Ben Craft and Craig Clarence (writer)
After a great Labor Day weekend climbing in Tuolumne Meadows, Bruce Bousfield generously provided me with a lift to Yosemite Valley, where I was to meet with my long-time climbing partner Ben Craft on Wednesday. Ben and I had some discussions about trying the NW face on Half Dome the week before. However, the shorter days and lack of water at the base made the climb look less feasible. Ben thought cragging would be a better bet, so I had written the climb off until next year.
By the time Ben arrived Wednesday night, his interest had revived and after a quick look at our gear it seemed we had enough to give the route a try. Another climbing partner of mine was starting the route the same day, which made up our minds for us. We spent an hour Thursday morning packing the haul bag, then headed up the "Slabs" approach route to the base of HD.
The key to enjoying this route is to get a copy of the excellent Supertopo, put together by Chris McNamara. It provides a very detailed topo of the Slabs approach, as well as of the route itself. Following the topo, with moderately heavy packs, we got to the base of HD in 3 hours from the Mirror Lake shuttle bus drop-off. There are a few steep sections which are ascended by yarding up beat-up old fixed lines tied to trees and bolts.
At the base, we were happy to see no other parties except for our friends who where just finishing the first pitch. They had gotten lost on the approach and had spent several hours stumbling around in the dark. The Slabs approach is devious and complicated, and I'd say it would be nearly impossible to follow in the dark if you haven't done it before. Even now that I've done it twice, I wouldn't attempt it in the dark.
The Supertopo says most parties fix the first 3 pitches the day before they head up the wall, which is what we did. From the top of P3 you can reach the ground with two 60m ropes. After spending a few hours fixing the pitches, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the shade, watching party after party arrive and get in line for the climb. Three parties fixed that afternoon, which meant that the first few pitches were festooned with rope by the time it got dark. Because of the crowds, we decided on a 3:30 start for Friday morning.
By the time we had jugged the lines the next morning to our high point, first light was showing and away we went. The next 7 pitches were 5.9 or easier, except for a short section of 5.11 and a small bolt ladder with closely-spaced bolts. By free climbing as much as possible and pulling on gear when things got at all difficult, we were able to quickly dispatch these pitches. At this point all the parties behind us, except one, had decided that the line was too long and had backed off. At the top of pitch 6 we found several gallons of water left by a previous party, which turned out to save our climb as we had seriously underestimated our water requirements. We drank the brownish water (hopefully from iodine) until we could hold no more, filled our bottles, and took an additional 2 liter bottle with us.
Above pitch 10 things started slowing down. Some tricky face climbing on P11 took me a while to lead, then the aid on P12 was slow as I'm not a good aid climber. A more experienced aid climber would have no problem with this pitch as it is almost entirely fixed with an amazing assortment of old and new gear.
The chimney pitches followed, which were really fun to lead but a pain to haul our bag through. Our bag was small enough that we could pull it up hand-over-hand, but it was still a slow process as the bag kept getting snagged. I don't know how parties with bigger bags get them through this section. We finished the last few free pitches above the chimneys just as the sun was setting and pulled up to the Big Sandy bivy ledge as it was getting dark. We knew the bivy was going to be crowded, but were quite unprepared for what we found.
Spread out over this multi-tiered ledge were 8 climbers! With us it made 10. The Supertopo says the bivy accommodates 4. Needless to say, we were in for a long night. It actually wasn't so bad, we found a small flat section perched at the very edge of the precipice, and spread out our one small pad and one sleeping bag. Sleeping under a plastic tarp and the bag, we each managed to get several hours of sleep. I couldn't believe it when I saw first light spreading on the horizon - I figured we still had several hours of night to go.
The next day was excruciatingly slow. We waited for all the parties to clear above us, and didn't get started until about noon. As we got higher, hikers on top saw us and started yelling down encouraging words from the edge of the dome and from the "diving board." They looked so close, and it was quite frustrating knowing that it would be several hours before we were up there with them. We asked but the party in front of us refused to let us pass. I don't really blame them as our passing would have slowed them down even more, and made them risk spending a third night on the wall.
Crossing the "Thank God" ledge was exciting, as expected. The ledge is definitely walkable, but I'd like to meet the man whose done it and also placed gear for a follower. There is bomber gear along the back of the ledge (#.75 - #3 Camalots), but bending down to place it while walking on a 5 inch ledge above a 2000 foot drop would be quite sporty. Maybe if you were walking on your hands... I resorted to moving on hands and knees, then hand traversing a particularly narrow and slightly downward-sloping section, then finally slithering along on my stomach with one leg on the ledge and the other hanging off the edge. As if that wasn't enough, the ledge ends with a "5.8" bomb-bay squeeze chimney with no pro for 15 feet. This pitch was the last of the serious difficulties, however, and the last few mixed aid and free pitches went quickly.
We finally topped out at 5 p.m., and quickly packed up and moved down the cables. As we knew the Slabs would take forever to descend in the dark, we literally ran much of the way around the shoulder of Half Dome, back to our pack at the base of the route, and then down the slabs. Moving in this way, we made it from the top of HD to the road in 2.5 hours, with aching knees but really happy to have done the route and got down that day.
It's often hard to evaluate a route on the day you finish - most routes get better upon introspection. However, even that night, both Ben and I felt this route may be the best we've ever done. Definitely the best of the 50 Classic NA climbs I've been on. It's basically a long free climb, with a few easy aid sections. The topo calls one section C2, but we thought it was no harder than C1, and even that for just a few moves. I dislike aid climbing, but the tons of fixed gear on the aid pitches made them quite trivial and even kind of fun. Some of the free pitches are ultra classic. And of course the setting and exposure can't be beat.
I can't emphasize enough the usefulness of the Supertopo for the approach and the climb. We followed all of its recommendations and they were right on. In fact, some might consider the topo cheating as it goes as far as giving gear sizes for every pitch!
For a 2 day climb of this route, with a bivy on Big Sandy ledge, we brought the following for 2 climbers:
More daylight would have been useful - I'm planning on going back next summer around June 21 to give the route a try in a day.
Jim Curl adds:
> Crossing the "Thank God" ledge ... > ... As if that wasn't enough, the ledge ends with a > "5.8" bomb-bay squeeze chimney with no pro for 15 feet.
The chimney is protectable with a #5 Camalot -- I'm surprised the SuperTopo didn't suggest that. But it's the only place you'll use a piece that size, so maybe Mr. McNamara figured you'd be okay with running it out a bit in order to save the weight.
I've found it worth carrying up there for that one placement on two seperate trips, but we were taking a more traditional (slow) approach to the climbing.
You guys probably left the tequila behind too. Sheesh! :-)