Well it was October, the sign of changing weather and time for the 4th Annual Half Dome Climb. After 3 years of backpacking up to Little Yosemite Valley and doing the cable route, I felt it was time to try something different. Snake Dike.
After some summer climbing up at Squamish in B.C. I felt my leading was pretty solid (5.8 - 5.9 with one 5.11lead) and I should be up to the long runouts that Snake Dike is known for. Unfortunately late summer brought on other sports and climbing took a back seat. My partner Gail J and I decided to do a challenging climb at Lover's Leap to make sure our skills were up to the challenge. Unfortunately after getting there I wasn't up to a hard 5.9 climb and we "backed it down" to some 5.7 and 5.8 fun. Not a good pre-test for Snake Dike.
Wednesday, October 6th came and it was time to head to Yosemite. I got off work at midnight the night before and Gail J just got off work after working a graveyard shift. We headed off to Yosemite Valley with little to no sleep around 9am. We arrived at Yosemite Valley just after 12:30 and went to get our permits. Lucky for us the backpacking permits for Little Yosemite Valley were still available. We headed off to the backpacking parking lot and sorted out our gear. We decided to go light with regular backpacking gear, 2-twin 7.8mm x 50m ropes, 10-biners, 6-lightweight locking biners, 5-single spectra slings, 2-double spectra slings, and 6 Trango Flex Cams (#1, #2, 2- #3, 2-#4). Hopefully this would be enough. My research said it would be. I was comfortable leaving my climbing helmet behind (low probability of rock fall unless the tourist threw stuff down) and went with a lighter pack. Gail J however felt more secure with one (I ended up being the only one on the climb without a helmet, but others were jealous of my sunhat). Our backpacks weighed in the low 40-pound range along with 3 days of food.
We headed on up the trail around 2:30pm. With sunset not too much after 6:30 we had our work cut out for us. We moved up the trail stopping for our first break (about 1 1/2 hours into the hike) at Clark Point where the Mist Trail and the John Muir trail rejoin. Along the way we got some great views of Half Dome . After a short break, we headed on up to Nevada Falls for our second break (also short). From here we headed off for Little Yosemite Valley. About half way between Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley we located the climbers trail that branches off to the south side of Half Dome. We memorized this location (it would look different later) and headed into camp. We reached camp around 5:30 pm and immediately started setting up camp. We quickly cooked dinner and finished eating just before dark (a good thing since Little Yosemite Valley is well known for it's bear activity). We headed off to Merced River to get some water, and then joined the other backpackers and climbers at the community camp fire for some conversation. After a couple of hours we headed back to camp. Our pre-dawn alarm time of 4:30 was going to come early the next morning.
At 4:30 the alarm went off and we quickly got up and started heating up some water for some hot drinks. Little Yosemite Valley is mostly in the shade and was quite cool in the morning. After some nourishment, we headed off in the dark with our daypacks for the climb. We found it easy to find the trail and the beginning of the climbers trail was very obvious. As the trail merged into the rocks the trail became harder to follow as the cairns that were placed around were not always correct. Just before daylight we found that we had followed a couple of cairns completely in the wrong direction. We retraced our steps back to our last obvious sighting of the trail after having the trail come to an end. As daybreak gave us some light we found the true trail heading off about 90 degrees from where the false trail had lead. This trail was obvious and we quickly got back on track and started climbing the slabs below Half Dome.
We reached the base of the climb around 8am and luck was with us, we were the first ones there! We quickly "claimed our spot" by setting up our gear as we heard others approaching below. The first lead seemed very simple to me. Just climb on up the right side of a slick face on broken slabs/dikes. This leads up to the roof. An easy cam placement (along with 1 double sling and 1 single sling) led me to the "5.7 slick traverse" to the left. I found this very straightforward and simple. Perhaps I went too low??? From here I reached the corner of the roof and quickly turned it to reach the belay stance above the stance. A few quick cam placements and the anchor was set.
As I prepared to bring Gail J up, I noticed that other climbers had started to arrive. By the time we reached the top, there were at least 4 other parties of 2 on the route. Gail J followed up but found the 5.7 traverse more difficult. She joined me at our belay station. I started the next pitch, which followed up a shallow flake before starting a traverse to the right. At the end of the traverse the pitch went up over a small roof. There was a bolt a few feet above the roof, but no protection under the roof. I was able to get a small cam into a hole beneath the roof, but I found the placement somewhat difficult to set. A quick move over the roof and I was headed up another dike. I found the rope drag (despite attaching a double sling to the cam) from the cam to be significant, so after clipping into the bolt I reached down and unclipped the cam. I headed up the flake and kept wondering where the anchor was. I was looking everywhere but couldn't see any bolts. Since I was a ways above my last protection I was nervous about going past the traverse and missing the bolts. I could see what appeared to be the 5.7 traverse to my left, but no anchor bolts in sight. After a few minutes of looking I found the bolts right in front of me. I'm not sure if the bolts are hard to see because of the color of the hangers or if my eyesight is just getting that bad.
