When did I know I had bitten off more than I could chew? I think it occurred to me about 10 feet into my 25 foot fall…WOOOOOOOOOOO!
If you were to ask rock climbers to put together a list of 10 climbs they want to do before they die, rheumatologist The Regular Route on Half Dome would undoubtedly be in the top 10. For some it is a goal, website others a stepping stone, apoplexy and for the select few it is a morning at the crag (see: El Cap Report). For me it was an opportunity to live a dream. I had never been to Yosemite, I had never climbed a granite big wall, but I wanted to try and free climb The Regular Route on Half Dome in a day as my first route in the valley. Ok, maybe that was a bit ambitious. Regardless, I wanted to try.
I flew out to San Francisco, where I met up with Luke and we drove out to the Valley the next day. I was mid story when we rounded a corner and a magical valley of stone appeared before me…I paused, somewhat awestruck and just listened intently as Luke pointed out climbs.
We drove through the herds of people; it kinda felt like I was in a theme park, where Mickey Mouse was replaced by a bear. Twenty minutes later we had begun the “Death
Slabs” and if we were in a theme park, the theme was a bit more serious than a mouse and his friends. There were at least three places where a misstep would have greatly shortened our trip.
We knew there was still a snow field at the base of the wall, we knew it had been cold the week before, but we did not expect to see four parties at the base of Half Dome(HD). While looking for a place to bivy, we asked about people’s plans for the next day. One group trying to free HD in a day, one group trying to aid HD in a day, one group, of four, doing HD in three days and one group waiting around for friends.
The spring at the base of the wall was flowing nicely and had carved an ice cave out of the snowfield. It was a memorable experience to collect the water for the climb out of an ice cave.
The plan was to summit in a day, the goal was to do it free. Luke headed out linking the first three pitches and getting us to the top of pitch three in style. He was
supposed to stop at the second belay station, but climbed right by it…this meant I simuled the 10c first pitch with a 30lb pack on. Luke had stopped atop a ledge and when I arrived, there were 6 other people at the ledge and everyone looked very serious. Ropes were hanging from all over and there were three difference master points on one anchor. I looked over to see that the leader of the other free climbing team had a very large blood spot on his head. Others on the ledge were asking him “can you see yet?”
I asked “what happened?”
Luke informed me that he had taken a 30+ foot fall and landed upside-down, hitting a couple of places in the process. Jay, one of the other climbers there, was a doctor and checked him out. He told the youngster that “he had a concussion and should go to the hospital.” The next day we learned that he spent the day at the base of HD and tried to aid it in a day the next day.
That guy had just fallen climbing the 5.11 pitch I was about to lead, so it took me a couple extra seconds to get my mind ready to hop on the sharp end.
I pulled through a couple of cool face moves and was in an offwidth corner that was over hanging and dirty. I reached up to a hold that would get me to a no-hands rest,
and it was buried in sand. I was in a very tenuous position and I was ten feet above my last piece of gear, but I had to clean that hold or there was NO way I could hold on. After digging the hold out of the sand, I finally had something to pull on. I lifted my right leg up and put it on a foot chip that was covered in the sand I had just cleaned, that
foot slipped. It was a big enough fall that I actually remember the falling sensation and spotting the gear. I pitched out far and hit hard, toes, heels, butt, then I was onmy back, upside-down. I took the same fall that the other guy had taken. The people on the ledge were asking me if I was OK and I didn’t answer. I did a self-check, realized I was fine and yelled “WOOOOOOO! I am going back up.”
I fell again.
I decided that if I was getting spit off of an 11b, then there was no need in trying to free a 12a. So Luke and I abandoned the Higbee Hedral and we aid climbed the bolt ladder. We simuled our way up the next 6 pitches, Luke lead and I followed with the pack. We were following some free climbing beta we had gotten from the internet. It led us up some very loose terrain: at times we came across human sized blocks that rattled around with the slightest touch. This was bad news for both of us and the two parties below us. We did everything we could to not knock shit off, it was very difficult. The chossy climbing slowed us down significantly and the hard to read topo left us 300 feet to the left and 200 feet above where we wanted to be. Props to Luke for leading the crazy deathyness.
