Rescue on the South Face of Half Dome

A Personal Account
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In the fall of 1968 the author and Warren Harding began their assault upon the unclimbed south face of Half Dome. Was the possibility of failure on their minds? Certainly—only a fool climbs with no thought for the worst—but to that point no climber had ever been rescued from the middle of a major Yosemite climb. Rowell and Harding, men of vast climbing experience, were unlikely objects of such aid, but the mountain has no respect for credentials.

I turned the page in the paperback and was deep in thought when a shout flinched me back to reality. It was Warren Harding's voice, calling for slack.

I was sitting in a belay seat as one or the other of us had been doing for almost six days now on this ledgeless wall. I reached for the Jumar, fed out four feet of slack, passed it around me, and watched it disappear upward.

We were using a new belaying system in which the rope goes through a Jumar ascender after it runs around the belayer and through an extra carabiner hooked to the anchor. We were drilling our way up a blank section. For this type of slow climbing, the system has advantages. It frees the belayer's hands and affords the leader a safer belay than total reliance on a tired climber who may be daydreaming as he sits for hours at a time.

I enjoyed daydreaming. The paperback discussed man's effect on nature, and often a page would go unturned for half an hour as my thoughts wandered. I contemplated Huxley's likening of a human being on earth to a cancer cell on its host. Harmless by themselves, but endowed with the ability to reproduce until they destroy their matrix—the analogy was certainly well taken.

I contrasted Muir's thoughts of Half Dome's permanence with Huxley's of man's destruction of his environment. Had anyone ever contemplated that the development of climbing has paralleled the population explosion? Central Europe, host to the beginnings of mountaineering, was the first part of the world to feel overpopulation. The population problem lessened in Europe as people migrated to the New World (which has taken up mountaineering rather recently) where today, the population pressure has begun to be felt. I searched for connections between the two. The climber's disdain for large groups of people, regimentation, and technocracy seemed to bear this out. The mountains represented the stability and austerity of nature in a world being raped by man. They were and are one of the few places where a man finds himself in competition with himself or his environment, not with other men.

It was this search for identity that placed us high on the 2,000-foot south face of Half Dome, little known to climbers or tourists. One's first impression is of a vast, curving slope quite devoid of features. A closer look shows an overhanging arch, leading halfway up the wall, and the realization that the wall is curved only on the edges. For the most part it is very steep (75 degrees) and devoid of ledges or cracks.

We had reached the top of the arch in three days, arriving at a hauling bag hanging under an overhang from our previous attempt in 1966. Although torn and housing a swift's nest, it had contained three gallons of drinkable water and some canned food. From this point the route leads out of the arch by way of the most spectacular sixth class lead I have seen. It nails horizontally for ten pitons and then nails the convergence of two very overhanging walls for ten more pitons. Warren called it his most strenuous lead. At the top of the arch the overhangs that we had been nailing consistently for three days ended and we climbed on a vast, open expanse of blank-appearing wall, stretching over a thousand feet to the summit.

The prospect of bolting a thousand feet of blank wall had stopped other climbers from considering the route. Studying the face through binoculars in winter and by blown-up photos, Warren and I found several disconnected crack systems. We decided that a route was possible with no more than 25 percent bolting. To make this 25 percent easier and faster, Warren developed a system of alternating bolts with rows of ground down cliff-hangers placed in shallow drilled holes. Christened "bat hooks," they saved about half the time of regular bolts, allowing us to cover about two pitches per day on the upper headwall. Free climbing, sometimes possible on the rough and lumpy sections, accounted for possibly 20 percent of our progress.

Now we were more than 400 feet above the arch, with Warren leading. He had nailed an incipient crack for about ten pitons and then begun drilling the blank rock above. He placed eight bat hooks in a row before placing another bolt. After more bat hooks he reached the end of the rope and tied into his last two bolts. I came up, and as I started the next lead we heard a shouted signal from our support party to turn on our walkie-talkie. We made contact with Glen Denny, assuring him all was well and three more days would get us to the top. He gave us a five-day forecast for cloudy skies but no storms, and said that he would go to the top by the trail and rappel on 750 feet of rope to take pictures. Warren signed off and I continued climbing toward one of several potholes on the face.

From a distance these potholes appeared as black specks against the white granite. Through binoculars they resembled shadowy caves. We joked before the climb that these were secret entrances to a giant room in the heart of the dome in which all the gods of the ancients lived. Warren's resemblance to Satan had often been noted. We half expected to be greeted at the doorway by a two-headed Janus who would calmly say, "Come in, Warren, we have been expecting you."

