|On top of Yosemite's Half Dome|
Suffer-fest #3: Snake Dike
This did start as a suffer-fest...
The late, great Dean Potter recently posted a mind-blowing FKT on Half Dome that pioneered an outrageous direct approach to Snake Dike. Dean did the roundtrip in 2h17m. Derek and I did... not break the record...
We were up at 5 a.m. and after some breakfast hopped in the car and drove down to the Valley to the Curry Village area and parked in the Half Dome lot. After stowing our food in the bear lockers (why didn’t we leave this at Hans’ house?) we were hiking by 6:30 a.m. An easy mile led to the Half Dome Trail (aka John Muir Trail) proper. A short ways up this trail, we broke into the woods and talus on the left in search of the abandoned Sierra Point Trail that formed the start of the Potter HDAtm (Half Dome Approach).
|Half Dome , as seen from the crest of Potter's HDA|
We found some signs of previous passage here and even a cairn down very low, but it was mostly just faintly worn ground and maybe even that was imaginary. Higher up we saw no clear indication of previous passage at all. We forged up steep ground to a rock step that was polished smooth by past running water. This was low 5th class and I was a bit worried about Derek soloing it, but he made it up okay. Above the going continued to be very steep and more exposed. We traversed loose dirt to the left to another steep rock section and this time I followed Derek up to sort of give him some security, though it was more for my peace of mind than any actual assistance. At least this way if he fell, we’d both go.
|Not for the faint of heart|
Above we did some hiking over talus up to another rock slab and climbed up this with more low 5th class moves and bush climbing. Above this, very steep, loose dirt took any remaining fight from Derek. I burst out of the woods to a small granite shelf with a nice view of the Valley, but with steep climbing remaining above us. We sat down and took a break -- for both physical and mental exhaustion. We listened to our book to de-stress a bit, but Derek was physically and emotionally spent. The stress of so much miserable, steep, loose, dangerous ground had worn him down to the point where he just wanted out of this horrible place. At this point, he told me he didn’t want to do the climb. I understood completely. I’d been there before myself. What climber hasn’t? Sport climbers or crag-only climbers, I guess. Anyone who’s done big routes has been where Derek was. Unfortunately, at that point, neither one of us wanted to descend what we’d come up. We had to push on up and over to the regular Snake Dike approach and descend that. I’m amazed at Dean Potter’s ability to move so quickly over this ground. Getting it wired would certainly help, but this is just plain tough going and he ascended this in well under an hour. We took four hours to do it.
We scrambled up some steep, but solid rock before the angle finally rolled back some and we could finally hike pretty easily on slabs and semi-level ground, meaning just steep hiking. We had incredible views of Half Dome and Snake Dike and it was clear that we’d easily be able to get over to the regular trail. We stopped to take another break now that we could mentally relax.
As we approached the climber’s trail, I decided to push Derek to do the route. I knew the route would go easily and fast for us and it would make all the misery worth it. He had been so excited to climb Half Dome. I pushed and he didn’t push back. He didn’t agree, but he kept following me up to the base of the route. He would tell me later that he knew we were going to do the climb as soon as we saw Half Dome with reasonable terrain in between us. From a distance we could see another party at the top of the first pitch and figured they wouldn’t be a problem for us.
Gearing up at the base, the sky was threatening a bit, but I heard no thunder. I switched to climbing shoes and Derek put on my approach shoes, which were stickier than his scramblers. We’d brought micro harnesses, a 60-meter 7.8mm rope, a minimal rack and left the helmets behind. I scampered up the first pitch to the roof and found the traverse to the left very dicey. I’d find out later that it’s much easier to just climb directly to the left side of the roof.
|This is more like it!|
After climbing left on the roof and getting some gear in above it, I came back down to pull the gear from the roof so that Derek would have a toprope for this traverse and not risk a pendulum fall. I needn’t have worried because Derek styled it in approach shoes.
Just before Derek started up he said, “The weather is paying us back for that approach.” I didn’t respond immediately, not sure what he meant. Was he worried about the threatening skies and wanting to bail? He noticed my hesitation and clarified it for me: “It’s way cooler than yesterday.” Ah, good. He wanted up. Indeed with the length and effort the approach took, I don’t know if we’d have had the water to go up if it was as hot as the day before.
|What a cool route!|
I zipped up the second pitch, which supposedly has a 5.7 move on it, but low angle slab climbing comes easily to Minions and I didn’t break stride. I joined Ben, a Yosemite backcountry ranger, at the belay. He was quite friendly. Above Petra, a Czech chick, was doing all the leading. She took a variation on the third pitch that went up to the right of the regular pitch. I followed the regular pitch, which had one move on it that is called 5.7 and did take just a bit of concentration to rock onto my left foot, and belayed from two bolts below them.
Petra and Ben let us pass them on the next pitch. They belayed from two bolts a hundred feet up while I ran out two hundred feet of rope to the next anchors and we were soon by and never saw them again. The skies continued to threaten and the wind came up. I was a little concerned, but not overly worried because there was no sight or sound of electrical activity. The climbing was now really easy, rated 5.3, and in the interest of speed and thinking Derek might enjoy it, I offered him the lead. He declined, though. This was wise. Hundred-foot slab runouts, even on easy ground, in threatening weather and high winds, on a route you’ve never climbed before, is not the place to do your first real leading.
|At the top of the roped climbing|
We dispatched the last couple of pitches quickly. When Derek joined me at the top of the last pitch, I started him up the final 1000 vertical feet of slab walking immediately, thinking he could take them at a nice relaxed pace. In the meantime, I coiled the rope and packed the gear. After switching into now Derek’s approach shoes (so nice that we can use shoes interchangeably, as in fact all these shoes were mine), I headed up after him. I expected to catch Derek, but he was strong and had fun switchbacking up these huge slabs.
|One thousand vertical feet of the cleanest slab walking you'll ever do (unless you also climb Cloud's Rest)|
We regrouped on the summit in an embrace. He thanked me for pushing him to do the climb. He was so happy and we took lots of photos. After eating and drinking some, and also making quick calls to my wife and mom, we headed for the cables. Derek was anxious to see these famous aids. I had found a pair of abandoned gloves on the summit and we each put one on to help us grip the cable. His mom first saw the cables after climbing Snake Dike as well and she was extremely intimidated - more so than Snake Dike. Derek was nonplussed, though impressed with the steepness of the route. The permit system nicely limits the crowds on the summit and the cables and we descended without catching anyone.
|Derek on the edge of the Northwest Face - next year's objective!|
Derek was feeling energized and wanted to run on the way out. His main motivation for this was to get to the river so that he could soak his legs once again. He loved that the day before and it drove him now. I shuffled along behind him, eventually getting so far behind I could no longer see him. I ran for a mile or so alone before catching him a little above Little Yosemite Valley. We walked this uphill section and the rest of the way. As we passed Nevada Falls, it started to sprinkle on us. By Vernal Falls it was raining pretty good, but it wouldn’t last long. The crowds got thicker and thicker the lower we got and it was frustrating to have a long line of people backed up behind one slow person who refused to just walk on the right. Instead, they loped right down the middle of a trail wide enough for three people.
|The Cables descent route|
Back at the car, we didn’t pause long before going to our river spot from yesterday. Today we shared it with a pair of very habituated ducks. We could get within a few feet of them and they hung out with us for our entire time there. Twenty minutes later, we headed up the hill to Hans’ Basecamp for a shower, dinner, and a movie on the laptop.