Half Dome Fail P1K SPS / WSC / YVF / CS
Lower Cathedral Rock Fail P300 YVF / CS

Apr 11, 2003
Half Dome
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Half Dome previously climbed Mar 8, 2003
Half Dome later climbed Jun 18, 2008
Lower Cathedral Rock later climbed Apr 16, 2005

Having a free weekend in April, I had made plans to learn some aid climbing basics with John and Craig in Yosemite Valley, and had even gone out and bought a pair of spanking new aiders. The weather forcast wasn't looking too good for the weekend, but I decided to go up early Friday and scramble around, then see whether it made sense to stay overnight. It ended up being a single-day trip as the weather started getting more threatening as the afternoon wore on, so I beat a hasty retreat. But I had fun full day of scrambling around the Valley that made all that driving worthwhile.

I didn't even have a plan as to where I'd scramble as I drove from San Jose, leaving at the early hour of 3:30a. But by the time I reached the foothills and climbed Old Priest Grade, I decided I would make another attempt on Grizzly Peak, this time by taking the circuitous route via The Slabs on Half Dome's NW side. This would serve three purposes: first, in two previous climbs up the slabs I was not able to locate the correct starting point, missing the first fixed rope section both times. I wanted to more carefully scout out the route and find the correct start. Secondly, I wanted to climb Grizzly Peak, having failed on a first attempt a month earlier, and the backside facing Half Dome is purportedly class 3. It seemed I ought to ge able to climb it solo easily enough. And lastly, I wanted to descend via the LeConte Gully, a steep decent route off the cliffs just north of Grizzly Peak that would take me directly down to Happy Isle. Because of its class 4 rating and my unfamiliarity with it, I took a short rope, a harness, and some slings to aid in rappel if needed (one party reported 5 rappels and many hours to descend this gully, but that sounded like a bit of overkill).

I left my car at the stables on the far east end of Yosemite Valley and struck off towards Mirror Lake at 7:30a. Taking the trail on the south side of Tenaya Creek, I came across two other early morning hikers, one setting up for a sunrise photo near the creek. Ten minutes later the sun would be rising on Mt. Watkins high above on the north side of the creek. I found the use trail marked by cairns near Mirror Lake easily enough. Apparently I had overshot it on the first attempt, undershot it on the second. It seems if one takes some time to look for a trail rather than marching blinding off into the rough, it shouldn't be to hard to locate. I followed the trail up to the top of a large talus fan where I stopped to fill my water bottles. It turned out there were plenty of water sources further up this time of year that I could have used, but I didn't want to get surprised by snow-covered streams or frozen sources.

From near the top of the talus fan, I followed the obvious route up to the right. A short rope four or five feet in length was tied to a tree branch overhead to help one climb an eroding section of the steep hillside. It was easy enough to do without the rope, but going up with an 85lb load to Half Dome's NW Face might make one appreciate a bit of help here. Above the tree a friction slope is aided with a longer static line that marks the first fixed-rope section that I had missed previously. I climbed the slope without weighting the rope, but I had it handy by my arm in case I slipped. It was a harder rock climb than it had looked from below, and I was glad to have the reassurance of the rope there.

A short ways above this first rope section I encountered the trail that we had finally found during my second attempt, having traversed over from far to the west. It was an easier climb from here, and I continued up the regular route, following numerous ducks. I had fine views of Half Dome above me, North Dome behind, and Yosemite Valley just awakening to the west. There was no sign of any approaching storm to be seen in that direction. At the top of the second fixed-rope section an interesting feature called Ahwiyah Point caught my attention, and I wondered if it could be scrambled (later I found it is rated class 3) as it looked quite difficult from my vantage point. I decided to take a different tack to the left through some bush to avoid the third fixed rope above. This turned out to be a mistake. I had hoped it might get me closer to Ahwiyah Point, but I soon gave that up as "not practical to get there from here", and fought my way up steep slopes covered in overgrown brush and trees. I burned up 30-40 extra minutes wading through that stuff before I finally emerged in the clear near the bottom the Northwest Face, in the center of the wide gully here. I would leave Ahwiyah Point for another time to explore.

I found the steep gully to the right (west) mostly filled with snow that had fallen a few weeks earlier, but had not yet melted. This was a bit unexpected. I thought I might find some snow that could be bypassed, but this looked a bit much since I had no axe or crampons with me. I tested the snow and found that it was soft, almost too soft for 10:30a. It had not frozen over night here. I started climbing. It was a bit tiring even though I did not have to kick steps. I had no gaiters either, so the snow would fall into my shoes and my feet began to get damp. Half way up I tried to climb out of the gully to the right on a mostly snow-free rock face that looked to have interesting class 3-4 climbing. Unfortunately almost all of the rock was wet, and as I found out, a bit treacherous. I kicked off some snow for foot placements that were dicey at best, and literally clawed my way up about 30-40 feet before I decided I was being a moron. A fall was looking more likely and would not be pretty as I bounced off the rocks to the snow below. I decided to retreat off the rock. This was even more difficult than going up, and I considered myself lucky to make it down without slipping. After my adrenaline subsided, I resumed the more time-consuming but safer climb up the snow in the middle of the gully.

