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Half Dome: Slower, Heavier and Almost Free

October 29th, 2010

I love climbing.  I really do, and maybe that is why it frustrates me so (so so so) much sometimes. There is always another route, harder and longer, waiting to be done as soon as you clip the anchors on the last route you are still finishing. It is constantly motivating and driving me; and often times frustrating me. But in the end it is always inspiring and brings me to the most amazing places along side the most amazing people.

This October has found me in Yosemite with my wife trying to pursue my life long climbing ambition of free climbing big walls. I have done almost all of the major formations in Yosemite, in a day, going as fast and furious as we could, pulling on gear and stepping on bolts with the summit being the main objective. But as I have matured with my climbing, and taken it to standards that I have never thought possible (I one day dreamed of sending 5.11a trad and have since done 5.13a trad), one form of climbing has always stood out as the highest form of climbing, in my mind. Big Wall Free Climbing. Maybe it was the Huber brothers doing multiple free routes on El Cap, or Lynn Hill freeing the nose in a day, or my late, great friend an climbing partner Micah Dash free climbing the Freerider, but I was inspired, and have gradually tried to build up to free climbing the big walls within my reach.

Having done a few small alpine walls, 10 pitch lines in Squamish, and small walls in Zion free, it was time to try something bigger, and that was Half Dome. My wife and I had tried to do Freerider on El Cap a few years ago, but sickness and snowfall stopped us half way up. We figured this time around we would try something a little more bite sized, only 23 pitches instead of 35, and 5.12a instead of 5.12d++.  We also figured we would do it over two days, and haul a small pack and sleep on the small but comfy Big Sandy Ledge.

Right off the bat are about four easier pitches, and then you get to the first free variation around a bolt ladder.  A quick 5.11a traverse left to a heinous and awkward 5.11 dihedral brings you to a good ledge. My wife Jasmin was leading this pitch and did a great job fighting through the Yosemite weirdness. The next pitch, dubbed the ‘Higbee Hedral’ after the pioneer of this free variation Art Higbee, goes at about 5.12a. It has a short, but fierce stemming crux off the belay to a ledge and then 20 meters of funky and hard 5.11c crack above. It took me a few tries to stick the crux moves, but I managed to send the pitch, which puts you at the top of pitch 5. Now we had 12 more pitches of 5.10- and under to get to our bivy ledge. Tons of stellar pitches and easy climbing got us to Big Sandy at sunset, but the crux was by far trying to haul our ‘light’ pack behind us. We brought way too much extra food and water, and trying to hand haul that gear behind us was wearing us down — hopefully not too much.

Jas and I settled into a romantic shiver bivy on our ropes and opened my Mutant pack for a delectable meal of tasty bites, cashews and chocolate bars. All the while the crux pitches of the route are right over your head, taunting you all night while you try to sleep on a crooked and sloping bivy ledge.

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Twelve hours of ‘rest’ later we gave it our best. The first pitch off the ledge in the Zig Zags, about 5.12a, and it was the warm up pitch. I was sending the whole route to this point, but Jas had hung once lower down, so I asked her to lead this pitch so I could try and warm up on it.  She tried hard, and came close, but couldn’t send it, and try as I may, I could not send the pitch. Five times I lowered down to a no hands stance, and tried again, but fatigue from the day before, cold temps and no warm up added up to not being able to pull off the tips climbing crux. Which is unfortunate, because I managed to scrap my way up the next two pitches with (5.11 and 11+) and then only hung once on the final crux 5.11d slab pitch, which would have been easy to try again.

But on this day, the mental fortitude was not with me. Without a doubt, this is the hardest discipline of rock climbing. Trying to climb your hardest pitch after pitch after pitch, either all day or day after day is so mentally and physically taxing. At the same time however, it is the most motivating thing in the world. Now I want to train harder next year, and try harder the next time around.  Go back to Half Dome, and try it in a day without hauling a big pack behind me. Think about my weaknesses and try harder then ever to overcome them so I can reach my goals. Sometimes failing just makes you want to throw in the towel and pick up something else entirely, but I guess that is the difference with climbing, most of the time failing makes me want to come back and try harder!


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