previously published big wall ramblings
posted this somewhere before, can’t recall.
Half Dome, part 1—Scared Silly
Snake Dike is known as one of the easiest rock climbs on Half Dome, yet it was the scene of my hardest climb, the one that had me terrified the longest continuously, with frequent near brushes of certain death. Actually, it was a downclimb.
It started with an idea of Charles Cole’s. He had been studying the many dykes on the back side of Half Dome, and wondered if they were more featured than they appeared. He recruited me on a reconnaissance one day and early one winter morning we headed up to the SE face with a light rack and a small bolt kit. To the right of the classic Snake Dike, there was another discontinuous dyke, on slightly steeper ground that angled up to the unknown around the corner, where there was a massive area of unclimbed rock to the left of the the notorious Harding South Face Route up the center of the wall.
Cole sensed the dykes would provide access to lower angled areas that sporadically appeared on the lower angled SE side of the monolith, to connect with another dyke, and so on, even though it looked improbable from below. Charles had been putting up some of the hardest big wall solo ascents ever accomplished in Yosemite on El Cap and Half Dome, and in his quest for the best tools to put up the most artisan big wall test-piece, he had somehow been convinced that a new type of 1/4” bolt, called “taperbolts” were far and away the new “only bolt of choice” (now, of course, 3/8” and 1/2” bolts are the norm). In the 1980’s, most climbers used 1 1/2” long, 1/4” diameter Rawl split-shank bolts, which required bashing into a drilled hole with a “hanger” attached for clipping in a carabiner. Rawls could be placed fast with good technique, and we often competed who could place the quickest bomber anchor (I had the world record at 47 seconds at a Cochise Bean Fest).
The trouble with these new “taperbolts” is that they hadn’t been tested in real rock. Concrete tests checked out, but the way they were designed, with a tapered threaded point that expanded a soft lead sleeve, meant that all the holding power was at a single point at the end of the hole. In granite, the rock quality varies considerably, and below the weathered surface, the rock can actually be softer, leading to bolts in holes that are not very well anchored to the rock. Such was the fate of the taperbolt, with many stories of people pulling them out with their fingers after a year in the elements. When I think of free hanging with Charles from a single taperbolt, with 1000’s of feet of vertical tumbling below us, I still cringe. Since we intended only a recon, we only had about 10 taperbolts, and the route was about 1000’ long with not much natural protection save for an occasional sling over a glassy flake protruding from the dykes.
We got to the base just as the sun was fully warming the face. It was still winter in Yosemite, and the wall season had not yet kicked in, so finding this t-shirt paradise in Yosemite was a dream. We began to explore the face, and discovered a great little adventure of moderate 5.8+ climbing wandering up the edge of the slab that separates the SE face and S face. Still in recon mode, we only placed one-bolt belays, but realised about half way up we could finish the route, so we did, leaving our path as bold semi-solo route—we would have wanted to have left it in a better state, with two bolts per belay and perhaps shorten some of the 100 foot runouts so more climbers could enjoy the route (I hope somebody has done that by now).
While we were climbing the route, we could peer over to the steeper left edge of the S face. There we saw up close a magnificent pair of dykes, diagonalling up the wall. Though much steeper than the terrain we were on, we both knew there would be a climbable line there (later Charles and I climbed the right hand dyke, the spectacular Autobahn).
A month or so later, still that winter and after a series of bad storms, another period of nice weather arrived, and I decided to return to solo Snake Dike. The warmth and elevation of the SE face had mesmerised me, and climbing Snake Dike on sight on a short winter day valley to valley seemed like an ideal training route. The climb was fun and cruiser, clear views, no one around for miles, just me and a ocean of rock. After about 700 feet of steeper slab, the route flattens out and you are able to start zig zagging up the slab without too much concern for falling. With this lower angle, if you look back, you see nothing as the rock you have just come up has disappeared over the horizon, and it is impossible to find the top of any particular route or section, as they all look the same from above. How I later wished I had made some sort of marking or identified some inconsequential feature in the endless slab to recognise the top of Snake Dike, certainly the only survivable way to downclimb the SE face if it came to that.
After aimless wandering up the final SE slabs, I got to the top and discovered a whole ‘nother world. The SE face with lots of daily sun was like the Riviera, sheltered from the wind and radiating warmth. On top, the winds from Tuolumne howled, and snow was piled up all around, burying exfoliations on the summit. I hiked up and over the top an it dawned on me that I had not thought this one through.
The tourist cables on the NW side were down, I knew they would be bu had not considered that they would be covered with several feet of compacted snow and wind-frozen ice. I could see right away that I was fu*ked—there was no way to get down that side. I backtracked all the way over the top and down the upper slabs of the SE face, but there was no way to find the top of Snake Dike. A few attempts down unknown areas hoping for a better view were quickly aborted as tenuous moves had to be reversed when it suddenly got steeper and hold-less.
Back over the top and back to the frozen side with the cables. There was no other way.
With initial stages of panic setting in, I began to explore the descent. The whole face was covered with thick ice. Occasionally at first, I was able to find a bit of cable here and there sticking out of the ice to help me down. But there were many steep 30-40 foot sections of icy slope with no cables exposed, and only an occasional patch of snow here and there, where the angle temporarily lessened. It was slow, terrifying going for the most part. I tried to kick steps with my smooth soled climbing boots into the ice for purchase, but several times, I began an uncontrolled slide, looking at going the distance which would have ended not in the notch, but off to the southern side for the big 1000 foot plus whip directly in the fall line below. I was glad for my years of tightroping which helped me to tenuously regain my balance on a small patch of snow after each of many of these uncontrolled slides. Sometimes I slid nearly out of control, but still on my feet, and after 20 or 30 feet of sliding, was able to make a dynamic catch of a short section of exposed cable, ripping up my hands in the process.
After about 5 hours of pure terror (and what seemed a lifetime), I made it to the notch. Yelling and screaming for the pure joy of being alive, I ran up and over the next hump past the notch, and then slid down the next icy covered slope, out of control and nearly slamming into boulders and trees (but without the threat of going the distance off the south side), until I finally reached the trail. I remember weeping there for a while as the adrenaline and fear wore off.
At some point I began my hike back down to the Valley floor as if it was all just a dream.
Truly the most scared silly, still to this day, I have ever been for such a long period of time…
More Half Dome Stories:
First big wall with John Ely—climbers breaking bones and glass bottles from the rim. 1977
S. Face rescue with Bosque and Corbett.
Autobahn 5.11+ R/X lead.
Climbing Regular Route in 6.5 hours with Hideataka Suzuki—Zig Zags free.