Half Dome Trip Report


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San Francisco
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 18, 2007 - 07:16pm PT
Hi all

Here's an updated trip report of our [successful] attempt on Half Dome with pictures. It's a long read, but hopefully interesting.

More pictures


I admit that I was somewhat skeptical when I first overheard that Chris was planning an attempt on the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (RNWF). While the route is moderate, not even one-third of the way down the list of difficulty in the Supertopo guide, it seemed like an impossible goal. Afterall, Chris had only started climbing seriously less than a year ago!

A few weeks later, in early August, I bumped into Chris and his partner, Justin, at the Mobil station where we shared a couple beers over fish tacos after a day of climbing in the Meadows. I cornered Justin and inquired casually about the "attempt" on Half Dome. He expressed a little anxiety, doubting their ability to make a successful attempt but sketched out a plan of preparation. They’d try a few longer routes in the Valley and the Meadows, ending with a practice run up the South Face of Washington Column to get a bit of aid practice, before trying for Half Dome in early September.

"I don’t know if we’ll make it," Justin told me, "but the most important thing is having a partner who’s psyched. And Chris is so psyched about climbing this route; I think we’ll be Ok."

Despite the enthusiasm, I was still doubtful. Being psyched is important, I told myself, but does it really make up for experience? But I kept these thought to myself and wished them both luck.

Throughout the rest of August, I made periodic trips out to the Meadows to climb with a number of strong climbers: Dave, a British post-doc I had met on a trip to JTree last winter whose jokes about blind lesbians and fish shops could make even the most vulgar sailor blush; Cory and George, two brothers who fired the RNWF in a single car-to-car push; and Laura, whose ability to float 10c finger cracks after less than a year of experience mocked my own thrashing efforts.

I myself was happy to be climbing again after a long three-year hiatus. Despite my long break, I was acquiring skills rapidly, climbing harder than ever. I had started out the year repeating Northwest Books (5.6) in the Meadows but now I was leading easy 5.10’s --- quite a feat for somebody who had always considered himself "solid on the 5.7’s."

Periodically, I’d hear from Justin or Chris or through the Stanford climbing grapevine how their preparations were going. They seemed to be doing well, knocking off a number of longer routes and linkups. So it came as a surprise when Chris and Justin asked me to join them as a three-man team.

Despite my doubts, I was intrigued. I had never considered something of that size and scale. But I also knew that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone was the only way to make progress. So I quickly agreed. Comparing schedules, the only weekend the three of us could make was in 2 days. So we hastily dispensed with any idea of further training. Our plan was to hike up on Saturday and fix the first three pitches. On Sunday, we’d jug our fixed lines and make Big Sandy before evening, finally topping out on Monday. Of course, no plan ever survived an encounter with the enemy ...

The hike up to the base (via the JMT) was enjoyable, albeit strenuous. The many stares and questions from inquisitive tourists make you feel like a rock star. "Are you guys going up the cables?" "Wait, you mean the face?" "Whoa, good luck guys!"

Arriving at the base, I began to feel a bit anxious for the first time, some pre-route jitters. It’s hard not to look up at something so vast and wonder how the next few days are going to go. On the way in, we had met an Australian party that had bailed due to dehydration. They informed us that the spring at the base was now just a murky puddle. I departed for another spring with 20 L of empty bottles, leaving Justin and Chris to fix the first three pitches.

Returning with 20 L of water is no easy task. No longer was I carrying anything that identified me as a climber. Instead, I was now staggering up the trail with 50 lbs. of water, sweating profusely. Now, the only response from the descending tourists was pity as they derided my slow progress. A few even snickered under their breaths and a ranger stopped me, probably to dissuade me from attempting the cables so late in the day. However, he let me go as soon as he realized that I was a climber and even shared a few words of gracious advice and encouragement.

I arrived at the base completely drained as Justin and Chris finished fixing, departing with the last of our empty bottles, leaving me to contemplate the vastness of the wall in the dying sunlight. As the sun dipped behind the valley walls, the face of Half Dome seemed to glow, increasing in intensity before fading away. The emptiness of the walls soothed me, allowing me to fall asleep.

We awoke the next morning at 3am and wolfed a quick meal of bagels and drank generously before heading up our fixed lines. Watching Justin’s headlamp disappear into the gloom, I anxiously thumbed my borrowed ascenders; it would be my first time jugging. Dawn found us at the base of pitch 4. Finally we could dispense with our headlights. Justin made short work of the aid section before handing over the sharp end to me. My block was to lead the 5.9 pitches until the base of the Robbins traverse. In this first section, we made rapid progress, averaging about an hour per pitch. However, the strain of French-freeing so many pitches with 30 lb. packs began to show on Chris and Justin and we began to slow down.

