Welcome to the Center of the Universe!
Yosemite had been a goal of our road trip since its very conception. Though I would be lying through my teeth if I said that as a climber, I wasn’t a little bit intimidated about visiting this holy land. I never considered myself to be a “good” climber, and I certainly never touched anything that comes close to the immensity of Yosemite’s walls. John Muir described this valley as “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature [he] was ever permitted to enter,” and I cannot think of a better word to describe it than as a temple. Not only for the unimaginable scale, but for the primal sense of reverence that comes over you when you see it for the first time, and every other time after that. These mountains will silence you and draw your eyes up towards their tips, studying the intricate traces of the handiwork that hewed them, exactly as if standing frozen in awe inside the soaring nave of some great and ancient cathedral. Ever since modern rock climbing was conceived here, these granite walls have been the proving grounds of the world’s most skilled, daring, and arguably insane, climbers. Yosemite is still the center of the rock climbing universe, and if you’re a climber then you have a decent chance of bumping into your hero during your stay. Word to the wise - if you do, try not to be as creepy as Mikhaila and I probably appeared while trying to seem nonchalant watching Tommy Caldwell and Chris Sharma work a boulder problem one evening.
You can imagine my disquiet about being here for the first time as a mortal having been summoned to the peak of Mt. Olympus to stand before the very throne of Zeus, for here be the dwelling place of the gods and their heroes. Visions of some of the historically greatest feats in extreme sports swam in my mind. Immediately I felt miniscule, powerless, vacillating, but my jaw was on the floor. I felt like I was nothing, but it didn’t matter – I was here.
An experience that I think is treasured by many rock climbers making their first pilgrimage here is seeing El Capitan in person for the first time. In the age of the internet it’s no secret to anyone that it is massive. I’d probably seen a thousand photos of its nose taken from every angle possible, pictures of tiny people moving up its face like ants in an endless sea of granite, pictures taken by climbers of their partners with the ground floating somewhere an impossible distance below. I knew it was big. But if you have never seen El Cap in person I can only say this: it is bigger than you think. And to stand in the meadow and stare up at that face, to image that people actually scale it from the ground to edge three-thousand feet up, it really did seem like an exploit that could only be accomplished by the divine.
Yosemite would have felt far less welcoming to us if it hadn’t been for our friend Dakota. Mikhaila and I knew Dakota from the gym that we used to climb at back in Phoenix where he worked, before moving to take a job in the park and live there full time. Dakota has a contagiously enthusiastic personality and his face typically wears a bright, warm expression. His passion for climbing and the outdoors pervades everything he does. Everyone we saw while in his company: park rangers, staff, climbers, resident dirtbags, knew him by first name. His apparent notoriety in a place as consequential as Yosemite leads me to firmly believe that his name will someday be a part of major climbing history. He acted as a sort of guide to us while we were there and gave us the privilege of an inside experience to the park. Having him show us around really made me feel a connection to that place and the incredible community that exists underneath the bustling tourism on the surface. I got an impression of the park’s culture that I would not have felt had Mikhaila and I been fending for ourselves, so to speak.
Dakota on the job addressing a trailerful of park visitors captivated by El Capitan climbers and explaining “how they get the ropes up there.”
The initial reason we came to Yosemite when we did was for the wedding of our friends Lucie and Ethan. They chose the Glacier Point Amphitheater as their venue, and were married in the late morning on a clear day overlooking Half Dome and the entire valley below. The ceremony was small and brief, but beautiful. There were few people in the audience whom I didn’t know from somewhere. Most were friends from back home that I had been on climbing or backpacking trips with in the past. The reception was in the banquet hall in the (formerly) Ahwahnee Hotel, where Mikahila and I sipped $4 cups of coffee and drooled over everybody else’s plates full of steaming breakfast. For a moment we considered forking over the $15 for a bowl of oatmeal to share. Nonetheless that lofty and historic hall made a grand venue for the newlyweds’ celebration. Overall the whole affair was pretty low-key, and Lucie and Ethan ended up joining us at our campsite after sundown where we stayed up until the wee hours of the frigid night drinking bourbon, sharing stories, and making plans for future adventures together. A pretty perfect wedding as far as I can tell.
