Tue, Sep 18, 2018
Jackie had been wanting to do Snake Dike all summer and this would be our last opportunity, three days before she had to return to school for the Fall quarter. It would be the hardest hike she'd ever done and was understandably nervous. I wasn't sure how it would go either and was a bit aprehensive. It turns out adrenaline works wonders and was able to power her nicely through the long day. We had camped at the Old Big Oak Flat TH just outside the Valley so that we could get an early start. Having gone to bed by 8p the evening before, we had plenty of sleep and were both awake well before the 4a alarm. It wasn't the best of sleep with two of us somewhat cramped in the back of the Jeep, but it worked. After packing up our sleep gear and rearranging the van for daytime mode, we drove down to the Valley and parked in the JMT lot about half a mile from Happy Isle. We got started by headlamp at 5a, temperatures in the high 40s, cool but pleasant. I would be in t-shirt all day and Jackie would go to a tank top in the first 20min as she warmed up.
Once we reached Happy Isle, we used the lesser-used equestrian trail on the west side of the Merced River, following it past the Nature Center, the large water tank and over the Illouette bridge to join the Mist Trail above the bathroom, the lights glowing eerily. Once on the Mist Trail, we found ourselves among a collection of other headlamps bobbing up the trail on a moonless night with the sound of the subdued river off to our left. It wasn't the crowds of high summer, but there were usually headlamps to be seen somewhere, either ahead or behind us. We reached the top of Vernal Falls by 5:50a where a group of four older gentlemen asked us if we had our permits. Jackie told them we were going up the Snake Dike route and didn't need a permit. They had no idea what that meant, but then we didn't think it particularly appropriate that they were asking us about a permit, so we left it in a bit of a confusing state. We turned off our headlamps soon after crossing the bridge between the two waterfalls, and by 6:20a we'd reached our turnoff at the base of Liberty Cap. We had timed it well, we thought, as it was just light enough for the cross-country portion up to Lost Lake.
The more common approach goes up to the top of Nevada Fall before going around the east and north sides of Liberty Cap, but I've always taken the slightly shorter route through the narrow gap between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. There is a good use trail that leads around the west side of Liberty Cap, then once in the gap, one has to do some scrambling through boulders, mild brush and downed logs that change from year to year as high water events occasionally modify the layout of the terrain. The sun came up while we were making our way through here, finishing up around 7:15a when we connected with the regular ducked use trail near Lost Lake. We followed this around the south side of the marshy lake (not much of a lake this time of year), then followed more ducks north through brush and rock, up towards the base of Half Dome's South Face where the use trail follows along a series of slabby ledges to the west. It was 8:30a by the time we reached the start of the route in the shade on the southwest side of Half Dome. We were very happy to find we had the route to ourselves and wouldn't have to wait for other parties today.
We took a short break to eat some snacks and drink up before starting the route. It would be the last drink until we'd finished the roped portion of the climb. While Jackie had outshone me quite handily on our last visit to Pinnacles NP, this exposed granite slab climbing was another story and she would have some mental hurdles to get over. Consequently, I would lead the whole route and she would be glad for it. Having been on the route quite a few times already, my rack was quite small - two cams, two quickdraws, a couple spare carabiners, three slings and five Tiblocs (the latter for simul-climbing). We were ready to go by 8:45a when I started up the first pitch, a polished section with increasing gradient leading to a small roof. I placed a cam in the crack below the roof and started left to bypass it, only to find the cam pulled out as soon as it was weighted by the rope. I suck. I decided to place it at the start of the crack to the left of the roof where the placement was more solid, then continued up. The rope ran out before I could reach the anchor bolts (forgot to instruct my second to let me know when the rope is nearing the end), so I simply had Jackie walk up the first 10yds of the route until I could reach them (the SuperTopo guide says a 60m rope can reach this anchor but that seems a stretch). I then tied into the bolts and brought Jackie up to join me. I noticed other parties coming up the approach route, three in all, but they wouldn't be ready to climb until we were done with the second pitch.
