Hiking Half Dome for a Cause

To celebrate turning 40, a local writer gathered 14 of her friends and set out to scale to new heights. 

It started as a simple idea. Several of my girlfriends and I were turning 40 this year, and we decided that hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome&emdash;something many of us had done together in our 20s&emdash;would be a great way to thumb our noses at middle age.

To kick things off, I sent an e-mail to 25 friends to set the date and get commitment. Most of us met at Sacramento State in the late 1980s and have stayed close. Others were newer friends. I figured given career and family commitments, we’d wind up with a small group of six to eight. Twenty women responded that they were in.

A few months into planning, it occurred to me that this hike could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference. Last year, when I ran in the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure, I remembered passing a banner that read One in Every Eight Women Will Be Diagnosed with Breast Cancer in Her Lifetime. 

I’m fortunate to be blessed with a number of women in my life whom I’m close to, yet none of whom ever have been diagnosed with breast cancer. So that grim statistic hit me hard. I’ve heard stories of emergency mastectomies and descriptions of chemo treatments that felt like armies of ants marching through your veins. I wanted to help the fight against this horrible disease.

After much research, I created and launched our Fabulous 40 Half Dome for a Cause fundraising website, which would funnel donations directly to the local affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. 

Thanks to family and friends and several impressive fundraisers by our group, support started to pour in, accompanied by heartfelt messages such as Climb that rock and think of the strong women who win their battles every day and You are inspiring&emdash;thank you for doing this for women.

We surpassed our initial fundraising goal of $5,000, raised it to $10,000 and kept going. It was thrilling to watch the number grow; it helped cement our commitment to each other and to the climb.

One day at the gym, my well-meaning neighbor on the treadmill next to me said, Do you really think it’s responsible, risking your life making this climb when you have four small kids? At first, I laughed off his concern, cocky in the fact that this would be my fourth time up Half Dome; safety had never been a consideration. Then a realization set in: It wasn’t just about me. I was responsible for getting all of these women safely through a grueling hike. And, hello, we were 40 now, not 20.

So I turned the group’s attention to training. As anyone who has hiked Half Dome can attest, the hike itself is probably one of the most physically demanding things you can do. It is a 17-mile trek that usually takes 10 to 12 hours to complete and entails a 5,000-foot elevation gain through steep and often dangerous terrain.

At this point, there were 17 women still on the hike list, and we all chose to train differently. Some climbed Sac State’s bleachers and parking garage stairs. Others swam laps or biked around their neighborhoods. Three of us from El Dorado Hills climbed up and down the Serrano hill. As we got into shape, we remembered that attitude was everything and knew we had to look the part. So we hit REI with a vengeance: New hiking boots, hiking shorts, hiking socks and hiking sticks, and we were good to go.

Before I knew it, the big weekend arrived. After a last-minute shuffle Friday afternoon to arrange car pools around work schedules and baby sitters, the final 15 of us caravanned the 3 ½ hour trip to Yosemite. We stayed at a cabin my family has owned for 39 years, along with a neighboring one, in Wawona, a quaint community just inside the park gates. Our excitement grew with the arrival of each car.

After a carb-loaded dinner of homemade spaghetti, we began our final preparations, filling our hydropacks and making lunches to be eaten along the trail. One of the gals prepared a lovely bagel sandwich of smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers. (That wouldn’t have happened in our 20s.) A simple peanut butter and jelly and a gallon-size zippy bag of trail mix was all I needed.

Saturday morning, the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. and I woke with a jolt. Hike day was here. I jumped out of my warm bed, amazed that the rest of the cabin already was stirring. In silence, we methodically donned our matching pink tank tops that read Fabulous & Forty&emdash;Half Dome for a Cause and collected our coordinating pink leather gloves. We slammed down strong coffee, popped ibuprofen to head off muscle aches, and gobbled down energy bars and microwave oatmeal. The five hikers sleeping in the other cabin joined us. I said a silent prayer for safety as we gathered our packs and piled five each into three SUVs for the 45-minute drive to the Yosemite Valley.

We arrived at the designated parking lot and found the entrance blocked by a FULL sign. What? It was only 6:30 in the morning! This couldn’t be good. We were forced to turn around and park along the main road. After rolling out of the vehicles, we secured our packs, and trudged a mile and a half in crisp darkness to the trailhead. We officially hit the trail at 7:05 a.m., a respectable time to start the Half Dome hike. Or at least it used to be.

The first hour of the hike is aptly named the Mist Trail, as hikers get refreshingly soaked as they pick their way along a steep, narrow trail of slippery granite steps up the side of Vernal Falls. The mist created rainbows in the sun, and little streams of water trickled underneath our boots.
By the time we got to the top of the falls, I was exhausted. My quads burned, and there was an annoying rubbing on both my heels. Damn these new hiking socks. We rested and took a group photo at the crest of the falls, the valley below a magnificent backdrop. I assessed the group. Everyone looked exhilarated but tired just like me. We still had 10 hours to go.

The next few miles were less impressive from a scenic standpoint, but equally grueling as we zigzagged up a series of steep and dusty switchbacks. Dwarfed by majestic redwoods, we were thankful for their shade. It was starting to get hot; I gulped water constantly.

My heels were killing me. I had to stop and remove my boots. The moleskin patches were wadded up like chewed gum and both heels were bloody. Nice. As a few friends waited patiently, I removed what was left of the moleskin and cursed under my breath. I certainly was not going to let a little thing like blisters stop me.

Our group was now widely spread out along the trail, held together solely by a kindred spirit and a couple of sets of walkie-talkies. Regular check-ins confirmed everyone was still OK. Did you pass the lookout yet? or Who’s with you? were common broadcasts.

