Half Dome, Yosemite via Snake Dike: Multi-Pitch Slabbing in Tennis Shoes

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A week or so after climbing Mount Shasta last summer, my brother and I attempted our first multi-pitch climb up Half Dome via the popular Snake Dike route. This seemed like a reasonable alternative to competing with hordes of hikers for unobtainable cable permits. Instead, we would jockey with a horde of climbers for a turn on the dike.

Beta and Preparations

According to Mountain Project, Snake Dike is eight pitches with an overall rating of 5.7 R. That’s a capital R for runout, which means the rope is often just ornamental for the lead climber, because there’s nothing to anchor it to.

The lower friction pitches hover around 5.8 with an occasional bolt or cam placement. The higher pitches crawl along at about 5.5 with little or no protection. The climbing evolves to be pretty laid back, with lots of knobby holds. But, with the continual running out, a fall at the wrong spot would be long and painful, like sliding down 200 feet of cheese grater.

For gear, we brought a 60 meter rope and the recommended handful of small cams, from .5 to 1 inch, six quick draws, plus an assortment of carabiners and slings. No stoppers. Other preparations included a hastily printed copy of the free Snake Dike supertopo, and results on my phone of a Google image search for belay instructions.

For sustenance, we had some random fruit, bread, cheese, a handful of granola bars, and 2 liters of water each. Plus, the dew of a ginko leaf and the energy of the universe.

Lessons Learned

Keep in mind, this was our first multi-pitch climb, and so our first time route finding and setting up belay stations. As kids these days would say, we were total noobs. And we were about to get poned.

Our first mistake was beginning so late. We left the Sacramento area at 8:00 PM the night before and about midnight got to the park entrance, where we “slept” in our car until 5:30 AM. That put us in Curry Village, at the start of the six-mile approach, by about 6:00 AM. When we finally arrived at the base of the climb four hours later, there were three other climbing parties there shuffling through gear while shooting the breeze, waiting for countless other groups mid route.

On a busy summer day, I’m guessing you’d have to depart the valley by 3:00 AM to lead the way.

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Because we left so late, our turn to climb didn’t come until about noon. And at our plodding pace, we leveled out at the top just before sunset, the only ones on the summit. As the sky darkened, we ate what remained of our food and contemplated descending the cables and then eight miles of switchbacks and stairs by the light of our cell phones. No headlamps.

Our second, much stupider mistake was not bringing proper climbing shoes, and then thinking we’d be fine. The stupidity of this became clear as we eavesdropped on a conversation between a weathered Yosemite guide, next in line to climb with father and son clients, and another climber, who looked like he might live in a van by the river. It went something like this.

Climber: So, uh, how many times would you say you’ve climbed this route?

Guide: Oh, I’ve lost count, but probably fifty or more.

Climber: Wow. That’s pretty bad @ that you’re doing it in those tennis shoes.

My brother and I glanced down at the guide’s tattered running shoes, and then, gulping, scrutinized our own. The guide clarified that he would never go without climbing shoes. That would be ridiculous. He just hadn’t changed yet.

The climbing power of a shoe is described in terms of its “aggressiveness.” The more vertical and technical the climb, the more aggressive your shoe needs to be. Aggressive shoes are typically tighter, with pointier heels and toes, a higher arch, and sharper edges. Understandably, they’re also less comfortable.

A climber is more than his shoes.

Our shoes were light and comfy, passive not aggressive. They were timid and shy. When confronted with 800 feet of slabby granite, they cowered in fear.

But a climber is more than her or his shoes. And so, we went for it.

The Climb

Pitch 1, with its friction traverse, almost pushed my shoes to their limit. I scrambled up just fine, placing a cam in the roof with a long sling. But moving down and then left, I was immediately in sketchville. I channeled all my energy into my feet, and tread extremely delicately, my hands and toes searching for the smallest patches of unpolished rock. I made the traverse, and then scampered up to the first belay station, where the last climber in the group ahead was still waiting to go. He supervised my belay setup.

In the photo below, the roof is in the shadows, and the two climbers are at belay one.

Pitch 2 starts with a shorter, easier, traverse right. After a .75 cam placement in a small crack, I moved up to belay station two. The tennis fared well.

Pitch 3 was the crux for my passive kicks. After going up and off route, seeing my error and sliding down ten feet, I confirmed with the topo that the route takes a friction traverse straight left, one that’s void of friction. Over the next thirty minutes, I tried and failed a few dozen times to cross over, my knees and palms taking the brunt of the sliding falls. Poned like a noob. Demoralized, I decided the only solution was to borrow some shoes.

A climber is only as strong as his shoes.

I explained my plight to the leader of the next group. He was reluctant, but took pity on us. Thank goodness. It’s amazing what some aggressive rubber soles can do. I flitted like a butterfly across pitch 3.

