on my own achievement. It was a truly valuable lesson for all of us, and Ed and Dave went back up to the summit with Rod while Ram and I enjoyed a little extra rest before we all departed together down the tangled sea of humanity. It was the pre-permit days, but not quite the madhouse of 2010.
On the return trip, we shared lots of great ideas. Crazy, far fetched ideas. I never claim to be the smartest guy in the room and would rather choose another room to be in if it’s close so it was a fruitful exercise in preparing a business plan. This trip was more than just a weekend adventure for me, and on that summit, I realized that the mountains were where I wanted to start the next chapter of my life. I’m not going to lie and say John Muir’s “The mountains are calling and I must go.” was my call to action. I hardly even knew who Muir was at the time, but I did share his burning desire to spend my days out in the wilderness as he did over a century prior to our excursion. I knew one thing, the mountains and these adventures made me feel more alive than anything else so I began to ask myself, how can I turn this into a new career. I remember Ed distinctly focusing on the photography aspect of our day. It was the dawn of the digital camera age and his idea to find a way to create special adventures for people to share while learning how to use their expensive new toys. “Where else than in the land of Ansel Adams?” he so eloquently inquired. The idea was hatched.
The rest of the long slog back to the parking lot had me thirsting for more ideas and more water. We returned to the Merced River, and they dropped iodine pills into their water bottles. I was not thrilled with the idea and decided to hold out just a few more miles until we reached the water station at the Vernal Fall footbridge. Another lesson was learned, and I now bring my Katadyn Hiker water filter on every Half Dome summit trip. I sucked on raisins all the way down the John Muir trail until we reached the fanciful faucets of the filling station and drank until we were bloated. It was my insatiable thirst for adventure that would not be quenched that day, however.
We returned to our rented home for a delicious BBQ prepared by Catherine and Alice at around 8pm and were admittedly a little boisterous, but who could blame us? After a good night sleep, we were finally able to enjoy that hearty breakfast served by Kathy and Barney, packed our minivan, and headed off on our next adventure.
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 on 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. He 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 he has witnessed to the overall landscape of this trail as well as many interesting encounters along the way.