Half Dome: How A Marmot and a Mountain Helped Me Move On
By Mia Svenson, Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador
It started with a Facebook post.
Like many of the posts in the LA chapter of Girls Who Hike, it was relatively informal.
“I have room on my permit for three more people for half dome”.
The poster was a friend of mine so I got the notification (thank goodness) and texted her about it right away. I had moved here from Canada after a sexual assault and a rough break up and wasn’t super familiar with Half Dome, but I watched a few YouTube videos and felt like it was within my skill set and fitness level. I had been told that if I could backpack Gorgonio, I could hike Half Dome. It was a beautiful, empowering challenge, and I needed that.
We booked a heated, canvas walled tent / cabin that in Canada would have been referred to as glamping, and then quite suddenly, a few weeks flew by and it was time to go!
My friend and a girl who had been invited via the Facebook post met me at my apartment, we packed my car up and off we went. We arrived in the evening after an uneventful drive, found our glamping tent and our other hiking buddy and headed into Half Dome village.
The village itself reminds me a lot of my home town; it’s tiny and consists of little else than an information center, a restaurant and a few general stores. We had dinner (pizza and beer) sitting at a picnic style table with some kids and their parents and started to make a plan for the summit the next day. (We also entertained a very sweet skunk who trundled out from behind the garbage bins). We stopped at the information center to check the forecast and were told that clouds were expected to start forming in the evening. It’s incredibly important to avoid the cables entirely if there are clouds or a chance of storm (the metal cables attract lightning).
My friend and I were the kind of hikers who liked to take our time (take a ton of breaks and pictures) while the other two girls with us were a bit faster, so we opted to start the hike at 3 AM. We went to the bathrooms and got ready for bed. (I was too excited to sleep and spent a bit of time on my phone).
2:30 AM came way too fast, and I was delighted to hear the grunting of a black bear outside the cluster glamping tents. My hiking buddies were not quite as thrilled as I was. After five minutes of standing frozen, wondering if the bear locker outside our tent was quite as bear proof as we hoped, we realized that the loud, grunting bear was actually a man snoring a few tents down! (Note: there are a lot of people around so I highly recommend bringing ear plugs).
You know that point in a hike where your calves are burning and you’re kind of just waiting for them to finally release and not make you want to cry? That was me the first two miles of the 8 mile hike towards the summit. I wondered multiple times if I should just turn around. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
Then I got to the first waterfall.
As a British Columbia native I’ve seen beautiful scenery that just doesn’t seem to exist in LA, but this waterfall took my breath away. (Literally - one thing nobody tells you is that the way up to the summit has SO many stairs!) We climbed the slippery stone steps of the aptly named Mist Trail in the dark, focusing just on the beam of light from our headlamps, the sound of our feet and trekking poles on the steps, and the beautiful, deafening roar of the unseen waterfall.
We continued on, my calves were finally feeling okay and I was warm and happy for one of the first times since my breakup (You know when you’re still in that phase where you still feel like there’s an empty space?) We climbed countless stone steps, passed another huge and glorious waterfall, saw some deer snacking on some bushes, walked a loamy beautiful trail along a river, did so many switchbacks that I honestly felt like screaming, and finally reached Sub Dome.
Sub Dome is another thing that nobody had really told me about. It’s steep, narrow stone steps that would make anybody with even slight anxiety about heights (me) into a tail spin. You really just can’t look down; it combines switchbacks, heights and stairs with uneven footing and other hikers passing you. (All of my least favorite things). So I pushed upwards, at this point it was just me and my friend (she was terrified of heights), as the other two girls had powered onwards and upwards.
We encouraged each other and pushed each other to get through our mutual fear of heights and tried to ignore the small puffy white clouds that were starting to filter into the sky above us.
When we got to the base of half dome, my skin erupted with goose bumps. It’s astounding. It really just can’t be put into words. There was a cluster of hikers staring up at the larger group of hikers making their way up the cables. We reconnected with one of our buddies and left our packs in a pile with some other hikers who seemed trustworthy (definitely more trustworthy than the marmot at the top), put our gloves on and headed for the cables.
Note:I wore suede palmed, finger tipless climbing gloves from REI and I was extremely pleased with them.
