Sat, Mar 8, 2003
My next plan would need to be a bit more involved, perhaps carrying a rope and shovel to allow me to dig out the cables (which lie flat on the rock during winter) and tie onto it as I climbed up. It would be slow and difficult work. Others had climbed unaided in the past, having even skied and snowboarded down the route, but I didn't think I could climb the 50 degree slopes unroped without it being a risk on my life. In February I was in Yosemite to climb nearby Mt. Starr King. During that hike, I could hardly fail to notice that the entire south side of Half Dome was completely snow-free. Perhaps the Snake Dike route on the Southwest face might offer the key to the summit this winter, I mused. Less than two weeks later, John from SummitPost asked the very same question online, and it was then that we hooked up and made plans to climb it together.
Both of us had climbed Snake Dike before, though neither had led it. That didn't seem too much of a problem as the routefinding is trivial, and I was eager to share the lead or do all the leading myself. The biggest problem we had to contend with we felt was time. Even in summer, it can be a long day starting from Yosemite Valley, but winter offered less daylight and the addition of snow to contend with, which could slow us down considerably. And the biggest unknown was whether we'd be able to take the usual descent route on the northeast side. The cables would be lying against the rock, partially buried in snow. There should be less snow/ice than on my previous visits, but it would need to be contended with. My earlier trip to Starr King had provided two valuable pieces of info. First, I knew the route to the start of Snake Dike would be entirely snow-free. This would make the climb to the start of the route go quickly. Secondly, I expected we could do without snowshoes altogether, lightening the loads we'd need to carry considerably. My first time on Snake Dike took over five hours, much more than we could afford with less daylight, so we needed a faster way to climb. Our plan was to use Petzl Tiblocs to simulclimb the route above the 5.7 crux found on the second pitch. This would allow us both to move on the easier sections at the same time, while protecting the leader from being pulled off should the second fall. A leader fall would have to be arrested by the second's weight, possibly after a long fall on this runout route. Because the route is fairly smooth granite with no ledges, there seemed a lesser concern for serious injury should a fall occur. We'd take axe and crampons to assist with the descent route. Should the Cable Route prove too difficult to descend, our backup plan was to downclimb/rappel Snake Dike, an effort we expected to be slow and hoped to avoid.
I had driven to Yosemite Valley early Friday morning so I could scramble around an extra day before the planned climb on Saturday. John was late for our rendevous at the Curry Pizza joint, and I was just settling down in the Upper Pines campground when John pulled in sometime before 10p. We slept out under the stars in unusually mild conditions, and I soon fell asleep helped by the day's exertions.
We were up around 5:15a, packed, ate breakfast, and drove to the trailhead which was right across the road. It would have been faster to walk to the trailhead, but by moving our vehicles, we avoided the nightly camping fee that was due to be collected around 8a. We had originally planned to start earlier in the day, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to reach Snake Dike too early - climbing in gloves and chilled temperatures wasn't too appealing to either of us. It was 6:15a when we headed out, stopping at Happy Isle for a bathroom break, before continuing on. We took the horse trail that starts near the Nature Center as an alternative to the hiker's trail that starts on the east side of the Merced River. Not because it was better or shorter - just different. It joins the regular trail at the first bridge crossing the Merced, the first view of Vernal Falls about a mile from the trailhead. Shortly after this we encountered the Closed Trail sign for the Mist Trail. We contemplated this for less than minute, as we'd both independently decided beforehand that we'd rather try the Mist Trail than the longer winter alternative. The water levels were unusually low and we expected little spray, and little mist. We were correct on this, and the trail was easily negotiated. Above Vernal Falls by 7:15a, we crossed a second bridge taking us back to the left side of the river. The Merced flows through a granite constriction under the bridge, rushing noisily by through a channel maybe eight feet wide. In winters past the granite walls here were caked with ice and snow, but today there were no frozen formations, just the rush of water. Climbing another 500 feet higher, we reached the base of Liberty Cap and left the trail.
We had decided at the last moment to take the shortcut route between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. Having found little snow on the way up, we were feeling brave and adventurous. There was still no snow as we rounded clockwise about the west side of Liberty Cap, but once we got to the narrow chasm between the two it was a different story. Very little sunlight penetrates in this gap, and what little snow did fall stayed around for the rest of the season. Our only real difficulty was in first climbing off the use trail and crossing the ice-hard snow to the north side of the gap. Here we had 15 feet of snow with a decent gradient to cross - trivial in crampons. But we were much too lazy for that, and we left them buried in the bottoms of our packs, figuring the only real danger was to our egos as we flailed across the oddly sloped section. And flail we did, as first John and then myself executed the awkward standing glissade/traverse which ultimately took us both down, but short of injury in the rocks guarding the lower boundary of the snow. After this it was an easy hike up the rest of the ravine, low angle now and easy enough to negotiate. We stopped halfway up to fill our water bottles from the stream that temporarily broke through the snow here and gave us some cold refreshment.
