Conquered Half Dome at 12 : At 5-2, He Towers Above the Crowd

Times Staff Writer

It was a grueling 2 1/2 days for rock-climber Tracy Carofano.

Two-thirds of the way up a wall of sheer granite, he became exhausted and dehydrated. But he was too far along to turn back, so he kept climbing, grasping at small crevices to move his body slowly up the rock. At night, he slept on a narrow ledge.

And when he reached the top, Tracy said, "I felt like I was on top of the world."

The Rancho Palos Verdes resident had conquered the most challenging route to the summit of Half Dome, the 2,230-foot monolith in Yosemite National Park. To reach the top, climbers move from crevice to crevice with their hands and feet. Sometimes they use ladders made of webbing that are attached to bolts fastened in the smooth granite.

No Small Feat

Mastering Half Dome is no small feat for anyone, but it was a remarkable accomplishment for Tracy.

When the ascent took place two months ago, he was 12 years old.

"He's the youngest, to my knowledge, ever to scale it," said Bruce Brossman, a 16-year veteran of mountaineering in the park and director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School. The school provided a guide for Tracy and his father, commercial photographer Ray Carofano, who made the Half Dome climb together.

"It's quite remarkable he would be that good so young," Brossman said, explaining that Half Dome is rated as a very difficult climb. "It requires a lot of training, a lot of natural ability."

Last weekend, two climbers atop Half Dome were struck and killed by lightning, but Tracy said that does not make him afraid to tackle peaks in the future. He said he and his father were once threatened by a lightning storm on Dome Rock in Sequoia National Forest but were able to get off the mountain, using ropes to descend quickly before it struck.

Climbed Mt. Whitney

Less than a year ago, Tracy climbed the east face of Mt. Whitney in the High Sierra with his father, probably becoming the youngest climber to do that, according to guides in the area. That peak is not as difficult as Half Dome and they climbed it in a day. But climbing for hours in the thin air at 14,000 feet gave both Tracy and his father altitude sickness.

Bela Vadasz, director of the Alpine Skill Institute that provides guides for Whitney climbs, said the most impressive thing about the Carofanos is that they are a father-son climbing team. "The 1980s has brought this era to climbing," he said, adding that a lot of young climbers are taking up a sport once dominated by older teens and adults.

If they start young, Vadasz said, a lot of boys have the potential to be as good as Tracy. "Climbing is a natural thing for boys," he said.

That seems to be the way it was with Tracy.

"I was practically born in a tree," said the tall and slender boy whose tanned face peeks out from behind a drape of dark brown hair. His 13th birthday just behind him, Tracy stands 5 foot 2--almost as tall as his mother, Cynthia--and weighs 90 pounds. He will be a seventh-grader at Dapplegray Intermediate School in September.

Began at 10

He was 10 when he asked to tag along with his father to a beginners rock climbing class being given by West Los Angeles College in the rugged northwest San Fernando Valley.

"I told him he could go, but I said it's a college class, so don't ask questions," recalled Ray Carofano, who wanted to add mountaineering to his roster of sports talents, which already included motorcycle road racing.

But young Tracy took to the rocks as though he had been born to climb, and his natural talent impressed instructor Richard Olson enough that he let Tracy join the class.

"While the others were trying to climb little rocks and sliding down, I just ran up and down in tennis shoes," Tracy said.

Yosemite expert Brossman said climbing is a physical and mental discipline. "Physically, it is strenuous because you have to be able to pull up and make hard moves, which takes a lot of technique," he said. "Things can go wrong and to make yourself safe, you have to deal with them quickly. And you have to stay calm, which requires a lot of mental concentration."

Not Afraid

Tracy said he is not afraid when clinging to a mountainside. "The height is what makes it fun," he said. "Up by myself, I feel relaxed. I don't see or hear anyone." Birds fly by and people on the ground "make ants look like giants," he said. As he and his father were climbing Half Dome, someone parachuted from the top.

But Tracy did admit to having the "scariest time of my life" at one point on Half Dome. He was in a sleeping bag at night on a 26-inch-wide ledge, a safety rope securely around his waist. "I kept scooting over and I thought I was looking at the rock, but I actually was moving toward the edge and I saw the stars and the sky," he said. "The stars looked like they were right across from me."

When he became ill, he said, he thought that he might have to be rescued by a helicopter, but that did not become necessary.

When "free climbing"--using their fingers and pointed climbing shoes to secure themselves in rock crevices--the Carofanos use safety ropes in case they should fall. Tracy said he never has fallen more than three or four feet, but in one fall, he skinned his hands when he slid down the face of the rock. That has been his only injury.

Cynthia Carofano said she did not like the idea of her son becoming a rock climber. "He was only 10 and very thin," she said. "They told me they were climbing rocks, but they didn't tell me they were that big."

Mother Never Watches

But she said Tracy and her husband have assured her they are safe. "They look forward to it, so what can you do?" she said. Still, she has never watched them climb: "That would scare me. I couldn't watch it."

The father-son team has chalked up about 30 climbing weekends, ranging from half-day climbs to the ascent of Half Dome. They will tackle Clyde Minaret, another Sierra peak, in September and have plans to try the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and the Canadian Rockies.

Ray Carofano said he is proud of his son and never believed that rock climbing was too dangerous for him. "It has done a tremendous amount for his self-confidence," he said. "Climbing is a way for him to really say, 'Hey, guys, I can do something you can't do.' "

Tracy, who has not let climbing take him away from surfing and skateboarding, said some of his friends would like to take up climbing. "The question is," he said, "will their mothers let them?"

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