Half Dome Free Climbed
BACK IN THE SUMMER OF 1986, Paul Piana and I sat down with a map of North America and made a list of all the Big Walls—those over 2000 feet high—on the continent. The list was soon reduced to four walls that were head and shoulders above the rest and a fierce debate ensued as to the possibility of free climbing a route on each one of them. The walls on the list were El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite, Mount Hooker in the Wind River Mountains and Mount Proboscis in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Logan Mountains. None of them had previously been free climbed via their main faces. Aid climbing is not a valid form of ascent in our eyes and is little different from a helicopter ascent of a peak. One move of aid means total failure on a wall. The very improbability that any one of the Four Great Walls could be climbed 100% free became a magnet we couldn’t resist.
We free climbed El Capitan by the stunning Salathé Wall in 1988. The North Face of Mount Hooker was free climbed in the summer of 1990. The main face of Mount Proboscis free climbed in the summer of 1992. That left Half Dome. A free route up its main face would complete our Grand Slam.
Galen Rowell, Paul Piana and I loaded 500 pounds of food and equipment onto mules and headed up into a snowstorm on the 1st of July to establish the camp at the base of Half Dome that came to be known as Little Bohemia. Our goal was to free climb the Direct Northwest Face, a route started by Galen Rowell and controversially finished by Royal Robbins and Dick McCracken. While bold for its time, the regular Northwest Face is not on the main face at all and should have been called the Northwest Buttress. The Direct Northwest Face, however, takes the most obvious line on the wall and follows one straight vector from the base to the visor. The Direct is Half Dome’s greatest line and we were willing to spend twenty days to find a way to free climb the entire wall.
Paul and I promptly knew that the first 500 feet might not be possible free. Galen soon realized that there was going to be so much down time involved in patiently searching for the right combination of holds, that he left for other assignments and said he would await our phone call to tell him whether or not it would be free climbable. We fixed 900 feet of rope and started looking for the subtle edges and crystals that would allow free passage to the dihedrals, which would certainly go free to the summit. Days became weeks and finally, at Day 24, Paul’s patience wore thin and, agreeing that it would go free at 5.13+ or 5.14, he left for the limestone climbing of Wyoming.
I returned to the Valley floor and called Nancy Feagin, another Wyoming climber with big-wall experience. Nancy arrived two days later and we continued free climbing to the dihedrals. Nancy and I split up the pitches that each of us would lead on the final ascent. Nancy had another climb on her calendar, so we gave Galen a call and, with confidence we didn’t feel added to our voices, we told him to come join us for the final push. As it turned out, I couldn’t lead the hard pitches on time. Nancy had to leave, Galen went back to other projects and I ended back on the telephone, looking for more partners.
This time I called people that had nothing else on their calendars for three full months. The only weapon I could believe in was time—if I had enough days, I knew I would eventually succeed. Number 1 on my list was “The Chosen One,” also known as Steve Bechtel, from Casper, Wyoming. He is strong, tough and good on granite—never complaining about danger and death. Chris Oates from Canada had been in Wyoming for two months and had been made an honorary Cowboy, and so he was also invited. Whenever I’m facing long odds in a hostile land, I like to have a Canadian on my team. Lots of people aren’t afraid to die, but Canadians, in particular, aren’t afraid to live.
We had long ago run out of food and since I despise the metro scene in the Valley and hated to go down for any reason, we began to talk people out of doing the regular route and offering to buy their food so that they wouldn’t have to carry it back down. We also started to note where the deer and porcupines hung out, in case we had to be on the wall through the winter. Tenacity is the only thing that is ever truly rewarded in this game of free climbing Big Walls. By now, 55 days into the epic, I was willing to stay forever.
On Day 61, just short of forever, I broke through the last hard 5.13 pitch and we moved onto the wall that night. Steve and Chris did most of the 5.11s and 5.12s that remained and I stepped in only when I was tired of jümaring. Two days later, we arrived on the summit, looking rough and wild-eyed, out of food and water and delighted simply still to be alive. There had been five pitches of 5.13, five more of 5.12, and seven of the other 14 had been 5.11. We were met on the top by beautiful women, who gave us candy and lemonade as payment to be in our summit photo. We laughed loudly, kissed women we had never met before, lamented not having pistols to shoot in the air and generally acted as Cowboys ought to after completing the first free ascent of the most difficult Big Wall in the world!
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Yosmite Valley, California.
First Free Ascent: Half Dome, Direct Northwest Face, July 1 to September 4,
1993 (Bechtel, Oates, Skinner on the final climb).
Personnel: Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, Galen Rowell, Nancy Feagin, Steve
Bechtel, Chris Oates.