Sat, May 18, 2002
Snake Dike is one of the more famous climbing routes in Yosemite. It is considered a classic partly because it has fine climbing on a famous peak (which one would expect, of course), but also because of it's sheer improbability. Located on the SW side of Half Dome, on the side opposite the cable route, from both far and close up the rock appears too steep and featureless to hold a 5.7 route. But it does, and despite the long approach it is very popular. Get there early, or be prepared to wait in line.
With this in mind, we planned to start very early Saturday morning. We'd gone to bed early, just after 8p, with plans to be on the trail at 4a. Monty and Michael were in one tent cabin at Curry Village, I in another. Greg and his friend Tom were to join me sometime in the night. I didn't go to sleep right away, though I should have considering the 9 hrs of hiking I'd put in that day and I'd gotten up at 2a that morning. Around 10:30p or so I was awakened by Greg and Tom entering the cabin. They were very polite, making as little noise as possible as they brought their stuff in and settled in. Greg used his headlamp to provide illumination, though there was an overhead light with a pullstring only a few feet from his head. Either he didn't know the overhead light was there, or he was being courteous to keep the illumination to a minimum. As I lay there I considered telling Greg to go ahead and use the overhead light which would have made it easier for them to navigate, but I decided I was happier with them using the headlamp. The light was soon out and we all settled in to sleep.
I have a habit of waking up many times in the night when I feel I have to make sure I get up at a particular time. If I can't check the time I lie there wondering if I missed the faint alarm on my watch (which has happened more than a few times). So I kept my headlamp next to the bed so I could check my watch when I woke up. The last time I did this it was 3:15a. I easily went back to sleep only to be wakened by the soft beep - beep of my watch at 3:30a. As I stretched to rise out of bed and wake the others, Greg's much more forceful alarm went off just 30 seconds behind mine, and we were quickly up, dressing and getting ready - no need to drag anyone out of bed. I packed up my stuff and loaded it in my car, then moved my car to the larger parking lot to the east. A party of four were getting ready when I parked my car. Two guys and two gals, they were a young group, and I asked where they were headed. "Half Dome" was the reply, but I surmised it wasn't to climb Snake Dike by the lack of gear they had (always good to keep an eye on the competition to the base of the route). Greg and Tom were out at their car packing up as I walked back in, but had a small problem to contend with. Tom didn't know the Snake Dike route was a carryover, meaning we weren't coming back to the base of the climb when we were done. He'd packed up a large pack assuming he could leave unneeded gear at the base. Greg was working with him to repack gear while I went to get Monty and Michael. They were up and about, but weren't really ready to leave at 4a either. Things just seem to go a little slower at that early time of the morning. I was eating an apple (my breakfast) as the three of us went back to the parking lot to get the others, and at shortly after 4:15a we were heading towards Happy Isle.
It was quite dark when we started, bright stars visible through the treetops. It looked like it would be another fine day. We had headlamps blazing as we headed out, but I only used mine for about 15 minutes before I realized I could navigate quite well with Greg's in front of me. At the bridge Michael stopped to take a bathroom break at the fine restroom facilities we found at the other side. This turned into a major reststop only a mile from Happy Isle as we decided to take advantage of the opportunity as well, and shed some clothes that were keeping us too warm. We wisely chose to take the JMT rather than the Mist Trail in the early morning to avoid the guaranteed soaking we'd have received. The "wisely" part has to exclude me, because I think I was the one who voted for the Mist Trail, thinking "Oh, how much can a little water hurt?" I was drenched in the afternoon on the way back and was a bit cold as well, so I imagine I would have been freezing and kicking myself soundly had we taken the Mist Trail on my advice. By 5a it was light enough to forgo all the headlamps, and we climbed steadily up the JMT switchbacks. Our packs weighed around 30lbs, each of us carrying a rope or climbing rack in addition to the personal gear, water, and clothing we carried. For me this was the least enjoyable part of the climb - I felt like a pack mule on a well-worn trail. This route between Happy Isle and Nevada Falls I have been on something like a dozen times now, more than any other trail in the Sierra - I'm always happier travelling on new ground rather than rehashing the familiar.
