When to stop – Yosemite story

Cables2

(Longer than usual post, but an important story.)

Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome is not for the faint of heart.  It’s challenging.   That’s why I set the goal to do it this year. 

We set out at 7:00am yesterday to do the 8.5 mile mountain hike to the base of Half Dome. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy as we approached the top.  Pete had done this before and was willing to lead me up the final stretch – two cold steel cables anchored in the rock, with wooden boards spaced 8 feet apart to help with footing.  Traction is usually not a problem with good shoes on rough granite.  I put on my leather gloves, pulled the drawstring a little tighter on my hood, and started the ascent with my buddy Pete eight steps in front of me. 

We made it about half way up, roughly 200 feet. That’s when the hailstorm started.  Hail?  How did a 20% chance of precipitation turn into a hailstorm?!  I set this goal back in January, to hike a total of17 miles including the summit of Half Dome.  Now Mother Nature was throwing me an icy curve ball.  But when the going gets tough, I’m supposed to keep going, right? 

We were scaling a nearly vertical granite wall like Batman and Robin climbing up a Gotham building, but there were no funny celebrities opening the window to say hello.  Instead we were being passed by inexperienced and underdressed tourists as they slowly slid by us on the way down.  Yosemite is crowded with hundreds of hikers in June… but this was not what I expected.  I’m confident in my own strength, but didn’t anticipate the lack of strength in those around me, the narrowness of the two cables, and oh yeah… the wet, pea-sized hail.  This was indeed turning into a dangerous situation. If anyone fell, they could easily take me down with them. Looking left and right I realized there was nothing to stop a slide down the sheer stone wall.  I looked up ahead, to see an unmoving mass of at least 100 people disappearing into the cold, cloudy mist.  No pain, no gain, right?

As the storm began to get worse, fear began to ripple through the long line of descenders.  Fear of lightning made the people at the top yell down at the others to hurry.  The yelling created even more panic.  A young girl in sandals slipped right beside me.  She reached up to grab the cable with one hand.  My gut instinct was to reach out to help her.  But both my hands were locked in a grip on my own cable holding my full body weight, so I could not reach her.  She luckily got helped up by a guy just behind her. Don’t tell anyone, but my determination just turned to fear. 

When I got to the next board, I looked up at Pete.  I don’t know what was showing the most tension, the steel cable or Pete’s face.  “Hey Dave, are you SURE you want to do this?”  He had done it 3 times before, and didn’t want to deprive me of getting there my first time.  But I got the hint.  It was up to me to turn around or keep going.

I remember asking another hiker earlier if the summit was worth it, and he had said “Oh yeah, you don’t want to come this far and NOT go to the top!”  But now that I was hanging on a slippery granite cliff in a hailstorm, every step seemed to have a diminishing return.  I looked up at the mob of people disappearing into the mist above, which obscured any view I might have had from the top anyway.  Pete looked me in the eye one more time, “It’s up to you Dave, but I really don’t think it’s worth it.”  That was my moment of truth.  I wisely chose the better part of valor, and we retreated back down to the base.

I wish this story had a happy ending.  We eventually made it down to the valley floor just fine, but 20 minutes after we left the cables, sadly, one of the other hikers did not.  We saw the helicopters and rangers hustling up the trail, and got the final news when we reached bottom.  My heart goes out to the family of the guy who didn’t make it.  It also served as a sobering reminder that I made the right decision to turn back when I did.

I was expecting to learn a lesson yesterday about how to keep going when the going is rough, but I actually learned the opposite… when to stop.  I’ve always heard that if you really want to do something, model after someone who’s done it before.  But the same goes for knowing when to change course.  My fellow thrill seekers: when something just doesn’t feel right, I encourage you to trust your instincts and more importantly trust the person who’s been there before.  What is your life worth to your family?

Thanks again, Pete.

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11 Comments on “When to stop – Yosemite story”


  1. Discretion is the better part of valor. Too many pilots, hikers and adventurers have skipped important preparation steps, or stuck to the goal despite clear signs that they should turn around….(see: Into Thin Air, Steve Fossett, Scott Crossfield & John Denver).

    This does NOT mean that you don’t attempt tough or stretch goals – without those, there is no growth, no achievement, no victory…but it’s important to know the difference between tough and foolish. Sometimes it’s a VERY thin line.

    Last June, I did the Assault on Mt. Mitchell ( http://assaultonmtmitchell.org/ ). 102 miles of riding, 11,000 feet of climbing, most of it in the last 20 miles…..and there’s a section near the Blue Ridge Parkway that seems STRAIGHT UP.

    I trained really hard for it, riding 200-250 miles a week, but neglected to focus on getting my weight down (it makes sense that less weight = less effort)…so on ride day, I had 20 lbs more than I should have. It didn’t help that the ride was the hottest day in the history of the event, with the heat index over 100 degrees. I went through 6 bottles of Gatorade/water mix through 80 miles, and started to cramp riding up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once I got to the turnoff, (with only 15 miles to go), I made the choice to abandon the ride.

