That One Time: Thunder Thighs

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Dave Allfrey Luke Holloway Regular Northwest Face Half Dome

Illustration: Adam J. Temple

In august 2011, just after sunrise, Luke Holloway and I were simul-climbing 1,000 feet up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. I jammed my old, comfy, beat-up climbing shoes in a hand crack, scraping the Velcro against the granite, looking forward to finishing Half Dome then climbing the Nose that afternoon as part of a big link-up day. The Valley was warmer than we would have liked, and smoke from nearby wildfires choked the air. As I twisted my foot in the crack to stand, I heard a familiar tearing sound: the Velcro on my shoe peeling open. My foot shot out of the fissure.

Luke was about 100 feet above in the final section of chimneys leading to Big Sandy Ledge when he heard my shriek of terror. I had committed the ultimate sin: falling as the follower while simul-climbing.

There was sparse gear between Luke and me. In a flash, I pictured the chain of events: me pulling Luke off the wall and hitting the ledge 30 feet below, and then Luke slamming into his own ledge 30 feet below him. At best, our ankles would be smashed to smithereens.

This is it. I thought. We’re done for.

A fraction of a second later, I stopped midair, 15 feet lower. I clawed for the crack and pulled back onto the wall. A confused shout came from above.

“Did you just fall?”

“I’m OK! Are you OK?” I shouted back, dodging the question. “Keep going! Go!”

When Luke heard me scream, he’d instinctively locked his legs, stemming against good footholds and somehow absorbing the shock of my airborne 165-pound body. Luke always joked about his two best anchor pieces: Slapping his thighs, he’d count, “One and two.”

We kept climbing. It wasn’t until the hike down that Luke asked about the fall. I shrugged it off, not wanting to think about it, and looked toward El Capitan instead.

Twenty-one hours later, we topped out the Nose. I could call it lucky, but really I have Luke’s quick actions and beefy thighs to thank for saving not just our ankles but probably our lives.