Saturday, September 24, 2011

Half Dome via Snake Dike, September 20, 2011

Yosemite's Half Dome is one of the most iconic peaks in the world as it attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. The easiest route to the summit is a 7-8 mile hike from the Happy Isles Trailhead and involves ascending metal cables for the last 400 feet. In 2010, the National Park Service implemented a permit system for Half Dome to address congestion and safety concerns on the cables. There are 400 permits available per day and are often fully reserved months in advance. Permits were only required Fri-Sun in 2010, but this year, it is now required 7 days a week. Several deaths have already occurred on Half Dome this year.
Half Dome.
Half Dome permits are now required 7 days a week.
I first completed Half Dome in 2006, before I started (or even knew anything about) rock climbing. It took me 10 hours car-to-car and it was brutal. I was astonished watching climbers carrying ropes and summitting from the other side of the dome. I could not imagine myself doing that.

Three years later, in 2009, I returned and completed Half Dome again. This time, it was via Snake Dike at night during the full moon. We decided to climb it in the dark to avoid the crowds and the heat and sure enough, we were the only ones on the wall. It took 12 hours car-to-car and it was also brutal.
Climbing Snake Dike at night during the full moon.
Earlier this week, I decided to get on Snake Dike again. This time, during the day so I can experience the exposure, scenery, and big runouts. The climb is rated 5.7 with the crux sections being friction slab climbing (moving your feet with no positive hand holds) on pitches 1 & 3. The rest of the climb is extremely runout, but very easy. Climbing Half Dome does not require a permit and after reading several trip reports stating that there were 10 people on the wall during weekdays, I was not thrilled and contemplated climbing something else instead, but we ended up doing it anyway.

We started at 7AM from Curry Village and were at the base by 10AM. The approach is approximately 6 miles long and gains ~2,500 feet. You hike past Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and right after you get to the Little Yosemite Valley Junction where the sandy trail flattens out with logs on both sides, you make a left onto a climber's trail and head towards the South Face of Half Dome. The rest of the hike isn't very obvious and it's quite easy to lose the trail. Luckily, there are plenty of cairns that may or may not mark the way. It starts off on an actual good trail heading west (left), so make sure you find it first. Stay on this trail and you will eventually hike over several fallen trees, pass Lost Lake, do some bushwhacking, climb up 3rd class slabs, and traverse exposed ledges before you arrive at the base of the climb. 
Vernal Falls.
Nevada Falls
This is where you will want to make a left turn to get on to the climber's trail.
Hiking up the slabs.
Traversing exposed ledges. Lost Lake in the background.
When we arrived at the base, there were 4 climbers already on the wall and 5 more at the base getting ready. I was not psyched at all. It appeared that we would have to wait about 2 hours before it would be our turn. There is no easy or safe way to pass people on this climb, so you're pretty much forced to wait. After 45 minutes of waiting around, I asked the party of 3 ahead of us (who were taking their time gearing up) if we could go ahead of them and they didn't have a problem as long as we run up it. 

I remembered the start of the first pitch being quite terrifying due to the 5.7 friction traverse under the roof, so this time I started left from where most people normally start. It was slightly easier and you can sling the tree for protection. After the roof, it's easy climbing to a bolted belay. If you use a 60m rope, all belay stations are bolted except for 7 & 8. 
Approximate Snake Dike Route as seen from the base.
Pitch 2 is a traverse towards the right and is fairly short from the bolted belay, but can be a little scary as there isn't very much protection and you definitely don't want to fall. Once you clip the bolt over the roof, you'll feel much better.
Pitch 2, almost at the bolt above the roof.
Most people consider pitch 3 the crux of the climb, but it wasn't as bad as I remembered. The single bolt during the 5.7 friction traverse provides much relief and once you gain the dike, you're home free. Although the remaining pitches are extremely runout, climbing the dike felt very secure and easy. It was more of a "hike" than a climb as you're mostly using your feet instead of your arms. After pitch 6, we pretty much just simul-climbed / free-soloed until we got to the 3rd class slabs, which was where we put our climbing gear away and had our hiking shoes back on. The last 1,000 feet of 3rd class slab is definitely gruesome.
Pitch 3. That single bolt provides much relief.
Jacquelyn leading pitch 4. She just clipped her first bolt where she is in this photo.
Endless 3rd class slabs after pitch 8.
Being at the summit of Half Dome was nothing new for me. I hiked it again last year as part of a backpacking trip and this became the 4th time on it. We made the summit by 2:30PM, took pictures on the Diving Board, and descended the cables. Surprisingly, there were very few people on Half Dome and the cables, so we were able to get down pretty fast. We took the shuttle from Happy Isles to Curry Village and were back to the car by 5:45PM.
Cairns at the summit of Half Dome.
Me on the Diving Board.
Looking down from sitting on the edge of the Diving Board.
Here's our approximate time log:

Curry Village: 7:00AM
Little Yosemite Valley Junction: 8:45AM
Base of Climb: 10:10AM
Starting Pitch 1: 11:00AM
Finishing Pitch 8: 1:30PM
Summit: 2:20PM
Sub-dome: 3:00PM
Curry Village: 5:45PM

Total time car-to-car: ~10:45 including 45 minutes waiting in line at the base and 30 minutes at the summit.

As for the gear we brought with us, it wasn't much. Since I already did this climb once before, I knew exactly what we needed. For protection, I only brought Metolius Ultralight Cams 2, 3, 4, and 6 alpine draws. I placed a cam during pitch 1 & 2 and didn't place anything else for the rest of the climb, mostly because you can't really place anything. If you really wanted to, you could "sport climb" the entire route.
This was the gear I brought with me.
After climbing this route twice now, I think I'm done with it. If I had climbed it during the day the first time, I'm not sure I would have returned to climb it a second time even for a full moon ascent. The nickname "Snake Hike" has become clearer than ever. 
A rainbow in front of Vernal Falls.

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