After climbing up the ravine, we hiked out on the north side where we first could, taking us across the east side of Mt. Broderick and on to Lost Lake. Normally dry in summertime, it not only had water in it, but was half frozen as well. We momentarily considered crossing the lake to the northwest shore, but that seemed a most foolish (and possibly dangerous) exercise, so instead we hiked through the trees on the southwest side of the lake along the usual approach route. From the end of the lake we headed north towards Half Dome's South Face. I convinced John I knew the easiest route up, but made sure we got a bit more bushwhacking than actually necessary in order to help round out the day's variety of adventuring. We eventually did find the fun class 3 traverse, and took this west around the base of Half Dome to the start of Snake Dike. We found the forest in the area here devoid of vegetation, the victim of a fire from the previous summer. The one positive thing we noted of the fire was it made it easy to find the start of the route, and allowed a good view of it from below.
Once at the start of Snake Dike, we took a short break to have a snack, put on our rock shoes, and get our climbing gear in better order. As John caught up to me here, I asked about preferences for leading. Since we'd both been up here previously without leading, I figured we'd both like to do as much of the lead climbing as possible. John replied with something like, "I'll lead if you want me to." So I was a bit more clear and commented that I wasn't trying to get out of the lead. In fact I'd be happy to lead the whole thing if he preferred. And that's just what John preferred it turned out, so we were both happy with the arrangement. We hiked up to a small tree about halfway up and to the left of the first pitch, 5.easy slab climbing. A bit spicy with a pack, but it would make the first pitch much shorter. Here we got out the rope and all our gear.
The key to climbing this quickly was to keep moving, and doing a simulclimb safely had taken us much email discussion which resulted in $100 investment in 5 Petzl TiBlocs. The price was a bit steep considering they're just a small piece of polished aluminum, but combined with a carabiner they make a pretty compact ascender. We could use these on a running belay to protect the leader from getting pulled off should the second fall. They work by only allowing the rope to go through in one direction. Thus, as I climb past the piece fixed to an anchor, I could pull the rope through, but if John pulled (or fell) on the rope, it would arrest it at the anchor point. The leader could still take a pretty long fall on this runnout route, stopped only by the weight of the second on the other end of the line. It was decidedly a good idea to not plan on falling of course. As the first two pitches were the hardest at 5.7, we climbed these one at a time, fully belaying the other from below or above. As I sat at the top of the first pitch and belayed John up, I was able to relax a bit and take in the absolutely gorgeous day we'd found for ourselves. I recalled counting 20+ individuals below me at this same spot nearly a year earlier in May. Now we were the only two anywhere to be seen. The weather could hardly have cooperated better. The warm sun allowed us to climb in very light jackets, a slight breeze kept us from working up a sweat.
The second pitch had the only uncertainty in route-finding. It traverses right, then up, then back left in a large backwards "C" shape. I had taken a harder variation when following previously that I wasn't about to repeat on lead. I wandered out on a flake that left me face climbing and looking about for the bolt I knew to be nearby. Though not hard face climbing, the image of the unpleasant pendulum I would take if I slipped made me nervous. I imagine I would have been downright gripped by this point if I was soloing. I finally spotted the bolted anchor, clipped in and continued up. I was feeling more confident in my shoes by this time, and the traverse back to the left, though more difficult, caused me less consternation. Back at the main dike I found the belay anchors marking the end of the second pitch, set up shop, and held the rope as John followed up. John climbed fine until the traverse back to the left about 20 feet away. He paused, got nervous, paused some more. "Trust the shoes..." I called out softly, as if offering him a mantra. I could see John playing games in his head, looking at the sloped face, the rope, and his shoes. After a minute he finally had mustered enough courage and walked easily across to join me.
From this point on it would be 5.6 (mostly 5.4) or easier climbing, almost straight up the dike. Time for the simulclimbing. I had the Tiblocs ready on my gear sling, and when John was ready to belay, I was off. At each of the first two bolts I placed a Tibloc and continued moving steadily until I ran out of rope. Now it was time for John to climb too. Two things I learned as we were in the process of executing this. First, it was only necessary to ensure a single Tibloc between myself and John in order to protect me from being pulled off. So from here on up I used an ordinary carabiner without the Tibloc on alternate bolts, which would let us simulclimb a much further distance. Secondly, rope management was a bit trickier than I thought. I tended to climb faster than John on most places, which would cause me to get pulled short if I tried to go further than our 60m rope would accomodate. In other places where I might hesitate, John could easily gain 20 feet quickly. If a loop of rope developed at John's feet, that wasn't a good thing as it meant a harder impact on the Tibloc should he fall (and possibly shredding the rope). So I took to holding the rope in one hand, pulling it up behind me, and letting it loop below me. Then as I climbed I let the rope slip back through my hand, and then I always knew when I was about to run out of rope. The trick was to have a semi-firm grip on the rope - enough to pull it up as John climbed, loose enough to let the rope slip through if the rope to John was taut. I would pause when the rope ran out and pull up a few dozen feet before continuing on. We continued in this fashion for five pitches before I ran out of Tiblocs and was forced to stop. Where it had taken nearly two hours for the first two pitches, these last five took less than half that. I set up an anchor with a few cams, and belayed John up to my spot. I enjoyed the time I had to take in the views around us, that naturally got better the higher we climbed. Mt. Starr King, and the Clark Range were wonderfully decorated in winter white. From here it was another single pitch and we were done with the roped section.
