Regular Northwest Face 5.12 or 5.9 C1

 
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Half Dome


Yosemite Valley, California USA


Trip Report
The Keyhole
Saturday August 8, 2015 6:33pm
Around July 3rd, 2015, there was a significant rockfall from Half Dome which erased the later part of pitch 11 and the entire pitch 12 from the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. It was erased from our world, but lives on in some of our memories. This is my reminiscence of that amazing section of rock.

More information about the rockfall can be found here:
http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/2651396/Half-Dome-Rockfall

Information about the re-establishment of the route can be found here:
http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/2654302/Is-anyone-reestablishing-that-Half-Dome-route-today

and a trip report about its re-establishment here:
http://www.supertopo.com/tr/Not-your-typical-Trip-Report-RNWF-of-Half-Dome/t12800n.html

Introduction

When I saw the news that the first pitch of the iconic Chimneys, including the improbable and unique, "keyhole," tunnel-through fell from existence into a pile of rip-rap at the base of one of the world's most sought after wall climbs, I was filled with both a sense of loss and a sense of awe. Loss, in that, to me, this was the highlight pitch of the entire adventure. When I remember this route, this pitch is the one I always looked forward to going back to. Awe, in a sense that, "How the...could that much rock crumble away just like that?!" As a reference, you can see a dark chimney in the photo below from le_bruce's trip report published October 4th, 2014. This is the start of what was the first chimney pitch, which had a few variations including the option to walk deep behind the cavernous flake and and tunnel through its wall into immediate, wind-swept, abysmal exposure. When Erik Wright and I climbed this in a day on May 24th, 2015, it was the biggest, most intimidating climb either of us had laid hands on. The following is a snippet in time from our amazing adventure that day.

The start of The Chimneys. The Keyhole is visible inside the flake, up...
The start of The Chimneys. The Keyhole is visible inside the flake, up high. photo credit: le_bruce (from his trip report)
Credit: Oso Flaco


The Keyhole

As Aaron lowered out off the last bolt on the "Robbin's Traverse," he joined Erik at the belay on a small ledge, a single pitch below the much larger one that marked the start of a section of the route simply called, "The Chimneys." They quickly swapped gear and examined the necessary climbing to gain the large ledge above.

"5.8 huh?" said Aaron, rhetorically. Erik lowered his partner down off the edge, feeding rope to enable a pendulum over to what looked like could be the face climbing described on their Supertopo. Aaron built some momentum and ran hard across the face, scrabbling for holds at the turning point of the swing. He managed to catch a small edge with his right hand but couldn't hang on. He let go and took a ride back down, swinging into position below Erik's stance above. "You got it," encouraged Erik. His partner tensioned across the face, exploring, looking for the set of holds, surprised that nothing appeared to be obvious on such a high traffic route. He eventually found some features and committed to pulling up. Now at even elevation with Erik to the left, his tenacity to remain clinging to the wall increased as he looked down and realized he would not enjoy another ride on the rope back to the starting point. He found a placement for a nut and climbed a bit higher on easier ground. Aaron put a 0.4 X4 cam in a shallow, marginal placement. Unsure of where to go next, he quest out across the face up and to the right, toward the large ledge. No bolts, no pro, last piece questionable, all holds sloping! These were his thoughts. He looked to the far left and saw a right-facing flake with fixed gear and tattered sling dangling from it. "Maybe that was the way," Aaron thought. "Too late now," he realized as he contemplated down-climbing 10 feet back to the cam. Unable to down-climb the face without falling and unwilling to voluntarily test the cam's placement below, he decided to fight on through the face above. Compression moves and foot placements onto sloping edges and side pulls brought him to within a few feet of the ledge above, just out of reach. Gritting his teeth and sending up prayers, he committed to the last move, leg shaking and foot skidding up the granite as he high-stepped, smearing onto a slope to gain the reach necessary. Slapping the sandy edge of the ledge with an exhale of relief and immediate release of the grimace on his face, he exploded in a desperate mantel onto the ledge 25 feet above his manky cam, stomach churning. He was immediately startled into a demeanor of bravado upon hearing a stark, quizzical laughter from a young lady sitting next to her partner on the now shared ledge.

