Half Dome in March

by Scotty Strachan

Date Climbed: Mar 15, 2004

For climbers, a long, dreary winter broken up by successive weeks of balmy high pressure is a sure recipe for adventure of the ambitious sort. Accordingly, in March 2004, my climbing partner Barry Beck & I elected to check out Yosemite's Half Dome by way of the 5.7 Snake Dike.

The Plan

Barry had been up the route four times previously, while I had never set foot on it. Given the southwest exposure of the route and the warm, sunny weather of the past week or so, we surmised that there would be little moisture on the route, and minimal snow or ice on the cables route. Thus, we planned to walk up the Mist Trail, cut over to the base of the southwest face, climb Snake Dike, and descend the cables route to the trail. We would climb on a Monday that fit with both of our schedules and limited our interaction with prospective Snake Dike ascenders and tourists. We later found that we were the only climbers lacking the common sense to wait for the snow to melt. While the planning takes only a few minutes, the execution usually involves a bit more effort.

The Setup

Barry had suggested the climb on a Friday, and the following Monday we met up in Gardnerville, Nevada at 6am. We hopped in my Subaru and headed over the Sierra to Yosemite. After 4+hrs of driving we found ourselves in the Park less than 30 air miles from Barry's house --- talk about taking the scenic route! Barry's favorite parking spot was wide open, so we pulled in and got our packs together.

During the gear check, Barry discovered that his digital camera would not recognize his flash card for some reason. After a bit of fiddling we acknowledged that we would have to settle for whatever I got out of my video camera, and that given our time constraints that wouldn't be much. As the younger climber, I graciously volunteered to haul the excessive rack, while Barry could pack my lightweight rope. He acquiesced gratefully, as the 8 slings, 2 quickdraws, #13 stopper, 0.75 Camalot, and 0.5 Camalot seemed much more of a burden than my 32m 8.5mm dynamic string. A few other odds & ends were tossed in, and we were off.

The Approach

With a "California Alpine Start" of 1045, it was clear that time would be our biggest foe. We wandered down the road to Happy Isles and turned onto the Mist Trail. Soon we were passing tourists who, like ourselves, were blatantly disregarding the trail closure signs & gates. The moisture from Vernal Falls was minimal, but our waterproof shells protected us from a premature soaking nonetheless. As we cruised by Nevada Falls, I found that Barry was staying fully in the lead --- doubtless all of the pro that I was packing was taking its toll…

A glance down the shortcut between Liberty Cap and Mt. Broderick told us that snow would likely hamper progress, so we pressed on towards the upper meadows and the option to trek behind Mt. Broderick. This we soon did, and found the northward-facing slope between the trail and Lost Lake to be quite covered in snow. This fact did not rest my concerns about descending the cables route. I was also annoyed to discover that Barry really did bring gaiters, while I had left mine in the car. Such are the penalties for wearing shorts everywhere. After floundering down the forested slope and crossing the creek by Lost Lake, we broke out of the snow and began the ascent and traverse to the base of the southwest face of Half Dome.

I quickly found that the shoes I was wearing (some pseudo-boot high-top waterproof numbers by Merrell) might be great for snow, but suck for rock, wet or dry. Actually, I had also discovered this on Pico de Orizaba a year before, but had conveniently suppressed the facts in the name of comfort. We made our way up to the base of Half Dome while I cursed my shoes, and then traversed without incident to the base of Snake Dike.

The Climb

On the route at last (around 1420), we scrambled up past the last tree a ways to a small ledge/flake where we proceeded to lace up and get out the gear. Although Barry offered to let me do a real lead, I passed in the interest of time (and maybe the fact that I am not much of a rock climber, especially when it comes to friction).

We broke out the rope, and I belayed Barry up a few feet to the first piece of gear (#13 stopper), a tiny roof, and the first belay station. He then brought me up, and I sat while he traversed left and up to the 5.7 moves. After he did a lower variation of the friction traverse left onto the dike, I followed, taking the conventional route up to a bolt and then over. That was certainly the sketchiest part of the route for me, as I have done only a handful of pure friction moves at or above the 5.7 level.

Once on the dike, we set up for simul-climbing. I belayed Barry to the end of my short rope, and then notified him that I was unclipping from the anchors and climbing. We proceeded at an even pace, with Barry clipping available bolts, placing the cams once or twice, and even girth-hitching a big chickenhead. This went on for a while, and we managed to keep at least 2 pieces of pro between us most of the time. The dike was more my style --- easy, direct, and fun.

