The Half Dome Ceremony

Hiking is like aging — brutal and beautiful

Shanti Bright Brien
Modern Women

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The cables are the final challenge in the grueling 18-mile climb (Photo cred: Gus Gostyla)

This morning I face an ascent up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. I know these 18 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing; I’ve completed this hike three times before, at ages 19, 29, and 39. This time, I’m 49-years-old and in a week I will descend into mid-life with its ever-droopier skin and lonely empty-nest. It seems fitting that this morning I’m wearing crappy tennis shoes, unable to find my hiking boots as I rushed to pack for the trip. I ate donuts for breakfast, one glazed old-fashioned and half a maple bar, a birthday gift from one of my poorly-trained hiking mates. And so this fourth ascent appears to be shaping up to look a lot like life: a little haphazard and really hard.

I complete this ceremonial hike of Half Dome every ten years because it’s incredibly hard. As we set out before light and the walking feels easy and gentle, I reflect on my earlier ascents and my younger decades.

Age 19

I completed my first climb of Half Dome at age 19 with no training and no equipment, just some cut-off shorts, a plastic bottle of water, grubbing gloves and my manic father, Hal, who I just had begun to know a couple of years before when we both became students at UC Berkeley. With us were his girlfriend, Lauren and my boyfriend, Bill.

Hal and Lauren hiked a lot at home and ran for fun. At 19, I had never really hiked. Anything. No mountain, no hill and certainly no Half Dome.

We had started the hike too late in the day. It was nearly 10 o’clock in the morning and most sources recommend leaving at 6:00 am if not before. I remember the heat pressing down on my dark hair. I kept my head down, climbing the relentless rock stairs leading to Nevada Falls. Hal and Lauren were giddy and ran ahead of me and Bill. They circled back, telling stories of a special bend in the creek, a particularly delightful squirrel.

Despite weary legs, I felt the forest encouraging me. Epic granite formations and endless pine trees, small green valleys of grass, waterfalls exploding with cool water. When we reached the base of the dome, I grabbed gardening gloves from the communal pile and began up the cables–a set of thick metal ropes fixed into the granite and about waist high. They help on the steep, slippery final ascent. The danger of the situation didn’t register in my teenage brain. We even took our hands off of the cables for a picture and sat on the top casually letting our legs dangle over the ledge, thousands of feet to the valley below. Hal said a prayer to the North, East, South and West. I glanced at Bill, a little embarrassed.

“Maybe we should get going.” I suggested. It was already close to four in the afternoon. Hardly anyone else lingered on top.

Lauren and I inching up the cables, no harness, no rope. (Photo cred: the author)

The valley floor eluded us. Dark descended. Hal carried a small flashlight and we huddled near him, taking small, slow steps. Even at that pace, my legs burned.

We arrived at the campground: hungry, exhausted, and filthy. Without energy to eat, I collapsed into my sleeping bag. Bill held me as I wept, with physical exhaustion of course, but I had reached my psychological capacity as well.

In a way my childhood was over. It was not easy, but it was small. I went to public schools, graduating with the friends I had known since second grade. We hung out at The Mall. I moved around a lot as a kid but always in Modesto, always with my mom.

Moving to Berkeley expanded my world beyond explanation. I saw evidence of mental-illness everywhere: Half-naked people living on the sidewalks, a hostage crisis at a local bar that ended in two people being killed, and my own father’s constant crying. I began to know my Muscogee (Creek) heritage, while in classes I learned about global colonization, the genocide of Native America, and structural racism.

This new grown-up life I was entering was enormous, in its danger, its challenges, its possibilities. My first Half Dome hike ended with feelings of emotional overwhelm and a sense of the intensity of the decade to come.

Age 29

In ten years, I had graduated from college, secured a job in Oakland, and lived in a flat-roofed house in San Francisco with friends. We spent weekends in the Castro or at the Elbo Room dancing. I went to law school, got married and moved with Doug, my husband, to New Orleans where I started my career at a well-renowned law firm.

