Three Days Climbing the Face of Half Dome

October 10, 2017

Sleeping 1400 feet up on Pitch 17: Big Sandy Ledge

Leaning hard into my harness I positioned my feet firmly and nearly perpendicularly against the blank gray, white and black speckled wall as I began my full sprint towards a granite ledge. Not quite reaching it I pendulum back in the other direction, pulled by gravity and directed by the rope clipped 30ft above me to a bolt. I embrace the new direction, pumping my legs and jumping over my lead line to gain as much elevation and speed as possible in the opposite direction before I turn back towards the ledge for another attempt. The pendulum occurs and I again thrust forward with as much force as possible. My legs feel like I am futilely attempting to push a car up a hill as I try to gain inches of height towards the end of the pendulum. I desperately reach forward with my hands for the ledge lip only to come up inches short of being yanked downward and away. Tired and breathing heavily, I let the pendulum bring me to a rest several bolts from the start of the bolt ladder.

An example of an aid pendulum (although a much longer one) on El Cap

I lean my head against the wall in defeat after another unsuccessful attempt. I repeated these movements two dozen times over the course of an hour trying to pendulum the famous Robbin’s Traverse on Half Dome’s Regular Route. The most audacious pendulum of its time when established. This was just one of many celebrated, unique and spectacular pitches necessary to climb the shear, vertical Northwest Face of Half Dome via the Regular Route (5.9 C1+, VI, 23 pitches, 2000 ft).

A Brief History

Two years ago (2015) over the 4th of July weekend 2,500 tons of granite tore away from Half Dome, taking out a huge section of the main climbing route up the Northwest Face. It took not even a month until a team of climbers attempted to re-climb the injured route on a wall still settling and vibrating harmoniously from rock fall. However, it wasn’t until August 31 when two Iowa boys used a trick from Royal Robins himself (the route’s first ascentionist in 1957) to pull themselves over the blank scared area into the now free-hanging chimneys with a knot throw to finish the route.

This huge flake detachment was not the first time the route has changed with features like the Psyche Flake coming off in 1966 and the Undercling Pitch disappearing in 1974. General consensus seems to be that Half Dome will continue to change and many people speculate its only a matter of time until the chimneys, now free hanging, will eventually go as well. Given all the uncertainty, the route gets a lot less traffic than it used to, but it is no less aesthetic a goal to climb the face of Half Dome. On September 18 that is exactly what my partner Marco and I sought out to do. Our strategy was to do it big wall style in two days, hauling a bag:

Day 1: Death Slabs and Climber Rescue

On the most relaxed day of climbing I’ve had in Yosemite Valley, Marco and I started hiking up the ‘Death Slabs’ at 11:35am. Having gotten our wilderness permit to camp at the base of Half Dome’s face we were instructed to hang our food at least past 5.9 technical difficulty. It seems bears have found sending 5.8 easier and more enjoyable than sniffing for berries.

Just up the climber’s trail towards death slabs

From the valley floor at Mirror Lake we hiked 3000 ft up the direct ‘Death Slabs’ towards our objective. Thus avoiding the heels, bro-tanks and Disneyland lines on the safer and longer alternate approach which utilizes the famously popular Mist Trail. The Death Slabs were awarded their name at least in part because it requires ascending some fixed lines with a 60 lbs haul bag against your back, up low 5th class climbing. Meaning, trusting that the ambiguous person who fixed those lines used healthy rope, knew what they were doing and the lines weren’t weakened by the wear and tear of time. In reality, the name was far overblown and the approach fairly enjoyable in the moderate temperatures.

Marco pulling his way through the first couple fixed lines

Walking across some slabs just before final fixed lines

The ropes were in good condition with only one line utilizing what I would call a sketch, non-redundant anchor.

Anchor for the last of the fixed lines

Marco and I had no idea how much traffic would be on the route besides that it received a lot less ascents since the fallen flake. I was a intrigued to find a single person walking down to greet us the last 50 feet towards the base of route. At least in part because climbing takes two people minimum.

The mystery was soon solved as our new acquaintance described his friend’s fall on pitch six which badly injured his foot. Luckily they were able to rappel down together back to the ground. Thirty minutes later a man and woman with Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) walked up from the Death Slabs to arrange the rescue. Marco acted as translator for the visiting Spaniards as I stayed out of the way and tried to get our Day 1 chores done: selecting a bivy location, collecting water from the spring and orienting myself with the route.

Our ‘spring’ had some floating plant matter, but at least we didn’t have to haul the water up here.

