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Climbing Half Dome: A Journey Back Home

Climbing Half Dome: A Journey Back Home

July 28, 2022

7,000ft up 

One move at a time, I search for a place to rest my feet upon the polished granite that Yosemite is famous for. My movements are calculated, precise, and certain. Hyper-focused on the tiny features of the rock, my initial fear becomes secondary. The wind is picking up as we inch up like ants on a boulder, nearly blowing us off the wall. I remind myself I’d rather feel the invigorating gusts rather than the hot sun tirelessly beating on my back. My calves are starting to ache and burn from the endless pitches, six more lengths of my two-hundred-foot rope until we can untie and traverse the final thousand-foot slabs to the top. I’m nearing the end of my rope, my eyes overtaxed from the morning approach, yet my other senses remain sharp. I find the belay station, clip the bolt, and exhale a sigh of relief as I start rigging my anchor for Carson, my climbing partner, to follow up.

My POV, looking down from the top of the third pitch on Half-Dome via the Snake Dike Route as I go to clip my personal anchor.

Half-Dome. Why's it called that? 

Half Dome just might be Yosemite’s most legendary and iconic summit. A ninety- three- million year- old rock formed by glacial ice, Half Dome was named after its distinct shape. One side is a sheer, steep face while the other three sides are smooth and round, and when you’re looking at it from the valley floor or glacier point, it looks just like a dome cut perfectly in half, hence the name. 

Until 1875 Half dome was described as “perfectly inaccessible”. It wasn’t until 1875 that George Anderson made the first ascent, getting to the top by drilling and placing iron eyebolts to aid the ascent. 

The first ascent by a climber was in 1957 by Royal Robbins, a legendary climber who pioneered many first ascents of many of Yosemite's tallest, sheer vertical granite walls. 

This August, I will have come up on my climbing career of 8 years. With a total elevation of 8,839 vertical feet, it seems fitting; one thousand feet for each year I've been climbing. It was a surreal experience.

Half Dome. Snake Dike route marked in blue, notice the party on the climb as well as people on top for scale.

What Half Dome taught me

After three hours, we still weren't at the base of the climb. Gear heavy and our backpacks digging into our shoulders, five hundred vertical steps had us panting and winded, only to feel 1% closer.

I remember reaching the bottom of the base of half dome, walking through a serene meadow, and seeing the dawn’s light upon the face, thinking to myself. “That is MASSIVELY Tall! How the HECK, are we going to get up that thing?”.

After gearing up at the base, the momentum picked up. I had a constant image of what the top was going to be like. The ascent was mostly fueled by optimism, enthusiasm, and sheer willpower to reach the summit. The feeling of summiting the mountain, sitting at the edge with my legs dangling freely, admiring the view in quiet and grateful awe of what we had just achieved, and what this beautiful world has to offer.

The top of Half Dome with incredible views of Yosemite Valley. Carson Blessinger and Rob Duncan July 8th, 2022. You can see a brave highliner to our left, walking across a thin strand of webbing like a circus tight rope.  

*Also, the chicken pesto sandwich from the Yosemite Lodge that I had packed was the best sandwich I’ve ever had.

My mistake

Descending the famous Half Dome cable route. For those with a fear of heights, best not to look down!

Something that all climbers, hikers, mountaineers, and long-distance runners all know intimately is the descent. Rappelling down this route was not an option. The descent, for me, was no longer filled with optimism. Instead of the romantic and inspiring willpower to ascend, the power that comes to descend and return home is vastly different. The descent felt endless. Thousands of steep steps down, requiring full attention not to overstep or misplace a foot. A sprained ankle on this trail would be a nightmare. The trail was hot, my back was sweaty, the water in my CamelBak was all gone, and we had run out of snacks an hour ago.

There was no alluring summit to “achieve” anymore, instead, I was overcome with primal instinct, a survival-like “get me home”. After 12 hours, every step felt heavy, like I was wearing cinder blocks instead of boots. I was utterly and completely exhausted.

I found my mind wandering as I trudged down the trail, but there was one prevailing theme in my mind. The summit is only momentary, but the journey is what lasts. It’s not only about getting to the top, it’s about -somehow- enjoying every step of the way. It’s about the actions you take, the attitude you have, and the people you meet along the way.

