The Better Half
Shrouded in lore and the subject of epic rescues, disastrous falls and near-god experiences, Half Dome’s South Face is open again with a big new route after a 20-year hiatus.
TEXTURE MATTERS. AT FIRST the wall seems impossibly smooth. Just blank. A mile wide and 2,000 feet high, the South Face of Half Dome has only one big feature, an arch that reaches halfway up before petering out into nothingness.
We pull off the trail to the Snake Dike, sit down on the rim of Little Yosemite Valley, and set up a spotting scope to spy on the texture. It is early spring 2007; we got wet coming up the Mist Trail, but now it’s sunny and pleasant. A ribbon of snowbank runs along the base of the wall. As the afternoon wears on, the shadow line creeps around the curve of the dome. Ahead of it, every small irregularity of the stone jumps up in bold relief. Like the way sundown stretches your own shadow a hundred feet, the potential comes up a little too boldly. We become giddy.
“You could climb anywhere up that wall! 5.10c—no more than .10c, dude!” Sean Jones is fired up, as usual. About right for a guy with 90 first ascents in Yosemite. “Just slow down once in awhile to tap in a bolt.” I’m swept along, too. A token oldie from the Golden Age, I’ve come along to make a film of Sean’s climb.
Easy to say from a mile away, and of course it will turn out a bit differently. There are reasons the first ascent of the face went on aid. That the first nearly free route on its right edge, Karma, is unrepeated. Southern Belle went at 5.12d X in 1988, and wasn’t climbed again until 2006.
Personal reasons, too, are driving us up here, miles from home and 3,000 feet above the valley floor—out into the backcountry to court a huge hidden wall. And those reasons have a lot to do with the texture of our lives. Sean’s marriage has hit a pothole, deep enough to bottom out the suspension. Mine is flat gone. Packed up and left. Rudely, I bitch under my breath about her, while knowing that my heavy flirting with a climbing partner hadn’t exactly helped either. Jana Buxton, the logistics maven for our movie, nurses her own agonies of doubt over a cute boy—is he too young?
These are the contours of the approach. We are clambering over the shifting talus in our heads. Perfect time to fling ourselves onto an unclimbed wall.
Brush and boulders drop away steeply from the base of the face. We need a campsite, a home away from home as we surge, restless as nomads, up from the valley, away from the turmoil of our lives below. At five minutes below the cliff, in a grove of sweet-smelling Jeffrey pines, the tumbling slope eases just enough for a couple of tents and beach chairs circled up to a campfire.
Sean is our leader, and not just on the rock. He is charismatic and a raving extrovert, always talking. Whatever wounds he suffers—and his marriage running hot and cold is a good start—he picks over in public. It’s not whining or slander, though. Sean is hardest on himself. The rest of us at our little camp are drawn in by the sheer brutal honesty. Our campfires become a therapy group; for me, it’s the best part of these four months. Beer is a total luxury this far into the backcountry, and with porters hired for the movie, we go through case after case of it as we probe the human condition. The snowbank melts, and we’re left with warm beer. The two topics we ceaselessly return to are relationships—how to play out the age-old dance—and climbing style.
Drama rises to the top of route names tossed around the campfire. Followed closely by Growing Pains.
The idea is simple: Create the cutting-edge free route up the South Face, a wall as broad as El Cap. But while El Cap topos detail maybe 60 routes, a dozen of them free, even basic route information on the South Face of Half Dome is hard to glean. We’ve heard the epic story of its FA in 1970: Six attempts, a blizzard and leaking Bat Tents. At the height of the blizzard, Galen Rowell tried to rap through the constant small powder avalanches, but 80 feet down he couldn’t get across iced slabs to the next anchor. Then his iced-up ascenders slipped as he tried to climb back up the frozen ropes. “Hours later,” as Galen later wrote, “I reach Warren [Harding] and am jealous: he is warmer, calmer and smarter than I!” Late that night they were saved from freezing to death by the first-ever rescue from a big wall, when Royal Robbins was lowered in bringing Thermoses and jumar lines.
For 15 years after that, while 20 classics went up on El Cap, and eight new lines crisscrossed Half Dome’s Northwest Face, the back side was completely ignored, a bright wall slumbering in sunshine.
