Snake Dike 5.7 R
Trip ReportSnake Dike by Moonlight
My 15 year old son Dylan, and I. along with Andy Puhvel Oct 11th, 2014
The entire event from car door to car door took 30 hours (3 PM Sat.- 7PM Sun.), with a few hours napping before the moon lit up the sky for our approach to the route. As we were making the final preparations for the trip we realized that we were going to have an 85% moon straight overhead at 3:00 A.M. Andy our guide suggested that if we were into it, he could make a night climb happen, he said that topping out too early leads to a really long, tiring, return back to our bivouac, which is why we agreed to take the nap. Sleep was difficult for me because the moon was like a flashlight in the face while trying to sleep, never mind not being able to turn off my brain. I think Andy and Dylan faired a little better myself, although when the alarm on my watch started beeping, we all jumped up, dressed, eat cold burritos, drank as much water as we could stand and took off into the forest.
The approach itself was a couple hours of route finding. We left our heavy packs were we slept, which was in a small group of pine trees a 100 meters from the Muir trail, so we had our light day packs only for the actual climb. Half dome was looming over us the entire time, just glowing in the moonlight. By the time we actually touched the monolith, we were at the base of the south face. It was straight up 1000 feet plus, before it started to fade out of view against the black sky, and it was as smooth as a glass. So cool, that was my first time to meet Half Dome. I thought it would still be warm from yesterday’s sun, but it was cold, not really friendly at that point. I looked over at Dylan and told him I was concerned. He responded that he too was a little nervous, but that the climbing route would have to be easier, due to the listed rating of the climb. We worked our way along some ledges heading west along the base, and eventually had to rope up for a couple short sections due to the serious consequences of a miss-step, up to this point we had used our headlamps very little, the night vision was on high beams, but now was not the time to play games, so on came the lights. Somewhere along this section we came upon two climbers that had bivied out the night before, and where trying to get some sleep, they were literally spooning under a space blanket on a ledge section. Of course we woke them up as we had to step over them to get by, a couple of hours later when the sun came out they were climbing two groups below us. Shortly after this we reached the start of the climb.
What a view, El cap, Glacier Point and the Valley out front of us, while our backs rested against Half Dome. We all took a piss, and quickly put on our harnesses while Andy sorted out the ropes and gear.
We all high fived, then Andy took off, disappearing up into the darkness. At this point the rock was very steep, but it had a grip to it, and with the sticky rubber on my shoes, I felt very connected, unfortunately there was no hand holds…at all, totally featureless. We had agreed that Andy would of course lead, build the anchors, belay me, then Dylan would follow, clean the gear and meet us at the anchor, reset and repeat seven more times, then we would be off belay and begin the 1000’ calf grinder to the top. The first pitch was by far the freakiest, as I just mentioned no hand holds, just 100’ of grippy slab up to an overhanging roof, which had a small horizontal fingertip crack that felt like a lifesaving, “ok, I can breathe now”, railing after having nothing to hold onto up to that point, a small horizontal move left along the crack, led to another bigger crack, then it was up and over the roof, some 30 feet more to the anchor, where Andy was sitting, an ear to ear grin plastered on his face. In the darkness, I get settled in with my back against the wall; he leans in and says “isn’t this the coolest thing ever”? I had to agree. Dylan starts up, he’s moving slow. This was my first multiple pitch climb! I had played this ascent out in my mind many times over the preceding months, but I was still unprepared for how alive and connected to the earth I felt right then. Andy pointed out the different landmarks, the lights at the Glacier Point bathrooms, hikers moving above Nevada Falls ect. Dylan makes it to the anchor, his shoes suck, they are basically tennis shoes, he left his climbing shoes at the car, thinking that his approach shoes would be sufficient, not the case, and not sticky rubber. Did I not go over this with him, how could I have let this happen, I’m supposed to be looking out for him, he’s only fifteen. Then I thought no, Dylan is a very good climber, he knows what he is capable of, and he overcame his shoe issue very quickly, never complained, I’m sure it would have been a problem for me, like I would never have made it to the first anchor. We had a good laugh about Dylan was trying to handicap this route with his footwear. The higher we went the more hand features we found, until we were on the dikes.
The dikes are solid veins of quartz along the face vertically. The granite around them has worn down, but the much harder quartz juts out with large but smooth hand and foot holds. These can be 12” to 24” wide and stick up a couple of inches down low to a couple feet tall towards the top. So nice, you follow one for a hundred feet or so, then move left or right to a different one that is going on the route, get on the wrong one and you can end up with it petering out and nowhere to go but down. Andy had done this climb six times before, so he did an awesome job keeping us on route.
