It is an icon, it defines a park, it defines nature, it represents wilderness, it represents commitment. Half Dome will always be Norma.
The role of a rock can change. Knowledge of the trail to the cables moved Half Dome from icon to obsession. The cables allow access to the top; they allow access to the summit of Yosemite.
I joined Norma for an early start on the John Muir Trail. I know Norma. Her stride is a reflection of her strength, her power a reflection of her character, a glimpse into her life. We have backpacked the Rockies, walked in the Grand Canyon, hiked all over Arizona, yet I remain distant, reluctant to step across a self-imposed void, reluctant to explore a close friendship, afraid she will think I want more.
We are alone, nature providing all sensory input. Our minor contribution to the morning consists of our presence. What little noise we make is subdued by a river that will not sleep. Millions of drops of water running from the mountains to the sea. Each drop, in turn, rediscovering the same fall, the same rock, the same log the drop in front has already forgotten. Millions of excited voices, mixing, announcing their new discoveries, quickly passing from one find to the next, each new discovery more important than the last. They combine, random voices, the result of varying degrees of disruption, to create a natural harmony, a soothing harmony, a harmony capable of silencing civilization.
Half Dome’s challenge lies beyond the physical, it is an emotional challenge, one must keep moving. Vernal Falls’ broad curtain of water, a placid Merced River flowing high above the turbulence of Nevada Falls, views of Half Dome, Liberty Dome, sounds and smells, my brain cannot keep up, the input is too rapid. I want to stop, stop and let the story unfold, but the story will wait. Time and a steep trail urge me on. I have a goal, I want to stand on top of Yosemite and let the park flow into my soul.
Sunlight Captured in the Mist of the Merced River
The trail continues its siren song, wanting us to slow, wanting us to linger. Like a good book, one you happily read again, knowing you will gain more, knowing you will understand more, Yosemite is inviting me back. It is an invitation I will accept, I must reread this trail.
Another chapter unfolds; Norma and I reach the steep shoulder of the icon. The trail is difficult to read, it is a scramble. After a false start, recognized when the trail turned technical, we find our way and are resting on the shoulder.
With Norma on Half Dome’s Shoulder
I know my mind, her calm reveals hers, I do not try to read her face, or sound her out. I am silent, my fear of heights focused on the narrow strip of exposed rock connecting the shoulder to the cables, the summit well above my peripheral vision. I am intimidated, I am determined; I will stand on top of this park.
Without a glance, without a word, I stand, walk forward, place a foot and grab metal. Wire splinters remind me of my gloves, yelling back to Norma, I glove my hands and climb.
My boot’s firm grip on the rock is comforting, my grip on the cables instinctive, the slope forcing my knees near my chest as each step pushes more of Half Dome below me. I want these cables behind me, I want this over but my heart demands rest, I must slow its beat, I must slow my breathing. Not wanting to know, but wanting the full experience, I look down. The experience is motivational; I place my boot and drive. One more break, then another, then another. I will stop no more, this must be behind me, it must be over, I will not stop again. My legs begin the final push, my pulse accelerates, my heart demands rest but I will not listen.
Half Dome is no longer above me, I can go no higher, for the moment I see nothing but her smile, her elation. I cannot react; my lungs are inadequate, involuntarily sucking air, my pulse rivaling hummingbird’s wings. I can no longer ignore their demands, I must rest.
We are on top, the knowledge enhancing my senses. My mind screams, I must look everywhere, I listen for every sound, I feel the sun, the wind, the rock, I inhale clean air, I taste freedom, I understand Yosemite.
One fear behind me, I face another. She wants to celebrate; I can see it in her face, read it in her body language. The hug we both want will not occur.
A few years have passed since Norma and I pulled ourselves up this rock. Sitting on Half Dome’s shoulder, I glance from the cables to her picture; I see strength, a passion for the outdoors, a love of life. I see distance I should have crossed, a close friendship moved beyond my reach. Norma’s chapter finished too soon, her ashes are scattered in the desert she loved. I carry her photograph, I hike with her memory.
Half Dome will always be Norma.