Erik and Aaron had caught up to a team that had started the route before them that morning, who were now sitting on the ledge beneath the bolted anchor, taking a break, and kindly allowing the approaching party to pass. "Ughhh, Oh my God!" exclaimed Aaron in both adrenaline induced exhilaration and intense relief. "I could have taken a big one down there!" he said, peering down over the edge, examining the distance to his last cam; the young lady's chortling pasting a thin crust of nonchalance over the situation. As he walked across the ledge toward the anchor, the sounds of metal gear tinkling at his hips and granite crunching underfoot, Aaron again examined the face below. Because of its sheer steepness and lack of ledges or features, at most, it would have been a very long, clean fall, even if the gear ripped. Whew. Approaching the anchor, Aaron noticed a large, sharp block wedged into a crack between the wall and the rock-filled flake that created the ledge. The block was slung with a length of webbing, and presumably used as an additional ‘piece’ to protect the follower from a large pendulum fall. Aaron didn't like the looks of it, but decided to clip it anyway to help protect Erik from a large swing right if he were to fall. Besides, it appeared that others had already used it anyway.

Aaron now waited at the anchor, accompanied by the other team, the young lady and her partner, a young man. Erik lowered out from his ledge onto the face, beginning to climb up. After cleaning one of the two pieces of gear from the previous pitch, he reached the cam, cleaned it, and in doing so, was now at the mercy of his own prowess and wit. He made a few moves up and to the right, testing the sloping holds Aaron had inexplicably committed to. "Ewwuughh," Erik sounded as he back-climbed to the stance, expressing his disapproval of the way up and right. He managed to climb left toward the gear in the right-facing flake that Aaron had seen earlier. "Aaron, why didn't you go left here? Did you not see this gear?" Silence. Aaron had no reply. Only hoping that as Erik climbed further left and higher up with nothing between him and the anchor except a slung block wedged in the ledge, he absolutely would not fall. Aaron, with the worry of reluctantly clipping the rope into the block, shouted over the wind down to Erik, who was in mid-climb, "Erik! Don't Fall!" he said in a semi-serious, half-sarcastic tone. "Why can't I fall!?" replied Erik with comedic chagrin. "There's a block up here that could rip if you fall! Don't Fall!" Hysterical, incredulous laughter emanated again from the young lady; having a serenading effect on the suspense of the situation. The young man next to her just stare ahead, a thousand-yard-stare, casually drawing on a cigarette, lowering it down and flicking the spent ash into the wind. The scene was surreal, everyone's coping mechanisms coming out as evidence of the intensity of this traversing section of the route over massive exposure and perceivably dangerous, indistinct rock-climbing. The section could be described as a ship's cryptic passage through dark, rough waters, where one suspects hidden crags beneath the surface. And where hints of vague navigational cues draw the unwary traveler off course, as evidenced by siren songs of fixed slings, pitons, and bail-biners, what looked like several dead ends from unsuccessful route-finding. Real adventure.

Erik fought hard, liebacking the thick flake via a thin, finger wide-crack on its wall side, using powerful moves and smears. About as secure as you could get. Muscles tense as he neared the sandy ledge, he stepped up high to rock over into relief from gravity as Aaron's mind, taut with lurking fear, settled with relief as Erik gained the ledge. Knowing that he would not be testing the rotational integrity of the slung granite block, the two teams were now able to exchange pleasantries and shared exuberance for the climb thus far. The resting team indicated that they would be bivying on Big-Sandy ledge later that evening, staying on the wall for a night, and that they were happy (read: only mildly begrudged) to let team, "Cali-fresh," pass them. Erik anchored in as the young man seared the frayed end of his climbing rope with his cigarette lighter. "That piece has been needing to go for a while," he stated, having cut a 10 foot section from its end. A trick Erik would later remember very well.

Aaron walked across the ledge to the right, toward the beginning of the massive chimney system created by several enormous, left-facing flakes. Feeling nervous of what lie in the cavernous pitch ahead but relishing in the exposure of the ledge, he mantled up onto its thin, outer edge and walked it like a tightrope, the surety of gravity to his right. He hopped back down and stepped behind the deep, shadowy flake, looking for, "the keyhole," high above (an option for moving through this section that was described as an amazing pitch of climbing by an acquaintance, David Gealy, during a chance encounter at the curry mountain shop the previous morning). Stepping further into the darkness, he found a 0.5 Camalot, a chalkbag, and all sorts of other dropped items and trash. He bootied the cam! He began to chimney up, facing the flake, knee against the wall of the flake in front of him. It was quite cold, and his knees and hands stung from the strain and the chill. Eventually, the chimney began to constrict and his knee/heel technique was failing. Slipping as he struggled higher, and with nothing between him and the bottom of the cavern below, he managed to barely reach an incipient crack high above, where he placed a small offset stopper. Aaron yarded on it, moving quickly now through the slow, difficult chimney climbing with the use of aid and following the seam via a few small gear placements to the keyhole. As he pushed his head through, he felt the contrast of moving from behind a cold, dark, sessile flake with immediate exposure onto the sheer northwest face of the granite expanse; wind sheering past. It was like being eager to peer at the contents of an oven, and with your face held close in curiosity, unexpectedly feeling the searing heat waft over your face as you open the door in excitement. After crawling through, he turned toward the wall and looked up to see a steep, splitting, finger-crack arcing to a stance below its end, where it formed a downward facing flake. He pondered free-climbing the stellar crack over the vast, sheer drop of the face below and considered that this may be the only chance he would have to free-climb this amazing section in this beautiful position. As much as he wanted to free-climb this section, he didn't possess the mental try-hard in that moment, so he aided up the crack, consoled by the thought that he would one day come back, in better shape, with more experience, and free it. He reached the stance, tense from the precarious position, and built an anchor from a couple pieces and a fixed, red, Wild Country Zero Cam. A previous climber had probably fallen on it while trying to free the subsequent face to gain the ledge above, he thought.

