Fri, Jun 8, 2012
Laura was suffering from a foot injury and was unable to join us in the morning, but there were still three of us in the JMT parking lot in Yosemite Valley for the 4a meeting time. The plan was to hike by headlamp for the first hour and be the first at the base of Half Dome for the start of Snake Dike, a popular climb. As was becoming more usual, Adam was slow to get his act together and we didn't get a start on the JMT at Happy Isle until nearly 5a. By then it was beginning to grow light out and we needed the headlamps for only a few minutes before there was sufficient daylight to see by.
We stopped briefly at the first bridge to take a few photos of Vernal Fall, then started up the Mist Trail, having it nearly to ourselves save for a few other parties of Half Dome hikers. It was 5:40a by the time we reached the top of Vernal Fall and 6a when we left the trail to head around the west side of Liberty Cap on a climbers' use trail. I chose this route that leads to the gap between Liberty Cap and Mt. Broderick not because it's faster (it's easier to stay on the main trail and go around the east side of Liberty Cap) but because it's more adventurous. Adam and Tom seemed to agree and the three of us spent an enjoyable half hour exploring this small canyon wedged between the two large granite domes. In the forest on the southeast side of Broderick we came across the first of many ducks indicating one of several routes to the start of Snake Dike. We hiked past Lost Lake and followed the ducks leading to the base of the South Side, an option that has more slabs and views and a bit less bushwhacking than other approach routes.
It was 8a when we reached the start on the southwest side of Half Dome. Another party was about 50 yards to the left off-route, discussing the matter before noticing us and following us to the start. Because our party of three was planning to simul-climb the route, I figured we'd be faster than the other two who planned to belay each pitch (I asked them specifically, to be sure) and didn't feel bad about beating them to the start. But the additional party put pressure on us to get moving and I failed to provide adequate instruction to Tom and Adam on rope management. Our plan was to climb with two ropes, myself trailing one in the lead, Tom trailing a second in the middle position. I would place Tiblocs (gear that allows rope travel in only one direction - upwards) at distances less than the length of our shortest rope, using regular quick-draws at other bolts along the route. This way, the Tibloc would act to prevent a follower from pulling off the leader, and provide a top-rope-like protection to the follower. With five such devices, we could climb 4-5 pitches without having to stop and collect gear. The crucial point missing in the instruction was that the the follower must be responsible for managing rope slack. If he climbs faster than the leader, it is his job to take in excess rope (tying a figure 8 on a bight and clipping excess rope to the harness) and let it back out as appropriate.
And so I started off well enough, though perhaps the rock shoes were a bit slippery on the cold morning rock (scuffing them on the slabby granite helps warm them up). I placed the first Tibloc at what is normally the first belay point and continued onto the second pitch. I was trailing Laura's 70m rope while Tom would trail Adam's 60m length, giving us a LOT of rope to work with. The problem I quickly found was that the length was really too long and the rope drag quickly became a problem, even without placing much pro. The second pitch is devilish for rope drag as it traverse first to the right then back to the left before coming to the main dike that is followed the rest of the way up the route. Here we began to struggle as I pulled desperately against the rope being held partly by rope drag and partly by Tom struggling at the start of the route due to the cold rock shoes (he found similar problems with poor traction when the rock and shoes are cold). Much shouting ensued, though the problems didn't really go away.
Eventually we got Tom and Adam around the switchback of P2 and things went a bit smoother, though I still fought against the rope which was being held back by Tom. In the middle, he was stuck in a bad position, feeling me tugging the rope from above but unable to move forward with Adam below him. I had tried earlier to yell down to Adam to instruct him to take up the rope slack, but he ended up tying about half the rope off permanently, short-roping himself to Tom and doing no rope management at all. Still, we were climbing faster than the party below us once we got off the deck, so at least we weren't holding them up as an additional burden.
By the top of P6 I had run out of Tiblocs and paused to belay Tom and Adam up to the bolted stance. I apologized for my lack of instructions when we were all together and went about relaying the crucial, missing information concerning rope management. Ah - it was now making better sense to all of us. It was almost a shame that the route had only two roped pitches remaining as we finished those off in half an hour. I'm sure we could now do a much better job if we'd started over, but those are the breaks and hopefully a lesson or two learned in the process. Overall we didn't do too bad climbing the eight pitches in two and half hours.
It was 10:45a by the time we'd coiled the rope, packed away the gear and changed our rock shoes for boots. We spent the next 45 minutes climbing the 1,000ft of lower-angled slabs to the summit above. For some reason I had thought it was a 2,000-foot climb to the summit and had prepared the others for several hours of drudgery. This was one of those times I was quite happy to be quite wrong. The summit was fairly busy with the usual collection of folks, mostly milling about the higher north summit. I made a point of knocking over 30-40 cairns that had been built haphazardly about the summit to no special purpose than perhaps to pass the time. Tom and Adam made fun of me and built their own stacks of rocks just to give me more to knock over. Sometimes they're not very nice.
