“The ledge is gone”, said Drew over the phone as I was driving down the highway. “What do you mean gone?!” I retorted. “It’s just missing, have you heard anything?” he asked. I was blown away. How does a huge ledge that countless climbers have slept on since the 1950s simply disappear?
I got the call from Drew as I was driving up Highway 395. He was at the top of pitch 11 (about 1000 feet up) on the regular Northwest Face Route of Half Dome, one of the most popular big wall routes in the world and one of the fifty classic climbs of North America. It’s also one of my personal favorite climbing routes in the world and one that I’ve repeated six times, including once with Drew.
I quickly got on the popular climbers forum, Supertopo, and queried the community if anyone had heard about any rock fall on Half Dome. No one had heard a thing. Some thought it to be an April fools joke a few months too late. Soon Drew texted back photos that confirmed the worst. Not just the bivy ledge, but a full two pitches of the iconic route had in fact just fallen off. The Regular Northwest Face route was no more…at least as we knew it.
The route was put up in 1957 by the Yosemite climbing pioneer Royal Robbins along with Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick. They had attempted the route the year before, but had been beaten back after six pitches and returned the next year to put up the first Grade VI rock climb in North America. It was a seminal achievement in the climbing world and proved that massive the rock faces of the world could be climbed. The race was on to scale even bigger and more committing climbs. Meeting the team at the top with champagne was none other than Warren Harding who already had his sights on something even bigger. The very next year he would go on to complete the first ascent of El Capitan’s Nose Route.
The Regular Northwest Face Route (RNWFR) has seen it’s share of media over the years. In 1976 a team consisting of Doug Robinson, Dennis Hennick and Galen Rowell climbed the route clean, meaning without the use of pitons, which scar the rock. They only used nuts and chocks (camming devices were not quite invented yet) increasing the difficulty considerably. They wanted to prove that pitons were not always needed. Rowell brought his camera and the ascent was featured in a National Geographic article titled “Climbing Half Dome Clean”. The clean climbing revolution was on.
More recently the RNWF route saw it’s first free solo (no ropes, no safety net) by Alex Honnold. It was also featured in National Geographic including his “Oh God, I’m screwed” moment when, just a few hundred feet from the top of the 2000 foot route, he became paralyzed when he was sure his foot would not stick to a glassy hold. His foot did stick of course.
So how does two pitches of such a popular route on such an iconic feature simply disappear? The answer can be summed up in one word…exfoliation. Half Dome was not formed by being shaved off by ancient glaciers, as some may think. In fact, Half Dome sat mostly above the largest glaciers to roll into Yosemite Valley. The Northwest Face of Half Dome has been exfoliating for many thousands of years, peeling off like a giant onion with successive glacial episodes carrying off the debris. So what occurred last week was just another small act in a play thousands of years in the making. Of course there will be many more as Half Dome continues to disintegrate.
A classic quote by Galen Rowell sums up the ephemeral nature of the Northwest Face:
"Several hundred feet above the base, the narrow crack in which we were inserting pitons widened. It became a chimney, large enough to crawl inside. At either side of the back wall of the chimney there was a three-inch crack, continuing out of sight for hundreds of feet overhead. The back wall was eight feet behind the present surface, parallel to the main cliff. The cracks completely separated it from the outer rock, on which I was climbing. Here was the northwest face of the future, fully cleaved and waiting patiently, be it one or one hundred thousand years until it gleams for a geological moment in the noonday sun."
Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock estimated the size of the block that fell to be about 200 feet long by 3-9 feet thick and about 800 cubic meters. The slab probably fell during some recent heavy rainstorms, which could have been the final grain of sand that brought the unstable feature down. The rainstorms were also responsible for keeping climbing parties off the route, which normally sees at least one party a day. As it was no one was on the route or anywhere near it when the rock fall occurred.
One detail of note is that the climbing anchor that was put in years ago to secure climbers sleeping on the ledge was intact and in good shape, but with no ledge below it. It is quite conceivable that had anyone been sleeping on that ledge when it fell they would have had a very rude jolt out of their sleep to find themselves hanging in space, but otherwise unscathed! Now that would have been quite the story to tell.
The story of the Half Dome rock fall took on a small life of it’s own as main news outlets such as the Associated Press and the LA Times picked up the story. Once again, the Regular Northwest Face Route of Half Dome was making the big time and I’m sure it wont be the last. There’s still a new first ascent of a new variation around the rock fall zone waiting to be had!