Rock Climbing Half Dome's Regular Northwest Route
Facing Fears, Realizing Dreams and Challenging Oneself
Half Dome: In 1856 the California Geological Survey report about half dome stated: "It is a crest of granite... perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden my human foot." Today thousands of people hike up to the summit of half dome every year and hundreds more climb to the top scaling the 2,400 massive vertical face on one of the many technical routes.
This is the story of my climb up one such route, The Regular Northwest Route (5.9, C1.) You can see the route outlined in red on the photo above..
In spite of the fact that some super humans can climb to the top of half dome following this route in one day or for some even a matter of hours, it takes an average climber about 3 days and us, well, just a tiny bit longer. Nonetheless, the experience for me was the fulfillment of a life long dream, a true adventure of a lifetime.
I Had Come For A Reason
Brian! Brian!" I yelled. Half of my body was wedged inside the thin horizontal crack, the other half was dangling out over 1,900 feet of empty space. It was pitch dark out, my headlamp, a small beacon of light guiding me across the ledge. "How do I get across this?" I screamed, choking back the panic.
At this point, I remembered, I had chosen to be there, I had always wanted to be there, in fact, there being the famous Thank God Ledge. The Thank God Ledge is a rather notorious traverse in the world of rock climbing, located about 400 feet below the summit of Yosemite National Parks half dome (top of pitch 20). I think its called the Thank God Ledge not because its a small ledge to rest upon after hundreds of smooth vertical feet of climbing, but rather because when you get there you really want to thank God that you are nearly at the top of this climb. At least thats how I felt about it when i finally got there. It had taken us four days of solid climbing and hauling our gear to reach this point
Even as a child growing up in the big city of Los Angeles, surrounded by buildings, people and smog, I knew that I wanted to be a rock climber, I felt that I had some sort of connection to the mountains, the wilderness, and the rocks. At age 12 on my first backpacking trip, I saw the dome and I was awestruck, I committed right then and there to come back, to climb the face. Call it a deep personal challenge, a commitment to look at my fears and face them head on, or call it sheer insanity, for me it meant everything to be there.
Flash forward more than two decades from that first backpack trip and there I was, I had become a rock climber, not a super human one, but dedicated and passionate one nonetheless. That summer as I trained and trained and trained, all I could think about was HALF DOME. Then, a mere 2 weeks before our departure, I recieved some big and life changing news - I was pregnant. Suddenly my focus shifted, priorities changed. In spite of this, I knew I still had to climb, now I felt it was my only chance in fact. I was driven, or maybe looking back now, kind of stupid, sigh.
Climbing,or more accurately groveling my way across the Thank God Ledge I finally reached a point where I could get both feet back on the wall and resume climbing in a more traditional manner to get to my climbing partner at the belay. The three days it had taken us to get to this point were unlike any other in my life, physically demanding, mentally challenging, and above all, immensely rewarding. Living with the immediacy and finality of death on the climb helps you sort through your priorities in life and makes you recognize the trivial from the non.
Lightening danced across El Cap spire, Yosemite's most prominent rock feature, and storm clouds constantly threatened us as we made our way to a sloping ledge about 600 feet up on the first day of the climb (top of pitch 6). Thankfully the storm never materialized above us and after 12 hours of difficult climbing, some waiting around and indecision due to the storm clouds and thunder, and one lead fall taken by my climbing partner Brian, we reached the ledge. Too sleep comfortably on this ledge, if you could call it that, and without risk of sliding off into the abyss, ropes had to be tied around our feet in sort of a hammock like fashion.
On day two, at about 800 feet up and moving ever so slowly due to loose rock, uncertain and difficult climbing, and a constant struggle with hauling our gear, we realized we would not make the 1,100 feet needed for the day to maintain our 3 day schedule. Retreat was no longer an option. The smell of urine was strong at the two foot wide ledge (top of pitch 11)where we would spend our second night. My feet dangling out over more than a thousand feet of vertical air I gazed up at the stars from my cozy sleeping bag after another 12 hours of strenuous climbing. Although sore and tired, sleep did not come easily that evening, thoughts of my unborn child danced through my head, the stories I would share with him and the hopes that the adventurous spirit was within him too.
The most difficult climbing of the trip still lay ahead. Difficult Chimney climbing was a rude awakening at the start of the third day. Creeping like inch worms our progress was slow. One hundred feet below the ledge where we would spend our third and final night on the wall, our gear had become tangled in the haul line and wedged underneath some flakes about 50 feet below. Lowering off over the edge, traversing across the wall and finally freeing the *haul bag took over 4 hours, putting us on the ledge at 1 am, a major set back indeed. Valuable sleep and relaxation time lost, we collapsed yet again for the remaining few hours until the push for the summit.