I’ve known most of these women 20 years, since we were giggling college co-eds. We’re now mature 40-year-old moms and professionals. As I witnessed the dogged determination among the group members, I developed a whole new respect for each and every one of them. The hike was brutal, but there was not a quitter in the bunch. I’m fine became our determined mantra. And we still giggled at every opportunity we found.

About two-thirds of the way up, I was trudging alone, frustrated that I couldn’t keep up with the two hikers in front of me. My lungs and legs were staging a mutiny. I simply couldn’t get enough air, my heart was pounding, my quads groaned with every step. I cursed the fact that I wasn’t acclimating better to the altitude. I stopped to rest on a rock and offered another silent prayer: Please, God, give me strength and endurance, and keep us all safe.

For the first time, it struck me I might not make it to the top. How ironic would that be? As I contemplated my options, a girl walked by, looked at my pink shirt with the breast cancer ribbon and said, I like your shirt. Thank you for what you’re doing. I was instantly reminded of the greater reason we were making this hike; it was just the burst of energy I needed.

I checked my watch. We were doing fine on time. As hike leader, I had set a turnaround time of 2 p.m. so that we could make it back down before dark. I hoped everyone farther down the trail was still OK.

I caught up with those ahead of me, and a few steps later we got our first view of Half Dome. It was at a strange angle, not the one you typically see in photos. And it looked so incredibly far away. Squinting, I saw what looked like a trail of ants marching up the side of the rock&emdash;and thunderheads. My stomach did a flip. We had to get going.

The last umph of the hike cruelly incorporated granite steps into grossly twisted switchbacks in a section called the shoulder. I was irritated at whoever created this trail. Couldn’t there have been an easier way? One of my friends and I tackled this last stretch as a team. Twenty steps and rest. We can do this. Another 20 steps, rest. We’re almost there.

At 12:15 p.m., we crested the shoulder and I was shocked to see that the infamous steel cables that help hikers up the last 400 feet of Half Dome were packed with people. What was worse, another 150 people waited in line to access them. It’s the only way to the top. I was scared&emdash;what if we ran out of time?

We jumped into line, flirting and joking with the strangers around us for the next hour as we slowly advanced. We anxiously watched behind us for the rest of our group. One by one, they came into view and our new friends graciously allowed each to take cuts so that all 15 pink-tank topped, pink-gloved women could ascend the cables together.

As I grabbed the massive cables and pulled myself onto the steep rock, I felt dizzy with anticipation. The wind was picking up. I hung on for dear life with my pink gloves and waited until the person above me inched upward so I could find a foothold. At this point, my legs were rubber; my arms were clearly doing all the work. I allowed myself to look down the cliff and all I could think was, Wow. If I slip, I’ll die. There was nothing to break my fall, just sheer, steep, slippery granite that looked like ice when the sun hit it.

As we continued up the cables, we passed three American soldiers headed back down. One of them noticed our pink shirts and thanked us for our efforts on behalf of his grandmother, a breast cancer survivor.

The top of Half Dome is a massive, desolate field of granite that looks not unlike photos you see of the surface of the moon. Only this surface was covered with people&emdash;of different ethnicities, age groups and fitness levels. I was dumbfounded. How did they all make it up here? It had taken me an hour to get up the cables and, once at the top, I was seriously wiped out and nauseated. 

I found my friends and, after high-fives and sweaty hugs, we plopped down on a long rock ledge. As each of our hike mates reached the top, we cheered loudly. When Jeanie, who was celebrating her 49th birthday by climbing with us, came over the crest, we broke into a rousing Happy Birthday. Strangers joined in. When the last one of us was in view, I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d all made it.

Too tired to do much celebrating, we took group photos, shared stories of triumph and ate lunch. My peanut butter sandwich had been mangled into a disgusting ball, but I gorged on it anyway. I was strangely numb, both physically and emotionally. It was a surreal feeling of complete exhaustion and euphoria.

Amazingly, my cell phone got clear reception, so I made an I made it call from the top. My family wasn’t home, so I left a long message detailing our success and extolling my love for each one of them. Later, I found out the message went simply Hi everyone, it’s Mom . . . then dead silence. So much for technology.

I took another moment to appreciate the view of the majestic Yosemite Valley, then checked my watch. It was almost 3 p.m. The thunderheads were getting closer and the wind was increasing. We needed to get off the mountain. We gathered our stuff and started back down the cables, knowing we still had five hours of hiking left to go.

Going back down was tedious. Gravity helped, but my legs were shot. When we finally made it back to our cars, ice chests of cold beer were waiting. I’ve never tasted a more refreshing brew.

We arrived back at the cabins at 9 p.m. in darkness, just like we’d left in that morning. It seemed an eternity ago. We exited the cars, groaning, limping and covered in dirt. I was sore and stiff beyond belief. For the first time that day, we showed our age, as we were more interested in showers than in the celebratory margaritas we’d envisioned. With 10 women and two showers in our cabin, we agreed ahead of time on the order of the showers (car drivers first) and on the technique (rinse, turn off water, lather, turn on water, rinse) to ensure lukewarm water for all.

After showers, we ate a hodgepodge dinner of pre-made salads and imported cheeses and salami. The bottles of wine and beer sat untouched, an unheard of phenomenon for this group. We curled up on the couches, icing swollen knees and sore joints as we discussed our adventure. I looked around at the group and got choked up. I was so impressed. We all did it.

My girlfriends surprised me with a 40th birthday cake, then we laughed some more and forced ourselves to stay up past 11 o’clock.

Back at home the following week, I told anyone who would listen about our accomplishment. Congratulatory messages flooded the fundraising website, where our total exceeded $18,000. Through this amazing birthday celebration, we triumphed over Half Dome, commemorated our friendship forever and did our part to help find a cure for breast cancer. I guess it’s not so bad being 40 after all.                     

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