David Grubb :: The Rodent Queen of Half Dome ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Bona Fide I’m still a bonafide southern fried hunting and fishing machine. I’ve gotten up before dawn and bagged an 8’ gator, went right up to dusk to put an arrow in the heart of a tusky razorback, and I’ve got a few ten pointers mounted on the basement wall. Oddly enough, I’m transplant who tarried away part of my youth in the Midwest until the great fate moved me to Virginia. I left the flat sprawl and picked up my glorious southern drawl. Nowadays I live up Maine way, but country roads will always take me home…

The Rodent Queen of Half Dome

I reached the top of Half Dome, sweat drenched and electrified. Before I could remove my backpack, a fat marmot with a bigger attitude than any squirrel in Central Park approached, rose onto its hind legs, and nattered. Unsure of what to expect on top of California’s great granite peak, a boorish rodent struck me as odd, yet fitting.

As Mooch and I became acquainted, a short squat man strode to the center of the flat three-hundred-yard expanse: another feature of Half Dome that surprises most first-time ascenders. After making a quick impression, he became part of the growing throng.

If the Summer Day was more perfect weatherwise, I would’ve doubted the excursion happened. Five thousand feet below, Little Yosemite Valley flowed away toward the rugged High Sierra standing in the distance. The big snag overshadowing my awed bliss hit me anew. My girlfriend Rachel had panicked while making our way up the notorious cables. She waited for me down by the entrance to the cables. I yearned to have her with me gaping at the unparalleled three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views.

After my euphoria eased, I became hyperaware of youngsters amassing at the most precarious spot on the granite peak: a small overhanging ledge dubbed “the visor”; made famous by Ansel Adams’ photograph titled Monolith. Five tweenagers unfurled a Boy Scouts of America troop flag and held it aloft. The troop’s name above the fleur-de-lis in a green circle drew a lot of the other adventurers’ attention. I forgot about the view, my girlfriend; and I even stopped digging nuts out of my trail mix to appease Mooch.

None of the boys wore the world’s largest scouting organization’s uniform, but they fit the image. While the adults ensured the group remained a safe distance from the edge, I moseyed around the top trying to mollify my guilt of finishing the trek alone. Each picture I took with my iPhone became a small distraction from the excited troop.

Soon, the pack leader and I drifted together. We broke into conversation as if we were Muir and Roosevelt.

“You brought Boy Scouts up here?”

His smiled. “We hike up here every year. It’s our nineteenth summit.”

“That’s impressive.” 

Long before ascending the bald granite peak I’d read a few books to prepare, and one title stood out Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite. The book detailed every death in the park’s history—up to a certain date—the grim tales involving Half Dome stuck like images in a graphic novel.

He shrugged. “We haven’t lost anyone yet.”

“How many are there?”

“Seventeen. Our biggest group was thirty-six, back when BSA held greater popularity.”

“And three adults?”

“Sometimes we get volunteers, but most Pennsylvanians are unversed in Half Dome. Out-of-shape parents often decide the ascent is beyond their scope. I’d rather lead forty to fifty youths up the majestic peak rather than a handful of chubby parents.”

By now, most of his scouts had ventured into the rock cave where five hikers took shelter during a thunderstorm in August 1985. A lightning strike killed two of the hikers; after being struck one fell off the edge plummeting to his death. 

He looked around. “Are you alone?” 

“My girlfriend froze coming up the cables.”

“Thousands of people lose their nerve on that part.” His glibness questioned my chivalry.

I sipped water to quell my rebuke. “She insisted I come up without her.”

He nodded, but his eyes remained buoyant. I didn’t bother to explain I’d have carried her to the top if she would’ve allowed it. We were about two years into our relationship and her outgoing spirit bolstered by her dogged toughness was what I loved most. Her fear of heights was unexpected, to me, and her. 

At the height of her paralysis: her wild eyes and terrified voice were new, as if she’d became a mere caricature of the woman I’d marry in a few months. The ordeal lasted a few horrific minutes, but it made the four-hour trek to the cables seem like a quick jaunt.

“It’s obvious you miss her.”

“She’s cool, like, too cool.”

“Quit squandering your precious time with me, most people get one go at this.”

“I’d say good luck, but you’ve got everything well in hand.”

“Now you’re jealous of my overwhelming responsibility?”

I shrugged. “I’ve got a couple photos confirming my magnificent feat, but you’ve got hundreds of young kids who’ll remember the hero who took them to the top of Half Dome.”

He was speechless as we clasped hands and made our goodbyes like cowboys in a silent western. He ambled toward his troop as Mooch scrambled up to another newcomer. The brash marmot stood on her hind legs while a blonde tanned-legged girl smiled and fished in her pack.

While I explored the cave, I fell into deep contemplation. From the entrance I tried to pick out individual mountain tops of the Sierra Nevadas: Whitney, Langley, North Palisades. Upon descent, would my life be different? Half Dome wasn’t Everest or K2, yet there was a renewal of ownership in my life. From a young age I was fearless of heights, and Half Dome became inevitable when I moved to California for work. As unavoidable as having kids, buying a house, and owning too much shit—the American delirium.

While I made my way to the cables, I admired the troop leader one last time, like he was some noble guru on the mountain. He milled among his scouts smiling, slapping backs, and high fiving. It was impossible to guess how many photos he would emblazon. My iPhone’s camera roll held two solitary selfies.

Hours later, Rachel and I angled down past the cascading water of Nevada falls, a squall slickening the long rock stairway. Whenever we slipped or needed a breather, I fretted about the troop and her missing the opportunity of a lifetime.

Sensing my unease, she smiled. “That pugnacious marmot got your tongue?”

“You would’ve loved her, would’ve loved—”