July 9, 2015 – As reported earlier this week, a crucial section of the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome has fallen from the face in an enormous rockfall incident. The rockfall is believed to have occurred during the night of July 2–3, during or after a major thunderstorm in Yosemite Valley.
The rockfall incident left the route unclimbable (or, at least, unprotectable) in its current state. Which begs the question: What next?
According to Yosemite National Park, neither the Regular Northwest Face nor any other route on Half Dome is closed to climbing. However, the Yosemite Climbing website warns, “A high degree of suspicion for potential loose rock should be maintained.”
On July 7, about four days after the incident, climbing ranger Brandon Latham climbed the first nine pitches of the Regular Northwest Face. Latham said the rock fell 100 to 200 feet to the right of the first 10 pitches of the route, leaving that section largely unaffected. However, he confirmed, “The ledge at the end of Pitch 11 is gone along with all of Pitch 12.”
“It was sad to see,” Latham added. “This was one of my favorite routes of all times.”
Asked if a bolt ladder would be required to “connect the dots” on the Regular Northwest Face, Latham said, “My guess is that a bolt ladder will be needed.”
At Supertopo, longtime Yosemite climber Clint Cummins speculated, after analyzing the photos of the rockfall site, that two or three new bolts might be needed to reach the Pitch 11 anchor, and another five to seven new bolts might be required to rejoin the 5.11/C1 corner that formed one variation to Pitch 12. “This might be thought of as an extension of the diagonal bolt ladder on the Robbins Traverse below,” Cummins wrote.
But who will restore or replace these pitches of the Regular Northwest Face, which was first climbed in 1957 and is one of the most famous and popular big-wall climbs in the world? It won’t be the National Park Service, Latham said. “The park has no plans to formally go up to re-establish the route, but there is a lot of chatter around the Valley about who will,” he said. “Currently, most folks are not sure about going up there due to more potential rockfall.”
At the Yosemite Climbing website, rangers elaborated on this threat: “If attempts are made on the route, be aware that potential loose rock has been identified at the end of Pitch 11 and at the bottom of Pitch 13, the belay stance at the bottom of the chimney. Route conditions are unknown above the 13th pitch chimney. It is recommended that climbers and hikers take extra caution along the base of Half Dome and do not linger in the obvious debris field at the base of the Regular Northwest Face route.”
A possible alternative to the Regular Northwest Face is the Direct Northwest Face, which starts farther right. Though considerably harder (5.10 C2+ vs. 5.9 C1), the direct route was likely unaffected by the rockfall incident. The direct route also is a much harder free climb than the Regular Northwest Face: 5.13d vs. 5.12. It’s not yet clear where a new free variation to the missing sections of the regular route might be found, and any newly exposed holds or flakes in this area will be potentially dangerous to use.
Yosemite geologist Greg Stock estimated that 800 cubic meters of rock fell from the wall during the incident. A sheet of granite estimated at one to three meters thick and at least 60 meters high on its longest side fell off.