HAULING UP HALF DOME: A LESSON IN ADVENTURE FILMMAKING

The ground gave way beneath my feet and I started sliding down the side of Half Dome.

I tried desperately to grab Matheson’s hand but couldn’t get a grip; I kept falling.

“No, no, no, no, no!” 

About 10 feet later, I came to a tumbling stop. I sat completely still for a moment, taking stock of my body to see if I was hurt. Scrapes, bruises, holes in my clothes, but nothing serious. I saw another drop-off in front of me, and I saw my boyfriend Sean sitting behind me. He had jumped down onto my pack to stop me from falling, and caught both of us by bracing his feet on some rocks.

The spot where I fell.

My eyes welled up with tears and I took several deep breaths to keep from losing it. 

I was totally rattled. 

TWO WEEKS EARLIER: 

I met Matheson Brown my very first time visiting Yosemite National Park. Sean and I were hiking around the base of El Capitan, scoping it out for future climbs. We saw a group starting to climb Freerider and stopped to chat with them.

Matheson is a 23-year-old adventurer from New Zealand who is working on a docuseries called Chasing Vertical with his friend Katie Caster, a filmmaker from Massachusetts. Chasing Vertical follows Matheson’s journey as a novice climber (5.7) to a Half Dome climber (5.12) in a single year. When he found out I was a videographer, he asked me to be part of his project since a shooter had just backed out last minute. It felt like fate to run into this tiny crew; I was in. 

 WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2020:

We all met up the morning Matheson and his climbing partner, Adam Peternell, were set to begin.

Ryan, Sean, me, Matheson, Adam: full of hope and energy.

He briefed us on the locations where he wanted me and another shooter, Ryan Larsen, to film. Ryan was hiking most of the way up Half Dome with us before splitting off to a place called the Diving Board. Sean and I were hiking all the way to the climbing route with them to shoot the beginning of the climb and first two pitches. Sean came with me to help carry our camping gear since I had all my camera equipment and we would have to spend the night in a bivouac shelter (an improvised campsite).

Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome

A side note about Matheson: he is one of those people that is so friendly and charismatic, you are instantly drawn to him. He operates on a whole other level than most people. His energy, drive and ability to push his body and mind to their limits is truly something to experience. He describes living his life from one extreme to the next as being “relentlessly tested.” He has already set the record for being the youngest New Zealander to complete the Appalachian Trail. At that moment, a 10-mile hike up and around Half Dome with a heavy pack on my back was a small price to pay for helping him achieve this next goal.

The hike took most of the day. It was the hardest hike of my life, and I’m in decent shape. Sean is a desert biologist who hikes for a living and even he struggled. Not only did we do most of the strenuous Half Dome hike, but then we veered off the main trail to a small climbing “path” that led us down the dangerously loose side of the mountain. This is where my fall happened, and it was the first time I realized I hadn’t quite understood how hard this expedition was going to be and that I should have planned for it better. 

Helmets are essential to protect from falling rocks.
Matheson and Adam share a fist-bump before starting their climb.

After fighting through thick foliage, we finally reached the base of the Regular Northwest Face climbing route, and Matheson and Adam started their journey upwards around 5:30 p.m.

Sean and I were left with a huge obstacle before us too: getting ourselves back out. We hung our food up a tree to avoid attracting bears and passed out, hoping our bodies would recover a little. We refilled our water from a small spring at the base of Half Dome, treated it, then went to bed.

Sunset from the bivvy

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2020: 

The hike out the next day was unreal.

Not only were our packs unbelievably heavy, but the brush slapped our faces, our feet slipped on unstable ground, the wilderness made us doubt our path and the whole ordeal just generally crushed our spirits.

Our so-called “path”

Hauling 40 pounds of gear (I weighed it when I got home because I was morbidly curious) was not a smart choice, but I’ll know this now for my next adventure expedition. It took us 2.5 hours to go one mile before we made it back to the normal Half Dome hiking trail.

Forty pounds of gear/camera equipment through complete wilderness = misery.

I for sure cried through almost the entire grueling hike. Then it took us another 5 hours to make it back to the Valley floor. We met up with Isabelle Laushine (who was holding down their campsite in the Valley) and Ryan later that night. We learned Ryan had just as hard an experience hauling his gear up the mountain to the Diving Board.

Half Dome at night

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2020: 

Sean and I didn’t have any more mountain hiking in us (a polite way of saying our legs were destroyed), so we strategized to shoot from different angles around Yosemite. Today was supposed to be the day the team summited Half Dome!

Isabelle and Ryan made the grueling hike back up Half Dome, hoping to find two extra spots on someone’s permit so they could climb the Cables and shoot Matheson’s top out. Thankfully, that worked, and they were able to capture Matheson and Adam conquering their Half Dome climb around 4:30 p.m.! I’ll let the joy of that moment speak for itself once Chasing Vertical comes out! 

But there is no rest for the weary. The team booked it back down the mountain. Ryan left immediately to drop Matheson off at the Fresno airport to catch a flight and then make it to work.

SUMMARY: 

What a great experience, even though there were times I was definitely worried about Sean’s and my safety. 

I am reminded to say “thank you” to my body for not failing me and carrying me to safety as I pushed it to its limit. The next time I *think* I see a few extra pounds on my little frame, I will give them an accepting nod as if to say “you are welcome to stay because I know what you’re capable of.” 

From a filmmaking standpoint, I also realized I need to get WAY more details on my next adventure expedition so I can plan better and not feel like I’m in over my head. I would have packed my backpack entirely different had I know how difficult it would be to haul 40-pounds of camera gear and supplies up and down a mountain – twice. It’s hard for me to be anything but an optimist since that is how I live my life, but when it comes to personal safety, I need to slow down and take a moment to plan. 

I think the best part about being around vibrant people like Matheson is how it draws people together. This adventure reminded me that there are good, kind people in the world who inspire us to be better. I asked Matheson if he wanted to say anything about this experience, and I can’t think of a better way to end this than to let him speak for himself: 

“I feel like people are scared to go for their dreams in case they fail or there are too many setbacks,” Matheson said. “I had so many setbacks and failures during this project that I nearly gave up a few times. Life was just beating me down nonstop and it got tiring, but I just kept pushing. Then when I was up on the wall, things kept going wrong and it was testing me, but I just kept pushing. I realized then that it was all of the failures and setbacks that had turned me into the kind of person that could handle this.

I feel like everybody has it in them to achieve their own goals; but they have to put themselves through a touch of hell first, and most people don’t want to do that.

But if someone has something they really want, if they stopped letting others and themselves talk them out if it and just fully went for it, they’d probably make it, and that’s what I’m trying to show people.

And I’m not gonna stop. 

There isn’t really a level of discomfort that I’m not willing to go through to show people what they really could do.

Feels good to know what I wanna do with my life now.”

2 thoughts on “HAULING UP HALF DOME: A LESSON IN ADVENTURE FILMMAKING

  1. Wow…not only are you an amazingly talented photographer, videographer, and writer, you are also a beautiful soul and a fearless adventurer! I am in constant awe of you. It’s funny; the way you describe Matheson (“so friendly and charismatic, you are instantly drawn to him”) is exactly how I would describe you. You always made me feel so warm and fuzzy!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s