I highly recommend viewing the beautiful and informative video that the NPS did on Half Dome. Yosemite Nature Notes – Half Dome
I was supremely blessed to have slept on top of The Dome with 20 biology classes (when it was still legal). Each night offered a transcending experience that altered how I saw Nature, humanity and God. Like The Velveteen Rabbit becoming “real,” transcending experiences can be soul-transforming and last forever.
John Muir, Henry Thoreau and R.W. Emerson were proponents of the transcending power of Nature. The three men were not necessarily referring to single event, but events that can occur many times in wilderness settings. Although they may or may not involve an experience with a Supreme Being, Muir welcomed his followers to “come to the mountains and be ‘born again.’” It is not uncommon for people to have “out-of-body” experiences where their spirits are free to roam in the universe. Somehow, words like infinity and eternity often take on a deeper meaning. In fact, if dangling your feet over 4,800 of “free air” on the “Diving Board,” on top of Half Dome, does not move you, you may not have a spirit-pulse. One of the common results of transcending experiences is goosebumps. Goosebumps are the autonomic nervous system’s response to foreign (wilderness) events. The ancient part of the brain seems to comprehend that there are no words to describe the experience and a surge of adrenaline is released by the endocrine system to prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” reaction. Spiritual fights and flights are often quite scary.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 4, A Class Is Born.
“When we got to the top of Half Dome, we began to explore. I was drawn to the edge and amazed by the grandeur. I saw a slab of rock, known as The Diving Board, projecting out over the edge and into Yosemite Valley. The slab was about six-feet wide, twelve- feet long and about four-feet deep. I carefully inched my way out. Slowly, slowly, I decided to focus on the rock and not look down. When I got to the end, I very carefully stuck one leg at a time over the edge. After I was settled, I leaned over and looked down be-tween my legs into 4,800 hundred feet of “free air.” At first, I couldn’t breathe, and then my balls jumped up into my chest. I was about to explode. My heart was pounding. I thought if an earthquake hits now, it’s all over. I quickly got back on my knees, carefully pivoted, and crept back to safety.”
Intuitively, Toby described a powerful, visceral reaction to his transcending experience.
One year, the day that the Biodesign Class returned to school after their 6-day Yosemite trip, a group of them were out on the quad jubilantly discussing their experience. One of the senior boys, who was a vocal critic of the Class and me, approached a newly returned buddy and asked, “So, have you changed”? The Biodesigner beamed broadly and exclaimed, “You bet and it feels great.” His friend snorted and replied, “It’s just like I said, that Class is nothing more than a religious cult.”
One of my favorite Zen koans claims, “No two people have ever met and departed unchanged.” The same can be said for wilderness experiences. No “normal” human can enter the wilderness and emerge unchanged. Transcendence is a beautiful spiritual gift.