Yosemite National Park is to rock climbers what Mecca is to Muslims. You spend years dreaming of going there to climb. It becomes more than a pilgrimage but a hajj. Every climber from all over the world must make a trip there at some point in their life to be considered a real climber.
You go there to pay homage, and not just to the stone walls and domes with majestic waterfalls cascading over them. You pay homage to the climbers who developed the techniques and equipment you use every time you lay hand to rock. You pay homage to the events that occurred there. Every climber knows not just the names of the routes, but the names of the pitches on the routes and sometimes even the name of a single move on a single pitch on a route. My first trip to Yosemite two decades ago was a week in paradise as I reveled in its special beauty. However, I recall being surprised that there were so many non-climbers there. I had no idea that there was anything else to do in Yosemite than to go climbing. And once you are on the walls surrounding the valley, you no longer know there is anybody else there, despite the tourist crowds along the roads and walkways of the valley floor. It was amazing to go home and blow up my pictures of El Capitan to discover climbers all over the face that I could not see with my naked eye while I was there.
Standing tall above all of the other cliffs, peaks, walls, domes, and waterfalls in the Yosemite Valley (known as THE valley to climbers all over the world) is perhaps the most iconic cliff in America, the face of Half Dome. You may know it from an image on your screen saver.
Or perhaps the classic “Monolith” Ansel Adams photograph.
Or perhaps because it is the logo of The North Face clothing company.
Or maybe you've been backpacking for years with an REI Half Dome tent.
Half Dome was considered unclimbable throughout most of the 1800s, until it was ascended in 1875 for a grainy photograph of George Anderson standing on the visor.
He painstakingly bolted his entire way up the easiest route using road making equipment. The route he took was subsequently (1920) made relatively accessible to ambitious hikers by installing two sets of cable handrails set on posts all the way up the East Ridge. The crowds on “The Cable Route” are now so legendary that the Park Service has recently implemented a permit system similar to its Zion National Park counterpart Angel’s Landing.
Now 300 lucky winners a day can make an arduous 5,000 vertical foot, 17 mile round trip hike to test their courage against a cliff accessible to the typical person only thanks to handrails and steps bolted into its side. Successful hikers not only get to experience iconic waterfalls and grand vistas, but can sit on the edge of the visor and dangle their legs over 2,000 feet of air (that feels like 5,000).
Despite the picture on your computer, Half Dome is not actually a dome, so don’t ask what happened to the other half. Half Dome is a ridge.
The cable route ascending the East Ridge is the least steep part of the ridge. There is a steeper West Ridge (the one facing Glacier Point and visible on the right side in most pictures of Half Dome) that houses the second easiest method of reaching the summit. First ascended in 1965, and facilitated by an extremely unusual, two foot tall “dike” of rock, the Snake Dike route is relatively moderate in its difficulty.
Outside of the all day hike up to the base and back down via the cable route, the primary challenge of this 8-pitch 5.7 is simply being able to not think about the fact that a lead climber who slipped off could fall as much as 200 feet before the rope caught. At that point, you would be missing so much skin that you might not even want to be alive. However the climbing in these “run-out” sections is so easy that a fall is pretty unlikely.
As the route goes up, each pitch becomes less and less steep until you put away your ropes and climbing gear and simply hike up the steep granite ridge for another half hour to the summit. Over the course of my four, week-long pilgrimages to Yosemite I had climbed Half Dome twice by this route and descended the Cable Route.
The Regular Northwest Face
The third easiest route regularly done on Half Dome is found not on the East Face, the West Face, or even the shorter (but quite steep) South Face. It is found on the iconic, 2,000 foot tall North Face (technically the Northwest Face) that is visible from most of the Valley and many other areas of the national park. Its ascent had been a goal of climbers for many years. By the 1950s, most of the major walls and formations in Yosemite had been climbed (notably excepting the 3,000 foot tall face of El Capitan) and thus the face of Half Dome was the logical next objective. The first attempt, in 1954, ended in failure just 175 feet off the ground. A more serious attempt occurred the next year by a party including Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Don Gallwas, and two others. They made it just 500 feet up the face. Of note, three years later Warren Harding would persistently lead a team that over the course of 47 climbing days fought their way up the tallest part (“The Nose”) of El Capitan.
As Spring turned to Summer in 1957, Robbins and Harding were both seriously putting together teams intent on finishing what they had started two years before. Robbins got on the wall first, together with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas, and armed with the brand new chrome-molybdenum pitons invented by Gallwas. Over a period of five days, they overcame repeated obstacles, exhibiting courage, tenacity, and skill previously unknown in the rock climbing world, forever redefining what was possible. In many ways, this was the first “big wall” climb ever done.
Harding was the only person who hiked to the summit to meet them. Perhaps the luckiest part of the first successful ascent was the discovery of Thank God Ledge, a 6 to 18 inch wide ledge running 80 feet left that allowed the team to bypass the huge roofs of The Visor. This route, The Regular Northwest Face (RNWF), has subsequently become world famous and is even listed as one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. Mention “The Regular Northwest Face” to a serious climber and you won’t have to specify that it is located on Half Dome.
Robbins, Harding, Gallwas and others were developing big wall climbing techniques in this classic era of Yosemite Climbing. These techniques would quickly spread around the world. This style of climbing is now known as “aid climbing” to differentiate it from “free climbing.” In free climbing, which is the only thing that most climbers now know, you use the ropes and equipment only to arrest a fall, not to facilitate upward progress. In aid climbing, just about anything goes. If you can’t get up something, you simply invent new techniques and equipment until you can. That may involve standing on the shoulders of your partner, swinging on ropes, or even lassoing horns of rock with your rope. Most commonly, it involves placing pieces of metal into cracks in the wall and attaching your rope to it with carabiners. Some of those pieces were easily placed and removed, but others, like pitons, had to be pounded into the cracks with a hammer. In a worst case scenario, a leader would even drill holes into the wall and place bolts into the holes to enable passage across blank sections of wall, similar to what George Anderson did back in 1875.
Thus, the natural history of a route in Yosemite is for it to get easier over time. Not only does technology improve and route knowledge get passed around, but the damaging effects of hammering pitons in and out of cracks actually creates places to put removable protection (and fingertips) on subsequent attempts. A hammerless, or “clean” ascent of an aid route occurs next. This occurred on the RNWF in 1976. As the decades have gone on, free climbers have become more and more talented. In the 1950s, 5.9 was considered the pinnacle of free climbing difficulty. In fact, this “decimal system” was pioneered in Yosemite.
A brief aside about climbing ratings seems pertinent here. While other countries have their own consensus difficulty rating systems, in the United States we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Class 1 is walking down a sidewalk. Class 2 is an uphill hike with a few rocks in the trail to step over, but no need to use your hands. Class 3 means you are now using your hands to ascend. At Class 4, an inexperienced climber will want a rope for safety. A guide may climb a fourth class climb without a rope, but will likely need to use it for the client. When asked about the difference between third class and fourth class, one guidebook author famously stated that if his dog could do it he called it third class and if the dog couldn’t, he called it fourth class. Class 5, or fifth class, is free climbing so hard that an experienced climber will want a rope to protect in case of fall. Class 5 was further divided into 5.1, 5.2 etcetera all the way up to 5.9, the hardest that anyone could climb. Class 6 was aid climbing, where it could not be ascended without the assistance of ropes and equipment. Class 6 never really caught on and people started using a system from A1 to A5 (C1 to C5 for clean aid). Then of course climbers got better, so the YDS had to grow to accommodate these new harder climbs. After decades of nothing harder than 5.9, now there were 5.10s, which were further subdivided as 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d before moving on to 5.11. As I write this, the hardest climb in the world, a relatively short but incredibly gymnastic route with little risk of a serious fall like most “sport” routes harder than 5.10, is rated 5.15d.
Art Higbee and Jim Erickson made the first successful free ascent of the RNWF in 1976, after five attempts, one per year for the preceding five years. Its rating was 5.12c. With four pitches of 5.12 and three of 5.11, it was probably the hardest long free climbing route in Yosemite. A pitch is a section of climbing between two secure anchors (belays), often but not always located on a small ledge, from which a belayer can hold the rope attached to the leader. These pitches can range from as short as 30 or 40 feet to the entire length of a rope, classically 50 meters or 165 feet, although many climbers these days use 60 meter (200 feet) or even 70 meter (235 meter) ropes since improved technology has allowed ropes to be thinner than they used to be while still maintaining adequate durability and strength. Even just during the time I have been climbing, the “standard” rope size has dropped from 11 mm to 9 mm, and 8 mm ropes are used in specialized applications such as canyoneering or two rope technique.
However, the truth is that the free version of the RNWF is not the same route as the aid version. That still remains unclimbable without the use of aid. The free version replaces three of the aid pitches with a circuitous five pitch detour that later rejoins the route. This route was made even more famous after the movie Free Solo came out.