On our first day, Sean Jones tightens his harness and steps up to his chosen panel. A fine line, essentially featureless and shooting straight to the summit. But then lines like that—suggestions of lines, anyway—are everywhere. Eighty feet up is an incipient crack, the immediate goal. I slip a fresh battery in the video camera.
Sean is tied in with the first of many partners, Robbie Borchard, an energetic local who works at the store in El Portal and climbs hard. You’ve got to tear it up to keep up with Sean. Half the time I get rocked back on my heels by the sheer force of his energy, the flood of ideas. Other times I can keep up, our ideas feed off each other in growing excitement, and hours disappear. Robbie has the energy to anchor the other end of Sean’s rope—between stints on the wall he ends up portering hundreds of pounds of food, hardware, film supplies and lots of beer up the half-day journey to the base.
Stop. Sixty feet up, the texture is already running out. The moves upshift to 5.13, then nothing. Blankness. Back down. Robbie and Sean nose along the base of the wall looking for another avenue to Smiley Ledge, 200 feet up. Here’s a possible line, linking up black knobs. Tantalizingly close, but no. Anyway, Robbie has to go back to work, and we all tumble along back down to the valley. Strike one.
The next week Sean ties in with a second partner, Jake Jones, and moves over into that giant arch. At least it has cracks—so many it’s almost confusing. What looks from a distance like a simple dihedral actually forms a 70-foot wall on its right side that contains tiers of crack systems. Three major ones. The right one, closest to the edge, is the start of Southern Belle. The middle system is the surprise. It’s actually the beginning of the old South Face route, Warren Harding’s nailup. The photo in our guidebook shows the original route starting up the third crack system. But that’s wrong, as we will eventually figure out from old Galen Rowell photos.
Sean and Jake tear into the middle crack system, thinking maybe they can free the classic South Face. 5.10 off the ground feels more doable. Now we’re getting somewhere. High up the arch, hidden in dark water stain, is a 5.8 chimney tunnel, burrowing way back into the onionskin of the Dome. And right after that the line pulls the lip of the arch. Will Sean free that overhang? Galen’s article in the 1971 American Alpine Journal described a line of 10 aid pins out the convergence of two very overhanging walls. Harding called it his most strenuous lead. After five good pitches, though, with splitters up to 5.12c, the rock grows grainier and the crack pinches down to Lost Arrow size. The wall steepens as the arch leans out over itself. Maybe this pitch would go at 5.14, but it’s lost its clean edge. And anyway, Jake takes off to Sonora to hassle with a blown engine in his van. Strike two.
A month passes, and the snowfield melts out from the base of the face. Sean is scanning the rock more carefully now, more wary of this wall. Ben Montoya is up next on the rope. Ben dubs this whole wall “The Fortress,” so well is it defended by 10-foot stretches of smooth stone. Now we’re smiling sideways at our first rush of optimism.
We recall sheepishly that it took major dikes to lure climbers onto Half Dome’s blank side in the first place. The Snake Dike, a veritable highway of featured rock, with smooth slab stretching away on either side, was the first route to venture away from the crack systems clear across the back side of the Dome. The Northwest Face is a world away from this one, with flakes and ledges and system after system of cracks linking up toward the Visor. No wonder the Regular Northwest Face in 1957 became the first big wall in Yosemite—the first in the country, really. On the Regular Northwest Face those cracks are highways to the summit.
Beyond the Northwest Face, only one continuous crack system leads to the summit slabs anywhere on the rest of the Dome, and John Salathé beelined for it in 1946. His Southwest Face later became the first free route on Half Dome, freed as a visionary 5.10b by Frank Sacherer and Bob Kamps in 1964.
The Snake Dike went up the next summer, 1965, and the big surprise was that it turned out to be moderate, at 5.7. The scooped holds on the dike are great smearing, but it’s a long way between positive edges, earning even 5.5 climbing an R rating. Even after Steve Roper—with the first ascentionist Jim Bridwell’s encouragement—retro-bolted the second ascent, the Snake Dike boasts 75-foot runouts, a taste of things to come just around the corner.
