The ball will drop soon, but all I can think about is how hard its gonna be to stay awake two more hours after midnight. Two hours. That’s how long it takes to drive from my front door to the Valley. And yeah, we’re going tonight. I’m almost 40 years old and I’m already up way past my bedtime, but the night….and the tomorrow…are both very young.
You see, La Nina has given Adam and I a gift. A cold and dark but very dry and snowless gift. Usually by December 31, the high country is slammed shut from about six thou up. Any ideas of multi pitch adventures hibernate, tucked under a heavy snowpack until spring can thaw them out. We are husbands and dads. 9 to 5ers with jobs and kids with swim practice, horseback, karate, piano and youth group slots on our calendars. We don’t get as much alpine action as we’d like sometimes, but we have our priorities straight and if you ask us, the best of both worlds. By late September, our three day trip to Tuolumne usually signals the end of our climbing season. We ski, we train, we boulder, we dream of long routes in the sunshine. But this year…..this year, strange things are afoot in the hills outside of town. The roads are open. The trailheads are dry. Avalanche isn’t even in our vocabulary yet. We’ll take this strange meteorological event as a late Christmas gift. We’ll tear into it with reckless abandon and toss the wrapping paper over our shoulders. It could be sunny and clear up high or full on Himalayan Winter wrath. But in the words of Mark Twight, we’re ready to “Put up, shut up, or die trying.” Ok, maybe not, but we’re gonna at least pack enough warm stuff that we’ll be able to up there and have a look.
One day. Our calendars had synched up for one green light day of mountain business and the 1st of January it would be. We needed to go big. We had high pressure on the barometer, cold blue skies forecasted, and the gift of snowless terrain sitting in our lap. A New Years link up of Five Open Books? Naw…too pedestrian. The Regular Route on Fairview in Winter? Hmmmm….cold and burly…but too close to the road. Lets see……….
“You know man….I’ve never been up Snake Dike….” Says Adam two weeks ago.
“Dude….shut up right now or you’re gonna be in for a looong hike.” I say, knowing he’s way fitter than I am and secretly knowing how cold and painful such a long walk could potentially be in January.
“C’mon…what’s it like? And how cool would it be to grab a winter ascent”
“Ok….the runouts are loco…like you’ll fall for 150 feet and mangle yourself loco. But the Dike is soooo cool, like climbing a scaly magical dragon’s back for pitch after pitch of the tastiest stone on the planet, and the whole day yer lookin’ out over God’s country, big old peaks in the background, El Cap growing in profile as you climb higher….it’s money man. Big cash loco money. But like I said…its like 60 miles of walking for eight pitches and a thousand feet of calf burner. Your skinny legs would probably cramp up halfway through the approach.”
“I’m in.” He says.
“Shut up….Half Dome in Winter Adam…we could die. I just saw a photo on the Taco and the rivers are frozen solid. It could be full on K2 up there mate.”
“Yeah…I know. I’m in man, I’m all in….you had me at loco.”
And so it began. We would pack the down jackets, the baklavas and the hand warmers. We would face frostbite and falling ice and the risk of storm and the terrifying runouts and we would sneak into old Mr. winter’s locker and grab the first ascent of 2012 of Half Dome via Snake Dike. We would pass the test and return home to our wives and children The Heroes of Winter.
T-minus 24 hours to lift off. One of my favorite parts of pre-mission packing is watching my closet transform.
I love trip prep. Did I mention that already? I love shrinking Supertopos and laminating them with packing tape.
Message 2 “We’re late but safe, will get home when conditions and safety allow.”
Message 3 “HELP. HELP. Call 911 and Search and Rescue NOW. We need immediate assistance”
Hopefully today will be all Message 1’s.
12:41am. New Year’s Eve. By the time we get home from the party, Adam is asleep in his car in front of my house. Gunshots and fireworks go pop pop in the distance through the bitter, foggy, downtown Fresno night. We’re Northbound within minutes, breaking free of the city as cars fly past us full of drunkards heading back to Fresno from garish technicolor foothill casinos.
But soon we reach The Promised Land and the adventure is under way for real.
We manage to pass the time between the entrance tunnel with idle banter about routes and missions from the past.
"Ok......Which route was cooler....Tenaya Peak Northwest Buttress, or CastletonTower's North Chimney?"