* A haul bag is the bag you carry all your stuff up the wall in. it is lovingly refered to as 'the pig' by most big wall climbers.
To Climb Any Big Wall You Need A Haul Bag - The 'Pig' of Choice
This haul bag includes well-padded shoulder straps and waist-belt the support your load on the hike, and they stow away for snag-free hauling. Black Diamond used burly vinyl-laminated nylon material to ensure the Zion Haul Bag stands up to the abuse of the big stone. Its 8,848cu inches of cargo space easily holds your portaledge, sleeping bags, and all the other necessities for life in the vertical. The Zion Haul Bag even comes with a belay seat, so you can admire the view in comfort while your partner spends two hours on a hideous aid pitch.
The Final Push To The Top
Taking the average climber 3 hours per pitch (about 100 feet), aid pitches are the slowest kind of climbing. Aid pitches are where the rock is actually too hard to climb (at least for mere mortals like ourselves) and so you need to climb your gear instead of the rock. Each piece of climbing gear is placed with precision and care and each piece is weighted to full body weight as you step up onto the gear in specially designed leg loops that connect you to the rock. It is a slow and tedious process indeed. We were averaging 4 hours per aid pitch and we had 3 more to go at the start of the final day. Agony was setting in just as the sun set and we finally reached the Thank God Ledge.
So finally, there I was, the Thank God Ledge behind me hours ago. 3 a.m. and still climbing, freezing, shivering, SO TIRED, wishing more than anything to be at the top. We were so close to the top at this point that we could hear the tourists up there who had hiked in to watch the sunrise, laughing, living it up, oblivious to my pain and suffering. My husband was up there too. At the moment those tourists were making me mad, didn't they know how hard I had been working? I wanted them all to feel just for one second how I felt at that moment, what I had been through, but they would never understand. As tears of pain and exhaustion intermixed with a huge sense of accomplishment streaked down my face, I gripped the final hold and pulled myself onto the summit at 4 am. We had been climbing for over 20 hours that day alone and for all those hours days prior just to get there, the summit, our destination
The Fulfillment Of A Dream
Having taken an extra day on the wall, we felt the time pressure to get down in order to make our flight back to Colorado the next day. A mere 2 hours after reaching the summit, at 6 a.m., weary, worn, exhausted beyond anything imaginable, we began the grueling 8 mile hike out to the valley floor. I don't think I have ever pushed my limits more, the agony being almost unbearable. Such a motley crew we were, covered in the dirt and grime of 6 days in the backcountry, gear strapped to our backs, limping ever so slowly down the trail, fielding a barrage of questions from tourists inquiring if we were ok. By the time we found a hotel to stay in that night I was delirious and when I fell asleep I dreamt I was back on the wall trying to get off and having problems with the haul bag.
When I told my friends about our ascent, how grueling, exhausting and challenging it was, how we climbed for hours on end and into the night each night, they simply shook their heads and said 'are you surprised?' And actually I'm not. I had expected it to be the challenge that it was, afterall, thats why I came. So now a lifelong dream has been fulfilled. It was all that I expected and more and I can look back on it with a true sense of achievement. Sure we didn't set any records or climb some remote climb in the middle of nowhere, but for us, the ordinary climbers that we are, we pushed ourselves into the extraordinary and did something we will never forget. My next big adventure, parenthood, is only just beginning. I hope my sweet child reaches for the stars and knows that with a little effort, he too can make his dreams come true.
The Regular Northwest Face
There are many technical climbing routes which will get you to the top of half dome. The easiest being a route called Snake Dike Snake Dike climbs an 800' salmon-colored dike that wanders up the dramatic southwest face of Half Dome.
The Route we climbed, The Regular Northwest Face is the next easiest technical climb to the summit on the famous northwest face. Since this is one of the most famous climbs in the world and the technical details are probably much better documented elsewhere such as supertopos , I wont go into all the nitty gritty details but just provide a few tid bits of interesting information starting with the approach all the way to the top, pitch by pitch.
To get to the base of the climbs on the northwest face you have one of three options: 7.1 miles one way via Mist Trail, 8.3 miles one way via John Muir Trail or the 'death slab' approach via some fixed ropes and scary class 4, its shorter by a bit but not too appealing in my book. We took the John Muir trail up and the Mist trail down.