The Fortress is schooling Sean to appreciate cracks. He still has one more such system to explore in that giant arch, the line furthest left where the corner meets the main face. Another classic 5.10 pitch pulls them off the ground. Ironically, this system had remained untouched, these soaring splitters ignored and untried, all because of a misplaced ink line in an old guidebook. Now we know this is not the start of the old South Face aid line.
It quickly gets harder. The second pitch goes to 5.12a underclings around huge blocks. Beyond, every splitter pitch becomes 5.12a. Sean is ecstatic. Maybe this is the line that will unlock his free route up the South Face. At least here on brighter rock what lies above is clear. The cracks in the other system, the original South Face, had been dark and mysterious until he reached them, only to be turned away after five pitches. Sean can see this line, arching further and further out over his head, even as the crack pinches down toward a thinner—what? Tips lieback? Two hundred feet of underclinging? It is still too far away to tell.
Then Ben, too, is pulled away, by his summer job in the backcountry. At the same time my movie falters. First my director of photography is offered a better job, then the film runs out of money and I lose my main man, Hans Vermy, a brilliant video editor who also keeps the whole show organized. I find myself wandering around down on the coast searching for a partner. How can it be so difficult just to keep a camera on the wall?
After the Snake Dike it took another 20 years, into the mid-1980s, before free-climbing interest leaked around onto the South Face. In 1985, Charles Cole dropped down from the Snake Dike and found a ledge with a cave that led to the steepening wall where a dike shot upward through the blankness for over a thousand feet, Autobahn (5.11+R).
The opening challenges—reminiscent of Snake Dike—were simply to get to that dike. Charles Cole’s second pitch, which approached the dike, received quite a reaction.
He says Walt Shipley, author of his own runouts, actually yelled at him: “What’re you doin’? There’s one bolt on the whole pitch! I was 80 feet above it … and we had to simul-climb to make the next stance.”
“He almost wrung my neck,” recalls Cole, when I talk with him in the Five Ten booth at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. Then he shrugs. “I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t stop. It’s only 5.8 but very continuous. There was a wrinkle to the left. I went over there, but couldn’t get anything in there either. I just had to keep running it out.” Finally, at the bottom of the dike, he found a stance.
Charles had pulled onto the perfect dike of the Autobahn. The Fortress, however, was not done with him. “I kept breaking drills. That is the hardest rock. I kept going back to [Royal] Robbins’ store in Fresno for more bolts.“ The route, begun in December, was finally finished in April.
“It’s not like El Cap. Half Dome is much better!” Cole says. “It’s got its own numen. It’s not like anywhere else on the planet.”
The South Face had broken open to free climbing. A year later The Fast Lane passed Autobahn on a parallel dike just to the left. Eight pitches up they joined, in time to share crux moves hand traversing the edge of an overhang (5.11+). In 1988, starting again off the cave patio and moving further left, came Dreamscape. Everything in the neighborhood seemed to be coming in at the same grade, 5.11+R.
John Middendorf, who had been with Charles Cole on Autobahn, went for a winter ascent of the original aid line. He, Mike Corbett and Steve Bosque started out enjoying T-shirt days on the sunny wall.
“I immediately realized,” as Middendorf’s website account attests, “that we had just discovered the most awesome free-climbable face in the Valley, and I free-climbed some bat-hooking sections at 5.10a/b between bolts just to try it out. We were having a great time.” Leading into their third night, Corbett popped a bat hook for a 20-30 footer and broke a finger. They shrugged it off.
Then in the wee hours of the morning it started to rain. The climbers’ little radio promised clearing. Instead, the storm worsened. During the night Steve’s portaledge collapsed, followed by John’s. A foot-thick sheet of water poured down the face, soaking them. The wind picked up to 50+ mph, the rain turned to hail and then snow. Their wet clothes began to freeze. The three climbers had to rap, but their ropes were frozen to the wall in tangles. Recalling Galen Rowell’s miserable attempt to descend, they stayed put.
“All sorts of potential and likely nightmares crossed my mind,” Middendorf’s account recalls, “each ending with three bodies frozen to the wall.” Snow sloughed off the summit slabs and the wall above in an escalating tempo reaching several feet per minute. The avalanche load popped the bolt supporting Mike’s ledge.
