Four words. They were just four words and not very remarkable ones at that. “Don’t do anything foolish,” my father said as he dropped me off at JFK airport an early July morning. This was to be expected. It was the kind of thing parents liked to say, and my father in particular was especially fond of this one. If my father had a mantra, those four words might be it—that or “call when you arrive,” but the former had a foreboding aura in its favor, and the latter just didn’t roll off the tongue with the same finesse.
Needless to say, when my feet touched ground in San Francisco, and two hundred miles later, in Yosemite National Park, the famous mantra was as distant as the flurry of New York cab drivers trying to see how close they can get to killing someone without actually killing him. It was glorious. Mountains were everywhere—and not those puny little rocks people who grew up in the Midwest (myself included) liked to call mountains—but real, honest to goodness chunks of stone rising thousands of feet above me, filling the sky and my heart with awe.
There was one mountain in particular that stood out: Half Dome. It was aptly named, since it looked like someone had dropped an ax down the center of the dome, chopping it cleanly in half. It was notorious for being the most grueling day hike in the park—so grueling that many opted to do it in two days, camping out in Little Yosemite Valley overnight. But we were young and fit and probably a little too confident for our own good. More importantly, I had a peculiar penchant for sleeping in a bed.
We started out early the next morning as all the guidebooks said to do. We had 17 miles ahead of us (round trip) and 4,796 feet to climb. After some quick calculations, we figured out that it would be a long day. Eight and a half hours later, we were right. Sweaty and aching and thoroughly determined to pitch the next person who told us “you’re almost there” over the mountain, we reached the top.
Did I say the top? Excuse me. What I meant was the part of the mountain where you thought you were at the top but really you had another 400 feet of death defying climbing to do. I am not exaggerating: At a fifty-plus degree angle, the last bit of Half Dome is so steep you can’t climb up without the support of two iron cables attached to the mountain.
At the base of the final slab, there was a box of abandoned gloves left by the countless other fools who had passed this way before me. I picked out a suitably mismatched pair and grabbed onto the first bit of cable, tugging to see if it could really hold all of me. Against my better judgment, I hoisted myself up ever so slowly. The cold, metallic taste of fear rose in my throat. I kicked myself for leaving my better judgment several miles back, but my backpack had been weighing me down, and it was either the granola bars or my better judgment, and the granola bars won out.
The climb up the cables was nothing short of terrifying. Two years of high level statistics rattled through my brain, barely audible over the raging cries of “Oh—my—God!” alternating with “OH—MY—GOD!” If I wasn’t so petrified, I might have laughed over the irony of shelling out twenty thousand dollars a year to attend a prestigious graduate school so that I could calculate the increased likelihood of my death as I was clinging to the side of a mountain for dear life. If e equaled the limit of one plus one over n and n was I am an idiot, then the answer was unambiguously yes. Yes. I was going to die. I was certain of it.
That my ego was suffering terribly didn’t help matters. As ten-year olds shimmied up the cables with the ease and grace of professional mountain climbers, I struggled to silence the aforementioned “Oh my Gods!” Oh, they seemed pleasant enough, but being the keen reader of people that I am, I could sense their mocking, taunting glares beneath their innocent facades. If you listened carefully enough, you could hear the sound of their accusations. Coward. Spineless city girl thinking she has what it takes to climb Half Dome.
Turning to let one of these children pass, my backpack banged against the cable, and the water bottle secured in its outside pocket was knocked loose, tumbling down the mountain range. I heard it: thumping down a cascade of rocks until it reached the bottom, a graveyard of water bottles and other miscellaneous items. My friends and I glanced at one and other. No one had to say it aloud. One small slip, and that could be me.
At that moment, about three-quarters of the way up the cables, with the glory that was the peak of Half Dome in sight, I heard those four unremarkable words, first a whisper, and then, a blazing, bursting explosion shattering whatever sliver of logic remained: “Don’t do anything foolish.” Like Yosef and dmus diyukno shel aviv (the image of his father) appearing to him before he sinned with Potiphar, I heard my father’s voice over and over again. The mantra, like a chip implanted in my brain: Don’t do anything foolish.
Why is it that parents are always right? Like when my father said, don’t play baseball on the front lawn—you’ll break a window, why was it that five minutes later our game was interrupted by the shattering of glass? Is it a special, perhaps divinely ordained, power granted upon the birth of a child? Is it God’s ironic sense of humor exhibiting itself in full force?
At that moment though, I wasn’t actually contemplating the philosophical perks of parenthood. I was, rather, trying to figure out the best way to get myself out of the perilous predicament I had gotten myself into. More than anything, I did not want to be clinging to a cable wire, thousands of feet above ground. The problem was, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of sliding backwards down the cables I had just climbed up. Thus, I stood there, eyes shut, hands clenched firmly, a voice in my head praying for a miracle. Or a helicopter. Either one. I thought it awfully kind of me to give God the option. I would take either one.
The amazing thing about feeling like I was going to die was that I suddenly remembered all the things I loved about my normally mediocre life. All of life’s problems vanished in the thinness of the mountain air, and I realized how much I appreciated the small things, like solid ground beneath my feet. This was truly a nice feeling. However, it seemed rather unfortunate that I had to die just as I was beginning to appreciate my mundane existence.
Finally, I opened my eyes. Between the cries of “you’re almost there,” and “just do it” I steadily lowered myself down the cables, letting the panic seep out of my body with every inch closer to the ground. It occurred to me that I had hiked eight and half miles of grueling switchbacks only to freak out at the last moment—a thought that should have been sobering and disappointing. But in that moment, any disappointment I may have felt was overshadowed by the sheer exuberance of touching my feet to the ground, not to mention the fact that I was alive. Yes, I told myself. Being alive was nothing to sniff at.
People say climbing Half Dome determines what kind of person you are. If this is true, than I have no choice but to accept my fate: I am truly my father’s daughter. Unreasonable fears of subways aside, that is a pretty good thing to be.
Nachama Soloveichik was the Press Secretary for Steve Laffey’s 2006 U.S. Senate campaign in Rhode Island. She is currently the Communications Director for the Club for Growth in Washington, D.C. and a climber of non-steep mountains. Her father is still always right.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.