Two months ago, a massive chunk of the Regular Northwest Face—the most popular route on Half Dome in Yosemite—disappeared overnight. Pitch 12 was wiped out, as well as the upper half of Pitch 11, following the Robbins Traverse, and the bottom of Pitch 13.
Unaware of the rockfall, the first climber to reach that section reported finding the anchors of Pitch 11 hanging in a sea of blank granite, unreachable, where a belay ledge used to exist.
Once word spread, a few curious ventured up to the missing section to see if it would go. Yosemite District Ranger Jack Hoeflich and longtime Yosemite janitor Zach Mulligan placed a new anchor for Pitch 11, left of the original, and attempted to get through the blank by drilling a seven rivet ladder, according to Erik Sloan, author of the Yosemite Bigwalls guidebook.
The rivet ladder ended in the center of the blank section.
The Bivi Brothers, Joshua Reinig and Howard Ballou, came next. They extended the “sketch rivet ladder,” as Reinig calls it in a SuperTopo post, with five 3/8-inch bolts to a “rather ridiculous pendulum.” They had only planned for five days on the wall, and despite their efforts, ran out of time and retreated.
Then Alex Saunders and Matt Leavenworth stepped up.
“At the top of [Pitch] 11 you start the new rivet/bolt ladder,” Saunders tells Rock and Ice. “It’s all very smooth from there to the ledge that you can pendulum to. The 5.11 crack is straight forward but then you get to the old lower-out bolt and are still about three feet below and 20 feet to the left of the next anchor.”
Before the rockfall, there was a ledge climbers could lower to and walk across to reach the anchors for Pitch 13 and the start of the chimney system, “but now it is a bottomless chimney,” says Saunders.
From the lower out, Saunders continued to a bolt 15 to 20 feet higher up the corner—which he thinks belongs to a different route or variation—using “tricky aid,” he says. But with the bolt on the wrong side of the corner, Saunders was unable to gain enough momentum to pendulum into the chimney.
That’s when he whipped out some old-school Royal Robbins rockcraft.
Royal Robbins, along with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas, claimed the route’s first ascent in June of 1957, at grade VI 5.9 C2. In 1975, Jim Erickson and Art Higbee grabbed the first free ascent at 5.12a. The free variation breaks left at Pitch 8, and then traverses back right to the Pitch 11 anchors—and the missing section.
From his highpoint, to get to the anchors for Pitch 13, Saunders was able to tension traverse around the corner and throw a knotted rope into a crack to haul himself over.
“I got the idea to try rope throwing from Robbins book Advanced Rockcraft where he states: ‘If you can lasso a tree or get a knot stuck in a crack to save the use of putting in bolts then it is in the finest style.’
Saunders used seven-millimeter diameter cord with a knot and a locker for weight. He stuck it in four tries.
“The rope throwing was not too hard,” Saunders says. “There were a bunch of small cracks around the anchor and a lot of tat on the anchor to hook.
“That pitch took me about six hours to figure out. But with the beta and the rope throwing, I’m sure someone fast could do it in an hour.”
Could it go free?
“If it could go free, it would be by a better man then me!” says Saunders. “It looked like someone could go straight up the 5.11 crack for another 150 feet or so then get back on route, skipping the chimneys.
“The whole formation seemed solid. You are climbing to the side or above the rockfall so we didn’t feel like we were in much danger.”
Sloan says, however, that Park Geologist Greg Stock is still recommending that folks stay away, "though that’s tough medicine when it’s been hot like it has.”
Belay Ledge Disappears on Half Dome’s Regular Route