I brought Gail J up to the belay stance (note most belay stances on this climb did not have any ledges, just two bolts on the climb requiring somewhat "hanging belays"). The route was filling up and there was another party on the anchor behind us with another party starting up from the bottom.
I started the traverse across to the left dike system. I found the protection a bit higher up on the rock then the location I choose to traverse. This required stepping up to the bolt, then coming back down about 5' to start the traverse. I found the traverse fairly straightforward with just one or two quick moves before reaching easier ground. I quickly reached the next belay stance. From here I had a choice of continuing up to the next belay bolts or setting up anchor here. The party behind us was getting impatient (but Gail J told me earlier that their group was no stronger than our group, and we would probably be faster) so I decided to cut the pitch short (plus the next anchor was 160' according to the topo and I was using 165' ropes) and set up the belay here. This allowed the 2nd party to head up to our last anchor. With the limited room at each belay, I didn't really want to share belay stances with other parties. Gail came across and found the traverse challenging (she is less experienced with friction climbing).
We started up the 4th pitch. This would mark the start of the "runout" pitches. The next 3 pitches were all runout. Most were around 130 plus feet with only one bolt in the middle. There were some chicken heads sticking out from the dike that allowed me to girth-hitch them with runners. They looked good, but fortunately I never had to test them.
After 3 pitches of this, the climb came to a "Y". You could climb to the left side or the right side of the "Y" before climbing on top of it. Supertopo rates the left side as 5.7 and the right side at 5.6. I liked the look of the right side and decided to go for it. A bolt was found about 20 feet below the difficult section. It looked like a cam could be placed in the shallow crack on the right side, but after spending a few minutes trying to get a secure placement, I just decided the heck with it and moved on without placing any protection. I found this the most difficult section of the entire climb. With my only protection 20 plus feet below me the "easier 5.6" section was more challenging to me than the lower section.
We moved past this and onto the easier 5.3 runout pitches above. These seemed quite straightforward and we put some space between us and the team below us (and they were also pulling ahead of the teams behind them). Here we reached the beginning of pitch 7 (#8 for us). I found route finding from here on more challenging. The next pitch was supposed to be 5.2 friction, but I found it quite a bit harder. I'm not sure if I missed the easier route, or perhaps 40 plus feet of unprotected climbing was finally getting on my nerves. From here I think I missed parts of the route. I saw an obvious traverse to the left, which then led directly up some shallow flakes to a small roof. I thought this was the same roof as shown on the topo (end of pitch 7) but I couldn't find the fixed protection shown on the topo guide. After looking and looking around, I decided this was as good as any place.
I set up a hanging belay under the small roof off 3 cam placements (I was real glad I brought 6 cams and not the 3 I was originally going to) and then brought Gail J up to me. I saw possibilities above me that headed on up, but at this point despite looking at the topo several times, I wasn't sure where the regular route was. I noticed to the right of me what "appeared" to be the same 5.2 friction shown on the topo. But according to the topo, it should be to the left of me. I guess I had moved farther left on the last pitch than I should have. There were several routes possible, but I decided to traverse right and up over the small roof on what I believed to be the correct route. This was straight forward and quickly led up to some more obscure route finding. I found a HUGE exfoliated flake system that had broken away from the main rock and was just sitting there. I'm sure one of these days this flake system (over 6 feet high!) is not going to be there. Next to it I found a short vertical section and then a short traverse left brought us to the top of the roped climbing. We had spent approximately 4 hours climbing the roped section.
We were on a huge sea of granite extending above and in all directions. Route finding was going to be interesting. We coiled our ropes, but decided to leave our climbing shoes on (instead of the hiking boots in our packs). This was the part Gail J was nervous about. She wasn't used to friction climbing and didn't like being unroped. But with over 1000 feet of class 3 climbing above us and no protection, remaining roped would be crazy. After a few minutes of climbing the slabs Gail J became more relaxed and got comfortable. The slabs seemed to go on forever. We would climb about 20 steps, stop, look around, breathe, and then continue on up. This went on for about an hour before finally reaching the south summit of Half Dome around 1pm.
We spent about an hour on the southern summit of Half Dome relaxing, sorting gear, and talking to the many tourists. After a relaxing lunch, I took Gail J over to the actual summit of Half Dome (this was her first time to the summit of Half Dome) and then got a picture of her "Hanging Out" near the summit. We then started our trip down the cables and back to Little Yosemite Valley. We reached camp around 3:30pm, almost 11 hours after leaving it.
We enjoyed another dinner and some more campfire conversation with the other hikers before settling into bed for some well-deserved rest. Morning came and we timed our hike out (2 1/2 hours) to be first in line at the Curry Village Pizza hut just before they opened.
Snake Dike was a great climb and should be on everybody's list. The leader should however be comfortable with extremely runout pitches and solid on 5.7 friction/face climbing. The only question is what route should I do for the 5th annual Half Dome climb?