Approximately 6 pitches up, Barry ran out of slings and brought me up. This was coincidently just below a fork in the dike with a couple of slightly less-secure moves. I belayed Barry through this section to the end of the rope again, and then continued as before. At one point we discovered that we would have to climb 20 feet or so together with no pro whatsoever, as the rope was not quite long enough. Given the easy nature of the rock, this was not an issue, and it was actually quite humorous to be several pitches up a rock route and watch the rope flap about unsecured between us.

The final friction "run-out" pitch was actually quite easy as we were warmed up and I was starting to remember how my Aces worked. Soon we were at the end of the 5th class and changing back into hiking mode. It was 1605, and Snake Dike had taken a rapid but all-too-long 1:45. We made our way up the long (~30min) class 2-3 slabs to the top, where Barry began bagging rogue ducks. Unfortunately, time constraints limited his take to less than the legal limit.

The Descent

To our dismay, the view across to the top of the cables route involved an all-encompassing snowfield. Things did not look very promising for an easy descent. We postholed across to the cables, and found that, fortunately, the top section of cables were only covered by a small patch of snow that we were able to pull them out of. My main concerns involved my insecure hiking shoes and the wet, cold cable in my hands. Also in our minds were the rapidly sinking sun and the temperature drop that was sure to follow. It was imperative that we get down the cables route and off the rock before things turned icy.

We very carefully made our way down the lesser-angled sections, resting at ledges and warming our hands. As the angle increased, I considered quickly clipping a sling to the cables that would at least limit a slide to 60-70 feet. However, I judged that I would have to wait for a better spot to get my harness back out of my pack. We had also briefly considered a series of rappels, but on such a short rope such an operation would not only be time-consuming but might also come up short in the wrong spot.

After descending to a point maybe one third of the way up the route, we found the cables to be buried in a nasty, steep patch of snow --- right at the point where one cable section ends and another begins. Barry's Five Ten Mountain Masters were sticking slightly better than my shoes, and he had more endurance left in his arms, so I was happy to let him continue down to dig out the next cable. This he did with some difficulty and numbness to his fingers. Descending this last section became the crux of the day, as a ~20 foot section of slab here was wet beyond traction and we just had to slide down hand-over-hand. I ended up doing this with my harness on and clipped to the cable via a sling, making use of every available toehold. There was nothing secure about this, and it was quite scary as my arms were about done trying to make up for my slick shoes.

Once at the base of the cables, we saw that somebody had made it perhaps 30 feet up with crampons, but had evidently stopped where the angle (and snow) increased. We followed the crampon tracks across snow-covered rock to the northeast, postholing the whole way. The sun was fading now, and we wanted to make some time. Looking at where the trail followed the ridge to the east, it was obvious that if we went that way we would be wallowing through snow all night. Instead, we dropped off the granite slabs to the southeast and took off though the forest in a beeline for the trail and boggy meadows of Little Yosemite Valley. Because of the aspect, snow cover was minimal and we made it to the trail and back to the Nevada Falls Mist Trail before having to turn on the headlamp. I say "the" headlamp, because while Barry had his combo lamp, I had only my keychain LED.

A steady pace took us back to the car by ~2030, where we were more than happy to change our completely soaked shoes and socks for sandals. The drive home was long and involved a few rest stops, but we made it back to Gardnerville by 0130 and to our respective homes by 0300. Barry even made it into work the next day at his usual time of 0600.

It is possible that we had the first ascent of 2004, or at least the first ascent of Snake Dike. We saw no tracks on the approach to Snake Dike once we left the trail, in the snow or in the sand. There were no tracks on the summit in the snow, and the closest ones were the crampon tracks at the base of the cables. If nothing else, it had definitely been some time since the last person had summited.

In conclusion, I found Snake Dike to be a highly enjoyable climb, albeit with a long approach for just a few pitches of fun. I really don't know how interested I'd be in hauling a full rack and rope up for just that climb, but doing it the light-and-fast way seemed perfectly acceptable. Also, if we had been aware of the exact nature of the snow conditions on the cables route, we certainly would have reconsidered the climb or at least altered our gear, plans, and timeline.