“I was relieved, elated, and trying to breathe deeply to take it all in: the beauty of the terrain, the sheer immensity of the valley, the magnitude of the journey I had to overcome to find this view”
Standing on top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, Carlos Rodriguez (then 25) was awestruck. His gaze traveled across the panoramic view of Yosemite Valley and he marveled at the vastness of the expanse. He felt so small compared to the sheer magnitude of the cliffs stretching out in front of him.
“You appreciate how big all of these things are and how small we are,” Carlos said. “We are the size of ants compared to these giant rock structures, yet somehow through a little bit of patience, preparation, and hard work, you can scale them.”
While driving up to Yosemite with his family as a child, Carlos had always admired Half Dome from a distance.
He couldn’t imagine that one day he would be standing on top of the iconic peak—8,839 feet above sea level.
He grew up in California and attended UC Riverside as an undergraduate before moving to New York and then Michigan. Soon after he moved back to California at the start of 2019, he began working for xCella Biosciences, a protein engineering startup. Seeing a photo of Half Dome against Yosemite’s starry night sky, which is featured on his company’s website, reignited his desire to visit the national park.
“Having moved to several different states, I realized that there are many opportunities and experiences around us that we don't fully appreciate or take advantage of,” he said.
He decided that he wanted to climb Half Dome and experience for himself what he considers “one of the wonders of the world.”
Due to the popularity of the Half Dome, it is difficult to obtain a permit to climb it: only 300 permits are allocated per day via a lottery system. By the time Carlos committed to the challenge, it was too late to get one for that hiking season (May-October).
He was disappointed that he had missed the opportunity and thought that he would have to wait a year for the chance to apply.
But “as fate would have it,” one of his college friends posted on Facebook that he had some extra Half Dome permits. Although Carlos hadn’t seen Will (his friend) in 3 years, he immediately messaged him that he would be interested.
“I was super excited to jump on board,” Carlos said. “I had been looking forward to this for 9 months at that point and the fact that this opportunity came out of nowhere and that I was ready to take this opportunity to go was very fun for me.”
On a Monday in September 2019, Carlos and Will left work at 4 p.m and drove for three hours from Sunnyvale to Coarsegold, CA to stay in an airbnb. The next morning, they woke up at 4 a.m, drove to Yosemite Valley, and began the strenuous 17-mile trek at 7 a.m.
As they started walking, Carlos peered at the granite rock formation towering above the treeline; even while far away, he felt astounded by Half Dome’s magnificence.
“It was really something to see at a distance this thing that I was going to hike, to be on top of,” he said.
The initial portion of the hike took them along the Mist Trail, which follows the Merced River to Vernal Falls. Part of the trail consists of hundreds of rocky steps cut into a cliffside, where the waterfall’s mist gently sprays hikers and often forms rainbows above the raging water.
“The mist trail is really serene,” Carlos said. “I remember being in awe at how high fidelity everything was. It was as good, if not better than all the pictures I saw of it.”
The trail to Half Dome then follows another steep set of steps to Nevada Falls. Afterward, hikers pass through a long sandy hut section through little Yosemite Valley and then a forested area.
“We got rewarded by these beautiful sights that I wish more people could enjoy,” Carlos said. “It makes me want to fight harder to protect these landscapes.”
As Carlos walked underneath the giant trees, he thought of the two seeds—a giant sequoia and a redwood— that he and his
wife had planted after their wedding. They had committed to nurturing the seedlings with the same patience and care they promised to each other.
While the pots remained bare for the first few weeks, the couple continued sprinkling the soil with mist and eventually two tiny sprouts emerged. Now, the redwood is about 3 ft tall and the giant sequoia is about 9 inches tall.
“I have grown these trees from seeds and I know that these trees are going to outlast me,” Carlos said. “They represent the love I have for my wife and they represent the love I have for the Earth. Going out there and seeing these trees that have been growing for hundreds of years, I could really appreciate how long it took them to get that large.”
Although the hike left his legs feeling like “mush,” Carlos said that the difficulties were more mental than physical.
“Every time I got to another set of stairs that never seemed to end, I decided that you don’t worry about how far you’ve gone, you don’t worry about how far is left,” he said. “You just worry about putting one foot in front of the other and taking the next step in the hike, in the journey, and eventually you’ll end up where you want to go.”
At around midday, Carlos and Will reached the base of Half Dome. Immediately, Carlos noticed how steep the side of the dome was; the only thing breaking up the last 400 foot to the summit were two metal cables and wooden beams interspaced about 6 to 8 feet apart.
“It was a lot of building up to that point—building tensions, building emotions,” Carlos said.
Although the ascent was arduous and required significant upper body exertion, the exhilaration he felt overpowered his tiredness and fear. By hooking themselves to the cables with harnesses and clips, Carlos and Will were even able to go around the “traffic jams” of people by climbing on the outside of the beams.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Carlos recounted, laughing.
As Carlos pulled himself up the last stretch and stepped onto the summit of the rock formation, he felt his heartbeat quicken. This was it. He stood up and the view unfolded before him.
“I was relieved, elated, and trying to breathe deeply to take it all in: the beauty of the terrain, the sheer immensity of the valley, the magnitude of the journey I had to overcome to find this view,” he said. “I paid no attention to the fact that my heart was pounding in my chest from the exertion and thin air. As I breathed it all in, I became inspired to make the journey again every year.”