We arrived at the base of the chimneys (pitch 13) at 5:00pm with three hours of light. While we weren’t on schedule, we still stood a good chance of making it to Big Sandy by early evening. Chris took over the sharp end, disappearing into the maw of the claustrophobic chimney. I eyed the horizon anxiously; all afternoon I had watched as clouds, swept from the Tuolumne high country, evolved from wisps into ominously dark masses. The skies grayed and blackened. "How bad could it be?" I thought to myself. I had climbed many times in Tuolumne when the exact same clouds had passed overhead without incident.

However, this time would be different. As Chris topped out, running the two pitches together, the rumbling of thunder greeted us --- definitely close, perhaps hidden on the other side of Half Dome. Light rain began to fall. Justin and I conferred quickly and decided that retreating to the large alcove underneath the pitch 12 chimney would be the best course of action. We called to Chris who reluctantly rappelled from his highpoint, erasing all of his progress. The thunder grew louder as we hastily pulled the ropes and prepared to descend; our plan was to rappel down the face, then pendulum over to the alcove. I quickly rigged my rappel device, checking it over once, and then descended down the face.

However, we underestimated the steepness and distance of the rappel. I found myself stuck on a vertical face, unable to pendulum over to the ledge, now located about fifty feet to my left. Reluctantly, I pulled out my ascenders and headed back up to the ledge to re-rig. By the time I arrived, the storm had fizzled in the rapidly cooling air of the evening, leaving clearing skies and fading light. We had lost 2 hours and now only had one hour of light left.

The delay had clearly been a setback but our spirits were still high and we accepted this with equanimity. We were all showing signs of growing fatigue --- climbing and jugging with heavy packs had sapped a lot of our energy. In particular, Chris had shouldered the heavier pack --- carrying a large portion of our water, bivy gear, and food --- without complaint for most of the day. Despite his fatigue, he volunteered to re-lead the strenuous chimney pitch he had retreated from.

Justin and I dug our headlamps out of the packs as the last of the sunlight disappeared, plunging the wall into inky darkness. I tried to free climb the initial section of the chimney, but exhausted, I finally gave up as the pack continually fought every inch of upwards progress. Attaching my Jumars to the line, the inadequacy of my setup became increasingly apparent. Earlier in the day, Chris and Justin and remarked on the "ghetto-ness" of my rig: two 70’s era CMI ascenders with a single loop of webbing acting as a step. Now, ascending the chimney took every ounce of effort I still had. With each step, I had to haul my torso and the pack to the plumb line before ratcheting my ascender upwards. Collapsing onto it, the pack dragged my body back into space, constantly forcing me to wrestle with the tangle of lines.

The progress upwards through the chimney was agonizingly slow; the route overhung and places, leaving us to spin around on our ropes. To make matters worse, Chris had ran the pitch to the end of the rope, setting up a belay in the most claustrophobic and cramped section of the chimney. We had been stuck in the chimneys for 4 hours now, dealing with rappels, tangled ropes, and stuck gear. All I wanted to do was sit down on a spacious ledge where we could rest and reflake the ropes, perhaps eat and drink a little of our water.

Our stance was so cramped that it would not fit the three of our bodies; Chris was sitting on a tiny shelf, legs bridged out against the opposing wall while I hung uncomfortably off of my daisy. Justin was left to hang in free space on his ascenders. To make matters worse, our haul line (which Justin was weighting) tangled with our lead line which Chris would need to make escape to the next belay point. Tempers began to fray; I called down to Justin to unweight his rope so that I could untangle the lines. He testily replied that he couldn’t because he was hanging freely. Finally, he was able to briefly unweight the rope by hanging from a fixed piece long enough so that I could untangle the ropes and get Chris out of the stance to the next belay.

Arriving at the next ledge --- relatively spacious compared to the hell of the chimney pitches --- we assessed our situation. Both Chris and I seriously doubted our ability to make it through the next two pitches, a 5.9 ramp and the Double cracks. We were both exhausted and to make things worse, we had abandoned our stuck #4 Camalot, a piece which our pitch-by-pitch beta said was necessary to protect the Double Cracks. Arriving at the belay, Justin urged us onwards towards Big Sandy. I asked Justin: "If I can get us past this 5.9 section, can you get us through the Double Cracks?" Justin’s response was firm and absolute: "Yes."

