In August of 2004, I climbed my first real “Big Wall”, Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Of course, I had it easy as I was climbing with a professional guide Doug Nidever (see his web-site). We’ve climbed a lot together, in particular in the previous month twice at the Needles, an awesome, lonely and magical region in the southern part of the High Sierras.
This climb was his 17. ascent on this route. As he was guiding, he was leading every single pitch. So, two big unknowns (route-finding and leading) were eliminated for this adventure. Of course, I still had to climb the wall.
We did the Regular Northwest Face, a grade VI, alpine-like 23 pitch route. We had planned for a relaxing three days and took 66 hours, car-to-car.
We started off on Sunday at 6:00 am, and hiked, scrambled and climbed (4. class terrain) up the 7 miles from Mirror Lake (you can just see this dry lake in the photo below) to the bottom of the route, 2300 feet above the lake, through the slabs (lower left corner).
What is tricky is doing it with the two big haul bags on your back. As an aside, given that most of that weight is climbing gear (the rack, ropes), water and warm clothes (even though its August, the temperatures hovered near freezing late at night), it pays to take good food you’ll be looking forward to eat and a book along (I wavered between a philosophy-of-mind treatise and a mystery novel written in the Sherlock Holmes style, choosing the latter).
You can see the beginning of the climb to the left of the big elliptical-shaped rock at the bottom of the wall, next to the tip of the pine tree:
This is a steep, vertical route of about 2,400 feet, as this profile of Half Dome demonstrates:
The first three pitches, including the 5.10c, were straightforward. For me, the crux of the climb was the 4. pitch which had a nasty, thin finger/hand crack, just after a short A1 aid section.
At the end of the 6. pitch (you can get a good view of the slabs in the upper right hand corner of this photo) we settled down for the day.
This large slab, inclined at about 70 degrees, works well as a bivy for two people. I actually slept for at least 3 hours on this ledge and felt quite comfy.
You have a fantastic view of the entire valley below you and the clean section of wall to the right of our route (none of the climbs up that section go free).
The Zig-Zags, with the Visor at the top, await us on the third day:
The second day was all free climbing into the truly BigWall section of the climb. Below is the 9. pitch which leads up to the Robbins traverse, an straightforward and fun pendulum.
We could see that we were going to run into a party of 3 climbers above us, who had spent a very uncomfortable night just after the 10. pitch (shown here).
And now for the chimneys (we bypassed the lowest one on an aid route and ran the 3 pitches into 2). Not too difficult if you have long legs and are nimble.
You better not be scared of narrow places though.
We arrived in the afternoon at Big Sandy Ledge (17. pitch) and find it occupied by three guys, a rescue ranger, a Navy Seal, and his brother, a firefighter. Amazingly, this brother had never climbed anything and was essentially jumaring the entire route. He did well, but slowed us down. As neither they (without sleeping bags, they tried to stay warm by spooning) nor I slept that night, we talk quite a bit. At this high and exposed location, with the star-studded sky above us and the valley below us, the night was quite an extraordinary, almost mystical experience. Doug slept serenely (and even managed to snore) just next to the drop-off, a place I could not get myself to lie down.
You can see Mt. Watkins in the background.
The last day (Tuesday) we were off to a late start, as we had to wait for the previous party to aid up the Zig Zags pitches. Note the Visor with the Divingboard, at the top.
As these pitches go free at 5.12; we aided them, running the first two together.
By the time I am on the 20. pitch, a third Italian party of two has arrived at Big Sandy and is climbing below me. Quite some traffic, unlike almost anywhere else in the Valley (provided you avoid the 5% of climbs that are popular).
I had difficulty taking out the pro while jumaring up the rope (which is under tension, of course). It’s a bloody business. One word of advice: practice good ropemanship!
And now for the most beautiful pitch ever, the appropriately named “Thank God Ledge”. I walked the first quarter, went down on my knees for the second quarter, crawled and
slithered along at the narrow portion and then dropped over the ledge altogether and traversed with my hands the rest of the way. You can see a little big of the ledge, followed by a cool and single move squeeze chimney. I love exposure. This is the ultimate.
The last two pitches are very enjoyable. Exposed, at a reasonable high altitude on clean granite, and you know the hard work is behind you. Very nice. The tourists above stare down and yell at us. At 6:00 pm we top out. Huuuurrrraaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh
Doug turns away from the camera, he must be embarrassed to be seen with me. A great guy. Calm, cool, very methodological, explains everything in great detail, and patient, very patient.
Now for the long, the very long hike down from the top of Half Dome, covering 5000 feet elevation and 9 miles distance, with the haul bags on our backs. What is really annoying is that we arrive at Curry Camp a few minutes past 10 pm, just as the last bar closes. And I had so looked forward to that beer…
I’m too excited to go to sleep, rent a tent bed at Curry Camp and enjoy a luxurious shower for 20 min (3 days of sweating in a single set of cloths does make you grimy and smelly) and hang out until 1:00 pm (seeing a black bear sneak around the parking lot in the process). An early start the next day, after a good night’s sleep and a breakfast at the Cafeteria (coffee! and something warm), to drive all the way to LAX to pick up Gabi coming in from Sicily.
What’s the bottom line? Climbing a Big Wall is a hell of an experience, the most intense over such a long period. For a couple of days, you live in a vertical world; after awhile you adapt to the tremendous exposure. It is terrible exciting and challenging, with all sorts of objective and subjective dangers. But it is also very uncomfortable (no warm food, not enough water, often either too cold or too hot, your body hurts and you haul weight all the time, up and down the mountain). Yet it is addictive, no doubt about that. I’m not quite sure why. I wish I had discovered this type of climbing when I was 20 years old, instead of at 47 when I have so much responsibilities in the world out there and can’t just go off on a whim.