There was something surreal about being 1700 feet off the ground and bathed in the glow of the earth’s nightlight.
A few years ago I went out to try and climb the iconic monolith that overlooks Yosemite Valley … Half Dome. This monument to the beauty of nature and constant reminder of how small we are, adorns California drivers licenses, tourist t-shirts, and family vacation photos around the world.
Now what I’m talking about is not the 16 mile (round trip) hike that thousands of vacationers attempt each year. My undertaking was more akin to a mortal man’s attempt of a seemingly herculean task – a multi-day climb up the granite, vertical, northwest face of Half Dome. Something that only a small group of masochistic adventurers attempt each year. (or for those demigods of the climbing world who can climb it in just a few hours – climb multiple times a year) One needs a fair amount of experience before even attempting such a labour, suffice it to say, I worked towards this for quite a few years.
My partner for this Homeric journey was Eric; a climbing buddy of mine from San Diego who himself had been climbing for quite some time and had this on his to-do list. We actually attempted this very climb back in May 2010 and came down due to a still fresh back injury of Eric’s that flared up. In retrospect, it was probably the Fates looking out for us as there was still snow adorning the summit of Half Dome which would have made summiting and coming down quite dangerous.
Enough of the preamble and on to our epic.
We met in Fresno outside of what some might call a ‘trading post’ for adventurers; aka REI. We got our gear together in my Jeep and promptly rode off towards the climbing mecca of Yosemite Valley. A couple hours later we were on the Valley floor and our climbing banter was in full force and our excitement was palpable.
“I’m stoked to finally get this done!”
“We should definitely make it to 11 on the first day”
“Big Sandy is gonna be awesome!”
If you had dropped into our conversation then and didn’t know what we were talking about, you would probably think we were just babbling idiots speaking Greek…but we didn’t care. We were about to climb Half Dome!
We parked my Jeep as close to the trailhead as allowed, got our last provisions together, sorted gear one last time, and settled in to try and catch a few hours of sleep before our early start.
Where we had parked is where everyone who hikes Half Dome has to park, and many folks get a VERY early start to try and summit by sunrise. What this meant for us was that we caught about every headlight from every car pulling into the parking lot at midnight, 1am, 2am, etc. These Half Dome pilgrims were excited about their journey as much as we were about ours, and their anxious chatter wasn’t exactly conducive to sleep; therefore, we decided to just get up and go at about 3am. So off we went.
The hike was pretty intense as there are fixed lines that need to be climbed and you ascend about 3,000 feet from the Valley floor to the base of the climb. It also took us a while to find the trail in the dark, and we had to manage by waiting till it started getting light out and eventually made it to the base of the climb at about 9:30am.
We took a breather and without giving ourselves a chance to look back, we took off.
It took us a while to get into a groove, but we got into a slow rhythm and made it to the top of pitch 6 by about 6pm. (that’s about 600 feet) We weren’t moving as fast as we would have liked, but we had worked this into our flexible schedule, so we decided to take it easy since we were traveling heavy with water, food, and more climbing gear than we’d have on a normal climb. We settled in for the evening and enjoyed a sunset view worthy of two adventurers who were at peace in their element. We were happy with what had transpired thus far and blissfully unaware of the events and labours to come.
The next day we started early as we hoped to reach pitch 17, more affectionately known as Big Sandy Ledge. This is a popular place for climbers to stop and sleep for the night as it provides ample room for multiple people…but we had 1,100 feet to climb to get there. So we ate, packed up, took care of some business, and started climbing again.
The previous evening we had noticed some fellow climbers gathering at the base and thought/hoped that these were guys who would try to climb it ‘In a Day’. Climbing Half Dome ‘In a Day’ is popular with stronger climbers as this is a great way to check this route of the personal tick list, and doing it this way cuts out a lot of logistics and hassle. You just have to be really strong, relatively fast, and yell “Hercules, Hercules!” all the way. (ok, that last part isn’t necessary)
As fate would have it, there were two teams that came flying up behind us on seemingly winged shoes. One team American and one Austrian. They were both climbing it in a day (the americans trying for a blazing 5 hours), so we sat by and let them pass us. Now in my past Yosemite climbs, whenever I let other seemingly faster parties pass me it has always turned out to be a bad call and I’ve ended up waiting to climb for an extra 3-5 hours for my generosities. However, this time it was actually a good call and we only got held back about an hour and the two parties disappeared above us before too long (they even took our picture). Eric and I got back into our groove and before too long we were atop Pitch 11 and getting ready to climb some chimneys.
Eric dispatched a quick aid pitch once he figured out the start and I was jumaring (climbing term for using mechanical ascenders to climb a rope) up behind him before too long. Then came my turn to climb over 200 feet of chimney climbing. While these pitches were labeled 5.7-5.9 (relatively easy in climbing terms), they did not feel ‘relatively easy’. Nonetheless, I wanted to keep moving and with an occasional curse word, I managed to use almost our whole 70 meter rope to link all the chimney climbing. While I’m guessing that Eric was glad that I climbed it and not him, I know he didn’t like jumaring up the chimneys as that can be quite the feat with a pack on your back. (In the picture he’s just glad to be done)
(side note: these chimney parts of the climb no longer exist. they fell off in a rock fall a couple years ago)
At this point the sun was beginning to set and we still had 150-200 feet to climb to Big Sandy. So Eric took off to make the most of the sunlight.
Once it gets dark, climbing (especially Big Wall climbing) slows waaaaaay down. You have to look for where you’re going multiple times before you go there and you have to be extra careful because any fall can turn into a quick cluster at night. As we were about to find out.