I guess a climber is only as strong as her or his shoes.

Pitches 4 through 7 were mainly dike, gradually transitioning to slab in pitch 8. The runouts were nerveracking at times, but manageable.

After an unexpected fontanelle in the aged mountain’s skull, it was a featureless slabfest all the way to the summit.

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Conclusion

Snake Dike is a simple but classic climb, up an iconic mountain, in a legendary place. The approach is substantial, but worth the trouble. Just leave extra early, pack plenty of water, and climbing shoes, and plan for crowds.

All together, the climb lasted roughly sixteen hours, from 5 AM to 10 PM. Ascending from the valley floor took us about four hours. After waiting two more at the base of the route, the climb itself ate up around six. We descended the cables right about sunset, and made it back to the valley by 10 PM, stopping only once to give our remaining water to a climber from the party ahead of us, the one who might live with his buddies in a van. He was sitting in the dirt, head between his knees, as if he’d just rock climbed all day without drinking any water.

The late drive back to Sacramento put us at right around 30 hours total, door to door. Exhausting, but a great alternative to not getting permits. I’m looking forward to doing it right. Stay tuned.

Bears are Kind of Like Squirrels

Black bear and cub in YosemiteOur apartment complex is infested with squirrels. But we’ve learned to coexist. We all fill the dumpster with leftover food, like most Americans, and, in exchange, they don’t ambush our kids on the playground, or drop sharpened acorns on our heads from their nests.

One of our lord of the flies neighbor kids made a bow and arrow for squirrel hunting, but this hasn’t threatened our peaceful relationship.

Similar rules of engagement seem to apply when interacting with bears in the Yosemite valley and other high traffic national parks. On my last trip to half dome, I found this black bear mother and cub, minding their own business, not wreaking havoc or killing anyone. Like squirrels, these park bears thrive on our leftover trash, and they rarely bite the hand that feeds them.

But what about the wild, undomesticated bears? I know I sound pretty macho sometimes, but when camping with the kids, and not in KOAs, parks, or campgrounds, I tend to get a little nervous and super protective of my kin. Camping with the kids in the forest, I’m awake half the night listening for crunching leaves and snapping twigs, any signs of predators. So I’ve been doing some research, starting with bears, to ease my mind a bit.

Although bears can peel open a car like a can of sardines (warning from the NPS), dangerous encounters with humans are uncommon. There has never been a fatal bear attack in Yosemite (NPS – Yosemite), and fewer than ten have ever been reported in Yellowstone (NPS – Yellowstone), though two occurred in 2011 alone.

Wikipedia keeps a list of fatal bear attacks in North America

Some people misconstrue the numbers and suggest that we’re more likely to be struck by lightening, twice, than to be part of what the Discovery Channel calls a bear feeding frenzy. Statistically, it depends.

Like professor Harold Hill, you’ve got to know the territory. In most of the US it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever meet a bear who feels threatened enough destroy you. Parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska are exceptions, especially if you’re baiting the bears with steak and salmon.

Like Ranger Smith of Jellystone Park, or Christopher Robbins of the hundred acre wood, you’ve also got to know the bear. Both black and brown (i.e., Grizzly) bears will take a picnic basket over acorns. But, unlike squirrels, they’ll sneak into camp, even into your tent, to get it.

So, outside the Rocky Mountain wilderness, do you need a shotgun, bear horn, ferocious dog, and can of pepper spray when you take the kids tent camping? Probably not, as long as you don’t use a jar of honey for a pillow. But, whatever helps you sleep at night.

Half Dome by Night, With a Full Moon, Alone

This summer, unable to find a compadre, I decided to try half dome at dawn solo. Despite being nearly attacked by an imaginary mob of bears, it was the best nocturnal day hike ever.

I left the trail head at 1 AM and didn’t see another headlamp until the base of Nevada falls, an hour or so later. In that time I had convinced myself that all the black bears of the Yosemite valley, tired of twinkies and lunchables from the dumpster, were closing in around me. I gripped my pocket knife and planned all kinds of irrational, elaborate defense strategies and escape moves. Depending on my surroundings, these consisted of sprinting in the opposite direction, throwing large stones, and jumping off waterfalls.

Fortunately, I caught up to Jessica and Luise, two younger and slower hikers who were gracious enough to let me join them till I regained my composure and glimpsed the backside of half dome silhouetted against the moonlight. At that point I pressed on alone, inspired and determined to put at least two other people between me and the horde of bears. If they attacked from above, I would fight like a warlock dragon with tiger blood, and die honorably.

Half dome silhouette

Headlamps on half dome

Sunrise from half dome

Moonset from half dome

Sunrise from half dome

Half dome top cables

View from Nevada falls

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