The route starts on left side of face where the main face becomes broken, and the start is marked by a long tree/bush in the middle of the 1st pitch. The first 9 pitches go up the broken left side of the face. Pitch 1- long, 5.10 climbing, up cracks, Pitches 2&3- 5.8/9 climbing up through a slot and, then up some ledgy blocks to a nice belay ledge below the Pitch 4 splitter crack. b> is hard - 5.11a or aid up first bit of finger crack to short bolt ladder, then up a crack above. Pitch 5 heads left around corner to crack. Pitches 6-9- 4th class to 5.9 climbing, heading left up to Pitch 6 bivy ledge(where we spent the first night), then up and eventually right over to the main face. From here you are committed to the wall and cannot easily rap back to the ground. Pitch 9 traverses far right, then back left to base of Robbins traverse. Pitch 10 is a bolt ladder up right, then a fun pendulum over to belay. Pitch 11 heads up to long narrow bivy ledge (where we spent the second night on the wall), weird .9 face/thin crack. Pitch 12 heads right toward big chimney, then cuts back left to 5.11c climbing or aid climbing to short tension traverse back right into main chimney system (hard climbing!). Pitches13-15- 5.7-5.9 chimney climbing. Pitch 16- 5.9 climbing up to big ledge. Pitch 17- 5.9 climbing, heading right down a ledge to crack system, excellent climbing leads up to the big sandy ledges (where we spent night 3 on the wall). Pitches 18,19 & 20 are called the zig-zags,they are thin but fairly easy aid climbing with a couple tension traverses. Pitch 21- The famous Thank God Ledge, traverses left on narrowing ledge, some walk but most crawl or inchworm across, and then it finishs up with a short, weird offwidth/chimney. Pitch 22 heads up left to bolt ladder, then tension traverses left to second bolt ladder which leads to belay. Pitch 23- frictions up left leaning arch to easy ledges to the top.
Recommended Climbing Gear
For The Regular Northwest Face
This is a receommended gear list only. Climbers attempting to do the regular Northwest route should research the route thoroughly and determine the best gear for the length and style of ascent they are planning for, Some parties carry more gear and some carry less on a big wall.
1 set of BD stoppers
1 set of DMM Peenuts
1 ea HB offset brass nuts
2 sets of Metolius Master Cams to #5
1-2 sets of offset-Aliens (1.75")
Black Diamond Oz Quickdraw
2 sets of Black Diamond Camalots #0.5-3
1 each of Black Diamond Camalots #4 and #5
1 60m x 10.2mm lead rope
1 60m x 7.7mm static haul rope
1 tag line
BD Oz quickdraws and 20 extra lightweight biners
15 shoulder length slings
Petzl Gri Gri or Trango Cinch belay device
Petzl Grigri Belay Device
Petzl Reverso 3 belay device
free climbing shoes
Meteor or Half Dome helmet
single gear sling
Metolius belay gloves/knee pads for aid pitches
2 Aid climbing daisy chains
2 - 4 aid climbing aiders, depending on style in which you preferf to aid climb.
Get The Gear You Need Here
The Black Diamond camalot, the best for all of yosemimtes climbs.
Wired nuts are a must on any trad rack, this is a set of larger ones.
This gear sling allows you to rack gear on either side of the body with ease.
Explore Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a magical place, for rock climbing and for so much more. John Muir said it best - "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." Below are some of the most useful links regarding Yosemite National Park - from how to get there, to where to stay, and sights to see.
- The Official National Parks Service Page
Yosemite National Park, one of the first wilderness parks in the United States, is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and
- Yosemite National Park Camping Page
Here you will find camping and campground information including dates the campgrounds are open and the facilities offered to campers staying in the park. You will also find links for lodging and hotels.
- Yosemite Hikes: The Best Place To Take Your Feet In Yosemite
this site is great because it breaks down the park into section, discusses how to get there and what some of the more popular trails are. you can find weather and road conditions here as well
- HIke Up Half Dome The Easy Way
As mentioned in my story, it is possible to reach the summit of half dome by hiking up and around the backside in fact, the hiking trail to the summit of Half Dome is one of the most famous and scenic day hikes in the United States. Dozens (sometimes
Read More About Climbing In Yosemite Here
Yosemite is the birth place of American rock climbing. It is an outlet for the energies of the world's most passionate and adventurous people. Yosemite inspires the souls of climbers to reach for something beyond themselves and to travel to a place, physical and mental, where they have never been before. Few climbers can resist Yosemite; nearly every climber who has the opportunity to get to Yosemite manages to make the trip.
From the classic big walls like El Cap. Spire and Half Dome to the shorter multi pitch or single pitch climbs on hundreds of rocks throughout the valley and Tuolumne meadows. The following links will give you detailed information on climbing in the park.
Provides excellent climbing guides to all areas, details on the logisitcs of climbing, recommended gear to bring and recommended routes to climb for all levels.
- Another Groups Journey Up The Regular Northwest Route.
While half dome is a huge monolith of rock 2,400 feet in height, there are many who can climb it in a couple of days, a day or even, remarkably,in a few hours. Posessing the skills to climb such an expanse of rock in such a short period of time take
- A Short history Of Yosemite Rock Climbing
Part of what makes Yosemite amazing is how it has inspired an ongoing evolution in rock climbing world wide. This page highlights some of the rich climbing history of the park.