ARCTURUS – Part 1
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Attempting a First Free Ascent of Yosemite’s Half Dome July, 2006
I am staring up at the black metal bars. Lying in the early morning light, the pain continues in my lower back and I hear folding papers in the distance. Mike Anderson is reading and I am silently crying. We have been here at Todd Skinners place in southern California over a week and the pain seers through the rest of my body. We had met Todd for the first time just a week ago while giving a slide show about Zion free climbing in Lander, Wyoming. Once he found out about our Yosemite plan, he graciously offered the use of his home outside the park.
The journey was determined months ago. Mike and I had been looking for new routes to climb around the world and had a few locations picked out, Alaska or Yosemite. We choose California because it was closer to home, more assessable, and safer. Now there are many possible objectives in the Valley and El Capitan is usually most climbers lifetime goal. Since both of us had tackled the massive 3000 foot wall; we chose to look at other overlooked monoliths within the park.
Half Dome is one of the first features that a visitor views upon entering the park. It looms off in the distance as a gigantic rock face with massive vertical black streaks down its right side. The wall has two major free routes on it with only one receiving climber traffic. The others difficulty keeps would be ascensionists away. This wall would be our latest challenge.
Now Mike is a meticulous reader. He takes pride in knowing the full spectrum of climbing history. No matter what the historic importance, he has read it in books or magazines, viewed it on videos, listened to it on audio or found links about it online. Mike had learned through multiple sources that there was a route that would definitely “go” on Half Dome and it was our objective to find, examine and determine whether the rumors were true.
There are two ways to get to the base of the Half Dome. There is the tourist packed park supported trail or the climbers trail. The tourist trail is about eight miles long at a gradually increasing grade, while the climber trail packs in thousands of feet in vertical gain in less than a mile. The “death slabs” or the climbers trail seemed to be the obvious choice. After hauling over a thousand feet of fixed line, climbing and camping gear under the hot July sun, we were mentally prepared for the task ahead of us but our legs were going to tell us otherwise. And they did.
After those first few days on the wall fixing lines and looking at possible cracks and face features, we decided that the rumors were true, but that the route wasn’t going to be easy. It would require a ton of work. Anchor bolts would have to be hand drilled in the impeccable Yosemite granite, pins would have to be hammered into faint seams and cracks where regular climbing protection wouldn’t fit, cracks would have to be wire brushed to clear off lichen and moss and loose rocks would have to be tossed all while not injuring ourselves or others.
It took six days of arduous and dehydrating work. Our bodies were destroyed and the rapid pace of hand drilling, jugging, and cleaning tested our motivation and energy levels. Knowing that this ascent would probably be a piece of climbing history in of itself, we asked a photographer to photo the climb. Unfortunately, this is usually done during the first free ascent, but since his schedule was tight as was ours, we chose to shoot some of the more beautiful and inspiring pitches before we had actually completed the climb in its entirety.
This leads us to my current state. With little time to practice the moves on the more difficult pitches, we were on call to take photos where we knew the climbing would be spectacular and challenging. Mike had attempted four pitches for the camera on the first day and on our third day on the wall, it was my turn.
We woke up after eating turkey and blueberry cheesecake out of a bag from our camp and were all feeling severe fatigue. We had walked to the top of Half Dome five or six times and jugged and rapped the wall at least that much in the last few days and the toll of the heat and exhaustion was adding up. We arrived at the summit passing many first timers on the way and rested at the top of the fixed lines for a few minutes. I couldn’t stop yawning. We had just hiked up over 2500 hundred feet and I still wasn’t truly awake. The routine of the walk and work had set in.
We rappelled the lines to the pitch dubbed “the big dipper” and I took the lead to work the pitch and for some photos of my own. This certainly was the most challenging climbing on the wall and would be the feared pitch for future climbing parties. While racking up, I was still yawning and a bit nervous because I had only tried the moves while on top rope and was unsure whether the protection bolts that I placed were in the best locations.
I took the lead and hung on a piece to rest before the difficult climbing. Even though I was extremely scared and nervous about the pitch I knew that it had to be worked out and this was the only way. I fell a few times on an original Royal Robbins button head placed thirty some years ago. “Cool, it is still safe!” I continued up the overhanging and left traversing underclinging pitch past the new 3/8 inch bolts that I had placed the days before. Fall after fall, I learned the perfect sequences through the difficult and strenuous climbing. “Rest here, a bad hold there, don’t fall while clipping here. Ahhh”! As I was clipping the second last bolt of the crux section, I blew the clip, got my leg caught in the rope and took an upside down head first twenty five foot fall onto my right palm, forearm and lower back. Luckily my head avoided contact. I was winded from the fall and once I caught my breath and Mike checked to see whether I was ok, I decided to continue. I hauled myself back to my highpoint and attempted to pull back onto the rock when I realized that my lower back was in extreme pain and that I couldn’t even perform simple movements.
My day was over. Their day was over. The trip was over. The task now was to make sure that first, I could get off the wall and second, that I could get to the valley below. Those tasks were made more difficult when I realized that I couldn’t take off my climbing shoes, I was in too much pain. I was fighting back the tears as Mike carefully removed my shoes and assisted me in anyway necessary. As I slowly jugged up the fixed lines, each and every movement was painful. Thoughts of getting to the car, which could take just under two and a half hours on a good day, clouded my thoughts. When I finally reached the top of Half Dome and I tried to walk I was happy to find out that I could, but unhappy with knowing the fact that I knew that I might never return to this amazing piece of climbing again, that I would be unable to help Mike in retrieving all the gear that we have stashed hours away from the car and feeling bad that I let him down in that he may not be able to complete the task of freeing Arcturus.
So, it is here that I sit at Todd Skinner’s place; so, it here that I sit in pain with every movement. The sky is still blue, the clouds are building as morning turns into afternoon again and this rest/recovery day is dragging. So, it is here that I write this entry while eating and re-hydrating, hoping for the miracle recovery. So it is here that I sit wishing that I could snap my fingers and feel invincible again and be able to tackle any challenge. Pearl Jam plays as I write and as the music’s intensity builds, so does my desire to rise above the pain and get back on the wall that deserves to be completed.
I will return to complete the giant task of freeing the big stone. I will return with Mike. I will recover and find the energy and skill to finish what we started.
Read part 2 and Read part 3. See more photos by Andrew Burr from Arcturus, Half Dome.