A 9 Year Old’s Journey to the Top of Sub Dome
by John P. DeGrazio
Success is not always measured by reaching the summit of the mountains we climb. Sometimes, our greatest success is determining when to terminate our summit attempt to avoid potential injury. This “live to climb another day” philosophy is not the most popular outlook in the hiking community and a tough one to swallow for some, but it is critical for all who come outdoors to enjoy the sports of trekking, peakbagging, mountaineering, and climbing. This is also one I have always struggled with personally, but as a leader, I embrace it wholeheartedly after over 100 successful summits of Half Dome. I have witnessed many people succeed and fail on this hike and even convinced several to accept the fact they would not make the summit while focusing on other major achievements of the day.
One day in August of 2007, I shared the trail with a family of 7 achievers from Scotch Plains, NJ who spent the day overcoming many obstacles on their path to success on the Half Dome trail. Growing up in New Jersey, I had first hand experience witnessing how tough East Coasters can be, and there’s always a soft spot in my heart for groups I lead from my home state. The summer of 2007 was our first year leading this hike commercially, and we already had guided several trips with people of varying skill and endurance levels so we felt confident we could escort Peter 47, Patricia 49, Peter 16, Julia 16, Mariel 9, Mariah 9, and Melody 9 to the summit if they felt they were capable. My partner Jacob and I had devised a safety plan, and we met the family at dawn to begin our journey together.
The morning was still young when we heard our first calls of doubt from the young triplets. We adeptly navigated both Vernal and Nevada Falls but not without intermittent complaints typical of young mouths connected to hard working legs. The girls were troopers and despite a few tears along the way, they all vowed to continue. After several conversations with Peter, Patricia, Jacob, and myself, the family was determined to continue until the triplets decided they had enough.
We continued on the upper mountain and made it past several known turnaround points with our group intact. To their credit, the triplets were stronger than many adults I’ve led on various hikes throughout the park, and they were proud of their accomplishment to make it to the 2 mile sign on the Half Dome spur trail. Shortly after that, we experienced our first meltdown. Jacob and I huddled and prepared to lead the family down to the Valley ready to fight another day. The group was undeterred and convinced their sobbing sibling to continue with a lot of positive and some negative reinforcement. Sometimes these hikes bring out equal parts good and bad in all of us so we shouldn’t always blame each other for things we say in the heat of the moment. Some of the words were very mild on a New Jersey scale, but sometimes siblings know how to push each others’ buttons. It worked as we experienced a full recovery all the way to the base of the Sub Dome.
We regrouped at Sub Dome and determined 5 of us would continue the hike while Jacob would stay behind and rest with the other 3. I must pause here to stress the importance of always having a safety plan on any hike you attempt and more importantly, having the flexibility to update that plan as conditions change. We executed our plan as we made it up to the top of Sub Dome with Patricia, the twins, and one of the triplets who was by far the strongest member of our party that day. One look at the cables and Patricia knew her limits. She also became very protective of her cubs at that moment. After a discussion with the twins led me to believe they wanted to continue up the cables, I was able to share the idea with Patricia who was adamantly against it. After some verbal massaging, I completely earned her trust that I would safely guide the twins to the top while she and her youngest stayed and rested on Sub Dome. I want to take a moment to explain that despite my methods of motivation, I never lead anyone on any of my trips to make decisions against their judgment. This was no exception. I was impressed with Patricia’s analytic thinking and honored that she believed in me to protect her children. The remaining pair listened to my every word and despite some early apprehension, we ascended the cables without incident. Success!
While taking our victory photos, we noticed that the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team was on the summit with a helicopter. They were conducting a rescue that involved 2 climbers on the Northwest Face. YOSAR is one of the most impressive groups I have ever witnessed in action. They are called on at any time to make rescues throughout the park. Many times they are asked to put their own lives in danger to protect the lives of Yosemite visitors, and for that we are all eternally grateful. Reading this report makes one realize how impressive their attention to detail really is so I would like to extend a thank you to YOSAR for the work they do.
Looking back on this experience, I think of those two climbers who were rescued and reflect on how vital it is to have a safety plan at all times. One small mistake can lead to a dangerous situation. I also think about the responsibilities I have when leading groups, especially with children. The day was an incredible success on so many levels, and every member of our group was able to experience a major sense of accomplishment from this trip. I remain impressed with the 9 year old triplets and their ability to persevere through many adversities to remain Jersey Strong. It was a honor to be trusted to make all the correct decisions that day. I also reflect on treks with my 9 year old daughter and how we are beginning to expand our adventures together as she continually pushes her comfort threshold. This past October we climbed to the top of The Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Her goal is to reach the summit of Half Dome with me, and I will think of the triplets when we make our attempt this spring.
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.