The second pitch is the trickiest, traversing right on thin ledges before starting up a dike to the first bolt (which is hard to see until you've traversed out the required distance). Past this, an anchor is reached (the second "regular" belay spot), followed by a traverse back to the left to land me at another belay anchor directly above Jackie. I tied in here to belay Jackie for her first serious taste of slab climbing - 5.7 friction traverses that even had me a bit nervous. When she got up to the anchor bolts marking the start of the leftwards traverse, she grew nervous, her lack of confidence obvious. I would repeat the mantra "Trust the shoes" when she expressed doubts. When she'd say, "I'm going to fall!" I'd respond simply, "No, you're not." It didn't help that I'd completely missed a convenient bolt halfway across this upper traverse, which Jackie pointed out. It certainly would have helped her confidence in knowing a fall was better protected, at least for the first half of the traverse. "Sorry about that," was all I could muster. She made it across safely, but her love of slab climbing was not enhanced, nor her confidence. At least we were now on the main dike climbing - steep, but much better holds.
Now we switched to simul-climbing just as the first party below was starting up. It would be the last we'd see of them as we climbed upwards almost continuously for the next hour to complete the last five pitches in one go. I placed gear sparingly, using a quickdraw or carabiner at the bolts or anchors I encountered, making sure to keep one Tibloc on the rope between us at all times as we climbed with its full length stretched between us. It was a fun, sunny stretch with clear skies and fine views of the Valley and the surrounding High Country, with none of the smoke that had pervaded the area a month earlier. By 10:30a we had finished with the rope, taking a second break to drink and pack up our gear. Jackie was in high spirits, her energy still strong, but now was time for the Endless Slabs - more than 1,000ft of lower-angled slab climbing that would keep us on our toes, literally. It's a calf workout you can't get in the gym, that seems to go on forever. I showed Jackie how to use a French technique (ala crampon climbing) to use sideways foot placements to make it easier on her calves, alternating left, then right, then back to front-pointing and repeating. After about 40min we caught sight of other persons above us, a sure sign that we were nearing the summit. There were 30-40 folks milling about the summit during our lunch break there, taking time for the usual posed pictures overlooking the Valley below. Though probably not a first, we figured Jackie's ascent must be one of the rare ones not first done via the Cable Route.
I gave some instructions on how to avoid the traffic jams on the cables as we started down. Though not as packed as in days of yore (before the permit system), there were still plenty of folks on the route, most of them clutching tightly to the cables, a few frozen with looks of terror. With leather gloves protecting our hands, we descended the entire route on the outside of the cables, using one of the steel strands as a handline. Jackie took to this quite naturally and we were down in only five minutes' time. We then packed the gloves away and decended Half Dome's shoulder via the slabs and steep stairways that lead down to the base of the mountain on the northeast side. There was no ranger checking permits as I'd seen in the past, perhaps because it was past the busy summer season or perhaps it's a somewhat random occurrence. We were treated to views of Tenaya Canyon and Clouds Rest before the trail turns off the ridgeline and begins dropping down through the forest towards Little Yosemite Valley. It was on this more mundane part of the trail that I thought Jackie's energy would begin to flag, but it never really did. She kept up a faster downhill pace than myself until we had reached Little Yosemite Valley where she was happy to be able to make use of the restroom facilities there. The crowds increased as we descended below the top of Nevada Fall and down to the top of Vernal Fall, perhaps one of the most popular hiking destinations in the park. We descended the Mist Trail, taking in the views we'd missed in the dark earlier, sharing them with hundreds of our fellow park visitors. We got back to the Jeep in the parking lot just before 3p, excellent time by both our reckoning. I was happy that we'd brought and consumed enough food and drink to keep us going for ten hours, not feeling bad at all at the end except for some tired muscles. We stopped in Half Dome Village for some cold drinks before driving back to San Jose. A good day, indeed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Half Dome
This page last updated: Wed Sep 19 19:10:36 2018
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