Date: Sunday, January 26, 2014
Location: Yosemite National Park
Climbers: Jon & Nick
Photos: Jon & Nick (as noted)
Synopsis: It is no surprise that California is really struggling right now for water and in an official drought. Calendar 2013 ended up one of the driest years on record for the Sierra. Up until this writing (when we are finally forecast to have a multi-foot snow storm occurring in Tahoe), the “winter” this year has been dry and warm. With forecasts for highs in 60s in the Valley and mid-50s at 8,000 feet, Jon and I thought the last weekend in January would be a great time to head to Yosemite Valley for some climbing.
During the day on Saturday we simply cragged over at Five and Dime cliff, trying some nice hard 5.10 routes and practice off-width climbing. It was unbelievably hot for January, and I was climbing in a tee shirt and desperately wishing I had shorts on.
Jon and I decided that a trip up to Half Dome to climb Snake Dike was the call for Sunday. We were both really excited to head up to the climb in January (a rarity as there is generally too much wetness from snow-melt this time of year).
One of the best parts about climbing in Yosemite in January is the utter lack of crowds. The place is generally a ghost town, in particular the Mist and John Muir Trails heading up to Half Dome given the cables are out.
On Sunday, we woke up at 4:30 AM to eat some breakfast and slowly get moving. Given the month, we only had so much daylight to work with and wanted to knock out the climb and descent in the sun.
We initially had a nice stand-off with a brown bear once we started moving, as it was digging in some trash someone had stupidly left out right next to the trail. We could not get past it and it would not move. After 5 minutes of yelling and flashing our headlamps, it finally walked away off the trail about 15 feet to let us by, and then presumably headed back to its trash. I wasn’t about to grab its food source with it standing so close, but it is a real shame that campers leave this stuff out.
The sun started to rise (although hidden by the clouds), until around Nevada Falls. The winter flow is dramatically less than Spring and Summer, but it was still beautiful. Photo: Nick
The approach to the base of Snake Dike is 6 miles (climbing from the Valley Floor to the base of the SW face of Half Dome), followed by approximately 800 feet of climbing and then a 9 mile descent back to the Valley. However, as far as Sierra approaches go, both Jon and I agreed that it is as easy as it gets. You are on an extremely well-maintained trail 80% of the time, and even the climbers trail is easy to follow to the base.
What was amazing about this particular day is we did not see a single other person the entire way to the base of the SW face of Half Dome. Keep in mind, the John Muir and Mist Trails are likely the single most popular hiking trail in Yosemite (and I would gander one of the most travelled trails in the United States during the height of summer), so it was surreal to have this entire place to ourselves.
Nick in the early morning on a bridge with Liberty Cap in the distance. Photo: Jon
It must be a pretty amazing (intense) feeling for the through hikers on the John Muir Trail to start in Yosemite Valley and see this sign so early in the trip on the way to the summit of Mt. Whitney. I would love to do that hike one day – in particular having ski toured portions of the area in the High Sierra portion down in Kings Canyon National Park. Photo: Nick
We hit the climbers trail (which was pretty easy to identify with cairns) and turned towards the approach up to the SW face of Half Dome. Here, first light was shining on the South Face. Photo: Nick
The approach up the slabs towards the base of the climb was also very easy to follow. There is an awesome echo yelling down towards Liberty Cap, that goes on and on. Photo: Jon
Jon working up the climbers trail. It was getting pretty hot, but fortunately the cloud cover would move in and keep it perfect for climbing. Photo: Nick
We turned the corner and were greeted with great views of Yosemite Valley (with El Cap in the distance) that would basically continue all day, only to get better and better. Photo: Jon
Ultimately the approach took 3 hours and was pretty easy, notwithstanding the elevation gain. We did walk right past the base of the climb, but realized it quickly and looped back. We were the only party at the base of the climb (which was awesome). Still had not seen a single person!
Snake Dike is rated 5.7R as it is very easy climbing with sparse protection. The first several pitches are rated 5.7-5.6 with minimal pro (but are very secure climbing), followed by 5.5-5.2 pitches following pronounced dikes formed from erosion, followed by an endless third class walk-off to the summit. The very easy pitches are very run-out, with 75-100 feet between bolts. So it keeps the climbing interesting despite the easy grade. All in all, it is an easy climb and super fun!
We brought a Spartan rack (following the Super Topo recommendation) of a set of larger nuts and #.4-#1 Cams with a handful of quick draws. We didn’t use any of the nuts, so I would recommend just leaving them at home and climbing with the 4 cams and a handful of draws. After the first couple of pitches, there is no natural pro and you are just running out bolts.