In 2008, Alex Honnold not only climbed the free version of the route, but after multiple practice sessions with a rope, he climbed it using “free solo” technique, generally considered the highest “style” of climbing, particularly if done on the first attempt without being given any prior information about the route other than its rating, called “onsight free solo”.
There is a classic picture by famous climbing photographer Jimmy Chin of Alex standing way out on Thank God Ledge without a rope (although I understand that photo has subsequently been one-upped by someone who climbed up onto the ledge naked.)
Climbing with free solo technique is extremely fast, since there is no need to carry gear and ropes, much less futz with them. Alex’s well-practiced ascent required only an hour and twenty-two minutes from the base of the wall to the summit. He had a “freak out moment” on what is known to most as Pitch 22, the one after Thank God ledge and nearly at the summit. This 90 foot long nearly blank but less than vertical face momentarily tempted even the great Alex Honnold to step on one of the bolts on the face.
Changes to the Route
In 2015, a 200 foot section of the route fell off the mountain in a huge rockfall incident.
Thankfully nobody was on it at the time. While a new aid route was pioneered through this new section of rock face, it has yet to be free climbed in its current state, much less free soloed. At a minimum, a climber must use some bolts and a pendulum move (swinging from one place to another on the rope) to ascend the route. The history of the RNWF has yet to be completely written even 67 years after its first ascent by Royal Robbins et al.
My Obsession With the RNWF
I’m not sure exactly when I first became aware of the RNWF, but it had to be by my early 20s at the latest. I have been wanting to climb this route for about 30 years. Why did it take three decades for me to attempt this dream route of mine? Because I was scared. And I was scared for good reason. The RNWF is a route for super climbers. Climbers like Royal Robbins and Alex Honnold. Maybe not only for professionals, but certainly for people who live, breathe, and eat climbing. Not for recreational folks like me. Not for people who spent their 20s in school and hanging out in hospitals. It was for “dirtbags” who were “living the dream” (both compliments in the climbing world). While your 40s and 50s are much more comfortable if you spent your 20s in medical school, there is an opportunity cost, such as climbing routes like the RNWF.
As the years went by, Yosemite was just too far away for me to spend much time there developing ”big wall” specific climbing skills. I’m not even that good of a free climber. The hardest route I ever led outdoors without falling was 5.11b and that was 30 years ago. If anything, I’ve gotten worse, regularly falling on 5.10s and even occasionally on 5.9s. Opportunities to climb aid routes were mostly non-existent near the places I’ve lived. I had done a few pitches of aid low on El Capitan on one pilgrimage to Yosemite, but the rest of my aid climbing had been limited to some minor practice sessions at small crags near my home in Utah.
More on Aid Climbing
While there are lots of aid techniques to master, the general sequence is to first place a piece of climbing protection into a crevice in the wall where, once lodged securely, it will hold the weight of the climber. These are mostly the same devices used by free climbers to protect in case of a fall, so I had placed them thousands of times. Some of these devices are “passive”, small removable pieces of metal (nuts or “stoppers”) attached to a metal cable that can be clipped to a carabiner in which the rope is placed. Others are “active”, spring-loaded removable camming devices that grip the sides of a crack tighter as more weight is placed onto the device. Sometimes a bolt has been placed into the wall or a piece of protection has been purposely or accidentally permanently stuck into a crack (“fixed gear”.)
Once placed and evaluated, the leader clips his harness to the piece using a short length of adjustable strong webbing and then attaches an “aider” (aka etrier or ladder), a 5-6 step ladder made out of webbing, to the piece of protection. If the piece is strong enough to hold a fall, i.e. substantially more than body weight, the leader also clips the rope from the belayer into the piece. The leader then stands in the ladder and climbs up it as best he can using the rungs, a handle at the top of the ladder (“the hero loop” if you put your foot in it), and the webbing attached to the harness. The higher the leader gets in the ladder, the more precarious his or her position becomes. “Top-stepping” is notoriously “balancey”. If you fall out of the aider, the only thing keeping you from the ground is the short piece of webbing attached to your harness, and as a last resort the rope attached to your belayer and run through all of the prior pieces placed on that pitch down to the secure anchor. The most difficult aid routes, A5, are also the scariest as they involve long sequences of protection that hold little more than body weight and would all rip out in a fall. Once the leader gets as high in the ladder as he dares, he places the next piece and repeats the process until the end of the pitch. This process takes considerably longer than free climbing, usually on the order of three to four times as long, but leading a difficult pitch of aid can take even an accomplished aid climber as much as six hours.
Once the leader finishes the pitch, the second climber (“follower”, “second”, or “belayer”) has to remove all of the pieces the leader placed on the way to the next belay. This is generally done by ascending the rope rather than climbing in the same manner the leader did. The leader “fixes” (ties) the rope to the next belay, and after a call of “Rope is fixed!” the second attaches a set of two mechanical devices (“ascenders” or “jumars”) to the rope, attaches them to his or her harness with short pieces of adjustable webbing, and clips his own aiders to the ascenders. When the rock is not too steep, the second can rapidly ascend, sliding one ascender up while moving that foot up before repeating the process with the other ascender and foot. Left hand and left foot, then right hand and right foot. As the wall becomes vertical and beyond, this process (known informally as “jugging”) changes to “froggy style”, which basically means the second alternates between placing his or her weight on the top ascender using the short piece of webbing attached to the harness and moves up the lower ascender and then pushing up forcefully with both legs until one can slide the top ascender higher. The second also generally attaches the harness to the rope using a more secure device than the ascenders, either knots tied periodically or a mechanical device. Ropes have a way of falling out of the ascenders, particularly when the rope starts going sideways.
As the second ascends the rope, he or she takes out the pieces the leader placed so they can be used again on the next pitch. The process is relatively straightforward when the route goes straight up, but becomes quite complicated as a pitch traverses and additional skills and techniques must be employed, such as “lower outs” from gear left behind or even aid climbing oneself. As you can imagine, jugging can be even more physically taxing than climbing, particularly when wearing a heavy backpack to allow the leader to carry as little as possible. However, with enough practice jugging is always faster than aid climbing and sometimes even faster than free climbing. As the amount of gear required for the ascent exceeds the ability of the second to carry in a backpack while jugging, the climbing team begins using a large, durable bag which must be hauled up by the leader while the second is jugging and “cleaning” the pitch. Hauling is never fun, but the lower the angle of the route, the more obstructions on the route, and the more the route traverses, the more difficult hauling becomes. Climbers will do almost anything to avoid hauling whenever possible, including being scared, cold, hungry, and even thirsty to avoid having to take a haul bag on the ascent. The RNWF is notoriously difficult to haul on and only the slowest of aid climbers would ever consider hauling on that route. I mean, why would you need a haul bag if Alex Honnold climbed the thing in less time than it takes to watch a short movie?
However, most people are not Alex Honnold and so climb the RNWF using both free and aid techniques. Since it is a long route and free climbing is faster and in many ways less effort, RNWF climbers “free as much as possible.” If you can climb 5.12, you free climb almost all of the route. If you can climb 5.11, you still free climb most of the route. In order to complete the climb in a single day, a climber needs to be able to climb 5.9 or 5.10 all day long with ease. While I can climb 5.9 and 5.10, I certainly cannot climb that hard all day. That meant I would have to either find someone who could, or plan to do a lot of slow, methodical aid climbing.
Love Me Some Long Routes
I have always enjoyed long multi-pitch climbs and as the years went by, stretched the difficulty and the length of my objectives. These climbs often required an “alpine start”, beginning hours before dawn in order to complete a climb before sunset. In fact, I have always defined an “epic” as having to use a headlamp on both ends of the day. While I had passed many nights in the mountains (generally in a tent and sleeping bag at the base of a climb), I had never purposely spent one on a climb, known as a “bivy” and usually involving a lot of suffering. One of my longest climbs, a caffeine-fueled traverse in the Tetons linking Teewinot, Mount Owen, and the Grand Teton required 26 hours of constant movement, but did not involve a bivy.
As I was closing in on my 48th birthday, it became apparent to me that the accumulation of additional experience as the years went by was no longer overcoming the decline in my fitness.
In short, I had probably peaked as far as doing long hard climbs. If I was ever going to do the RNWF, it had to be soon. It was time to start planning.
The most critical piece of a climbing plan is your choice of partner. The obvious choice in this case was my climbing partner of nearly a quarter of a century, Dr. Christian Feinauer, and indeed as you shall soon see, he will become the hero of this story. We attended medical school together and started climbing together that first year of school. While we are hardly monogamous and have had long periods of time over the years when we haven’t climbed together, he has been with me on all four of my prior Yosemite trips and has been wanting to do the RNWF for almost as long as I have. Most importantly, he has that most essential of climbing partner qualities, an incredibly high tolerance of suffering. In addition, he had more aid climbing experience than me, is a better face climber, and is almost completely fearless, at least compared to me.
