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

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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


2 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


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