The boulders started to come crashing down on my climbing partner just as she was about to high-step out of the creekbed. Amy and I were hiking toward Snake Dike, the classic 5.7R climb on the shoulder of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome. Not the vertical, daunting northwest face that the tourists gaze at from the Valley floor. That was my son’s territory. Way too hard. But on the west shoulder of the formation, several technical climbs make their way up the blank-looking, lower-angle slab wall that rises for ten pitches to the top. Snake Dike snakes its way up, following a pale orange-colored dike that protrudes from the otherwise uninterrupted white granite.
Amy braced, pushed back against one of the cascading boulders, while I pushed against another. They stopped. We froze, arms straining, afraid to move and set them in motion again. Alex, our guide, rushed over to help. As my fingers lost their grip, Amy jumped up, and the boulders crashed harmlessly into the stream bed. Probably happens all the time, in Alex’s world—but for me and my friend, the “elderly ladies” he joked about leading up Snake Dike, this day was anything but ordinary. Like me, Amy had spent her life working a desk-oriented day job and raising two children a few years younger than mine. She’d already been climbing for many years, so she was more comfortable on the rock than I was. But neither of us had ever done anything as extraordinary as climb a formation as iconic as Half Dome.
Last month, when Alex suggested we do Snake Dike together, I thought he was joking. Climbing eight slabby pitches, up to 8,836 feet, seemed a bit much for someone with a one-year beginner’s tick-list. But Snake Dike was on my to-do list.
As we hiked in, the weirdness of the situation hit me, as it had on Munginella in the thunderstorm: how many parents ever get to put their lives in the hands of their children? Amy and I, both of us moms, were about to follow Alex up like little kids, trusting him to keep us out of harm’s way. I wondered whether I’d feel so confident if the media hadn’t told me incredible tales of his abilities.
After hiking four hours, I looked across a series of large, exposed flakes of rock to the start of the climb. No holds I could discern. I know the physics of it: the more shoe rubber on the rock, the more likely you’ll stick. As we traversed the low-angle slabs, I imagined what would happen if I tripped—hurtling two thousand feet down to our campground. My body handled the traverse just fine, but my head . . . that, I’ve learned, is where climbing really takes place.
When I was little, I never thought about what would happen if I tumbled out of the maple tree in our backyard. Or off the garage roof. Did Alex have fears like that? Or would that make climbing impossible?
At the last flake, I raised my leg to step up . . . and froze. I recognized the sound immediately. A few days earlier I’d mentioned to Amy that I’d seen lots of rattlesnakes, but the only ones I’d ever heard were in movies.
Alex sauntered over, picked up a stick, and poked it under the flake where the rattler hissed.
He laughed. “They’re slow, Mom.”
I wondered how he knew that—and what else he knew that I didn’t.
I worried that this day might turn into an epic. In the climbing world, an “epic” is a day where everything that can go wrong, does. But the boulders hadn’t done any real damage. And the rattler just hissed and slithered away. Not an epic. Yet.
We ate at the base of a slab that rose straight above us. Until today, four pitches had been my max for an outdoor climbing day. I’m not sure what made me think I could do ten—especially after a monster hike. And then there was the hike down. Something about Alex’s off-handedness when we’d talked about it, his extreme, casual assuredness, made me believe.
By this point, though, we had no choice. At the summit, a photo crew from National Geographic was scheduled to shoot stills of Alex on the face of Half Dome, which he’d free-soloed the previous year, for their magazine. He was committed to this climb. Once we reached the top, he’d go to work.
I was just beginning to understand what his feat on the face of this rock last year had meant. But even now, looking up at the blank, white, curving wall that stretched up to the sky, my earlier understanding of what he’d done paled in the face of the real thing. The real deal. I probably wouldn’t really understand it for a long time. But I was beginning to understand the level of commitment required for such a feat.
Amy and I were just as committed, within the constraints of our respective worlds, to climb Snake Dike. We both went climbing at the gym whenever we had the chance, usually only after work hours, and when other life obligations allowed. Amy still had two needy teens at home, and I had a lot going on as well, but when it came to climbing, Amy was as determined (stubborn?) as I was.
Tying in, we watched in amazement as Alex added our water and gear to his already full backpack.
“You can’t!—” I started to say. But at home I’d seen him fill a haul bag so heavy I couldn’t even knock it over—then easily walk out to his van with it. Somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, the scrawny little boy had become a powerful man. Daunting as this climb looked to me, the famous northwest face of Half Dome was far harder—and he’d free-soloed it. I tried to imagine the mental control he needed to do that. My son has a level of control that I—and maybe most people—will never comprehend.
