Snake and Ladders
(Snake Dike on Half Dome)

11 Sep 1999 - by Richard Hughes

Plans solidified during the two weeks prior to the climb. John Lohr, aka Big Daddy Sloth, was flying to Mariposa to meet a fellow nuclear physicist, Toon, who was attending a conference in Monterey. Together they planned to climb Snake Dike (8 pitch 5.7***) on the southwest face of Half Dome. In case the weather turned bad they planned to carry an extra 9 mm rope and so Sloth invited any interested Alpinistas to join them. Alice Tseng, Patsy and I were all eager to go. It was going to be a rush trip because Sid Karin, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center and co-owner of the Cessna, was adamant that he needed the plane at 1 pm on Sunday.

And so at 10.30 am Friday morning Sloth, Patsy and I met at Carlsbad/Palomar airport. We loaded the gear into the Cessna, Sloth headed the plane down the runway and handed the controls over to me. I got to fly all the way to Mariposa, until Sloth took the controls back for landing. With only a little turbulence, or maybe it was just pilot jitters, and a good tailwind the flight took just 2 hours 40 minutes. Toon was waiting for us at the airport and we transferred the gear into his rental car. After an uneventful drive to The Valley, we met Alice outside the Yosmite Mountain Shop. She had driven from Ventura.

Plan A was to backpack up to Little Yosemite Valley and plan B was to do the climb from The Valley as a day hike. We left Patsy and Alice outside the Mountain Shop and went to get a permit. The very first thing the lady said when we walked into the backcountry permit office was, "Don't ask for a permit for Little Yosemite Valley". "Err, mm, no eh? How about Illilouette Falls?" I had visions of forging a change on the permit designation, but it turned out to be computer-printed and therefore pretty difficult to forge a change on. Before we could even get that permit we had to endure a long lecture about bears and bear boxes. Although not mandatory it was clear that we were going to have to listen to a *very* long lecture about bears unless we rented at least one bear box. "Okay, okay, we'll rent the box :-)".

Carrying this useless permit and redundant bear box as pathetic trophies of the hunt we returned to the ladies. We figured the chances of encountering Ursa Major (Smokey the Bear) were too high along the Mist Trail and that our best plan was to rent a cabin in The Valley. Sloth went to check, but came back with the sobering news that the only place available was a $200 room in the Ahwahnee. "Aw what the Hell, let's take it". But then I had a flash of inspiration and asked Patsy and Alice to go back to the Mountain Shop with me. I requested some beta from the staff there and was introduced to Kent (not his real name). I explained the situation and asked his advice. "Snake Dike ... ultra classic". "Dude, you don't want to stay in the Ahwahnee. Either sneak up to Little Yosemite Valley and be furtive if you happen to meet a ranger, 'Just out checking the stars man', or stay at the Backpacker's walk-in campground which is free". Alice ran back to the reservation office and waylaid Sloth just as he was whipping out the symbol of his manhood (his credit card).

With plan B firmly established we sat down to celebrate with a pitcher of Half Dome Pale Ale. Ah, life is good. Life was even better after the second pitcher, which we drank over dinner. I was so relaxed by this time that my wallet fell out of my pocket and I didn't even notice. Fortunately Sloth saw it. We drove through Upper North Pines campground to the drop off point for the backpacker's "walk in" campground. A ranger was watching us unload our gear and came over to explain to us that this particular campground had a one day stay limit and was only meant for the day before, or the day after, a backpacking trip for which we already had a valid permit. No shit. Well, actually we do have a permit for Illilouette Falls. And so sailing on the wind of providence we were actually doing something legitimate, well, sort of legitimate. Rather than drive all the way back to Curry Village I went looking for some sympathetic campers who would allow us to park Toon's car in their spot. I located a likely-looking couple close by who turned out to be Dutch. Toon went over to chat to them in Dutch and they very kindly let us park in front of their car. We retired to the backpaker's campground, which turned out not to be free, but rather $3 per person. This was still a Hell of a good deal nonetheless. We locked all the food in the bear box, set the alarms for 3.40 and fell into a deep, pale ale-induced slumber.

Crickets, no, alarms, woke us too early. We unloaded the food from the bear box, as quietly as possible brought the car around, and drove over to the point closest to the Happy Isles Trailhead, where we ate breakfast. We set out hiking at 5 am. Along the road to Happy Isles, people kept appearing from the sides of the road. In short order a small procession of granite worshippers was making its way toward nirvana. The quiet was disturbed only by the munch, munch of boots on the asphalt and the darkness only by the beams of our headlamps.