Once we topped out on the JMT switchbacks, we got great views of Half Dome, Broderick, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Falls, all lined up left to right, their features still muted in the pre-dawn darkness. The trail here levels off as it now climbs gently to the upper end of Nevada Falls. Water runs from the cliffs that line the right side of the trail, which had been blasted out of the cliff back in the 1930's. We danced around the puddles and dodged the water dripping overhead. Now I was having fun.
Greg and Tom had hiked off ahead of us, and we found them resting at the permanent bathroom on the other side of the Merced River at the top of the Mist Trail. After Monty had a chance to partake of the building's primary purpose (Michael and I had been unable to hold out as long as Monty), we headed out again. Less than a mile up the trail we headed left at what looked to be an obviously marked use trail. It headed up a hundred feet or so before leveling off on the granite skirt around the NE side of Liberty Cap. Ah, new territory, and I was in my happy place. A bit to our surprise, the use trail just sort of petered out and we were left with a fine view looking down on Lost Lake and Half Dome's backside with Snake Dike on the left in profile. All of us were a bit surprised at the amount of elevation we had to lose to get down to the lake.
"Isn't there a way to contour left without losing elevation?" some asked.
"Nope. The lake drains to the left so we'd have to lose even more elevation." I replied.
Disappointed, but not deterred, we headed down. There were some cairns we spotted to guide the way to the use trail we expected to pick up again down in the forest around the lake. Surprisingly, we found ourselves soloing one section that we probably shouldn't have, though it provided some good laughs. It wouldn't have been so funny if one of us had gotten hurt, I'm sure. We picked up the use trail and headed west. As we started to lose elevation, I reckoned we were heading the wrong way.
"Hey, I think this goes back down to the Mist Trail. I think we're going down the other approach route," I surmised.
We all stopped. We looked one way, then the other. "Good save," someone commented as we headed back the other way. None of us had been on this climb before, so we were all banking on a combination of beta and instinct. We found another trail that led us to the lake (it actually looked like a lake due to the spring runoff, but undoubtedly it's fairly shallow as it's in the process of becoming a meadow and is described as a swamp most of the summer) and followed it along the south side. The trail led us to the small saddle between Broderick and Half Dome, and after that it sort of just went away. We spotted three other climbers (from a party of four ahead of us) scrambling up the class 3 section several hundred yards NW of us. Between us was what looked like some unpleasant bushwhacking and not-so-exiting talus hoping. At this point Greg brought to our collective attention that his beta had said to go to the South Face of Half Dome directly rather than taking the diagonal traversing route. Looking up, the South Face appeared to be mostly smooth slopes that offered little hope for a class 3 route. But we trusted Greg and his beta and besides, it sounded more fun than the alternative.
In the lead, I happily charged off to the South Face. Almost immediately I had to dive under some bushes and crawl through some 10 or 15 feet. No one was complimenting me on my route-finding skills anymore. A bit of talus hopping, more bushes, and we were soon at the South Face. It was steep but broken in places above with ledges where we could see shrubs and grasses growing. Directly in front of us the slope was all friction climbing and steep. At this point it wasn't obvious if we should try to head up (scary) or fight more bushes to head right where we could climb higher to reach the ledges. Tom started heading straight up thinking the friction climb wouldn't be too bad. I looked at the traverse to the right through more bush and passed on it, then Greg tried climbing a small flake to get around it. General mayhem ensued as nobody was willing to trust anyone else to lead anymore, and we all went about independently trying to make our way to the ledges above. We all knew where we wanted to get to, but just didn't agree on what the best way to get there was.
After watching Greg express less-than-enthusiam for his variation, I reconsidered the bushwhack and dove in. Mostly it was a series of short ups and downs where the bushes pushed up against the smooth granite walls. I leaned awkwardly into the rock and let my feet fall where they may, and sort of scooted myself through the varying sections. The traverse eventually lead higher where it looked to meet the ledges further up. Tom gave up his attempt at the friction climb, and everyone eventually found themselves following some variation of the route I pressed on with. It is always somewhat comical watching a group bushwhack (just saying "group bushwhack" is pretty darned funny, too), particularly if you've already made it through the hard sections. Resting above the last of these, the others joined me one by one and turned to watch the others have their go at it. Everyone used a slightly different style of attack, but all were ultimately successful. We all agreed that most (or all) of the bushwhack could have been avoided if we'd headed for the South Face earlier.