Just before we were supposed to start the pitch to Big Sandy – we got off route. Our topo (climber’s map) even showed the off route, but we were in the dark. We couldn’t tell if we were at the right spot. Eric climbed for about an hour or so and as he got higher he realized that we had to be off route. So he down climbed and we took stock of our situation. It was past midnight, and we both hadn’t eaten since our lunch about 8 hours earlier. We had already started to run out of water (I had actually cramped to the point of my muscles freezing a few times during my last pitch), only had about a quart of water left, and had a whole day of climbing and hiking ahead of us. As we had only slept for a couple hours the past two nights, we decided to eat and try to bivy atop pitch 16; just one pitch away from our days goal. Bummer.
Little did we know that if we had read one of our route descriptions that we had in our pack, we only needed to descend just a bit and head to our right to find our route up to Big Sandy. But we were a little out of it and hadn’t thought of that. So we tried to settle in to sleep on our barely park bench sized rock ledge.
Let me just say that I was essentially sitting in a narrow granite trough that I couldn’t even sit up straight in. No laying down for me. Eric was able to contort his body to lay on his side if he dangled his feet off the ledge. Sort of.
As the moon slowly crept over the Valley from behind Half dome I got colder and colder, and more and more miserable. I wasn’t sleeping at all. Eric tried to pretend that he was, but he couldn’t even fool himself. I’m not sure how long we sat there as I fell into a semi-hallucinatory state of mind/sleeplessness. Eventually I realized I had to move and warm up, so I woke Eric out of his ‘sleep’ and told him that we needed to climb. He promptly agreed and we slowly got ready.
Finally ready, we explored down and to the right and instantly saw where we needed to go. Eric made his way over and I set off at a snails pace on the pitch to our previous day’s goal. We had a full moon that night and it was intensely bright, so once I started climbing I actually enjoyed the climbing.
There was something surreal about being 1700 feet off the ground and bathed in the glow of the earth’s nightlight. I crawled upward, cramping occasionally, but making my way; and before too long I was standing on Big Sandy! The moon had left and daylight was upon us, so that meant it was about 5:30am. Happy to be atop pitch 17 and to see some sunlight, Eric raced up to Big Sandy to enjoy the copious amount of room that it affords.
We relaxed for about an hour and a half, ate some breakfast, and took a 20 minute nap. At this point, our want to get off the rock overpowered our desire to sleep, so we pressed onward. Only 500 more feet!
(above is a zoomed in look at what is known as the Diving Board at the summit of Half Dome)
As Eric was leading the infamous Zig-Zags he suddenly exclaimed “Oh no!” and I saw a whole carabiner of our small climbing nuts falling. They fell in slow motion as we both couldn’t reach them and the realization that this climb was about to get significantly harder flashed through our heads. But all of a sudden…thunk! The carabiner of nuts had landed on the last ledge of Big Sandy!! I breathed a huge sigh of relief and told Eric that I could get them up to him. Disaster averted. Eric finished his pitch and I crawled up our rope to him. One more pitch to Thank God Ledge. (i’ll explain)
We were the tortoise and the day’s light was the hare as we plodded along in our dehydrated, zombie-like state. I finally reached Thank God Ledge and gave a loud hoot as everyone who physically prepares for this climb knows they must also mentally prepare for Thank God Ledge. And it was Eric’s lead.
As you can see from the picture, Thank God Ledge is a 2 foot wide ledge that narrows to about 8 inches, dares you to try and walk across, and constantly reminds you that you are now 2000 feet off the ground as you inch across.
Eric psyched himself up to lead this brain tingling pitch and with some “you got this dude!” and “this is your last hard pitch!” from me, he started.
Eric took his time crossing, but he did it well and made it to his last hurdle on this climb. A Yosemite 5.8 chimney. He had to work on this last section for a while as it can’t be aided and he actually took off his leader pack and climbing rack to make the move…and he made it! With Herculean effort, he grunted his way to the anchors and gave a huge sigh of relief.
At the same time I saw a little black rectangle fly out from the chimney and go skydiving down below.
“Rock!” (a courtesy all climbers yell when something falls)
I knew what it was right away…Eric’s camera…not a rock. He had kept it strapped to him during the chimney climb and the rock had scraped it right off and spit it out in spite of his success. Lucky (sort of) for Eric, the only pictures he lost were pictures of me.
Wanting to wrap up this climb, I hurried across the ledge as fast as I could and made my way to Eric. I took right off on the last pitch or so of climbing with a quick bolt ladder and couple surprisingly tricky tension traverse moves and we were scrambling to the top at 6pm! Yes, it had taken us about 10 hours to do 5 or so pitches. We were exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, super tired…and really, really happy.
There was a group of guys up top that gave us some water and chatted with us for a while as they tried to comprehend what we had just done. (as did we) We made some quick phone calls to our loved ones to let them know we were safe and then booked it off the top of Half Dome to try and make the most of the daylight that was left
Just like Hercules wasn’t done until he completed his 12th labour, we had our 12th trial still ahead of us. We had to hike 8+ miles down to the Valley floor and back to the car. Eric took the pack with all our gear in it because he has that ‘old man strength’ from years of mountaineering and we booked it down. We stopped for water half way down to replenish our screaming muscles and finally finished at 2:30am at the Jeep. Our personal Odyssey was complete. We made it out of Yosemite Valley that night to our respective resting spots and promptly passed out.
(the moon rising on our hike)
As I look back on it, a few years removed now, most of the misery has faded. Climbers often say “I’ll never do this again”…but time tends to be very forgiving and eventually we look back fondly and laugh about stories like this. The world will always need those mortal men reaching for the seemingly impossible.
Maybe that means there’s something wrong with us…and I’m ok with that.