An Eternal promise on Half Dome, Yosemite

Image

This is a deeply personal experience, and I share it with you with great pride and a deep sense of blessedness.

For the last week the temperature had been hanging around 19-22 degrees celcius – now it was 6am and already warmer.  The day was forecast to hit a peak of 36, which made the challenge to climb the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park all the more intriguing.

 

We faced a 10-12 hour hike, a summit of 2,694 metres above sea level and 1,460 metres above our starting position.  The cold granite summit was described as “perfectly inaccessible” only three generations ago, just recently (in historical terms) revealing her secrets to those determined to play the role of disprovers.  We set off along the mist trail, so called for the heavy showering hikers receive as they pass near the Vernal Falls – an impressively vertical waterfall, in the first hour of the walk – a refreshing occurrence that turned out to be hotly anticipated throughout the return journey.

 

It is not long after the Nevada Falls, whose waters run thinly over slabs of stone giving the riverbed the appearance of glimmering platinum,, that we first caught a teasing glance of Half Dome.  A light, grey, smooth mound peered dismissively over the hills to the northwest, soon ducking back down as the path followed the natural curves of the terrain – she looked imposing, to say the least.  Packs heavy with liters of water, we stopped briefly to let a deer bound past us on the track no doubt refreshed from the glacial blue/white water running to our right, before pressing on.  She rose her head every now and again, Half Dome, to judge our progress and consider whether we were worthy, but for the most part she remained hidden in slumber amidst the rocks.  Only the evening before our journey a hiker had perished down the Nevada Falls – not everyone was intended to conquer Half Dome, and those who try must not take her lightly.

 

The trees suddenly parted like a curtain, the sun hitting us with her full might, the valley below opening wide as we stood on the edge of a ridge.  In the distance Half Dome was now entirely exposed, her legendary north face which had inspired the brand of the same name sloping vertically down into the valley.  Like so many ants we could just make out hikers ahead beginning the ascent of the revered ‘cables’, thick metal cords which assist climbers make the final 120m ascent otherwise considered nigh on impossible, and the most dangerous part of the hike.  The terrain flattened out and the path below turned to granite as we made our way towards the beginning of the cables, and pulled out our gloves (despite the now 36 degree midday heat) to assist our grip.

 Image

We paused at the foot.  This was serious.  Heather first, we commenced, three steps at a time before pausing, arms straining.  The rubber teeth of our hiking boots bit into the granite ineffectively, the sun began to burn.  The cables were so hot and the friction so great that the rubber grips on my palms began to melt off.  The comeraderie of those behind us helped push us on, and we soon clambered over the top, and were greeted with a view befitting of Gods.  The World was endless, the valley thousands of feet below, the river meandering so calmly from up above, nothing above us but pure cyan sky.  An eagle soared by at eye level, the Visor of the dome jutted unnervingly out into nothingness.  Struck by awe, elated by achievement, we took it all in.

 

It was here, so fitting a place, that I proposed to my now fiancé.  We conquered Half Dome together, like so many challenges in life, and came down bound strongly to one another with a promise befitting of the surroundings – as challenging as Half Dome was, we overcame her hand in hand; as infinite as the landscape seemed from her vantage point, our love stretched out forever.

 

“The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow

Through Eden took their solitary way.”

J. Milton, Paradise Lost

Advertisements

Captivated by Lake Louise, Canada

Image

It was, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. A mottled, deep brown mass of instinctive apex predator. It wasn’t the sight I had expected in the lead up to the reputedly pristine beauty of Lake Louise but here, within 10 metres of us, stalked a grizzly bear. His shaggy fur and familiar face, combined with his slow lumber and apparent disregard for the world around him almost lulled me in to a false sense of security – despite its massive size and incredible power, the grizzly somehow was more inspirational than fearful. Or perhaps that was just the effect that hiking and camping across the Canadian rockies has on a traveller – an inspiring sense of awe in everything.

His massive, clawed paws padded laboriously along the roadside, lazily stopping every now and again to pick at a bunch of wildflowers, his food of choice it would appear. And then he was gone, trudging into the thicket, his dark brown body soon disappearing into the deep, leafy shade. The few 4x4s that were passing just at the right two minutes began to dissipate, and we ourselves pressed on towards the lake, and climb, ahead.

It is truly, truly impossible to describe the sheer beauty of lake Louise. It sits, sapphire blue, in the midst of a perfect valley. It’s backdrop is a range of snow-covered mountains rising out of lush, green forests. Flawlessly mountains towering overhead are mirrored perfectly in the glassy surface of the water, the odd canoe bobs restfully on its banks, content to sit unused amidst such wonders. The water, whilst inviting, is ice cold, a reflection of the frozen peaks standing along the banks. An eagle calls it’s appreciation as it takes flight nearby, as though it appreciates the privilege. Following its flight with my wide eyes, it soars past a peak which juts out before the rest, a ledge which would, if climbed, offer a perfect vista. Our guide informs us we can reach it.

