It’s a formidable climb to the treeless summit of Half Dome.
Misericordia University professor Lynn Aldrich, second from right, hiked at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California, with her sister, Nancy Vogel, nephews Matthew and Levi Vogel and brother-in-law, Kevin Vogel.
Matthew Vogel and his companions reach the base of the cables on Half Dome. This is where the adrenaline kicks in, his mother, Nancy Vogel, said.
Lynn Aldrich of Dallas, a physics professor at Misericordia University, found the views at Yosemite National Park spectacular. Below: A patch commemorates Aldrich’s ascent of Half Dome.
They did it for Dad.
Of course, Misericordia University professor Lynn Aldrich and her sister, Nancy Vogel, did it for themselves, too – holding onto wire cables as they propelled themselves hand over hand and step by step to the 8,800-foot summit of a huge granite challenge in Yosemite National Park called “Half Dome.”
But as they laughed and cried and celebrated Vogel’s August birthday – her 50th, no less – at the very top, they knew this accomplishment was a tribute to their father, Clare Aldrich, who died three years earlier.
Like the leader of his own tiny Scout troop, Clare Aldrich had spent many weekends and vacations exploring the outdoors with his two daughters and his son, Tom.
“He’s the reason I like to hike,” Lynn Aldrich said, happily noting she still uses the backpack her parents gave her 30 years ago.
“He climbed Mount Whitney many times, with each of us,” Vogel recalled, looking back to the years the family lived in California.
Sometimes, hiking with Dad meant packing Vienna sausages for a snack.
Once, it involved waking up outdoors to unexpected snow. “We had tennis shoes, and we covered them with plastic bags and rubber bands,” Aldrich said with a chuckle.
Consistently, it fostered the children’s zest for adventure and love for the outdoors.
In recent years, for example, when she wasn’t in the physics classroom, Aldrich, of Dallas, was building Habitat for Humanity houses in Nepal, trekking through Denali National Park in Alaska and Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and working to preserve the environment with the local North Branch Land Trust, where she chairs the board of directors.
As for Vogel, a legal assistant who still lives in California, she considered an arduous, two-day, 18-mile hike an ideal way to celebrate a milestone birthday.
Her sons 19-year-old Matthew and 13-year-old Levi came, too. They were the ones who devoured the Vienna sausages Aunt Lynn brought.
Vogel’s husband, Kevin, hiked along for part of the journey but headed back to camp before the last stage.
“He was the most fit of all of us,” Aldrich said. “But his fear of heights kicked in.”
Indeed, the final stages of a Half Dome ascent involve walking upward at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. If you look to the right or left, you see there’s nothing to break your fall – if you were to fall.
“At one point somebody dropped a water bottle,” Aldrich said, “and everybody on the trail just watched it bounce down. You could have heard a pin drop.”
The dome is so steep, according to a Yosemite National Park Web site, that an 1865 report declared it inaccessible to humans. Yet, a decade later, an explorer went up and laid the forerunner of the cables.
“Since 1919,” the Web site reports, “only a few people have fallen and even fewer have died.”
When they were growing up, the Aldrich siblings said, their father never mentioned wanting to climb Half Dome. But, when he was in his 80s, a television special sparked his interest.
Tom and Nancy worried it would be too much for him, but Lynn, the firstborn, tried to make it happen. She planned to escort her father up and down the steep trail about six years ago, when he was 85.
“He wanted to try it. He always loved to walk,” Lynn Aldrich said, noting that in his later years her father walked to the grocery store, the bank, even the three miles to radiation treatments for prostate cancer.
Dad and daughter intended to take it easy, stretching what could be a two-day trip into three days. “The first day we made it 5 miles uphill to a base camp,” Lynn said. “The next day we intended to do 4.2 miles to the top, but he had some coordination problems. After about a mile or so, he knew he’d have to give up.
“It was emotional for him. For my dad, it was a realization it wouldn’t work. The first day had taken too much out of him.
“It’s difficult to look at your life and say ‘I can no longer do that. I can never do this again.’ ”
Lynn and Nancy took a lesson from that: If you have a goal, set out now.
“I felt really bad Dad wasn’t able to do it,” Vogel said. “Why didn’t we do this when we were younger? The rock and cables have been there forever.
“As it was getting close to my 50th birthday, I thought, I’d better do it while I still can.”
Aldrich had the same attitude. To train, she regularly hiked the steep Bulldozer Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park and she walked with poles whenever she could to build her upper body strength.
“I really wondered, would I be able to do it?” Aldrich said.
The trip this summer was grueling, especially when she felt a leg cramp as she ascended the cables. Step by step, Aldrich maneuvered herself up the incline, dragging one foot for some 20 or 30 feet until the cramp worked itself out.
Both sisters felt exhausted, but Vogel remembers a rush of adrenalin when she reached the cables, which extend for 400 feet.
Finally – tired, sweating and flushed with triumph – the sisters and Vogel’s sons reached the top. “The view was spectacular,” Vogel said, “to go to the edge and look back to where we started at Glacier Point.”
It was even more spectacular to think back to an earlier starting point, back to those long-ago trips with their first hike leader.
Yes, the sisters admit it. They did this one for Dad.