From our perch on the skirt we could fairly easily traverse left now to the beginning of the ledges. A use trail through here led the way west across the steep South Face. Most of the climbing is easy class 2 along nice ledges, punctuated with class 3 moves and some exposure to keep things interesting. It was really a very fun route at this point and I think we all enjoyed it a great deal. As we approached the SW side of Half Dome, the smooth granite gave way to braided use trails through the shrubs that were pretty easy to negotiate. One additional piece of beta suggested not heading to the start of the route directly to avoid the steeper scrambling, so we took a circular path in a clockwise fashion around it, coming in from the west. As we neared the end of the approach, we could see the other party already at the start and going about readying their gear. We tossed off our packs as we reached the start and greeted the others, who were a friendly quartet.
An older gentleman in the other group had climbed Snake Dike back in the 1970's and was leading the other three who, like us, had not been on the route previously. He told of coming to camp 4 to hang out and learn to climb. A few days later someone suggested he join them for a full-moon climb of Snake Dike. So many years ago, he'd now forgotten the details of the climb. Considering the decade, we asked if a little hooch hadn't contributed to those forgotten times, but the most he would admit to was that there was no partaking of such substances during the climb.
It was a fine morning, and the sun was still behind Half Dome, keeping us in the cool shade when we arrived at 8:15a. We were excited about the climb, but in no particular hurry now that we were at the start, so we didn't mind that the other group took some time to get ready. The other party was going to climb on two ropes, which we expected would make for relatively straightforward climbing. Our group of five had a necessarily different strategy - one rope of two (Greg and Tom) and a party of three (Monty, Michael, and myself). Greg and Tom had literally joined us at the last minute, so we had already planned a strategy for climbing with three that we hoped would be nearly as fast as a party of two. Michael and Monty planned to share the lead, and I would take up the rear on a second rope. The idea was to allow both the leader and the third person to climb at the same time: while the second belayed the first on lead up to the next pitch, I would climb a rope tied to the anchor and self-belay with a jumar device. I would then wait at the anchor position while the first belayed the second up to the next station (with the other end of my rope tied to the second's back). Once the second was up, he would clip my rope to the new anchor, and the process repeats itself. In theory, we should be able to climb as fast as a two-person rope since Michael and I would be climbing at the same time. We hadn't practiced this anywhere, but Michael and I had discussed it a good deal and felt we could make it work well enough. The folks queued up behind us would be wishing the same as well.
While we rested, ate a snack, and started flaking out our ropes, other groups started to arrive, the first about ten minutes behind us. Before the first group had started around 9a, there were about 15 climbers at the base milling about, learning the starting order, making small talk, and preparing for the long wait. We were more and more glad we had arrived when we did. We watched the first climber head up the first pitch, crossed under the roof without placing a piece of protection, and handily walk up the 5.7 friction slab to the left of the roof. He made it look pretty easy and smooth, and we fairly expected him to simply fly up the route. He belayed his partner with their second team's leader right on her tail, not wasting a moment. At the start of the second pitch things didn't go so smooth as the leader missed the traverse to the right and headed straight up some harder friction climbing. This caused some delay as he cautiously made his way along, trying a few variations. Michael was the first to notice the error (he had studied the route guides very thoroughly), and we eventually communicated this to the second team. By now it was too late and the lead climber had found the set of bolts above, protected on them, and continued to the next pair of belay bolts about 25 feet higher up.
By 10a we were able to start, and while Greg, Tom, and I hung about the base kabitzing away, Monty began belaying Michael who led off the first pitch. Now Michael had been really working on his leading skills over the last year. I had wanted to climb Snake Dike the previous summer, but Michael didn't feel we were up to the 5.7R rating it had. So while he practiced regularly in the gym and up at Castle Rock with Monty, I did none of it. I didn't really care if I got to lead the route, I just wanted to climb it. Michael finally had felt he was ready with his "lead head," and so we planned the climb this spring. Now he was off, and was about to get a taste of exposure on the sharp end of the rope. The first pitch starts out gently inclined, growing steeper as it approaches the roof. Michael calmly placed several pieces of protection before the roof, and another under it, before traversing left and doing the crux of that pitch. It was all very smooth, not slow, and showed his improvement over the year. There was a small traffic jam as Michael waited for the previous climbers to clear out of the belay station so Michael could go past it to the higher, bolted belay station 10 yards higher up. Once he set up his anchors there, Monty headed up. I paid out the second rope behind Monty to minimize the drag it presented, and he smoothly made his way up to Michael. While at the belay station, we heard a "ting ... ting ... and then Michael yelling "Rock!!" We stopped suddenly below, tense with anticipation as the object picked up speed and made leaping bounds, then relaxing some as we realized it would fall away to our right.