When I set out on the Half Dome journey again, I was 29 years old. Our daughter Lilli was born not long before. Instead of sleeping, she cried. The whole period is blurred, my body exhausted and my mind confused. It’s unfathomable to me now that I had the energy to climb Half Dome’s 18 miles.

Yet, the hike was as beautiful as I remembered. It felt like coming home to drive into Yosemite Valley. Doug was between jobs and we generally felt unsettled and anxious. Thankfully, nature acted as a salve. The drama of the Valley with the walls of El Capitan rising above added perspective; my problems shrunk into proportion. And at the same time, when I thought of the timeline–the millions of years it took to form the monumental valley, thousands of years that the indigenous people inhabited it, hundreds of years some of the trees had been growing–I felt patient.

When we reached the subdome — itself a grueling set of stone stairs, we began to get excited. “Almost there” we reassured each other. As we approached the cables, two rangers warned people of an incoming storm. The darkening sky supported their story. To come all this way and not get to the top? I thought he would race past them with a dismissive wave. Instead, we sat down and put our heads in our hands. I saw the dirt caking my shoes and creeping up my ankles like a pair of brown socks.

We turned around instead of risking the storm. (Photo of stormy Half Dome by Andrew Charney on Unsplash.)

“We shouldn’t risk it,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “we’re parents now.”

With a turn and a sip of water, we started back down. Gone were my twenties, the precious time between college and kids. Not that we didn’t have work and careers, but the spaciousness of a weekend — the nonchalant decision to see Cowboy Mouth at the House of Blues on a Tuesday night, the blessing of a full night’s sleep — those days were done. And this hike –this ceremony of closing one decade and entering another–marked that ending. It also meant the beginning of motherhood, its own grueling, sweaty, awe-inspiring journey.

Age 39

My thirties had begun with a flurry of crying babies, new cities with short term apartments and rental furniture. We had schlepped our family around the country, following Doug’s career.

By the time of my ceremonial hike at age 39, my life had settled into a regular, if not tedious, rhythm. Our kids–ages 12, 10 and 4– could feed themselves and went to school all day. I had a decent legal practice and we lived in quaint suburb of San Francisco. I felt like a grown up: settled and prepared. I even brought some safety precautions for the cables: a rope around my waist with two carabiners that I would stop and re-hook every 5 feet, between the vertical posts holding down the cables.

Weeks before the trip the Hanta Virus–an obscure virus carried by mice–broke out in the Valley and six tourists had died. We upgraded from Curry Village — the outbreak epicenter — to the Ahwahnee, the classic, stately hotel with an impressive wood dining room and fireplaces the size of studio apartments.

The intensity of the hike and the majesty of the view soon put the life-threatening virus out of our minds. After the grueling stairs of the sub-dome and the precarious crawl up the cables, we were just damn happy to be on the top. My friend Hilary revealed tiny pink cans of champagne for all of us. We cheered “To Forty!” “To the top!”

We made it to the top on the second try together. (Photo cred: the author)

The next morning the buzz had faded, replaced with pain and doom. I couldn’t walk down the three stairs into the lobby. Two of our friends had awoken to a whole colony of mice scurrying around their room and over their toothbrushes.

“We will gladly comp you one night, Sir,” said the woman at the front desk.

“I am not concerned about the money (although I am not paying you a dime) what I want to know is when….should I….expect….to die?!?” our friend George said.

Two weeks later we celebrated the end of the hanta virus incubation period. I celebrated making it up another impossible mountain, surviving another decade of deadlines and dirty laundry. The decade had been more challenging than the previous, for sure; the mountain seemed to get steeper actually. And my forties would prove this true.

It started with my husband’s company receiving a subpoena from the Department of Justice. The investigation sent me into an almost 7 year tailspin. I worried my husband would go to prison, I lost motivation in my career as a criminal defense attorney, and I got worn down by two teenage daughters and their age-appropriate yet stressful travails.

Although my husband’s company withstood the investigation without an indictment, our marriage didn’t fare as well. This culminated with two brief separations coinciding with another, more dangerous virus, COVID 19. My marriage, then about 20 years old–and until then the solidity in my life–was disintegrating under me, leaving me unmoored and panicked. Exactly as the pandemic did.