Just when the storm could hardly get worse, the sky cleared, temperatures plummeted and the climbers literally began to freeze. The entire wall was covered with a four-inch layer of ice. However, friends in the Valley had mounted a rescue. They were plowing through drifts toward the cables when a helicopter arrived first, and plucked the climbers off the wall.
The next summer, in 1986, Dave Schultz, Ken Yager and Jim Campbell put up Karma, an unusual route that zigzags up the right side of the wall following intersecting dike systems.
“Schultz convinced me that the dike was huge, big enough that tourists walked down it from the top to take pictures,” says Ken Yager on a hot Yosemite evening. He smiled at being so naïve. “It turned out the dike was larger underneath than on top, thereby casting a large shadow. It looked bigger than it actually was.”
A crux pitch out the Yardarm, a piece of the dike that cuts across an overhanging section, is rated 5.11d X. “Dave kept sandbagging me by saying the next section was only 5.9 or 5.10,” Yager says. “When I was stuck, he’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, there is a little 5.11 move or two and then it gets easier.’ The runouts aren’t that bad. It’s just that the dike you’re traversing has a cord-slicing edge on it. I have never been so terrified on a route in my life.”
Dave Schultz says, “That route is a nightmare. I’ll never go back. If you fall off the dike, every six inches there’s a razor-sharp crystal. One pitch I got 60, 70 feet off the belay, couldn’t stop. Finally there’s barely a stance. I had to lie down on the dike to drill. I could barely swing the hammer without knocking myself off. It took me six or seven hours to drill one bolt.”
Schultz has moved on to Hollywood as a rigger, and he invented a way to fly actors and cameras on steel cable. I have reached him on the phone in a limo.
He pauses, remembering, “It’s worse to follow, with that raking, Ginsu-knife edge. That’s why I named it that. Your karma has to be good to get through it. We didn’t fall.” Karma is still unrepeated.
Then, in 1987, came Southern Belle, the audacious project of Schultz and Walt Shipley, some of the hottest free climbers in the Valley, lured up to the edge of the high country.
A wall that had been ignored for so long had seen five brilliant routes in four years. But this little golden age of free climbing on the South Face was about to come to a crashing halt. With all those runouts, when someone did finally pitch off the South Face, it was bound to be a disaster.
Sean is sitting in El Cap meadow. His kids India and M’so and Lily run circles around a dozen of the El Portal crew, who are lounging and talking. Sean grew up just west of here in Mariposa, but this meadow feels like a long way from his ragged childhood. From moving 37 times, from reform school that was just a step away from lockdown. Today, Sean is blazing with light, climbing like a man possessed, partially sponsored but still working hard for a living. Last winter, when he worked construction on the new southside road in the Valley, it was so cold he had to break ice to move boulders.
Sean is a family guy who flies under the Valley radar, has never spent a night in Camp 4, and has now surpassed the first-ascent records of Royal Robbins (43) and Jim Bridwell (82). Half Dome will make 91. If he can keep himself in partners.
A young woman walks by, looking a bit dazed. Sean invites her to join them. The El Portal circle stirs nervously, thinking of Sean’s wife, Maggie, who is not here. But Maggie has seen all this before. She knows Sean’s intuition, his big heart. And the friends have noticed that lately Sean and Maggie seem like a real team again.
The newcomer’s name is Sarah Watson, and the story unfolds of her trip to the Valley. Sarah picked up a climbing partner and launched onto El Cap, but a helicopter rescue above them freaked out her partner. They had started down when, rattled, he dropped the haul bag. It narrowly missed killing Sarah, 100 feet below. Sarah pauses, remembering, and drains her beer. Her rack of cams was in the bottom of the bag, so when it decked they were scrap metal. Back on the Valley floor she asked him to share in replacing her gear, but he walked away.
Sean asks if she wants to do some laps at the Cookie. Sarah is strong and, though she’s only been climbing a couple of years, they’ve been filled with intense bursts of activity. A desert rat at heart, she’s become really good at crack climbing from leading scores of trad splitters at Indian Creek. The next day Sarah is off to Half Dome. She is about to redpoint the hardest leads of her life.