This was and still is the only time I've ever seen either of these two wearing anything other than hiking clothes
We happened to have arrived in the valley on the last day of Yosemite Facelift. Yosemite Facelift is a week-long event held every year after the major influx of tourism has dwindled at the end of summer. It is a gathering of representatives from the outdoor brands that sponsor the event, influential people in the rock climbing scene, and many, many volunteers, coming together to clean up the park and offset some of the impact of the extremely heavy traffic that Yosemite sees during the peak season. The event ends with a big celebration complete with food, beer, music, all in the company of hundreds of the best people on earth: climbers. Being that this was the only part of the event I got to experience, I may have a skewed opinion of the whole affair. But that isn’t to say I haven’t made a point to actually participate in the next one now that I know about it. Being welcomed to a place as grand as Yosemite, to which I had never been, by a literal party was almost overwhelming. Almost. The first few days I spent there were a bit of a blur. I was so ecstatic to do and see everything, and having a friend on the inside to show us around was the icing on the cake. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but it felt a bit like coming home after a very long trip.
Mikhaila and I kicked off our adventures with one of the most popular routes in the park, named After 7. It is a fun jaunt up five pitches of a tiered granite buttress, ending with an amazing view of Cathedral Rock across the valley. The first pitch ascends a stellar hand crack which peters out into 15-or-so feet of face climbing, before coming into another short crack that takes you to a ledge. I have never been a fan of face climbing on granite, and that middle section got my attention. Once I reached the ledge I put Mikhaila on belay and brought her up what she agreed was a stellar pitch. The remainder of the route meandered up chimneys and low angle faces to the top of the formation, with frequent good ledges for belays. This is a popular route for free soloists because the first and hardest pitch can be skipped by way of a short but steep scramble up a gully on climber’s left, and after that there is very minimal exposure on the climb. We ended up getting passed by two pairs of climbers equipped with nothing more than Five-Tens and chalk bags. This was a first for me. I have friends who have free soloed before, but I had never seen a climber doing it firsthand. Knowing the history of free soloing that Yosemite holds, witnessing this style for the first time only further cemented the idea of the park as the holy ground of climbing. We spent the next few days doing some single pitch climbing and a handful of two and three pitch moderates. We managed a few hikes as well. One evening we had the idea to catch the evening alpenglow on Half Dome from the top of the Snow Creek Trail, which ascends to the rim of the valley on the opposite side of the Dome. With every switchback you get majestic vistas up and down the valley. By the time we were up top we found ourselves in a pine forest unable to find a good vantage of the big face for sunset. We turned back and made it about halfway back down the endless switchbacks to a nice clearing just as the sun was dipping and got some okay photos. It struck me how unrecognizable Half Dome looked from the north side compared to the Glacier Point (west) side, which is the more popular view and the one always seen on post cards, calendars and 99% of all other photos of this peak. From this side it looked more like a weird nipple than a dome.
Half Dome as seen from the Snow Creek Trail, looking south. The Glacier Point Overlook is on the top of the hill in the distance on the right of the photo.
