The Dream of a Lifetime

Eliza Bicknell

© Copyright 2007 by Eliza Bicknell


Photo of a climber on Thank God Ledge.

This story is about so much more than an amazing rock climb I did two years ago, its about facing fears, realizing dreams and challenging oneself.

"Brian!  Brian!" I yelled, choking back the hysteria that was quickly setting in. Half of my body was wedged inside the thin horizontal crack, the other half was dangling out over 2,000 feet of dead vertical air.   "How do I get across this?" I choked, panic radiating through the night sky.  At this point, I remembered, I chose to be there, I had always wanted to be there in fact, there on the Thank God Ledge.   The Thank God Ledge is a rather famous traverse in the world of rock climbing, located about 400 feet below the summit of Yosemite National Parks half dome, a giant monolith of stone rising 2,400 feet in height and almost as large in width.  It had taken us three days of solid climbing and hauling our gear to reach this point.

I had come for a reason. Even as a child growing up in the big city of Los Angeles, surrounded by buildings, people and smog, I knew that I wanted to be a rock climber, I felt that I had some sort of connection to the mountains, the wilderness, and the rocks. At age 12 as a camper on my first backpacking trip, I saw the dome and I was awestruck, I committed right then and there to come back, to climb the face.   Call it a deep personal challenge, a commitment to look at my fears and face them head on, or call it sheer insanity, for me it meant everything to be there.

Flash forward more than two decades from that first backpack trip and there I was, I had become a rock climber, not a super human one, but dedicated and passionate one nonetheless.    That summer as I trained and trained and trained, all I could think about was half dome, half dome, HALF DOME.  Then, a mere 2 weeks before our departure, I received big and life changing news - I was pregnant. Suddenly my focus shifted, priorities changed.   In spite of this, even with the knowledge that the first trimester is the most critical in a pregnancy, I knew I still had to climb, now I felt it was my only chance in fact.   I was driven, and the trip was still on.

Scraping my way across the ledge I finally reached a point where I could get both feet back on the wall and resume climbing in a more traditional manner to get to my climbing partner at the belay. The four days it had taken us to get to this point were unlike any other in my life, physically demanding, mentally challenging, and above all, immensely rewarding.   Living with the immediacy and finality of death on the climb helps you sort through your priorities in life and makes you recognize the trivial from the non.

Lightening danced across El Cap spire, Yosemite's most prominent rock feature,  and storm clouds constantly threatened us as we made our way to a sloping ledge about 600 feet up on the first day of the climb.   Thankfully the storm never materialized above us and after 12 hours of difficult climbing and one fall taken by my climbing partner Brian, we reached the ledge.   Too sleep comfortably, if you could call it that, and without risk of sliding off into the abyss, ropes had to be tied around our feet in sort of a hammock like fashion.

On day two, at about 800 feet up and moving ever so slowly due to loose rock, uncertain and difficult climbing, and a constant struggle with hauling our gear we realized we would not make the 1,100 feet needed for the day to maintain our 3 day schedule.   Retreat was no longer an option. The smell of urine was strong at the two foot wide ledge where we would spend our second night.  My feet dangling out over more than a thousand feet of vertical air I gazed up at the stars from my cozy sleeping bag after another 12 hours of strenuous climbing.   Although sore and tired, sleep did not come easily that evening, thoughts of my unborn child danced through my head, the stories I would share with him and the hopes that the adventurous spirit was within him too.

The most difficult climbing of the trip still lay ahead.  Chimneys, or sections of rock that are too wide to protect with gear and difficult to climb and haul gear through were a rude awakening at the start of the third day.   Creeping like inch worms our progress was slow.  One hundred feet below the ledge where we would spend our third and final night on the wall, our gear had become tangled in the haul line and wedged underneath some flakes about 50 feet below. Lowering off over the edge, traversing across the wall and finally freeing the bag took over 4 hours, putting us on the ledge at 1 am, a major set back indeed. Valuable sleep and relaxation time lost, we collapsed yet again for the remaining few hours until the push for the summit.

Taking the average climber 3 hours per pitch (about 100 feet), aid pitches are the slowest kind of climbing.   Aid pitches are where the rock is actually too hard to climb (at least for mere mortals like ourselves) and so you need to climb your gear instead of the rock.  Each piece of climbing gear is placed with precision and care and each piece is weighted to full body weight as you step up onto the gear in specially designed leg loops that connect you to the rock.. It is a slow and tredious process indeed.  We were averaging 4 hours per aid pitch and we had 3 to go at the start of the final day. The agony began to set in just as the sun began to set when we finally reached the Thank God Ledge..

And finally, there I was, the Thank God Ledge finally behind me.  3 a.m., on the very last belay, a mere 200 feet from the summit, with our bag of gear stuck yet again. Freezing, shivering, SO TIRED, wishing more than anything to be at the top. Tourists could make their way up to the top of half dome via a route called the cables route.   We were so close to the top at this point that we could hear the tourists up there now, laughing, living it up, oblivious to my pain and suffering. They hiked up by the light of the full moon hike and were waiting for the sun to rise. My husband was up there too.   At the moment those tourists were making me mad, I mean really mad. Didn't they know how miserable I was?  How hard I had been working?   I wanted them all to feel just for one second how I felt at that moment, what I had been through, but they would never understand.  As tears of pain and exhaustion intermixed with a huge sense of accomplishment streaked down my face, I gripped the final hold and pulled myself onto the summit at 4 am. We had been climbing for over 20 hours that day and for all those hours prior just to get there, the summit, our destination.

Having taken an extra day on the wall, we felt the time pressure to get down in order to make our flight back to Colorado the next day. A mere 2 hours after reaching the summit, at 6 a.m., weary, worn, exhausted beyond anything imaginable, we began the grueling 8 mile hike out to the valley floor. I don't think I have ever pushed my limits more, the agony being almost unbearable.   Such a motley crew we were, covered in the dirt and grime of 6 days in the backcountry, gear strapped to our backs, limping ever so slowly down the trail, fielding a barrage of questions from tourists inquiring if we were ok. By the time we found a hotel to stay in that night I was delirious and when I fell asleep I dreamt I was back on the wall trying to get off and having problems with the haul bag. I actually had dreams about the climb for the next 5 nights in a row.  I even tried to clip into my nightstand on more than one occasion once I was back home.

When I told my friends about our ascent, how grueling, exhausting and challenging it was, how we climbed for hours on end and into the night each night, they simply shook their heads and said 'are you surprised?' And actually I'm not. I had expected it to be the challenge that it was, afterall, thats why I came. So now a lifelong dream has been fulfilled. It was all that I expected and more and I can look back on it with a true sense of achievement. Sure we didn't set any records or climb some remote climb in the middle of nowhere, but for us, the ordinary climbers that we are, we pushed ourselves into the extraordinary and did something we will never forget. My next big adventure, parenthood, is only just beginning. I hope my sweet child reaches for the stars and knows that with a little effort, he too can make his dreams come true.

 After leaving Los Angeles as a teen, I moved to Colorado where I reside today.  An avid rock climber for the past 12 years, I spend most of my time in the great outdoors, rock climbing but also hiking, ice climbing, camping, canyoneering, caving, and sea kayaking when I can.  I obtained my masters degree from Washington State University in environmental science and for the past 10 years I have taught high school biology, prior to which I was a park ranger.  I enjoy travel and have been to over 40 foreign countries and hope to visit many more.  Currently I am the happy mother of one baby boy, born March 7, 2006.  I have recently started to write and am working on many childrens stories and books.

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