As I started to belay Alex up, I suddenly had trouble breathing. The task ahead had finally sunk in. It had just gotten real. I needed to manage the fear that was beginning to squeeze the air out of me. Feeling it was normal; anyone who ventures out on real rock feels some fear, if they’re paying attention. Allowing it to control me, that was the issue. That, I refused to do.
My son does this all the time, I thought as I followed him. Alex seems to feel no fear. And yet I’ve often heard him saying how scared he was on climbs. It didn’t seem possible, as I watched him scamper casually up one of the world’s most intimidating features. Maybe it goes away, if you do it often enough. If you’ve free-soloed a rock like this, then climbing it on a rope probably doesn’t have that kind of grip on your head.
My head, however, was firmly gripped. My world now was nothing but the stark white granite in front of me. I was alone. Nothing else existed. We leapfrogged up the wall. Each time Alex reached an anchor point, he pulled up all the slack in the rope so Amy and I could start climbing up to join him. I belayed him from below as he climbed above us, he belayed us up to him from the top. I knew my belayer was a climber so strong he once broke his closet door off just opening it. I knew he could hold me. Didn’t matter. I was the one climbing. I was alone.
By the top of the third pitch, as I clipped into the belay anchor, I finally convinced myself to turn around and see what I was missing. None of the so-called exposed climbs I’d done had prepared me for this. Curving walls, nothing below or to either side. El Capitan, the monster wall my son has climbed so many times, where climbers break records or die, was a distant speck. Yosemite Falls, which I’d seen up close so big and full just the day before, was now just a tiny white sliver.
But emotion had to wait, as did the icy feeling that was twisting my stomach—Alex obviously didn’t feel it. I was in awe of the control required to reach that point. First, focus. Find a hold, step up. Keep moving. You can do this! Don’t stop! I’ve never talked to myself as much as I did on those remaining pitches.
Then I looked up. Alex was untying his rope. Our rope!
Snake Dike ends below the summit. He’d told us that. My head knew we’d walk unroped up the last two low-angle pitches. The reality was quite different.
Alex began scampering up the slab. Amy, an experienced climber, followed him easily. I had to sit down several times, head down, and try to drag in enough oxygen to keep going—a combination of exertion, emotion, and elevation. We’d gone from 4,800 feet to almost 9,000.
Wobbly, I convinced Alex to stay tied to me. Tired as I was, my imagination hadn’t slowed down a bit: if I tripped here, I’d bounce down a thousand feet of rock before rolling through a few thousand feet of forest to the campground. We wouldn’t be anchored while simul-walking, but I knew he could hold me if my oxygen-deprived body got clumsy.
As we topped out, the photo crew was lowering camera people down the northwest face, already ablaze in alpenglow. They were ready for my son.
This is his day job.
Would I be able to go back to mine? That random thought came out of nowhere as I watched him get ready to go to work. For me, work was a safe, quiet world, devoid of fear, of danger, of excitement. Would I be able to go back to it with any enthusiasm, now that I’d been so far removed from that tidy little world?
I did a shaky 360. Alex stood at the very edge, munching an apple. Beyond that I saw . . . nothing. Distant gray-blue ridgelines topped with snow. The deepest cerulean sky I’d ever seen. A few puffs of white—we were up in the clouds. On the summit.
Excerpted with permission from The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story (Mountaineers Books, May 2019) by Dierdre Wolownick.
Dierdre Wolownick grew up in New York City and has lived and worked in many parts of the world, teaching five languages on three continents. Now a retired college professor, she travels often in order to do research, to climb, or just to keep up her language skills.
Inspired by her daughter, Stasia, Dierdre began long-distance running at the age of fifty-five, and she has since completed several marathons, as well as numerous half-marathons and other races. At fifty-eight, she took up rock climbing with her son, Alex, and at the age of sixty-six, she became the oldest woman to climb El Capitan, the iconic 3,200-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park.
Dierdre’s award-winning writing has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and books worldwide, and she created a publishing company that sells internationally. A musician and artist all her life, Dierdre founded the West Sacramento Community Orchestra, which she conducted for four years. She has played in many local and regional orchestras, as well as performed solo or in a duet on flute and piano. She is also a talented visual artist. Learn more at dierdrew.us and on Instagram @dierdrewolownick.
A portion of Dierdre’s royalties are being donated to The Honnold Foundation. Learn more about the foundation’s work to promote the use of solar energy at www.honnoldfoundation.org.
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