On the far side of The Chimney's flake and hindered by the wind, they were now out of ear-shot and out of sight. Through a series of rope tugs, Aaron indicated that the anchor was set and the belay was on. Erik began to climb. After Erik started up, Aaron realized he had potentially hosed the team and had anchored too soon. He needed to finish with the face moves up to the ledge! "Oh well, we'll have to figure this out when he gets here. I hope he's not pissed when he finds out what I did," Aaron was thinking. Erik emerged from the keyhole, half of his body dangling out over space, the other half secure in the dark recess of the chasm. Aaron, seizing the opportunity for a unique photo, shouted down for Erik to take a moment for a photo. Click. Zzrrrr. One to show the folks at home.

Erik Wright, coming out of the now extinct “Keyhole,” on pitch 12 of t...
Erik Wright, coming out of the now extinct “Keyhole,” on pitch 12 of the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Photo taken May 24th, 2014 by Aaron Formella
Credit: Oso Flaco

Erik turned up the crack and started up toward the belay. Click. Zzrrrr.

Erik Wright, cracking a smile on the sheer Northwest Face of Half Dome...
Erik Wright, cracking a smile on the sheer Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley after emerging from the “Keyhole,” a feature that once graced the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome route. Photo taken May 24th, 2014 by Aaron Formella.
Credit: Oso Flaco

He arrived at the stance as Aaron announced to him their precarious situation and handed Aaron the aider he had left attached to his last piece during his lead.

To Aaron's relief, Erik shrugged off the potential for a factor 2 fall onto their anchor of small cams while perched over a thousand feet to the talus slope below and took the reigns confidently. The face moves were desperate and reachy. No positive holds. Some kind of sloping edge for a foot and smear trickery to gain the ledge. Erik committed to the face and reached out with a high right hand, only a single move from gaining relief onto the edge. "Aaahhhhh!" he strained with all his reach! He slipped off before he could stick the last hold. Fear of the anchor failing ran through Aaron's mind as Erik came down, but he managed to gracefully control his way back over to the anchor without much force from a fall. They regrouped, and after a couple more attempts at trying to solve this bouldering puzzle, Aaron suggested that Erik try to stand on his left knee while Aaron braced it as high against the wall as he could. This was an aid climb for them after all. He went for it, tip-toeing onto the top of Aaron's wobbly knee, reaching high and smearing with his left foot against the slick granite. Erik sank a hand onto positive pay-dirt above, delivering them from the wacky situation. Relief. They had previously agreed that Aaron would lead all the chimney pitches...though he is not sure why...he feels like he was more, "voluntold," than having volunteered, but he was OK with the idea. Erik stopped 10 feet above him on the ledge, where Aaron should have finished, and began building an anchor. "What are you doing!?" Aaron exclaimed, surprised. "I'm building an anchor. You're leading the chimneys!" replied Erik, shouting over the wind. "No! Keep going!" Aaron yelled back. He could see him pondering this. "Keep going!" Aaron retorted again. And grudgingly, muttering things probably best for Aaron never to hear, he started up the next sustained pitch of true-to-form, classic chimney and crack climbing while Aaron prodded him on, about which, Aaron is willing to bet, he now hasn’t an ounce of regret. ...Erik, nice work brother.

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Oso Flaco
About the Author
Oso Flaco is a gym climber from Atascadero, CA.

Comments
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

climber
Out Of Bed
  Aug 8, 2015 - 06:48pm PT
So cool , . . .
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Aug 9, 2015 - 04:27am PT
Nice story, well written and introspective .
le_bruce

climber
Oakland, CA
  Aug 10, 2015 - 03:04pm PT
Nice! Very nice. We are legion, the jealous hordes who never got to do this variation. Your detailed writeup helps to ease the pain.

Must have been a wild spot to belay, before the rock-over to the ledge! I'd be worried about the force on the anchor, too...
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Half Dome - Regular Northwest Face 5.12 or 5.9 C1 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
The Regular Northwest Face.
Photo: Mark Kroese
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