Half Dome and El Cap in a day . . . for mortals
In 2002, Dean Potter linked the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.12) on Half Dome and El Cap’s Freerider (VI 5.12d/13a), climbing 57 pitches in sub-24 hours. In 2008, Leo Houlding and Sean Leary did the same, team free. Both were heroic feats of master-class endurance by worldclass climbers. Thus, according to conventional wisdom, a Half Dome/El Cap free link-up remains beyond the means of all but the hardest hardmen or does it?
On the last night of a 2007 Yosemite trip, four of us working stiffs sat around Camp 4. As the beers flowed, we conjured a Potter-esque feat for the everyday climber. The “Soft-Man Link-Up,” we decided, would encompass Half Dome and El Cap, all free in a day. Respectively, the routes would be Snake Dike (III 5.7 R) and the East Buttress (III 5.10b): 21 pitches up to 5.10b, 18 miles of hiking, and more than 7,000 feet of vertical gain. (In camp, the Valley locals and YOSAR guys said, “There’s nothing soft about the Soft Man that’s a ton of hiking!”) The next day, we crushed in 16 hours, going pitch by pitch (no simul-climbing), proving it could be done . . . and safely. Here’s how to prep, organize, and send, whether you’re going for this specific Soft Man or likewise envisioning one of your own.
The Soft Man is more about constant motion and rock sense than peak ability, so you’ll want to develop physical and mental fitness. I’d recommend two to three months of training before you go for it. Some pointers:
Cardio Fitness: Trail running, StairMaster, and hill hiking with a pack are good juju. And while 30-to-45-minute lunchtime runs will help, too, I’d also include after-work uphill hikes, with a goal of cranking for at least three hours (the approach time to Snake Dike) . . . sans fatigue.
Climbing Fitness:Snake Dike, a classic granite slab, offers few holds and fewer points of protection you want to be comfortable way runout on this terrain, so you can move quickly. The better-protected East Buttress, meanwhile, has a few 5.10 pitches (the rest are a number grade or two easier), with the climbing steeper and more physical than Snake Dike’s. Here, be ready to plug pro rapidly and keep upward momentum.
Along those lines, the key for both climbs is training vertical mileage, to be able to move quickly and comfortably on easier ground. I recommend mucho slab-to-vert lappage at your local crag and/or five-hour, 40-plus-pitch gym sessions, running four-pitch “blocks” of 5.10 and under.
Kit and Caboodle
Prepare your gear kit and car buffet the night before. We brought:
Snake Dike Kit: Per person one climbing pack, a swami (harness sans leg loops), comfy rock shoes, approach shoes, belay device, 80 to 100oz of electrolyte drink, and energy bars or gel. Per team five quickdraws, four locking biners, two cams (a No. 0.5 and a No. 0.75 Camalot), and a skinny 60m cord.
East Buttress Kit: Per person a harness, comfy rock shoes, approach shoes, helmet, belay device, 80oz of fluids, Snickers bar, energy gel, cheese, and a headlamp. Per team one climbing pack, shoulder slings with single biners, six quickdraws, a set of TCUs, double set of cams (No. 0.4 through No. 3 Camalots), one No. 4 Camalot (optional), Stoppers (every second size), and a 60m, 9.7mm rope.
Car Buffet: Deli sandwiches, chips, energy drinks, and a gallon of water per ropeteam. We silo’ed as much food as we could during the 10-minute drive to the Zodiac (southeast face) pullout for El Cap.
As with any big Yosemite link-up, start early, both to beat the Sierra heat on the approach and later outrace darkness. We did the Soft Man in late May, with about 16 hours of daylight.
Snake Dike: Start hiking at 3:30 a.m. from Happy Isles, aiming to link into the John Muir Trail by 4 a.m. First up is the six-mile, 2,500-vertical-foot-gain approach to Snake Dike shoot for sub-three hours. The eight amazing slab pitches up a salmon-colored dike, to the end of the fifth-class climbing, should take sub-two hours. Switch to approach shoes for 30 minutes of calf-burning slab, topping out by 9:30 a.m. Descend via the Cables, and then bang out 7.5 knee-jarring miles (sub-three hours, ideally) down the Mist Trail to the car.
East Buttress: We took a quick dip in the Merced before heading to El Capitan, a roughly one-hour approach to the East Buttress. With luck, you’ll be climbing by 2 p.m. Five hours later, high-five your partner up top, and then hightail it to the East Ledges rappels/trail. It should be an hour back to the car, leaving plenty of time to hit the Pizza Deck. Congratulations: you’ve joined the Soft-Man Club!
Kolin Powick, director of global quality at Black Diamond Equipment, once was a proud Canadian rock climber (and soft man full of aspirations). Now, he says, his chronically injured shoulder keeps him climbing sub-5.11. Canada weeps for him.