Fri, Oct 18, 2002
This second climb of the route was an attempt to do it more correctly, searching out the correct route from the start, and making good time to the summit. And as a direct result of our increased diligence, we failed miserably a second time. Despite the fact that both Monty and I had been on that first attempt, we failed to find the start of the route and floundered about on the face for some three hours completely off-route. But at least it was a whole different part of the face that we hadn't seen before!
The day started with a very early morning drive from San Jose, initially scheduled to begin at 4a. There were difficulties in shuttling between Michael's and Monty's homes, resulting in vehicular abandonment, a switch to plan "B", and an hour's delay in getting to my home before we were on our way. Without much fanfare we made the four hour drive to Yosemite Valley and pulled into the parking lot at the stables, located on the far east end of the valley. At 9:30a we were ready to go and headed out towards Mirror Lake.
We hiked along the trail south of Tenaya Creek until shortly before reaching Mirror Lake. This was our first and biggest mistake since we missed the use trail about a quarter mile further up the trail, right at Mirror Lake. We hiked southeast through the woods and a dry streambed, looking for signs of a use trail, but found none. That should have been a clue we were off-route but we figured we'd run into it sooner or later. Or much later.
When we got to the base of the lower part of the mountain perhaps 250ft above the creek, we scrambled up a debris field of basketball-sized boulders to about as high as we could before hitting more solid granite cliffs. In the lead, I headed right before the apex of the debris pile to where I thought we could gain access to some ledges higher up. This lead quickly to a class 4 dihedral that was thinly covered in loose dirt and decaying leaves and twigs, as we were to find on most of the rocks along these cliffs. I hiked up the twenty feet or so, followed shortly by Monty, but Michael wasn't so easy to convince. He opted for a belay from the rope I carried in my pack, which I took out and handed to Monty while I went ahead to further scout out the route.
Our ledge system led diagonally up and to the right a good distance, and I followed it for over a hundred yards until I believed we had a way to climb up and head left in the direction I knew we had to go. I climbed back down, under oak branches and through large piles of leaves, and down a few steep sections (nothing more than class 3) back to the others. They were 20 feet below me, just packing up the rope as I arrived. I gave them the hoped-for news that the route looked to go on ahead, even if we didn't have a well-defined use trail. It was easy to imagine that some of the animal tracks were some sort of use trail, but that was all wishful thinking as we were well to the right of the correct route. We went back up to where I had climbed before, then took the left tack to continue traversing diagonally upward in that direction.
The route did go, but barely, and we were bushwhacking on cliffs, slipping on leaf-strewn ledges, and just making progress as we slowly made our way along. After about an hour and a half of this, I decided I was having a pretty good time and didn't really care if we made it to the base of the NW Face or not. Monty too seemed to enjoy the scramble, but Michael definitely did not. He announced that he was tired of crappy climbing on vegetated cliffs and would prefer if we found a trail or went back down. Of course we did neither. We reached the opening to a wide bowl that opened up with class 2 climbing almost to the base of the NW Face. Problem was it was too far right still, and ended up under the Diving Board. But it looked like it might offer an escape route to the left at the top of the bowl, and I offered to go check it out while the others rested. They readily agreed, and I got to explore this bowl even though I doubted it would go. I climbed up almost five hundred feet in the next ten minutes or so, trying to reach the top of the bowl quickly. Once there, I found a headwall that offered what might be a class 3 climb up to the left, but this very soon turned to class 4, then class 5, then class I-don't-care-what-I'm-going-back-down. It was too risky in my assessment, and even with a rope the protection was poor and there was no guarantee I'd get more than a hundred feet up (later, we could see from above that there was a cliff heading down the other side, so it was a good choice). I headed back down, taking a different route and nearly losing track of the others. My shouts were finally returned and I homed in on their location.
That option closed, we now continued to traverse right, descending slightly, to follow what looked like the only viable ledge system. A few class 3+ places were encountered, but since they were short they were handily overcome. It had been three hours now since we started the scramble part of this hiking and we still hadn't found any sign of a trail. We discussed our options. We could always backtrack the way we came we reasoned, taking a few hours to get back to the trail below. We decided we had some more time then to explore around, but would turn back in half an hour or so. Fortunately it was soon after this that we spotted the use trail and found ourselves on track.
By comparison to what we'd been climbing around on, the use trail seemed a highway. It ran level along the ledge to the right, well-ducked, and much travelled. The trail took us across the opening to another bowl, then started climbing the slabs just to the right of the bowl (this one also leads to a dead-end). The trail led up to the right further until we entered the drainage for the central bowl leading up to the NW Face. Here was the route Monty and I had taken previously as its familiarity came flooding back. There were two fixed rope sections that we came across where the climbing was class 4-5. I made a point to avoid using the ropes, mostly so that I'd know I could climb it again if the ropes were removed. The route zigzagged a bit, but mostly right up the gully, and it was 3p when we finally hauled our butts up to the NW Face of Half Dome. The view directly up from this point is neck-wrenching, disorienting, and quite incredible. Two thousand feet pretty much straight up on a wall half a mile wide, and smooth... very smooth.