We climbed the interminable class 3 friction many hundreds of feet to the summit, arriving just after 2p. So far it seemed more like summer than winter. But as we reached the plateau we were greeted by a massive snowfield that fully covered the summit area. Now it felt more like spring - definitely not summer. Taking a few minutes to catch our breath and change out of our rock shoes, we then made our way north to the edge of the NW Face, and the highpoint of Half Dome. The ledges about the edge were covered in snow, and combined with the view down to Yosemite Valley it made one of the most sublime views of this oft-photographed scene I could recall. The winter ascent of Half Dome had finally succeeded.
There was much snow about us in the High Country, though Tenaya Canyon was surprising snow-free, and appeared passable from our vantage. I took in the views (and pictures, too) all around us - Mt. Hoffmann to the north, the Cathedral Range stretching northeast to southeast from Cathedral Peak on the left to Mts. Maclure and Lyell 10 miles to the right. The Clark Range was similarly snowy white, stretching from the southeast to the south. It was a fine view indeed. In typical fashion for me, this feeling of being on top of the world lasted all of about two and half minutes, and I was ready to head down. It isn't really the summit that motivates me - I just love to keep moving. Unburdened with the same restlessness, John was ready to have lunch and dig into the Subway sandwich he'd hauled to the top. He graciously offered to share it with me (lunch, what's that?), but I decided to head down to check out our descent route instead. I was anxious to see what difficulties we might be in for.
The snow was thinner where the summit began to slope downward and much of the rock was wet from melting snow. Thus it was necessary to step wisely to avoid the wet patches of rock, and keep my already wet boots from slipping on the dry portions where I stepped. I found a cache of poles not far from the top of the cables. A truly ambitious party could come out here in early spring and set up the poles to help out the Park Service, though I doubt it would be appreciated. The cables themselves were found lying against the rock as expected. They are not continuous from top to bottom, but are broken into three or four overlapping sections that are each anchored down on the ends and several places in the middle. From the top here the cables were mostly snow-free, at least the 50 yards I could see down the slope before the increasing angle blocked further view. John came down after he finished his lunch and we made preparations for our descent.
We planned to walk ourselves down as far as possible holding onto the cable for support. Though heavy, one could lift them up off the rock and grasp them with the hands, walking down backwards. I tied a prussik knot onto the cable and attached it to my harness for safetly in case I needed to rest or my hands slipped. I tied a second one to the parallel cable for backup, mainly because I didn't trust the prussik not to slip on the wet cable. With two of them forming a "V" to my harness, it seemed much safer. I put on a pair of wool gloves and a gortex overmitten to protect against the icy cold of the cables. The sun had done little to warm them. In this fashion I walked myself down slowly, slipping the prussiks with my gloves as I went. John followed about 20 feet above me. Most of the descent time was taken up with moving the prussiks around eyebolts that anchored the middle of the cables, and then again when a cable ended and a new one began. It was slow and tedious (and sometimes my gloves got wedged under the prussiks as I was slidding them down), but we made progress.
