Half Dome with Vlad
Last Sunday Vlad Sofiyev and I climbed the RNWF route on Half Dome.
I'd climbed the route twice before, once with Yossi Farjoun, once with Mark Miller, but each time hadn't quite done the route "in a day". We'd hiked up the night before, fixed to pitch 6 in the afternoon, then slept and the base and topped out in one push the next day. The car-to-car climb felt like an inevitable next step, so when Vlad asked for climbing partners on the list last week, we quickly ante'd up to this route. Vlad has had some big days in the mountains, but this was to be his longest rock route in a day, and also the first time jumaring or aid climbing!
We drove up to the valley saturday morning, ran a quick lap on the "Central Pillar of Frenzy" (5 pitches, 5.9, on Middle Cathedral Rock), and practiced jumaring on the last rappel of the descent. We had lunch on El Cap meadow (the Huber brothers were there too, recovering from their recent record time on the Nose!), talked to some tourists, did some shopping, and set up our bandit camp behind the backcountry parking lot in Curry Village not long after dark.
Sunday morning we woke at 1am, had a quick oatmeal breakfast, finished the last of the packing, and were hiking by 1:45am. We took the "Death Slabs" approach, hiking first over to Mirror Lake, then up directly below the face. There were a few navigational difficulties, but each only costing a few minutes. The fixed lines were easier than I remembered with Mark (we had much lighter packs this time), and this approach might even be of interest to people who aren't climbing on the face. It's certainly the fastest way up Half Dome!
By 4am we were at the base of the route, harnessing up, eating a second breakfast, and uncoiling ropes. Vlad was to climb the first block of 6 pitches, which he started at 4:25am. I kept my approach shoes on, because I'm lazy, and had decided to jumar the first block. Vlad tore through this whole block, considerably beating my estimate, putting off at the big ledge at the top of pitch 6 by about 6:40am. This block didn't quite go free; in the interest of speed Vlad pulled through a 10c and a 11+ crux. By the time we hit this ledge, we had good light, but much of this block had been in complete darkness.
I led off the next block at about 7am, starting a section of simul-climbing. Until pitch 6, the route approximately follows the corner between the face proper, and the lower buttress on the left side of Half Dome. This next block then took us out onto the face, with easy 5.8 and 4th class climbing, to the Robins Traverse. (Actually, I didn't quite follow the standard route, taking a lower series of 4th class ledges, that avoid a short 5.8 section. I doubt that this actually saves any time.) The Robins Traverse is a short bolt ladder (our first aid climbing of the day), followed by a tension traverse out right. Sadly, someone has very recently added an extra bolt in this tension traverse, making it considerably easier. Hopefully this gets chopped sometime! After the traverse, there's a short section of 5.9 face climbing, and then a aid corner, into the bottom of the chimneys.
By 9am, Vlad was leading again, up into a 5 pitch long block of 5.9 chimney and crack climbing. Where the bottom of the route meanders some, and has variable quality climbing, this block is the real fun. It's classic Yosemite chimney technique, with plenty of great crack climbing higher up. I couldn't resist, and put away my jumars to follow these pitches. The recent storm had left some snow and ice on the exposed sections of this block, but nothing that got in the way of climbing. He finished this block not long after 11am, putting us on Big Sandy Ledge (the standard bivy spot for parties climbing the route in 2 days). We knew by this point that we'd be making a pretty good time on the route; only 6 pitches left!
We ate some here, and I started into the "Zig Zags" block at 11:20. I aided all three of the pitches in this block, nearly all on fixed gear. In fact, in the first pitch of the Zig Zags, I placed only one of my own pieces, otherwise clipping all the left over mank of broken cams, stuck nuts, and ancient pitons left by other parties. Maybe one day someone will come up here with a chisel, hammer, and crowbar, and do some cleaning up -- at the moment it's not much like the original climbing experience, sadly. 2 hours later I was up at the final belay before Thank God Ledge, and thus done with all my leading work for the day!
Vlad soon arrived, and set off across Thank God Ledge, deciding to try to walk it. Thank God Ledge is so named because it provides an escape route out left from under the Visor, the great overhand capping the top of the wall -- the first ascent party knew that the Visor was probably unclimbable. Walking it involved shuffling across a narrow ledge, starting about 12 inches wide, narrowing down to 4. At the crux, the wall in front of you is perfectly vertical, and completely featureless. It might sound okay at ground level, but with 2000+ feet of air underneath you, and no chance to protect it, it's quite intimidating! There is an alternative, of course, which is to hand traverse the ledge, with your feet smearing on the vertical wall below. This way is much less scary, especially because from this position you can place gear in the crack at the back of the ledge. On the other hand, the first question anyone asks you when you say you've climbed Half Dome is -- "Did you walk the ledge?" :-)
Vlad made it out to the crux, but then, encumbered by a backpack (I was planning on doing the hand traverse while following, and had offered to take it, to no avail...), found himself in difficulties! He shuffled back and forth for a while, warning me that he might fall -- not a pleasant prospect here, with 8m of rope out, and various pointy bits in the pendulum path below. Eventually, however, he did something quite astounding, *diving* to the left, catching the ledge with his hands as he fell past... I was scared silly, but it seemed to work just fine :-)
After Thank God Ledge, it's not quite over, but you're pretty much there. An intimidating 5.9 off-width, a strange bolt ladder, and some slippery slab climbing take you the remaining 2.5 pitches to the top. We arrived at about 3:30pm on the summit, chatted with some tourists, and were generally pretty happy with ourselves! We'd climbed faster than expected, had a pretty good time of it. By 4:00pm we walking down the cables, and from there we ran most of the way to the car! My legs (and Vlad's, I hear) are still hurting today!
We arrived back at the car just before 6pm, and, after picking up a hitchhiker in the meadow, made it to Oakdale in time for burritos, and to Berkeley before 11.
We took 1 9.5mm, 55m rope 1 6mm, 60 cord as an emergency rappel cord 2 each, cams to 3" 1 set of nuts the usual helmets, tape gloves, etc.
I wore thermal pants, thin nylon pants, a wool shirt, a long-sleeve nylon shirt, a thin fleece, and a fleece cap, most of the day. I was cold before dawn, when I wore my thin rainjacket too, but otherwise pretty comfortable.
We took about 2.5L of water each, and finished it during the run down. I ate several bars, half a bagel with lots of cheese, and some chocolate. We each carried a backpack. Our emergency kit consisted of tape, vitamin I (ibuprofen), and space blankets.