“If you come,” wrote Dave, my rock climbing buddy and former co-worker, “we can climb Snake Dike.”
Usually the mention of the word “dike” and a slithery vernom-spitting reptile would not tempt me away from a home-finding trip hundreds of miles away, but this was different. Half Dome is perhaps the most famous piece of granite in Yosemite Valley, if not the nation. I had summitted it once before in 1999, but only as a hiker. Or “tourist”, as some elitist rock climbers might condescendingly refer to them. Intrigued, I decided to look up more information about it.
“Dave,” I replied after doing so, “I have some concerns about Snake Dike. It is eight pitches, 5.7, and very run-out in many sections. It would make for a very challenging day…”
Never mind that in addition to all of the rock climbing, there was at least 15 miles of up- or down-hill hiking we had to do. Hiking is easy (ha). So ultimately we planned on doing this all in one day. Mercifully, we departed together from Fremont the Friday night before, enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to Tracy and miles of unlit windy roads to Yosemite Valley in Dave’s pickup. This would enable us to get some quality sleep at a campground that some of Dave’s coworkers (who would be hiking up Half Dome while we were climbing) had reserved for all of us the night before.
An Ominous Sign?
We got some quality sleep for about three hours. Then as my eyes and ears opened for a second, I heard a gentle tapping on the tarp-like material of the tent. “Wow, it’s raining,” I thought, after which I rolled over, drew the drawstring of my sleeping bag tight so as to resemble a mummy in a pharaoh’s tomb, and promptly went back to sleep.
I lifted an eyelid another two hours later. Um, still raining!
At 4:00 a.m. when our wake-up alarms went off, Dave confirmed that, no, I had not been dreaming and it indeed had been raining. We briefly discussed our options and decided to at least hike to the rock and assess if it was climbable from there. Just in case we had to rappel off, we’d bring two ropes. So from there we packed up camp, drove over to Curry Village, parked the car off the road about half a mile from the starting trailhead, and commenced hiking with our semi-full packs. We got to the John Muir trailhead at about 6:20 a.m. Dozens of other hikers were already on it, proving that this was not exactly an early time.
More importantly, the trail seemed dry and there were stars up in the skies.
We began hiking at a pretty good clip, passing several people and only briefly stopping to take some photos. Along the way were a couple of bathrooms and even faucets with running water. “This trail is pretty plush,” I remarked.
After determining that we were hiking along at 2.5-3.0 mph, we further employed our engineering math skills and determined at this rate we’d get to the start of Snake Dike at 9:00 a.m., reach the top by 1:00 p.m., be back to the truck by 5:00 p.m., and back in Fremont by 9:00 p.m. Wow, how easy.
Unfortunately, these calculations failed to take into account a phenomenon I refer to as the Law of S-O-L (sh*t out of luck), which can basically be summarized as “when everything is going well, something is bound to go wrong.”
Finding our Way
Let me describe what then happened:
- We got lost
- I then determined that we had overshot Snake Dike and needed to turn back
- Dave insisted that (while pointing to some people on the rock that Felix could not see) no, we had not overshot Snake Dike. It turns out he was correct but inadvertently lead us to some Class 3/Class 4 scampering that made me wonder if I should be stopping to put on my rock climbing shoes…
- We find the trail again and arrive at Snake Dike at 10:00 a.m. about an hour after we anticipated, only to find that there was already a queue formed for climbing it, meaning a 1.5 hour wait.
The parties waiting ahead of us included a couple of little girls and their dad and a older climbing duo named Alex and Asher. As Dave chatted away with them I munched on some peanut-butter-filled pretzels (courtesy of Trader Joe’s and introduced to me by my friend Lisa) and watched the climbers on the rock, astutely studying their moves and pro (protection) placement. I was especially interested in Pitches 1, 3, 5, and 7, as those were what I was going to lead.
Finally, it was our turn. I scampered up the rock to the roof—maybe ~75′ above the start—and placed my first piece of pro—an active cam. From there I had to downclimb a little and then traverse. The traverse was 5.7 friction—no handholds, feet only—and I’d have to go a good 10′ over to the left.
