The first thing I noticed after cropping up from the sea of manzanita was the audible hum coming from above. The whole wall buzzed as if it was guarded by an immense force-field. I imagined all the sounds from Yosemite valley below; gurgling tourists, a cacophony of tongues and automobiles, the cryptic calls of climbers, and the slamming of bear boxes all echoing from the giant whisper dish above…the Northwest Face of Half Dome.
An audible hum came from the face...like a giant forcefield
But that was wishful thinking. I knew damn well what that sound was, and the implications were frightening. The creatures had inhabited the entire face. It was hard to bear the extra fear which now needed to be overcome in order to succeed. The swarm was omnipresent, a living element of the route. and a literal embodiment of the idea that the seemingly lifeless walls of Yosemite Valley breath and pulse with unimaginable life.
After being scared off Crescent Arch, we ran over and soloed Cathedral Peak
A week earlier we had encountered this strange phenomenon in Tuolumne meadows, when The Swarm had scared us into retreating from the 3 pitch Crescent Arch. Now, just standing at the base of the great Half Dome, we could hear their drone tenfold. “The greater the challenge, the greater the reward”, I told myself …as long as you don’t get stung by a million bees in the middle of a bigwall. But we put our concerns aside and enjoyed one of the greatest basecamp views around, lounging in the late-day sun and drinking deep from the fresh water spring that flows conveniently from the wall, right at the base of the route.
basecamp view, notice the swarm of bugs in the air
Our alarm went off at 4:45am, but we didnt hear it. We woke late to the mature morning light, a little angry with ourselves, but psyched nonetheless. By 730am Logan was leading the first block. Despite being relatively new to the process of short fixing, Logan crushed as usual, quickly settling into the routine of constant movement. I took the next block of 5 pitches, including the Robbins Traverse, which at the time of the first ascent in 1957 was “the most audacious pendulum yet completed in Yosemite.” I believe the term “sketchy” would be used nowadays. The final pitch of my block deposited us at the base of a chimney,and by the time Logan had joined me at the belay, we were no longer alone.
Logan takes a classic self portrait
The creatures were everywhere. They darted back and forth, forming a dynamic cloud of life all around us. Without an extra rope, and having already traversed away from the initial line, retreat was not an option. In fact it was not even mentioned. Logan swung into the lead and I was left to cohabitate with my new friends. I began to test their aggressiveness, waving my hand and trying to swat the insects away, but they were docile, and after catching one and dissecting it with my nut tool, I realized they did not even have stingers.
The view from Big Sandy
2 pitches later we stood on Big Sandy ledge. It smelled like stale urine. I began leading the zig-zag dihedrals as the sun dropped lower in the west. The insects poured from every crevice. Their dead bodies would fall from the crack every time I placed a cam, like a scene from some horror film. But we were no longer scared. In fact, I felt that our little friends were now watching over us in some way, with their little bugged out eyes. I started to feel bad every time I killed a bunch with an aid placement or hand jam. I remembered Tom Frost’s words from the slideshow I had seen him give, “It’s you, the climbers, who know Yosemite Valley so well. For you have seen it inside and out. You have smelled the impeding storm, seen the clouds swirl below your dangling feet, and felt the inside of its walls. You are the ones most in tune with the nature of this place”
leading the Zig Zag Dihedrals, creatures everywhere
The wall was now awash in the last direct rays of sunlight. My favorite time of day in Yosemite Valley. Wispy clouds churned around us like the vapors from a boiling cauldron, and for a moment our surroundings became dreamlike. The clouds cleared after several moments and revealed the sun, melting into the horizon like a glowing red ice cube. In California’s afternoon haze, the smokey ridgelines blended together in the distance until their individual places were indistinguishable from the sky.
the diving board at sunset on a previous climb...indistinguishable horizons
Logan took over the lead just as complete darkness set over the Valley. He led across thank-god-ledge, aware of, but blind to the 2000 ft of air below. I led the final 2 pitches combining some free and aid climbing, including 2 consecutive hook moves. We topped out after 13 hours on the climb under a sky so clear it felt like we had climbed into the great nebula itself. I let out a whooping scream, which woke a man bivied 5 feet behind me at the top of Half Dome, a lone hiker who decided to spend a night in solitude at the top of the valley. I apologized, but he said that he had enjoyed hearing us top out, and remained silent in order to preserve our experience.
We descended the cables and were back to the base just about 15 hours after we started climbing. Some goldilocks asshole was sleeping on my pad which I had left with the intention of reserving my spot. Still feeling the zen energy from a successful climb, I wished him luck and found another place to pass out.
The next day we hiked down and took the shuttle bus back to Curry Village where my car was parked. Tourists saw our bags and probably smelled our unwashed bodies. I didn’t feel like explaining what we had just done to any of them who asked. Such a task would be futile at best, like a wolf trying to explain to a chihuahua why it goes on the hunt. So I hung my head in silent ecstasy and contemplated the moment, but when a young tourist actually asked me, “so why do you climb anyway?” I gave the same answer I always give to that question, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Note: I did some research as to what the mysterious insects could be. Surprisingly, none of the park rangers I asked had any idea, nor did any other climbers. Here’s what I found, if you have any other info or similar experiences, please send an email to [email protected]:
I believe that the specific genera of Bee Flies we encountered was the Villa arenicola.
This is what the insects looked like, however there were no flowers growing on the side of Half Dome