American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South Face of Half Dome

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1971

South Face of Half Dome*

Galen Rowell

I AM watching the alpenglow fade rapidly on the summits of the High Sierra. Overhead a rhythmical tap-tap-tap breaks the tranquility of a summer evening. I have been sitting in the same place for eight hours as Warren Harding drills his way up crackless granite. Fourteen hundred feet up on a 2200-foot wall, I am experiencing boredom. I have just finished my only planned diversion — a paperback on human aggression. With absolutely nothing to do but feed out five feet of rope every few minutes I let my mind wander through the

events of the past five years..…

Winter 1965: … four hands touch cold rock … four eyes see no ledges on the south wall … Warren and I make a pact … silent but binding … June 1966: … Chouinard and Pratt make it a foursome … on the first pitch Chouinard painfully unjoints his shoulder and Pratt decides to withdraw … later Gary Colliver joins us then disenjoins via rappel after a bivouac … I mention going down; Warren mentions going up, solo! … I stay … a storm hits just as we reach a protected bomb-bay chimney on the third night … 36 hours spent in hammocks confined to an 18-inch slot … more clouds and rain … day five: down … 1967: …

Warren works construction in Vietnam … guaranteed non-combat area … wakes up one morning and finds one less floor and rather few windows in his domicile … decides climbing safer … returns … Fall 1968: Indian summer at the end of October … third attempt will use new Harding “Bat” gadgets … B. A. T.: Basically absurd technology … Bat tents: single point suspension, fully-enclosed, semi-waterproof tent- hammocks … Bat hooks: Chouinard cliffhangers ground to fit shallow drilled holes (much to Yvon’s consternation) … three more days and 900 feet of severe overhangs regain us our 18-inch slot … it storms again … overhangs keep us dry … next lead is a 135-foot double overhang which exits us from the arch … Warren says it’s the most strenuous he’s ever done … the oppression of the overhangs is gone … in its place: blankness …

Bat hooks and bolts … six hours: one hundred feet … suddenly knobs and slightly lower angle … I try climbing free … ten feet …

twenty … no cracks … bolt … ten more … twenty … slanting footholds and tight blue shoes … pain … screams and whimpers … tap-tap- tap … fast Bat hook … bolt … end free climbing … angle steepens … fifty-foot crack … then more Bat hooks … pendulum to pothole on the face … we’re curious … previously imagined scene: The pothole is an entrance to a huge room in the center of the dome where all the gods of the ancients are seated around a giant table and Janus, the two-headed god of doorways, is on hand to greet the satanic Harding with “Come in, Warren. We have been expecting you!” … scene disintegrates in the face of reality … no cave … no ledge … just a dent in the armor plate … another Bat tent bivvy … more Bat hooks … approaching three more potholes spaced closely together which we had previously named the Tri-clops.…

My mind returns to the present. I am in the right eye of the Tri-clops. It is only our third day on this sixth attempt but our twenty-second overall day on the face. We have a sneaking hope that there may be a ledge at the end of this lead. Warren yells for slack. There isn’t any left so I retie the anchors with another rope and free the last ten feet of the climbing rope. Day is changing into night as Warren yells, “Off belay!”

I yell back, “Is it a ledge?”

Warren yells, “Yes.”

I query, “How big?”

The reply, “Six feet long, — less than a foot wide.”


Minutes at dusk seem endless as Warren gets ready to haul up our four bags of equipment, one at a time. My attention turns towards two bags which we are not going to haul. They hang in front of me from a rusty piton and their sewn nylon straps are almost totally decomposed on the side facing the sun. Next to them are several water bottles hanging from faded red perlon. They were here in 1968 — the same bags, the same bottles, the same water. At that time I had watched three days change to night from where I now sit, but only twice had I seen the reverse. My thoughts go back to that first night in the Tri-clops eye .…

Cirrus clouds in a hurry, soar overhead … billowing cumulus hang pensively over the High Sierra to the east … a seething white mass of cloud climbs the floor of the Merced River Canyon, moving sporadically like a giant amoeba … darkness and the white mass overcome us concurrently … midnight: awakened by raindrops … four A.M.: snowing …

dawn: everything is white … our vertical wall is plastered with a layer of snow … as the temperature warms we witness a graphic demonstration of how the potholes were formed: they are focal points for the drainage

on the upper wall … both of us are soaked to the skin … we puncture holes in the floor of the Bat tents to let out water … footsacks become thin pieces of wet nylon with lumps of wet down at the bottom … we shiver and pray for sun … eleven A.M.: we talk to Glen Denny via walkie-talkie … no major storm predicted so we decide to wait it out … he will contact us the next day … hours of small powder avalanches … numb fingers and toes … skin like purple prunes … another night; another morning … colder … still storming … I am nervous and vocal …

