Soul Climbing on Half Dome’s southwest face; Yosemite National Park, California
What makes a route classic? Is it the runouts, the exposure, the quality of movement, the folklore, or the stone itself? In the case of Eric Beck, Jim Bridwell, and Chris Fredericks’ 1965 route Snake Dike, on the southwest face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!” making it a strong contender for the best 5.7 in the Valley, if not the world.
Snake Dike was the second route to penetrate the otherwise blank canvas of Half Dome’s imposing southwest face (after the much harder Salathé Route), and many a Camp 4 naysayer was amazed when Bridwell, et al, returned victorious the same day they left the Valley floor, with tales of easy movement and fun climbing. It didn’t take long for Snake Dike to become a trade route.
As its name implies, Snake Dike follows a slithering series of diorite backbones and lithic vertebrae for 800 feet. Best climbed in summer and fall, the route takes its “R” rating mainly from the first pitch’s mandatory 80- foot runout off the deck to a 5.7 friction move beneath an L-shaped roof with dubious—if any—pro. (The testy third pitch is possibly the mental crux of the climb, with an exposed 5.7 friction traverse.) On pitch one, leaders have a choice between the standard 5.7 move and a harder—but better protected—undercling traverse (5.9), and while the rest of the climb is sporty (sometimes 75 feet between clips), the climbing mellows considerably as the angle kicks back and the knobs get bigger, allowing you to focus on your flow. Each of Snake Dike’s eight pitches offers something memorable, especially the prominent extruded dike that appears on the third pitch and continues through the sixth. Word of advice: you’ll want to girth-hitch chickenheads with slings for extra pro between bolts unless you’re a free-soloist at heart. Carry a few big cams as weights to hold these tie-offs in place, especially if it’s windy—updrafts are common.
About the only drawback to Snake Dike is its popularity, but starting super early (before 6 a.m.) or late (after 10 a.m.) will help you avoid the crowds, especially on a weekend.
Once you dispatch the grueling three-hour approach and the first couple of pitches, the views of the Valley become breathtaking. Toward the top, as the slab’s angle eases, most parties unrope and scramble to the summit. And, as everyone who has topped out Half Dome knows, looking down on El Cap is quite the unique perspective.
Guidebooks: Yosemite Valley Free Climbs, by Chris McNamara, Steve Roper, Todd Snyder, and Greg Barnes; Yosemite Free Climbs, by Don Reid; free topo available at supertopo.com
Guide service: Yosemite Mountaineering School; (209) 372-8344, yosemitepark.com
Gear: A dozen draws, a dozen thin runners for tying off knobs, a single set of nuts, and a standard rack of cams. Load-limiting runners (e.g., Screamers) are recommended, as some of the bolts and anchors are still suspect quarter-inchers.
Equipment shop: The Yosemite Mountain Shop; (209) 372-8396, yosemitegifts.com
Approach: The approach up the Mist Trail is steep (read: switchbacks), but an alternative is the less steep, longer, and less scenic Muir Trail. The thin climber’s trail that you pick up just before reaching Little Yosemite Valley presents the outing’s crux for many parties. Follow this path uphill for one mile, then walk toward Half Dome’s south face on steep, thirdclass ledges to the switchbacks that gain the route’s start.
Descent: Follow crowds of hikers steeply down to the north via Half Dome’s cables route, and then take the well-traveled hiking trail back to the Valley floor.