Climbing the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome: Tips and Trip Report

Half Dome Photo: Tom Close

Half Dome; Photo: Tom Close

The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (5.9, C1) is a huge tick on any aspiring trad climber’s list. Unfortunately, at 2300 ft tall and 23 pitches, the route can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated big-wall climber. The purpose of this post is to share some pictures of our ascent and provide tips for any team gearing up for their first attempt.

Tip #1: Climb the route in summer (June/July/August)

Many teams wait around for the cooler temps of fall to climb Half Dome. By climbing it July 20 & 21 (2012) we had long days on our side and were able to take advantage of the fresh spring near the base to fill up on water (we used iodine tablets). On Day 1 we were in the chimneys before the sun hit the face and were able to avoid the afternoon heat. On Day 2, we climbed in full shade… not to mention we enjoyed rock-star status as we summited with most of the day’s hikers! We also had the route entirely to ourselves on a weekend.

On the Death Slabs approach. I racked up for the hike to avoid carrying a large pack up the route.

On the Death Slabs approach. I racked up for the hike to avoid carrying a large pack up the route. This saved us from hiking back to the base.

Looking back down the Death Slabs Approach

Looking back down the Death Slabs Approach (July 19)

Tip #2: Approach via the Death Slabs

Teams seem to go both ways on the approach. I had previously hiked on the Mist Trail and knew how time-consuming it would be. For us, the Death Slabs Approach seemed the obvious choice. Do you really want to add an 8 mile approach on the front end of a big-wall climb? The Death Slabs took us ~2 hrs onsight (shuttle bus stop to base of route). We found the Supertopo approach information useful and all the fixed lines were in tact. The only difficult part was finding the climber’s trail at Mirror Lake.

Clark starting up the second set of fixed lines on the approach

Clark starting up the second set of fixed lines on the approach (July 19)

Clark leading the first pitch of the route

Clark leading the first pitch of the route (6am, July 20)

Tip #3: Do not haul

The key to our success (and enjoyment) on Half Dome was not hauling. We minimized the gear we brought, leaving nothing at the base. Instead, the leader wore an 18L pack and the follower a 30L pack. In the leader’s pack was a 3L Camelback, food, extra clothes, and approach shoes. The follower carried a similar load with the addition of two sleeping bags (no sleeping pads) and the extra water. Although free-climbing pitches was difficult down low, the load got progressively lighter as we forced ourselves to drink. In this way, we turned the route into a long multi-pitch instead of a complicated big wall ordeal.

Free climbing with the chimney pitches looming above.

Free climbing with the chimney pitches looming above.

The view from the base of the chimneys

The view from the base of the chimneys. The sun just reached us at this point.

Tip #4: Bring 1 rope

The fastest teams simul-climb the easier sections of this route. This was our biggest climb to date and we weren’t ready to simul-climb on unknown ground. A better compromise for us was to bring a single 70m rope, allowing us to link many of the easy pitches down low: 2/3, 4/5, 8/9, 13/14, 15/16, & 19/20. We climbed to Big Sandy Ledge comfortably in 12 hours ground-up (no fixing of initial pitches and no short-fixing). This left us with a casual 600′ on day 2, which took us ~5 hrs to climb (mostly aid).

IMG_3379_modified

Aaron leading the final pitch to Big Sandy Ledge (July 20)

IMG_3402_modified

Clark psyched on our bivy ledge! Day 2.

Tip #5: The chimney pitches aren’t that hard

I allowed the chimney pitches to intimidate me well before I set off on this route. Would the chimneys be run-out, sand-bagged, etc…? I learned that most of this section can easily be free climbed straight-in on nice 5.9 hand cracks. If you can get up climbs like Whodunit, Open Book, or Epinephrine then you can climb the RNWF of Half Dome.

Clark leading the first pitch on Day 2

Day 2, Clark leading the first pitch off of Big Sandy Ledge

The views high on the route are spectacular

The views high on the route are spectacular

IMG_3419_modified

Thank God Ledge. This picture doesn’t do the experience justice.

Our summit shot

Our summit shot (Clark Eising and Aaron Cassebeer)

Hopefully this post will help others reach their goal of climbing Half Dome. If anyone has detailed questions feel free to comment below or email us.

-Aaron Cassebeer

Gear list:

7.5 liters of water (just enough to get back to the drinking fountains at Vernal Falls, carried in Camelback reservoirs)

(1) 18L pack, (1) 30L pack (stripped down)

(1) 9.8mm x 70m rope, (2) sets of ladder-style aiders, (1) set of ascenders

Double rack from #00 Metolius to #3 BD C4, (1) #4 BD C4, (1 set) brass and aluminum offset nuts, many alpine draws

(2) sleeping bags (no sleeping pads to save weight)

*NOTE: If I were to sleep on the route again I would consider using bivy sacks instead. This would save even more weight.

Approach shoes, windbreakers, energy bars, tape, headlamps, etc


6 comments

    • The second free-climbed most of the pitches. The main area of jugging was on Day 2, through the Zig-Zags. The most difficult pitch to follow free was the first (5.10c) because the backpack was still heavy at that point.

      -Aaron

  1. Hey, nice trip report. I stumbled on this thing a long time ago and now Im using it as potential guidance. I want to do the regular route this summer but was wondering what grade of a free climber would be best to make it up in a day or two at most. Ive been told solid yosemite 5.10 should be the goal.Also, how hard is the aiding through all of it? I know it’s an old trip report but any details you can remember would be great. Thanks.

    • Actually, I recommend being a solid 5.9 Valley climber. The RNWF climbs much like an alpine route. There are sections of harder climbing, but it never lasts long (at least below Big Sandy). The first pitch is 5.10c and is a little stout, but it’s only a few hard moves. There is also a quick section of aid a few pitches higher. Again, it’s really not as bad as I expected it would be. For example, I think the Central Pillar of Frenzy is way more sustained than everything below Big Sandy on RNWF. That being said, you do need to be able to climb all day long at a moderate grade. Above Big Sandy the aid is C1 and very easy. I think you can get away with placing all cams pretty much the whole way. The only possibly tricky spot is the slab pitch (2nd to last pitch). On that pitch a single aluminum offset nut (DMM) was crucial. I had to slot it into a horizontal pin scar and weight it.

      If you want to climb it in a day I would start as early as you’re willing, go light (1 rope), and try to get through the aid before the sun sets. June or July would be a great time this year.

      If you sleep on Big Sandy you’ll be rewarded with an amazing sunset. We had no wind and absolute quiet.

      Hope this helps,
      Aaron

  2. Great! Thanks a lot. My goal is to do it mid-June. Doing it in a day obviously sounds appealing and negates having to bring bivy supplies, but also the thought of sleeping on a wall sounds amazing(assuming weather stays cooperative). So, I’m undecided whether to do it in a day or not. And that’s good to know about being a 5.9 climber. I’m about a 5.10b climber at Jtree and thought I would need to improve my strength a lot to make it through HD. I’ll still work on my endurance and aid skills though. Also, funny but I actually used to climb at the UCR rock wall years ago with Clark and saw him at Malibu Creek like two months ago. I doubt he remembers me but we know a lot of the same people so maybe I’ll run into you sometime in the future. Thanks again for all of the advice. I think this trip will actually happen now. -Somil


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