Harding, the bastard, is calm … I want to try descending … Harding wants to wait it out … I don’t want to die without a fight … words flash through my brain: November … winter … hypothermia …Kurz … rappel … rappel … “Warren, we’re going to rappel!” … “We, white man?” … stupid Warren is going to freeze if he stays here … I’m going down … Warren says he’s played that game before and he’s staying … I pout for a while then set up ropes to descend … wave goodbye, promise Warren help, and disappear over the side … eighty feet down I have to swing over a few feet to reach the next anchor … I can’t move out of the plumb line of the rope; everything is iced up … further testing shows that the rappel is frozen and won’t pull down … constant small powder avalanches knock me about and fill my clothing by osmosis … infinite coldness … thoughts go from down to up … out with Jümars … they slip on the icy rope … I try prusik knots: they hold - and freeze in place …

hands turn to immobile clubs, minutes to hours … I fight blacking out … time stands still … twenty feet to the Tri-clops … Warren drops a string of slings … I grab on … no belay … dizzy again ... I reach Warren and am jealous: he is warmer, calmer and smarter than I! … hours later a distant yell has us reaching for the walkie-talkie … for the first time in sixteen years of climbing, Warren is asking for assistance, “We’re really not doing too well … it’s cold and wet and we’re a little numb … get us off, somehow” … later a reply, “Helicopter on summit in two hours …” … silence … water has taken its toll on Nipponese electronics …

hours come and go … sunset , chopper flies by … flies by again … and again … and again … darkness and silence … choppers can’t fly by the wall at night so we crawl into our Bat tents to try to last out the night … later we hear a strange squawking … a light is coming down the wall … an angel with a radio, down jacket and headlamp … a ranger? … chopper pilot? … no, Royal Robbins … guardian angel brings hot soup, dry jackets, gloves, and a lifeline to the summit … midnight: the summit … tent, dry clothes, warm drinks and old friends .…

“Ready to haul!” Warren’s yell shifts my thoughts to the present. Soon I am prusiking up to Warren on the ledge, reaching him in almost total

darkness. We set up Bat tents over the side and sleep comes quickly.

Morning dawns brilliantly. The ledge seems luxurious; we can stand and set things down instead of always hanging everything. Above us a black exfoliation arch leads a hundred feet up and right to a blank area below a region of cracks which we have named “The Gray Matter.” The climb seems in the bag. We have enough bolts and Bat hooks to drill our way the entire rest of the climb even though we expect to use pitons for more than half our progress. We also have eight gallons of water, a full haul bag of canned goods, waterproof covers for our Bat tents, and much energy and determination. I begin leading, but fifteen feet above the ledge the steel handle of my hammer breaks. Warren passes up his — the only remaining — hammer. If something happens to this one we may have a very long time to enjoy the comforts of our eight-inch ledge. Before noon I set up a belay from a pair of bolts on the vertical void. As Warren prusiks up, I enter a worried page in my diary entitled, “Tales of Incompetence.”

“Day 2: I drop a Jümar from the top of the arch.

Day 3: Warren drops an aid sling and later a Bat hook.

Day 3: (actually night 3) In total darkness I answer the call of nature from slings and find my hammer holster and belt missing when I reach to fasten them.

Day 4: I break my hammer which I have used ten seasons.

AS I AM WRITING THIS, Warren discovers that he has left the climbing rope tied at the bottom of the pitch, 130 feet diagonally below him.”

Omens … we’re not superstitious … we just have enough evidence legally to establish their presence … six storms in six attempts in sunny Yosemite … climbing partners quit us like the plague … Joe Faint seemed to be really interested and determined. He accompanied us on a three-day winter expedition to recover equipment left at the Tri-clops during the rescue. Then he climbed with us on a new grade six, the southwest face of Liberty Cap. But in June 1970, after a single bivouac on the face, he refused to move anywhere except down. A storm did hit us as we descended and Joe disappeared into the sunset mumbling, “Those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. ”

Nothing could coerce him to return to the wall and soon rumors were heard that a man named Faint had some equipment for sale. Several days later, Warren and I returned on a clear June morning … three ropes hang 400 feet from the inside of the arch, where we left all our gear to descend with Joe … we begin prusiking … forty minutes later it is snowing! … omens again … we wait out the storm in Bat tents with our new waterproof fly covers … lots of confidence this time … I step out into

slings to get some food from a haul bag … flash/boom! … lightning shocks me … lightning follows cracks and flaws in the rock, but we are on the most unflawed piece of rock this size in America … it does have one flaw: a 900-foot crack system in the arch … we are in it! … confidence dwindles … next day we start to climb higher … storm hits again … I go down quickly to a waiting Bat tent … Warren is less lucky … descends through a waterfall and emerges completely soaked … inside his Bat tent even his Bat basking quilt fails to keep him warm … next day still storming … down again .…

