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The Beginning After the Beginning

I bought clippers to cut my own hair. At the time I lived in Redlands, California, renting a two-bedroom house while working as an trauma/surgical/neuro ICU nurse at the local hospital. But now, everything seemed to be upside down. Accepted to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, everything here was coming to an end, an imminent move halfway across the country. Notice given at work and with my landlords. A co-worker, in a relationship the entire time I had known her, was no longer dating. We started hanging out - dinner, John Mayer concert at the Hollywood Bowl, cuddles in my ever more packed up house. I liked her, but I couldn’t let myself fall for her as our entire time together existed in the shadow of my leaving, her break-up. It felt like there was no future; we had no chance at more. She said she would come to visit me in Houston. She didn’t, but I think that was my fault.

Things were changing and it all felt significant. I shaved my head with a clipper with attachment ‘One’. It was short, my brown hair pooling at my feet. I had never cut my own hair before, let alone shaved it. This felt conspicuous, somehow an outlier to how I had lived my life prior to this moment, a moment laced with growing apathy to what others thought simultaneous to a burgeoning desire to do what I wanted. This felt like the first of many never-have-I-evers to come.

For my birthday, I took myself to Yosemite. With my imminent move to Houston, I felt an urgency to see what I could while I was still in the neighborhood. Also, for my birthdays, I liked to do new things, go new places. Yosemite was this year’s birthday indulgence.

Although there is not one moment when I realized running to be the factor to my mental expansion, looking back on these races and runs, testing my boundaries, running seemed to be breaking me open. At this time, I had a Long Beach half under my running shorts and a Las Vegas full. I wasn't running fast, but I was running distances that made me wonder what my mind and body might be capable of in running or any area of life. This felt like confidence, the start of this shedding of fear that seemed imprinted from my upbringing.

I arrived unprepared for anything in Yosemite. I had no plans, no maps, no sense of where to go or what I wanted to do, no comprehension of the wonder that I might bump into there. I was just there. I remember driving down into the valley and coming upon the Tunnel View Overlook - Yosemite in all its glory - and I was dazed with a wonder that is still palpable as I write. I recognized Half Dome and El Cap, the rest of the landmarks unknown to me.

With no agenda, I did know I wanted to climb Half Dome. I brought my camera and wanted to see what I could while was there…for the weekend. I was hoping to be the next Ansel Adams. I was primed for disillusion. I learned that Half Dome in April is closed, meaning that the cables and steps allowing for easy access to the summit were closed, still down for the winter. I didn’t know what this meant, not understanding the implications. I set out anyways. I wanted to see what I could see, get as close as I could to this iconic piece of rock.

The climb starts out in a no-joke sort of manner, a rolling series of ascents that is paved to accommodate the masses. On this day, there weren’t many folks out and about. The falls - Vernal and Nevada - most people’s destination, were resplendent with the trail up and around them but cold in the shade of this spring morning. My senses were fizzy, a delight overwhelming every cell I contained. The sun was out, but it wasn’t hot or oppressive. I don’t remember much from the hike except miles of walking alongside the clearest water of the Merced River.

I arrived at the base of Half Dome, now seeing for myself the steel cables lying flat on the eastern face of Half Dome. Well, shoot. I ate my lunch at the bottom dreaming of what it might be like on the top. The slats, that would become steps any day now, lay in a heap in the shadow of a large rock. This was my end, even beginning to walk away, to find the trail on which I came. Something within my chest stirred. I turned about, taking in the face again and decided to see how far up the rock I could go. I was here after all.

I started up the face, holding up one of the two cables in my hands, as my boots searched for footing. The cable filled up my palms, a size that didn't feel too easy to grip, but I didn't have better options. Hand over hand, step by step I started to climb up this the side of Half Dome. I am certain that if I were to return now, I would be unimpressed with the steepness of this climb, but in that moment, I was Alex Honnold.

I made it what I remember to be halfway up. Snow patches, lingering from the winter’s blanket, dotted the face. This presented two problems in my attempt: The first seemed to be an issue of wet and slippery. As the snow melted under the spring sun, water trickled down the rock creating a water slide effect. Also, in crossing over a few of these snow patches, I would take the snow with me in the tread of my hiking boots making this rock slippery no matter where I stepped. The second issue took a bit longer to develop. While holding the steel cable at waist height my hands and shoulders began to fatigue, eroding my confidence that I could hand over hand climb with this cable to the top. It was in the middle of this climb where fear found me, causing me to set the cable down, clinging to the side of this rock like a scared cat. I questioned every decision I had made that got me to this moment on this rock and I froze.

Everything felt slippery, too slippery. I was uncertain if I could continue up. Worse, I was uncertain if going down was a reasonable option. Fear steamrolled me and I prayed. God, help me.

Help came in the form of breathing. I slowed my breathing there on the side of Half Dome, my hands still clinging to a solitary cable. My thoughts regrouped, becoming more rational, a confidence growing within telling me that not only would I be okay, but that I would be able to continue and make it to the top.

With every muscle in my arm aching and wanting to give up, I pulled and slow-stepped my way to the to top of Half Dome. I felt an exhilaration flood through my frame, causing every cell to pulsate in unison, a chorus of delight coursing through my tissue. I didn’t know what to do. I was at the top. Celebrating felt like sitting down, like saying a ‘thank you’ to Jesus for this place and for allowing me to make it here, like running around pell-mell seeing everything I could see. I spent 20 minutes at the top of Half Dome alone, doing circles, victory laps of joy if you will. I tiptoed slowly onto the Diving Board and thought about jumping (I always do), wondering how many flips I could do before my body pancakes into the rocks below. I still wonder.

I’m not much of a climber, more an average walker, less average then than now, but I do know one of the rules of climbing is don’t climb up what you can’t climb down. This may not seem obvious, but it is much easier to climb up something frequently causing an issue when needing to down climb what may have been on the edge of ability and/or safety on the way up to the point of victory. My confidence evaporated as my fear returned with questions of my ability to descend. Can I make it down?

As I backed down the side of Hal Dome, I remember my palms growing warm from the friction against the cold steel. While I wasn't moving quickly, the death-grip I was using seemed to be causing some minor burns. I gloved up, which compromised my grip, and I slowly descended, shredding those gloves. I made it down, and with eight miles back to the truck and my body fatigued from the cortisol response on the side of the rock above me, I mindlessly floated back to the Merced, the falls, and the now much busier trailhead.

Wonder oozed through me...and I wanted more. This was the first moment I can put my finger on, the moment where I felt like my life would forever be changed. I has been years since I've climbed Half Dome and I have found that my body continually seeks the experience of wonder, a type of legal cocaine. It simply longs to be outside, out there, under the elements pushing this body to do more, to go some place new, some place steeper, some place more beautiful than the last. And I can’t help myself, a claustrophobia developing within me if I ignore my body's urge. I still consider myself a pretty average walker, but this walking, these leggies, have taken me to astounding places that have become lodged deep within me, memories that comfort and push me again and again into more wild places.

God, help me.

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