At the summit we took a break to eat what food we brought with us and take the usual collection of pictures. A young girl named Kirra was doing walk-overs at the summit and kindly consented to pose for a few snapshots. After about half an hour we gathered or stuff to descend and I suggested we might rap down the cable route as an alternate to simply walking down. The others were game, and where the route first begins to grow steep we used one of the poles to set up the rappel. This was by no means an efficient and swift way to descend. We could have walked down in less than ten minutes, but spent over an hour making three rappels in succession. Some of the delay was due to getting our gear in order (the three of us used prussiks to tie into the cables for safety while waiting, but the transition to the rappel requires some judicious prussik work that didn't go so smoothly at first), but more was due to the extra time I took to collect gear and trash that had been dropped from the cables and gotten lodged in various cracks in the fall-line to the south of the cables. Mostly it was a collection of empty water bottles, but the haul included 3-4 pairs of sunglasses (only one still usable), a knife with a six-inch blade, a trekking pole, and other stuff. The rappel was also an opportunity to take photos of the cable route from an angle not normally seen. Another byproduct of our long descent time was that we had plenty of time to listen to the comments of those going up and down the cable. For the most part, few were curious what the three of us were doing, but rather focused on their own fears and the fears of those around them, going up and down the cables. I knew that plenty of people regard it as very dangerous and struggle with both the mental and physical aspects of the climb up and down the cables, but I didn't realize what a high percentage of folks this included. Most everyone who went by us appeared nervous, anxiously asking those going the other way which way they intended to pass and such things. The weather was fine and the rock quite dry, but that didn't help those who had heard of the deaths on the Half Dome cables. Nevermind that those happened almost invariably on wet and icy conditions - this mountain was dangerous!
Once off the cables, we packed up our ropes and gear once again and headed down many steps on the shoulder to the start of the forest where a small group of folks were milling about the gentleman checking for permits (permits are only checked for the way up, not the way down, so they are not needed if climbing by one of the roped routes). We could have joined the moderate crowds and taken the trail eight or nine miles back to Happy Isle, but I had another bit of adventure in store - The Slabs. This is the climbers' route to the NW Face of Half Dome, a 3,000-foot mix of brush, slabs, talus and use trails that has for years served those aspiring to climb Half Dome's big wall routes first pioneered by Royal Robbins.
Though shorter by a number miles, the route down The Slabs does not save any time in returning to the Valley. It took us almost four hours to return to Curry Village whereas the trail would have been an hour shorter, but the difference in experience could hardly have been greater. The route starts by heading down forested slopes from where the Half Dome Trail starts up the shoulder. As one nears the NW Face, the forest gives way to brush through which a use trail has developed over the years. Rockfall from the face prevents trees from growing too close, allowing the more adaptable chapparal to dominate. There is plenty of trash that could be collected along the parts of the trail that follow closely along the base. Plastic water bottles dropped from above appear to the be greatest component, with the addition of other things climbers sometimes drop by accident, including slings, carabiners and other gear. There were a few tents set up near the start of the Regular Route and we paused here to take a few pictures and investigate the route. Some slings and bolts could be seen above us. A daypack had been left at the base of the route along with two pairs of approach shoes.
We lost our way for a short time by following too closely to the base of the NW Face. This led to some cliffs that forced us to backtrack until we found a steep, ugly route through some high willow along a narrow, dirty use trail. We were doubtful we were on the normal trail at this point as we could not imagine one carrying a large pack of climbing gear up or down this nasty section. But eventually we landed in the talus/slab central chute under the face which I knew to be the correct route.
Around 2:30p we began a series of fixed rope descents down some difficult sections in the central chute. Most climbers use ascenders to aid them on these ropes, but we had to manage without. The first went down in two sections over some wet slabs that I managed with some hand over hand techniques and the aid of knots tied into the rope. The lower part of the wet slab section was particularly steep and I did not make it appear pretty or safe in getting myself to the bottom. Tom and Adam did not trust the condition of the ropes nor my techniques in descending and decided to get out one of our own ropes that we were carrying. The ensuing delay this caused was the source of some frustration on my part, but my annoyance was hard to justify where safety is concerned. I was glad they were making their own decisions instead of simply following rashly.
The middle roped section was encountered a few minutes later. In fact it could be seen from the bottom of the upper rope if one knew where to look. This section had three rope strands descending a steep, broken staircase, tied at the top to a couple of bolts. Again I descended first to demonstrate. Though steeper, this section has plenty of broken features for foot and hand holds. Tom followed, choosing to rappel off one of the strands rather than repeat my hand over hand method. Adam decided again that he didn't trust the ropes and got out his own to rappel on. In all we spent probably an extra hour in the use of our own ropes, which accounted for the extra time this route took us vs. the Half Dome Trail.
The use trail grows better below the middle rope section as we descended for another 45 minutes on the now well-ducked route, bringing us closer to the valley floor. A third fixed rope is the lowest angle of the three but still a tricky affair to descend hand over hand. Helpful knots were fixed in the upper and lower thirds of the rope, but the middle section easily led to uncomfortable rope burns if one didn't take extra caution. Five minutes later we were at the bottom of the face where the route drops onto a talus fan. A fourth rope was installed here making the class 3 descent through tree roots easier. I disdained the use of the rope in this section but the other seemed to find it helpful. A short descent through talus leads to the forest, and five minutes later we were down on the trail that follows along the south side of Tenaya Creek.
We passed by the myriad of folks enjoying Mirror Lake, hiking out to the road where we used the courtesy shuttle to get us back to Curry Village. By now we were fairly tired and happy to use the bus to save us the last mile and half or so. It was 5:15p by the time we returned to our vehicles at Curry Village, making for a 12.5hr outing.
We found Laura at a table outside the Mountaineering shop, safeguarding a six pack of beer and another of hard cider, both cold. She had been tipped off as to our impending return while we were on the bus by Tom, and she had prepared the apre-climb festivities accordingly. We were set for the next hour, at least. Later, after showers, we would head to Yosemite Lodge where we had a fine dinner at the better establishment there and made plans for the following day. I had in mind an adventurous day scrambling around the Bridalveil Creek area. Laura had rested her foot and was preparing to joing the three of us for the fun. She'd get a bit more than she bargained for as it turned out...
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