Partnership established, next was our choice of dates. The RNWF sits between 6,800 and 8,800 feet in elevation and faces mostly North. North faces of mountains are almost always more serious than their Southern aspects. Colder, wetter, with looser rock, and often steeper than the other aspects of a mountain. Certainly this expedition called for warmer weather. However, knowing how long this route would be for us (most people climb the RNWF over the course of 3 days), we also wanted to maximize daylight and avoid getting too hot. We also wanted to go while the spring at the base of the wall was still running (it tends to dry up later in the summer). After coordinating personal schedules, we settled on the first week of June and began ramping up preparations, and not just physical. We had skills to learn or at least brush up on. Christian had more aid experience under his belt than I did (The Leaning Tower in Yosemite), but there were plenty of aid-specific skills to learn and brush up on. We practiced jugging, lower outs, and aid climbing. We hit the crags and the climbing gym as much as we could to get into shape. We worked out the logistics (no small feat for the RNWF) and even had the climbing “rack” (all of the pieces of protection) assembled and ready to go. I had a somewhat distracting once in a lifetime family trip for 10 days before we were set to leave, but we felt we were ready.
However, several things conspired to keep us from going. First Christian became ill a couple of weeks before we were set to leave. Nothing serious, just a viral illness that lowered his fitness. Then the weather forecast deteriorated, revealing an 80% chance of rain on all three of the days we were going to be on the route. We certainly did not want to be 150 stories off the ground at 8,000 feet in a thunderstorm (or possible snowstorm). So we were forced to cancel. In retrospect, it was good that we did. In my last climbing session before leaving on the trip, I pushed it a little too hard and developed trigger finger in two fingers. Then I came back from the family trip with my own illness. In fact, I couldn’t even get out of bed on the day we would have launched up the climb. Disappointed, we looked at our schedules and came up with another week that we could dodge both family and work responsibilities, the third week of August. While we were scared of baking in the sun, having less daylight, and of the spring being dry (requiring us to haul three days worth of water to the base of the climb), we were reassured by the fact that the sun didn’t hit the Northwest Face until 2 pm in August, and by then we hoped to be in the “chimney pitches” where we would be protected from it. We figured the big snow year would help with the spring and planned to climb more in the dark by headlamp in order to complete the route. We just had no idea exactly how much we'd have to do by headlamp to complete this climb.
As the third week of August approached we were both feeling good. I had had my trigger fingers successfully injected with cortisone and our fitness was good. I had climbed the Grand Teton in a day and descended one of the hardest canyons in Zion just two weeks before. I had completed ten workouts in the week prior to the trip, including four trail runs, four weight lifting sessions, and a couple of hockey games. However, we had not had much time to climb together and would have to rely on our years of experience together. In retrospect, maybe we should have spent more time climbing together this summer, but the enemy of a good plan is a perfect plan.
Most importantly, the weather forecast was nearly perfect. Moderate temperatures and less than a 5% chance of rain for three days in a row. We did our final planning. The plan was to drive out on day 1. On day 2, we would hike up to the route and fix a few pitches before sleeping on the ground. Then on day 3 we would blast off, ascend our fixed ropes in the dark and begin climbing. We would spend one night on the wall and then summit on day 4 and hike back down and start driving home, arriving on day 5.
Since we had planned to take two 200 foot ropes (one stretchy “dynamic” rope to catch leader falls and one static rope for the second to jug with less effort bouncing up and down on the stretchy lead rope), we could fix the first three pitches, 160 feet, 100 feet, and 105 feet on day two. Since the only ledge on the entire route big enough to lay down and sleep (Big Sandy Ledge) is 17 pitches up, that required us to lead 14 pitches on day 2 and the final 6 pitches on day 3 (often considered about as hard as the preceding 17) after spending the night on the wall. If we were really fast we might even be able to fix pitches 18 and 19 and rappel back down to Big Sandy before nightfall.
Minimizing the Load
The approach to the wall is 3,000 vertical feet and the wall itself is 2,000 vertical feet, so minimizing both weight and bulk was critical to our success. The more skilled and faster a climber you are, the less you have to take. Alex Honnold basically only carried a chalk bag, took a big sip from the spring, and climbed the wall. We were going to need a lot more gear than that. We had to examine everything and decide what was worth its weight. We could take a little bit more to the base of the wall than we could up the climb, so we planned to live a life of luxury there with dehydrated food, a stove, and even sleeping bags. But that would all have to be left behind on day 2. While many do this route with one rope, we didn’t even consider not taking a second rope. Not only would it allow for easier jugging, but it was an important safety factor. Ropes get damaged and besides, it is far less complicated to descend a route in the event of emergency or inability with two ropes than with one. But a second rope is eight more pounds that must be hauled to the base of the climb and all of the way up it.
After scouring every piece of information about the route in books and on the internet, we settled on the minimum rack we thought was safe to take. That meant more than one cam of each size, plenty of stoppers, lots of carabiners and webbing, and even a couple of hooks, a specialized piece of gear often used on this route. We bought the lightest cams and carabiners we could find, but it was still a lot of metal that had to go up. Rock climbing shoes, harnesses, approach shoes, a set of aiders, jumars, helmets, and rappel devices for each of us completed the technical requirements. We absolutely had to take all of that stuff just to complete the route successfully.
Next came the creature comforts. Like water. How much water would we need? Well, it’s hard to tell without knowing exactly what the temperature would be, how hard we would be working, how long we’d spend in the sun, and how long the route would take. We initially considered taking 16 liters (4 gallons), one gallon each for each day we were on the wall. Then we weighed the pack the second would have to jumar with and decided we would rather be thirsty than not finish the route due to exhaustion. We settled on 13 liters (6 ½ a piece), 3 in a camelback on the leader’s back and 10 more in “the pig” the second would carry. We both guessed how much food we would want. Other than the dehydrated food we would eat at the base of the wall, it was all high calorie snack food like beef jerky, cheese, candy bars, granola bars, and trail mix. We threw in a few “uncrustable” peanut butter sandwiches so we could have some “real food.” We also needed to stay alive overnight at over 8,000 feet, potentially in wind and even rain. Given our pristine forecast, I opted to leave the rain pants. So I took a lightweight rain coat, a down puffer jacket, a thin fleece jacket, long pants, a long sleeve shirt, briefs, a beanie, and one pair of wool socks. I didn’t think we could afford the space or the weight of additional clothing. Christian skipped the fleece but brought a second pair of socks. Instead of a tent, we brought bivy bags, which are like a Gore-tex raincoat for a sleeping bag. They not only provide protection from wind and rain, but add about 15 degrees of warmth to the occupant. Our sleeping plan was to take bivy bags and very lightweight pads and inflatable pillows up the wall and leave the sleeping bags at the base. We would just wear all the clothes we brought inside the bivy bags. My pad and bivy bag fit into the smallest compression sack available and weighed just 2 ½ pounds. Every other item was carefully examined for its value to weight ratio. Sunscreen? Yes. Bug dope? Nope, we’ll just get bitten. Change of underwear? Are you kidding? Water purification? No, how contaminated can a spring coming out of the bottom of Half Dome be? Sunhat? No. Sunglasses? Yes.
Living on a wall is challenging. Just like at home you must eat, sleep, urinate, and defecate despite never being on a ledge wider than 2 feet. We took a little bit of toilet paper and bags to contain solid waste. I suggested we share one. That’s where Christian drew the line. I suggested Imodium would be lighter but he was not convinced. Christian brought some climbing gloves. I made mine out of tape. Christian insisted on his Invisalign retainers, but decided not to wear them during the day since he’s supposed to brush after eating just about anything and replacing the retainers. But at least he’d have them on at night. In the end I decided to take a toothbrush but would borrow paste from him. Every ounce counts. We each took a headlamp and I took a spare, just in case. Sunglasses seemed worthwhile too. So did performance enhancing drugs. Like an Air Force pilot, I had “go pills” (caffeine and ibuprofen in my case) to keep me moving and “no go pills” (Benadryl and Melatonin) to help me sleep despite nerves. When we left the parking lot, I had 54 lbs in my pack and Christian had 48 lbs (“I weigh 20% less than you” was his successful argument). And that was with only 3 liters of water between the two of us. We planned to fill the rest at the spring. Besides the stove, fuel can, sleeping bags, and backpacking packs, the rest would go up the wall with us in some manner. Plus another 20 lbs of water in the pig.
I picked Christian up at 10 am on day one. I was a little late, but it was a chill day. All we had to do was drive from Salt Lake City to Lee Vining outside the East end of Yosemite Park. We had a nice dinner at a barbecue place and splurged on a hotel room. We went over the route map and discussed how we were going to break up the leads, playing to each of our strengths and desires. A drug-induced sleep ensued and day two began at 5 am.
