I just returned from my annual Summer Trek up Half Dome with our High School Seniors. It is a great time of bonding and working together as they prepare to become the student leaders of our youth department. I'll share some pictures and stories as I did in our worship services today.
While it was a beautiful night out when we arose at 4:45 AM some of the details for the trip were still left undone and that got us off to a later start than usual. Our High Schoool Director, Mike and two volunteer leaders, Brandon and Alice and I were joined by a guide from Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp, nicknamed Fox.
As we marched along the trail together, we were split into two groups with everyone having the best attitudes and genuine excitement, we saw a lot of wildlife this year, the most ever, with our camp guide and I counting eight deer and even two bears. One that simply walked down the trail in front of us.
The scenery was breath taking, and the trail was quite demanding. But we pushed on and made great time. Now, Half Dome is particularly challenging because after you have already climbed 8 miles, you then face Heartbreak Hill, The Thousand Steps and then the famous cables that take you up to the top.
This year, however, the climb was particularly crowded because the trail was only open on weekends and the weather started looking quite cloudy in the distance. We didn’t know it at the time, but we found out later that two weeks ago, two people were killed on Half Dome after being struck by lightening.
I was hiking with a front group that had made really good time getting to the cables. And while we planned on going up the cables together, with the clouds in the distance looking potentially threatening and unable to reach Mike’s group or Brandon’s group on the walkie-talkies I made the decision to get my group to the top and back down again as soon and safely as we could.
But then the clouds came in too close, and the wind began. Mike and two students were on the Thousand Steps and within a half mile of the cables but Mike knew that the climbing from there and the crowds on the cables would likely take them too long to safely make it to the top. Seeing the weather coming Mike wisely stopped them and took them down where they would be safe.
Brandon and the guide from the camp, had their group half way up the cables and they had to make the really hard decision to turn back from the top. And we on top rushed back down the cables both exhilarated and disappointed, feeling both the ups and downs. Glad that we had made but really bummed for our friends.
If there was ever a group whose attitudes and effort earned them all the right to stand atop together, it was this one, and it wasn’t going to happen.
Then when just as I got back to the bottom the weirdest thing happened. The weather cleared. It was like God just held back the clouds and let the sun pour through. And since so many had left in fear of the clouds, the cables were now empty. What had taken us 40 minutes to climb now could be done in ten. The guide from the camp and I conferred and quickly decided to give Brandon’s group a chance to go quickly to the top.
When Alice called me on the walkie talkie from the top, she was so excited that she couldn’t keep her finger on the talk button. But they had made it too. All of us except Mike, and the two students had been able to get to the top, but those three had walked 18 miles and missed out on the top because of a late start, some early morning illness and uncertain weather and we never got to be there all together.
When we gathered back together in Curry Village for the now traditional after hike Pizza dinner, we decided to take some pictures of all of us together. Because while we hadn’t all made it to the top together, we did all make it to Half Dome and safely back down more unified as a group and more deeply humbled by the beauty and power of the God who made Half Dome and the fearsome weather that can change all of our plans in an instant.
I am really proud of these kids, especially their positive attitudes in every circumstance and Mike’s maturity and good judgment, to make a tough call for the safety of the young people under his care.
For me one of the most memorable moments of the trip occurred back a camp during the debrief. Kelly spoke of how hard it was to have to turn back and not stand atop Half Dome with her friends. Kelly is an accomplished athlete. If she hadn’t been sick in the morning, or if she had left to join the lead group a bit earlier, she absolutely would have made it. And to miss out was really disappointing to her. But as Mike told us later, neither her nor the other yound man who had to turn back had a single negative thing to say when he made the call to stop. They demonstrated incredible maturity.
Kelly said that while walking back down and praying about the disappointment of the day, it hit her that while she had come to Half Dome to make it to the top with her friends, that God had brought her here to bring her closer to him. And for her that was really what mattered. Far more important then one day or one accomplishment is living each day closer and closer to God.
I had hoped that maybe Kelly would learn that lesson in the next six months, not the first six hours, but this remarkable young women and her friends showed some real faith and made me feel like a most blessed pastor indeed.
I love my job.