“Downclimb more!” yelled out Dave. “Try the undercling!” “You are just going to have to trust your feet.” All of his suggestions soon became overwhelming especially when they conflicted with ideas of my own that I was about to commit to. Finally, I yelled back, “Dave, less beta!”
With the air now silent, I inspected the rock for any little divet that might make my feet feel more secure than merely smearing the rock. I really tried hard not to think about how there was only one piece of pro to catch me if I fell, and if this cam popped out, I would be falling 75 feet. Broken bones, if not death or paralysis, for sure. OK! Best to concentrate on just getting across. One delicate foot after another. I inched over towards the side of the roof where there was a nice big hand crack and I’d be home free. At least for this pitch. Some odd minutes (but felt like an eternity) later… made it!
“Phew!” I thought. “This is going to be a long day if there are too many more of those…”
The rest of the pitch was just following a dike travelling diagonally right with “fingers” that were easy to grab onto with my fingers (plus they provided excellent footholds). As I neared a pair of belay anchors 180′ above the start of the climb, Dave yelled out, “I only have 5 feet of rope left.” Fortunately, this 5 feet of rope proved to be enough as I clipped myself in to the two bolts.
Dave scampered up Pitch #1 in a third the time I did and proceeded to lead Pitch #2. This was rather short pitch and Dave had no issues.
It was then my turn and I quickly climbed up it too. My thoughts then turned to Pitch #3 which I’d have to lead and which contained yet another 5.7 friction traverse. Deep inside this had me worried.
I started the pitch going diagonally right as our topo sheet had showed, and was surprised to see a bolt there. I quickly clipped in, but my relief faded immediately when Dave yelled, “the other climbers said don’t clip into that bolt! Try to clip into the bolt to the left and below you instead!”
I pondered that option and even started to downclimb. But doing what Dave had suggested at this point would require downclimbing maybe 10 feet, and worst of all, having to unclip the piece of quickdraw that I had just put in. I would once again be exposed if I did that. So ultimately I decided to do what the topo showed, which was to proceed with the 5.7 friction.
I climbed up to the left, over a dike, and saw that I had at least another 20′ to traverse to the left. I couldn’t even see the next bolts. Crap.
It was trust your feet time as my hands would be able to do nothing more than palming the rock here. Crap again.
Asher, the climber above me, then assured me that, yes, there was a bolt to the left. “It’s really sticky rock,” he asserted.
I then looked at the contours of the rock surface that I’d have to traverse, and pleaded with Dave for silence. The rock, while inclined at maybe 60 degrees, had no significant divets for my feet or fingers to bite on. I had no choice but to smear. Here goes nothing…
I forced myself to take a step to the left. My heart was racing. Deep in the back of my mind I knew that were I to fall here, I was assured of a big fall, a big swing, and a lot of skin grated off against the rock. It would have been a whipper. Moreso, however, I also knew that were I to panic, I was going to take the whipper for sure. So I focused on keeping calm and reaching those frickin’ bolts.
“See how sticky the rock is?” I muttered to myself as I gingerly moved a foot leftward. I muttered this to myself again. And over and over. It became a chant that I whispered to myself, loud enough that Asher may have even heard me. I really did not care. It was keeping me focused on the traverse, or at least distracted from a possible fall. A couple of minutes later, the bolt was now just three feet to my left.
I continued the chant as I did not want to fail here being this close. Then—whoops. My right foot slipped off the rock! I immediately flexed my right leg so as to pick up that foot, kicking it back right behind my butt. To maintain my balance I also had to take a hand off the rock and push my upper body away from the wall with my other hand. One foot and one hand were on the wall, and the other hand and foot were completely off. I was perched there like a flamingo. Somehow, I managed to stick.
I don’t think that Dave even saw this which might have been a good thing because he might have said something or pulled the rope tight, disturbing my balance and concentration and inducing a fall. After some three lifelong seconds I then put my foot and hand back on the wall, took maybe two steps to the left, and clipped in to the bolt.
“Woohoo,” I yelped. “Dave, that took every ounce of courage I had!”
Much relieved, I scampered straight up to the belay bolts above, and it was now Dave’s turn to follow. In contrast to all of the drama I experienced, it seemed like a total piece of cake for him.
So was Pitch #4 for Dave, which he lead. But now I faced another problem: my biceps were really getting tired from belaying.