"Ok....you only get one route for the rest of your life...and its gotta be a route we've done.....Regular Route on Fairview or Eichorn Pinnacle stacked on top of Cathedral on top of Royal Arches?
"No fair.....that's a mythical route, it doesn't count!"
And on and on
We're in the tunnel in no time.
We hit the Valley floor at 2:29am. Brrrrrrr. Cold so bitter it hurts your feelings. We allow ourselves a quick snooze, maybe an hour won’t hurt……the quiet purr of an alarm rings deep within my subconscience…..”Go back to sleep the temptress voice whispers….ssssleeeeep….its too cold out there for you. Sleep a few hours then spend the day in the Valley, sipping hot chocolate….climb a few routes over in the sun if you want…..hang out in the Mountain Shop……the deli….it will be such a nice day……..”
“NO! DUDE! WAKE UP! We’re LATE! Like full on LATE”
Its 4:39. We throw open the FJ doors and an icy winter wind of 2012 fills the vehicle like an evil spirit, sucking the warmth right out of our souls. There is only one way to ward off such horrific malice, and that is to throw on the packs and walk….walk directly into the face of the monster. The blood in our legs will warm us and our stoke will crush the very life out of this cold dark sinister night. We're on the pavement in minutes. There is nothing happy about the road to Happy Isles at this forsaken hour in these temps.
Signs like this are for the weak and the fearful and the meek. We are none of these things and we take a few moments to show it. “Oh no….Its closed…..what are we gonna do! Bah!!!”
Walking silently across the bridge at Happy Isles feels like crossing a threshold. There is no turning back. The cold cannot stop us now. We will ascend. We may suffer. But up we will go. The launch button has been pressed. Upward into the night.
The stairs to Vernal Falls are ice free but I’m ready to puke within minutes. We've been hammering non stop up these unforgiving steps for a while now...feeling kinda dizzy from the exertion and constant upward tempo.
The rest of the hike to the top of Nevada is pretty much hazy. But I remember feeling my face go numb at some point and Adam taking a loooonnnng time behind a boulder for some reason. He made some comment about frozen cheeks but his baklava seemed to be fitting fine on his face. I don't get it.
Getting water from the Merced might take a bit of work today...so we keep puttin' shoe to dirt.
The first strokes of blue begin to bleed across the sky in the east and we break left at the big boulder above Liberty cap. Little Yosemite Valley is dead silent. Not a breath of wind stirs. The falls above are frozen solid. The cross country route to Lost Lake goes quickly and we only get “lost” for about ten minutes. Its still pretty nippy, but by this point we are in R1s and base layers. Perhaps Jack Frost will let us off easy today. Half Dome begins to take shape above us, ominous in the steel cold morning light. What a sight to behold.
Things get a little weird above Lost Lake. I realize my new Cannon t3i is low on batteries and that all further photos might be from our i-phones. This demoralizes me briefly.
It’s no fun but we are eventually heading up the proper approach. Here’s a few photos to show the civil way to approach Snake Dike.
Just after this photogenic little fourth class traverse, with the base of the route in sight, the leg cramps begin. Ho man…..I’ve never really had leg cramps like this. Big boy leg cramps. The full calf, quad, thigh, glute kind. The kind that bring you to your knees and make you breathe like a woman in labor. It feels like a schoolyard bully has my leg squeezed above the knee in a charley horse with his meaty oversized hands. Threatening to steal my lunch money.
“Owwwrrrrggggaaaaahhhhh…….” the moans of a stricken man echo down the approach slabs, through the chasm between Liberty Cap/Broderick, down the mist falls trail and onto the Valley floor.
A woman in room 314 of the Ahwahnee sits upright in her bed and nudges her sleeping husband.
“Honey, did you hear that?”
“It sounded like a woman screaming!”
“Probly just the wind….go back to sleep…there’s nobody out there….its Winter.”
She falls quickly back to sleep but 4000 feet above her, siting on a ledge at the base of Half Dome, a man in his late thirties begs for mercy from the pain and for just a moment thinks about sending out an SOS on his shiny new Spot tracker. He foams at the mouth through clenched teeth, frozen snotcicles streaked across his cheeks. He chokes down two packets of GU and a wad of beef jerky and wills his legs to carry him upward. He will not concede defeat here on this grassy knoll. He will rise and smite the bully. Nobody will steal his lunch money today. Upward he climbs.
Hey Adam……”HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
“Oh yeah, you knew it, you knew I’d be ready to party today!”
