Sun, Apr 17, 2005
The plan was ambitious - climb to Half Dome's NW Face via the Slabs route from Mirror Lake, scramble to the right towards the Diving Board, Climb Snake Dike, then descend the cable route, all in spring conditions. We carried a 10.5mm/50m rope, axes, crampons, harnesses, helmets, and a minimal assortment of pro. What we found was a bit more than we could handle in one day, and as much excitement as we could have wanted. Just getting to the Diving Board proved spicy enough.
We got a somewhat later start than we'd hoped - having left our alarm clock in the car, Matthew assured me he'd wake up at first light. Problem was we were both pretty tired, and combined with the mostly dark interior of the Curry tent cabins, we overslept some. It was 7a before got away from the stables parking lot, and another half hour to the turn off for the use trail heading to the Slabs. This would be my fourth time on this route, and by now I had it pretty well dialed in - no route-finding issues at all, unlike my previous efforts. This was Matthew's first time on this class 3 route made more challenging with wet spring conditions.
At the first set of ropes, maybe 60ft above the top of the talus marking the transition from approach trail to the route, Matthew got his first taste of climbing fixed ropes hand over hand on steep slabs. Above this the angle lessens, and the rope is more like a handrail than a necessity. The whole lower half of the route was an enjoyable climb in the cool morning shade, mostly class 2 with sections of class 3 rock. We watched the sun rise on the opposite side of Tenaya Canyon, lighting up the features of North Dome, Basket Dome, and the Snow Creek drainage. To the west, Glacier Point looked magnificent draped in morning sun and snow-covered ledges.
We crossed a few hard snow fields, and where the route turns to follow the main drainage more or less directly to the NW Face, the rock grew slick with snowmelt making some of the normally trivial slab crossings a bit more challenging. The next series of fixed ropes proved a bit troubling as well, and we took more than the usual amount of time to surmount them. The shortest one, maybe 30ft in total length, proved the most difficulty. I recalled that in summer it could be bypassed by zigzagging across granite slabs to the shallower angled rock above, but ample water flow across the entire section made that far too dangerous an option today - the rope needed to be used. Matthew went up first but managed only six or seven feet of the steepest headwall before backing down a bit battered. We set up a free cursing zone in the immediate vicinity and took liberal advantage of it. I made it up to the top and waited while Matthew took another crack at it, only to be beaten back a second time. Next we tried hauling Matthew's pack to make things easier, but I could not get the pack past one short vertical section. I tried moving to one side, then to the other, using curses as a means to free the pack where force had failed. Nothing worked, and as my arms tired and my back began to threaten a slipped disk, I cursed all the louder. To no avail of course. I let the pack slip back down to Matthew - he would have to climb it with his pack. He put on his harness and intended to use a carabiner on a sling to save his arm strength as he tried again (loops in fixed rope could be used to clip into for a rest before continuing). This time he was successful (turns out he didn't use the prussik, but found that removing his wet gloves gave him the extra grip he needed), and we were none too glad to be done with the ropes. Matthew was questioning the rating with obvious disdain - fixed rope sections we can barely get by and they call this a class 3 route?
We climbed up the final several hundred feet to the base of the NW Face. The bowl we were climbing looked almost glacial - the hard snow was heavily compacted as it sloughed off 2,000ft of the NW Face. Rocks of all sizes were embedded over much of it, giving a very dirty appearance. It was clear we were in a debris field, and there was little interest in prolonging our stay here any more than needed. Having gotten ahead of Matthew by climbing the last of the debris to a rock outcrop where I put on my crampons, I signaled to Matthew that he ought put his crampons on below me and head directly to the first chute to his right. The easier route is a traverse to the left which leads to the Half Dome Trail, but that would put us on the wrong side of the mountain to climb Snake Dike. Our route followed to the right, up a moderately steep chute, one of two before we reached the Diving Board on Half Dome's west side.
I had climbed half of the first chute before Matthew had his crampons on and had just entered the chute at the base. Around this time I heard what at first I thought was a jet about to cross south-north over the top of Half Dome, but soon realized it was the doppler-effected sound of rock falling over 1,000ft from the NW Face. I was able to spot a large breadbox sized block just before it crashed to the snowfield at the base, maybe about 30 feet from where I'd put on my crampons. Other smaller pieces came down afterwards, making a frenetic racket. I had thought these were ice pieces coming down from where I stood, but Matthew later told me they were definitely rock - either way it could have been very dangerous had it occurred 5-15 minutes earlier. A second rockfall occurred about ten minutes later, preceded by the same high-speed sound of rock ripping through the air in a seeming attempt to break the sound barrier using gravity alone. It was unnerving, to say the least.
