Into the Unknown: Regular Northwest Face, Half Dome

Half Dome. Yosemite’s most recognizable feature in filled with history. Though first hiked way back in the 1850s, the sheer northwest face remains one of climbing’s most intimidatingly aesthetic features. When Royal Robbins and company first ascended the face in 1957 (!), it was the world’s first Grade VI (many-day) technical rock climb. Since then, the Robbins Route, called the “Regular Northwest Face,” is one of the most popular wall climbs in Yosemite Valley, with probably around a hundred ascents each year. In July 2015, however, something terrible happened: an enormous ledge of rock detached from the face and fell 1,500 feet to the Valley floor. The dust cloud hung for days over the east end of the Valley. The Robbins Traverse, which took the first ascent party from the route’s first major crack system to the second, had been completely obliterated. In its place now stood a sheer face of utterly blank rock.

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Gorgeous views of Glacier Point
Since the rockfall, the route’s popularity has drastically shrunk, with several failed or partial attempts to connect the broken sections. In the year since the rockfall, the Regular Northwest Face has only seen two successful ascents reported in the public domain (though there are certainly more unpublished ascents). Estimates remain a crapshoot, but I can’t imagine that more than 20 parties have successfully pulled off the climb since last July, largely due to a shortage of concrete information about the route’s condition. The two public domain reports did confirm one thing: in order to navigate the final move of the rockfall pitches, one had to execute a “knot throw.” This piece of aid trickery, straight out of Royal Robbins’ own handbook, involves knotting a rope and using it to lasso a distant crack system. Sketchy, but undeniably rad.

As a relatively novice team of four with only two Grade V climbs to our name, we knew that an attempt of this route would test us. To give ourselves the best chance of success, we contacted local guidebook author Erik Sloan to inquire about the route’s condition. He fired back a quick reply, stating that his friend had sent the route a few weeks ago with the aid of a #3 beak. He made no mention of the knot toss. Maybe things had changed?

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Death Slabs: no fun
We knew that we eventually had to settle for incomplete information and just go for it. Waking up early, we hoofed our gear to the base of the Death Slabs approach. The Death Slabs is one of the hardest, or at least most notorious, approaches in the Valley. Steep, tricky routefinding and mandatory low-angle climbing up fixed ropes (that sometimes aren’t there) make for a potentially difficult time. We didn’t have too much trouble, thanks to an excellent topo and a careful pace. One fixed rope was missing, which meant sketchy crawling up slabs with a giant haul bag on my back. After the slabs, there’s a short section of savagely annoying bushes to walk through, and then you’re there: the base.

Standing at the base of Half Dome is staggering. 2,000 feet of sheer rock, and you stand there, small as ever, beneath the summit Visor Ledge. It looks so near, and yet the effort required to get to it is obviously immense. With that, we started fixing lines. Elam took the sharp end and began working the lower pitches, while Matt and I set up a bivy. Though we had heard horror stories that the bivy spots were wiped out in the rockfall, somebody had clearly done significant work to rebuild what was lost. There were posh bivies for at least six, all a safe distance from the base.

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Mt. Watkins from high up
While setting up camp, Matt and I suddenly heard the one thing that I never would have expected: human voices. Sure enough, another party came rumbling down the gravel field towards us. We greeted each other and discovered that the team of two, Mickey and Taylor, were going for an in-a-day ascent. Concerned about our own prospects of moving quickly the next day, we worked out a compromise: they would jug our fixed lines the next day and fix our ropes one pitch higher, then climb ahead and keep a good lead throughout the day. We asked them about the rockfall pitches. They too had heard about bringing a beak, and they were prepared to execute the knot toss if needed. Their friend had allegedly attempted the route a few days earlier to conduct route maintenance, but they had not heard from him.

As if on cue, their friend soon called and revealed that the route had indeed changed. The “sketchy aid crack” just before the knot throw had been equipped by this gentleman with a fixed rope so as to circumnavigate the mandatory beak move. He did this as a favor for a friend going for a link up, and the rope may or may not be removed by now. He did not top out the route, however, and came down that evening after installing the new equipment.

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Voss jugging
Elam came down, having fixed three pitches from the ground. We caught up the team with the new info. This would be very interesting: Mickey and Taylor would be the very first people to climb the Regular Northwest Face with the new beta, and our team would be the second. The thought that the pitch may be climbed via this new fixed rope from now on seemed strange, and I can’t help but venture a guess that Robbins is shuddering somewhere just thinking about it. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to pick sides. Just then, another absurdity happened: two more people came hiking up from the Death Slabs. A year with only a handful of ascents, period, and eight people were here in one day! The odds of each of these parties’ plans coinciding was absolutely mind-boggling. Introductions were made, and newcomers Tom and Nora announced that their team was likewise going for an in-a-day, with a goal of sending the route in twelve hours. 2,000 feet in twelve hours meant that they were really, really good, so we again agreed to let them lead off our train of parties insofar as they got up really, really early.