Doug and I dredged through two years of counseling, therapy, fear and tentative reconnection. And as the pandemic lightened yet lingered, my birthday and my next climb up Half Dome loomed ahead. I needed closure on my 40s and I needed inspiration for what I imagined would be the hardest of the decades — my 50s.

Age 49

This hike is as much a celebration as a ceremony. I have brought the party with me. Four couples. Three women who have known me my entire adult life: Susie, Laura, and Hilary. All have helped me survive the last decades, and most recently my marriage problems. This is my sacred crew. And they will travel with me as far as they can.

As we set out, walls of granite soar to meet the lightening sky. Under feet: dirt, twigs, pine needles and small bits of ground up granite. I think that once these little pebbles belonged to Half Dome, but after millions of years of wind and sleet and hikers, they have become the trail.

Even the fourth time it feels fresh. The rawness and simplicity of soil, granite, and rushing water, the smells and the soft dirt underfoot, gradually become…everything. They soothe the anxious and the hectic of normal life just with their being. The regularity of the steps acts like a mantra or a soft drumbeat, encouraging me onward.

The first to drop off is Laura. Then Hilary, a long-retired marathoner, turns around too. Susie makes it up the sub-dome but a fear of heights prevents her from trying the cables. I appreciate them, their listening and their cheering me on, and yet I know that no one, even a husband or a friend of 30 years can do the steps for me. My body, my legs, my feet with the crappy tennis shoes, must carry me up this mountain.

After hiking for four hours, much of which is stairs carved into rock, I face the cables. I know they are as much a psychological as a physical challenge. It’s slippery and sheer. I unclip my carabiner, move it past the railing, then the next. I have patience with the other climbers; they are tired and nervous. I remember my own first time, at just 19, and how even so young and naive, I was exhausted and scared, too. I didn’t know what my body could do.

And then I reach the top of Half Dome. It is the top of the world. I feel awe; some greater spirit has made the dramatic, dark green mountains, carved this curving valley, and made this enormous silver gray rock. I say a silent prayer to the North, to the South, to the East, to the West. I thank this creative and awesome spirit for the naive love and curiosity of my teens, for the dedication and joy of my 20s, for the beautiful challenges of kids and lawyering of my 30s, for the heartbreak and growth of my 40s.

Then I pop open my little champagne can. The celebration I needed, I give it to myself.

Doug sits down by me and offers me a smashed sandwich. I give him a sip of my bubbly. He’s hiked with me three times now. We agree this is the hardest time yet.

I shared a sip and only one sip of my celebratory champagne with my husband. (Photo cred: Gus Gosyla)

I hike half dome because it’s incredibly hard, just like life. Back-breaking and exhausting, mind-blowing and inspiring. I know going down, my almost-50-year-old knees will remind me “you’re an old bag, getting older by the step.” I will feel despair and overwhelm. And yet, when I keep walking, one step at a time leads me out of dark feelings into a patch of sunlight, where I see a tree that must be 200 feet tall, reddish bark and absolutely gorgeous. I will feel almost euphoric. And then I have to shit behind a tree and try my best to clean my ass. Or I will trip and get dirt up my nose, blood on my knees and palms. And then…..I will get back up. I have always, always gotten back up. The miracle of my own patience and perseverance strikes awe in myself. I can do incredible, unfathomable things. A trip up and down Half Dome reminds me of that. It’s my right of passage into my older, stronger, wiser self.

It’s a ceremony where I vow that I will make it. We need to mark our milestones. Ceremonies give us space to reflect and create meaning out of what we have done, who we have been, and who we want to be.

After a picture on the edge, on what they call the “diving board,” where it looks as though we could fall into the lush valley with a slight misstep, I turn to Doug, knowing the way down will be brutal, not unlike our marriage, not unlike life, and say, “I’m ready, let’s go.”

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Shanti Bright Brien
Modern Women

Author of Almost Innocent. Lawyer to criminals, mother of mayhem, daughter of cowboys and Indians. Champion of equity and fairness.