|Tenaya Valley (Upper Yosemite Valley), Summer 1987|
|Base Jumpers off Half Dome|
|Half Dome showing approach and descent|
|Half Dome Regular Route, Death Slabs Approach|
|Half Dome Profile, Curry Village to Curry Village|
This route up Half Dome, as all routes up the north face of Half Dome are, is a Grade VI. This means more than a day is normally required to climb it. To this day, most parties take three days to climb the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. We would do it in eleven and a half hours, a day's effort from 5:00 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. The approach would take us two hours, the climb itself would take seven and a half hours, and the final run back to my truck another two hours.
This was what we carried; one small day pack for water, snacks, and inclement weather clothes, a rope, and gear. In our pack we carried 2 liters of water for the two of us for the day, we would drink the water on the approach and fill again at the spring (local beta had told us the spring was good), some raisins and nuts, and a light sweater apiece. We carried just one 8.8 mm, 50 m rope. This 8.8 rope was actually part of a 2-rope system, whereas you would climb with two ropes, and more or less, clip each piece of protection alternating each rope. But we were using just this one rope, part of a 2-rope system, as our single rope. That was a pretty light rope for a single rope system for those days. Our rack, which is the actual climbing gear, which non climbers will have to look up the following terms, included 2 sets of nuts from RP's to 1" stoppers, 2 sets of tri-cams, small camming devices, from .5" to 1", 2 sets of Friends, bigger camming devices, from #1 to #4's, about a dozen long slings, and about 24 extra biners, (carabiners). This gear was circa 1987.
The pack was small, just big enough for the water bottle, a 2 liter coca-cola bottle actually, our snacks, and sweaters. One guy carried the pack and rope, one guy carried the gear, we each wore our harnesses, and we wore our climbing shoes, which you normally don't hike in but we were saving weight and bulk and moving light and fast. That's what we looked like leaving Curry Village in the early pre-dawn light, hiking towards the base of Half Dome.
|A view of Half Dome above the Death Slabs|
We walked from Curry Village, up the lower Tenaya Valley for a mile and then straight up the Death Slabs. There is nothing really deathly about the Death Slabs. That is just climbers' flair for over dramatizing things, making things sound more fun than they really are. The Death Slabs are just the steep talus of Half Dome, what I would call the 'approach slabs' rather than the 'death slabs'.
I remember mostly Class 2 climbing, which is just steep hiking, some Class 3 which means using hand holds on occasion, and some Class 4 climbing, which means you might, or might not, want to use a rope. I also remember, that as the sun rose, the scenery in Tenaya Canyon was breathtaking.
Those approach slabs were strenuous, least wise at the speed we were going. I remember route finding, breathing hard, working up a sweat, getting stuck, looking at Paul, wondering if this was a good idea, watching the early morning light change from twilight to alpenglow to morning light, re-routing, moving harder, moving faster and arriving at the base of the climb two hours after we started. That's moving; over 1200' of elevation gain per hour for two hours. It was 7:00 AM and we were at the base of the climb!
I refilled our bottle while Paul splayed out the rope and got ready to belay. I would take the first pitch. For two reasons this would give us an advantage; (1) we were going to simul climb everything 5.8 or easier and (2) my leading the first pitch combined with our simul climbing strategy would give Paul the hard pitches.
Additionally, as I arrived at what I considered harder sections, I would put in 2 or 3 pieces or pro, either equalized or in closer proximity to each other. As Paul got to those harder sections, signified by the extra pieces, he would announce that fact and if I could, I would put in a piece, clip into it, give Paul an expedient belay, and wait until Paul announced he was on easier terrain again, at which time I would continue.
To follow what I'm talking about, take a look at the topo above. I lead the pitches highlighted in yellow. Paul lead the non-highlighted pitches. The pitches that are in continuous yellow highlight are the pitches we simul climbed.
Simul climbing is dangerous. It is a technique for moving fast at the expense of safety. The difficulty of the climbing must be well within both climbers' ability. Both climbers must have absolute confidence in one another. Just as if you were soloing without a rope, neither climber can fall.