4AM, alarms blared. I got out of my sleeping bag, groggy as ever. To my absolute shock, Tom and Nora were already at the top of Pitch 2, which they were leading themselves (passing up our fixed ropes). Meanwhile, Mickey and Taylor were already jugging our lines, just as promised. Our worries of being stuck behind these parties quickly evaporated as we realized that they very much knew what they were doing. By 4:30, Matt and I were jugging the lines to begin our marathon push to Pitch 17. By 5:30, the brief bottleneck had cleared and Matt set off on his block. He maintained a solid pitch-per-hour pace all the way through Pitch 10, where we were planning to swap leads. I was very impressed by Matt’s speed and composure through a variety of free and mixed aid climbing, but felt very bad for the haulers, who had to deal with heinous hauling over bulges and flakes with giant traverses and lower-outs.

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The 5.4 mantle section
At Pitch 10 by noon, Matt and I switched roles and eyed our position on the rock. We were about to begin the rockfall pitches, which stood astoundingly blank just as expected. To our surprise, we were right behind the other two parties, and had to wait for them to clear out of the belay before setting off on my block. Keeping up with these more-competent teams was either a testament to our moving fast or the heinous difficulty of the looming rockfall pitches. For those reading this for specific information about these pitches, I’ll try to be as detailed as possible about what to expect. Casual readers may be slightly confused, but hey, that’s what pictures are for!

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The clove-hitched bolt move
From the Pitch 11 anchors, there is an up-and-right bolt ladder extending for seven rivets and five bolts. I would neither call them “sketchy” nor “top-steppy” as the Bivy Bros trip report indicated, but I am 6’2″ so my reach may be longer. One of the final bolts was missing a hangar, and is literally a headless bolt sticking out of the wall. I chose to pass this section by clove-hitching a sling to the bolt, which felt pretty bomber. This was the only “sketchy” part of this pitch. From the top bolt, execute a pendulum off of the draw into the “5.4 mantle” described by the Bivy Bros. The pendulum is rather large and may require a few tries, but is not too tricky. The mantle is deceptively difficult, and requires a rightward traverse on large, sketchy loose blocks before mantling. At this point, there is a excellent small ledge for a gear belay, meaning that the route is now potentially one pitch longer than the Sloan topo indicates if you choose to belay from here. The following pitch, which I will call Pitch 13, is not accurately described in any of the topos released to date. It begins with an absolutely splitter .5″ corner with lots of fixed gear, which I crack jumared but suspect would go free in the 5.10 range. From here, however, the crack continues up into a very tricky aid section with no fixed gear and much harder free climbing. This tricky aid section now has fixed ropes hanging from a bolt up top, with a fixed draw also there to facilitate a pendulum.

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How to make the knot throw easier: Cliffhanger hooked on small edge
Deciding to spit in the face of all style considerations, I whipped out my ascenders and jugged that rope right past the beak move, clipping the draw on top. I lowered out and tension around the corner. As described in both of the successful trip reports since the rockfall, there stands the base of the chimney pitches, the infamous keyhole section now entirely gone. It seemed as if a very aggressive pendulum into a dynamic .3″ Camalot placement could stick the final traverse, but ten tries later I deemed this strategy impossible for me. I pulled up twenty feet of slack in my tag line, tied a quadruple fisherman’s and threw on a locker for weight just as suggested, and began trying for the knot throw.

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The infamous knot throw
I tried tensioning around the corner, then throwing. This did not work. I tried a pendulum into the throw, which likewise failed. I tried swinging the knot like a lasso, which failed as well. In the end, I used another piece of trickery to make the throw easy. I would highly recommend this strategy to any parties, as this made the toss very doable. I executed a pendulum into the enormous side pull jug just 20′ left of the chimney. From this position, I clipped a Cliffhanger hook to my belay loop. There is a single crystal that the hook can snag nicely, which hold you at the peak position of your pendulum. This shortens the distance for the knot toss tremendously. From here, I executed the toss and screamed with joy as it stuck. I lowered onto the line and carefully jugged it to the chimney anchors. The rockfall pitches were behind us!

