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Soul Hiking to Half Dome

    The beginning of my hike to Half Dome in Yosemite was routine. 8 A.M. Daypack loaded with snacks. Water filter. Camera. Hi-tech hiking stick to aid my bum knee. With an elevation gain of 4000 feet to the top at 8,842, the 17-mile, mountain marathon was longer than I was used to. In my late fifties, I was in pretty good shape, but living near sea level, my lungs were beach weak.

    The hike went well initially. I trekked up past some elegant Sierra plumbing: the rainbowed Mist Trail, roaring Vernal Fall, equally roaring Nevada Fall, to a long level section that ended where the trail to Half Dome angled to the left. Gaining altitude, I paused often, learning first hand the relationship between respiration and inspiration.. Above the falls, the trail was hot and dusty, my legs blackening with the dust that sweat collects. The mountain sky defined blue.

    Walking alone, I could choose my own pace, concentrate on my body and its changing needs. It was a tough hike, and, with Half Dome in sight, I encountered a man lying on the ground like a fallen gladiator.

    �Coming down or going up?� I asked.

    �Not up. Not me. I know when I�m licked,� he said, shaking his head and smiling. �People live long lives in my family and I aim to keep it that way.�

    �Pretty tough climb, eh?�

    �Well, I�ve met a lot of people who�ve turned back.�

    Turning around was still an option. I�d thought about scaling Half Dome for a long time, each year having yet another excuse for not going. It was starting to feel like one of those jinxes that plague an athlete late in his career. Time was not on my side. So this time, looking up the daunting fanny of one of the most famous pieces of granite in the world, I was unwilling to turn back. Not yet.

    I had always pictured the Half Dome cables as more a simple ladder, and that the task would be relatively easy. No one ever adequately described this Rube Goldberg-array of metal cables, iron posts, and wooden planks that in Wabi Sabi terms was devolving into nothingness. The cable climb was about 600 yards, with a pitch of 35 to 60 degrees. By comparison, the steepest street in San Francisco is 31.5 degrees.

    I realized this was to be the hardest thing I�d ever tried. Reaching each post was an individual Iwo Jima. But, like that battle, each victory did not insure things would get easier. In fact, as the slope intensified, so did gravity�s pull on my body. I was teetering at my limit of physical and emotional endurance.

    About half way up, exhausted, my right calf badly cramped, I stopped and seriously questioned the rationale for continuing the climb. I�d guess Columbus, Drake, Marco Polo, and Magellan may have done the same. Each must have reached a watershed: continue on to an uncertain and ominous destination or turn back to the familiarity of the homeland. Such decisions, and subsequent action, shaped the world as we now know it.

    To climb further and risk bodily injury on the possible journey to glory, or retreat down the cable to the mediocrity of certainty and safety? It was at that moment, that an angel appeared�an angelic human being�descending this monolith on the same creaking, Inquisition-like cable system.

    �You can make it,� she called to me. At first I didn�t realize she was talking to me. �It�s worth it. Just keep going.�

    I turned to see a bright-eyed girl, perhaps 13 or 14. She flashed a smile as we exchanged glances. The caring of another human being is a powerful motivator�a reminder of the inherent goodness of our species. �Thanks,� I replied.

    �Sure,� she answered with that smile that could inspire an army. �You can do it.�

    In a blink, she was gone. But the image of that sweet girl remained in my mind�s eye like a fond memory of a kind and loving relative.

    I squinted up again at the summit. My thinking mind quieted, and I exploded up like a racehorse prodded by a jockey�s whip. Resting and panting at the next post, I had made tremendous progress on the strength of that girl�s good will and grace.

    That young girl and I were not separate in that moment of Epiphany. She was my soul beckoning me to explore my limits and then venture beyond. In a spark of insight, I saw how human beings evolve spiritually and emotionally.

    A few more spasms up past conquered posts and the grade finally eased near the top. I�d done it: I�d climbed to the top of the great Half Dome in Yosemite National Park�a lifelist hiking goal accomplished.

    And the angel was right: the view from the top was worth the effort. And the feeling inside was even more expansive than the view. I crashed and lay on a hard slab of granite, and after what seemed like a long time, got up, strapped on my gear and descended, practically repelling down the cable, without fear.

    Darkness filled Yosemite Valley as I reached the trailhead just before sunset, twelve hours after I�d started. My feet were sore and I felt the strain in my legs, shoulders and arms. My knees ached but survived intact. I was hungry and tired, but not concerned about either in my enchanted state.

    Climbing on the shuttle bus, someone spoke from across the aisle.

    �Did you just come back from Half Dome?� he asked.

    �I did,� I smiled, glancing back.

    �How was it? We were thinking of doing it tomorrow.�

    �It was very good,� I replied. �It was hard but very good.�

    I paused, thinking back to the cable and that wonderful girl, adding, �You should do it. It�s a challenge but definitely worth it. You should do it.�

    �2005 by Stephen Altschuler

    Stephen Altschuler is the author of The Mindful Hiker: On the Trail to Find the Path (DeVorss, 2004). You can discover more about his books and ideas on nature and spirituality at www.mindfulhiker.com