Text and pictures © 2003-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"It is a crest of granite... perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden my human foot." — California Geological Survey report about Half Dome, 1865.
Now onto serious business. We've done several classic free routes, but Yosemite is for Big Walls (or so we've heard). So the Regular Route on the North-west face of Half Dome seems like a good place to start. Whether we can pull the 24 pitches in a day is something else entirely. Vincent, Frank and Vanessa start for the slab approach while we decide to try to save Jenny's knees with the much longer but more mellow approach. I carry everything and, even worse, stop at the river to filter an extra 10 liters of water. And jump into the water scaring a black water snake away (probably the fact that I hadn't showered in days...). Jenny continues up the trail while I pump the water. I won't see her again before the base of the wall. I'm exhausted, she's crying at her swollen knees and we discover... a little spring running right at the base of the face.
The others have been here a while and have fixed the first two pitches, although they changed their mind about the approach and did the long one too. There's also a soloist and two other teams. Time to discuss a starting order. The others will take more than a day, so we'll go first; Vincent & Co will haul a small bag while Jenny will carry it directly, so Jenny and I will go first, trying to go as quickly as possible.
Right: Jenny & Vincent on the 5.9 4th pitch that feels much harder, being greasy.
Left: Jenny in an 'interesting' chimney.
Right: Jenny crossing from the easier into the steeper section.
During the night the Mexican starts yelling: "A bear! A bear!". My only thought is that he must have had too much of that good mexican weed... I don't even open my eyes which is apparently a good way to make bears go away.
Left: The Robbins traverse signs the start of the difficulties on the Regular North-West route of Half Dome.
Right: Jenny on one of the many traverses of the route.
At 4 in the morning we take a quick breakfast with a can of fruit and jug the first two fixed pitches. It's still dark when I finish leading the 3rd pitch. Vincent is right behind Jenny: "Faster! Faster!" A trend that he will pursue all through the day, although he will alternate the leads with Frank.
Left: Profile of Half Dome showing how steep that beast really is: it's the vertical left side. The tourist trail is on the back side and the classic but easier Snake Dyke is slightly to the right.
Right: Jenny standing on a pillar.
On the first 10 pitches we make good time, but the climbing is not very sustained. Trying to run on one of the easy pitches I even manage to slip off and fall 50cm onto the ledge below. My last protection was something like 15 meters below... But we are not onto the true NW face yet, only on the large shoulder on its left. After the Robbins Traverse things get steeper: narrow awkward chimneys, rope management problem (at the end of a traverse pitch Jenny arrives with 200 coils and twists on her rope). And Frank or Vincent, with their longer rope, almost always reaches us before we can clear the belay, making for some confused situations where they belay on top of Jenny and she then has to climb over them.
Left: Jenny climbing on top of Frank after he set his belay higher than her with his longer rope.
Higher up still, we arrive on Big Sandy ledge just as the sun hits the face and, having surveyed the face before, I know it's precisely 15:00 and it's late. I start sweating just as I begin aiding the steep 5.11 pitch above. I keep in mind the 3 hours of light left. We've done 17 pitches already, but the remaining few will be the hardest and slowest.
Right: A tired Jennifer on the upper part of the route, just before we hit the sun.
Left: Steep 5.11 flakes in the upper part of the route.
When I reach the narrow slot belay of pitch 19, I'm already tired and have been pulling on gear for a while. I even have an aider daisy-chained to my harness with a cam hook at the end. As I setup the belay I notice the two cracks on either side, thinking that I must be careful not to drop things in the cracks. Five seconds later, cling, my cam hook falls inside with the aider and daisy. I pull gently but it's already stuck. I get inside the dark recess and start pulling like a maniac. After a few minutes, I bang my head against the ceiling when the crack releases my gear. When Jenny and Vincent get here I tell them to be careful and take off for the next pitch. 5 minutes later I hear lots of bitching after Vincent starts pilling his own rope on top of ours and of course he kicks our rope into the crack.
Well, it's actually his rope since we had to trade because they used ours to fix the base of the route, but I'm the one currently tied into it and I cringe as I hear him swear to retrieve it below while Jenny keeps feeding me what's left. And of course he doesn't try to keep things simple: he pulls his two followers, retrieves their pig and tries to free my rope all at the same time in a confused mess, stepping all over Jenny's feet in the tiny alcove... When she reaches the belay she's all angry: "I can't stand him anymore, next time I'm gonna toss him off the cliff "
Right: Jenny, Vincent & Co baking in the sun on the upper part of the route.
Left: North-West face of Half Dome in sunset. We have to exit. We have to exit.
Right: Guillaume between Thank God ledge and the offwidth near the end of the North-West regular route of Half Dome.
After 5pm we make it to 'Thank God ledge' a weird traverse on a very good ledge, traversing on foot with no hands, that narrows in the middle section. I try traversing balanced on the tip of my feet, but I get vertigo and drop down, traversing on my hands instead, like all the chalk marks suggested. At the end of the ledge a 5.8 offwidth will take care of killing my remaining concentration. I don't have any pro that fits, only a rotten bolt for protection and it's slippery and the sun is 5 minutes away from setting. I moan and groan and bitch and discover some slippery holds on the right and finally get my ass up there. I need water and food.
Left: Jenny after Thank God Ledge, 2 pitches to the summit, but dusk is upon us. Vincent is immediately behind (image enhanced): 'Plus vite, plus vite!'
Right: Bivy after the Regular North-West route of Half Dome: Vanessa, Vincent, Jenny and Guillaume.
Two pitches to go. Jenny gets to the belay quickly followed by Vincent saying: "Go, go, go, you won't need your headlamp yet". I purposely ignore him as I put it on my helmet and start the final aid pitch. After the 2nd piton it's already pitch black and I can't find the next one. Only a bit of rusty metal: it's broken. I do a precarious sideways cam hook placement before I can continue on the next pitons and two pendulums on rotten slings. Jenny leaves long slings on the next piton for Vincent to pull on. Not that he needs our help to go any faster...
Left: Vincent cutting his hand hair off. Don't be so cheap and buy better tape next time...
Right: Frank polluting the river during the next day descent.
Final belay: it's pitch black as I wander up disconnected ledges and mantle moves before it gets so horizontal that I call it quits and yell a final "Off belay!" for Jenny's benefit. Summit at 8pm, we've been climbing for 16 hours. Not as good a time as the guys who did it in 6 hours the day I soloed the Snake Dyke 8 years ago, but still, it's a day ascent. With a much needed night descent now. With their knee excuses, Vincent and Jenny stop at the base of the big rock while we continue down onto the climber's trail to retrieve our food and sleeping bags. When we get back all sweaty 40 minutes later they are all: "What took you so long, it's cold and we're hungry !?!" We choke down the piece of smoked salmon left and all sleep next to each others right in the middle of the trail. It was a big route, but now it means we need to get our sight onto something even bigger...