This past spring, two friends approached me about photographing their wedding. A wedding isn’t my normal subject matter, but when I get a new opportunity, two questions always come to the front of my mind. Does it pay? Will it make a great story? Weddings do typically pay so my mind was ready to commit, but then came the kicker.
The wedding would on top of Half-Dome in Yosemite National Park! I quickly committed and got excited about the photo opportunities I was about to experience.
Eager to share the news, I told my wife to which she promptly informed me of all the things I failed to consider.
The wedding date was only four days after I returned from a forty-day European trip where I was leading workshops for Aperture Academy. Wouldn’t I still be jet lagged, she wondered? A family vacation to Hawaii, with an early morning flight, happened to fall the day after the wedding. And did I know how grueling and long the hike to the top would be?
Of course, I didn’t think about those questions when my friends approached me. I’m an idiot, hopefully, that is clear to you now. But a wedding on top of Half Dome, who else gets to photograph that? Me, that’s who!
Excited, and a little nervous, I began to look at the hike to the top of Half Dome to see what I had signed up for. 8.2 miles to the top, 4500 feet of elevation gain, and then the cables…what are these cables about?
This would be a great time to point out I’m terrified of heights. That might be a good question to move higher up the priority list when making decisions in life.I hadn’t thought about all my photography gear either. I’m sure there’s some kind of rule that says the best way to conquer a crippling fear of heights is to do so with a very cumbersome amount of weight on your back.
I started doing what any sane and rational person would do, I turned to YouTube to help alleviate my fears of these cables…it can’t be that bad, right? It IS that bad. I convinced my colleague, and avid Yosemite backcountry explorer Phillip Nicolas to help me with the wedding by filming video to add to the package. He’d done the hike before, so I had hoped he would be good to help alleviate my fears.
Still in Europe, I was checking weather reports regularly looking and I’ll admit, at times, I wouldn’t have minded if a Sierra thunderstorm landed on the wedding day. I felt bad. Elina and Endjis are good friends, but secretly wishing their dream wedding would be ruined because of my crippling fear is low…even for me.
However, the wedding day forecast never changed. 90 degrees. 0% chance of rain. So now, in addition to the height fears and a 16-mile round-trip hike with 9000ft of elevation changes, I got to do it in the scorching summer heat.
The morning of the wedding, Phil and I met the couple and the wedding officiant, Pablo at the trailhead. The couple is avid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts and their love of Yosemite and the outdoors is what led them to wanting to be married on top of Half-Dome. They applied for the proper permits through the Park, as they didn’t want to do anything without the park’s permission.
As we began the grueling hike, Endijs had a bag filled with the wedding dress, his suit, champagne, and all the food and water for the day. They had used vacuum bags to shrink the clothes small enough to fit in a backpack. I had assumed they’d just be wearing hiking attire, but they had gone all in. They had put all this effort and thought into what they would do on their special day. Now I felt even more pressure and was extra determined to make sure they had beautiful photos to remember this day.
That is until the cables.
The 8-mile hike leading up to the cables can best be described as 8 miles of just thinking about the cables, which was compounded with the previous three months of thinking about the cables. There’s also parts of the hike where you can SEE the cables from far away…and it looks even steeper than it does in YouTube videos.
I tried to drag my feet and prolong the inevitable, but we eventually crested the sub-dome and I was now looking at the saddle leading up to the cables. This is the only way up to the top of Half-Dome for the generic tourist that doesn’t get joy out of scrambling up sheer rock walls. Though I would argue that this is actually the same thing. The cables are large wire ropes bolted on to the mountain through poles that are spaced every 10-12 feet. A wooden 2×4 makes a step between the poles. It’s like a giant, scary ladder going up a sheer wall.
In my mind, I had somehow convinced myself that there were two different channels. One going up to the top, and one coming down, but this was not the case. It was a busy mess of people going up and down a single channel, and just working their way around one another…via politeness.
“Excuse me, I know you’re hanging on for dear life, but I’d like to pass.”
The rest of my group made quick work of the cables, and by the time I had taken enough deep breaths to get my gloves on, they were almost half way up.
The Yosemite information said it was a 45’ angle going up. They’re liars. I’m guessing 60′. Five boards in, and I had severe doubts about continuing. Dozens of people were coming up and down the cables all at the same time. They were passing each other like crazy; some were even going OUTSIDE THE CABLES! There were even people near me openly weeping out of sheer terror. They had to be coaxed baby step by baby step. That’s really what about pushed me over the edge. If these people were terrified to tears, there had to some reasons for it…what did they know that I didn’t know?
Eight boards in now, I had to make a choice.
Just tell them you cramped up bad…had to go down. There’s service up here you could text Phil have him finish up, pay him all the money then go sit in the sun like a happy quitter.
I was so close to giving up, but two thoughts motivated me to move forward.
– If I went down, I wouldn’t get paid…if I didn’t get paid, my wife would be mad that I took 2 days away from being home with the family to go cry on a rock like a sissy.
– Ultimately what made me push onward was that Endijs and Elina trusted me to get to the top. They trusted me to photograph the most special day of their lives. I told them I could get to the top. They had planned an awesome ceremony at the top. I had to go up. I couldn’t be the one responsible for not providing the visual reminders of their wedding day.
I plugged along until I could see Phil peeking over the top capturing some photos of me as I negotiated the cables. He was at the top. I was almost there.
The moment my boots hit the top of Half Dome, all my fear subsided. I was proud of myself, but more importantly, I was happy for the couple as they would finally get the beautiful wedding photos that they deserved.
The ceremony was amazing. Seeing the dedication they had to make the day special for one another made me feel even more privileged to be able to capture it with my camera. The crowd that happened to have made the same terrifying hike that day was in awe as Elina emerged in her wedding dress. Their eyes were filled with tears. They cheered when the couple sealed their nuptials with a kiss. It was truly one of the most beautiful and inspiring events that I have ever witnessed.
After the ceremony, the fun job of capturing the portraits began. Unlike me, the couple had no fear of heights so they didn’t mind perching on the edge of cliffs for the photos. I didn’t pose them much, I just let them naturally enjoy the moment while I captured the candid photographs.
We eventually made it back to Yosemite Valley, and that night at dinner, I confessed to the group that I was a little scared. They weren’t surprised. I guess the high pitched squealing gave me away.
The wedding will go down as one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever had, but also one of the most rewarding. I was able to photograph something beautiful that even the newlywed’s families weren’t able to be a part of. The thought of not delivering these photos to those family members is what inspired me to manage my fear. If I wasn’t able to conquer it in order to get the photos they had envisioned, who would?
Besides, it’s a wedding on top of Half-Dome! Who wouldn’t do it?
I might be an idiot. But I’m not stupid.