Darkness fell while we were still hiking back to the car, as we are used to when photographing a sunset. We still had two or three miles to go so we got out the headlamps. After hiking for a short while, Mikhaila’s attention was caught by a rustling sound coming from up ahead. To me it sounded like a pretty small animal, but it kept moving so we began to talk more loudly to one another and slowly progressed down the trail. I have the brighter headlamp so I saw it first. There, about 20 yards ahead of us sauntering leisurely across the trail, was a bear! Deep black fur covered its body, about the size of a large saint bernard dog. It paid us no mind, but walked off the trail downhill and into the forest. We could still hear it in the brush for a bit, and then it dawned on both of us. We still had about a mile of switchbacks to go, and the bear was walking straight downhill ahead of us. What were the chances that we would run into it again? For the rest of the hike we were both on high alert and made loud and contrived conversation as we walked. This is what we had been told by many a park ranger in bear territories across the west; make lots of noise while hiking and don’t hike alone. The worst thing you can do is startle a bear, but if they hear you coming they will tend to avoid contact. We told our story to Dakota the next day and his reaction sealed his place in my mind as some sort of Yosemite guru. Not only did he know the bear, he had a name for it and told us some interesting facts about her. Apparently black bears are pretty territorial amongst themselves and don’t tend to cohabitate. So when we told him which trail we were on he immediately knew it was the Snow Creek Bear (yes, named after the trail). He told us about how intelligent this specific bear is: she has learned how to steal food from hikers even when they have properly stored their food inside supposed bear-proof canisters. She will sneak up to a campsite at night and roll the canister away from wherever it was stashed all the way to a ledge where she pushes them off, falling over 100 feet to a rocky landing. This usually breaks the canisters open, and then she will go down to the base and have a feast. Dakota said rangers have found loads of fragments of the broken plastic canisters here as well as energy bar wrappers, shreds of packaging from dried foods, and lots of other debris. If you plan to camp overnight up the Snow Creek trail in Yosemite: be warned. A bear canister might not cut it.
A few nights later we got an invitation from Dakota to tag along on one of his interpretive programs that he guides. He called this tour The Night Prowl. We met him after dark behind the Ahwahnee surrounded by a dozen and a half tourists. He was in the middle of explaining to the group that for the next hour we would be walking around the valley in total darkness without any flashlights or other artificial light sources. Several people in the group seemed legitimately worried by this. It was a moonless night after all and once we had gotten into the woods a bit it was very dark indeed. Dakota instructed the group to walk single file, be careful not to lose sight of the person in front of you, and to avoid talking for maximum effect. The idea was to give people an increased awareness of their other senses, like nocturnal animals. Despite this, people were continually being separated and left behind from the group as we traipsed around the woods. After a while, of course, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and the effect was mystical. We reached a long straight section of path and walked underneath the black canopy of soaring pines in total silence. The night sky beyond the tree branches was a minutely brighter shade of blue-black than the trees themselves, and I could see stars through breaks in the shadows. At intervals throughout the walk Dakota would stop the group to explain some interesting facts about nocturnal life in the valley, pass around something to feel or smell and then quiz everybody, or have us all pet a tree (this really happened, apparently the easiest way to identify a Giant Sequoia is by the soft bark). He was a very good guide to the group. His lessons were very entertaining and he kept the atmosphere light even when many people in the group, mostly grown adults, seemed to develop a child-like fear of the dark. At last Dakota led everybody back to the lawn behind the hotel where we had started and the group dispersed. He later divulged to Mikhaila and I that between the number of times people had been separated, turned around, or complained about not being able to see, it had been one of the worst groups he had ever led on his Night Prowl. I felt honored to have witnessed history. If you’re ever in Yosemite look for Dakota Snider and get a space on his Night Prowl tour! Even when it was his worst one ever was a ton of fun!
A friend of ours from Phoenix drove up to meet us in the valley a few days later. Andy is a long-time friend whom we met through Mikhaila’s sister’s ex-boyfriend after a day of cragging near Flagstaff years back. Small world I suppose. His stoke for being in Yosemite for the first time was exemplified by the fact that after driving straight through the night from Phoenix to Yosemite Valley, about twelve hours on the road, he hit the trail with us immediately and we hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls, a trail that gains 3,000 feet of elevation in under 3 miles. I think he slept well that night. Like Mikhaila and I, Andy wanted to get a taste for Yosemite granite right away. We spent a couple of days sampling some shorter routes with him and it was a blast. Andy is a much stronger climber than either of us, so having a rope gun was a real luxury and Mikhaila and I both got our fill of top-roping routes we would not have had the opportunity to climb otherwise.
