Julie and I had wanted to climb the Snake Dike route on Half Dome for a long time. The reasons why are clear:
- Half Dome is, arguably, the most recognized and unique feature in Yosemite National Park
- The route offers the opportunity to climb Half Dome and summit to the top
- The length of the route and the approach hike make it a challenging objective for a day trip, and
- The location, views, quality of the rock, and the hike itself make for an adventurous and stunning experience
We finally got the opportunity to have this adventure in the last week of September of 2019. We planned it for a midweek ascent and sufficiently far enough into the Fall season to cut down on the plentiful crowds and to experience the best weather conditions. The route itself is a popular one so it is well trafficked and you have to do the multi-hour approach hike as early as possible in order to get to the base of the climb and not be stuck behind too many parties.
Another logistical consideration is doing it early enough in the Fall season where the cables are still “up”, which are what you descend down the normal hiker’s path once you summit. The reality is that the cables are fixed and always in place. What is meant about the cables being up or down is, in fact, referring to the wooden planks that are placed during the summer and favorable seasons to assist hikers with being able to ascend/descend the steep final granite face of the dome.
We arrived on Monday afternoon via Highway 140 at our friend’s wonderful bed and breakfast and made our final preparations and turned in fairly early to get an early start on our climb day, Tuesday. The plan was to leave the Inn by 5 am, drive about 30 minutes to the trail-head parking lot, and start our approach hike at a quarter to 6. We pretty much nailed the schedule and left our cars at 5:50 am Tuesday morning.
It was a nice cool morning with the temperature hovering around the upper 50s Fahrenheit (around 15 degrees centigrade) as we started our hike in the valley in the dark towards the Happy Isles trail-head for Half Dome. We took the Mist Trail and spent a couple of hours ascending the two main waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada) to reach the top plateau at around 6,000′ / 1,800 m elevation. As we neared this area, the temperature dropped significantly and I got chilled in my short-sleeve shirt that was sweaty from the 2,000′ / 600 m hike from the past couple of hours. We stopped for a short break, added some layers, had some snacks, and treated some water from the river as the sun was now up and starting to provide some warmth.
Here, after a few minutes, we diverge from the path that all of the hikers are using to ascend Half Dome. We looked for the right opportunity and a faint trail and took it North to head towards a feature called Lost Lake that will lead us to the base of the route we will climb. We hike through the soft forest trail between shade and sunlight alone and enjoy the quiet of no one being on this trail other than us. We continue this for about 15 minutes until we past Lost Lake and start to climb out of the forest and see Half Dome ahead of us.
This next part steepens considerably as we take a rocky gulley up to a promising section where we can cut across the rocky slabs to the left heading West and around the headwall to reach the base of the Snake Dike route. The sun has now risen to a good height where it’s producing warmth and combined with our work up the gulley, we’re comfortable to shed all the way down to base layers. There are a few sections of the slabs that are “no fall” zones and we need to take some care. Otherwise, it’s a nice hike and we eventually round the corner and spot the route along with several parties already climbing on it. We did have hopes on maybe being the only party on the wall on a Tuesday or at least ahead of others. But, unfortunately, that was not to be.
We arrived at the base just as another party of 2 was approaching from below and we saw one party roping up and about to head up, while 2 more parties were in front of us and headed up before our turn. We settled in, hydrated, had some of our snacks, and relaxed in the warm sunny morning. We observed that there were quite a few people on the wall and that they were moving pretty slowly. There were also multiple teams of 3, which naturally move a lot slower than normal two-person teams. Julie and I were climbing with our friend, but we had already discussed our systems on the wall to make sure we handled all of the rope and safety work efficiently to not have things bog down. We were also climbing with 2 ropes, which mean that we wouldn’t need to wait for one person to climb at a time.
I wanted to share the leading duties with Jim and split which pitches of the route he led and which I would. Unfortunately, just 3 weeks prior to this planned climb, I broke my right thumb. That combined with the fact that I hadn’t been climbing much in the past couple of years meant that the smart choice was to leave all of the leading to Jim, who didn’t mind. Given that Snake Dike isn’t a technically difficult climb, I didn’t feel concerned about the thumb. The main worry, actually, was just being able to do all of the non-climbing things to stay safe and take care of myself. Thankfully, 3 weeks was enough time for sufficient healing to take place to allow me to be on this climb with these two and be safe. It was still a challenge to tie my shoelace and do the most mundane things, but I had learned to improvise using other fingers the past few weeks to get things done.
So, our process would be that Jim would lead each pitch and get to the anchors. Once secure, Julie and I would both climb at the same time (separated by about a distance of 10′ / 3m for safety), while Jim belayed us from the anchor. This meant that there was no need for one person to climb the pitch and come all the way up, get secured, and only then could the third do the same. Instead, we both climbed as the second and it made for quick work. Indeed, the many hours we wound up being on the wall that afternoon were simply all about hanging around and waiting for slower parties above to clear so that we could advance.