We pumped water to fill our bottles in Little Yosemite Valley and picked up the excellent use trail to the Southwest face of Half Dome. It was 9.30 am when we reached the base of Snake Dike. One party was already on the route and we let one other party go ahead of us. The first party was Scottish and the second party Irish. Sloth yelled up to Helen, the Scottish woman, "Hey, do you know how to pronounce C-E-I-L-I-D-H?". "Ceilidh!" "Well I'll be damned, you're the first person I've come across who can pronounce that stupid word", shouted back Sloth.

The first pitch is notoriously run out. Actually the whole climb is notoriously run out, but an article in "Climbing" had noted that only on the first pitch is there the possibility of an 80 foot tumble to the deck. Kent had been more reassuring. "No one falls on 5.7 dude". Sloth and Toon were going to climb ahead of Patsy, Alice and me. Sloth led straight up a roof and plopped in a couple of pieces. This wasn't exactly en route, per the topo, but at least it offered the possibility of protection. I led up an alternate route on the left and waited by a small tree, that I slung, for Sloth to complete his traverse of the roof. Sloth's left foot slipped and he was clearly gripped. "No one falls on 5.7 dude", I shouted for encouragement. Sloth ignored me and continued swearing under his breath (there were ladies up above and down below). He finally sunk a good piece and skittered his way up to security on the ample first belay ledge. I traversed the clean granite on the left and joined him. In short order we were all five on the first belay. It would be another dozen or so hours before I saw Sloth again.

Alice led the second pitch up an arching flake, a traverse to the right and then straight up the beginning of a dike parallel to Snake Dike. Patsy and I waited ... and waited. Finally Alice called, "Belay on" and Patsy and I followed on up. I volunteered for the sharp end on the third pitch. A friction traverse left past an almost invisible bolt and then zoom, straight up the dike. Pro? We don't need no stinking pro. 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet. Chalk up. 40 feet. Chalk up again. 50 feet. Clip, clip. "Off belay". Oh my God, I need a drink.

Quite a crowd was assembling below. If you don't get on this climb before 11 am, you can pretty much forget it. Alice, then Patsy came up. Patsy led the fourth pitch, which was equally run out, although there were a couple of knobs to sling. Alice led the fifth pitch. Dike, friction and then dike again, which this time at least afforded the possibility of some protection in a crack. We were passed by a pair of fast Swiss climbers, simul-climbing, who we later learned had earned the enmity of at least three parties below us for pushing their way in front of them.

The last three pitches were all 5.2 according to the topo. Patsy took over the lead again for the sixth pitch, slinging a few dubious knobs along the way. I led the seventh pitch, another friction slab. This was 5.2 for the first forty feet or so before the angle changed egregiously for the worse. Hmm. 5.2 eh? "Nobody falls on 5.7 dude". I crept upwards until I could plop a #2 Camalot in a crack. No sweat after that. I told the pair of climbers down below us that there was ample room on this ledge for all five of us. We all topped out at the same time, Alice leading the last pitch.

The climb up the summit of Half Dome is "second class friction forever". The angle is a little creepy at first, but it's not too bad once you get the idea that you're not going to fall. You are not going to fall. We topped out at 5.30 pm. Storm clouds were forming to the north east and we were soon enveloped in a light drizzle. We went to the top of the north west face and looked down. Exposure city. At the top of the cables a plaque advised against going down the cables in the event of a thunderstorm. "What should we do?" asked Alice. "We go down the cables pronto". We scuttled down the cables as fast as the slippery footing allowed. Down below the wind was picking up gloves from the pile that lay at the foot of the cables and blowing them off the mountain.

The descent to Yosemite Valley seemed to take forever, in part because we missed the turn to the trail that hugged Liberty Cap and took the Clark Point trail instead. This wouldn't have been too bad except that the trail was closed ahead and we had to double back to the Mist Trail. We kept passing groups of hikers coming back from Half Dome in various states of disrepair. An inadequate number of flashlights and twisted ankles were the most common problems. It was like a pilgrimage of the suffering to Lourdes that was winding its way back to Yosemite Valley that night.

