Re-posted by popular demand!
By Rick Deutsch
One step at a time. One step at a time. That is the mantra to gets you to the top. Is hiking up to 8,842 feet getting her closer to God? Beyond the physical upward movement towards heaven, there is time to contemplate one’s self. Perhaps she is getting closer to God.
Kathy Littrell, a Catholic nun, is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a Religious Community. Her normal “day job” is consumed with a vocation that includes parish work. The Sisters of the Holy Family work in parish ministries, home health care, child care, social work, retreat work, hospital chaplainship, religious teaching and the like. She does not wear the traditional black habit. Rather, this order blends in with society to allow Kathy to nurture her natural gift of walking with people on their own spiritual journeys.
The Littrell family were camping enthusiasts and this instilled a love for the outdoors in young Kathy. During college, she was active in the church youth group, and was involved in teaching religious education in her parish. It was during this time that she met a Sister and became close friends. Something about her life style attracted Kathy. This nun helped identify religious communities which would be a fit with who she was. Following her calling, a few years after graduation, she entered the order, took her vows and became a sister of the Holy Family. A 2-week pre-departure camping trip to Yosemite cemented her love for the outdoors. She moved to Northern California to begin her work in parishes and faith communities. This was no stereotypical convent – although she has firm commitments to Community and Ministry, the order encourages members to make time for whatever renews and enriches them. Kathy soon met several women who shared her love of the outdoors and was able to continue her passion for hiking and camping. She traveled to many parks – Yosemite and Saguaro National Parks are her favorites. She finds them renewing and re-energizing and she loves the smell of the outdoors, the sound of hiking boots on a trail and the less rushed pace to just enjoy the moment.
Two years ago, Sister Kathy set a goal of hiking to the top of Yosemite’s signature landmark, “Half Dome.” This would exceed any quest she had been on previously. The 16-mile round trip day hike includes a nearly 2-mile vertical up/down challenge. The summit is reached only by negotiating a 425-foot climb at 45 degrees on granite with only the aid of a steel cable “banister” to provide support. This is an extremely strenuous hike that requires rigorous training to safely reach the apex at 8,842 feet. This hike takes many athletes 12 hours to complete. How could a full time nun even think of it? For many, hiking Half Dome is the equivalent of doing Mt. Everest. It’s hard. Besides the distance and altitude, issues such as dehydration, falling, blisters, darkness, acrophobia and plain old sore muscles are all paramount concerns.
Kathy proceeded to read the guide books about the hike. She attended formal presentations on how to do it successfully and safely. She talked to Half Dome hike veterans. She trained hard, spending hours hiking the local hills – over and over. Weeks of conditioning her legs for their ultimate test. This would be no walk in the park. She bought the recommended gear: trekking poles for stability and knee relief; a water filter pump to strain out the giardia parasite; a fanny pack to carry her food; first aid kit; flashlight and rain gear. Good hiking boots and blister treatment were paramount.. To make sure she was ready, she drove the 4 hours to Yosemite and hiked up the side of 2,500-foot tall Yosemite Falls. This would be a good test if she could ascend the 4,700 feet to the top of Half Dome. The date for the adventure was picked, a friend recruited for company, a tent cabin reserved and the journey begun.
The Half Dome hike itself was the pinnacle of all her hiking experiences. A 5:30 am start in the dark was needed to beat the crowds that would do this popular hike. As she passed 300-foot Vernal Fall then 600-foot Nevada Fall, she found herself getting into a groove, but was still uncertain if she could actually complete this challenging hike. Tired but feeling good, she continued through Little Yosemite Valley and up the long climb of switchbacks towards the backside of Half Dome. Each moment of the day was a moment to enjoy. The camaraderie of others on their similar mission brought inner rewards in addition to the purity of nature all around. The day wore on. One step at a time. Steeper, longer, thirsty, hungry and tired. Then she caught a second wind. A feeling of a revelation of Creation and of self and therefore God came over her. The hike became a joy for what is was – not just getting to the top but for the life experience it provided: the journey. Then she caught sight of the cables and the summit. There in all its majesty was the scariest thing Kathy had seen since the Giant Rollercoaster at Knott’s Berry Farm. “Oh, my gosh!” Pictures do not instill the feeling that seeing it for the first time does.”I’m actually going to go up this? I’m a 48-year old Sister, not Edmund Hillary!” Knowing that only one person has fatally fallen since 1919 did not make it easier. Thankfully, she brought her cable gripping gloves and was mentally prepared – and well ahead of the 800 people who would also go up it that day in caterpillar fashion. Kathy’s early arrival would allow her to go at her own pace and not be waiting as others froze in fear. 20 minutes of a steady grind upward; muscles and legs all pulling together to take her up and up. “Don’t look down.” Focus. One step at a time. Finally, 25 minutes on the cables and she reached the top. And then the view – the valley, El Capitan, the Ahwahnee, Glacier Point followed by the biggest “YES!” heard that day. The joy of accomplishment. One step at a time.
She finished the 13-hour day and earned the right to buy an “I made it to the top” shirt and a souvenir pin. Looking back, Sister Kathy says that the Half Dome hike wasn’t actually a goal to get closer to God. All hikes serve this purpose for her. Half Dome is just the ultimate hiking experience and therefore the ultimate metaphor for journey, life and seeing God. She has moved to Sonora to be closer to her beloved Yosemite. She is already planning to celebrate her 25th year as a nun in 2011 – and plans to reserve the Yosemite chapel for the ceremony. I wonder if a hike up Half Dome will be on the program.