This summer, Yosemite Valley gave the climbing world a sharp reminder that the rocks we climb aren’t permanent when the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome fell off. Not the whole route, but a key section of pitches 11 and 12, rendering the classic line impassable. Less than a month later, California natives Joshua Reinig and Howard Ballou went up to reconnect the dots. The pair was able to reconnect some of the missing section, though no one has been able to complete the route as August 19. We spoke to Reinig about the experience.
So first off, who are you? I’m just a Southern California native, and I’ve been climbing since my earliest memory. My mom is from Bishop so I spent a lot of time climbing there growing up. I’ve lived in San Diego County since 1999, and Tahquitz Rock is my main stomping ground.
Do you spend a lot of time in Yosemite? What’s your big wall resume look like? It would be a shame if I said this was my first big wall ever! I’ve been going to the Valley since 2001, when I spent 15 days there with my brother. That was when we did our first big wall ever, which was the West Face (5.7 C2) of Leaning Tower. Since then I’ve done at least one classic on almost every formation.
Did you feel a lot of pressure working on such an iconic route? I knew going in that it was going to ruffle a lot of feathers. That was not my intention. One of my friends was one of the first to go up there and discover the flake had fallen. Then I heard that a couple rangers had gone up to check it out. I really had the urge to go up there and check it out, too. I was following all the Internet forums. Howard and I talked, and we figured, “Hey, we love full-value adventure. Let’s kick this off tomorrow and go up there!” Whether we did it or not, our intention was not to be the first. It was more about having an adventure. If we somehow found a path to connect the route, that would be a bonus.
Were you worried that you guys might pick a bad line, and that your names would be associated with ruining a classic route? That is obviously part of it. We thought about all that. I want to emphasize that we didn’t want anything to feel forced. It could be argued that placing a bolt is forcing it, but I felt like the way it unfolded made sense. We discovered a rivet ladder and went up it. It made sense to add a couple more bolts to be able to swing over to the ledge, and there it was. That was after hours up there investigating and swinging back and forth to a variation out right, which looked more dangerous. The one time I did go out there, I had two huge blocks dislodge from under me, just from the vibration of climbing across it. We were running low on supplies and someone had obviously already started working the rivet ladder, so that path made sense.
What did you think when you saw the new rivets?The rivet ladder, to my understanding, was placed by the rangers that went up immediately after the rock fall to investigate it. I don’t know that they were intending to go further. The feeling I got was that they started, and they might not have had enough hardware, and they went down. So when I got up there, I really didn’t feel bad or hesitate much to be like, "OK, it looks like three bolts will get us to the ledge." And it ended up being five.
Describe the new section. There are seven rivets off a new bolted anchor, followed by five new 3/8” expansion bolts at the top of the bolt ladder. Then you do a 20-foot pendulum. It’s similar to the size of the Robbins Traverse pendulum, but quite a bit more committing. You have to really latch a ledge at the end of the swing, then do a 5.4 mantel. From there you’re in the 5.11 corner. You do a little tension traverse to get back into the 5.7 chimney, and that was as far as we made it. My memory isn’t perfect, but I would say a little section of the pitch 12 chimney is no longer there. You climb the 5.7 double hand crack for about 20 feet, then you’re back in the chimney.
Why didn’t you guys top out? We were down to drinking grape jelly. We had a little water left and two packs of tuna. We could’ve made it to the top in two days and just be slightly parched, but that’s if everything went perfectly. By the next morning, we both just said, “It’s been a good adventure; that’s what we came up here for.” And we decided to bail. On the way down I saw some of the same fixed tat that I saw in 2010 on the anchors. So we chopped all that and replaced it with new webbing, and left a few good pieces. I felt like we did a service there. It just felt right—to set it up for the next person to enjoy it the way I always have.
Your trip report listed some wild conditions. Did you ever consider bailing for your own safety? Bailing never crossed my mind, as sick as that may sound. It was pretty bizarre. It was raining gravel at night. I barely slept at all because of how afraid I was that we would wake up to a rock slide coming down on top of us. It sounded like it was raining on the fly of our portaledge, but I’d look out and I could see stars. Then I’d put my hand out and it’d fill up with gravel. That wasn’t that scary. The wall was also vibrating. That was extremely scary. One night it flipped our portaledge. When that happened, I was like, “Maybe we do need to go down,” but we were already committed at that point. We’d already been dealing with it for two nights. I tried to convince myself—and maybe my wife—that we were mitigating the risk because two big rockfalls had already happened back to back. If it happened a third time and we were in the line of fire… We slept with our helmets on every night, I’ll tell you that.
Were you guys apprehensive about starting up the wall with all the recent rockfall? I was. The thing that really hit home was when we got to the base. There are typically five or six bivy platforms right behind the trees, just 30 yards from the wall. I’d stayed in two of them previously. Only one of them was left. The rest were buried. There were 100-foot-tall pine trees that created a bit of a barrier for those bivys. Half of them were obliterated to toothpicks. I do know firsthand the furiousness of loose rock so I don’t take it lightly by any means. I basically had my foot chopped off by rockfall in the Sierra. I’m lucky even to still be climbing.
Would you discourage climbers from hopping back on Half Dome until things settle a little more? If anything, I encourage it. If it weren’t for my normal, mundane life, I would be back up there working that free variation right now. I’d like to think that if I put that out there, maybe someone will reach out and say, “Hey, let’s go up there and do it!” I would jump all over that opportunity.
Further reading: Joshua's first-hand account of the trip on Supertopo.
Disclaimer: Be aware that potential loose rock has been identified at pitches 11 and 13. Route conditions are unknown above the pitch 13 chimney. Take extra caution along the base of Half Dome and do not linger in the obvious debris field.