Half Dome - Half Done

Oct 07, 2022

Do you know The North Face logo? That’s Half Dome. The “north face” is the sheer cliff side of Half Dome. That’s what the company is named after.

Our trip to Yosemite was scheduled for late September. We would be there for two weeks. A messaged popped on one of the rock climbing Facebook pages I’m on. “Anyone want to climb RNWF in late September?” RNWF stands for Regular Northwest Face. It’s the first rock climbing routes ever established up the cliff face of Half Dome. I raised my hand. After climbing El Cap I’d sort of taken Half Dome for granted. But I’d never stood atop this iconic piece of rock, and I’ve always wanted to. This was my chance.

Half Dome is different from El Cap in a few key ways:

  1. The Approach: El Cap is a relatively flat 20 minute hike through the woods from the main road in Yosemite. Half Dome is a 2-3 hour hike from the Valley floor, gaining 3,000 feet in elevation over half a mile (very steep!), just to begin to rock climbing. The call the approach The Death Slabs.
  2. The Style: El Cap can be climbed a number of ways, but aid climbing is one of the primary methods. You set gear in the cracks and pull on it. Half Dome is much more about free climbing. You don’t pull on your gear so much. You use your hands and feet to literally climb the rock.
  3. Speed: the secret to success is to move quickly. Day 1: get to the base. Day 2: climb 75% of the face and sleep on a wide, flat ledge (if you don’t get there, it’s an uncomfortable night in less ideal circumstances). Day 3: climb the last 25% and then hike out the 8 miles with 50 pounds of gear on your back.

I would be in Yosemite for a week before my partner arrived. Because of the Death Slabs approach, I wanted to scout it out. I made three separate forays up to the headwall, first without any gear up to the base of the Death Slabs. The second, with a rope and harness part way up the Death Slabs, and then a full approach all the way to the headwall. 

On this last excursion, I got pretty dizzy. My body was working hard. There was little to no water and I didn’t bring much food. My mind started to get fuzzy and I just wanted to lay down and sleep. Eli and Lily were at camp by themselves. I told them I’d be home by sunset. I texted Emily.

I bush whacked out onto sketchy section of slope that was a dead end. A wrong turn. I rallied my energy and climbed back up to see if I could find the established route. I continued down what I thought was the trail. That’s when I saw I blue plastic water bottle. It had been crushed under a boulder but the end was still visible. I’d seen it on my way up. In a sea of nondescript rock and trees, this helped me know I was on the right path.

My goal was to get back to the section of the trail I knew before it got dark. I had a headlamp, but it would be much easier to get off trail in the dark. My mind and body didn’t have the energy or stamina to recover from more wrong turns. I literally repeated out loud my own little descent mantra:

Slow and steady down the rocks.
Take it easy through the woods.
Cross the lake.
Coast home.

Slow and steady down the rocks.
Take it easy through the woods.
Cross the lake.
Coast home.

I’m a big believer that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. With my fading energy and mental clarity, I knew my margin for mistakes was slim. I had to stay focused. I was climbing solo in the mountains with fading light and warmth.

I picked an objective a few hundred yards away. I lumbered to my feet and walked towards it. I sat, closed my eyes and rested. When I opened my eyes, I picked a new objective, stood and walked towards it. Sat, closed my eyes and rested. I repeated this process as I slowly picked my way down through the slabs and boulder fields. Gradually cairns began to pop up. Cairns are small stacks of rocks to indicate a trail. The sun set. Twilight was descending. My light was almost gone. I continued to walk, sit, rest, look. Walk, sit, rest, look. Finally, I saw a small sandy trail that cut horizontally off through some trees. I was at the bottom of the Death Slabs. This was the section I knew well. I wasn’t down yet, but I was on the right path.

An hour later, in the dark, I reached the end of the boulder fields.

Take it easy through the woods.
Cross the lake.
Coast home.

I tromped through the woods and reached the Valley floor.

Cross the lake.
Coast home.

I shuffled down the flat trail and cut across the sandy bed of the dried out Mirror Lake. I found my bicycle and unlocked it from the wooden fence post.

The air was cool and moist. Nobody was around. I lifted my leg over my bike frame and pushed forward. The weight of my pack added to my momentum. The road sloped downhill.

Coast home.

The cold air on my face revived me. A centimeter of water sat at in my water bottle. I kept one more swallow just in case. I hadn’t eaten anything in seven hours. I coasted. Two and half hours after sunset, I rolled into camp. Eli had made dinner for him and Lily. I hugged them and called Emily to tell her I was okay.

The following week my partner arrived. We repeated the climb up to the headwall. This time each of us carryied 50 lbs packs of gear and rope. We would sleep at the base, climb 17 pitches to Big Sandy Ledge, sleep, finish the final 5 pitches the next day and then walk down. Almost none of that happened.

We made it to the base. My partner was 24 years old, but as we reached the headwall he said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” I agreed. Unfortunately, his quick trip up from the Bay Area didn’t give his body enough time to acclimatize. We dropped our bags and he proceeded to sleep for the next 19 hours straight.

I teamed up with another duo and climbed the first 300 feet of the headwall. After that, I retreated and stayed with my partner. They would continue on without me. As the sun rose the next day, I knew we weren’t going up the face of Half Dome. I climbed up to my high point with the ropes I’d left fixed, removed them and repelled back to the ground. We hiked along the base of the headwall and met up with the trail hikers use to get to the Half Dome summit. If I wasn’t going to climb the North Face, I at least wanted to hike to the summit. But I didn’t have a permit to get to the top.

A ranger stood guard over the final section of trail: a steep hike to SubDome, a quick dip through the notch and then a steep climb up the cables to the summit. I showed the ranger my climbing permit. “But this isn’t the right one,” she said. I explained the situation. “I’ve just carried 100 pounds of climbing gear up from the Valley floor. My partner has altitude sickness and exhaustion. I just want to hike up to the summit and then we’ll be on our way.” This ranger didn’t budge.

I managed to find a couple whose friends hadn’t showed up for the hike, so their permit had extra spots. They kindly let me piggy back on their permit. The ranger was fine with that. I climbed to final section to the top while my partner waited below on the trail.

It wasn’t the summit victory I was hoping for, but I was happy to stand atop Half Dome. As I took in the view, the hikers around me chatted amongst themselves. They talked about Free Solo, Alex Honnold and the insanity of climbing the north face. I listened in silence and sipped my water. I would be back. My Half Dome experience was only half done.

Hiking up the Death Slabs to the Half Dome headwall.


Reaching the top of the fixed ropes.


My partner not feeling so great.


Fixing some dinner before I settle in for the night.


Hiking from the base of the headwall up to Sub Dome, the shoulder of Half Dome.


Heading up the cables to the summit.


The cables.


Look back on Sub Dome from the cables.



Having fun heading up.


Hanging with the hikers. El Capitan in the background. 



 Good to be alive right about now.






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