Rising Above the Pain to Summit Half Dome
By John P. DeGrazio
Taylor Swift is a genius. Yes, you read that correctly. The highly successful pop star has written many chart topping songs that appeal to millions of people. Blank Space is one of her latest releases and admittedly, anyone who has ever been in an impulsive tempestuous relationship can relate to many of the lyrics in the song. That’s not the point, however. As I was driving home from an afternoon trip to San Francisco yesterday, I laughed out loud when channel surfing led me to this verse of Swift’s tune “You can tell me when it’s over if the high was worth the pain”. At that moment, I happened to be parked in standstill Bay Area traffic on the 101 after making the decision to drive home over the Golden Gate Bridge. I was feeling nostalgic since my lifelong friend and I completed an exhilarating five mile run over the bridge just a few short hours prior to this current predicament. I may hike and cycle often, but I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination and had not completed a run in years. I am stating this because I thought about my pain the moment Swift sang those words. The moderate physical pain in my legs was expected and tolerable, but the anguish of sitting in traffic for one hour while only traveling seven miles was much more excruciating. Anyone who has driven with me knows the struggles I deal with in traffic. Yet, if you ask me “was the high worth the pain?” my reply would be “Absolutely!”
During the drive, I began to recall past guided Half Dome trips with the intention of sharing one that the participants experienced pain they had to power through to enjoy the reward. To be honest, this would be true of just about every trip I lead. This particular outing, as I remember, did not have any significant injuries but probably involved the most amount of pain for any clients I have led before or since.
All of the past stories I have shared on this blog have ended happily. This one does not. I have decided to omit certain details from Half Dome Summit #36 and will not share the participants’ real names. I fully understand that by sharing this story, a negative light may be shed on me and my guiding style. But these are all real accounts, good and bad; and I have grown from every one of my Yosemite experiences. I share them because they are a part of who I am and who we are at YExplore.
We received a call from Diana in May 2010. She and her best friend Kathy were planning a girls’ trip in Yosemite and were eager to attempt reaching the summit of Half Dome on a two day trip. They were both experienced backpackers but had major doubts about accomplishing their goal so they felt compelled to hire a professional guide. They had already obtained the permits from the wilderness office on their own, and the expedition hinged on whether we could secure permits for two guides. Having two guides for a group with only two travelers was a special request, but we honored it for safety concerns presented by Kathy and Diana. Both women each weighed over 200 pounds and suffered from assorted minor illnesses they disclosed on their health forms.
I learned early in my guiding career never to judge or underestimate anyone attempting to fulfill their dreams in Yosemite. That is why I accepted this challenge and agreed to lead Diana and Kathy, but their concerns quickly became my concerns as well. I chose Scott to be our assistant guide for this trip. Scott was somewhat reserved but was a trained EMT and had an undeniable love for the outdoors. His quietness actually turned out to be an asset on this adventure. After breezing through my first 25 commercially guided Half Dome summit trips, I had developed a confidence that I’d be able to answer this call. I attained vast experience coaching people through the final sections of the trek and relished this new opportunity to shine. I also knew not to be overconfident and took a balanced approach when setting a strategy for our group. I decided that we would each recognize that the summit loomed ahead on day 2, but our focus would be to break down the hike into manageable sections and to narrow our scope on each current section as we were in the moment. I continue to use this blueprint on every summit attempt.
Scott and I secured permits to join our guests’ group so the trip was officially a go. We proceeded with a gear check at the customary meeting location and realized this trip was beginning in difficult manner. One of the biggest mistakes in planning I made was to allow extra gear to be packed. Since the women were experienced and had established their own routines over the years, I trusted their judgment instead of being more assertive. This decision proved costly and is one I point to on all gear checks since this trip. Much of the extra clothing packed for this 2 day trip was unnecessary, and I have become more thorough in examining what should make the final cut and more persuasive in describing what may seem extraneous. I will ultimately let the clients make their own decisions but know they are counting on my leadership to make the experience more enjoyable for them. Packing several extra pounds of clothing and comfort items will detract from that enjoyment.
After unsuccessful negotiations, we departed. From early on in our hike up the Mist Trail, our group was uncomfortable carrying the extra weight in their backpacks. Our objective was to reach Little Yosemite Valley before dinner. Our pace was very slow, but we were all determined to meet our goal for the day. In hindsight, I can admit another mistake from this trip. Although the John Muir Trail is over one mile longer, it is not as steep as the Mist Trail. I gave the group the option of which trail to take. They chose the more scenic but also steeper Mist Trail knowing we would descend the JMT which would be much easier on their knees and hips with a full load. It is my job to recognize early struggles and be willing to take the lead when determining what is best for the group. I am more keenly aware of this now, but should have made this decision instead of creating a more difficult challenge.