Looking up the start of the route

The rescue logistics took two hours as a helicopter was directed in to check things out and returned with a short-haul line. The injured climber was put into a ‘harness’ resembling an orange triangle diaper which would suspend him 60 ft below the helicopter in as it flew back to the helibase. Our ‘compassionate’ YOSAR climber comforted him by saying, “just don’t pee your pants… or do.” Following by telling us how when he climbed the Regular Route last year he kept thinking, “I shouldn’t be up here. Those chimneys are not held on by anything and are going to splatter me as a pink smear against the rock at any moment when they fall off”.

Marco translating for YOSAR rescue as the injured climber puts on an orange harness for short line right out of here

With that encouragement, Marco and I went about our final chore for the day. Free climbing the first three pitches of the route and fixing ropes to aid our speed the following day. The 5.9 was burly and interesting as I pulled a roof into an open chimney on pitch two. Reaching the base at sunset we greeted another party looking to climb the route in-a-day tomorrow as well and coordinated our starting times. Just before I feel asleep I hear someone high on the route yell, “falling!” in the darkness of 8pm.

At 1am the voices and headlamps I saw high on the route were now at the base. Oblivious to anyone else, they spoke in loud voices for a half hour while drinking alcohol before passing out. I gave them some slack since they had a long day, but it wasn’t exactly helpful for our pre-dawn 5am wake up time.

Day 2: 21 Hours to Climb the Night Away

After a quick breakfast, Marco and I started jugging our ropes in partial darkness at 6am. Sunrise greeted me as I reached the top of Pitch 1 and a loud roar of a jet erupted behind me. I turned just in time to catch the sight of a large dark bird flying downwards. Marco, however, caught the sight of two base jumpers soaring past, jumping at daybreak in an attempt avoid possible arrest by park rangers.

Early morning jugging

It only took until pitch three to get the day off to a rough start. The decision to only bring one pair of ascenders (to save weight) slowed us down considerably jugging our three pitches in two hours. Then the party behind us asked to pass and we waited an hour and a half for them to link the next two pitches. This put us pretty behind schedule but we set a time (2pm) to decide whether to continue to Big Sandy or not. When we started moving, Marco led pitches 4-8 until I took over to warm up on pitch 9 before the Robbins Traverse.

The actually quite nice ledge on pitch six

Marco on Pitch 8, a couple pitches before the fallen flake section (right)

On pitch 10 (The Robins Traverse) I cruised up the bolt ladder, using my height to my advantage until I was stymied for over an hour on the pendulum. We were losing time we didn’t have and I knew it. I tried to get creative and started looking around some more before I finally found a piton hidden in a dark depression. With this I was able to gain elevation, friction traverse left and then lower down onto the ledge.

Bolt ladder off belay looking up at Robins Traverse

On pitch 11 I had the option of climbing 10a or aiding C2, both weren’t exciting options for me. This whole climb I found myself still psychologically recovering from an incident just three weeks earlier where a piece of gear I cleared as good blew and resulted in a ground fall. I recovered surprisingly quickly physically, but I couldn’t walk on that foot for a few days, dented my helmet and it hurt while sitting up for a while. This incident was a reminder of my fall in May where I did break my foot and couldn’t walk on it for two months.

Now, I was placing and walking up smaller than an inch cams, micro nuts and a hook on C2, imaging each piece blowing and myself falling to the ledge below. On one large movement upwards I reached the end of my daisy chains attached to my aid ladders below me. They were pulling me down, mid-transition and I yanked hard to complete my move. Eventually, the force behind me gave and I turned around to see one of my aid ladders tumbling down the face. It had been unclipped from the upward motion.

Marco jugging behind me on Pitch 11, I left my remaining ladder behind to free climb to the belay.

Marco performing a lower out

After that stressful pitch it was time to cross the broken flake area. Still a little shaken I climbed up the bolt ladder and flawlessly pendulum’d into an awesome 5.4 mantel over and onto a small ledge which narrowed to a foot wide. There was no protection until someone had desperately slung a small scraggly bush. Desiring anything to prevent a huge swing from an unexpected fall I also thankfully clipped my rope onto the helpless bush.