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Elam wraps up Thank God Ledge
Little did I realize, my troubles were far from over. The chimney sections of the route are often described as “fun,” but I’d have to disagree. For those unfamiliar with the route, there are two main approaches. The vast majority of folks go for the 5.7 “airy” option, which is very runout, but easy. The masochists go further back into the chimney’s 5.9 squeeze section, which is better protected but very strenuous. At first, I thought I’d crush the 5.7, but as I stood at the base I saw what looked like a hundred-foot pitch with no or little protection. As an inexperienced chimney-er, I decided to aid up into the squeeze section briefly to get some protection. I did so, back cleaning until I clipped my aider to a solid fixed piece about 10′ off the deck. I placed a sketchy offset cam and realized that I hadn’t yet clipped any protection. I decided to weight the cam gingerly, testing it. It held. Then, quickly, I removed the aider to immediately clip my rope in its place, protecting me from a factor two fall that would break my ankles. In the split second before clipping my rope, PING! The cam blew, and I free fell until I abruptly stopped. But I didn’t stop by hitting the ground; to my absolute shock, I had arrested my own fall!

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Elam hauling
I had never been so jarred by a climbing incident, but I became immediately aware of my extraordinary luck as well as the consequences of an injury this far from medical help. Matt calmed me down, and I finished the lead, albeit very slowly. The rest of the leads proceeding without incident, and I reached Big Sandy before dark.

Meanwhile, the haul team was having a nightmare of their own. On two separate lower-outs, Voss’ lower-out point either blew out or he ran out of rope, resulting in large pendulum falls. Worse yet, the haul line got horribly stuck in a flak on the final haul to Big Sandy–just feet short of the finish. The final haul took three heinous hours from start to finish, and everything that could go wrong, did. The haulers hit the ledge exhausted and in rather low spirits.

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Here comes the Voss!! He’s facing the wrong way lol
Despite this challenging first day, we woke up feeling ready to top out with six pitches of tricky aid. Voss took on the Zig-Zags, three pitches of the hardest free climbing on the whole route. We received a text form Mickey and Taylor, who had topped out at 4:45AM in a marathon through the night. We also learned that the German team had smoked the route, freeing the Zig-Zags and topping out in incredible time. Voss might not free climb 5.12, but he dispatched the Zig Zags in an impressive three hours, very quick for 250 feet of full-on aid climbing. Elam took over to execute the Thank God Traverse. This traverse is on of the route’s most iconic pitches. When Royal Robbins first climbed the route, he was nervous that the final top-out would involve bolting through the Visor Lip, an intimidating roof sequence. As he topped out the Zig-Zags, however, he was amazed to see a thin ledge traversing 40 feet to the left, dodging the lip entirely. Calling the traverse “Thank God Ledge,” therefore, should not be construed as an indicator of the pitch’s psychologically relieving effects. Quite the opposite: The traverse must be either walked, crawled, or hand-over-handed, and each strategy is horrifying in its own unique way beside the technically easy nature of the moves. Slowly, Elam negotiated his way across the ledge, finally reaching the bolt with a sigh of relief. Voss cleaned the route, which was perhaps even more difficult: he had to re-climb the pitch on ascenders to successfully unfix two of the cam placements, further frying the duo.

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Has a rope ever been more stuck?
As if our Thank God woes couldn’t increase, Matt executed a final lower out, only to find that the jug line has gotten stuck in the lower-out sling. In an hour-long process, Matt negotiated his way up to safety, and I had to rig up a system to rappel all the way back to the beginning of the traverse, unstick the line, and re-ascend to join the others. This dispatched, however, Elam had only one pitch remaining. This pitch, the “route finding crux” of the whole route, proved very challenging to us. After some blood, sweat and tears, however, Elam pushed through the tricky aid section with the use of a tricam, and he topped out.

We summited before 6PM, which meant there were many tourists there to offer congratulations and photos. But we couldn’t stay long: we still had a nine-mile descent back to the Village, and Matt wanted pizza. Starting just after 7, we descended the Cables Route in record time, and hiked back at a brisk pace until the sun began to sink. With two miles to go, Matt checked the time: 9.40PM. He dropped his pack, asked us for our pizza orders and sprinted to the pizza deck before closing time at 10PM. He was the last customer served, and we grabbed four medium pizzas just in time to tick off the late-night staff. We didn’t mind carrying Matt’s pack the final two miles, either: we had just climbed Half Dome, for goodness sake, and we got free pizza out of it.

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3 Comments

  1. Hey guys,
    Nice job on the ascent! I was o. The route just before you guys, and fixed the chunk of rope over the beak move. Im glad you guys were able to figure out the new penji move. I found it pretty difficult. I wish I thought of the knot throw there, I just went really big on the swing. It was a hard fight! Just to be clear about fixing the rope though, the park service did not ask us to do it. We were just doing a favor for someone who was going for the link up soon. It would be cool if you cleared that up on the write up.

    Like

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