Nick leading up the opening pitch – where you can place a piece in the horizontal crack to looker’s right of the roof feature, and then down climb a bit and traverse left up and around the feature. The 5.7 friction was easy and secure, just avoid the yellow sections as they are extremely slick. Anything grey is very typical Sierra slab climbing like in Tuolumne. Photo: Jon
Although the climb is technically 8-pitches, we basically linked as many as we could (and simul climbed the last couple). If linking the 1st and 2nd pitches, I would recommend not placing a piece at the left side of that traverse or clipping the 1st belay anchor so to better protect the follower.
Looking down from the 2nd belay ledge at Jon following the super fun 5.6 finger crack. Photo: Nick
It was still pretty warm at that time, climbing in a t-shirt in January on Half Dome! I eventually threw on a R1 once the clouds moved in, though. At the second belay ledge (or first actual belay). Photo: Jon
We swapped leads and Jon linked pitches 3 and 4. After the traverse to the right on pitch 3, there was a set of new bolts going off to the right (off route) that we were not sure what they were. Jon followed them up a bit, but then down climbed as it was clear the first dike (and 4th belay) were off to the left. I assume that is an alternate way to pass people, but not sure. Photo: Nick
At about this time, another party of 4 climber showed up at the base of the climb and starting working up the pitches. We only saw them a bit as there is a bench halfway up the climb and then the angle becomes lower. After that, we were back to ourselves on Half Dome. Photo: Jon
I think this is around pitch 4, with Jon leading up the main dike (this might have been the pitch where there is no bolts between the belays, but it is a short pitch). Photo: Nick
There is a natural bench about half-way up the climb where it gets very low angle, but then the angle increases for some more run-out, but easy, dike climbing. Photo: Jon
We swapped leads again and I took off for the last couple of pitches that we eventually just simul-climbed of to the third class walk-out. Photos: Jon
Jon in the distance during the simul climb. Photo: Nick
A panorama shot I stitched together from where we took of the rope before endless third-class scrambling to the summit proper, showing the Valley and most of the approach. Click the photo for the full sized version. Photo: Nick
Because the cables are down on the Northeast side of Half Dome (well, the cables are hanging there but the walk-way planks and poles are not installed), there is no real way for hikers to get up to the top in the Winter. As a result, we had the summit of Half Dome completely to ourselves for the entire time we were up there. It was honestly awesome, as admittedly, it is such a rare experience. Looking out towards the summit proper. Photo: Jon
At the top you are greeted by unbelievable 360 degree views of the Valley, Tuolumne and the High Sierra. We were both amazing how little snow there was in the High Sierra. It is going to take some massive storms to make Easter Sierra ski touring in the late spring a worthwhile exercise this year. Looking East towards the bigger peaks. Photo: Jon
There are amazing views of the entire Tenaya Canyon, Cloud’s Rest and looking out towards Tuolumne with Mt. Conness, North Peak and Ragged Peak all off in the far distance. Photo: Nick
Jon and I scrambled to the two prominent standing places – the Diving Board and another outcropping further North for the obligatory Half Dome shots – only this time without anyone else in them! Photos: Nick, Jon, respectively
We then swapped places for some more pictures. I tried to get one of Jon jumping on the platform with Cloud’s Rest behind him, but only managed to get him after he landed. Photo: Nick
Jon in turn got a shot of me on the Diving Board. Note to Sarah – this is much more stable, safe and easy than it looks! Trust me. Even you could stand on this! Photo: Jon
You get awesome views straight down a couple of thousand feet to the Valley Floor from the Diving Board. Photo: Nick
We finally decided to head down the cables and eat lunch on the shoulder of Half Dome. As I mentioned, the cables themselves are hanging year round, so you can prussik down them as a safety backup as you walk down in reverse. Really easy and safe way to get down. You just have to clip into a pulley every once and a while and pass your prussik to the next cable. Photo: Nick
Looking back up the cables – a much different sight than the summer when loaded with people! Photo: Jon
We stopped and ate lunch at the base of the cables and then headed down the highway of a trail back down to the Valley. It is a nine-mile descent, but man was it easy and honestly a great hike. We saw only one party of hikers that hiked up to the shoulder of Half Dome, and otherwise it was a ghost town the entire way back to the bridge before Vernal Falls. Unbelievable!
Jon got a great shot of low-tide Nevada Falls in mid-afternoon light. Photo: Jon
And I got a shot of the winter flow of Vernal Falls – much less water than the raging falls in the spring. Photo: Nick
The descent took us three hours and we were back at the car before dark!