We speculated on what had become of Sloth and Toon and whether they would have taken our sleeping bags, etc. to the backpacker's campground or would we have to walk back and forwards all night long looking for them, the car, our gear. As it was we need not have been concerned. They had done all the worrying for us. Ignorance *is* bliss.

At the Happy Isles trailhead there was an assembly of waiting friends and family who literally ran to us begging us for news of their loved ones. "Did you see a couple, a short woman and taller man?" "Did you see two older gentlemen?", etc. Alas, we could offer solace to only a few of these troubled souls. We were the forsaken ones. No sign of Sloth or Toon. No one was looking for *us*.

We made our way wearily down the road. In the distance the beam of a headlamp appeared, making its way toward us. Wow, this guy is really starting early! It turned out to be Sloth. He was teary eyed, so pleased was he to see us (though he later swore it was his contacts that were giving him grief). "Where have you been?" He was anguished that we had taken so long, although it didn't seem like a long time to us. Okay, so it was 10.30 pm, but the climb itself took us 7 1/2 hours. They had waited a couple of hours for us on the summit and then several more hours down below.

"The worst thing imaginable has happened". Whoa, what could that be? "Where's Toon?" "He's lost the keys." He got to the car and said, "Okay now where are my keys? Oh, I know, they're in my jacket. Where's my jacket? Uh oh, I must have left it lying there in Little Yosemite Valley." This news took a little while to sink in. Alice's car keys, all our money, our sleeping bags, everything was in that car. It turned out though that Toon had carried his money (along with his tooth brush) to the summit of Half Dome. He'd spent the last two hours begging the Yosemite Park and Curry Company for a cabin. Evidently they are prepared for such foolishness because they did indeed rent him a cabin, with bedding for five, in Camp Squalid.

From the entrance station at the Upper Pines campground Sloth called a security guard who gave us a ride to camp. Alice begged him to stop at the North Pines campground so we could pick up our food (although what we really wanted was the beer). She looked so pathetic that the guard said he couldn't sleep well knowing that we'd gone to bed starving. He waited for us while we retrieved our meager provisions. Happily, the Budweiser, the King of beers, was still there.

In Camp Squalid we sat around the camp table, sharing the cans of beer and talking story until the last drop had been drunk. Sloth immediately feel into a deep slumber and we all soon followed. All, that is, except Patsy and Alice, who had hardly drunk any beer and were kept awake by all the manly snoring.

What a good sleep! Patsy, Alice and I finally awoke. Sloth and Toon had disappeared to find some means to open the car. A locksmith from Oakhurst was coming to our rescue at 12.30 pm for a cool $300. Breakfast. Alice cooked some noodles but they looked unappetizing to everyone else. The thick, sweet smell of bacon and eggs permeated the air. We were salivating. We walked over to Curry Village to discover that we had just missed breakfast and all the restaurants were closed until lunchtime, an hour away. Eeargh! We were by now desperate for food and coffee. Sloth tried calling Sid to tell him the plane was going to be late but Sid's number is unlisted. After calls to five mutual friends, Sloth managed to get the number. On the other end of the line, Sid punctuated every other sentence with "fuck". "He'll never license your stupid code now," reported Sloth.

Ice cream bars and Starbucks Frappucino from the grocery store helped assuage our hunger, but not really. Toon went to wait for the locksmith. Meanwhile we found a coffee bar, which helped. John and I went after Toon and found him standing by the car with all doors open and a huge grin on his face. "Look at this". We drove back to pick up Alice and Patsy, drove around to Alice's car and transferred gear. Alice drove the three of us to Mariposa airport so Toon could spend a little more time in Yosemite. A nice hike to Little Yosemite Valley perhaps ;-) After hurried farewells we took off, John flying a course through the mountains until he handed the controls over to Patsy. "Do you see that you're flying a heading of 110 instead of 120? Don't do that." The in-flight beverage service consisted of Coke and peanuts. We touched down in San Diego about 6 pm. No sign of Sid. "Sid's not the kind of guy to wait around for turkeys with airplanes".

John drove his Jeep and I drove the Bronco around and we transferred gear. "Have you had enough of this already or do you want to go for dinner?" asked Sloth. "Sure let's do that". "Okay, I'll call Jan and meanwhile you can drive the cars out". I drove Patsy over to the Buick and she said, "Now where did I put the keys?".

The keys were still in Toon's rental car.


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