The crack climbing is so good it’s almost monotonous. Pitch after pitch of 5.12a follows the left-facing open book. It’s clean. Nothing growing, nothing loose. The rock is white with streaks of salmon, flinty hard, washed by high-country storms for centuries until it sparkles. The main face of the Dome is not too steep, about 75 degrees. But the right wall leans gradually to the left as it rises. Ultimately it turns into a monster roof, hundreds of feet long and 30 feet deep. The crack appears to pinch down under there.
Peering through the lens of my video camera, I find these cracks sometimes remind me of free pitches on El Cap. But the comparison that comes up most often is Astroman. Sean is tempted to name individual pitches, but if this were Astroman it would be hard to say which pitch would get to be the Enduro Corner. It’s like Astroman on steroids.
Eight pitches up, the 5.12a splitters jump to 5.13a. The right wall is leaning harder now, and the climbers’ bodies are whimpering from so much right-side-in liebacking. But it only gets worse as the crack leans over, roof-like, and tightens to occasional tips, while the footing drops away. This is the business. The route finally pulls onto a tiny stance.
The crack Sean and Sarah have been following since leaving the ground gets too thin. Then, serendipity strikes. Thirty feet down, a horizontal dike shoots left clear to the end of the roof. Downclimbing a small corner sets them on it, and two pitches of scuttling sideways on occasional 5.11 takes them to where the great arch pinches off. Beyond it, like a continuation of the arch itself, is a bulge of disturbingly steep, frustratingly smooth stone. They rap to camp for dinner.
Southern Belle was the brainchild of Walt Shipley. A superb face climber, Shipley was known for crazy runouts, narrow escapes, and soloing binges. He earned an engineering degree from Fresno State, and started out as a rocket scientist working for Lockheed. He sat around in his cubicle waiting for them to give him something worthy to do, finally quit and went straight to the Valley.
Shipley soon found himself drawn to the South Face to solo the second ascent of Harding and Rowell’s original aid line. He motored up the arch and out the roof, but his hooks didn’t fit Harding’s drilled holes. Leaving a rope fixed over the roof, Walt went down and engineered a new set of hooks. He returned and jugged out the roof only to find his rope shredded on sharp crystals at the lip, only a few strands of the core left. Then a downpour sent six inches of freezing waterfall down the face.
It must have been alone on that upper wall afterwards, bat-hooking holes through superbly featured terrain, that Walt Shipley first hatched the plan for Southern Belle.
“If you think Sean Jones is an extrovert, Walt was like that times three,” his old friend Duane Raleigh says. “Just manic energy. He’d do talking beta by the hour. Every move, every piece of pro. When he got onto Half Dome he wanted to own it.” Around on the Northwest Face, Walt did the first solo of Tis-sa-ack (VI 5.10 A4). Later he moved right and put up two routes on that blank white shield: the highly respected White Room (VI 5.10 A4) with Sean Plunkett and Kali Yuga (VI 5.10 A3) with John Middendorf.
Shipley stories are everywhere. Jaybro Anderson remembers the most scared he’s ever been for a partner: “Hands down, [it was] belaying Shipley on an early attempt on a route on Mount Broderick that he was tentatively calling Lightning Bolt Crack. It’s a real route now, I think he bolted it with Dave Schultz and it’s a 5.12a lieback/undercling. He scared me so much that I had to look away. He ran out what I’d hoped would be a seven-inch horizontal offwidth flake but turned out as a black lichen nightmare undercling under an expando flake. We had homemade 8-inch camming units that didn’t work very well.
“Walt’s feet would skate off. I couldn’t watch, then he’d run it out another 30 feet and place another lame cam and go for it again.
“At the end, another giant runout behind him, Walt yelled, ‘I can’t hold on any more!’ At that moment an appropriate-sized auxiliary side crack appeared. He placed a 3.5 Friend and weighted the rope.”
Before it became Southern Belle, the route was originally started by John Bachar, in 1986, who quickly found the first crux, three pitches up. The crack ran straight-in up the overhanging wall of the arch, 80 feet of steadily off-fist climbing, stout at 5.12c. The next attempt was by Schultz and Shipley, and Schultz drew that third pitch: “It scared the living crap outta me. Eighty feet of cupped hands, and I had one piece that fit. I’d reach down off a rattly jam, unplug it and slam it in higher. Finally had to leave it and go.” From the belay it took them a little aid to get started up the slabby face. (Schultz freed it the next year.) On pitch five they followed a crack out on the open face that dwindled to a thin flare. More 5.12.
