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Conquering Half Dome is more than climbing up a mighty mountain

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Journal sports reporter Chhun Sun stands atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.


POSTED June 27, 2009 5:39 p.m.
When rocks turned into faces, I knew the end was near. They were glowing in the dark, soon after the light from our only flashlight ran across their ghostly stares.
I was silently going nuts.
About 15 hours earlier, my group of hikers started our ascent of Half Dome within Yosemite National Park on Saturday. I was a novice hiker, along with two others. The other two were brothers and they had some experience, including one who was making his fifth climb up this massive, unbiased granite mountain. The week before, a man fell 200 feet to his death.
I had these unsettling feelings from the moment I woke up for the trip and began packing a lunch with a few water bottles. My heart pounded a funny beat and my mind ventured into unwanted places. I began to treasure the last looks on people’s faces when I told them what I aimed to achieve. I had this nagging thought: How am I so different from the man who fell to his death along the same path I wanted to conquer?
“Good luck,” a friend offered.
“Nice knowing you,” my co-worker said.
“It’s suicide,” my sister declared.
I smiled back, went to the gym, knocked out a few rounds on the treadmill, elliptical and bike machines and earned a few extra hours of sleep. Of course, there was nothing I could do to truly prepare for this 16-mile hike, a good chunk of it in an upward motion through a forest. I only hoped that I wasn’t going to be the next casualty. I knew then this wasn’t just about conquering Half Dome.

Thoughts about dying
Our first stop was at Vernal Fall, less than two miles in. It was a lovely sight, watching the Merced River flowing downward, slamming hard to the river below and spraying mist onto the nearest visitors. During the day, the sight was incredible. We smiled and carried on.
It took us about six hours to get to the base of Half Dome. We walked alongside other hikers, a lot of them with hiking sticks. We talked and cracked jokes. We stepped aside for those who were granted with superhuman powers and ran all the way to the top. We climbed steps that were made out of rocks, making us feel like we were tagging along with Indiana Jones and one of his latest adventures. It was painful, but it was worth it.
From the base, I saw hundreds of people ascending and descending Half Dome, all of them holding on for their lives. All them knowing the risks involved. But not many decided to turn around. Not many decided to wait several hours for their group to get down after seeing the world in one of the most stunning views. I wasn’t going to be that person who decided hiking eight miles to look at Half Dome from the bottom was enough.
The only thing that was stopping me was a steady progression of about 500 feet, assisted with metal chains along the way. But there was something I needed to do before I put on my gloves and move upward: I needed to block out any thoughts of dying.

At the top
When trying to conquer Half Dome, don’t go with anyone who is remotely negative, or likes riling people up. Our leader knew a lot about this journey. He had plenty of stories, though the other people in our group didn’t always want to believe.
He reported a number of deaths. He told stories of people slipping on their way up. He told stories of people slipping on their way down. He told stories of people getting stuck halfway up the mountain, not wanting to go anywhere because of how high they really were. He told stories of people falling to their deaths after slipping on the cliff of Half Dome.
So, I had to block him out.
And I did.
The climb up took a lot of effort and concentration, of course. There was a stretch near the top where there are no people holding onto the chains or having their feet on the wooden plank. It appeared to be vertical. But once I got past that point, I was practically up Half Dome.
And the view was spectacular. No tall buildings. No cars. No malls, or stores. Just the appreciation that nature was at its best — trees and mountains galore — and it was something that you and previous civilizations could share together. I snapped a picture, but nowhere near the cliff at the end of Half Dome. I stood proud and accomplished, stretching out my arms to the sky as if to say I owned the world.
We were at the top after climbing more than 8,000 feet in elevation, but this was just the midway point ...

Nearing the end
It was past 5 p.m. by the time we got down Half Dome and we still had another eight miles to go. All the other groups of hikers had left and were way ahead of us. We would get back to our car after sunset. Due to the fact we had only one working flashlight, we decided to take a different trail on the way back to avoid Vernal Fall and its misty conditions.
We took a route that added an extra mile but was safer. With about two miles left, things got dangerous anyway. The two brothers and myself ran into a fork in the road. The two other hikers, who had a little hiking experience, were eager to get to the car and left without us. They went left, and our leader said they went the wrong way. So we went right. We missed a turn.
It took us through Vernal Fall, where we were showered in the darkness. And if that wasn’t scary enough, the wildlife decided to come out and visit. There was a deer less than 10 feet from us, just staring. I was completely exhausted, despite knowing that we got back on the correct course and were less than a mile from our car.
I was seeing things at this point. Faces in rocks and trees. I began to hear weird noises. I kept silent, knowing that I would eventually go home and sleep in my own bed.
About five hours later, I did just that.
And I was glad I didn’t die.
To contact Chhun Sun, e-mail csun@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2041.

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