When one hears the word "Yosemite", the first image that springs to mind is likely that of stately Half Dome. Rising over five thousand feet from the valley floor, this imposing granite monolith dominates the already-spectacular scenery.
While surveying the region in 1868, geologist Josiah Whitney wrote, "Half Dome was perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been and will never be trodden by human foot."
Today, thousands of tourists each year push and shove their way to the top in defiance of Whitney's prediction using the aid of steel cables permanently installed in the rock...but there is another route that can be ascended by novice rock climbers enlisting the aid of man's tools only for protection. With little more than a few stoppers and the will to run it out a little, any hardy soul can freeclimb Yosemite's icon.
Arguably the easiest free route on Half Dome, Snake Dike was first climbed in 1965 by Eric Beck, Jim Bridwell, and Chris Fredericks. John Harlin in his volume West Coast Rock Climbs calls the dike "a good full moon climb".
The route itself is relatively short at 8 full pitches or so, following a large pink weathered "dike" feature in the otherwise smooth granite face. The dike offers a variety of dishes, cups, knobs, and other delicious face features --- but precious few fractures or cracks that would provide solid protection. As a result, several bolts have been placed along the route to aid peace-of-mind.
Fortunately, the technical crux is reached rather quickly on the second pitch during a 5.7 friction move right-to-left across a slab while first accessing the dike itself. After that, the climbing is mostly in the 5.easy - 5.4 range...albeit with plenty of exposure and runout. All too soon the climb is over, and hundreds of feet of calf-burning class 2 slab climbing takes you the rest of the way to the summit.
Just getting to the base of Snake Dike is a challenge in itself --- not like an afternoon jaunt to your local crag. Gear selection is critical to keeping a light load for a fast approach, as during the peak of the season the climb is often crowded and wait times on the climb itself can be quite tedious. While some elect to pack camping gear up to make it an overnighter, this is not a necessary move for those that can start early and hike quickly...however, a total of 5000' gain and a round-trip mileage of something in the 15-mile range can make for a long day with packs of any weight...
Start from Happy Isles and proceed up the Mist Trail towards Little Yosemite. Once the trail levels out above Nevada Falls as you enter Little Yosemite Valley, turn left up a short hillside and work cross-country north and west to Lost Lake.
(Lost Lake can also be reached from between Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. For this approach, work up talus slopes under the northwest corner of Liberty Cap well before Nevada Falls is reached, and contour around into the "chasm" between the two formations. Early-season climbers will find an abundance of lingering snow/ice in this sheltered area, making this approach not so desirable. The other side of this canyon opens out directly at Lost Lake.)
A trail leading along the lake's left side heads up toward slabs and the Dome. Steep 3rd-class slabs take you directly for the South Face of the Dome, with a convenient ledge system branching off to the left as you approach the cliff face. Most will find it handy to put on the rock shoes for this section, but if you encounter fifth class rock, you're off route. Eventually you'll arrive at the southwest face of Half Dome and the base of Snake Dike. The route starts on a low angle slab 100 ft below a small tree.
Bob Burd adds:
"There are apparently several ways to get to the start, not all of them equal. From Lost Lake's NW shore, you can head more or less diagonally up towards Half Dome's SW shoulder, which will involve some bushwhacking and bouldering, and a nothing-special approach. We saw others go that way and started to do so ourselves.
Other beta we had said to head directly for Half Dome's South Face from Lost Lake. When we got tired of the bushwhacking, we heeded this advice and found that we'd made things much too difficult. And once at the South Face, there is a splendid series of ledges that are nearly as much fun as Snake Dike itself. Go this way. Don't mind that the South Face looks like it will lead you to cliffs and a dead end - once you run out of obvious talus climbing, follow the obvious route & use trail left that takes you over these fun ledges."
Head up towards the tree, then angle left before you get to a tiny "roof." Angle up and left on a section of 5.7 friction. Unless you enjoy unprotected pure friction climbing, place a piece in the "roof" before you traverse. Fight rope drag (if you placed a piece in the roof), and head up and right to the belay. From here, head right, then up, clipping into a couple bolts along the way. The 5.7 traverse to the dike itself is just below the last bolt in this sequence, taking you left across a couple pure friction moves. If you have a 60m rope, you can get to this point in two pitches. If not, three are probably necessary. Cruise up a 3-5 pitches of delightful 5.4 knob pulling to the upper 2nd class section. The upper pitches are extremely runout (100+ ft. between bolts, very few spots to place anything), but the climbing is easy. When you get to the 2nd class section, you're in for a long hike to the summit...
"SuperTopo offers a FREE information packed topo map of Snake Dike including:
- Approach and Descent
- Photo of route
- Detailed topo of the route
- Climbing strategy
- Retreat/storm info
- First ascent history by Steve Roper
You can get this topo here . "
Besides plenty of slings and a couple quickdraws, the core pro consists of a #13 stopper, a 0.75 Camalot, and an 0.5 Camalot. Maybe a few other small to medium sized nuts and/or cams could prove helpful or give peace of mind, but don't bring tons of pro, as you won't need it. A 60m rope helps for combining pitches.