We raced through the still dark park to arrive at the wilderness permit office by 7:30 to find three groups of backpackers ahead of us in line and the news that the permit office didn’t open until 8. And they took forever to issue permits to the backpackers ahead of us. We even had to wait through a “leave no trace” talk by an overly enthusiastic ranger. Then when we got to the counter we discovered that we didn’t need a wilderness permit at all, we just needed a self-issued free overnight climbing permit that could be obtained at a kiosk around the corner. We did have to rent a bear canister for the food we would leave at the base of the climb though. While black bears do show up there every now and then, the bigger risk is simply rodents. Add a few more pounds. The park was under massive construction which required us to do two entire laps around the park to complete both breakfast and the permit process. By the time we left Curry Village with those heavy packs it was around 10 am.
The Death Slabs
The hiking trail to Half Dome is 8 ½ miles long. More importantly, it goes to the wrong place. We didn’t want to go to the Cable Route, we wanted to go to the Northwest Face. Taking the regular trail would require us to ascend 4,000 vertical feet in 8 miles, then descend 1,000 feet back around to the face on a climbers trail, having completely circled the peak. However, there is an alternative. Called “The Death Slabs” by climbers, this very direct route goes up right below the face of Half Dome.
It has its risks, however. The majority of the route ascends a gully that drains the face of Half Dome. That means it is wet and a shooting gallery for rockfall. Perhaps more importantly, it is very steep, ascending 3,000 vertical feet in less than a mile. Less a trail than a climbing route in and of itself, it would be a major obstacle. However, if we couldn’t do The Death Slabs we certainly had no business trying to climb the face above them. We left the tourist trail behind and headed up the hill. Before long we found ourselves on Class 4 terrain. Class 4 with nothing on your back is one thing. Class 4 with 54 lbs on your back is significantly more challenging. Then we came to the base of a cliff. A ratty old fixed line was there, hopefully securely attached. We put on harnesses (we put our helmets on at Curry Village when we parked the car) and attached an ascender to the rope for security and worked our way up.
We crossed the catwalk, a six inch wide mossy path above a cliff. We finally made it into the gully, a rock strewn shooting gallery with a small stream running down it. We worked our way up this for a couple of hours, through wet class 4 terrain and a few more fixed lines before arriving at the base of the wall. We then traversed upward through scree and bushwhacking along the base of the wall toward our route,
As we approached I heard voices. Upon bursting out of the bushes at the base I saw that there was another party of two climbers just finishing the first pitch. Yelling up and down we ascertained their plan. It was basically the same as ours. They were planning to fix four pitches today using two 70 meter ropes (one of which they would throw to the ground after ascending it in the morning) and leave before dawn tomorrow to try to make it to Big Sandy. This was mostly disappointing because we worried they would be slower than us and cause us to get to Big Sandy in the dark. Worse, Big Sandy really only sleeps two people semi-comfortably. Not four. Nothing we could do about it though. I suggested they fix pitch 5 too and that we fix pitches 1-3, then they could leave before us and get out a couple of pitches ahead of us. Instead they suggested that we fix pitches 5 and 6 and then ascend their ropes up pitches 1-4 just before them in the morning. I liked the idea of being ahead of them. It eliminated the risk of them dropping rocks on us and slowing us down. It also meant we could grab the prime sleeping spots at Big Sandy. So we agreed to their plan and started up the route at 2:30 pm behind them. As we got to know Doug and Brian over the next couple of days, we were more than happy to share the route with them.
Christian and I figured we’d just alternate leads today for these first six pitches. I had the first lead. It starts out 5.8 so I free climbed that. Then the top half is 5.10c, so I whipped out the aiders and worked up 4 or 5 moves on gear before getting out of the aiders and finishing the pitch free. Christian jugged up behind me with the pig. We decided we’d carry 10 liters of water and all of our food that would go up the climb and leave it with the climbing gear at our high point for the day. It would be less weight to jug with in the morning.
After jugging up pitch 1, Christian took off from the belay leading the second pitch. It quickly became 5.9, but it was tough and he was already tired from jugging the first pitch with that big pack. He also resorted to aiding a few moves on the pitch. We figured nobody can free climb the route in its current state so pretty much anything goes. No big deal. Just because some people can climb this pitch free doesn’t mean we have to. After jugging up the second pitch I took the third pitch. It was only 5.8, so I free climbed it. Christian looked a bit tired when he got there. Just jugging was a lot of hard work.
We had come to our first mandatory aid section. The fourth pitch begins with a steep crack in a roof that was way too hard for either of us to free climb on our best day. Christian aid climbed his way up. After the roof he aided through a few bolts (a “bolt ladder”) to a crack. The crack was rated 5.10a, but it was really hard for Christian in his current state after hours of steep approaching and several pitches of climbing and jugging already. He soon resorted back to aiding, but it was slow going and the sun was dropping rapidly. We knew we had to start our next day before 4 am and it was almost 7 pm (and would be dark in an hour).He calls down to me and says “I give up, I’m going to ascend their fixed line.” He finished the last 20 feet of the pitch with his ascenders. What did he mean, “I give up”? I didn’t know, but worried our climb may be over before it had even really started.
I jugged up, cleaning the pitch. At the top it was 7 pm, an hour of daylight left. Quickly fixing a few pitches and then having a relaxing evening watching the sunset was now out of the question. Fixing pitches 5 and 6 was now out of the question. It was time for a heart to heart.
“What do you mean by ‘I give up'? Are we going home?”
We discussed our options for a few minutes. I said that if we quit now I was probably never coming back to do this route. If we left gear and ropes here, we were at least committing to getting up at 3:30 am to jug back up here before Doug and Brian to get our stuff. No, it turned out that all Christian meant was that he was done leading that pitch right now and figured we better get down and get some rest. He was still stoked to do the route.
So we clipped a camelback full of food, two liters of water, and our dynamic rope to the anchor, fixed our static rope down the fourth pitch (so we could wait on the larger ledge at the top of the third pitch while the other party passed us in the morning), and rappelled down their two ropes back to the ground, arriving shortly before the sun set. Counting all of the approaching and five hours on the rock, we had already done a full day of climbing and we were still on the ground. That was a little humbling. Either the free climbing was harder than we expected or we were weaker than we expected. We’re now almost half a century old. I’ve got a kid older than I was when I started climbing seriously. Maybe we’re not 5.9/5.10 climbers any more. I confessed to Doug and Brian that we had learned two things today. # 1, we’re not as fast as they are and # 2 this was going to be a lot harder for us than we expected. We had barely managed to get through pitch 4 and didn’t even think about doing 5 and 6.
Knowing we would need to be up at 3:30 am in order to jug the lines up to the top of pitch three before they hit the lines at 4:30, we hurried through dinner and got into bed.
I hear leaking air just as I was climbing into bed. My lightweight inflatable pad is leaking. Not just a pinhole, but a gash. I try to tape it, but it still doesn’t hold air. My wife is going to be so mad at me for destroying her pad that I borrowed. Worse, I’ll now be sleeping on the ground without a pad for a minimum of two nights (actually three as you will soon see). As if I wasn’t having enough trouble sleeping as it is. As I attempted to sleep I made the decision to leave the now useless pad on the ground and take my sleeping bag instead.
The alarm goes off at 3:30. I put my warm layers and hat on, crawl out of bed, and fire up the stove for our last hot meal. I have granola and hot chocolate. Christian has a breakfast skillet. I finish packing the pig, put on my harness and shoes, and start jugging the line on schedule at 4:15 while Christian wanders off to leave one last deposit on the ground.
By the top of the third pitch I’ve got a problem that I’ve never had before. My brachioradialis muscles are cramping on both sides. Those are the prominent muscles at the top of your forearm, just below your biceps. When the cramps hit, I am literally incapacitated. How can I possibly climb for the next two days if I’m starting like this? Christian reveals he has the same problem. They seem to get better after some rest and jugging a little slower without pulling so hard with my arms. It’s pitch black. It’s cold and I’m now soaking wet with sweat as we wait for Doug and Brian to pass us by. We can only see a few lights in the valley in the distance as no tourists have yet awoken. I now have serious doubts about our ability to do this climb. However, ultrarunners have a saying: “Never quit before dawn.” It’s good advice. We are solar powered creatures and with dawn came a new burst of energy and motivation.
Doug and Brian are soon up pitch 5 and I start leading behind them. It’s 5.9. I aid through the 4 or 5 hardest moves, but do it quickly enough Christian didn’t even realize I was aiding. Our plan for today was to lead in blocks. I would lead pitches 5-7, then Christian would lead pitches 8-11. I would lead 12-14, and he would take us to Big Sandy by finishing 15-17. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy and our plans would soon change as well. When Christian arrives at the belay, I take off leading again on pitch 6. I’m mostly free climbing, with occasional pulling on a piece. But at least it feels like I belong on the route. At this point, we’re still right behind Doug and Brian. They are both from Oakland. Doug is the stronger free climber, so he will be leading the free pitches. Brian has more big wall experience, so he’ll be doing the aid pitches. I asked Brian about the big walls he had done and was intimidated to hear a list of climbs I had never even considered doing.