Alas, the pothole did not hold such great things in store for us. It was merely a depression of dark rotten rock, perhaps five feet deep, with no level place to stand, much less sleep. Instead of a floor, it had a ramp inclined at almost fifty degrees. About fifteen feet wide, it offered protection from the winds and was a more pleasant place to bivouac than on the stark face. I anchored with several pitons, hauled up the bags and prepared for the night.

Below, the clouds were putting on a grand show. Thinking of how John Muir might describe such a scene, I began to see things in a strange light. Muir was the first to recognize the importance of ice in forming Yosemite's features. Below me were two classic examples of glacier-carved mountains, Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. Toward the Valley they present sheer facades, but toward the high country, the source of the ice, they present shiny, smooth, mottled contours like those of giant lumpy balloons. Called roches moutonnees, or sheep's backs, by geologists, they are caused by grinding and polishing of the glacier that overrode them.

As I watched the panorama at sunset, I seemed to be riding backward in time. From the southwest came billowing cumulus clouds moving high and fast in the sky—colored orange and red in the setting sun. From the northwest came mare's tails, a form of cirrus clouds distorted by the winds, seemingly intersecting their brothers from the southwest directly above us. But from the west came creeping, seething white clouds. They were so low that we couldn't see them until they came around the corner at the end of the Valley. The pure white veil slowly climbed the Merced River canyon and flowed between and around the sides of Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap, just as the ice must have done, in the opposite direction, thousands of years ago.

The sound of Vernal and Nevada falls, which lie in the canyon just below the two mountains, had always been a subtle comfort to us. Otherwise, we rarely heard sounds unless we made them. The voices of the falls had become as familiar as our own. Nevada's low rumble; Vernal's higher-pitched roar, punctuated by slapping crashes when the wind changed the point of the water's impact. Now, as the mist flowed in, they faded. As the sound deadened, the falls seemed farther and farther away. The formless cloud slowly rose, and soon Broderick and Liberty Cap were two bald islands in a sea of white mist below us. When it became dark, we closed ourselves in our special tent-hammocks. The mist gradually enclosed us in the night.

The hammocks were designed by Warren and were certainly the best yet for their purpose. They had a waterproof, nylon cover that zipped shut to keep out wind and rain. The underside was heavy material with sewn straps running crosswise every few inches, converging on top in a single anchor point, instead of the two widely separated points of the usual garden-style hammock. This meant they could be hung anywhere instead of hunting for a spot where two anchors could be placed many feet apart. Even so, eight hours of continuous sleep was just not possible. Every hour or so, we would wake with a pain from pressing against the rock, or with circulation cut off, or from a cold wind blowing upward against the bottom of the hammock.

Waking at midnight, I heard a new sound outside. It was the running of water and dripping of raindrops upon our hammocks. I went back to sleep, not worried because the weather forecast carried no prediction of a storm and therefore felt this must be a local disturbance. But several hours later, I realized my down footsack and jacket were soaking up water. The "waterproof" hammocks had been tested hanging free from a tree in the city but not leaning against a rock wall running with water. The tightly woven fabric let water soak in, but would not let it out. Pools formed at the bottom of the hammocks. We had to puncture holes to let the water out. By dawn we were both soaked to the skin. Snow covered all the mountains in the high country. The rain became sleet and then turned into snow.

We had seen a practical demonstration of the forces that form the potholes. Ours was a focal point for the drainage from the upper face. We were in a small waterfall.

There was no chance of climbing in the cold, wet conditions. Besides, we believed that the local disturbance would move on, and the sun would come out to dry us before the end of the day. After a few hours we heard a distant shout and turned on our radio. Glen asked how we were, and said that he would not be able to rope down from the top today. Instead, he would rope down tomorrow when the weather was better. We said that we were all right but very wet and cold; if things continued this way we would probably give up the climb and come up the rope he strung from the top. He said that was fine and he would see us tomorrow. He never did.

The weather became worse and worse. The snow fell thicker and thicker. Incredibly, it stuck to the almost vertical face and we were soon plastered. All day, we shook with cold and looked for a blue spot somewhere in the sky. It never came.

We passed a second night in the storm. A sleepless, cold, wet ordeal—14 hours of November darkness.

When the light finally came, everything was white. Small powder-snow avalanches began to batter us about in our pothole. We were shaking almost uncontrollably and our fingers and toes were numb. Every article of our clothing was soaked and I was sure I could not last one more day and night. This was our eighth day and our second in the storm.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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