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


by Karl "Baba" Bralich

December 29, 2001

When I was ready for my first aid climb, my course of action was clear. Start with a climbing partner you know, start out on 1-2 pitches of C1, and gradually attack harder and longer climbs until one day we launch off on a trade route. After some successes on those, try one of the less climbed, more committing routes..

So I naturally skipped all that, contacted a perfect stranger over the internet, and suggested we do El Cap or Half Dome. After all, I'd read some books about it..

Karl seemed willing to take me up the Half Dome Regular. That he'd take a total gumby up made me question his sanity, but I agreed to go. But a few emails later he's hatching some half cocked plan to do the Direct. Uh, whatever. I'd just point out the absurdity of this idea at the base of the climb..

So I fly out to Fresno with a huge duffel full of gear, and drive over to Wawona, where Karl lives. I have to admit to a bit of trepidation when I knocked on his door at 9pm, as I was about to meet the person who was going to keep me alive for the next several days..

I was happy to discover that he was a normal enough person. We discussed anchor systems, my experience (or lack of), etc., and everything was sounding right. He was even able to make the Direct sound like a reasonable choice for a first wall, but then I was jet lagged. Around 11pm I realized I had nothing left, and abuptly headed to bed..

I have to say that I didn't find the 8 mile hike very strenuous. The reason for that was Karl was the one carrying the haul bag, while I just had a day pack. I easily led out ahead of him, and would stop to let him catch up. Just as he arrived, I'd take off again. I knew that he make me pay for this later..

Well, the Crescent Crack was beautiful, and I was stoked to head up the Direct after all. This was my first time at the base of a big wall. I first learned about rock climbing by the '74 National Geographic article on Half Dome, and I immediately went to my father's garage and stole some machine nuts and clothesline and built myself some aid gear. I received a quick education in the breaking strength of clothesline, and abandoned that experiment. But I never lost my longing to climb, though I only did my first climb when I was 32. 24 years after reading the article I was finally going to climb Half Dome..

Karl led out quickly, and before too long he yelled out off-belay-roped-fixed, and I was jumaring Half Dome. Well, I was dangling and thrashing up Half Dome. My daisies were the wrong length and my feet were in the wrong stirrups, so I was basically doing pull-ups on the ascenders with some assist from my feet. By the time I got to the belay I felt like vomiting. Karl assured me that by the top I'd have it wired. Oh good, I only have to suffer this 23 more times..

On pitch 3 I kept wondering when exactly Karl was going to place some pro, but he kept running it out. Guess he knows what he's doing. I'm happy to see him finally clip a bolt, but then he shouts something about it being a rusty 1/4"..

I think I was annoying Karl with my belaying, as I kept letting the rope get tight as he tried to clip. I had never thought that belaying would be difficult, but both the lead rope and the haul ropes were twisted, and I would feed a few feet out, then try to untwist a few further feet, but then Karl would move and the kinks would catch in my ATC. I'd just get that fixed but then the haul rope would pull on him. I knew I was doing a very bad job and kept waiting for the cursing that I deserved. It never came. Karl's a pretty laid back guy..

I worked out the right lengths for my daisies, but still had problems jumaring. I'd move up 2-3 times, my feet would pop out of my aiders, I'd hang and replace my feet, go another few moves, and they would pop out again. By the third day I learned how to push my feet out away from the face when I lifted them to keep them in the stirrup, but the first two days were slow. Again, Karl was very patient with me..

My other problem was dealing with stuck ropes. Each time you tie in short you create a loop that drags behind you, catching in every crack and flake. I was so busy trying to jumar that I'd forget about the rope and it'd get wedged in a crack. Following Karl on pitch 3/4, I had to down jumar 3 times at the same spot because the rope kept sticking..