    Now, some would say that I should have pushed on at all costs, but I had several things telling me (IN LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS!) that I needed to stop.

    1) Heat index over 100 for most of the day.
    2) I’d been on the bike for over 10 hours.
    3) I was experiencing severe cramping and headaches (classic signs of dehydration)
    4) My HR was well over 175 on the climbs – my normal HR is in the 140’s pushing on the flats, and 160’s on routine climbs.
    5) I was 47 years old, and 20 lbs overweight.

    To keep pushing on was just asking for it. I called for SAG, rode the truck to the top, and called it a (long) day. I’ll do the ride again, and I’m going to complete it. BUT, the wiser thing to do, is to train better, manage the ride better, and do it at a leaner weight instead of being 20+ lbs over.

    You’ll get there – calling off an attempt isn’t failing – as the news report showed, it was too dangerous to continue, and you’ll try again in better weather…..and you’ll make it. You are only in competition with you…..you’ll get stronger and better, and Half Dome isn’t getting any bigger. (Neither is Mt. Mitchell).

    Hang tough.

  2. diane davidson Says:

    David,

    I am so glad you made a really smart decision. And so very sorry for the family who lost a loved one. Although I have never climbed HalfDome I know so many that have. People think of it as only a taxing ‘hike’ forgetting that it is quite dangerous – weather being the chief threat.

    Assume you have read ‘Into Thin Air’?! It is a must for any outdoors person. The lesson is that even very experienced professionals can make a bad decision that costs their own as well as others’ lives. And weather was at the heart of the issue. It’s a cautionary book for sure – one that helps us all to remember that we are not the ‘masters’ of our earth, just the inhabitants.

    Glad you are home safely – very glad!

    diane

  3. Jan Sysmans Says:

    David,

    I’m proud of you, you did the right thing!

    Jan

  4. Joe Franklin Says:

    Hi David,

    Wise decision. Half Dome is not going anywhere- you can try again. A favorite saying of mine is apropos: “Failures are the stepping stones to success.” You’ll make it next time better prepared and wiser!

    -joe

  5. Jenell Says:

    David,
    You lived to make another climb, someone else didnt, now who made the right decsion? I wouldnt even think twice about what you did. Looking forward to next times story.

    Jenell

  6. Jeff Bagby Says:

    Dave – Sometimes the greater lesson is learning the wisdom to make the right choice – especially when we had our heart set on doing the opposite thing. Thanks for demonstrating that wisdome. And, thanks for still being here, buddy.

    Jeff


  7. There are so many factors when making these kind of decisions. Much of the weight of the decisions rest in the individual’s ego, self-image, and the need for self-discovery.

    Not wanting to say “I quit before I got to the top…” will keep some going. Not wanting to admit that one was bested by the mountain, an inanimate object that just happens to be huge… that will motivate some. However I see no reason to compete for a placement in the ranks of the Darwin Awards just to take a chance at some self-conceived greatness that truly has little value. Under the circumstances of a hail storm and falling climbers, you obviously did the right thing. Surely others probably wished that they had too, regardless of whether they reached the top or not. To participate in that which brought ultimate hardship is not a fun remembrance, and all would have probably opted to retrospectively “quit” as a joint venture would they have been assured that it would have saved a life that day.

    I can see wanting to achieve. Running the fastest… winning the race… getting the highest score… doing what others cannot… I suppose that these kinds of achivements change people forever, and are probably good for the soul and helpful in building character. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with these kinds of accomplishments as long as they don’t short circuit common sense or the better human values.

    In my own life I struggled with having some weird sensations in my body that later turned into a serious issue. I was admitted into the hospital in the process of having a stroke. If I had taken a similar stand as some people might have, and said to myself, “Aw, I’ll be okay… it’s just fatigue…” I may not be here today.

    Sometimes we have to ask for help… and other times, we have to help ourselves. Either way, on these occasions, we need to assess the situation as best we can, get over the personal issues, and do the right thing, for ourselves, and for those we love.

    David, your family is very happy you voted to protect and preserve life with them, and it makes me happy too! I always knew that you had good judgment and common sense, which, for some people, are very illusive concepts.

    Roland Takaoka

  8. kellycisco Says:

    David – thank you for publishing this story. Mountaineering is about knowing how to pay attention to your surroundings. A series of small decisions, seemingly random in the making, often end up contributing to a bad ending. You passed a major test this weekend. Survival.

  9. Gelena Siganevich Says:

    Hi,
    I was there on June 13, 2009 around 2 pm with 2 kids (14 and 15) and also made decision not to climb the cables and go back to the huge disappointment of my kids. I have many years of rock climbing and mountaineer expedience, but crowd of people and the bad weather are serious hazards – not to be ignored. We saw rescue and helicopter an hour later after we left. My kids are grateful now.

  10. Larry Humes Says:

    Fortunately, David, you lived to share with the rest of us a most valuable lesson. A great story. Thanks for sharing!


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