Eventually we set our sights on the summit of Half Dome. Because we had exactly zero big-wall experience between the three of us, we made a goal of the Snake Dike route. One thousand feet of “moderate” “bolted” climbing to one of the most epic summits in all of the Sierras, with a “walk off” descent, this is one of the most popular rock climbing routes in the park. Indeed, many seasoned Yosemite climbers have affectionately nicknamed this route Snake Hike, but that might have more to do with the fact that climbing it requires hiking over 15 miles from car to car. Maybe this route was just the longest and most true to the Yosemite style that we had done, or maybe I’m just not cut out for this, but it got my hands sweaty and the jackhammer leg going in some spots! I would easily give Snake Dike the award for most exciting 5.7 ever.
Climbing Snake Dike is what I call a full value day. The morning of the day we were to do the route, a gently beeping cell phone roused Mikhaila and I from our dreams at 4:00. I felt alert the moment I opened my eyes, the way you feel when you know staying in bed is not an option. Too early in the morning to have a proper appetite, I nibbled at a bar and opened the van door, stepping out into the dark and bracing cold. With three more hours to go until sunrise, the valley was moonless and completely shadowed by the towering walls on all sides. Behemoth black shapes rose to impossible heights all around, visible above the treetops. They seemed like deep and empty voids cut out of the starry sky at any point where it might have met the horizon, giving the sky the appearance of a vast ceiling suspended overhead. Andy was already out of his tent which was pitched next to our van, getting his pack put together with some food for the day. Everything else we were going to need we had packed up before going to bed in order to save time in the morning. As far as climbing gear we didn’t have much packed. The beta we had for the route had said most of the pitches were bolted, so apart from a few alpine quick draws we only planned to bring five small cams, a set of nuts, and a couple of runners. Apart from that (and the rope of course) we each had food, water, extra layers, headlamps, and one small first aid kit for the group. And one can of beer each for the summit, obviously. As I buckled my backpack around my waist it struck me how light the load was, considering the endeavor that lied ahead. Within thirty minutes of rolling out of bed we had set out on the approach, the beams from our headlamps rendering the fog rising in front of our faces as dense, luminous clouds. We walked very swiftly at first, reaching the base of Vernal Falls in forty-five minutes. Without pausing to appreciate the massive deluge of water being thrown off a cliff into hundreds of feet of free fall, we skirted up along the canyon wall and crept up the staircase precariously hewn into the cliff side and up to the top of the waterfall. As we came over the lip of the canyon the explosive sound of water colliding with the ground below grew fainter until, all the while gaining elevation along the trail, the sound of Nevada Fall still up ahead became audible. By the time we had reached Liberty Cap the sun had begun warming its tip and the sky was light and pastel. We continued up more endless switchbacks which became tighter and tighter as they ascended a narrowing gully. Growing out of impossible nooks in the walls to either side were a couple of very impressive looking fir trees that caught our attention. We eventually split off from the main trail onto the climber’s trail up to the base of the route, this was the last section of the approach. As is typical, the climber’s trail was not well established or maintained. It was difficult to follow at times and there were many large trees fallen across it. At one point we all had to crouch very low to get under a tangle of branches from a huge fallen trunk that lay alongside the trail. With Andy in front of me, I watched his backpack snag on the tree and tear away. The next instant pressurized liquid was spewing violently from the side of his pack, drenching the spot where it was coming out. He had stashed his beer in the mesh water bottle pouch on his pack, and it had somehow been punctured by the tree branch. Quickly he took off his backpack and held the can up so that the stream of beer was aimed into his mouth, wasting as little as possible. It was a tall boy so Andy was extra disappointed, and so were Mikhaila and I now that we would have to share our beers with him.
At around 8:00 we finally reached the base of the route to find one party leading up the first pitch and two other parties waiting behind them. The three of us set down our packs and rested from the longest climbing approach I had ever done. As we waited our turn to begin, the wind picked up considerably. The base of Snake Dike is on a fairly exposed saddle that sits hundreds of feet above the ground on either side, so the wind was pretty ferocious and we took cover in a small depression. Our strategy for climbing this long route with three people and not being on the wall all day involved the use of Andy’s monster eighty meter rope. At the top of each pitch, the leader would set up the belay for the other two climbers as normal. But instead of pulling up the remaining rope length taught on the harness of the next climber below, the follower would tie a figure-eight knot on a bight right where the rope hung at their level, clip that loop into their harness, and begin climbing right away. Then, with the last climber tied into the other end of the rope like normal, they would begin climbing once the first follower got high enough to pull the rope taught on them. What this meant was that the second and third climbers would be sort of simul-following. With a fixed length of rope connecting them, keeping pace with each other and making a point to not fall were important. We waited at the base for about an hour and a half before getting started up the route. Mikhaila led the first and hardest pitch, which climbed a slab up to a slung tree, then up and right into a low angle dihedral with a fingertips-sized crack. With sparse and tiny protection, and nothing but friction for feet, she pulled off a clean but colorful lead.
