Half Dome is both a famous and infamous mountain inside the Sierra Nevada mountain range that stretches across Yosemite National Park in the northeastern portion of California. Each year, many of the world’s most adventurous individuals make the more than seven-mile hike up the long incline of more than 4,750 feet of elevation gain while braving the loose granite and a severe altitude and climate change along the way. It’s a challenge for all; that is for sure.
It is also an annual fall trek for the California men’s rowing program.
A tradition started under former Freshmen coach Craig Amerkhanian in the mid 90s, the hike of Half Dome had been an annual event for the incoming freshmen during the fall season. After skipping the previous two years, the Cal coaching staff decided to not only bring it back, but expand it into an event for the entire program.
“When we first found out we were doing this, we knew we had to band together to reach the top. Everyone formed their own groups going up the mountain and everyone pulled each other up.”
That team-bonding concept is exactly what the California rowing program is all about.
The group, coaching staff included, began a four-hour drive from campus in Berkeley at 5 a.m. one morning in September. A smaller group left an hour earlier to hike up to the top and bring food and water for the rest of the team upon their arrival at the summit.
Reiser was one of the lucky few who had made the same hike three years earlier as a freshman so he knew what to expect along the way.
“I pulled out my camelback from my freshman year and made sure I was prepared for the hike up,” Reiser said. “A lot of the freshmen were asking us questions and my response to them was ‘BE PREPARED!’ and for the most part they listened. I told them even if a camelback costs $1,000 they should buy one. The guys who hadn’t done it before wanted to run right away and wasted their energy at the beginning of the hike.”
The group staggered their starting times based on conditioning and class level. The seniors were the last to begin the climb.
For the majority of Half Dome’s hikers, the climb is an all-day adventure. Junior Mike Bernerius characterized how the Golden Bears would attack the mountain… “It was definitely a race!”
One of the most challenging parts of the hike is a steep section of stairs shortly into the vertical climb that lasts for more than 20 minutes even while running.
“You are supposed to walk it, but you try and run it,” Bernerius said. “I saw a guy on all fours, bear crawling up the stairs.”
Most of the group made the climb with one of their teammates by their side providing support and motivation to keep attacking the mountain with everything they had left in them.
“I remember we had about a half hour to go and my legs felt like they were falling off,” Bernerius explained. “My teammate, Louis Snelson, and I were running trying to egg each other on. We were both struggling. We pulled each other up the hill. We took turns leading each other and motivating each other to reach the top.”
The fastest guys reached the top in about an hour and a half, braving not only the climb, but the dramatic temperature drop, the rain and threat of lighting and snow along the way. As each guy reached the summit, they most likely had shed their shirt while the sweat poured off them. In about 10 minutes, that shirt was back on along with a second layer for warmth.
The climb up is only half the battle. The Bears described the trip down the mountain as more grueling than the way up.
“The way you look at it is, the faster you run, the sooner you get to the top,” said Reiser. “You can’t run down as fast as you want because you are very sore and tired.”
The entire coaching staff joined in on the adventure, motivating the guys along the way.
“I was very impressed with the amount of people Coach Teti beat,” Bernerius said. “You can hear coach running up the mountain yelling at the guys as he runs past them. He is an Olympian so he is not going to ask for help from anyone. We cheered him on over the last 50 meters to the top.”
Reiser looks back on the whole experience as a great adventure that brought the entire group together.
“It was cool to look back and see you ran that mountain,” said Reiser. “It is great to experience that and get to know the freshmen a lot more. You always bond with someone else you wouldn’t normally on trips like this. You are 100 yards away from the top and everyone is cheering you on for the final leg of the trip, it is a pretty exciting thing.
“It was cool to come full circle,” Resier added. “A lot of people don’t get to do it twice. It is funny to think back as a freshman I was trying to prove myself and now I know I needed to survive to get to the top. ”
Bernerius summed up his experience as very rewarding and a good exercise to help prepare for the spring rowing season.
“It was a situation that put us out of our comfort zone and that is what rowing is,” the junior explained. “Rowing is a sport where you are not comfortable. If you can push yourself through it, that gives you more confidence to believe you can achieve any goal you set.”
He did offer a suggestion for the future, however.“I definitely enjoyed the entire experience and can still look back and say I did that. I would like to walk it though next time.”