We finally get to the first bivy ledge and Karl is enthusing about its size and comfort. ??? It looked very narrow and uncomfortable to me. Another wall lesson, I guess. I was very exhausted by my half day of thrashing, but was determined to reach the top. Part of my exhaustion was caused by only drinking 32oz of water during the climbing. I felt so bad about slowing us down that I never asked to break into the haul bag for water when my personal bottle went dry. I had let pride get in the way of making a good climbing decision. I resolved to not do that again..

People describe aid climbing as boring, but I was never bored, even on 2 hour belays. Despite the frustrations of stuck ropes and awkward jumaring, I was very happy to be on the wall, and in no hurry to get off..

Sometime on the 2nd day I dropped my ATC as I took Karl off belay. I watched it bounce down the wall until it landed on the ledge we slept on the night before. Not too swift, Roger. Once again I let pride get in the way of making a good climbing decision, and I didn't tell Karl, but just switched over to using my GriGri. I told him a few pitches later, and used his back up belay plate, which I prefer to Gri-Gris..

I felt trepidation the next morning as Karl traversed out to do the 11+ pitch. I didn't want to turn around, but knew that this could stop us. But Karl cruised up it, making it look easy. I was stoked when he passed the crux..

One other pitch had been haunting me - Thank God Ledge. I've always hated traverses; I'd rather friction up a steep wall than cross an easy traverse, though I don't know why. On the fourth day we headed up the final pitches of the Regular Route, and I kept trying to convince myself that TGL would be easy, that I just had to move through it and the summit was nearly in the bag..

Karl led across it and I tried not to think about my turn coming up shortly. Too quickly he called off-belay-roped-fixed, and I had to do it..

Ten feet into it and I was calling out to Karl how spectacular the pitch was. It kept narrowing and I was still moving forward on hands and knees..

Then it got too narrow. I couldn't force myself to let half my body dangle off as I groveled across. I know when I lock up like this I have to bite the bullet and face my fears, so I hopped over the side. All my fear disappeared and I was happily hand traversing my way across, smearing a little with my sticky 5.10 approach shoes. However, I made the mistake of moving my jumar forward and pulling all the slack out of the rope while aiding on a cam stuck in the back of the crack. I was stuck. I couldn't remove the cam while aiding on it, but if I put my weight on the rope it pulled me against the cam so I still couldn't release it. At this point that was the only cam that fit the crack, so I couldn't aid on another piece of gear. I finally worked it out with some shouted instructions from Karl, and by aiding on a few tipped out cams..

From there it was smooth sailing to the top. On the last pitch I was glad that Karl quickly moved out of view as he traversed across, because tears were falling down my cheeks as I realized that I was going to reach the top. I took my camera out of the haul bag and snapped a dozen shots from that spectacular final pitch. I kept hoping that Karl would go slow so I could stay there longer, but too soon I was releasing the haul bag and then jumaring up. Karl had back-cleaned his traverse so I was jumaring straight up an overhang, with 2200' of air below my feet. it was an amazing finish, and I kept thinking that I wanted to stop, but I knew we had an epic descent ahead of us, so I kept pushing. Before long I was mantling over the top with a huge grin on my face. I knew I was still a wall gumby, and that all I did was follow someone far more competent than me, but I was still very pleased with myself..

On the descent Karl quickly paid me back for my always leaving him behind on the hike up. He easily took the lead. Every half hour he'd wait for me to catch up, but as soon as I reached him he'd stand up and start run down the trail. I tried running for a while, but eventually I eased into a trudge as the thin straps of the day bag cut into my shoulders. I carried one of the ropes in my hands just to keep it from adding weight to the straps, and Karl kept offering to tie it to my pack, then eventually to just take it from me, but I was refused to give it up. I knew that I had been basically hauled up the route, and wanted to pull as much of my own weight as possible. This brilliant scheme got us back to the trailhead after the buses stopped running, adding another mile to our walk..

We topped out on the 24th, yet my hands are still peeling and healing from the climb. My right toe is still numb, and I have 4 black toenails. And I've arranged to do arranged another aid climb for September. I can hardly wait.

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