As Matthew climbed up from below, I climbed to the top of the first chute and waited about 10 minutes for him to join me. Now came the spicy part of the day. We had a short rappel to make about 15ft down onto a seriously sloped, snow-covered ledge where we could then traverse over to the second chute. I found it hard to believe that I had come this far before with similar conditions but without crampons and axe. I had aborted that effort when I found I couldn't kick steps in this next traversing section. Even now with crampons, it seemed a dicey affair. Much of this was psychological I knew. The slope we had to traverse was variably 25-50ft wide before plunging 800ft in a near vertical fashion to the slabs lower down. From below it looks frightening. From above, a fall seemed horrifying - we would have two or three seconds to arrest a fall, then it would be over the abyss. The traverse was maybe 300ft in length, but it seemed much longer. I had thought we could simply french-technique our way over, crampons flat-footed to the surface as we made our way across relatively quickly. This would probably have worked just fine and saved a lot of spent energy except for the terrifying prospect of an unarrestable slip. So instead, I faced into the hill the whole time, kicking steps halfway into the slope on nearly every step. The most unnerving move was when I'd cross my left foot in front of my right to kick the next step with the left foot. I was always happy to then uncross my feet as I brought the right foot around to kick the next step. My axe I would plunge as deep as I could into the slope above me, often up to the hilt after a second stab. Even then I worried, wondering if it would hold my weigth if my feet happen to slip out. As I reached the uphill side of a large tree half way across the traverse, I relaxed momentarily, knowing I had a short time of relative safety, even taking a moment to photograph Matthew on the route behind me. I spent a few minutes here, resting my nerves and pounding out a flat platform "for Matthew", just an excuse to linger longer. Then it was back to the insecure feeling of the traverse. I built up a steady and regular rhythm, beating my feet into the snow as my left arm ached from repeated plantings of the axe. All that endurance suffering seemed to be paying off as we spent over an hour on this traverse alone. I was somewhat relieved to know that Matthew was in similar shape and could keep up the extended effort as long as needed - this was no place to run out of energy. None of this offered much comfort and I had to admit as I was making the traverse that if I had known the conditions I would never have suggested we go this way. It was just too unnerving to call it "fun."
Where the traverse ended, we entered the second chute about 2/3 of the way up, and the angle of the slope lessened some. The snow was softer here as well, and felt safer as I kicked the easy final steps to the rim of Half Dome's west shoulder. I hiked around the chute to a point NW of Matthew to get a few pictures of him finishing the traverse and climbing the to the top of the 2nd chute. We were both glad to be done with that section, and took a needed rest.
Though the sky had grown increasingly overcast as we were climbing the route, it never seemed too threatening and we got no precipitation all day. Our winter route had now given way to a dry, spring-like day, with some mixed sunshine and very little snow on the west side of Half Dome. It was 2p when we exited the chute and too late we decided for the climb of Snake Dike. We didn't mind using headlamps to finish the day, but using them to descend from Half Dome's summit was a very real possibility, and without the cables being up and unknown snow conditions to be found on that side, we felt we'd had enough excitement. Instead, I suggested we could descend LeConte Gully near Grizzly Peak which I'd hoped to do two days earlier. That day, Matthew had talked me into climbing Mt. Broderick instead, and LeConte Gully was left for another day.
We scrambled out to the Diving Board along an interesting wave-like, knife-edged slab of granite with over 1,000ft of vertical on its north side. Looking over the edge was unnerving, particularly when I pointed out to Matthew the clean exfolliating cracks that had formed some five feet back from the edge. It was pretty clear which part of the rock was next to go, though it might be 5,000 years or as soon as five minutes for all we knew. From the Diving Board we followed the curving ridgeline of the shoulder down to the notch at Grizzly Peak which marks the top of LeConte Gully. What started off as an easy walk along the gently down-sloping granite slabs of the shoulder turned into some moderately heavy bushwhacking before reaching the notch. Perhaps it might have been a good idea to follow those ducks along the shoulder that we were making fun of at first...
LeConte Gully is a straight shot down from the shoulder to Happy Isle, perhaps a half mile and 2,000ft to the Valley floor. From the top of the gully we could hear the Merced River and see cars in the JMT parking lot - it was that close. Still, it took us an hour and a half to go that last half mile. Steep the whole way, we negotiated the upper half of the gully by carefully keeping to the south side of the gully, near Grizzly's West Face. The main channel looked to contain more rocky sections that might have necessitated rappels. From the halfway point we could see a tree-covered ledge down below and heading to the left, likely the route suggested by Roper in his guide that uses part of the Sierra Point Trail. We did a good job of descending lower without having to break out the rope until we found ourselves at the end of a buttress splitting the main gully to the north from a side gully on our left. We did a series of two rappels to get off the buttress and into the side gully where we could have taken the ledge off towards Sierra Point. Instead, we chose to continue down the gully directly, encountering the need for a third and final rappel lower down. It seemed possible that all three sections could have been avoided with class 4 or easy class 5 climbing - but at the time the prospect of easy class 5 downclimbing didn't seem all that easy, nor as much fun as the rappels turned out to be.
Below the third rappel the slope lessened into a class 2 boulder field followed by a descent through the wooded slopes below to Happy Isle. After the rappel, Matthew went ahead while I packed up the rope, and I didn't catch up to him until he paused to wait for me at the bridge over the Merced. It was after 6p when we returned to the car, a bit disappointed that we didn't get a crack at Snake Dike, but content that we had had an exciting, full, and happily injury-free day.
Matthew adds: I'm not sure if you saw all the rockfall, but some of it was *way* bigger than a breadbox (I saw a piece come down that was at least the size of a refrigerator... no exaggeration)--it would have pulverised us if we were just half an hour later. To call that rockfall unnerving is an understatement... it scared the hell out of me. That was really weighing on my mind as we headed over to the traverse, because it seemed we had no retreat option if we encountered ice in the chute.
P.S. I woke up very early as promised, but proved to be quite bad at judging what time it was. :-)
Bob responds: Hmmm. I have to admit that Matthew was certainly in a better (closer) position to judge the rockfall. Still, I question that it could have been as big as a refrigerator - I would have expected something that big to be ferociously loud on impact, easily heard far down in the Valley. A refrigerator is a mean-sized chunk of rock - I suppose I would have been more than just unnerved if I'd seen that come down too.
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