Again, Dave was up it in short order and then so was I. I stopped at the belay station to inspect the topo in preparation for Pitch #5.
When I saw that the pitch began with a 5.6 “edges and friction”, I took a deep breath thinking, “please, no more friction.” But it really didn’t feel that hard because of the edge. I quickly got to the level of a bolt between two dikes maybe only 15-20 minutes above the start of the pitch, though it did take me a few minutes to reach over and clip in because I kept fumbling with gear.
After that, Pitch #5 was super run out as in having to climb 75′ before reaching the Belay Station #6. This meant that if one fell right before clipping into the next bolt, he was going to fall a whopping 150′. That is like bungee jumping off of a 15-story building. I tried not to think about that.
Thankfully, most of the climbing was just 5.3 and followed a very secure dike, so it really wasn’t bad. In fact, I’d say this was by far the most enjoyable pitch I had to lead all day.
Dave lead this pitch. It was also super run out (over 75′), but also just 5.3 and again he had no problems. Was he even tired? I climbed it and was feeling much happier at this point. “Just got to lead one more pitch,” I thought.
Pitch #7 was rated 5.2 all the way. I don’t think I’ve ever done a 5.2 before. It was also quite short, ending with a “finger crack” that was more like a “body crack”.
The last pitch. While it had an overhanging roof feature, it also was just rated 5.2 Dave hurried up it, explaining that if we moved quickly, we could catch up with Asher and Alex. I followed, and then we quickly packed up the rope and other gear. I looked down and saw that there were still some people at the very bottom of Snake Dike waiting to go up, and was really glad we were not one of them.
Class 3 Climbing… “forever”
Yet it turned out that even with the eight pitches behind us, we were still not nearly to the top. This is because there was still a lot of Class 3 climbing to go. This turned out to be much more of an ordeal than I imagined.
I’d take 10 upward steps and have to stop momentarily to regain my breath. Was I really this out of shape? I tried to rationalize that the 25 lbs on my back, dehydration and the altitude were contributing to my travails. Still, it was humbling.
It ended up taking 20 minutes to reach the top. But when we saw the “diving board”—an arrangement of rocky slabs at the top of Half Dome—we rejoiced.
“Woohoo.” I exclaimed. Then to a young couple on the diving board huddling together in front of a timer-operated camera I remarked, “That is going to be a lovely photo.”
Asher and Alex were at the top and we took some photos with them. Dave, as fearless as he was, went right to the edge of the top of Half Dome and confronted the view of a 1000′ dropoff below.
I, on the other hand, only dared to look over the edge while I was laying flat on my stomach. My pack was still on my back to weigh me down.
I snapped a photo with Dave’s camera in this position. “Please DO NOT drop the camera,” he requested.
“Better not,” I concurred. “This may really be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
In which I further thought that this probably was indeed probably going to be the only time in my life I’d rock climb Half Dome. While I was proud that my mind was able to override my nerves throughout all 8 pitches and the two especially high-pressure 5.7 friction traverses on lead, looking back I did not think the climb was worth the risk. If I were to take a single fall, I most likely would not have died, but the chances of getting hurt—at the very least, losing quite a bit of skin—was just too high for my tastes. What would I conjecture the chances of getting hurt in case I took a fall in some of the especially exposed areas? Perhaps 90% getting at least scraped up and losing some skin, 35% experiencing some broken bones, 20% suffering a concussion, and maybe a 2% chance of suffering paralysis. These are just my best guesses, and the risk of getting hurt will be less when one considers that there is probably only a 10% chance that a fairly experienced 5.10-5.11 climber *would* take a fall in the first place, but still, I figure if one does this enough, one’s luck is going to run out.
Needless to say, then, I was happy to have experienced it once, survived it, and feel like there is no reason to ever do it again. Kind of like skydiving.
Yet I could not be too elated. We still had to descend down the cables (put in place for the hikers) on the northeast face of Half Dome, and then hike out at least 9 more miles.
Dave started the cables ahead of me and soon we both realized that the easiest way to go down them was downclimbing backwards, hanging on to just one of the cables. Dave lent me a gardening glove he brought just for the cables, which were about 1″ in diameter. That was good thinking, because this made it much easier to grip the cable than with two bare hands.