"Funny sounding rock," someone commented.
"I think it was his belay device," I chuckled as I imagined the embarassment Monty might be feeling with a dozen sets of eyes watching his goof. He seemed to take it in stride. Soon they had my rope tied into the anchor and it was my turn to head up. My jumar was clipped to my waist harness with a carabiner, the rope feeding through it. I wasn't planning to use the jumar to aid the climb (that would be cheating), but only to provide a safe belay on a fixed rope. As I climbed up I had to reach down and pull the rope through the device (it was self-locking in the other direction so in case of a fall it would hold the rope) from below, which I dutifully did every 10 feet or so, or whenever my right hand was not needed to grasp the rock. It was awkward at first, but I got used to it. Anytime the moves up ahead looked tricky, I'd just cinch the rope and go for it. It was easy to try harder moves I wouldn't have done on lead, and I bypassed the roof completely by heading up diagonally over some slick friction slabs below it. As I was about 15 yards below the belay station, I heard another crash, and then something else plummet down the slopes - it was Monty's radio which had come unhitched from his waste. In a few bounces it began to disintegrate rapidly and broke into a bunch of smaller pieces long before it dropped out of sight. By now everyone below must be thinking we're a bunch of Yahoos - no matter, we're having fun! Monty comments that he can't believe it, he hasn't dropped anything since ... since he dropped my radio off Polly Dome a few years ago. Michael noted that he had cleaverly tied his radio to his harness with a girth hitch to avoid such a blunder. Further, he had reduced excess weight by forgetting to bring batteries for it, rendering it nearly as useless as Monty's model now part of the talus debris.
I reached the belay station while Monty, now on lead, was less than 10 yards out on the traverse right that starts the second pitch (we were supposed to be climbing at the same time). My climbing was pretty easy compared to the leader's job. I was liking this - I didn't have to belay anybody, so my arms wouldn't get tired, and I had plenty of time to take in the views, take pictures, and relax. The sun had finally come out from around the corner and began to warm up nicely. I couldn't decide if I should leave my light jacket on or take it off, the conditions I found to be somewhere in between - nearly ideal really. Greg came up to the first station behind me, and waited 10 feet below for Michael to clear out. And in time, Monty reached belay station 2 1/2 on the main dike, and we continued on. After I had climbed the first pitch my rope was trailing back down to the start and I was worried that it would snag when our second hauled it back up again or that it would get in the way of climbers below. It seemed rather clumsy and possibly rude to let the rope just hang down there.
When Michael reached Monty for the start of the third pitch, Michael relinquished the lead to Monty. Michael had been somewhat spooked following as second on the traverse, and had lost his confidence or "lead head." Monty was happy to continue on lead in front. The climbers before us were now almost out of sight, and were no longer impeding progress on those below. That was now our position, as I looked down from time to time at the folks below. I counted 15 climbers after Tom and Greg, for a total of 24 climbers on the route today. I imagined it might be dark before the final climbers reached the summit. While we weren't speed climbing, we also weren't all that slow, and our technique and efficiency picked up with each pitch. There were few places to place natural protection now, and most of it was clipping into established bolts spaced 50 to 75 feet apart (the "R" in the 5.7R rating is for "runnout" between protection, which is somewhat spooky at these distances. While the climbing isn't that hard on the runnout sections, the leader has to contend with the psychological torment of what a 150-foot fall will feel like.
I continued to have it easy. On the second pitch I chose to bypass the traverse and do the friction climb straight up, something like 5.8 I suppose. But with a fixed rope hanging straight down, there was little danger I would fall far. I wouldn't have tried the harder variations on lead, to be sure. I took pictures of climbers above and below me whenever I had some time to kill, and there was a lot of it. But rather than getting impatient, the perfect weather made it very easy to just enjoy the moments as the drifted by.