My mind changes channels as Warren comes into view below me at the end of the black arch. The expanding crack held my pitons like a vise and it has taken Warren as long to clean the pitch as I did to lead it. A hot mid-day sun beats on our heads as Warren passes me and begins drilling towards the cracks of the Gray Matter, only one lead above. A few cirrus clouds form suspicious prisms as they pass by the sun and soon a brisk up-wall breeze tempers the heat of the day. We are not the only occupants of the wall and find our authority challenged by a group of swifts who find great delight in dive bombing us when we least expect it. A red-tailed hawk also makes a close range inspection at a somewhat lower speed. A chocolate wrapper thrown down some hours ago suddenly appears next to me, hovers a moment and continues its ascent of the wall. I watch the wrapper pause in an air eddy under an overhang, blow clear, then disappear out of sight near the summit. Our ascent is somewhat slower than that of chocolate wrappers or swifts and I am reminded of a quotation from John Muir.

“Blue jays and Clark’s crows have trodden the dome for many a day, and so have beetles and chipmunks, and Tissiack (Half Dome) would hardly be more ‘conquered’ or spoiled should man be added to her list of visitors. His louder scream and heavier scrambling would not stir a line of her countenance.”*

Warren once wrote something quite similar describing his feelings as he pulled himself over the summit of El Capitan after twelve days on the first ascent.

“It was not at all clear to me who was the conqueror and who was the conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.”**

I have always cringed when I heard the word ‘conquer’ used in connection with climbing achievements. Conquer: master, subdue, overpower, defeat, subjugate,.… Here on Half Dome our five defeats versus one still questionable success can hardly be rationalized into a “conquering.” What we have shown is an extension of man’s greatest natural gift: his adaptability. The ecology movement is beginning to remind man that in order for a species to survive it must adapt not only its physical characteristics but also its behavior to its surroundings. Man has turned the tables. He is trying to adapt his surroundings to himself. Climbing is an activity in which man works in surroundings far less adaptable than normal. Is the climber trying to adapt them to his needs … to conquer them? I think not. Possibly he finds something unconsciously satisfying in returning to a biologically proven situation where it is he who becomes adapted.

A repetitious row of Bat hooks and bolts now reaches the first cracks of the Gray Matter. We have left ropes fixed back to the ledge and in the early evening I rappel down first, setting up camera gear when I reach the ledge. Warren makes a gallant, if consciously aware, silhouette as he is profiled against the sunset. He overdoes his posing and ends up diagonally below the ledge. My laughter makes it doubly hard for him to regain the ledge hand over hand up the rope. The last minutes of light are spent making a written inventory of the contents of each of the four haul bags, something we should have done before the climb, since it is frustrating to search through three or four bags before finding what one is after. We hauled up the 1966 water from the Tri-clops and have been drinking it after adding Halazone tablets. It tastes like an over-chlorinated swimming pool but how are we to know that we will have five gallons of good water left when we reach the summit?

Morning arrives with a halo of cirrus obstructing the sunrise. We prusik to the Gray Matter where I begin leading another leaning exfoliation flake. It begins to run out and I make a pendulum to another crack which leads almost horizontally around a corner. I do not envy Warren having to follow the pendulum hanging from a shaky piton, so a bolt eases both our minds. The cracks are overhanging and tedious and it is noon before Warren reaches my belay and continues upward on tied-off pitons placed in overhanging arches. He avoids placing any bolts and mine turns out to be the only one placed in the Gray Matter. My suspicions on the weather are becoming reality. The sky is obscured with heavy clouds and it is obviously raining in the high country. In the evening we bivouac at the top of the Gray Matter suspended in a horrible flaring crack which is far less comfortable and convenient that being suspended from bolts on complete blankness. Above us a small overhang obscures all view of the upper wall. We do not know if we are one hundred or four hundred feet from the top.