We battled all day and were successful in reaching our camp a couple of hours before dinner. Scott and I decided to explore the area while our group rested at the established backpackers’ campground in Little Yosemite Valley so we set our sights on finding the Lost Lake. It was a perfect use of some downtime, especially since Diana and Kathy were very tired and feeling a little stressed about the efforts of the day. While walking around Lost Lake, Scott and I heard some branches snap not far from where we were walking. We looked all around and saw nothing. I then glanced into a stand of cedars and pines to see two eyes peering back at me. We had scared a young black bear up a tree. It was a fun encounter and a much needed relief from our afternoon. We returned to camp to cook our dinner and prepare the group for an early morning departure.
We awoke at 5 am and made our way to the trail with significantly lighter daypacks so the energy of the group had changed significantly. We had made it through a difficult first day with renewed spirits and positive attitudes. Once we arrived at the Half Dome trail spur, I could sense the fatigue really setting in. This is typical for this hike, and I am normally alertly aware of any issues that may be arising. I was locked in on this day understanding the possible health risks that were described before the trip. We adjusted the pace and continued moving upward. At this point, both Diana and Kathy were experiencing a significant amount of pain in their legs but were willing to endure. We made it up and over Sub Dome and continued to the cables. At the cables, we had another safety orientation and all agreed to advance with our ascent. Many clients appreciate our systematic approach to the cables, and it is consistently the most positive feedback we receive about this hike. Many share that they would not even attempt the cables if not for the leadership and guidance through this stressful section of the hike. I am greatly aware of the fears and apprehensions of members of our groups when we reach this point. I always give a maximum effort and show acute sensitivity when leading this section. I know that people are literally putting their lives in my hands, and I relish that responsibility.
Once our group found a rhythm, we actually traversed the cables with relative ease. We celebrated on the summit with some photos and an extended rest. We knew the long task of the descent was still ahead of us, and pain from our two day journey was becoming more evident with every step. One thing I emphasize on summit day is that reaching the top does not end our struggle. It is a long 8 mile descent on tired knees, ankles. and hips. I implore the group to maintain a mental focus that is razor sharp to keep things in perspective, and most importantly, to try to avoid injury.
By the time we reached camp, the morale of the group was low. The hurt was becoming harder to tolerate for Diana and Kathy, and they were regretting their decision not to plan for a three day trip. This would have given them extra rest time and the ability to start the next day fresh with less of a struggle. By the time we broke camp, stiffness had set in and we were in for a long journey to the parking lot. I will spare the gory details of the rest of the day, but unfortunately it did not end well as we ushered in the darkness from the trail.
Many times, we must fail in order to succeed. I was disappointed because we accomplished something great together that day, but the focus of the end of the day was only on the negative. I failed to understand the severity of the situation and could not physically understand how we could be moving so slowly. I tried to sensitively inject encouragement to move a little faster, but every attempt was rejected. I became somewhat insulted because I felt I was being viewed as being insensitive to their discomfort. I had trained with other well respected guides who had a very relaxed style when ending trips by providing space to everyone on the way down. That allowed the clients to spend more time alone to reflect on the day and to give everyone a healthy break from each other. I began to move ahead at a slightly faster pace as Scott stayed behind with both women. I would move about 100 yards at a time while Scott patiently took every step with them. Each time I slowed down, they would slow down more, but I would wait until they caught me before advancing. We continued to do this until the conclusion of the hike. It also gave them a chance to vent their unfiltered frustrations with Scott who was apparently a very good listener.
During this extended time, I did a lot of soul searching. I was extremely proud that I led this group to the top of Half Dome and felt it would be my crowning achievement as a guide. But then why did I feel like I was failing at the moment because we were not finishing the hike together? Scott was an able leader whose patience that day was a stronger attribute than anything I had shown. It was such a humbling experience to achieve such a great success and epic failure on one excursion. It was truly a huge moment of growth for me. While I was appreciative to have such a strong assistant, I knew I had to improve certain skills to help me become the best guide I could be. I learned a great deal about leadership that day and am more able to adapt to any situation as it arises. I train our guides to respond in that manner as well. Now, I am certain to end every trip the way it began, side by side with each client.
While I reflect on that trip often, I remain focused on the positives of what we all accomplished together; and I am confident the high was worth the pain for Diana and Kathy. Their achievement was astounding, and I remain proud to have been their leader and to have shared that responsibility with Scott. I believe strongly that he and I both acted positively throughout the trip and helped put our clients in the best position to successfully reach the Half Dome Summit while returning safely to the trailhead which is of equal importance.
Finally, if you’re reading this. I’ve got a blank Half Dome Permit, Taylor. And I’ll write your name.
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.