We took a break here to consider strategy. Our original plan had been to head right at this point and explore the purported class 3 route around the west side of Half Dome. I was still very much in favor of this plan and said so. Michael was thinking it was getting late, and he'd had enough of adventure for one day, and would prefer heading left towards the Half Dome Trail. Both Monty and I had been that way before and found it nothing special, certainly not really worth repeating. Further, Michael said he'd prefer not to go alone, but he would if Monty and I wanted to go the other way. This left Monty in a bit of a pickle - does he show loyalty for Michael and go with him to the left, or go with Bob (who seems to care little for loyalty) on the more adventurous route? He pondered this for a good 30 seconds or so before deciding to join me. So as Michael headed off alone to the left, Monty and I went right. After we'd been climbing a few minutes I told Monty that if he had decided to go with Michael I would have joined him as well. "Oh, I wish you had told me that, then I would have said let's go with Michael," he commented. "Yes," I said with a laugh, "that's why I didn't tell you that ahead of time. I wanted you to make the selfish decision all by yourself."
The scrambling here was really quite fun. What looked like a difficult section from below was little more than class 2 over mostly solid rock. We found lots of climbing debris along the base of the face, from a full rope (weathered at least a full season) to empty food tins and water jugs, and even an empty can of Old English 800. We didn't take any of the stuff we found along the way here. Once we reached what we thought was the shoulder or notch leading to the west side, we found we had another gulf to cross to the true notch. This involved some very tricky downclimbing through scrub-covered cliffs for maybe 75 feet along with some class 5.easy moves too. Then we scooted along a ledge over to the gully leading up to the true notch and climbed this to the top, arriving there about 4:15p.
The other side of the notch is easy class 2 climbing, but we first wandered out on a knife-edge (with 500 feet of vertical on one side) towards the famous Diving Board. Many folks mistakenly believe this feature to be located on the summit of Half Dome, and indeed there is an overhanging section there that resembles it. But the Diving Board is actually located on the West Shoulder, clearly visible from below if pointed out to you. I went out to the rock formation so that Monty could get my picture on it. I had thought I could dangle my feet over the edge or otherwise stand at the precipe for a dramatic photo. But when I got there I found the top of the thing horribly slanted down to the west, and I had no cajones to try standing on the thing. The best I could muster was a crawl halfway out with my hands clutching over the east edge of the rock. I did not feel safe in the least, and imagined the whole thing just giving way under my weight. Fortunately it didn't, and I crawled back off as soon as the photo was taken.
We turned our attention to the descent now, which we expected to be pretty easy. It was. What did surprise us was the burned-out forest we found on this side of Half Dome. We had been up Snake Dike earlier in the summer (in May), and there had been no fire then. Now it seemed that most of the forest and underbrush on this side of Half Dome had been consumed in flames. The trees still sported most of their needles, but they were all brown and dead. The underbrush was completely cleared out, leaving a thick pile of ash that was over a foot deep in places. On the one hand it made travel through here easy (no navigation skill required), but the deep ash was unsettling. It seemed that no rain had been here since the burn to help dampen and disperse the ash. We walked through what was left of the forest, tracing a route that brought us to the Snake Dike approach. The air was quite hazy from an unrelated controlled burn taking place somewhere south of the Glacier Point Road, and the pictures we took were marginal at best. Oh well. We still had fun descending the class 2-3 slabs along the south side of Half Dome here.
We reached Lost Lake (now dry) below Half Dome's South Face shortly after 6p. We still had some daylight left, but not much. We decided to take an adventurous route back to the John Muir Trail that goes between Liberty Cap and Mt. Broderick. Neither of us had taken this route before and wished to check it out. It was quite nice, passing through a narrow gap found between these two large domes, following a creek (now dry) down over boulders and through grassy areas. We nearly missed the left turn that follows around the west side of Liberty Cap which would have cost us dearly, but instead we back on the JMT not long after 6:30p. As we headed down the trail we wondered if Michael was ahead or behind us. His route was significantly longer in miles, but the route was easier. We continued down as the light faded, past Vernal Falls then stumbling down the Mist Trail. It was a game to see if we could manage without our headlamps. Sometime after 7p we reached Happy Isle and flagged down a bus that was coming our way along the road. It was nice to get a ride the last half mile back to the stables. As we rode along, we spotted a hiker with headlamp on the left side of the road. Michael! We asked the bus driver to stop (it was quite nice of him to stop for us as well as Michael since neither of us were at a bus stop). Michael was a bit surprised to see us calling to him from inside the bus as the driver opened the door. We were soon back at our car and then on to Curry Village for showers and pizza. I'm not sure in what order these were done, but suffice to say they were both enjoyed immensely!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Half Dome - Diving Board
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