The top of the gully proved hard to extract myself from. Not really dangerous or exposed, but deep, steep snow that I sunk in to my waist as I tried to get up the last 50 feet or so. This I finally managed, then a short walk over and down further to the west and the second gully that would finally lead to the shoulder on Half Dome's west side. Getting into the gully was the hard part as I recalled from my previous visit, and since I had a rope with me I used it to lower myself about 20 feet down to where I could traverse over to the snow-filled gully. The traverse and gully proved harded than they looked. I was expecting the snow to be soft as it had been lower down, but here is was quite hard and impossible to kick steps in, evidently having frozen during the night. I selected a few rocks that I might use to hack out steps in the snow, and began doing so to traverse over to the main gully where I hoped the snow might be softer. After hacking about 10 steps and slowly making my way across, completely unprotected with a potential 1,000-foot fall below me (the fall line is down the center of this picture that I took later from below), I concluded for a second time that I was a moron. This would be almost trivial with crampons, but without them it was simply stupid. I backed off and considered my situation. It didn't take long to decide to retreat completely.

It was noon when I started to retraced my steps back to the first gully and headed down the snow. Easy travelling now, I used large plunge-steps to get myself down quickly. I was also eager to get off the snow as my feet were getting pretty wet and cold by now. Once off the snow they returned to their normally complacent existence and stopped complaining. I took no side trips on the way down, having had enough of the bush-whacking earlier. I followed the use trail down, but there are a number of them converging and diverging on the upper part of the slabs above the fixed ropes. The two upper fixed-rope sections can be bypassed on the west side by another fixed rope tied to a tree and hanging down a cliff on that side of the main gully. The use trail I was following led me to this alternative route, and when I looked to see where I went wrong I decided it was too far back up the trail to back-track. This would let me try out this alternative descent route. Walking myself down the first couple dozen feet was easy enough, but then I had to go down the steeper cliff section and the rope was longer. The rope length became important as I realized it was a dynamic rope and not a static rope. I was not rappelling on the rope, just using it hand over hand as I had the other rope sections. With a static rope this is fairly benign and safe as long as the route isn't too steep and as long as one doesn't let go. The dynamic rope I was quickly finding to be downright unsafe. It stretched wildly as I went down one part and weighted the rope. The rope was sopping wet (as was the rock), and it burned through my hand upon recoiling. Ouch. At least I didn't let go. I cursed the person who used a dynamic rope here, but to save myself from further peril, I stopped to put on a harness and use a rappel device. Thus were my hands saved from further trauma. Lesson learned - don't descend by hand on a dynamic rope.

I continued down without further mishap. Still a thousand feet above the canyon floor, I could see the first clouds moving in over the top of El Capitan. Was this the beginning of the expected front? I continued down to Tenaya Creek, and the Valley below. It was a bit after 3p when I reach my car, and it seemed I had a few more hours of daylight left. I decided to head over to Cathedral Rocks and check out the class 3 approach to Overhang Bypass, a 5.7ish route on the north side of Lower Cathedral Rock. Overhang Bypass is an old-school rock climb rated 5.7 that has fallen from favor due to what is described as "a fairly involved approach" by Don Reid in his guide book. This of course piqued my interest almost immediately, and made me want to go check it out. Having just failed to reach Grizzly Peak earlier in the day due to poor snow conditions on the route I had chosen for the approach, I still had some time left in the day for a shorter scramble.

I drove west across Yosemite Valley, stopping at a variety of scenic spots to snap pictures of the surrounding features including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Rock, El Cap, Leaning Tower, and Cathedral Rocks. Clouds were starting to drift into the Valley from the west, the leading edge of a springtime storm that was predicted to arrive in the night. They provided a fine backdrop for some nice pictures while not actually threatening me off the rocks. I parked in the Bridalveil parking lot and headed along the trail, across Bridalveil Creek, and began to ascend the boulder fields on the south side of the trail.

The route is easy to navigate for the first several hundred feet, then grows steeper as the route narrows in some short chimneys. The climbing was never more than class 3 as it was easy to find good foot and hand holds where the ground was loose beneath, and there were plenty of trees at hand to help as well. At an outcropping I found a cairn, five medium-sized rocks atop one another. It didn't really do anything to help with route-finding, but I left it intact as it made a nice picture hanging over the Valley below. I continued up, looking for the easiest way. Forest cover protects much of the route and I found very little exposure until near the end of my scramble. I headed too far left along the north side where I came upon cliffs that could not be scrambled (I should qualify that with "by me"). Backtracking a short ways, I found the correct route went up diagonally to the right, down a short ramp, and around a corner with some exposure. At the small stand of rocks I stood on, I could see the route goes up a steep ramp above me. I had already stuck my neck out a bit much twice earlier in the day, so I felt it was prudent to stop here - this would be a good place to rope up. If I had a rope and a partner. That would wait for another day.

On the way back down I enjoyed the interesting views this scramble afforded, El Cap across the Valley, Ribbon Fall, and a closeup of Bridalveil Fall. The sun had faded some time ago behind the clouds that were gathering in greater numbers. I decided to pass on the aid climbing lessons planned for Saturday and drove back to San Jose after returning to my car at 6p. Though I was in the Valley for only a single day and did 8hrs of driving, I still had a full 10hrs of scrambling about on a fine Spring day. Maybe daytrips to Yosemite weren't as crazy as they sounded...

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