A free attempt on The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome

by We didn't write this

This weekend Mike and I decided do a free attempt on the Regular Northwest Face of Halfdome, 25 pitches, 12b.

Gearing up

Half Dome is Yosemite’s second most sought after formation, behind El Cap. Both cliffs are giant, but while El Cap sits playfully close to the road and can be approached in flip flops, the base of Half Dome is perched 3000 feet off the Valley Floor and is most easily approached by a brutal hike affectionately dubbed “the death slabs.” To put things into perspective, one must gain an El Cap worth of elevation just to get to the start of the climbing. In fact, many have called approaching crux of the whole experience.

The death slabs

We drove to a bivy outside of the park on Friday night and woke up at a brisk 3:45am. The plan was to hike to the base, stash sleeping bags, dinner and a few beers, climb the route and pass out at the base. We romped up the death slabs in a casual 2.5 hours, filled up water at a glorious mountain spring located conveniently at the start of the route and began climbing at 8 am sharp.

I can most confidently say that we fucked our logistics up. We chose to go for a day ascent without hauling. This meant the follower had to carry a backpack full of water, food, and other random, useless shit we decided to bring on the wall.

Mike took the first lead block, and I started following behind him carrying the ridiculous backpack. If you are curious to find out what this feels like, do your next gym session with a backpack on. Its awkward, its heavy and it sucks. I managed to hang on for the first few pitches but blew my redpoint somewhere on the 4th pitch, a 5.11 offwidth that was simply too awkward and hard with this training weight.

After the 5th pitch, we switched roles. We casually simuled a few more pitches to a fork in the climb. The right variation is a bolted 12c face traverse that is very direct but technically difficult. The left variant is a 4 pitch circle around this face climb that is less direct but technically easy. We opted for the longer, easier variation, described in the topo as “5.10 loose, 5.9 dirty,” and my favorite “5.8 bad.”

I can most confidently say that the next several pitches of the climb are by far, without doubt, the worst stretch of rock I have ever climbed in my life. The climbing ascended endless loose blocks with very little protection. I kept climbing higher and higher, feeling like a sneeze could tear down this whole section of terrain.

Eventually we finished this chosspile terrain and made it to the more solid, right face of the dome.

Mike takes a bite out of the topo before starting up the chimneys

From here, the route ascends 500 feet of chimneys. Mike took over the lead and I was back to dealing with that goddamn backpack. I hung the pack off my harness and started crawling up the chimneys, with the pack dragging like an anchor below me. If you are curious to see what this feels like, try running into a headwind with a parachute tied to your back. Nevertheless, we made it to the notorious Big Sandy ledge (pitch 18) by 3:30pm. From here, its only 6 pitches to the top.

Mike approaching the big sandy, pitch 18.

The next 3 pitches of the climb are called the Zig Zags. I am a full believer that the name of the climb says a lot about its nature. Sometimes, you hear the name of a pitch and you feel “man.. that sounds like something I want to climb.” For example,”the shield”, “the enduro corner,” or “God’s own stone” or “pocket pussy.” When I think of the name “the Zig Zags,” I do no get this reaction. The zig zags are exactly what they sound like, a series of awkward, criss crossing cracks that happen to be the crux of Half Dome.

The first pitch off the ledge is acutally the hardest of the route, 12b. I took the lead and put forth an OK effort, but eventually fell. Mike started following backpack on, sun full blast, and also fell, ending his proud onsight effort 19 pitches up.

The next Zig Zag is chill, 5.10. The last Zig Zag is 12a. By this point I realized I was too worked to lead anything and let Mike take back over.

Mike starting up the last zig zag.

He almost sent, but whipped after 2 of his pieces straight up fell out only moments after he placed them. I sent on TR. Woot!

After you top the zig zags it’s the iconic “Thank God Ledge.” I took over leading and tried to walk across. After I made it about half way, I realized that I was at risk of belly flopping off and going for a nose dive whipper and crawled the rest like the weaksauce punter I am.

Walking the “Thank God Ledge”

The final hard pitch is a 5.12 bolted face climb. This is basically a slab with no holds. It is still absolutely nasuating this was free soloed. There is not a single incut hold on the pitch, only slopey, insecure grooves. Mike onsighted the pitch and I was too worked to really climb it.

We topped out near sunset completing the 2000 foot climb in about 11 hours.

High country sunset from the top of Half Dome.

While on top we agreed that due to the moderate nature of the climbing and the large quantity of fixed gear in the wall, a rack of single, not double, camelots would have been more appropriate. We vowed to return with no backpack, half the gear, and shoot for about an 8 hour send.
Thanks for reading,


Ps. If you actually read all this fluff, you deserve to know about the one actually remarkable thing that happened that day, being passed by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold on the last leg of their El Cap, Watkins, Half Dome linkup. Here is some photos. These guys are BEAST!

Note the victory slack