I laid down on the ledge at the top of pitch 6 while Christian was jugging. The top of pitch 6 is the largest ledge on the route aside from Big Sandy. While only one person could sleep there (and not comfortably) I was glad to get off my feet. Upon his arrival, we restacked the ropes, reracked the gear, and I took off leading pitch 7. I get to a “5.8 bulge” and after two attempts, am unable to free climb over it. Maybe I’m getting weaker as I get older. Or maybe it’s just fatigue from the exertions of the previous 24 hours. Or perhaps it is harder to climb with a heavy camelback, a huge rack, and aiders dangling around my legs than I expected. Or maybe Robbins et al had sandbagged us. Either way, I find myself aiding on 5.8 terrain. Humbling. This was one of the three or four easiest pitches on the route. This can’t be good. Christian arrived at the top of pitch 7. It was his turn to take over leading. He swapped his approach shoes for climbing shoes and began leading a traversing pitch that was supposed to be fourth class. After he leads the next two “easy” pitches I will simply climb with the pig rather than jug. He is going slower than I expected. When he comes back into view, he is clearly off route.
“That’s not where Doug and Brian went. Go back into the gully and go higher!”
Going Sideways on the Robbins Traverse
He goes back out of sight and finds the correct belay. It won't be the last time we get temporarily off route. Doug and Brian have slowed as they encounter the first traversing aid pitch so they're not very far ahead of us. Christian arrives at the top of another traversing pitch shortly after they leave the belay at the top of pitch 9. This pitch was mostly fourth class, but with one 5.9+ move near the belay. Christian aids it. I jug past it.
The initial part of the route feels as though it isn’t on the face of Half Dome at all, but on a large buttress on its left. The last two traversing pitches, however, have brought us onto the face itself. We’re on a foot wide ledge with 800 feet of air between us and last night’s camp. It’s now time to do the Robbins Traverse, or at least what is left of it after that 200 feet of rock fell off the route in 2015.
Christian leads up and right on a bolt ladder before penduluming (swinging on the rope while I hold the other end of it) to a belay at the top of pitch 10. I follow with the ascenders. It is tricky to get the carabiners off of the bolts while weighting the rope, so I have to remove my top ascender from the rope and replace it on the rope above the carabiner and then reweight it to get my weight off the carabiner so it can be removed. That still leaves me two attachment points to the rope, the other ascender and the “microtraxion” device attached to my harness. Doug and Brian aren’t moving much faster than we are, but they aren’t holding us up either. It’s nice to not be alone up here. It’s scary enough as it is. However, I glance ahead to see Brian using a “cheater stick”, a 6 foot extendable pole which he can use to clip a carabiner onto a piece of protection far above his head. We don’t have a cheater stick. Do we need a cheater stick? I didn’t see that in any of the route descriptions. I hope it’s just a luxury and not mandatory gear.
Meanwhile, Christian continues the Robbins traverse on Pitch 11. He clips two pieces and then peers around the corner. The pitch is rated 5.10a or C2. Christian says there’s no gear. There is no crevice that he can reach into which he can place any of the gear we have with us. I suggest maybe he try to pendulum over to some holds and see if he can free climb from there. He tries twice, but cannot get to a useable hold.
“I can’t do it. You should try, you’re better with gear. Maybe you can get something in that I can’t.”
Aaaargh! It’s a huge waste of time to switch leaders, but he comes back over to the tiny belay ledge (really just a stance, but that beats hanging completely in our harnesses) and we rearrange everything. I take over on the “sharp end” of the rope. I get to where he had been and immediately saw why it was such a problem. No, there was no way to aid through this. We would have to free climb. But better holds were just a few feet away. I would try the pendulum to get to them, but this time would anchor the rope right at the piece rather than from the two foot sling below it. Longer arms and a higher start allow me to find success. I swing out and find a handhold and pull myself onto a foothold. I jam a cam into a pocket and start to climb. Yes, it’s 5.10a, but I can climb 5.10a and besides, what other choice did we have? At this point reversing pitch 10 would have been extremely difficult. If we were not completely committed to going to the top of the face now, we soon would be.
A combination of free and aid climbing led me to the top of pitch 11. I now stood at the base of pitch 12, a blank expanse of rock with a line of a dozen bolts running up and right, the first one six feet above my head. How am I going to reach that? How could someone have even drilled that? When Christian arrived he suggested I simply top step my aiders and that it would definitely be easier for me (being taller) than for him. Sure enough, I managed to reach the bolt and without even using the very top step. Over and over again I repeated the sequence. Climb the aider. Put a “quickdraw” (two carabiners attached by a short piece of webbing) onto the next bolt. Clip my harness to the bolt. Place the next aider. Attach the rope to the quickdraw. Step into the new aider. Remove the old aider from the last bolt. I climbed higher and higher.
After what seemed like a dozen of these bolts, each of them 5 or 6 feet higher than the last, I had run out of bolts. There was a long six inch wide ledge down and to my right, across a vast expanse of blank rock. It was time for a “penji”, or pendulum move. Removing my aiders and webbing from the bolt, my only attachment to the wall was the rope running back through the quickdraws to Christian. Christian lowered me down 10 or 15 feet. I then “ran” to the left as far as I could before swinging back to the right to try to grasp the very left edge of the ledge. I didn’t make it, and fell back down onto the rope. I had Christian lower me a little further and tried again. Still can’t get there. I’m going to have to swing harder. After a quick rest hanging on the rope, I go as far to the left as I possible can before careening back to the right and I barely get my right hand onto the ledge. My left hand quickly follows, but there are no footholds. I have to do a “hand traverse” for a few moves until the ledge gets a little wider and I slam a cam into a crack behind the ledge. The ledge is perhaps 10-12 inches wide now. I “mantle” (think about pulling yourself up onto the mantle of your fireplace) onto the ledge and stand up. There are no handholds. I am simply leaning into the rock and slowly shuffling my feet along the ledge. I eventually reach the base of a corner and a stance where I can belay. I’m only halfway up pitch 12, but I don’t have enough gear to do the rest of the pitch. We must belay here. Christian cleans the pitch, doing two lower outs where I did the pendulum and the hand traverse/mantle/ledge walk. We are now fully committed to the route. Maybe we could have reversed pitch 10. Perhaps we could have even reversed pitch 11. There is no way we can reverse pitch 12. We’re halfway up a 2000 foot face. Our ropes are only 200 feet long. There is overhanging terrain below and besides, we have no idea if there are enough anchors below us to facilitate arriving safely back on the ground even if it wasn't too overhanging to rappel off. We must go to the top.
On New Terrain
I rerack the gear and start up the corner that Royal Robbins never climbed. It is now the only way to get to the chimney pitches that will lead us to Big Sandy ledge.
It is rated 5.11c and C2. From 2015 until recently, it was completed by aiding up the crack in the corner and then after clipping a bolt at the top, throwing a big knot of rope across a 20 foot expanse to lodge it in the crack on the other side. The belayer then lowered you out and you jugged up to the ledge at the bottom of the chimney pitches. Even for aid climbers, this was a crazy move, but it was how the route was done. Thankfully, a few months before we did the route, somebody came along and put in a few bolts to replace the rope throw. Nobody has ever free climbed this section of the climb. I doubt even Alex Honnold could do it. But at least it is now easily and safely aided. Another of the hardest and scariest aid pitches was now behind us.
The Chimney Pitches
Our goal had been to get into the chimney pitches before the sun hit the route at 2 pm. I checked my phone for the first time in hours. It wasn’t 2 pm. It was 6 pm. Where did the time go? We had been so focused on the technical difficulties in front of us that the day was nearly gone. We had made it past our turn around point (top of pitch 9 by 11 am) without difficulty, but pitches 10-12 had somehow then eaten up 7 hours of the day.
I turned the sharp end over to Christian. I told him, “The next two pitches in this chimney are 5.7. We need you to free climb them, free climb them quickly with a minimum of protection, and to run both pitches (100 feet and 70 feet) together into one pitch.” It was a big ask, but I had faith. Too much faith it turned out. I’ve been climbing with Christian for a quarter of a century and I’ve never seen him struggle on a 5.7. It might have been the hardest 5.7 we’ve ever seen. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that we had been climbing hard for two full days already. It was no longer a question of whether we were going to reach Big Sandy in the daylight or not. It was a question of how many pitches we would be climbing in the dark to get there. I figured it was better to do one in the dark rather than two or three.
Christian led his way up the chimney. It was slow going. While he managed to free climb it, it didn’t happen quickly and took a great deal of protection and several instances of hanging on the gear. He tried to run the pitches together, but found the second one particularly challenging. You could go deep into the chimney where it was quite narrow but a bit more secure. This was 5.9. Or you could stay further out where it felt much less secure but was technically easier at stout 5.7.
