#24 It’s Not How You Start

It’s How You Finish 
By John P. DeGrazio 
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Gary and John on the Summit of Half Dome

I was up at the plate with a runner on second base and one out. I hit the ball pretty well but lined out to the right center fielder for the second out. Our cleanup hitter followed with a fly out to right. It was the first time all tournament we failed to score a single run in the first inning. Momentum works for and against you in a softball tournament, and I picked the championship game of the NYC corporate sports league to let my team down. It didn’t help that we were playing the top seeded team in the bracket who immediately scored seven runs in the bottom half of the frame.

It was early September 2001 on a beautiful late summer afternoon in Central Park and only a few short days before the world would change forever. Long before my career shift, I was the leader of this team who was tasked with corralling ten egos while choosing positions and setting the lineup. Somebody had to play catcher, and somebody else had to bat last. It was much more challenging considering I was dealing with a group of “type A” stock traders aged 22-32. We normally rallied around each other, and some of us were likely to get fired up, but we had an unwritten rule to never resort to any artificial motivation like bringing everyone into a circle for a “got team” type moment. When we arrived at our dugout trailing by seven after the inning, all eyes turned to me to provide some inspiration, however. I noticed that although we gave up a lot of hits, nobody was down. Although some of the guys were expecting me to lay into the team, I took a different approach. I looked everyone in the eyes and started to laugh. I thought about it in the moment, and instinctively, it felt like the right thing to do. All nine of my teammates joined me in a moment of levity. I did tell them there was a lot more game to be played and even shared the old “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish” sports cliche. Soon, the whole team was completely loose and ready to play some ball. We scored nine runs in the second and never gave up the lead on our way to winning the championship.

I met Gary at the trailhead, and he was excited to greet the day with a life altering challenge. We commenced the hike with a brisk pace. I normally allow the group to set the tone for the first half mile just to shake out some of the nervous energy. On this day, it was only Gary and I hiking so I explained we will take as long as we needed to complete our trek as long as it was reasonable and he remained up to the challenge. As anyone who has completed this hike knows, we start out with that half mile stretch on flat ground and then go right into a steep climb for the next three miles. We climb 1000 feet in the first mile and a half to get to the top of Vernal Fall. It was a smoky, hazy morning as a fire was burning in the park which can be typical in summer. Unfortunately, this made it slightly more difficult to breathe.

Gary began to struggle on the Mist Trail up to Vernal Fall. I noticed his frustration immediately and shared a few words of encouragement. It’s not uncommon for explorers to hit a preliminary wall on this hike as you rise steeply from the Valley floor through the Merced River Canyon. I like to advise them to view it as an early hurdle to overcome. “Trust your training” I implored, but each step up renewed his feeling of helplessness. Our summit attempt was in jeopardy. I began to offer more reassurance at our first rest stop above the waterfall. “It’s not how you start the hike..” I offered while munching on energy bars, but Gary was subdued. I gave him some space to sort out his thoughts, and we soon continued along the path.

Reaching the top of Nevada Fall was difficult, but Gary persevered. I mentioned that we would traverse a flat area behind Half Dome where he could catch his breath, so to speak. Motivated, we marched on toward Little Yosemite Valley.

Something transformative happened along the way to the cables. Despite our dramatic elevation gain from LYV to the Sub Dome, Gary was no longer feeling distraught as he gained confidence with every step. His strength returned to him. He actually grew stronger as the trek continued through the most dramatic landscape of the upper mountain.

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Touching the Half Dome Summit Rock by John P. DeGrazio

The haze from the fire did nothing to diminish our enjoyment of this accomplishment. I sensed how special a moment this was for Gary so I stepped away to allow him some time for reflection. I remember finding a rock to enjoy this shared success while observing him from afar. I began to truly understand the emotional connection people make with this journey in that moment. I felt extremely fortunate for the ability to help bring people to a meaningful place. Regardless of where they are from or what stage of life they are in, each person I share this mission with experiences an unmistakable catharsis when we reach the apex that allows me to appreciate that path I have chosen in my own life.

I have always thought of myself as a leader and relish moments when I was able to bring leadership to a situation that helped others to succeed. From my perspective, every member of a group or team is an individual leader. To me, it was Gary’s strength and leadership that led us to the summit of Half Dome in July 2009. And for that, I am thankful for his powerful finish.

YExplore Lead Adventure Guide John P. DeGrazio has reached the summit of Half Dome more than 100 times. In this series, he will recall 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 contribute 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.

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