The entire route was little more than seven kilometres, rising to about 2,300 metres above sea level. It led past “Mirror Lake”, and the equally beautiful Lake Agnes, before the steepest climb began to reach the viewpoint, known as the ‘Big Beehive’. The route to mirror lake was easily managed, the reward being far too generous for the effort required to get there, with the now much nearer mountains mirrored exactly in the small, pristine lake. Lake Agnes held it’s own charms, sitting in a natural ‘bowl’ in the curvature of the mountains, with a river cascading away down a drop off and flowing freely into the forests below. Half melted ice dotted the surface, giving the lake the appearance of frosted glass, an effect that was accentuated as we began the now punishingly steep climb up along the side of the mountain face lining Lake Agnes. Soon all we could see was rock, and ice.

Image

Then, spectacularly revealed to us as we rounded the final bend, the entire world opened up in before us. The horizon curved, the clouds within reach. Below, the vast oblong of Lake Louise stood in all her azure beauty, all the detail visible closer up replaced by one strikingly bold, utterly natural blue. Endless forest tore away from her into the distance, only stopping at the Rockies many miles away. Nature was putting on a spectacular display, unlike any image any artist or photographer could caputure. The purity of the air, the vastness of the landscape and the sheerness of the drop below was invigorating. We sat, marvelling, hanging our legs over the edge of the cliff, in silence. There was nothing to say. Lake Louise had cast her spell over more hapless visitors, and had nestled her way into their hearts forever. Words cannot describe her. Beautiful.

Climbing the Franz Josef Glacier

Image

We stood deep within the valley, adorned with luminescent yellow wind jackets of surprising weight, loose rubble underfoot, the ‘V’ walls rising either side. I had been in similar, more impressive surroundings previously. However, unlike those occasions, this valley came to an abrupt end. About 500 metres ahead, at the approach of a bend, the way was blocked by a wall of ice. Shades of metallic blue and transparent white were dotted with specks of stoney grey, the entire mass with a surreal watery sheen, stretching 300 metres to the sky and running 12 kilometres off into the distance. Our task for the day was to climb to the gacier’s peak, armed with axes, crampons and not a few layers. It seemed quite the task.

Approaching the foot of the glacier, the sheer magnitude became ever more apparent. The relentlessly powerful ice had carved out the entire valley, and in relatively modern times had been known to advance 70cm per day, taking with it rubble and boulders bigger than a bus. Now in a phase of rapid retreat, the glacier was no less intimidating, rising steeply towards the heavens, unwelcoming. We strapped our crampons on nevertheless, and the jagged metal teeth bit into the ice with a satisfying crunch as we stepped on to the foot of the glacier. It immediately struck me, as I removed my outer jacket, how incomprehensibly warm it was in the valley. Standing upon increasingly thick ice, climbing slowly up, hacking a clear path, the warmth in the air defied the very existence of the frozen water underfoot. However, as we came up against another wall of irridescent blue, it’s existence was most certainly undeniable.

Pressing on, at first on top of the glacier, but soon within, the ice had moulded into the most fantastical shapes, from cracks and holes to full blown arches and corridors. At times we had to force a way through with our axes, the ice constntly shifting and changing, there being no set route, no safe passage. Now and then the icey path within the ice became so narrow that we had to slide through sideways, brushing front and back against the ice, drips of meltwater slipping torturously down our backs and on our faces. At one point, a boulder the size of a small car was suspended overhead by nothing more than the ice walls either side of us – we all managed to find some acceleration to pass underneath despite the crampons. Occasionally it was necessary to climb up narrow tunnels, at others take a wide berth around 300 metre crevices delving into a blue nothingness. Guided at all times, we felt relatively safe.

Image

Emerging from the cold embrace of the glacier we arrived at our summit, nowhere near half way along the length of the ice, but far enough. On the surface, small pools of pure glacial icewater had melted, safe to drink, tasting like nothing else on earth – pure, crisp, cold, energising. On the summit the cliff walls either side took on a new vivacity, dozens of waterfalls streaming down, lush green shrubs clinging to tp the rock, the sun bringing vitality wherever it shined. One waterfall split in two, running perfectly parralel with one another down the valley; an alpine parrot shrieked it’s unique shrill and soared off down the valley. Even in the face of the destructive power of the glacier, life had found a way to thrive, and turning back, facing down the shimmering, alien ice-blue glacier and further on to the barren grey of the valley foor, distantly quaking before the ice, we began our descent back to civilisation.

The caves of New Zealand

Waitomo Cave, New Zealand

Leaning back on the rope, securely tied overhead, I eased back towards the pitch black tear in the ground below me. The headtorch attached to my helmet could only penetrate so far into the 40 metre fall below. The rest was mystery.