We all dug deeply into our reserves. Chris again volunteered to shoulder the heaviest pack. I tied into the lead line, not knowing if I’d be able to lead the upcoming 5.9 pitch. Freed of the burden of carrying a pack, I found the pitch relatively easy --- almost every single edge felt like a gigantic jug! I almost flashed the pitch, hanging only once. Justin quickly followed and I quickly put him on belay for the Double Cracks pitch.

Without the number #4 Camalot, Justin leapfrogged a pair of #3 Camalots up the wide crack, aiding up towards Big Sandy and ignoring the growing loop of slack beneath him. His progress was so rapid that to the casual observer, it appeared as if he was jugging a hidden rope. His “off belay” call was definitely the sweetest sound I had heard --- it meant we had reached Big Sandy! Dispensing with ascenders and with adrenaline coursing through my body, I tore up the last pitch, free climbing the last bit with a few gear pulls. We had finally made Big Sandy at 1:00am after 21 hours of continuous effort. And it was truly a team effort --- every step of the way, the three of us definitely helped each other through, supporting us with encouragement and hard work.

The push had left all of us physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. We happily devoured some food and water before setting up a quick bivy. Chris and I fell asleep almost immediately. Justin was more unfortunate; a water bottle had leaked over his down jacket, robbing him of an insulating layer. He shivered most of the night.

The next morning greeted us with a surprise. It was impossible to gauge our upward progress while climbing in the dark; our entire sphere of perception was limited to what could be illuminated by our headlamps. Waking up on Big Sandy, I was surprised at how close the top seemed --- I could almost reach out and grab the Visor! And while we weren’t at the top, internally, I felt we had the summit.

The last few pitches passed by uneventfully --- building storm clouds and thunder in the afternoon again forced us to climb quickly and efficiently and we topped out to a totally deserted summit. The tourists had all retreated. A few quick snapshots and then we were off down the cables, ending a fantastic outing.


Social climber
St. Looney
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:40pm PT
Congratulations. Great TR. Thanks for sharing!
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:41pm PT
Nice work, guys! Thanks for sharing all that it took to send your first Grade VI!
scuffy b

The deck above the 5
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:43pm PT
I like this report. You had a lot of adventure, and it seems like
you had enough doubts most of the way to make it spicy.
Way to go!!

Social climber
A prison of my own creation
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:44pm PT
Nice TR. I liked the reverse directions then groveling in the chimney. Builds character.

I need to get on that route. Haven't found any victims, errrr... partners yet.

San Fran Cisco
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:45pm PT
awesome pix and tr!

now crack those books!

Social climber
The West
Sep 18, 2007 - 07:51pm PT
You guys rock! That IS what it's all about! What 'fun'! thanks!

Sep 18, 2007 - 07:57pm PT
Way to go fellas.
nick d

Trad climber
Sep 18, 2007 - 08:12pm PT
That's a GREAT acommplishment! Congratulations and thanks very much for posting up such an enjoyable TR.


Social climber
Sep 18, 2007 - 08:18pm PT
Nice. Made me want to climb it.

Social climber
No Ut
Sep 18, 2007 - 08:29pm PT
Excellent TR!

Big Wall climber
Yosemite area
Sep 18, 2007 - 08:53pm PT
"Watching Justin’s headlamp disappear into the gloom, I anxiously thumbed my borrowed ascenders; it would be my first time jugging."


Nice job!


Trad climber
Sep 18, 2007 - 09:01pm PT
Great send!
Thanks for the TR.

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Sep 18, 2007 - 09:02pm PT
Jay Wood

Trad climber
Fairfax, CA
Sep 18, 2007 - 10:10pm PT
Well written. You really give the flavor of the adventure. Thanks.
David Nelson

San Francisco
Sep 18, 2007 - 10:51pm PT
Did the route two years ago, brings back nice memories. Good grit with no quit. Nice job and good style.

(Now practice a bit with some proper jumars, get your aiders and daisies dialed, and you will be surprised how easy it can be!)
Russ Walling

Social climber
Out on the sand.... man.....
Sep 18, 2007 - 10:53pm PT
Bravo lads!
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Sep 18, 2007 - 10:59pm PT
Thanks tons for the story and the really impressive picasa/photos stuff. Your experience is what we all started with, and will always remember. Adventure...... you guys are great!!
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Sep 19, 2007 - 12:48am PT
well done guys, toughing it out to the top... an inspiration!

Big Wall climber
yosemite area
Sep 19, 2007 - 01:09am PT
CONGRATS!! I was cheering you on while watching you guys cozy on the Dinner Ledge on the Column! Nice team effort... Glad to know it turned out with big smiles!
Messages 1 - 20 of total 20 in this topic
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