30 feet up the second of the two pitches, he just couldn’t do it. He climbed back down and set up an uncomfortable belay at a stance and I jugged up. It was now 8 pm. It was dark, particularly deep in this chimney. We pulled the headlamps out of the pack and put them on. I couldn’t pass Christian to take over the lead in the narrow chimney. I couldn’t even take the pig off my back. I gave Christian a pep talk.
“You can do this. It’s well within your ability. It’s no harder than lots of the canyoneering we have done. I can see a piton up there about 30 feet. Aim for that.”
Whether it was my fantastic pep talk, or simply the realization that there was literally no other option, he started leading again, this time without that extra 100 feet of rope drag. It was touch and go for a while, but he eventually made it. Talking to Doug the next morning, he thought this runout, airy chimney section was the hardest free climbing on the route.
Personally, I was sure happy to hear the rope was fixed. I was worried jugging would be harder in the chimney. It was actually easier because I could rest the pig against the wall as I went. We were now at the top of pitch 14. We had one more chimney pitch. It was 5.9, but looked easily aidable. Christian surmounted the challenge through a combination of aid and free climbing.
The Mishaps Begin
As I jugged up pitch 15, I discovered that a loop of rope below me had become caught in a crack down in the abyss. Christian tried to take the blame but it was surely my own fault for being careless. After reaching the top of pitch 15 and stowing the pig, I rappelled back down the line, freed the rope, and jugged back up. So much easier without the pig on my back. I asked Christian if he could lead one more. He agreed.
But we weren’t really sure where to go. The topo showed that we go straight up on “loose 5.9” then step right onto a ledge in 100 feet. Straight up was not an option. But a gradually steepening corner did run right and upward for seemingly forever. I mean, it went out of sight of my headlamp even at its maximum setting. The topo talked about “slinging a horn” to make it safer for the follower and I thought I could make out a horn halfway up this corner system that looked like about 100 feet in the dark. I encouraged Christian to go up there and check it out. When he arrived at “my” horn, he found nothing but a sheer wall around the corner. While he couldn’t see it, it was a sheer drop from there to the ground 150 stories below. That was clearly not the route. We weren’t really sure where the route was to be honest. But the only doable option was to continue up the “loose 5.9” and see if that horn and ledge were at the top of it. That certainly looked like more than 100 feet.
The pile of rope at my feet was rapidly disappearing. Then there was a flicker. Christian’s headlamp had just clicked off and back on again. For a headlamp, this is the equivalent of the low fuel warning light on your car. You’re not out of gas, but you’re going to run out at any moment. I had a spare headlamp in the pig, but that’s now more than 100 feet below Christian who is attempting to free and aid climb on terribly loose blocks after midnight with 1500 feet of air below him. We’ve been moving today now for 20 hours. We’ve been trying to hydrate and eat as best we can, which wasn't that good. If that light goes out he’s not going to be able to do anything but hang on the rope and I will have to ascend the rope and bring him light. I start thinking about how hard it would be for Yosemite Search and Rescue to get to where we are. YOSAR may be the most technically skilled search and rescue team in the world, but if we call them at midnight their response is going to be “call back at 6 am.” We might be dead of exposure at 6 am if we’re still in the same place we are now. Certainly we would be incapable of assisting in our own rescue by that point. I said a little prayer. “Please God let him get to that belay before the light fails.” It is much more challenging to climb with the headlamp on its low setting, but he manages. This is the first time he becomes the hero of this climb. At the top of the corner is a horn, a slopey ledge, and the belay at the top of pitch 16. I jug up, feeling very thankful. I give him the spare headlamp from the pack.
“Do you want to keep leading or are you psychologically wasted?”
He’s done. Frankly, I am too. This is no longer fun. Sure, the first 12 hours were fantastic.
“We’re on Half Dome! This is awesome.”
We’re overcoming obstacles and making progress. But that first 12 hours are now 9 hours in the rear view mirror. We don’t want to admit it to each other, but we’re both terrified and exhausted. I take over the lead. Pitch 17 involves downclimbing 50 feet down a corner before starting up a crack system called the “Double Cracks” and labeled “Fun!” on the topo. Once I get down there I realize the insanity of trying to safely belay me from where Christian is at. I tell him we will have to move the belay. I set up another one and belay him down. It’s like a whole other pitch. Instead of 17 pitches to Big Sandy, it is now 19 counting when I divided pitch 12 into two. 20 if you count the fact that we both led on pitch 11. As I belay Christian down, I realize this ledge really isn’t all that small. It’s pretty flat, it has good anchors, and it’s almost 2 feet wide. It’s 1 am. If we keep climbing, there isn’t going to be much night left to sleep in. Plus, my headlamp just gave its warning flicker too! I try to talk Christian into spending the night here. He’s not interested. I’m really worried that we do not have the light to keep going until dawn, but Christian points out that only the leader needs a really good headlamp. The follower will probably be fine with the two headlamps that are now into stoppage time.
Nobody Actually Wants to Have an Adventure
Adventurers like Christian and I love the outdoors. We go climbing, backpacking, rafting, and canyoneering. We say we love adventure, but in reality no adventurer actually wants an adventure. You see, an adventure is what you get when things don’t go according to plan. We certainly did not plan to be climbing for 24 hours straight today. Too slow. Too many mishaps. Maybe we had bitten off more than we can chew. If we weren’t in over our head, the water was certainly lapping up against our nostrils.
I reluctantly start leading pitch 17. The first twenty feet is a very wide 20 foot tall 5.9 crack. Only our largest cam can protect it, but with only one I will need to mostly free climb. I find a spot to get a smaller cam in, allowing me to move the big one up nearly to the top. I get out the top of the crack, clip a piton, and move right into another crack. It’s 5.9, but I’m in no shape to free climb 5.9 right now so I go on aiding, alternating our next two largest cams for 25 more feet. The crack comes to an end. I realize I’ve forgotten to clip the static line through the first two pieces on the pitch. In my sleep deprived, exhausted, and terrified state, I was thinking only of getting myself up this pitch, not how Christian was going to clean it. While the free climbing above this crack seems doable, I’m really not in the mood. I see another crack over to the right and work my way there, circumventing the free climbing section. Now I am faced with a thin crack going up another 30 feet to a ledge. Surely that’s the only way to go I think without really looking around. It looks a lot harder than 5.9, but everything looks harder than 5.9 right now. It does look like C1 and I’m confident I can aid it. If I had taken the time to carefully examine the topo at that point, I would have noticed a little notation there that says “5.11+ No!”
But I didn’t. As I neared the ledge, I heard a voice. Down and to my right were two figures in sleeping bags mumbling something I could not make out. It was Doug and Brian on Big Sandy Ledge. Below me! That can’t be good I thought. If they’re on Big Sandy, where am I? Luckily, once I pulled onto the ledge I was able to climb across and down onto Big Sandy and fix the rope for Christian. This was the second time we had been off route.
The End of the 24 Hour Day
What little sleep they had gotten already that night was mostly ruined by Christian and I shouting to each other, shining headlamps all over the place, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves. Their climb was going according to plan. They had arrived at Big Sandy at 6:30 pm and even had time to fix pitch 18 above it. We were the ones having an epic. Christian was having a hard time cleaning the pitch (because I had failed to clip the static rope to all of the pieces.) He ended up leaving our largest cam behind. I hardly cared. I was falling asleep sitting on the ledge waiting for him to get up there just as he had been falling asleep belaying me. Doug graciously offered to give up his prime sleeping spot for what remained of the night. I will be forever grateful for this sacrifice. While they say Big Sandy can sleep 3 or even 4 climbers, in reality it only sleeps 2 in any sort of comfortable way. I took Doug up on his offer. He was probably done sleeping anyway. Dawn was only 2 hours away by the time I climbed into my sleeping bag and bivy bag. I didn’t even dare use the inflatable pillow I had brought lest it fall off the ledge. As it was, I slept in my harness tied into the wall and clipped everything into the wall. Every stuff sack. Every shoe. Even my bivy bag. I don’t know how much sleep I got. Maybe 45 minutes. Most of the night was spent dealing with cramps everywhere. Back. Legs. Arms. Neck. But it was wonderful to be horizontal instead of vertical for 3 hours.
Big Sandy is a pretty special place over 1500 feet off the ground and just a few hundred feet below the Visor of Half Dome.
By 7 am, Doug and Brian were getting up and readying themselves for the day. Christian was nowhere to be seen. All I could see where I thought he was sleeping was a stuff sack sitting on the ledge. Where was Christian? had he fallen off in his sleep deprived state? I asked Doug and Brian.
Neither had any idea.
It turned out Christian had climbed back up onto the ledge at the top of that 5.11+ crack and tried to sleep there. He didn’t have a sleeping bag and so wasn’t entirely warm. He also discovered that his pad was quite slippery and both he and the pad were constantly threatening to slide off the slopey ledge. He probably didn’t get any more sleep than I did.