Mikhaila follows Andy’s lead on one of the dike pitches, doing an excellent job cleaning all the protection he placed along the way up.
The top of pitch one put us about 80 feet below the beginning of the main dike feature. We climbed two short traversing pitches in order to reach it. The last pitch before the dike, the third since the ground, was a hair-raising experience to say the least. A 50 foot traverse straight left of pure friction climbing, with a single bolt in the center of the pitch. No hand or footholds to speak of other than shallow dishes barely discernable in the sea of granite. Of course Andy led it without a drop of sweat. Following, I was a different story. Close to 150 feet off the ground, I relied completely on my sticky rubber shoes to adhere to the blank slab. The angle felt like if it had been a single degree steeper, it would not have been possible. I left the anchors and began gingerly sidestepping toward Andy, belaying me over. Reaching the bolt, I paused for a long time to consider my choice to climb this route. More than twenty feet of rope still spanned between myself and Andy. I knew that the moment I unclipped the rope from that bolt, there was no protection until the anchors. If one of my feet slipped off of the precariously steep slab, it would mean falling the distance of that rope length and then swinging like a pendulum across the wall underneath Andy’s belay anchor. I tried my best to control my breathing and unclipped from the bolt, replacing the rope into the draw on the other side of my harness for Mikhaila. Holding my weight into the wall as much as I could, I uselessly palmed the rock with my sweaty hands, which felt like they had been replaced with flabby raw steaks. I moved the toe of my left foot over to a pathetically miniscule indent I thought I could see. The slab felt like it was getting steeper the more I crept left. A small comfort, I kept reminding myself, was that every inch of rope pulled through Andy’s ATC was that much less distance of my potential fall. Traversing the rest of the way to the anchor was a bit of a blur, but I know that I didn’t stop swearing until I clipped my cordellette into that anchor.
Mikhaila came across the pitch with much more grace and much less colorful language than myself, and all three of us were then cramped shoulder-to-shoulder clipped into the anchor at the base of the dike formation. The previous pitch and the next one are typically done as one long pitch, but we were forced to stop at this point to wait for the party above us to get to their next belay. This was where the Snake Dike started in earnest. An 18-inch wide crystalline seam protruded from the rock face 8 or 10 inches. Lumpy and pocketed, it wormed up the side of the mountain for over 600 feet above us, curving left or right only slightly in places. With no natural ledges or features for belays, each of the next four pitches ended only when the ropes of first ascent party decades ago would have reached their ends – about 50 meters. These dike pitches are infamous for the way they are protected. For each 50 meters of climbing, or about 160 feet, there were two bolts and no real opportunities for natural protection in the unbroken slab. At times the runout between clips was upwards of 70 feet. Snake Dike is not a route to climb if your lead head isn’t as solid as tempered steel. Never mind the technical ease of the climbing– many climbers consider the true crux of this route to be psychological. It’s a good thing for me that Andy was up for the task! Because after that traverse my nerves were totally shot. By the time we had reached the end of the dike, the most eventful things that had happened were Andy dropping his prescription antibiotics for his staph infection (don’t ask, neither do I have any idea why he had brought this with him on the climb) and Mikhaila dropping my Ropeman ascender, both of which we had the displeasure of watching bounce down the slab for several hundred feet into the forest below, gone forever. Climbing up the side of a dome means that, generally, the terrain becomes less steep the higher you go. At this point the angle had backed off a good amount and the final two pitches went pretty quickly. However after climbing nine pitches we still were not at the top. The next section of the route to the summit has been affectionately named “The Death Slab” by the many climbers who have ascended this route over the years. At the top of the final pitch of climbing, we untied from our harnesses, cleaned the anchor, and coiled up the rope. The angle of the rock was now low enough that we could walk unprotected the rest of the way to the summit. Low enough to walk unprotected does not mean easy though, and we still had close to a thousand feet of elevation to gain. This last leg of the climb was punctuated every few dozen feet by walking bent over like herniated old men up a 45 degree slope, then stopping to gasp for air for a few moments.