I realized that I had been so focused on summiting Half Dome, that I had lost sight of why I wanted to summit in the first place. It wasn’t just to say “I did it” or to check it off my bucket list, it was to challenge myself. It was to see what I was made of and to come out on the other side a better person. And that is exactly what happened.

I learned a lot about myself on that climb. I learned that I am stronger than I thought, both physically and mentally. I also learned that I need to be more present and enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

When we got back to the car, I collapsed into the passenger seat and let out a huge sigh of relief. It was over. We did it. We summited Half-Dome. Total trip 15 hours and eight minutes.

So, next time you find yourself at the bottom of a Half Dome, or any challenge for that matter, remember to take a deep breath, enjoy the journey, and savor every moment. Because it is those moments that will stay with you long after you’ve reached the summit.  And it is in the moments of hardship, when we are at our lowest, that we learn the most about ourselves.

How does this tie (get it?) into retirement and financial planning? 

When speaking with friends, family, and clients, I’ve often used the analogy of summiting a mountain when achieving wealth. 

In the accumulation years, we are building our assets and fueled by the picture of what retirement- financial independence- really looks like. 

Maybe it’s six months of travel between tropical islands or visiting some of the world's most beautiful landscapes. Maybe it’s checking in with all of your family, traveling to visit them and explore and learn about their city. Maybe it’s giving back to your local community, church, or charitable organization. 

Whichever your retirement goals and dreams look like, I will tell you that if you are determined enough, you will achieve them. 

But like summiting a mountain, there are certain stages, or “basecamps,” if you will, that we must go through to make it back home. 

Retirement is the descent

The misconception that most climbers don’t seem to know about Half Dome is that the descent is the hardest part. The climbing, for me, felt easy. Nerve-racking at times, sure, but overall, if I compare it to the sheer physical toll of the way home, it was a stroll in the park. 

You’ve probably heard of the brave alpine mountaineers who attempt Everest, the ones who don’t make it back, it’s always on the way down. 

They’ve summited, they’re so close, but the descent is where they fall, where they make a mistake, where they reach their absolute limit. An admirable pursuit, met with a tragic and heartbreaking fallout.

The same can be said of retirement. It’s easy to focus on the goal, on the day you finally stop working. But it’s the years after, the descent, that is the hardest.

You’ve spent your entire life climbing, working hard to get to the top. And then you retire. You might think that’s it, you can relax now. But in reality, the years after retirement can be some of the most difficult.

When descending a mountain, our motivations change, and it suddenly becomes a game of how prepared you were when you started. And did you plan on things NOT going according to plan? 


Navigating the risks you don't anticipate with a guide

The most important thing a mountain guide can provide is experience. They know the terrain, the conditions, and how to get you down safely. They’re also trained in first aid and can help if something goes wrong.

A good mountain guide will also be able to teach you about the proper gear and equipment you need, as well as the techniques you need to know. They can help you plan your route and make sure you’re prepared for the climb.

If you’re planning on climbing a big mountain, hiring a guide is a good idea. It’s worth the investment to have someone with experience helping you out. You never know when you might need them.

In retirement, do you want to worry about checking the stock market all the time, or do you just want to spend and enjoy the experiences that fueled your climb to the top? Do you want to care about what inflation and taxes, are? Well, if you have abundance in retirement, I will tell you that you won't worry about those things, you will recognize them sure, but you will not have to react to them. A guide can help you achieve abundance

Risks present in many ways in wealth & retirement, here are the biggest three:

  • Stock market crashes
  • Inflation
  • Increased taxes (read my article about the U.S. debt clock if you haven’t already) 

If you're approaching retirement and finding that things are unraveling, don't panic. Take a step back and assess the situation. Hiring a good guide is a smart way to help navigate the largest financial summit in your life.

But like climbing, and many aspects in life, the most important thing is to be prepared. You need to have a plan for when things go wrong. You need to know what your options are and how to react. This is where having abundance in retirement comes in.

Abundance gives you options, it gives you choices. It gives you the flexibility to change your plans on the fly. It allows you to make mistakes and still come out ahead.

If you need help putting together a plan for retirement, or if you just want someone to talk to about the challenges you're facing, feel free to reach out. I'm a financial guide and retirement planner, and I'm here to help. Let's work together to make sure your retirement journey is everything you hoped it would be.

Looking forward to the climbs, AND descents on your personal finance journey. 

Climb on & Retire on,

Rob Duncan

Certified Financial Planner™

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