Without going into too many of the details and variables of simul climbing. The basic premise over simplified is, if one climber falls, he will pull the other climber off the rock and both will be dangling from the high piece of protection. Here are two examples of how it actually might work, but again over simplified. If the top/lead climber falls, he will fall below the top piece of protection, the weight of the second climber and the friction in the system will stop him from falling further, the force of the fall may pull the second climber off the rock, but the top piece, hopefully, will hold both of them, the elasticity of the rope will absorb the fall for both climbers. If the second climber falls, he will fall until the lead climber is pulled all the way down to the top piece of protection. The second climber's fall will then stop and the elasticity of the rope will absorb that climber's fall. But for the lead climber, as he arrives, violently I might add, at the top piece of protection, there will be no elasticity in the rope, the fall will stop abruptly and violently, shocking the system to the point that the system of safety may fail completely. This is why, although in truth neither climber can fall while simul climbing, any fall by the second climber will likely be disastrous. This is why the stronger of the two climbers follows during simul climbing. This is why Paul was following me on the pitches we simul climbed.
Safety in adventure is, barring objective dangers that you have no control over, a subjective affair. Your safety is simply how you assess and interact with the situation based upon all the factors that you have control over. We decided to simul climb all the 5.8 and easier sections of the route.
We also decided to employ French Free climbing on this effort. French Freeing is the technique of using the pieces of protection as hand holds. When you free climb, you use only the rock for foot and hand holds, the gear is there for your protection only, i.e. to arrest a fall. To use the gear to assist in your ascent is to use the gear as aid, which is aid climbing. We were speed climbing Half Dome, thus we were not limiting ourselves to style. We were there to climb as fast as we could which meant climbing the rock most of the time, but if there was a hesitation to making a move and there was a piece to grab, we would grab the piece. We were there to go fast.
|Looking up at the North Face of Half Dome from the base|
During our last couple of hundred yards up the Death Slabs, we saw that there was another party on the route. It looked like they were about half way up, bivied at the top of Pitch 11. Anyway, we started climbing, and we were climbing fast. The first pitch, rated 10c (for 5.10c) saw me hesitate a moment. I was at the upper end of the pitch, leading, climbing the hand jamb, putting pieces in, I put a piece in, and I was scanning the rock for the next move when Paul berated me, "what are you doing? do not hesitate! grab the piece and go!". I immediately grabbed the sling which was attached to that # 3 or #3.5 Friend (a 3 to 3.5 inch camming device) and grunted through the move.
Now, to do the move with the rock only would have been both more elegant and physically easier. A grabbed sling, a nice hand hold, does not make. Grabbing that sling seemed very unnatural. But grab it I did and the move I made.
After a few furiously fast pitches we had caught up with the other party. They were now at the top of Pitch 13 and ready to start the chimney pitches above when I asked if we could pass. They confirmed we could pass them and asked, "are you guys doing this in a day?" and then exclaimed, "hell, looks like you're doing it in a morning!".
|Looking across the Thank God Ledge|
After that memory, except for a few specifics, all the pitches, all the moves, all the hundreds of more feet of climbing all just melds together. I remember feeling strong, skilled, and free as Paul and I simuled pitch after pitch. I remember leading across the Thank God Ledge. I didn't walk across that ledge or hand traverse it, either of which would have been better style, I crawled across it on hands and knees, and of course, I hammed it up. We were speed climbing so I crawled fast, in little slapstick spurts. What a place to be - on the Thank God Ledge of Half Dome!
|Summit of Half Dome, Diving Board Rocks, 1987|
On one of the pitches near the top, Sal Mamusia, a Red Rock climber and friend of Paul and I, peered over the top and we bantered and laughed. On the top there was Sal to greet us along with some chocolate chip ice cream. Sal had brought us ice cream, triple insulation bagged to keep it frozen - unbelievable!
|Cable Route East Face of Half Dome|
We sat on the top eating our ice cream before our jog back to Curry Village. One of my last memories is of us jogging down those slabs on the east face. A solid line of tourists occupied the cable route so we jogged down the slabs outside of the cables to the left as you look down. It was impressive seeing how hard people were working to get to the top of Half Dome. I could understand their drive, there is gratification getting to the top of things, there is huge gratification getting to the top of something like Half Dome. But we had just come from the top, up from the northwest face, and we were as high on life as you could ever expect to get!