Dave Schultz was the perfect author and partner for the route. He had already put up Karma, the baddest line on the wall, and he had the same bold edge.
“Southern Belle was the best route I’ve ever done. Too bad about the pro. You could die up there. We modeled it after Bachar,” says Schultz, in obeisance to the famous, runout Bachar-Yerian route in Tuolumne, which he loved and eventually led six times. He adds, “I did clean up the bolts on the upper wall, though. Shipley had just pounded in ordinary machine bolts.”
In 1994 Hank Caylor was going for the second ascent when he took his now legendary 70-foot tumbling and cartwheeling fall off pitch eight. Smashing into a dike on the way down, he broke both bones in one ankle and sprained the other badly enough to put him in a second cast. He crawled all the way down to the valley. That pretty much put an end to bold leading on the South Face.
The second ascent did not go up for another 15 years. Dean Potter and Leo Houlding made it in 2006. I asked Dean about it last summer, standing under Midnight Lightning. He smiled and looked me in the eye, saying, “Running it out up there, I was scared.” He let it go at that. This from the guy I had just seen on video soloing a 5.13 roof crack.
Caylor, discussing Southern Belle and the Bachar-Yerian (B/Y) recently on Supertopo, writes: “Absolutely no comparison between the two. The B/Y is a reasonable climb with big bolts and can be done by mortals that are fit in mind and body. And the B/Y is also the better climb, I think. The Southern Belle is just a bad idea. …. And the Belle is a LONG WAAAY from the nearest road if you pitch and get hurt. One-hundred-foot runouts that are actually 5.12a, I called it a 90-foot runout that was 5.11d. I’m glad Leo [Houlding] could straighten that out for me. Congrats to those guys.”
The South Face had gone macho. Some of the baddest runouts in the world, on some of the most slippery stone.
“The rock has a peculiar porcelain quality,” Galen Rowell noted way back on the first ascent of the South Face. After pitching off the South Face, Caylor quit the X Club for many years.
Sean Jones leads up the splitter cracks. So far the climbing is hard, sure. But there’s plenty of pro. However, the headwall is coming … the land of runouts where you can’t stop, of sloping dishes and no stances, and not even a hook placement in sight.
And then there is the Fortress effect. What if he gets 300 feet up the headwall only to have it blank out again? Go around? Start traversing? A great line shoots upward.
One solution to this dilemma lies beyond the time-honored ground-up approach. Sean’s neighbor in El Portal, Ron Kauk, has been there. He and Sean can be seen out talking by the side of the street in the morning, balancing cups of coffee. Kauk is far from a full convert to sport climbing. In fact, his last Valley project is a rare 5.14b crack climb, the brilliant Magic Line, led in 1996 and still unrepeated.
Sometimes on his way up to the Dome, Sean leaves the Mist Trail and walks down toward the thunder of the falls to stand under Magic Line. Just quietly paying his respects. Kauk has the authority. Sean, the new Valley master with an uncanny eye for a great line, listens.
Kauk poses a deceptively simple question: “How are you going to go beyond your ego to work with the nature of the rock itself?” Texture. Find climbable texture as it hopscotches the fortress blankness. How indeed, Sean wonders, when protecting his line will forever alter this sculpted, gleaming face. Kauk says: “It’s your time now, and you gotta use common sense.”
It’s tough on the South Face. Above Sean is a thousand feet of crackless rock.
Where is that sweet line of texture weaving through the blankness? How can we discover it instead of forcing, “pushing” the route? Sean and I talk it out endlessly around that campfire and hiking the high stone steps of the Mist Trail. The specter that haunts us is of a dead end, of striking out up a promising line only to have it blank out. Then our folly will be marked forever by a line of bolts to nowhere.
I have to hand it to Sean. He seeks out the old Valley masters and really listens. But the decision, the future, is all his.
Spring optimism gives way to sultry summer. On a day that’s 116 degrees down in the valley it should be cooler up here, but we cower in scraps of shade. The heat is oppressive, but the decision is worse. Finally Sean stands up and shoulders his pack. We stuff in a thousand feet of rope, hammers and fresh drills, and head up the cables.