Leading the first bolt ladder to the mantle pendulum

Looking up I saw the rope toss much higher than I had expected, about 50 ft up a 11c or C1 corner with a 1-1.5” crack up its interior seam. I struggled up this corner for over an hour, outwardly grunting as I stepped labourously up my aid ladders against atrocious rope drag while worrying about running out of medium to medium-small gear or carabiners before reaching the last pitons. Tired and with 20 minutes of light, I was finally at the rope toss and found a small 5mm accessory chord running around the corner to the base of the chimney. Its sheath was cut where the corner was but the core looked good. Lacking time and energy I clipped an aid ladder on it and used a friction hitch for another to make it across to the anchor. As fast as I could I began hauling so I could undock the haul bag and Marco could begin jugging in whatever light we had left

When he reached me it was 8pm and dark. Marco being the stronger climber agreed to lead the next five pitches to get us to Big Sandy Ledge. As I jugged behind for the next few hours I realized I was missing some of the best free climbing on Half Dome. As per the norm, the haul bag became stuck constantly in the chimneys, on flakes or against ledges. This required me to constantly free it from below. Luckily nothing dislodged in the process like the large, basketball sized rock I pulled loose on P10 while hauling to the result of loud booms and crunches.

Resting in the dark after the 2 hour lead of Pitch 12

The final pitch “Double Crack” to Big Sandy looked amazingly fun, but at 2am I don’t know if Marco was enjoying it. We were tired. For the last few hours I had to consciously keep myself awake while not jugging and belaying Marco. Thankfully Marco convinced me to eat dinner before tying off my sleeping bag and laying down on Big Sandy Ledge at 3:15am after 21 hours of activity. It felt like I was inside a black snow globe with the stars and Milky Way galaxy spread in all directions. If I closed and opened my eyes my body would experience a sudden rush as it processed that I was a foot away from a large cliff. It made me afraid I might instinctively jerk in a direction and fall over the edge, but I’ve found our subconscious is more self-aware than that when sleeping on ledges. I don’t think its really that easy to accidentally roll off over an edge while sleeping on the wall.

Day 3: “Thank God” for the Summit

Am I close to the edge?

We had hoped for more than four hours of sleep, but we both woke to the sunrise and after a breakfast of poptarts began climbing at 8am. Marco had no problem leading the three next aid sections but they took about an hour and a half each (common for aid). I was happy for Marco to lead this since the Zigzags intimidated me given my C2 experience the day prior.

Marco leading first pitch of zigzags

It was now my turn to lead our last three pitches to the top. First off was to cross Thank God Ledge. Named not because the ledge feels amazingly safe and secure, but because it allowed the first ascentionists to bypass the huge roof of The Visor overhead. In reality Thank God Ledge is a 1-2 foot wide ledge against a feature-less wall.

In person, it looked far better than the videos I had watched beforehand, but all the same, I crawled across on hands and knees to feel as secure as possible. This traversing pitch ended in a dynamic move to gain a 5.9 squeeze chimney lacking protection that I had to knee-lock to rest within.

The next pitch was an interesting mash of bolt ladder and clean aid. I aided left into a crack until I got high enough to put my feet in some depressions on that same crack. Standing high enough to gain the first bolt. After the first bolt ladder, I spent a half hour trying to figure out how to reach the second ladder 30 ft to the left. I couldn’t pendulum there and my clean pieces kept blowing when I tried to get over. Luckily I finally tried an upside down cam hook, that when combined with another clean aid move, got me enough left into the first bolt of the ladder.

Marco jugging up behind on Pitch 22

Finally one pitch away from the summit we saw a few tourists out on the top. We were almost there. The next pitch required aiding a small roof seam, however there was a fixed rope to gain a lower-out piton. I used my height to reach it and utilized two cam hooks to reach the 5.8 or less ledges.

Looking left of belay. I used that rope fixed to the piton to help skip a most of the roof section.

Looking directly left of belay

I was now in 5.5 territory as I scrambled up to the highest bolt I could find. One haul and we would be on the summit. To a little disappointment, the tourists there seemed more interested in taking sunset selfies than asking me for an autograph like the mountain project description promised me. By the time we stepped on the top of half dome we were alone. This privacy being far from the mid-afternoon topping out amid a crowd of congratulations I was weirdly looking forward to.

Summit picture or it didn’t happen.

On the summit I ate half my lunch, having gone the whole nine hours of climbing with just breakfast. Too busy and focused for food. I descended the cables with the haul bag on my back. Our last daylight coming as we reached the dirt trail at bottom of quarter dome where the rangers typically check cable permits. The final five hours, 5000 ft and 8 mile descent felt like a dream. I was incredibly tired, my legs complained of the haul bag and my consciousness felt chemically disconnected from my body. The world was fuzzy, not crisp. At midnight we reached Half Dome Village followed by our campsite to pass out after a full 15.5 hours of activity day.


Timing Summary:

Timing Details: