Half Dome – Embrace the silence and have faith

Written by Delano Lavigne

Waking up before dawn is generally considered something to be avoided but sometimes waking up before dawn is purposeful and necessary. More than that, starting out on an adventure in the pre-dawn darkness, when all thoughts are smothered by a heavy silence and our breath is consumed by the unseen emptiness, offeres a few precious moments to rely on an instinct that the “light” will return and life – in all it’s beauty – will erupt. That is exactly how it was for Joshua and me as we set out to climb Half Dome.

Joshua and I rolled into Yosemite on a rainy Thursday afternoon. We only had a week to climb together and immediately set our sights on climbing the Nose in a day. For us, this was an important objective given our need to train for our upcoming trip to Baffin Island. So we pulled up below The Nose and did our best to peer through the rain and index the countless features that make up the South Buttress of El Capitan. Four pitches to Sickle Ledge, seven more to Dolt Tower, three pitches to El Cap Tower, Texas flake, Boot flake, Camp 4, the Great Roof, Pancake Flake, off-width, thin-hands, off-fingers, chimney, on and on it goes for over 30 pitches. For the binocular-laden tourist on the Valley floor, it, I imagine, reads like a cryptic book or a sadistic script; someone’s odd idea of a good time. But to a certain breed of climber, the big walls of Yosemite read more like poems. Each wall, each pitch and each feature is awarded a description but their meaning is left to be defined by each individual as they experience them.

Delano: Still hasn't learned to NOT listen to his older brother.

Delano: Still hasn’t learned to NOT listen to his older brother.

Seeing as this was my first and long awaited trip to the Valley, we began with some granite cragging at the Cookie Cliff followed by a two-team trip to Washington Column and the highly coveted route Astroman. Arriving at our first rest day, we began to plan for the Nose. However, hearing that the Nose had at minimum 12 teams stacked on top of each other and after experiencing the rubber peeling heat of Yosemite Valley while climbing Astroman, we decided that the Regular Northwest Route of Half Dome was, at this time, a better choice. It would offer us the chance to climb a Grade VI wall in a style that we would consider replicating in Baffin and a style that is reflective of the adventures we desire. As such we made the plan to rest two full days and climb on the third while the weather was still promising clear skies. We decided that hauling was unnecessary and because we were already tentative about adding the extra weight of a second rope, despite its obvious use in instances of retreat, we climbed with one single 70m rope. We would leave the Lower Pines camp ground at 4:30am, approach via the un-reputable “death slabs”, climb in blocks and free as much of the route as possible.

Lower Pines was quiet as we began the two-plus hour approach to the base of Half Dome. We walked in silence at first, allowing the pre-dawn aura of Yosemite to wash over us and to allow our bodies and minds to wake. But soon enough, as it is with Joshua and I, we broke the silence with conversations of life, death, love, woman, spirituality and any combination thereof. For us, the decision to climb together has always been about more than just climbing but about connecting in a manner that opens our spirits to adventure. These adventures, for us, are not only realized while climbing but in the exploration of the self while together. However, our conversations were put on hold as we found ourselves “exploring” the approximately 700meters of steep slopes and fixed lines through the death slabs. Despite the name, this alternative approach to the base of Half Dome does, so long as you can find it, offer those wishing to climb Half Dome car-to-car a better choice than the trail via Happy Isles. More than that, it offers an incredible view of the Northwest Face. Once the light of the sun cracked the sky, we could see the summit of Half Dome teetering 2000 feet above us. From the approach trail we recited the days poem knowing the its meaning had yet to be discovered: First pitches, somewhat devious, A1 to rope swing, Big Sandy Ledge, the Zig Zags, Tiny Alcove, Thank God Ledge, loose, chimney, slot, hands, bad bolts, on and on it went for over 20 pitches.

Not looking so psyched on the wet slab, but happy to be at the top!

Not looking so psyched on the wet slab, but happy to be at the top!

We arrived at the base of the route to find a team, which had bivied at the base, already working the first pitch. With a only a few words shared between us, we recognized that we would need to pass them. We quickly geared-up and Joshua was soon climbing on the heels of the second in the team.  By the top of the fourth pitch, we had successfully passed them and established a pitch distance – Joshua’s quick and confident movement through the “somewhat devious” lower section, especially through the routes first two aid pitches, would prove to be integral for our success. Following a mild pendulum, also known as Robbins traverse and once considered Yosemite’s “most audacious pendulum”, we arrived at the base of a series of chimneys and it was my turn to take the lead. It was also at this point that we began to take notice of a sky that was turning baleful; changing from blue to grey. Again, with few words spoken the strategy was clear: climb and climb fast. But climbing fast is not always easy and when I found myself off-route in a quasi Harding slot-like coffin-squeeze and with gear far below my feet, I slowed to a snail’s pace. I was stuck, but I had eyed a body-sized cavity in the rock about a body’s length below me. Although “body-sized cavity” was not a line in the day’s poem, it was a line I was willing to write. I squeezed through the cavity and was happy to see an easy to protect finger crack stretching towards a classic Yosemite rat’s nest anchor. The following pitch continued through a beautiful 5.8 chimney and onto a 4th class ramp where I stretched our rope beyond its 70 meters. Upon arriving at the Big Sandy Ledges and with seven pitches remaining, the sky had become more grey than blue and moisture was clearly visible to the North in Tuolumne and to the southwest beyond Yosemite Valley. My block of pitches continued through the Zig Zags and towards Thank God Ledge. And now with most our optimism shattered by the first spit of rain, I found myself frozen on Thank God Ledge, in what I call, a reverse-Alex Honnold maneuver.

I stood face towards the rock halfway across the narrowing and bulging ledge with no gear placed. My heels were hanging over 2000 feet of open air and my arms were stretching my ape index as wide as possible across the bulging granite. As I breathed to relax my mind, my chest would push me away from the rock and I would feel my body creeping towards an ungraceful superman-nose-dive towards the Valley floor. I reached down to grab the lip of the ledge in a forced warrior II-like position but again felt my body fall backwards in what would be a 20-30 foot fall into open space followed by a 40 foot bouncing pendulum. With the ledge slightly angled beyond horizontal, my body’s weight was heavy on my right foot, which made backtracking as appealing as French-kissing a light socket. For a brief moment I imagined myself to be super human and considered jumping backwards and catching the lip of the ledge like Jason Bourne or some other bad-ass yet fictional super-spy. But I had visions of miscalculation. I saw myself bouncing off the ledge rather than catching it or missing it completely and again imagined a superman-nose-dive followed by a bouncing pendulum. This is when I heard Joshua’s voice call from far below me – he had been stretching off the anchor to see where I was and once he finally caught a glimpse of my desperate position, he yelled somewhat casually and somewhat forcefully, “You’re doing it the wrong way. You’re supposed to LAYBACK!” I responded like any younger brother, “Fuck you. I am stuck!” My response was indignant yet apologetic. But he was right. So with my head stuck looking towards the oncoming storm, I inched my way backwards. As my heels finally grabbed hold of granite, I was able to reach down, place gear and confidently layback across the ledge.

As Joshua joined me at the ledge, the storm had finally arrived and it brought with it wind, freezing temperatures, hail, and lightning. Joshua gracefully took the sharp-end and pressed forward along wet slabs and bolt ladders. I met him at the second to last pitch shivering and stiff, when he reminded that we had an additional jacket in the bag, which he offered for me to wear. I eagerly complied and put him on belay as he moved through the last pitch. I followed quickly and found him greeting me with a smile and high-five in an alcove below the summit. I passed him the extra jacket and we rushed to gear-down. The storm had not let up and we knew there was little time to celebrate, which was reinforced by the burning and crackling of charged particles. The only obstacle that remained was the descent off the summit via the cables. We ran gingerly across the polished wet slabs and timidly grabbed hold of the inch-thick cables and manually lowered ourselves as fast as we could, stopping periodically to listen for any buzzing or the smell of ozone.

Once again, we didn't need to look very hard to find an adventure, actually, I think it found us.

Once again, we didn’t need to look very hard to find an adventure, actually, I think it found us.

 

The 10 km hike down was marked by a worsening storm that was soon followed by a clear sky and continued ruminations of life, death, love, woman, spirituality, and many combinations thereof. And when we walked into camp 15 hours after having left the weight of the darkness was just a little lighter.

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