I watched Greg (who has the most climbing experience of the five of us) at one belay station as he very neatly set up a sling to flake the rope into as he belayed Tom up to him. He deftly flaked 4-foot lengths of rope in a loop on one side of the sling, then the other side to balance it, then repeating back and forth. This gave me the idea to do something similar to keep my rope from hanging down far below me. I had been periodically (every 10 yards or so) tying into the rope as it played out below me while I climbed as a backup to the jumar. Now, rather than untying the last hitch and tying in a closer one, I just collected the loops on a carabiner attached to my harness. In this way, the rope never hung more than about 5 yards below me. Then, while Michael was climbing (and hauling my rope) as I rested, I would untie each loop in turn and play them out behind Michael. Greg was also helpful when he saw me pulling rope through the jumar device. Now and then, the carabiner holding it to my harness would have its gate opened by the rope passing by. Greg gave me a locking carabiner from his fine collection which made that little problem just go away. To help keep the line moving, I would signal for Greg to lead up once Michael had left the belay station, or shortly before anticipating him doing so.
Michael and Monty also learned to better handle the second rope they'd been dragging behind for me. At first, they would tie the rope into the anchor as the second reached the end of the pitch, then untie the rope from the second's back. They soon realized (once they had stopped switching lead) that the rope end could stay permanently tied to the second's back.
The third pitch begins the main dike climbing, and the route goes up this most improbable bulge of extruded rock that has been forced through a large crack running up the granite face for hundreds of feet. The dike material, a conglomerate different from the granite on either side, was full of bumps and dimples that made for great foot and hand holds. I didn't quite think them the "bomber jugs" that have been described in the beta, but they were still pretty good. Once I reached the end of a pitch, I would clip two slings that I'd attached to my waist for just this purpose to each of the two bolts that would be at the belay station. I was fairly successful at not putting my weight on the bolts while I sat around, as I considered that cheating to a degree. Michael, who was also attached to the bolts while he belayed Monty above him, had no such qualms, and would happily trust the bolts to hold him while he leaned away to belay (easier to watch Monty that way).
I continued to learn new things at each pitch that made the process easier. I had been removing the jumar from my harness and the attaching carabiner at the end of each pitch to allow the rope to be fed back up to Michael as he dragged my rope. By the third pitch I had realized I could leave the jumar & carabiner attached to my harness, fix the jumar to let the rope out of the locking mechanism, and play the rope out through the carabiner. No more need to unhook and rehook gear, and less chance of dropping something near and dear to me.
Four beautiful pitches took us up the steepest part before the gradient started to lessen and we could no longer see the base of the climb. The seventh pitch was fairly easy, little more than class 3, and we sensed the climb coming to an end. Michael took over the lead for the last pitch, and promptly headed straight up and off-route. Only 10 yards above us, he made an easy target for the good-natured jabs Monty, myself, and Greg tossed his way. At a small roof Michael traversed left with a bit of a lieback (maybe more of a "leanback") as he shuffled left, hunched over with his fingers moving along the crack under the roof. Going second, Monty had an easier time by heading left at the start before heading up. As another little challenge, I chose to go straight up as Michael did, but then climbed the tougher friction slope above the small roof (so small it was an easy step to get on top) straight up to the final belay station.
Greg and Tom followed shortly behind while the rest of us were putting our gear away, coiling ropes, and taking a break. It was shortly before 3p when we finished with the ropes, though we still had the "endless class 3" slopes above. I was about to change into my hiking boots when the others talked me out of it. Good thing they did, because those upper slopes could be quite dangerous in my regular boots. With the climbing shoes there was plenty of friction to make it safe, but as we found, it did seem endless. We'd climbed perhaps a thousand feet on rope, and had another thousand feet to climb to the summit. Up and up we went, calves getting a great workout. As we went up, we naturally spread out, as each went according to his own pace. Used to being out in front on such climbing, I was surprised to see Tom close on my tail as we headed up, with Monty, Michael, and Greg stretching back below as expected. I sensed a bit of friendly competition - could Tom really climb faster than me? I didn't pick up the pace, but I stopped taking breaks every 50 feet like I'd been doing to wait a bit for the others and catch my breath. I just forged on, calves burning, lungs heaving. Tom stuck close for about five minutes, which put him on par with Monty's brother (from Whitney), what I would consider a very strong hiker. In fact for a short while I thought he might hang in there all the way to the summit. I reached the top (or rather the rounded south summit) at 3:15p, and quickly found the place rather crowded. There were a hundred climbers scurrying about the summit, all of them having come up the cable route which had just been put up for the season a few days earlier.