Sitting at the fourth anchor as dawn surrounded us was “that” moment for me, Andy had taking off for the next belay, Dylan and I just sitting there alone, taking it all in, I felt so lucky I almost cried! We had planned this trip for almost a year, and after one postponement in September, I almost thought it was not going to happen before the winter snows moved in making it not possible until next year.
The rest of the climb whirled by, and I think we went off belay around 10:30 AM. At that point it was too steep to relax but not steep enough to use our hands for about 1000 feet or so. This is the ultimate calf workout, which one really does not need at this stage of the game. Andy told us the story of one of his clients from years past curling into the fetal position and refusing to finish. Complicating the situation was the fact that the said client was only 12 years old! And Andy later found out he had a track record of doing this sort of thing. Not a pretty situation and getting to the top is only half the battle! A burly climber from another group, offered to carry the kid to the top, if Andy could take his pack for him, that was a big “hell ya”. After borrowing someone’s cell phone at the top, and quick conversation with the boy’s mother, Andy called the Park Service for some direction, “we’ll be there in fifteen minutes” said the voice on the other end, whoa that’s a helivac, and those can cost big money! Wait a minute, who’s going to pay for that? Courtesy of the NPS they said, alright bring it on. Thirty minutes later his charge was at the Yosemite Medical Center, while Andy and his remaining client hiked back (helicopter rides for patients only) and picked him up on their way out, “Half Dome Syndrome” was the official diagnosis. At one point somewhere around 8000 feet, we saw the most unusual, unexpected thing; a perfect pine tree (no Charlie Brown Syndrome) about six feet tall, growing out of the rock, no soil in site, just a crack full of roots, fully exposed on the southwestern flank of the world’s largest monolith, and it was healthy as a horse, true bonsai.
We spent an hour or so at the top, taking pictures, and peaking over the edge of the North West Face. It’s like the vertigo just sucks you over the edge, really quite disconcerting. Andy asked if I wanted to get a picture of myself hanging off the diving board with one hand, roped in of course. He said it was a picture of a lifetime, and I kept thinking about it, but could not shake the nauseas feeling that came over me when I scooted out there to take a look at the setup. Just too much air between my 50 year old body and the forest below.
I had never seen the cables before, so looking down from the top was a trip. Not a lot of people coming up, very steep, and very slick. Andy suggested that we travel down the outside of the cables if we were comfortable doing so, really? “Oh yea, the granite is slick between the cables from 80 years of treading on just that section” he said. Turns out he was right, way more grip outside, and no slowdowns trying to pass people going up. One poor soul was firmly planted on his ass, leg wrapped around one pole. Not moving, or talking, just frozen in place. I tried to engage him, no luck, even though he was totally in the way, he was staying put. I’m sure the rangers have a bar or stick that they use to pry those guys off with.
We hiked back to our stashed gear, stopping to tape up toes and such to try and prevent blisters. I saw a ranger with an I-Pad checking hikers for permits, that’s when Andy reminded me that this really isn’t the wilderness anymore. 800 people a day on the permit system, with 2500 people a day before the permit system!
After loading our big packs we headed down the Mist Trail, with no mist in site. I used trekking poles because I’m old, and I really don’t care if I look it, especially at this point of the trip, because to be honest, the feet, calf’s, hams, and quads all hurt, and dropping down 5000 granite steps was going to fry my knees, the poles were a huge help, and I didn’t wobble so much. Andy and Dylan were having a comfortable, relaxed conversation about climbing and such, while I struggled to keep up. Andy was recognized by a hiker for his role in a popular Chris Sharma documentary. “Dude, you’re the guy from that Sharma movie, I just watched it two nights ago!” Andy smiled; I said hey, “it’s great to be recognized for being at the top of your profession, not easy to do in this business”
Dropping the packs onto the gravel parking lot behind the car was euphoric, it’s done! Dylan grabbed the ice chest from the bear box, Andy and I cracked a Pliny the Elder, while Dylan drank a root beer. We said our goodbyes, and slowly headed out. Slowing down by the Middle Cathedral, and El Cap, pure magic!
2.5 hours later I was passed out in a Best Western in Sonora, after a 20 minute stent in the hotel’s hot tub.
Thanks to Dylan for sharing this major goal with me, and thanks to Andy Puhvel ( Yo Base Camp, Bishop Ca.) for all the logistical, technical, physical and moral support.
Recent Trip Reports
Other Routes on Half Dome