We had to decide how best to get back on route. We had lowered off a sketchy chockstone and a #2 camalot to get to a belay stance. From here we saw where we needed to be, so I hopped on rappel and headed for the ledge. With about 3 feet of rope left I yelled up to Luke “where am I going?”
Luke: “To the ledge!”
Me: “There is no way in hell I can make it there! I am going to look for an anchor.”
I swung around the wall to the best of my abilities, hoping to find an imperfection or a pair of bolts. All I could find was a single bolt that spun when I hit it.
I tightened the bolt with my fingers, clipped in to that bolt and told Luke I was off. He put me on belay to lower me to the next ledge. He asked “which end I had tied into?”
Me: “THIS END!” (tugging on the rope)
Luke: “Which end?”
Me: “THIS END! THIS END!” (tugging on the rope)
Luke: “OK, you are on.”
I had and have trust in Luke, but for some reason I was uneasy. When I unclipped from my single bolt, I held on to some tat…I closed my eyes and I let go. I dangled on the end of the rope 1000 feet up and I swung my way back over to the ledge below. Using the tag line, Luke set up a single rope rappel and was at the ledge in no time.
I asked Luke, “well…up or down?” Luke said, “no, we are good, let’s keep going up.” I had reached my low point of the day; we had climbed 1000 feet and rapped back down 200+ feet. Could we make it in a day? Could I make it in a day? I had my doubts. But Luke was optimistic and I trusted him. I ate a bit of food and we continued.
One mini-pitch later and we were back on route. At this point Luke had his doubts. We were kind of screwed. Two slower parties, one an aid party planning on sleeping on big sandy (Pitch 17), stood between us and a speedy summit. I told him “NO. We will finish.”
At the time, it seemed innocuous, but it was quite fortunate that we had our low points ten minutes apart. If they would have coincided, this might be a trip report about how to bail off HD. Fortunately, it is not!
In one of the chimneys, Luke placed a #4 that he accidentally kicked and it over-cammed really bad. I had to hang on a different piece to try and get it out. I yelled to him, “how the hell did you get this thing in here? I can’t get it out.”
Luke: “PULL HARDER!”
So I did. I planted my feet on the chimney and pulled while fiddling with the cam lobes. All of a sudden the cam came free and I SHOT out of the chimney. I heard laughing above me. I am sure it was quite funny to see a dude with a yellow haul bag between his legs come flying out of a chimney yelling “GOT IT!”
Our little off route experience left us behind a couple of groups, both of whom were slower than us. Luke and I caught them very quickly. One aid climbing party was
slowing everyone down significantly. Luke lead us through the chimneys while I followed with the pack between my legs. It felt REALLY good to be back on route. Pitch after pitch the climbing got better and better. Though we were moving slow behind the aid party, we were enjoying ourselves. It seemed like we reached big sandy at the top of pitch 17 in no time. In reality it was nearly 9pm, we had about 8 oz. of Gatorade left and we were tired! Fortunately, someone had left about a liter of water on Big Sandy so we split that and were able to save the last of our Gatorade for the descent.
In the valley below, flickering orange lights began to pop up amongst the trees. While the masses below prepared their s’mores, I was prepping myself for the Zig Zags. Free, they go 11d, 10c, 12a. Earlier I had planned on freeing them, but at this point we just wanted to summit. The next 6 pitches may be some of the most memorable pitches I have ever climbed.
With a few pointers from Luke, I taught myself how to aid climb nearly 2000 feet above the valley. We had just taken some 5 Hour Energy Drinks and I felt like a champ. The act of aid climbing in the dark was quite cathartic and I found myself singing stupid songs…
“It is dark…
I’m moving slow.
Not quite sure where to go.
Climbing up to the top,
Hope’n that my gear don’t blow…”
(I liked my songs, but I doubt the guys trying to sleep appreciated them.)
Darkness reduced my field of view to the little circle illuminated by headlamp, but revealed hundreds of little orange flames on the valley floor. A beautiful moon rose over HD and shone off Mirror Lake. As I continued aiding my way through the Zig Zags, I took great care in building my anchors. I knew I was tired and I knew Luke was tired, so I wanted to make sure we were securely fixed to the wall. It was awesome to watch the moon appear over the summit of HD; as it crept towards Fresno it turned a brilliant orange, then was suddenly gone. The moon seemed to take with it all other light from the valley floor, there were very few fires still burning and the massive walls that make up the valley were no longer silhouetted by the moonlight. It was dark. We were as exposed as we had been all day. We were on overhanging terrain with nothing but air below us. Yet I felt none of that. It was like climbing over a very large swimming pool full of black water.
