An Eternal promise on Half Dome, Yosemite

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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.

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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

Climbing the Franz Josef Glacier

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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.

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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.