For me just about everything starts with a plan. I like figuring out logistics and taking all the steps to prepare for a big climb. Maybe it helps calm me down, which is really useful when thinking about climbing something as large as Half Dome. My goal was to free climb the Regular Northwest Face, with Roberto and I splitting the hard pitches. Training was going well until the end of March when I dislocated my shoulder. Hopes of onsighting 5.11 or 5.12 were gone. Roberto, however, was still keen to climb Half Dome at the beginning of the summer. He had been on a tear climbing in Red Rocks and Zion and we agreed that he would lead all the hard pitches and I would do the rest.
Things did not go quite according to our plan, but we managed to get to the summit despite some obstacles in the way. Check out Roberto’s blog for a bit more details on the action. It was an interesting challenge since the climbing was never too hard, except for the Zig-Zags, but you had to climb very fast and make sure to keep enough energy for 2000+ feet of climbing. The following are some of my thoughts on the climb.
I was on the sharp end. The rack was heavy and my waterbottle was full. It was crux of the first pitch and I had stopped moving. A quick tug on a fixed pin and I was past the crux, motoring along again. Much of the climb would go this way, using any and all advantages to move quickly against the ticking of the clock.
Five pitches later was one of the most memorable sections of the climb, not because of the striking line, or the amazing movement, but the gripping fear. We were off route, way lost, and a long traverse was necessary to get us back on track. I was going up a large flake that was filled with microwave sized loose blocks. I couldn’t commit to climbing past them and I would go up and down the first section trying to find a safer path. All at once a rock came loose, something I barely brushed with my pant leg. Roberto and I screamed ROCK as the granite bread loaf tumbled towards the base. I was terrified for the six people below us. The rock bounced far off to the side and whistled to the base, harming no one.
Three pitches of chossy climbing had really slowed us down and lost much of the progress we had made so far. When we had arrived the night before, there were many other parties at the base and on the route, making us last in line. Early in the day, a head injury, which resulted from a long fall without a helmet, had caused one party to bail. We had climbed neck and neck with Mike and Jay until they let us pass (around pitch seven).
I had just reached the ledge after the Robbins Traverse (pitch 11) and I was shocked and depressed to see Mike belaying Jay up the first of the chimney pitches. How could they be so low, why was it so late in the day? I hit my low point on this ledge; Roberto had his doubts on the last belay. I was pretty sure at this point we would be climbing in the dark – the question was for how long.
One hundred and thirty feet higher, my mood had totally flipped around. We were back on route, the chimney had been totally mellow and I was enjoying the climbing. There was still a slow party above us stuck in the chimneys preventing M&J and us from climbing further. I kept up the psyched convinced it was going to be ok even though we weren’t moving.
Linking the two main chimneys I started wiggling outwards for the easiest passage. My last piece of pro, an old fixed pin was well below me. The foot-and-back-sized fissure was the essence of old school climbing. As I got higher and plugged my micro C3’s it was hard to imagine doing this with practically no gear 50 years earlier. Robbins is such a badass.
The climbing had finally started speeding up. I was linking the last chimney into a 4th class pitch and saw Jay passing the aid party that had been moving slowly in the chimneys. A quick chat with Mike and I got into passing mode. Style was secondary as I chugged along pulling on fixed pins and cams to insure the pass. I made it right up next to Jay and we shared a belay and had a good chat as we brought up our partners.
Darkness came gradually as I sat on Big Sandy Ledge. Roberto’s progress on the Zig-Zags could be seen by the steadily shrinking circle of light of thrown by his headlamp. We moved slowly on the remaining six pitches to the summit. The exposure of two thousand feet of air below our feet was swallowed by the night. With the moonlight we could see basic outlines, but were restricted to the bubble of light from our headlamps.
I walked and then crawled across Thank God Ledge. The last chimney took me a second before I could squirm my way up to the next ledge. I was happy that it was not as bad as the hype. A pitch later I was leading to the top, traversing, manteling, shooting for the summit. On a ledge, alone in the darkness, I struggled to understand the topo. Putting it back in my pocket, I fumbled and it slipped out of my hand. Floating away into the abyss, 2000 feet back to the base – I didn’t need it anymore.
Three in the morning – we are both at the summit, tired, happy and shocked to have been climbing for the last 20+ hours. We count the times we waited at the belay not moving, shudder at our escapades in the loose rock, and try to understand where the day has gone.
At the base of the cables I couldn’t remember the topography of the sub dome. Wandering around in the dark looking for the trail we wondered if we would have to stop moving and wait for dawn, which was only an hour or two away. After many circles we found some stairs, marking the trail, and followed them to the “lighting warning” sign. Here we turned left for our last route finding adventure.
Following the occasional cairn, we worked back towards the base stopping to rope up and cross a snow field. Not wanting to take a fatal slip on the hard snow at 4am, I “led” across the snow using a rock to scrape out steps while using my nut tool as an ice ax.
As we neared camp, the day was starting and we were shocked how long we had been on the move. The descent put us back at camp just before 5am, taking two hours from the summit. Our total time moving was 22 hours, just making it in under a “day”. A few hours of sleep, a very refreshing dip in the Merced River and Roberto and I were headed back to the Bay.
After the climb I am excited to go back and figure out how to spend less time on the route. I think Roberto suffered too much with four liters of water and two pairs of shoes in the pack. Next time I think it would be better to have the leader have two liters of water in a small pack so that the follower can climb faster. Knowing the terrain will allow me to climb in bigger blocks without wondering about where to go. I’m still apprehensive about finding the correct free traverse around the Robbins bolt ladder, but hopefully some emails will solve that problem. It was quite the adventure and the longest day I’ve ever had.
Thanks to Mike and Jay for some of the photos!