“Lord, thank you for a great day already. Thank you for your amazing creation and for your active presence in our lives. We are grateful for our families and for wives who support us on these adventures. Guide us today and protect us. Thank you for this friendship....may we have many more days just like today in the coming years. We are humbled by your mercy and all you do for us.
Please give us strength and courage and clarity of mind on the climb ahead. We ask all of this in your Son’s name. Amen.”
“LETS ROCK AND ROLLA!”
“Dude….watch me..I’m comin’ back….yeeouch….oh man…my calves are in a vice grip!”
I steadily work back to the belay, cramps seizing both legs simultaneously, taking the breath right outta my chest. Probably……..…just…..menstrual…” I eek out as I clip back into the bolts.
“I’m yer Huckleberry.” Says adam and he grabs the rack and heads back out. Its probably best anyways. I’m a better photographer and had I been on lead he probably would’ve taken a fuzzy shot of me too close to the belay to look any good. Instead, he works bravely across the traverse and I snap a few shots that will look good in his den someday. Nice climbin’ kid.
We’ve got two pitches under our belt and the Wicked Winter Witch we worried about hasn’t showed up. She seems to have stayed home today, maybe nursing a cold. Or perhaps she got the memo that Micronut and Macronut were comin’ to storm the castle today and that they came ready to wage full on Himalayan alpine war and that she might as well just stay in bed. Or maybe it has something to do with the high pressure system sitting over the entire Western United States for the past nine weeks. Whatever the cause, we’ve put the down jackets deep into the packs and are climbing in no more than long sleeves and shells. We decided early on not to chip ice from the river for water back at the falls, and for the first time we realize that water might just become an issue today. We’ve each had maybe a litre and we each have a litre left. But we’re a long way from home and my “contractions” are coming more often and getting closer together.
Adam strikes out on the third pitch traverse left to the dike, supposedly the mental crux of the route.
He tiptoes across, not even stopping to contemplate a fall, and is hootin’ and hollerin’ over at the dike in no time flat. Here’s a couple shots of the crux smears.
We finish the final pitch, deal with a little stuck rope fiasco for a few minutes, then I join Adam at the unroping spot. Congratulations are in order.
Adam takes a shot of me 100yds from the summit and I give a nod to Vince Anderson on his summit day on Nanga Parbat.
Soon though, the world spills beneath me and the summit is ours. We sit and mellow out in the warm sunlight. All is well in the universe.
We gawk at the silly exposure over the diving board. We don’t say much. The moment speaks for itself. Sure, eight pitches of 5.7 isn’t much to brag about, but the day adds up. From the fear of the winter unknown, to the glorious sunrise, to the wonderful climbing to the summit vibe….the sum of the experience is a worthy prize. We still haven’t seen the cables, so we don’t know what we’re in for as far as ice on the descent is concerned, but for a few minutes we just sit and relax and savor the gift of success.
A firm, chalky handshake always feels good on top.
I send a Spot message to friends and family and I make sure its message #1.
Here’s what it looks like. Its good down to 10meters. There we are, right there by that red balloon. 2:36pm, Jan 1, 2012. Makes the wives happy, that’s for sure.
“First ascent of Half Dome of 2012. Not bad eh?”
“Not bad a-tall.” Says Adam. “Not bad a-tall. Now lets get out of here.”
And he promptly heads due west, nowhere near the start of the cables.
“Yo Macronut! The cables are over here!”
“Oh. Yeah. Ok.” And he does a hard left and starts heading Eastward, heading home.
Sunset overtook us somewhere near Liberty Cap, but we got one final look at the route in the evening alpenglow.
We drive home that night stuffed on chili and the gluttony of a successful mission. Our bellies and hearts are full. We’ve been awake for nearly 40 hours by the time I crawl into bed, kiss my wife and feel the wonderful stillness of zero inertia wash over me. My body has been moving for so long either on foot or in the car that the sudden calm is almost overwhelming. I’m asleep in seconds. Apparently I continued to cramp up throughout the night….my wife says I moaned and rolled around in bed comically every hour or so. She found it amusing. The next morning, with wide eyed kids in jammies around the breakfast table, I begin to make good on sharing The Gift….
“So there we are…..at Lost Lake…the thing is frozen solid….sunrise is upon us and the massive granite beast of Half Dome rears above us…daring us to take one.. step… closer…………….”
Happy New Year's Supertopo.