One day in summer 2014, Lucy Steiner and I hiked from the bottom of Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome and back. It was a 4,800-foot ascent and 16 miles round trip. Lucy and I laughed thinking about what Sophie would say about the hike – “You’re crazy” and “No way you’d get me to do that.” The Steiners, as you may know, are notorious for their Alpine hiking in Switzerland, and Sophie was often the one bringing up the rear saying, “Really? Really, family?”
However, on another level, we thought Sophie would approve of our hike. Lucy had taken a three-day detour from her family’s vacation on the West Coast to meet me. I had deposited my own family in the Bay Area to carve out a few days for our adventure. We met in San Francisco and began one of our deliciously long conversations as we drove the three hours east to the Sierras.
It had always been like this for me with Lucy. We had met thirty years earlier as freshmen in the Hinton James dorm at Carolina, where we also met Beverley Tyndall and Bryan Hassel. Back then Lucy and I would take long walks around Chapel Hill after class and discuss everything from Wallace Stevens to Willa Cather to what the heck was the deal with basketball. (We were out-of-staters and hadn’t been properly raised on the game.) In the decades after college, we didn’t see each other often, as I moved to Los Angeles and we lived 3000 miles apart, but we always had an easy time resuming our conversations when we got together. This time, of course, our conversation centered on Sophie, the heartbreak of the past year and a half, the kindness of so many in the Chapel Hill community and the promise of the “Be Loud Sophie Foundation.”
On the morning we hiked Half Dome, we rose at 5:00 am and hit the trail by 6:00. In the blue morning light, fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, we did just fine on the steep ascent beside two spectacular waterfalls, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. The terrain flattened after that as we circled the backside of Half Dome. We covered miles on foot and a range of topics in conversation – family, books, kids, careers, faith, politics, you name it.
Near the summit, we pulled ourselves up the final 400 feet of the climb with the help of two steel cables spaced about four feet apart. This last part of the hike is a 45-degree slope on slippery granite, and yes, people die if they fall. We realized almost immediately that we were absolutely INSANE to do it without being tethered somehow to the cables, but it was too late. Once we joined the line of other hikers snaking their way up the route, we were too terrified to turn around and look down. We inched our way up one step at a time and eventually made it to the top. We briefly enjoyed the view, but mainly wanted to get off the rock as soon as possible, so we could put the cables (and the thoughts of being Medivacked out of there) behind us.
The last ascent, we thought, would have really amused Sophie. We didn’t “move with grace,” as she wrote in her poem “Be Loud”; and we had fear…LOTS of fear. We didn’t “explode with light” as much as implode with anxiety: “Would my life insurance cover this?” I thought. But as we meandered down the path for the last seven miles, back in the safety of the cedar and pine trees that had seen and heard it all, we had to pat ourselves on the back for being loud. On a random Thursday in July, we had left our laptops and minivans behind. We had challenged ourselves physically and mentally. We had accomplished something we would never forget. Most importantly, we had honored an old friendship by crossing the miles and making the time to be together. And Sophie was with us, cheering us on for that.