Coming up only a few minutes later, Tom remarked, "Damn, I thought I was in good shape!" That made me laugh and I tried to assure him that he was in very good shape. The other three came in due time, and we took another break for snacks, water, and of course more photos. I started thinking about the descent and getting back to San Jose. Michael and Monty were staying the night in Curry Village with friends and significant others, but I had planned to drive back to San Jose. So I decided to leave the others, and descend quickly in about 3 hours, which would get me back to San Jose before 11p. I stopped off at the actual summit to get the classic photo of the Valley under the NW face as well of a shot of the boys resting back at the south summit knoll (just across the snowfield), before heading down the cables.
As expected, there was the usual traffic jam on the cables at various locations. Either through fear or exhaustion, there are usually few slow or frozen climbers that hold up the line or force traffic around them, much like a stranded vehicle on a busy street. Having done this before, I chose to travel on the sidewalk and ducked under one of the cable handrails. With my right hand loosely holding the cable for security, I quickly descending on the left side outside the main thoroughfare. I blew by dozens of climbers in the queue this way, before I noticed a group on the way up doing the same thing about halfway down. At a gap in the line, I ducked back under the cable and then to the opposite side and completed the descent on the right side at 3:30p, having done the whole 500 feet of the cable route in something like four minutes.
As I headed down the Half Dome Trail, I was surprised by the number of climbers that were still heading up to the summit. I wondered if they realized it might be dark before they returned and whether they were prepared for such an eventuality. Oh well, their problem. I mixed a bit of jogging on the downhills with fast walking to see if I might not be able to get back in two hours. The pack was too heavy to do this without exhausting me and I eventually abandoned the jogging part of it - I had spent a horrible few hours recovering from a run down this trail a few years earlier, and that memory had not yet faded. About a mile before Little Yosemite I came across the four climbers that had started ahead of us. They had just returned from retrieving their camping gear at Lost Lake and were fully loaded. They said it had taken them an hour and a half to retrieve their stuff, which means they had to finish at least that long before we did, as I doubted they came down from the summit any faster. That wasn't too bad, since we had started an hour after them in the morning.
At the top of Nevada Falls I took a break at the river's edge to soak my feet and wash my face and head. From past experience I've found that the water helps the feet from overheating and then blistering, and washing the salt and sweat from my face is quite refreshing and helps rejuvenate me for the final march. I took the Mist Trail down from Nevada Falls, but the mist doesn't come into play until below the lower Vernal Falls. At Vernal Falls I climbed the granite slabs leading to the narrow trail cut into the cliff with a cable handrail on one side. It's mostly single file for about a hundred yards here. A young guy about 18 with a cigarette in one hand saw me climbing up with my laden pack and hurried to get in front of me. Now heading down slowly in front of me with one hand clutching the railing, he finally turned to me and said, "Oh, did you wanna pass?""Thanks," I replied cheerfully (supressing what I really wanted to say: "Oh no, I rather enjoy having my Wilderness experience enhanced by secondhand smoke.")
I got pleasantly soaked below Vernal Falls, as the spray and mist from the thunderous falls rose a hundred feet from the riverbed below to wet everything around. An impressive rainbow was on display as well, though capturing it on film is a race with water damage to one's camera. It was 6:05p when I returned to Curry Village and could dump my gear. I left the climbing rack in Monty's Trooper, the rest of the stuff in my car, and went to the showers for a well-anticipated freshening. With clean clothes and a clean body I felt much, much better. Curry Village and the rest of Yosemite was overflowing with visitors. We had thought it crowded on Friday, but Saturday was in full swing. So it wasn't too surprising I ran into people I knew. As I was leaving the shower I came across Michael's and Monty's significant others and friends, so I gave them an update on when to expect the boys back (they were back before 8p). I went to the store to get an ice cream before I left, and outside I ran into a friend from work and his family unexpectedly. After spending 20 minutes with them, I finally got on the road back to San Jose - that had to be the most fun climb I'd enjoyed yet!
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