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Travel

Charlene Chavez – Generously Shares Her Half Dome Hiking & Backpacking Skills

By Cheryl Ryan

I met Charlene while working for a philanthropic group that raised money for schools and women’s nonprofits. She always exuded a quiet confidence and steady hand but I didn’t fully understand her heart until joining her on one of the many Half Dome treks she organizes.  During our journey, while trying to maintain our footing on a sheer granite rock, she calmly talked a stricken mutual friend through her fear of heights. At one point, I honestly wasn’t sure we’d ever get back down, but Charlene not only talked her through that moment but skillfully guided us all the way to the summit and then back down again.  I will never forget it and am so glad that I said yes to her Half Dome adventure invitation.

What motivated you to share the Half Dome experience?

I was a runner at the time and would much rather run the beautiful trails in our area than hike them but my sister was persistent in her desire to hike Half Dome. I didn’t want to do it alone so I tried to recruit 40 of my friends.

Because of my first Half Dome trek, I gained confidence in my strength and ability to help others.  Over the years, I’ve helped women who were afraid of heights, had fears of falling and suffered from self-doubt.

Do you have any daily rituals?

My daily rituals include morning stretching and workouts (weight lifting, running or hiking), reading (I’m in two reading clubs) and cooking. I’ve recently adopted a 95% plant-based eating style due to watching a series of Netflix documentaries so I’m always on the lookout for delicious plant-based or vegan recipes to add to my collection. I also work on daily workout routines for my fitness group.

How did your first Half Dome trip go?

My first Half Dome trip was in 2008 and I based my planning on the few things that I’d read about the hike. I knew that it took the average person 10-12 hours to complete the round trip journey, that it’s 8.2 miles up with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet and that you needed to carry water, snacks and prepare lunch for the summit. That’s what I knew.

“It took me 19.5 hours to complete my first Half Dome hike!”

OK Let’s Do This…

We set out with  21 ladies. Ten were my sister’s friends and ten were mine. One of my friends invited another friend. 

As we began our hike I stayed back to catch up with that friend of a friend, whom I knew but hadn’t seen in a while. I soon learned that her only preparation for the hike had been an occasional 3-mile walk in a small, hilly residential area and that 3 months earlier she’d had knee surgery.  As we chatted the rest of the group started moving ahead.  Fortunately, another friend dropped back with us and the three of us continued together.

My friend started to struggle at only 4 miles in. We still had such a long way to go. We happened across a ranger who offered to take her down via helicopter while transporting a hiker who’d broken his leg but she was adamant about reaching the top, with or without our help. As she continued to struggle we again tried to persuade her to stop and rest telling her that we would catch her on the way down. Still no go.

The 3 of us finally made it to the cables, the most challenging part of summiting Half Dome, at about 1:30 pm. As we went up, the rest of our group was heading down. They’d already been to the top, taken photos and eaten lunch. Luckily, I had the foresight to ask for a flashlight.  I hadn’t packed one because I felt sure we’d be back in 8 hours, well before dark. 

“We were so freakin scared but I was mostly upset at myself”

It took so long to climb the cables and finally summit Half Dome that we rushed through pictures and gobbled some lunch before heading right back down.

The climb down was even slower. She was popping Advil, becoming incoherent at times. We continuously talked to keep her “awake.” We were all so tired. The good news was that we had plenty of food and water, the bad news was that the small AA battery flashlight worked for about an hour and a half before we were in complete darkness. I couldn’t see my hand 5 inches in front of me. We found a stick which we used to navigate the depth of each step before walking.

We were so freakin scared but I was mostly upset at myself for allowing us into this situation. I could not blame anyone else.  In addition to everything, I had just finished 6 months of PT for my own knee and in the darkness ended up jamming it again. With 3 miles to go, I was limping while trying to support my friend who could barely walk – even while using the stick as a crutch. Without the help of my other friend, we would’ve had to stop and spend the night on the trail.

Eventually and luckily, we came across six teenage boys who didn’t have any light either. They asked to join us. They helped support our friend and we were so happy to find each other! We felt protected by their presence and they by ours, which helped us all get down. We all laughed and hugged as we said our goodbyes, each of us so grateful and relieved to have found each other.

Hikers get stuck all the time

I learned that it isn’t uncommon for unprepared hikers to get stuck spending the night on the trails at Yosemite.  There isn’t enough light and far too many trails to begin a search until daylight. 

After that hike, I put together a ‘Safety First” plan that includes all equipment and physical preparation requirements. We all exchange cell phones and emergency numbers now. I am certified in wilderness first aid through NOLS Wilderness Medicine, CPR and practice Leave No Trace rules to leave the trails a beautiful place for all future generations to enjoy.

How many people have you taken and what has been the unexpected takeaway of sharing Half Dome with so many?

I’m not sure of the exact count but I’ve taken over 100 hikers and hiked it 14 times. Each time is a learning experience and a new adventure!

The unexpected takeaway is learning how strong I am, how much we can share and how that has created many meaningful relationships. My friends have trusted me with secrets, traumas and life events and that is just between us. One time upon reaching the top a friend shared that her husband asked why she was doing the hike because she was not going to make it. That hit me hard and we cried and hugged at the top. I told her how strong she was. She called her husband from the top and we’ve been hiking Half Dome every year since. 

And finally, resilience. When Half Dome closed because the cables weren’t up we stood in line at 4 am got our wilderness permit and began our backpacking career right then. That year we hiked Clouds Rest and camped at Sunrise Lakes.

Do you have a mantra?

Love, happiness, no excuses and consistency will keep me going! It’s corny but works for me. I’m grateful for each day that I have. I am super blessed to have so much love in my life, wonderful people and so many things to share and do with them.

What are your top three characteristics?

It’s that I speak my mind, practice what I preach and I do things that make me happy.

What is your style?

I can honestly say that my style is comfort! Who likes to be uncomfortable? I wear casual sporting clothes, t-shirts, hats, jeans, shorts and flip-flops. I even golf in flip-flops! 

Do you have any secret talents?

I can ride a unicycle and juggle.

What is most important to you?

Family is most important to me. I have family dinners with my kids and grandkids 1-2 times a week. What’s important is catching up and being around my boys and their growing families each week.

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1 Comment

  • Reply gwendy79 October 6, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Wow, what a story! So much good stuff here: challenge, victory, redemption! And lots of great resources, I want to check out!

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