All night clouds move across the sky and morning is completely overcast. I begin climbing at 5:30 A.M., following a crack which soon ends in a blank wall. In photos and through binoculars we have seen dark vertical streaks near the summit. Since our route (rout?) of the 1968 rescue was several hundred feet to the left of our present line we do not know if they are cracks. In the middle of the morning I reach the base of one of the black streaks in a light drizzle. It overhangs above me for at least forty feet, once again blocking the view of the summit. I drill holes for two bolt anchors, since the black streaks are shallow, rounded grooves worn into crackless rock by eons of drainage from the summit. Out come the Bat tents, ready and waiting in case the drizzle should turn into a cloudburst. The clouds are thick around us as I belay Warren, wearing a down parka and caguole. He is drilling a line of holes up the center of the black streak. The rock has a peculiar porcelain quality as if it had just been fired in a furnace. It is the hardest rock we have ever experienced, a drill being good for only three holes. As the hours pass my mind returns to the past .…

March 1969: … on the summit of Half Dome … Warren, Joe, and Hal, a fellow whom Warren picked up hitch-hiking, have spent two days with me climbing from the valley floor through ten feet of snow and over the final ice-covered slabs … we find the bolts where Robbins was lowered … we try to repeat that fast and efficient effort … a thousand dollars worth of gear hangs in the Tri-clops … plan: Warren will be lowered by two belayers 750 feet to the gear. Communication will be by 100 milliwatt radios. (The rescue used 5000 milliwatt models.) When he is down we will tie off the rope and he will prusik out. What happened: Radios turn out to be good for line-of-sight only … as soon as Warren is down a hundred feet they are useless … two hundred odd feet down, Warren tires and announces his intention to rest on a few tiny holds … we can’t tell that he has stopped so we keep on feeding out rope … Warren yells through his radio and is heard by no one … hundreds of feet of rope pass by him as he clings to almost nothing with his fingers and toes … many minutes later we realize the rope runs too easily … we pull up hundreds of feet before it becomes taught … again we slowly lower … this time we feel weight on the rope … we tie it off … we wait nervously … an hour later Warren appears, somewhat unhappy at our performance … more gear remains on the wall … I rappel down … longest single rappel I ever hope to make … can’t carry all the gear … put down gear into a haul bag and over it goes … prusik to the summit just before dark … next day: return to the valley floor.…

A September evening in 1969: I come home from work early since Warren is due this evening to sort equipment … Joe Faint is driving from

Wyoming to meet us … pitons spread on the sidewalk … Warren ’s late …

phone rings … “Warren’s been hit by a fast moving truck while walking across the job site … don’t know how serious … except his leg is crushed. ” … I drive eighty fast miles to Sacramento … Warren is in traction … prognosis: unsure … doctors say if he ever climbs again it will be at least a year … they worry about his walking at all.…

December 1969: Warren has had an operation to reconnect severed ligaments and pin together bones. He is in a heavy cast and is barely getting around on crutches … “May, ” he says, “We’ll go back on the wall in May. ”

May 1970: Having talked to Warren the week before, Joe and I go to Yosemite on the appointed date … Warren is not ready to go … his thoughts are the property of a female … together they form a mutually destructive synergism … I think to myself, “Maybe he’s washed up and won’t admit it; he sure limps a lot. ”

The next weekend as we hike up the steep trail to Half Dome I stop feeling sorry for Warren when he limps past me with a huge pack. Half of Warren is still twice the average man.

“I think I see the top!”

“How far?”

“Seventy-five feet. How much rope?”

“Oh, maybe seventy-five feet”

“tap-tap-tap-tap …

Hour after hour it threatens to rain heavily, but only occasional drizzles filter through the mist. The sun never shines and evening soon sneaks up on us. I feed Warren all the rope, even the last coil tied to my waist. Soon I hear a cry, “I’m up!”

After the bags are hauled I prusik up a long line of drilled Bat hook holes — eleven in a row between bolts near the top. Suddenly the steep wall breaks back and I see Warren sitting on the summit slabs. A swift dives near us seemingly mocking our accomplishment. Then it dawns on me that he is merely unaware and unconcerned about an activity which is unique only through human eyes.

“… the dome … would hardly be more ‘conquered’ or spoiled should man be added to her list of visitors. His louder scream and heavier scrambling would not stir a line of her countenance.”*

AREA: Yosemite Valley, California.

ASCENT: Half Dome, first ascent of south face, July 4-9, 1970 Technical Data: NCCS VI, F8, A4. 290 piton placements, 39 bolts, 140 Bat hook holes. Height of face: 2200 feet. Number of attempts: six. Time span: five years.

PERSONNEL: Warren Harding and Galen Rowell completed the ascent.

Other climbers involved — Joe Faint, Gary Colliver, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard. Porters and supporters — Glen Denny, Dean Caldwell, Brian McCarthy, Sharon McCarthy, Donna Pritchett, Beryl Knauth, Cheri Smith, Warren Harnden, Hal, Dottie, Elf, and Barbarian.

*Parts of this article appeared in Summit, December 1970.

*The Yosemite, John Muir

** American Alpine Journal, 1959

*The Yosemite, John Muir

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