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Direct NW Face of Half Dome (Baba's story)


 

by Karl "Baba" Bralich

December 29, 2001

When Roger was ready for his first wall, both the season and his preference called for Half Dome. I groaned at the prospect because of the punishing hike, hard hauling and contorting bivy ledges. Then I hatched a half-cocked plan, do the Direct Route instead! I had heard that it was a good route with nice bivy ledges and a real wall atmosphere (unlike the Regular Route which doesnít feel like much of a wall until high on the route.) We could take our time and camp out in the midst of the grandeur of Half Domeís sweeping escarpment.

Unfortunately, the approach is the same; 8 grueling miles of uphill humping. Nevermind that the first half of the hike has some of the best views in the natural world, we started at 6 pm to beat the heat and, pig piggyback, I downed the first of many doses of beneficial suffering to come. Thank God the spring at the base saved us from lugging 60 pounds of water up that trail.

Finally we arrived at the base and I could revel in the relief of climbing vs hiking. I was stoked that nobody was on the route, since the last time I came to attempt the Direct, Todd Skinner had lines fixed halfway up the route for his free attempt. (so we did the Regular instead) That time I watched Galen Rowell thrutch up the 5.9 offwidth as a revisitation of his first ascent of that pitch. I opted to aid the flake to the left instead, the first in a long series of conservative moves to stay safe and not get too pumped to lead all the harder pitches.

The awesome and striking Crescent Crack is a smooth chimney visible from the valley floor. To run the 3rd and 4th pitches together, I had heard not to place any pro in the Crescent chimney until you clip the first bolt on the A3 face on pitch 4. The upper part of the pitch might be old A3 but it was clipping that first rusty, ancient 1/4 inch bolt with no other pro for 80 feet that really made my life flash before my eyes. I longed for the days when I had blind faith in any bolt.

I wanted to do the climb hammerless so cam-hooking and hooking ruled the day. God help you if you try this climb without a couple larger hooks.

Roger was doing a great job at implementing wall tricks and technology (lowering out, cleaning traverses, and so on) but his lack of experience naturally slowed things down a bit. We made it to the bivy at the end of pitch 5 with little light to spare. Itís a fine ledge and the view is equally fine.

We slowly settled into a whole wall routine of waking up, eating, pooping, packing and doing, doing, doing until there is nothing left to do. The Direct began to show its less glamorous side, some of it is a loose, chaucy pile! It was amazing to me that the pitches that were supposed to be hard were straightforward and fun compared to the ones that looked easy on the topo but in realty threatened to betray me with loose flakes, rotten rock, and obscure routefinding.

The Grand Terrace, at the top of pitch 12, was another spectacular and accommodating ledge. I could look up at the slot on pitch 14 that threatened to be the "Do or Die" pitch. Paul Brunnerís trip report on the Yosemite Rock Page suggested that this was "the pitch from Hell, a true grunt", that it was 5.11+ (rated by Todd Skinner) and that there was a 15-20 foot run-out at the crux. I tried to tell myself that the 5.11+ was probably freeing the A1 low on the pitch and that Paul was just on the pipe, and that my #5 camalot would save me from the fearsome lead-out.

On the other hand, Paul hadnít whined about any of the pitches lower down that I thought were pretty awkward. He had called the anchors for the pitch bomber but they were two quarter-inchers, rusty with square nuts! I guess they werenít spinners. My prospects seemed even dimmer when I managed to remember that when Rick Cashner and Mike Corbett did the first one-day ascent of the route, Cashner took a 100 foot fall on the pitch. He told me they hadnít brought anything bigger than a #3 camalot and his foot just slipped. He was a bit thrashed (at least mentally) from the fall so he looked to Corbett to lead the pitch. Corbett (who couldnít free climb as hard as Cashner) would have none of it, so Cashner had to go back into the belly of the beast.

Banishing trepidation, I launched into the pitch, waiting for it to show its teeth. It was smooth sailing until I reached the point where the protection crack in the back of the chimney angles out of reach. The #5 camalot was simply a useless weight tugging at my harness. The only thing left to do was fire up 15 feet to the next pro but it just didnít look that bad. I hoped I wasnít misjudging it. I squirmed my way up and voila! I thought the lead-out chimney was among the easiest and most straightforward sections of the whole climb for me! (5.8?) Thank God! I think I am more comfortable with the clean smooth pitches than the broken ones. I was quite relieved and started to think about the other nefarious pitch we had to contend withÖ..

Shit Chimney! The chimney that leads up to Big Sandy Ledges and the Regular Route is infamous as a sewer for morons and their indiscriminant bowel movements. I had heard stories of parties climbing the pitch in ponchos and rain-suits to put a plastic layer between the crap and the climber. As I ascended, I kept telling myself "This isnít so bad, I donít see any crap in here" I rested on my daisy chain to scope out the situation, realizing that the fecal situation would probably worsen near the top of the pitch. I must have been distracted since I was 80% mantled onto some loose flakes on a chockstone when I felt my daisy chain stop me cold. "Dang!" A bit of nervous contortionism and I was free. I pushed around a brown crusty object with a loose rock and pronounced it an official turd, but in general, Shit Chimney mostly offered your standard wall stench, nothing like the rich images my mind had fashioned in anticipation.

It was a miracle that the haul bag wound its way up the labyrinth of the previous two pitches run together without getting hopelessly stuck. Iím just lucky.

Crumpled on Big Sandy after several days of leading and hauling, I was struck by just how beat up and sore I felt. I wondered if I was mugged on the street if the pain would be less or the same. Actually, the trashed feeling felt good. This was my insight: To the extent that we accept our pain and suffering, to that extent it ceases to have the power to oppress us. If we resist reality, the resistance causes more grief than the pain itself.

A shorter day of climbing on the Regular Route (I think Roger was fairly entertained by Thank God ledge) and we celebrated the summit. I knew that the dark side of the summit was lurking nearbyÖÖ. the trail back down. This would be the final hammering that would forge my fatigue into a vision-quest-altered-state.

I would put the pig on my back and stagger a bit, but after a few faltering steps, I would get into a rhythm of hiking until I was jogging down the trail, the savage and interminable trail. I would sit on a rock to let Roger catch up and close my eyes and disappear into some abyss of peaceful oblivion. Roger would show up, I would stagger to me feet but soon I would be in the strange groove once again. When we finally reached the car, it seemed unbelievable, like the fulfillment of a generous promise made by a shady character whose motives where always in question. We finally got to revel in the luxuries that Wall Climbing enhances our appreciation of: hot food, shower, hot tub, cushy bed!

Did I enjoy the route, yes! (in that sick wall climbing way) Would I recommend it? I donít know, it is more serious than the Regular route and the loose sections could be dicey. The bivys are great though and the whole climb feels like a real, exposed wall.

Peace

PS. It is possible to avoid the A3+ fixed mank section on pitch 11 by swinging across the free variation from a manky bolt. Larger TCUís bypass the A3+ at A1.



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