I’ve been meaning to write this post for the past three weeks, but my spare time decided it had other plans, like grocery shopping and watching six hours of “The Bachelorette” until I wanted to bash my head on the coffee table.
Three weekends ago, I spent a glorious five days in San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, hanging out with a really special group of people and generally laughing a lot. (More to come about San Francisco in a separate post.) But today I’m going to tell you the tale of what went down on May 25 in Yosemite National Park, at the midway point of a 17.6-mile hike, when my boyfriend of six years got down on one knee and proposed.
Did I think when I got engaged I’d be wearing clunky hiking boots and rocking a messy bun that had partially fallen down? No. But life throws you curveballs.
Allow me to back it up and start at the beginning. Back in late 2013, Mike and I made plans to visit one of my best friends Kate and her boyfriend Jordan in San Francisco in late May. Together with her sister Brooke and her fiance Jerry, our mutual good friend Sarah, and my long-time friend Carla, we were going to head into Yosemite National Park for a bit of R&R that Memorial Day weekend. Somehow, Mike got it in his head that we were going to summit Half Dome while we were staying in Yosemite. I actually scoffed the first time he mentioned it. It was a seventeen-mile roundtrip hike that ended with a gravity-defying trek up a series of cables bolted into the granite. At least six people, and probably more, have fallen to their deaths after slipping on those cables. But he wore me down, dammit, and less than an hour later, I admitted that I was curious about the hike and intrigued by the physical challenge. This is why we’re dating. Dude could probably convince me to BASE-jump off the Empire State building.
Only 225 hikers are allowed to hike up the cables to the top of Half Dome each day, to avoid congestion and decrease the likelihood of an accident. We applied for a Memorial Day weekend hiking permit back in March, along with thousands of other hikers. I assumed there was no way we’d get the permits, and that’d be my easy out. “Oh sure, we wanted to hike Half Dome, but we didn’t get the permits. Gee willikers, what a bummer!”
So, naturally, the National Park Service granted us the permits. On Sunday morning, May 25, Mike, Carla, and I set out on the trail at 6 a.m., backpacks loaded down with sandwiches, trail mix, and gallons of water. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but now I know what the pioneers of the Oregon Trail felt when they began their journeys. See that big old rock? (The North Face icon!) That’s where we were headed. The trail kicked off immediately uphill, and didn’t flatten out until about Mile 6. We climbed the slippery steps of the Mist Trail, past the thundering Vernal Falls. Next we hit Nevada Falls. We trekked through Little Yosemite Valley and met up with two super-friendly women vacationing from Seattle. Our group had three extra Half Dome permits—two of our friends had to bow out of the hike at the last-minute due to injuries—so the Seattle mamas tacked onto our group. We chatted with them for a while and they helped us to forget the pain on a particularly strenuous, uphill stretch of trail. I’m so, so glad that we ran into Lisa and Liz, because their upbeat attitudes and general badass-ness kept us trekking.
Around Mile 7, the trees parted and we glimpsed the cables on Half Dome for the first time. I have no problem with heights but just the sight of those cables made my stomach flip. In order to reach Half Dome, you first have to tackle Sub-Dome, this treacherous swath of switchbacks. By now, it was nearing midday and the sun was beating down on us.
By the time we reached the base of the cables, I was feeling a bit woozy from the altitude, which was around 8,000 feet. I stared hard at the cables and thought, “This just isn’t for me.” The steepness was way worse than the pictures depict (you gain nearly 1,000 feet of elevation in a quarter-mile to reach the top). Half Dome just looked like something no human being should ever attempt, especially without being roped in. My friend Carla urged me to do the cables. “You’ve come all this way!” she said. And Lisa, the beacon of positivity that she is, recommended I try 10 cables and if I decided it wasn’t not for me, then I could turn around. Something about that motherly style of negotiating resonated with me, and I decided that’s what I would do. I stepped onto the first cable with a lot of trepidation. I just kept thinking about how there was no room for error, no safety net. If I somehow slipped or lost my footing, that would be the end of my story. Plus, it was solely up to me to haul my ass to the top. If I got in a tight spot halfway up, no one could help me, even if they wanted to, because they had to worry about their own safety.