Feeding the rope through my “control” hand, I began to descend. The cold hit the second my head passed beneath ground level, the boots, wetsuit and thermal jacket unable to keep it out. The narrow beam of light showed where to place my feet, highlighting deep shades of stoney grey, wet from recent rain, allowing little comfort or grip. The sliver of light overhead became smaller and smaller, and suddenly the wall fell away from my soles and I was hanging in midair, no concept of the space around me, unable to see the bottom.

Soon the rocky surface below came in to view, and I eased myself on to the rocks, disconnecting myself from the rope, standing at the bottom of a deep, dark funnel within the earth. The cave extended away in only one direction, limiting the options but making the decision an easy one. Guided by my headtorch, and using the ropes already placed along the walls I pressed on – the route in was no option, an exit would have to be found seperately. Ducking and squeezing through the cave, the sound of running water turned from a distant whisper to a present rush, and rounding yet another bend the ground came to an end, met by an underground “blackwater” river passing across the path, running for unseen miles. Despite this it seemed lighter here, somehow, although deeper and further from the kiss of the sun. As I stepped into the chilling water, and climbed upon a buoyancy aid, the reason why became clear.

All along the seemingly endless black above me hung millions of glowworms, lying in wait for their prey. Tiny blue-white lights lit up the depths of the cave like infinite stars in a clear night sky. They guided the way as the water pushed me onwards through the cave, often coming down the walls almost to the waterline, until the river became shallow enough for me to stand and make my own way. At the earliest opportunity I pulled myself out of the water, the wetsuit offering little comfort, and began to press along a gently upward winding narrow path. At points the way became so narrow and contorted that progress was almost impossible, but I managed to press ahead, ever upwards, a good sign. I sensed an almost imperceptible rise in temperature, but with it a definite, thunderous noise of falling water. I entered the next chamber.

It was a 15 foot, underground waterfall and it blocked the way forward, tumbling down into the small cavern in which I stood and flowing way through a small gap off into the darkness. The waterfall needed to be climbed, without ropes. Taking grip, the downward force of the water was intense, opposing every reach and every push, occasionally blinding as the flow increased and decreased, irregular but constant. Pulling and forcing my way up against the water, using whatever holds the rocks offered, I eventually managed to slide my stomach over the lip of the drop, soaked to the core, fingers numb. Hauling myself to my feet, weighed down by the water held in the wetsuit, I squelched over and through to the next cavern.

A steep slope led upwards, I had to squint. Pressing my face into the narrow space, the warmth of the sun brushed my cheek, giving that last ounce of energy to slide up the stone and out into the world. I was filthy, cold, wet and exhilerated. I felt alive.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Image

The gentle, almost timid sun tentatively broke the smooth line of the horizon and began her long climb into the early morning sky. She climbed and climbed, growing stronger with each passing second, and as the sky slowly reddened it struck me how effortless she made it look. That was because I was standing, with the wind buffeting against me, four thousand vertical meters above her. I was standing on Low’s Peak, at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

 

We had started our second day’s ascent at 2am, head torches on, pulling ourselves along weathered ropes and forcing our tired legs to take just one more exhausted step. Our surroundings had rapidly transformed from a verdant, lush rainforest strewn with alien plants and unrecognisable sounds to this grey, scarred landscape of sheer slopes tumbling down into powdered clouds far below. Now at the summit, as daylight began to push back the last of the darkness, the entire curvature of the Earth was slowly revealed to us and the horizon, rather than its usual straight edge, circled all around without interruption. Legend says that a Chinese widow chose the mountain as a viewing point to look out for her estranged husband’s return across the sea. I could see why. The view was breathtakingly vast.

 

Occasional pinpricks of colour broke through the thin layer of cloud below us, as other climbers came closer, and the small gathering of us that had got to the top first smiled down upon them knowing the anticipation that was coursing through their veins. Behind them, the peak dropped suddenly away and was replaced with the rolling contours of the land below. Trees that had towered over us at sea level became indiscernible from one another, resplendent in bold combinations of greens and yellows. We got the humble feeling that the mountain was favouring us, many climbers got no view at all stood here at 13,500 feet, but as the sun burnt the last of the clouds away it was as if the entire planet revealed herself to us below. There is nowhere to hide on a mountaintop, there are no secrets, and in that moment I ‘knew’ myself better than ever before and felt an indescribable sense of peace and oneness with all around me.

 

Not long before 6am we began our descent, and as the sun boastfully overtook us on her climb we returned to the World below with an indescribable sense of achievement, wonderment and awe. Looking back up, it was hard to imagine how the mountain, apparently ”young”, had ever not been there as the cold, grey rock stood timeless and defiant, the sunlight glistening off the minerals but incapable of penetrating any deeper. I know that I will never forget that sunrise for as long as I live, and the experience of racing the sun to her zenith, and standing meekly on the shoulders of that formidable giant will be with me forever.