Whenever a hiker would come up I’d stand on the outside of the cables to let him pass. To see the expression on some of these people’s faces was priceless. About half were in good spirits and knew that they were almost to the top; others had more of a “when is this going to be over and please put me out of my misery” look on their faces.
One particular hiker stopped where I had stopped and moved aside for him, and asked me, “So how long did it take you to get to the top of this rock?”
I paused, then explained, “Well, I actually went up this rock on the other side, the rock climbing route. So about 4 hours.”
“4 HOURS!” he exclaimed. Oops, I guess this was not the thing to say. He now truly had a look of dismay on his face.
I tried to encourage him, perhaps unsuccessfully, that he didn’t have too much more to go. We then parted ways and about 10 minutes later I was back with Dave, ready for a long slog out.
The Hike Back to the Car
“Terra firma, at last,” I enthusiastically said. “Oh how I love terra firma.”
I also added, “Let’s get moving. There’s only two-and-a-half hours of daylight left, and we still have 9 miles to go.”
So Dave and I picked up the pace, especially since he was motived to catch up with Asher and Alex again. While we thought we were going fast, we were quickly passed by a blond who made up half of the young couple taking photos on the “diving board” at the top of Half Dome. Dang, she was in shape. “Baby, are you going to wait for me?” shouted her buff boyfriend who was at least 100 feet behind by that point.
The thing was, the two of them would run and then stop to take photos. During their photo stops Dave and I would pass and be ahead of them until they ran past us again. This happened 3 or 4 times. “Oh, hi again,” was a common thing we’d say to each other when this happened.
As darkness came on we no longer saw them anymore. “They must have took another photo stop,” Dave and I thought.
Another 20 minutes later, something dawned on Dave. “Wait a minute, weren’t we over there [Dave points to Vernal Falls on the other side of a deep gorge] this morning? WE ARE ON THE WRONG TRAIL.”
This was especially bad news since both of us were out of water and both of us were aching to get back to the car. “Just like I read online,” Dave said, “the hike in is great, but the hike out sucks.”
It especially sucked that we were on the wrong trail and their was horse dung all over this trail.
We decided to wait for other hikers to come and then ask them where this trail went to. We only had to wait a minute or so and then a couple with hand-cranked flash lights came on by. It turned out they were Japanese and did not speak much English.
“Parking lot?” I asked, pointing down the trail. We were given blank looks.
“Cars?” asked Dave, placing his hands in a steering-wheel-holding position. Still blank looks.
“Shuttle Bus Number Fifteen!” one of them finally said.
“A shuttle bus sounds good to me,” said Dave, turning to me. We thanked them and then decided to follow them especially since they had brighter lights than we did. (I had unwittingly left my headlamp in the car, in Fremont.)
Half an hour later, we determined that we were on the John Muir Trail. Aside from stumbling over rocks and barely evading the horse dung, the rest of the hike was fairly uneventful except for one thing.
About a mile from the finish we spotted a cabin. This brought lots of relief to Dave and I know that 1) there was now some resemblance of civilization nearby and 2) running water was likely to be nearby. The problem was, we missed the turnoff to this cabin and started following a trail that went around and below it.
“Wrong way!” shouted the Japanese guy, who was now coming back. He and his partner then blew past us and successfully found the trail to the cabin. He then shined his flashlight at the proper trail (which Dave and I would have had a hard time finding). Saved again by the Japanese.
Near the cabin Dave and I were able to fill up on water, with both of us imbibing maybe a whole liter each at that moment. This, unfortunately, brought down Dave’s core temperature tremendously and he was now having the chills. This was just another thing to add to his back, knees, and a foot blister that were starting to bother him this late in the hike.
But at last, half an hour later, we were back at his truck. We probably did 2-3 extra miles due to getting on that horse trail instead of merely retracing the route we did in the morning.
“Great job Dave,” I said, adding that due to those extra miles we ended up hiking as much that day as Dave’s coworkers in addition to rock climbing 8 pitches and doing that stretch of tiring 3rd class climbing.
But all the mileage counting was purely academic. Both of us really just wanted to go home, take a shower, sleep, and revel in the memories of the trip later, preferably after our poor legs had recovered.