Shortly after dawn there was a huge crash below us. Rockfall! There were massive amounts of stone tumbling off of one of the subpeaks of Half Dome below us. Dust and dirt and rocks and boulders were crashing everywhere. It went on for a minute or two before stopping, reminding us all that the mountains are a dynamic place.
While Christian started gathering up his things, I rappelled back down pitch 17, retrieved the cam (worried we would need it higher), and jugged back up. By this time Doug and Brian had jugged up their fixed line and were working on pitch 19.
I Hate Climbing
I was not feeling good. I no longer had any desire to climb anything. I was more than happy to just jug to the top of the wall and be done. I asked Christian if he felt like leading. He quickly agreed. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the way my face looked. Or because as scary as leading may be, it beats sitting there belaying becoming increasingly demoralized as the hours tick by and then having to jug with the pig. But whatever it was, in this moment Christian became the hero of the climb for the second time.
He started up Pitch 18 at 8:36 am. Surely we would be on the summit a mere 6 pitches away by mid afternoon. Pitches 18-20 are known as the Zig Zags. 100 feet, 120 feet, and 40 feet long, and are the slowest and most difficult climbing on the route for most people. As a free climb, they are rated 5.12a. As an aid climb, they are C2. We would climb them in full “aid mode.” It seemed like Christian was leading very slowly (it always seems like that when you are belaying an aid climber). So slow that I wondered if I would rather be doing the leading. It was lonely sitting there on Big Sandy. Doug and Brian were gone. Christian was gone. I was glad to be able to sit down, but I was falling asleep doing so, despite 200 mg of caffeine coursing through my veins. I worried I would not catch Christian should he fall, so I started tying knots periodically in the rope below my belay device, just in case. Christian finally arrived at the belay stance and I quickly cleaned the pitch. It was close to noon. I asked if he felt like leading another (and hoped he would say yet). It would have been a mess to switch leaders on this tiny, uncomfortable, mostly hanging stance. To my eternal gratitude, he agreed, but he wasn’t going any faster than the prior pitch. In fact, he was probably slower.
Another climber came on to Big Sandy ledge from below. He looked extremely confident. His partner rapidly joined him. They sat down, whipped out a stove, and brewed up some hot lunch. It was barely noon. They had already done the approach and the 17 pitches that took us almost 30 hours to do and the day was only half over. We had done one pitch while they had done 17! They were like the old Army slogan:
“We get more done before 9 am than most people do all day.”
These guys were getting it done! Meanwhile, Christian continued slowly leading. He got off route (our third time) and found himself in a desperate situation from which he could no longer climb upward, even on aid. He was forced to be lowered off a fixed piece of gear (he clearly had not been the only person to have made that particular routefinding mistake), and accidentally fixed one of our cams as well. Once he lowered back to a prior piece back on route, he clipped into that, pulled the rope, and tied in again to start upward again. His final move into a belay stance just as lousy as the one I was on was a pendulum off a ratty old piece of webbing faded from years in the sun. He fixed the rope and I cleared out of the belay to give space to the more talented folks now stuck behind us.
By this point the first of the two climbers behind us was hanging on gear next to me. It turned out they were two climbing and canyoneering guides from Moab. They were on day 17 of a quest to climb 20 of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America in 20 days. This most difficult climb of my life was just another day in their life. Tomorrow’s objective? The Nose on El Capitan. Typically done in 4-6 days, they were planning to do it in a single day. The RNWF is only the 10th of the classics that I had done in my entire life. They had done more than that in the last two weeks. Watching them climb was like watching a vertical ballet. No wasted motion. No time spent thinking. Simul-climbing together they were seemingly moving 10 times as fast as we were. It was beautiful. The leader had just climbed this route 3 weeks ago. He said it took him 16 hours then, but they expected to be much faster today as he knew the route better and had a better partner. It was actually very encouraging to be around other climbers. By this point, Doug and Brian had completed the Zig Zags and were long gone.
Christian finally completed pitch 19 and fixed the line. I started jugging. Halfway up the pitch, I found myself falling briefly before coming to an abrupt halt.
“What was that!?”
It seems the ratty old sling on the pendulum had broken with all my bouncing up and down on it jugging with my 200 lbs, 20 lbs of climbing gear, and the 40 lb pig. I felt lucky that the rope had held. Static rope isn’t designed to catch falls, but hold it did and so did the ascenders and microtraxion attaching me to the rope. I think this is the explanation for the bruises on the inside of my legs from where my harness caught me.
Upon arriving at the top of the pitch, I found the locking carabiner holding the static line was not even locked. Christian was making mistakes too. I locked the biner myself (“guess we should probably lock this”) without looking at Christian. What would be the benefit of saying more? It's not like I didn't make any mistakes (sticking a rope and failing to clip the static line into pieces the night before). We had forty more feet (pitch 20) of the Zig Zags. There was no way for the party behind us to pass and no way for me to take over leading out of this terrible belay stance. Christian had to keep going.
Pitch 20 was a little easier. I told him that according to trip reports there were two ledges up there and he should pick the best one, but if they were the same, take the top one as it had a better angle of Thank God Ledge. When he finally got situated and I jugged up, I realized he had thought that Thank God Ledge itself was the “upper belay ledge.” He had perched himself precariously on the near end of Thank God Ledge. He was on neither of the two normal belay ledges. There was no way we were going to be able to switch into rock shoes up there much less switch leaders. We weren’t going to be able to let the speed demons behind us get by either. We had to move the belay back down 10 feet, which consumed a bit more time and effort. I set up a new belay and started restacking the ropes. Christian rappelled back down, got situated, and we put on our free climbing shoes in preparation for the next pitches.
Thank God Ledge
I offered to let the guides by with a caveat, that they fix our static rope up the crux chimney at the end of Thank God Ledge.
Cheating? Sure. No different than Christian jugging Doug and Brian’s line on pitch 4. Or aid climbing in any form really. At this point, all I cared about was getting to the top before dark, not that our style was somehow better than anyone else's. It was already 5 pm. Christian had heroically spent 8 ½ hours on the sharp end doing the Zig Zag cracks. The last 6 pitches of the RNWF are generally considered to be about as hard as the first 17, but we had spent almost the whole day on just the first three of them. Now we had just an hour a pitch if we were going to finish by dark. I was not really thrilled to be climbing at all and I was super grateful I didn’t have to lead any of the Zig Zags, but I figured it was my turn to lead and thought I could move a lot faster up these three pitches than Christian could after spending an entire working day on the sharp end already. Who knew how much longer our headlamps would last if we were caught on the face in the dark again? To make matters worse, we could see it was raining a few miles away in Tuolumne and every now and then a gray cloud would come over us and release a few drops of rain. Even the guides did not want to be on slippery pitches 22 and 23 in the rain. We figured we would all get to the summit faster (and they could get off so they could sleep before El Capitan the next day) if they went ahead and fixed our line. As soon as they had, I started leading across Thank God Ledge (Pitch 21) and they started leading Pitch 22.
I had been dreaming (nightmaring?) about Thank God Ledge for months, if not years. It is a legendary place for climbers.
However, it goes really quickly. First you walk. Then you crawl. Then eventually, you climb down off the ledge and hand traverse for a few moves before throwing your right leg back onto the ledge and eventually climbing back up, crawling some more, and then standing up and walking. By the time I was walking again, I had reached the fixed line. I attached my ascenders, took a picture back across the ledge, and hurriedly jugged up the chimney, skipping perhaps the hardest mandatory free climbing on the route.
Christian now had to do the same thing, but this time wearing the pig. While it was lighter now (we had been eating and drinking even if maybe not as much as we should have), crossing Thank God Ledge was definitely harder for him than me especially now that I didn’t have to actually climb the crux chimney. By the time he was situated in the belay below pitch 22, their second climber was cleaning 22 and it was 6 pm.
Pitches 22 and 23
Pitch 22 is another major challenge on the route. Rated 5.12c or C2, it was the location of Alex Honnold’s near freak out moment. It is a mostly traversing 90 foot pitch that, like Thank God Ledge, helps climbers to skirt the Visor. And we needed to lead it and clean it in one hour in order to be able to do the last pitch before dark (and hope it didn’t start raining). I was now speed aiding, as quickly as I could go. Someone had left a long length of some tiny little cord (5 mm?) tied to the first line of bolts. I wasn’t going to complain. I free climbed over to it and put my ascender on it, figuring it would probably hold body weight. Between the cord and the bolts, I quickly worked my way to the top of a column of three bolts. From here there was another bolt about 12 feet above me that would allow me to pendulum to another line of bolts 20 feet away, but getting to it looked impossible. The guide offered me the solution. If I tension traversed hard out to the left from the bolt I was on, I could reach a line of tiny pockets into which I could insert tiny cams and eventually get out to the bolts.