But once I got going, there was no way I was turning back. I peeped behind me, down at Carla and Mike a few times, and could not believe how steep this climb was. Mostly, I just focused on the one section of cable in front of me. There were wooden planks bolted into the granite, spaced about 10 feet apart, where you could rest and catch your breath, or let someone going down the cables pass you. Yep, these bad boys were a two-way street, as if it wasn’t treacherous enough.
I got into a groove. Grab the cables with two hands, pull yourself up with four small steps, then rest on the wooden plank. It was more of a bicep and chest workout than anything. It took us about 25 or 30 minutes to get to the top; there were so many hikers on the cables that it was pretty slow-going. Which I did NOT mind.
Finally, I reached the top, parched behind belief and so, so thankful to be done. I downed half of my water bottle, lay down on the top of Half Dome and closed my eyes. I informed Mike I was not moving for the next 10 minutes, and I told him to go take a picture of the view and then show me it on his camera. After resting for a little, I puttered around the top and took some pictures. Mike asked me to take one more picture with him, with some gorgeous mountains behind us. Carla snapped the pic… …and then…. Mike got down on one knee and very sweetly asked me to marry him. We quickly discovered that I could not get the ring on my finger because my fingers had swollen from the hike, the altitude, and the dehydration, probably. I managed to jam it on so we could take one picture. Major thanks to Carla for capturing the moment on camera!
There were probably 30 or 40 other hikers milling about the top of Half Dome, and they all broke into applause. A bearded mountain man yelled, “A proposal at 8,800 feet is a guaranteed success!” We were emotionally and literally on top of the world, but a small part of me was filled with dread about having to climb back down the cables and hike 8+ miles back to the trailhead. More than once, I announced my desire for a chairlift or water slide to get us back down this mountain. I gave my ring back to Mike for safekeeping, with the instructions that I was not going to put it back on until we were at sea level.
Fortunately, the cables were actually much easier to go back down. I just held on tight and took baby steps. It was nice being able to see where we were going—while hiking up, the route was so steep, you could not see where the cables ended.
The rest of the hike was relatively without incident. We met up once again with our Seattle hiking buddies Lisa and Liz at a fork in the road, and when we told them that we got engaged, they cheered and cried for us. We could not have met two nicer or more encouraging hiking friends, I’m telling you. This is what Vernal Falls looked like in the afternoon sunlight. Even without the proposal, it would’ve been a hike to remember forever. I have never hiked 17+ miles in one day, let alone with that crazy elevation gain. I am just so proud of Mike, Carla, and I for finishing. I think I felt a teensy bit like how a marathoner must feel—tired as hell, but really accomplished. With the proposal at the top, it’s guaranteed one of the most memorable days of my entire life.
An early Yosemite explorer in the 1800s once surveyed the rock and declared, “No human foot will ever tread upon Half Dome.” HA. What a dummy that guy was. My two feet were all up on that bitch.
A funny afterthought: when we got back to the cabin, I mused to my friends that I couldn’t believe I had only eaten one sandwich all day. I thought I’d be ravenous with hunger. Then it dawned on me. Jordan (Kate’s boyfriend and a mountain biker) had given me a few Clif Bar shot blocks and advised me to eat only a few on the hike. They’re basically the gummy form of the goo that marathon runners eat for fuel. But they tasted like fruit snacks and they were pretty tiny so I popped ’em as I walked throughout the day.
You guys, I ate TEN, for a grand total of 1,000 calories. This was my “Mean Girls” Kalteen bars moment. Oops. That night, we celebrated with the rest of the gang back at the cabin and enjoyed a delicious pasta dinner, cold beer, and a talent show. It was quite literally the perfect end to our Yosemite weekend. Just looking at this picture makes me so happy.