Sunday, September 11, 2016

Now We Here (Part 2)

Greetings from Iceland! This is part two of a multipart series I started a few months back. It's super delayed, but some time on a plane enabled me to complete it. I'll add some Iceland updates and complete this series soon!


The boys high-fived, hugged and chest bumped as the girls looked on with varied levels of disinterest and disappointment. We had just won the daily lottery to summit Half Dome. We failed to win the preseason lottery and the ladies responded with contentment, while the men responded with sorrowt. Now, roles were reversed. After our initial eruption, I had two thoughts. First, six months ago, this news would have caused me an anxiety attack. Second, I hoped I'd make it to the top.

Some of our crew was a little panicked about the trip. The nerves were understandable. The hike to the summit is about nine miles with approximately 4,800 feet in altitude gain, then you have to come right back down. Additionally, the last section features an extreme amount of exposure (Close proximity to steep drop offs). I pulled the team together to take a temperature of our feelings and try to encourage everyone. It was a strange moment, reassuring everyone that we could complete the trip while knowing that I may have to sit out the last, most intense section.

The first 8 miles are a pretty standard hike, but the end is something terrifying and special. First comes the Sub Dome. This is a snaking section of switchbacks, with smooth, featureless granite sloping into oblivion on either side. Were you to fall off the trail, you wouldn't stumble off a sheer cliff, but it is unlikely you could recover your bearings before the surface became sheer. After completing the Sub Dome, you arrive at the half dome cables. The cables were erected because the last 400 feet of the climb is so steep that it can't be summited without technical climbing experience. In order to complete the climb, you must pull yourself up with the cables whilst walking. I knew that I had the first 8 miles in the bag, but I wasn't so sure about the Sub Dome and cables. All the same, I was excited to give it a try. I couldn't believe that I had reached a place where this was an adventure I could even consider.

Making progress against my fear of heights allowed me this opportunity. It all started with my bike and the Golden Gate Bridge. After freezing up on my first try, I wasn't able to give it another try. As I mentioned before, the bridge is a gateway to miles and miles of amazing riding in Marin. I was invited on countless rides, but could never go along. Then one Friday evening in January, things felt different. I will explain more in another post, but I simply believed I could make it across the bridge. That night, I didn't decide I would give it a try. I decided the next morning I would ride across the bridge. That was exactly what I did. In fact, I rode across it and back twice just because I could.
It's really hard to explain to the casual observer how much this meant to me. I conquered my fear (to a degree), I could now do something most normal people could do, and this completely changed my experience as a cyclist in San Francisco. Cycling is one of the great loves of my life. I would argue the Bay Area is one of the best places in the world to ride a bike, and it was now mine to explore.

I am slayed by the fact that I get to stare off the side of this bridge.
At first, the trips weren't easy. I was racked with nerves each time I crossed the bridge. Since becoming funemployed, I have been riding far more. At this point, I've likely ridden across the bridge 50 or more times. Now it feels casual and normal. Each trip over the bridge is a joy. Taking in the bright, Art Deco design of the bridge itself, along with the amazing natural views makes each time with it special. You really can't beat the people watching either.

It was with this progress that I knew I could take a crack at Half Dome and maybe, just maybe make it to the top.

The night before the hike, we were up late making lunch and getting over-prepared for the day. We wanted to be sure we had every contingency covered. After some words of encouragement, everyone seemed on board and excited. We had a 4 am wake up call to eat breakfast, caffeine up and get to the trailhead. Everything went off without a hitch. We made easier progress than everyone expected and enjoyed spectacular views on our way up the trail. I merely enjoyed the company and scenery and gave little thought to the challenge at the top.

The sun sets on half dome the night before our departure.
After roughly 8 miles, we hit the tree line and my feelings started to change. The trailed ambled through some areas with a little exposure, so I got a sense for how high we were. Additionally, the Sub Dome and cables finally came into view. They were more intimidating than I expected. I began preparing my buddies for what I believed was inevitable. I wasn't going to make it. They coached and encouraged me. I felt emboldened as we reached the base of the Sub Dome. As I've done many times when I felt I was facing insurmountable person odds, I simply muttered to myself, "F--- it," and started up the granite steps carved onto the sub dome.

At first, I was shocked by how comfortable I felt. The first few switchbacks were surprisingly breezy despite looking intimidating from the tree line. My buddies were right. I was wrong to think I couldn't do this.

Views got a little scarier. I observed to Drew that it appeared if one were to fall from where we were hiking, one would likely die. Rather than argue this perception, Drew responded, "Yeah, but we walk around every day and we never fall. There's no reason to believe you would." This response did nothing to dispel my fear. With each step, I felt anxiety rise higher. Unwelcome but familiar feelings crept in. Finally, I was well beyond my limit. I sat down at a switchback, hoping to regain my composure, while Drew coached me.

After taking some time to calm down, my nerves had receded but were still beyond fever pitch. I could resume my climb, but I knew I would only become increasingly unstable. The problem with my fear of heights is that it takes such complete control of me that I actually lose the ability to control by body. In a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy, my panic turn me into a more likely victim of the fate I fear.

Next time.
I asked Drew to walk me part of the way back down the Sub Dome. When I regained my composure, he took off back up the hill and I finished the brief hike down to the tree line.

I hung out, had some lunch and sunbathed for a couple hours while I waited for the party to return. A smile resided on everyone’s face. My dear friend Stacey had been convinced she wouldn’t make it to the top. She fought through her fear and came back proud of her accomplishment. I was proud of and happy for everyone. We all dug pretty deep and impressed ourselves that day.

I include myself in that last sentence. I don’t consider my inability to get to the top a failure. I consider it progress. There was a time when I would have gazed up at that switch back trail and rather than saying, “F--- it,” I would have said, “F--- that.” This time, my fear was considerably reduced and I pushed against the fear that remains. I am also able to celebrate my friends. There was a time when I would have been so bitter over my handicap that I would not have been able to feel joy with them. Finally, I don’t feel defeated. Half Dome and I will have another date. And another one after that. And another one after that. And another one after that . . .

It’s important to note that this progress wasn’t simply a result of facing my fears. It involved a far more expansive story. A story I will tell next.

The crew on on Half Dome.


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