Luke quickly dispatched the “Thank God Ledge” and the subsequent death chimney. I lead through the slab face, pulling on bolts and figuring out the tricky gear placements in the middle of the pitch. Luke lead the final pitch and took it all the way to the summit.
At the top of HD, I took off the haul bag I had been climbing with for most of the day. My shoulders were scorched and hurt. I told Luke, “I would rather carry you down the cables then wear that thing any longer.”
We packed up and ate a little. Luke looked at his watch and says “Holy shit!”
Me: “What time is is?”
Luke: “You don’t want to know.”
So at 3am we started our way down the cables, we were excited, but cautious. We were probably dehydrated, we were definitely sleep deprived and we were most certainly tired. We clipped into the cables and scurried down. I am impressed that tourons do that in their Nikes or Tevas. That path is polished as hell; my feet slid multiple times, always in a controlled manner, but DAMN!
We had one last obstacle before we were back in our sleeping bags. The saddle that separated the base of HD from the trail was covered in a snow field on a slab. A misstep here would mean a ride down the world’s biggest and scariest slip’n’slide of death. So we tied in and Luke carved foot holds out of the snow with a rock and used his nut tool as an ice tool. I followed behind him. I could feel fatigue at this point, my legs would shake when I stood on them wrong. You know, upright. Maybe I was just getting close to the bivy and could finally let my guard down a little or maybe for the first time in a while a slip would not equal serious injury or death.
At the base, Luke chugged water and ate some sandwich. I chugged some water and wandered around a bit. Before I knew it, Luke was in his tent and out. I was either tootired or too indifferent to set up my bug net, so I just slid in my bag and draped the bug net over me. I had purposefully set up my bivy so that I could see the route the night before and now that the sun was up, yes the sun was up, I could see parties starting to climb and moving about thousands of feet above me. I was VERY concerned about rock fall and had a hard time falling asleep, but after a little while I committed myself to the inside of my sleeping bag and I was out.
We napped for a few hours and decided it was time to head down. If you do the death slabs descent…once you get to the slabby wash, stay on climbers right of the wash. There is a fixed rappel that is about 40 meters and allows you to avoid down climbing three fixed ropes on climbers left.
At the base, we cleaned up a bit, although apparently not enough as the tourists in the Yosemite Café gave us strange looks. Since it was my first time in Yosemite, we went over to the hang out below the Captain.
The water was freezing, but a dip in the Merced River was more rejuvenating than any coffee could have been. In El Cap Meadows we talked about climbs we had done and climbs we would do. Beneath a wall that consumes the sky line you are both humbled and inspired. Lying on your back looking at El Cap you forget that you are tired, you forget that you are sore and bleeding, but then you realize it is 1000 feet taller than what you did yesterday. You are tired, sore and bleeding again. You are grateful for everything you have, but you wish you had more time and you wish you body was not so frail. How did the hardmen of old do it? This is about the time you realize how much history this place has, how much so many people have put into this valley. In the climbing world, our ascent was nothing spectacular, HD in 20 hours is not slow, but it is not fast. Alex Honnold would aid solo HD in two hours and nine minutes two days later, then he walked across the valley and aid soloed The Nose in six hours (Click here for TR). This trip report won’t make the pages of Alpinist or Rock and Ice, but I will never forget it.
This was my experience on The Regular Route of the Northwest Face of Half Dome and my first trip to Yosemite. I have tried to share it as best I know how.
Below is a free online topo of the free variation we tried to follow, links i found helpful and a list of some gear that stood out in my mind.
Topo: The Regular Route, Northwest Face of Half Dome, free variation
Route beta: These links will take you to the beta, both free and aid
Mountainproject.com (Scroll down to Scotty Bennet’s beta) We kinda got lost in the 5.9 choss before you traverse.
Direct link to weather on Half Dome via NOAA.gov
Yosemite Big Walls, Super Topo
Giant sandwich from Von’s. $5 and is good for four meals.
6mm tag line
Thanks to my many good friends who helped me plan this and got me from place to place.
Thanks, Matt, Haley, Dave, Josh and Luke