The cables are really, really hard. With every step I took, my boots (new boots, broken in but still with loads of traction!) immediately started sliding down the smooth, slick rock, which had been worn down by years of footsteps. It felt like every step I took was equal to one step backwards - I was going nowhere! Your legs are already tired from 8 miles of stone steps and switchbacks, but once you get on the cables you kind of have to do them as there are other hikers behind you and in front of you so turning around is really difficult.
Unfortunately, one of the girls in our group had headed up the cables already and left the three of us behind. This shook my friend up a bit, as she was counting on the support system that three hiking buddies provides. Being afraid of heights and being on the cables is stressful enough without someone you were counting on carrying on ahead! She ultimately decided to turn around about half of the way up despite our encouragement. She was out of her comfort zone and I later discovered that going down is much, much scarier (at least for me). I know that she’ll go back someday to conquer it.
She told me and our buddy to keep going, so we did. I discovered that my huge man shoulders (a result of 10 years of swimming) were the best thing for the cables, so I dragged myself up, relying entirely on my upper body strength, as fast as I could. I thought about my ex for motivation and repeated the phrase, “he could NEVER do this” over and over again. I like to believe it was under my breath but honestly, judging by all the weird looks I kept getting, it was definitely way louder than I thought.
There are boards nailed into the stone about 10 feet apart on the way up, and they’re the best thing to ever exist since Oprah. If you’re going to pass or let someone pass you, that’s the place to do it. They offer some stability and you can cling to the cables with a bit of safety as people pass you. If you’re a passer, this is the place where you’ll have the easiest time going around someone as you can still use the cables to pull yourself up. I can’t count how many people I accidentally hugged and booty bumped on my way up, but the cables had a sense of community that I’ve never experienced on a hike before. Everyone was encouraging. Everyone was suffering. Everyone was loving it.
When I got to the top I immediately sat down. It’s so. high. up. And really exposed. It’s all rock, dust and other hikers. But the views are incredible. The sense of what you’ve just done is unbelievable. It’s enough to make a Canadian cry.
And that’s what I did. I sat at the top of the dome crying, and I didn’t stop when a marmot came scurrying out from his hole in the rocks. He sat by my feet and stared at me, so I introducded myself, as one does when someone is sitting next to you staring, and I ended up telling him everything! Which I recognize is ridiculous but I still give that rodent of unusual size all the credit for getting me over my ex! I told him that I was here, on top of that rock, 800 miles from home because I felt like I needed to challenge myself. I told him that my ex boyfriend had sexually assaulted me, and that I felt lost. I ended it with “so I guess I don’t really know who I am anymore, but that’s my story”. He continued to stare, since marmots do not, in fact, speak English but I felt calm for the first time in almost a year.
He walked away eventually, and my tears turned to laughter as I watched this ridiculous creature, who looks like a cross between a beaver and a squirrel, shamelessly go into someone’s backpack and steal an entire packet of snacks. He carried the bag of snacks in his front paws and walked on his hind legs with the snacks back to his hole, and that was that. I got up, went and found my hiking buddy, took some pictures, and headed back down the cables. It took me a really long time. I mean, people cheered when I finally got to the base, but I did it.
Half Dome, and the conversation I had with that marmot changed my life. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever done for myself. It was the last piece that was missing. I am so grateful to this group, to that marmot, and for whatever forces put it all in motion. A year before Half Dome I had been a shadow of myself, I had gone almost a week without talking to anyone other than my dog, I had been afraid to make eye contact with anybody, including myself in the mirror.
Half Dome helped me remind myself that I was strong, capable, and powerful by myself. I was filthy; covered in sweat and dust but it was the first time I felt clean after being assaulted. I was proud of my body for the first time in a year. I was myself, and capable of great love, and great loss. I was strong enough to drag myself up those cables. I was brave enough to rub up against total strangers and exchange words of support with them instead shrinking away in fear. I was me enough to find catharsis and humor in a freaking marmot at the top. I had survived sexual assault, and I had survived that climb, and I can survive anything.
I plan to enter the lottery to take a group of women up there this year. There are some things I plan to do differently. I won’t drive home the night of. I’m going to buy insoles for my boots because the long miles of walking on stone made my toes numb. I probably won’t eat jalapeño Hawaiian pizza right before sub dome. But I’m going back, because for me, Half Dome is proof that you’re stronger than you think you are, you can do anything, you can be anybody, and maybe that fat thief of a marmot will help you realize it