The visor of Half Dome is the most incredible summit I’ve ever stood upon. Pictured here is Andy getting a little too close.
The summit of Half Dome was unbelievable. Full 360-degree views of the most regal mountains in the contiguous United States. To one side Yosemite Valley, wide and gaping, sunk down leagues below. From this height even El Capitan in the distance looked small, and that’s saying something. To the other side the Sierra Nevada range stretched out forever. To top it all off, we summitted just at the luscious peak of the golden hour – that moment of waning warm yellow light right before sunset that makes all the trees seem aflame and the mountain peaks look like honey. We sat transfixed as if watching the suspenseful climax of a movie play out. Sitting together, we washed down handfuls of Sour Patch Kids with warm porter beer. Not a good combo, but we didn’t care.
I read an essay written by a climber recently which posited that a summit is more than just a physical point on top of something tall. They argue rather that a summit is the state of mind that one finds them self in after overcoming some great and arduous struggle. That is to say it’s a psychological high as much as it is a high point of physical location. A summit is any point in your life from where you can look out – whether literally or figuratively – and survey everything that once stood in your way. The deepest personal bonds that we can ever hope to hold between other people are forged on summits. I believe that as the three of us stood on top of Half Dome that evening watching the golden light fade from the crests of the landscape, the invisible sinews that connect our spirits to each other and to the spirit of that place thickened. To anyone seeking to venture up any of these imposing granite fortresses, be aware. Yosemite will change you.
The descent from the summit of Half Dome had been described as a walk-off. The very last leg of the Half Dome Trail, known simply as The Cables to most valley dwellers, is the standard nontechnical way to reach the summit. At some point in the past the Park Service bore metal posts into the northeast side of the mountain at intervals of about 40 feet, and strung a steel cable between them. This was to be our descent. Easy enough, except that the feet of hundreds of thousands of people over the years slogging up and down the same section of rock had had the same effect as a buffing wheel, polishing a three foot wide path in the granite as smooth as porcelain. This “trail” was just as steep as the last couple of pitches we had climbed with a rope. Flat ground was a few hundred feet below, where we would continue descending on a normal trail, curving south along the east side of Half Dome and back to the elevation of the start of our climb. Feet skidding, gripping the cables I sort of slid all the way to the base. We had the absolute last of the light now and the trail quickly led us into the trees where it was even darker. The hike back to our van seemed just as long if not longer than the whole day up to that point. We reached Little Yosemite in total darkness, with our return hike not even half over. It was around 10:00 before we finally hobbled up to the van. Running on fumes, the exhaustion didn’t fully set in until I was about halfway through heating up a can of beans to spoon into a tortilla. I don’t remember going to bed that night.
If I have ever earned a rest day in my life, it was the day after. We all bought beers at the Village Store and spent the day laying in the sun and tall grass in El Cap meadow. Occasionally a breeze would blow a few golden leaves through the air, flitting and catching the sunlight. As we lied there on our backs we could see several parties climbing different routes across the broad, towering face of El Capitan. I put my 70-200mm lens onto my camera and we all passed it around, not taking photos but simply using the long focal length as a telescope to watch the distant climbers. I looked up at them and thought about our adventure the day before, and how that route was regarded by many as the “bunny slope” of long Yosemite climbs. I like to think that Snake Dike gave me some appreciation for the weight of this attitude. Yosemite had allowed me a glimpse of the heavens. Someday I will return to this valley to test myself further.
Andy (left) and I looking up at El Capitan pointing out different routes to each other