Sean has never been to the summit. He’s been saving it for this climb, and now he’s sacrificing even the pleasure of ending his route with a fresh summit, all to be sure of finding the cleanest line to pass on. This is the irony of growing up.
Coming in from above turns out to be a good thing. The first line he’d chosen from below blanks out 300 feet above the arch. Sean shudders to imagine what would have happened if he had stuck to ground-up tradition. He would have drilled from what stances he could eke out, running it out, then The Fortress would have snickered and pulled the rug out from under him.
Sean moves the line over a hundred feet and tries again. This time he finds a vertical dike, striking but not even 200 feet high. This time he can link up from the dike through a sea of granite to the summit.
And he can link up from the end of the arch to the dike. Well, almost. Here is yet another gotcha from The Fortress, driving him crazy. What now? It’s down to drilling a short bridge.
All the yeah-buts, however, are how a great line comes into being. And this is nothing short of a great line. Hard, sure, but the pro is all there.
It’s the first PG route on the entire back side of the Dome, and the first in the 40-plus year history of free climbing back there. See for yourself if 60 feet of A0 dulls your buzz enough to make it not worth it.
While Sean and I are up there, pounding on drills to ready those superb upper slabs, Sarah is down in El Portal nursing a sprained ankle. She twisted it carrying a monster load from camp down the Mist Trail, yet, in typically gutsy fashion, continued to hobble down under that pack. Two weeks later she’s healed just enough to head back up for the redpoint, ankle fully taped. Sarah and Sean fire the redpoint of the upper wall on July 28th at 5.11d.
Lying on the summit slabs that afternoon, huddled under a little overhang in a patch of shade, Sean has a vision. We have kicked around a lot of names during four months around the campfire, and the idea has shifted from Drama to Growing Pains. Suddenly Sean sees it evolving beyond that. And not just our personal little dramas either, but the whole history of climbing on the South Face, sweeping back through all the great climbers who have run it out up here. This climb will be Growing Up.
Where are they now, the bold crew that opened up the South Face and proved it to be a free-climbing paradise? Charles Cole started Five-Ten. Jana Buxton is moving to Boston with her boyfriend. Dave Schultz went to Hollywood; you’ve seen his work in Superman Returns, Matrix Reloaded and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Ken Yager settled in El Portal, where he is giving back to climbing, as the driving force behind Yosemite’s annual Facelift cleanup parties, and in his basement are boxes of artifacts from the history of Yosemite climbing, including precious Salathé pitons, waiting while he finesses his grand dream of a climbing museum next to Camp 4.
Walt Shipley, the ultimate adrenaline junkie, started to look beyond climbing, although he stayed active, with big new routes, in 1997, on the Titan and Doric Column in Utah’s Fisher and Mystery Towers, respectively. Over four years he got into kayaking, and of course he got really good. On a spring day in 1998, when the rivers poured floods of snowmelt out of the Sierra, he strapped on a helmet he had re-engineered himself and launched a kayak into Dinkey Creek. The river is at times narrow, raging between granite walls. His friends watched as a hydraulic sucked him under, then released him, but too late, and attempts to revive him failed.
Sarah Watson went back to Boulder and came down with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staph. She’s back jamming hard on her favorite desert sandstone now, but after she started to recover her doctor told her that the last case he had treated, died. She leaves soon to climb in Thailand.
Sean? He’s full of plans. After he gets back from a long-delayed honeymoon with Maggie, he’s looking further beyond the Valley. He’s already made significant forays both south and north, in the past developing Shuteye Ridge and the best lines in Hetch Hetchy. Now he’s exploring deeper into the Sierra backcountry, scoping out the string of great domes that runs clear down the west side of this granite paradise.
Half Dome itself feels pregnant with potential. The South Face glows with an aura of the future, holding suggestions of lines not yet ready to be dreamed.
Doug Robinson has caught Dome Fever. He’s nursing a half-finished line on Charlotte Dome and has spotted something out left of Autobahn. His film about Half Dome still awaits funding. You can see clips on www.movingoverstone.com.
Finally Free: Skinner and Piana’s First Free Ascent of the Salathé Wallread more