The Snake Dike route didn’t disappoint in terms of pristine rock quality, incredible sights, and great exposure. It’s also not a short route and has a handful of steeper pitches and then finishes with a few more as the wall angle gets gentler. Eventually, it’s up to your comfor level of needing to find protection and stay roped up or just using the gentler angle and sticky rock to simply transition to scrambling and then finally just hiking. The route itself, due to the moderate difficult level, you could fairly classify as not very well protected. In other words, there is protection but its pretty much a “no fall” route. You could fall and be saved from catastrophe, but a fall is going to be pretty bad news. I also validated what I had read in researching the route that some of the anchors are less than confidence-inspiring. They’re all minimum of 2-bolt anchors, but on multiple pitches, one of the bolts just wasn’t what you want to see. As a result, at a couple of anchors, I maintained a stance the whole time instead of putting all my bodyweight on the system, which wasn’t very comfortable or fun.
I was monitoring the weather for our climb day carefully in the days leading up to the trip. I was concerned seeing high temps forecast for our day and dreading being on the wall sweltering in the sun and being limited on water. However, the weather turned out to be absolutely perfect. Given that we’re spending most of our time around 7,000-8,000′ / 2,300-2,600m, the cooler temps because of the higher elevation and given that there was a strong breeze when we are high up and exposed all made the comfort level outstanding.
We were cognizant that the timing of our day was going to be a challenge because of the slow parties ahead of us and the waiting. My calculations were that we should be able to summit before dark and, with some luck, we could descend the cables also without it being in the dark. In fact, we finished the last part of the scramble and hike to the top of Half Dome right as the last couple of minutes of sunlight were still above El Capitan in the distance to the West. While it was way later in the day that we imagined we would be summitting, we were grateful for a gorgeous sunset, no one on Half Dome besides us, and a beautiful special time to be up here in this remarkable place.
We spent just a couple of minutes at the top to take in some sights and appreciate the summit that we earned and then quickly got prepared for the cable descent. We kept our harnesses on and planned to use a sling and carabiner setup to safely descend the cables. This was new to me. I hiked Half Dome a couple of times in the past and never felt like I needed any protection for the cable section. Both of those times, however, there was a major traffic jam of humans that were ascending/descending the cable section and it was mainly a hanging around and moving a few feet occasionally type of thing. Tonight, we get to the top of the cable section and look down a huge roller coaster drop. Now, I see the need for securing this passage. We actually rig up 2 slings and 2 carabiners, so that we can quickly move down and always have one secure line at all times. It’s more shuffling and work to work both slings, but it’s undeniably safe and bulletproof. I also realize that the rock under foot is incredibly slick. I don’t remember this at all. It’s been probably a decade since I last hike Half Dome, so maybe all of those years of traffic polished the granite. It’s still hard to believe how slippery it is and further establishes how smart it was to do the sling and ‘biner system.
We finish the cable descent at the top of the subdome just as all possible daylight has been exhausted. We don our headlamps and walking sticks to make it down the subdome’s hundreds of stairs cut into the stone and then finally arrive into the black as ink forest. I tend to build strong mental image of routes in my brain, even if I’ve only been on them once or twice. So, I have a good idea of where to go, even without a lot of stimulus and visual cues. It is so dark that some sections of the trail that are more obtuse have us searching for the right direction and we do a few double-backs after picking some wrong branches. There was a party of the final hikers of Half Dome that we just passed on the subdome that were moving slow. One of them was so insecure, he was actually scooting on his butt down some of the trickier sections in the dark. We wondered how they were going to get on in the dark and their ability to find the right trail back down to the valley.
The next 5 hours were a mix of conversation, silence, hunger/thirst, enjoyment, and impatience of wanting to be done. Because of the extended time on the wall, there was both a lack of water and also not enough opportunity to fuel up on nutrition. While we were all prepared for a long day and had the fitness and mindset for it, the extended time and circumstances made us a bit more uncomfortable and anxious for the hike to conclude. But, there is at least 8 miles / 13km to hike in this late evening, 2 waterfalls to descend, and countless forest switchbacks, and stone stairs to pass. So, settle in, reflect on your thoughts, and enjoy the pitch black landscape as it’s going to be a late night!
We were rewarded with wonderful sights, smells, and sounds along the way. We saw small scorpions, the most incredible star-filled sights that is hard to put in words, a pair of flashing eyeballs that bounced throught he forest in our headlamps that probably belonged to a fox, and the sympony of loud but invisible waterfalls. We managed to get all the way back to the trailhead parking lot and end our adventure at 12:50am Wednesday morning. It turned out to be an exact 19 hours for quest that Julie, Jim, and I shared that day. Our watches didn’t have enough juice (Julie and I have used the Garmin Fenix 3 for the past 3 years and are big fans. We’re looking at the Fenix 6, especially the solar version, but haven’t quite committed to investing in it yet) to capture all of the day’s stats, but I estimate it at around 20 miles / 32km of hiking, 1,000′ / 333m of rock climbing, and 5,000′ / 1700m of overall elevation gain, and 7,200 calories.