At the end of the second set of cables, we could start to see down the steepest slopes (about 50 degrees), and saw that the ends of the cables were buried in snow. I expended some effort pulling up the cables we were on to try to free them of snow and allow us to continue descending. I had to dig around to find the start of the next cable section and pull that up before we could switch the prussiks to the lower section. We continued down to where the snow was first several inches, then maybe a foot deep, and eventually I could no longer muster the strength to pull the cables up out of the snow. They were simply buried too far down in the ice and snow. From here we had about 200 feet remaining to the saddle below. If the snow held firmly, we could crampon our way down, axe in hand without difficulty. In fact it would probably be possible to descend in 30 seconds with huge plunge steps. But we had no confidence that the snow wouldn't slide underneath us in doing so, and it seemed to risky to attempt it. We knew the underlying rock was smooth granite with little else besides the cables to anchor the snow. So we got out the rope again, attached a sling to the cable, put the rope through the sling (the rope might have gotten stuck in the snow upon retrieval if we simply slipped the rope around the cable), and put on our crampons. This would be a first for me - rappelling with crampons and axe! Now our little adventure was feeling really fun and a bit spicy again. I went down first - taking special care to not step on the rope since the crampons were likely to be unforgiving in making contact. It was really great fun rapping down, and I was sorry to see the other end of the rope. And not just because I was having so much fun, but because we still weren't down to the saddle. The cables could be almost anywhere under the snow as there was no way to accurately determine where one would have to dig if we needed them for a second anchor. But I'm pretty sure I would have spent several hours trying if that's what we thought we needed. Fortunately the slope had begun to ease some, and with only a hundred feet to go, even a fall didn't seem disasterous at this point. I had been taking heavy steps during the rappel to test the conditions of the snow, and they seemed pretty good. Not slushy, and not exactly firm, the boots would sink in four to six inches with a heavy step. But nothing slid. So I took myself off the rope and began walking down the remaining slope. Walking gingerly at first, I was soon plunging my way down in a speedy fashion until I'd reached the saddle. I continued up the other side of the saddle a short way to the top of the shoulder, where I anticipated I could get some good shots of John making his way down in turn. It was just past 4p, having taken about an hour for the descent.
The whole northeast slope looked much more daunting from a distance, our rope looking like a thin thread dangling helplessly down the steep slope. John was a tiny figure making his way down the rappel, pulling the rope down when he was done, and then hiking down the remaining slope. As I watched John finish up with the segment of the climb, I made mental comparisons to my previous attempt when I had looked upon the face from this very spot and had been stopped cold. Having come down it now, it didn't look quite as fearsome as it had before. My next visit in winter would have to ascend the cables. Maybe.
It was 4:30p when we were ready to set off again from the top of the shoulder. We still had a steep descent down the shoulder's northeast side, though easily managed with crampons and axe. The snow was fairly deep with some breakable crust in the upper part that sent me in up past my knee in several places. The concern about breaking through and getting a foot caught between some rocks kept me from plunging down in wild abandon which of course would have been a great deal more fun. The bottom of the shoulder on the northeast side had some fine powder snow that was surprising considering it hadn't snowed in several weeks. By this time my boots and feet were thoroughly wet despite the gortex sock liners - these merely delayed the water getting through. My feet were starting to get cold too, but I knew there wasn't much snow left - we'd simply just have to keep moving to keep the feet sufficiently warm. Below the shoulder we were back in the forest, walking the rounded ridge between Half Dome and Clouds Rest. After a few hundred yards of trudging through snow we stopped to remove our crampons and put our axes and gloves away. It was getting cooler out as the sun was about to set behind Half Dome.
It was 5:15p now, and we'd have maybe an hour of daylight left. We could try to follow the Half Dome Trail down to Little Yosemite and Nevada Falls, but we knew that was a wide, arcing route that adds significant distance to the walk. I suggested we take a more direct tack, heading south cross-country in an attempt to reach Nevada Falls, bypassing Little Yosemite. John was fine with that idea, and as long as we got back to the trail before we couldn't see anymore, it seemed a pretty good one, too. So off we went, and as sometimes happens by sheer coincidence or dumb luck, we ran into no cliffs, no swamps or quagmires, we didn't get lost or disoriented, and we found ourselves back at Nevada Falls just as the light was failing.
Headlamps on now, we continued down the Mist Trail. John was happy to be at the end of the adventurous portion of the day, and slowed down to take the return to the Valley at a more leisurely pace while in my usual style I forged down the hundreds of steps in a hurried fashion, with thoughts of pizza and cold beer running around in my head. This resulted in my getting back more than an hour before John, and I used the time to grab a shower at Curry Village and then over to the pizza bar. I read my book while waiting for John, who still hadn't shown shortly before they were about to close the kitchen at 9p. So I ordered a pizza and a couple pints at the latest possible time they would let me. It came, I ate and drank, still no John. Sometime after 9:30p they started closing up the place and I had to leave. Where could John be? I got the rest of the pizza to go, leaving a full pint of ale to go to waste (I was too beat to drink a second one), and decided I better go look for John. I drove back to the parking lot, not really relishing the thought of hiking back up the trail at 10p. Fortunately I found John there, rearranging the gear in his car, evidently having gotten back some 45 minutes earlier. There was some small mixup on what time the pizza place closed, and John had thought they'd already shut up for the night and didn't bother to drive to Curry Village. He was happy to have some pizza that was at least room temperature if not actually hot. We moved back to the Upper Pines campground after John had finished, and slept quite soundly that night. Half Dome had been climbed in winter, though not by the route I had originally intended, and not under what could be compared to winter conditions. But that hardly mattered - we'd had a great time.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Half Dome
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