While a pendulum is a dynamic, exciting move, a tension traverse is a static technique requiring careful coordination between climber and belayer. Again, the aid climber is attached to the wall only with the climbing rope. As Christian lowered me I pushed as far left as I could with my feet on anything resembling a hold that I could find. 12 feet out, I saw the first of these tiny pockets. I fumbled with the rack trying to find the right size cam, but could not do it. I fell, swinging back over below the bolts. Pulling myself back up the rope to the top bolt, I got the necessary cams readily accessible and we tried again. This time I was able to shove a cam into a pocket in a way that it would at least hold my body weight. I clipped to it and put the aider on it. Reaching over, I did the same thing into another pocket, and then a third. High stepping in my aider on that third cam, I was able to reach the other line of bolts.
I rapidly ascended those and now I could see the next belay, but I could not pendulum there from this bolt. However, there was a fixed nut about 12 feet above me. If I could get there, maybe I could pendulum over to the belay ledge. How could I cross this 12 foot chasm of blank rock? Maybe I could free climb it. Alex Honnold did, right? But wait, there was a tiny crack 6 feet up on the left. It wasn’t big enough or properly shaped to put a stopper or a cam in it, but I bet If I got up really high in my aider I could place a hook on it. I did. It seemed to hold. I attached another aider to the hook and climbed into it. I worked my way to the top of that aider and voila! I was able to clip into that stopper. From there, I could see a line of holds extending 15 feet to the left where the belay was. Free climbing seemed easier than a pendulum, so off I went and soon was at the belay. Christian cleaned like he was escaping a burning house, doing two lower outs on the way over.
We were now at the base of pitch 23. The top was so close we could smell it. It was 7 pm. The sun was low. This pitch was mandatory free climbing, but only 5.8. This was the sort of thing I had done many times before, but with a large rack, pulling two ropes, and after two near sleepless nights and almost 41 hours of climbing, it still seemed a big ask. I frictioned my way up a blank face until I was under the far left end of the visor. Traversing on undercling holds and pasting the sticky rubber on my feet onto nothings I made my way across this 5.8 slab. I went around a corner, mantled up onto a couple of ledges, traversed around a bit on ledges and I was there, on the summit just as the sun dropped below the horizon. It was an emotional moment. With tears in my eyes I was grateful to be off that face. I fixed the line and Christian worked his way up as the darkness closed in, determined not to need his headlamp before the top.
Instead of arriving to clapping hordes of tourists offering food and water, we were on the summit alone, discovering that we had carried a gallon too much water and almost twice as much food as we ate. We guzzled as much as we could and even poured out a liter that we thought we would not need on the “one hour” hike back to camp. By the time we had everything stowed in the packs, changed shoes, ate and drank, it was pitch black. We wandered around a bit, found the cables, and worked our way down, amazed as always that regular people come up this terrifying route we have never actually ascended.
The route description for the return to the base of the climb, where our stove, freeze dried meals, backpacking packs, and Christian’s sleeping bag were waiting is to simply follow the base of the cliff once you come off the Subdome.
It turns out that was a lot harder to do than we thought when it is pitch black and you’re really only working with one fully functional headlamp. 9:00 comes. Then 10:00. We’re clearly not on a trail. I’m pulling out my GPS Gaia app trying to figure out where we are and which direction we need to go, but my phone battery is almost dead despite keeping it on airplane mode for most of the last 3 days. We’re still higher than our campsite and only a few hundred feet away, but there is no pathway to get us there. We resort to the classic technique of struggling. We are now bushwhacking through steep terrain. Not just walking through Manzanita bushes, but actually walking on top of them. We fall. We get up. We fall again. We fall over small cliffs. We try to stay close together, but also try to efficiently find our way. We get into a disagreement. Gaia clearly shows that we need to descend more to get to camp. However, Christian is convinced that we need to get back to the base of the cliff above us and that the only way to do that is to go up, which is almost impossible in the thick manzanita. He even pulls up pictures of the face of Half Dome on the internet to show that there is no brush right against the base and thus we must be too low, not too high. I am convinced. He becomes the hero of the route for this third time. It is now 10:35 pm. I agree to keep bushwhacking for 25 more minutes. Then we’re going to find the flattest space we can and bivy again and sort it out in the daylight.
Christian was right. It was a struggle, but once we got to the base of the cliff we found a crude climber’s path and quickly made our way down to the base of the route, the spring, and our humble camp. There were no other climbers there. I collected water from the spring and started the stove and Christian stumbled in a few minutes later. The skin that was left by the climb had been taken by the Manzanita. I had freeze-dried lasagna. I think it might have been the greatest meal I have ever had. It was so good. I brushed my teeth, having not even bothered the night before. I also found my way to a cathole. Despite carrying two wag bags, neither of us had used one on the wall over the course of two days. Then I laid down on the ground again, sans pad, and slept for eight hours.
We awoke at 7:30 am to the sounds of two Europeans attempting to get up the first pitch of the RNWF. As we broke camp, we noticed their struggles. First the leader started in the wrong place and had to come back down and start again. Then the second had serious difficulty following. He didn’t even have an aid ladder to help him jug. In fact, it looked like he had never actually jugged at all. There was no way they were going to do this climb in a day starting that late and with such incompetence. But we weren’t going to stick around to see what happened. I suspect we saw them climb the only pitch they were going to climb that day. While I felt sorry about the suffering ahead of them if they continued on, I did feel a little better that we weren’t the least capable party to ever attempt the RNWF.
After our encounter with the Manzanita, going back up to the Subdome and taking the tourist trail was out of the question. That meant we had to descend the Death Slabs. By the time we were halfway up the Death Slabs 3 days earlier, I had serious doubts about whether I wanted to go back down that way. However, it now seemed the best of the bad options to get home. After a few brief moments of being off route again in the Manzanita, we walked, climbed, slid, and rappelled back down the Death Slabs. The preferred descent route involves one longer rappel in order to skip three fixed lines and some sketchy climbing done on the way up. The long rappel does require the rappeler to pass a knot on the way down as it involves two ropes tied together. No problem, we knew how to do that. Unfortunately, Christian dropped his rappel device as he was passing the knot. It tumbled down out of site into a place we did not want to go to look for it. No big deal as there are several ways to deal with this problem. I attached my device to the rope, he pulled it up, and he finished the rappel. However, the dropped gear reminded us of just how much could have gone wrong during the whole climb. We definitely dropped gear. We dropped a carabiner and a couple of stoppers (both of which we found while hiking out the next morning.) We “fixed” a stopper and a cam. But what if we had dropped something critical up on the wall? An aider? A shoe? A critical piece of protection? The pig itself? It would not have taken much to have put us into serious jeopardy.
We continued down the fourth class climbing and rappels. Climbing down is always harder than climbing up, especially with heavy packs. But we eventually made it down to the tourist trail we had left 3 days earlier. One man we passed said,
“I don’t know what you’ve done, but I can tell from your faces that it was a big deal.”
and gave us high fives. He was right. It was a big deal what we had done.
Another family stopped us and asked if we were the ones on the wall two nights ago.
“We certainly were!”
They pulled out a phone and showed us a picture of our headlamps 3/4 of the way up the wall. I gave them my email and they sent this picture:
We plodded along for a couple of miles and were almost back to the car at Curry Village. 0.4 miles away according to the sign when a shuttle bus pulled up. We jumped on, thinking, “Of course it’ll stop at Curry Village.” Nope. It drove right past. Our final mishap, and completely my fault. In fact, we spent the next hour on the shuttle bus touring the entire Valley. The tourists on the jam-packed bus with us were impressed with our tales but not with our smell.
When we finally got back around to Curry Village, we headed for the shower, bought some tacos, and hit the road back home. We stopped for gas and fast food chicken in some tiny mining town in Nevada. It was greatest chicken I’d ever eaten. I bought some peach lemonade. It was the greatest thing I’d ever drank. I have no idea what my caloric deficit was this week, but it was clearly in the thousands of calories if not tens of thousands. We arrived home by 1 am.
Yes, we had ascended the face of Half Dome. We were proud of that. Not only did we make it, but we did not need a rescue. But at what price? Was it worth the risk? We've got wives and kids waiting for us at home. What right did we have to push the envelope so far?
We were also not so proud of the style in which we climbed it. We may not have required the assistance of others, but we certainly used it. If an epic is a day where you use the headlamp on both ends of the day, we had had a full day of climbing followed by two epics. We had clearly gotten very close to the edge in terms of our capabilities. In retrospect, we probably should not have done it. Certainly, if we had known the amount of suffering we would endure, we would not have chosen to climb the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. Now the only question is how much therapy we will need to stop the nightmares about it. I keep thinking about that unlocked biner and pendulums into space. Christian had a nightmare about going into renal failure and now needing dialysis. Both the good and the bad of this adventure are going to be unforgettable. Maybe that's what this writing is, a bit of therapy. As time goes on, the bruises, scrapes, sore muscles, subungual hematomas, and toe neuropathy will fade and thoughts of other routes will begin to creep in. They always do.