"Alastair! Come help me!"
I spun around and sprinted down a slope of broken granite, when a whiff of something toxic temporarily blinded me. Confused, rushing, I tripped down the scree to find Gemma doubled over, screaming, a quivering hand held up covered in orange oil. "What's happened to you!" Strolling down from the summit of Half Dome an hour earlier, our tallest big wall climb to date, we thought all the difficulties were over. Who would have known the last two hours to the valley floor would prove to be the crux.
Two days earlier, those same "two hours" also sent us near boiling point. Four hours into the slabs approach up to the base of Half Dome's Northwest face, we found ourselves stuck over our heads in dense thicket under a scorching summer sun, throats dry and coarse with dirt. It wasn't the first time we'd lost the "trail" that afternoon, hauling ourselves up several fixed ropes and up slick slabs. It was hard to appreciate the immense 600-metre wall above as we desperately tried to find a water source, our bottles empty. We knew there was a spring near the base, but all we had found so far were measly dribbles. I finally heard a scream of joy as Gemma found Yosemite's finest gushing out from the base of the first pitch. Hallelujah.
Simultaneously our hopes of an uncrowded route were dashed, an American couple had comfortably established camp there; I envied how casual and rested they seemed. I skulled litres from the spring, recovering, while Gemma climbed and fixed the first pitch. Somehow, we were still on schedule, clinging to our Half Dome dream. Mosquitoes gnawed at us that night as we lay beneath a sky full of stars and granite, the prospect of sixteen pitches between us and the next bivouac ledge was daunting but was also the unknown and adventure that we craved.
We geared up by headlight in the predawn; while Sam & Steff climbed ahead, we prepared to jumar our fixed line, when a southern drawl erupted, "Yeah, rock-climbers!" And on seeing both our parties lining up, "Allright! Here's to a day of six people climbin' all over each other!" Alex and his partner Keith had left the car at 3 that morning and planned to summit that night, but weren't willing to let our two parties ahead of them dampen their spirits. "Team work makes the dream work!" Alex reminded us all.
We soon realised that courtesy has its place, but speed was paramount: "OK, we're passing about right now." And Keith was off ahead of us, just as I was about to start the second pitch. These two were using short-fixing speed-climbing tactics, the second jumaring on the fixed line while the leader continued climbing with a loop of slack. Determined to keep pace, I broke a thick sweat, french-freeing the bulges, and linking two pitches to overtake our friendly rivals. We also had a schedule to keep - Big Sandy would be ours by sunset.
Gemma brought up the rear with puff and vigour, getting her fair share of cardio, she jumared her heart out and carrying all the supplies including 7 litres of water as well as the heavy rack I had deposited into the long pitches. After ten rope lengths of moderate alpine terrain, we moved onto the main sheer face of Half Dome. Our diagonal trajectory aimed at a long chimney system required several traversing bolt ladders across the blank face, made even blanker by the significant rockfall event of 2015 where a huge flake exfoliated from the wall.
The new twelfth pitch now brings a unique challenge to the game of aid-climbing, they call it the "rope toss". From the top of an arching crack, a 4m wide blank wall bars access to the base of the chimney. Armed with YouTube beta, I retied the lead rope, and tied a chunky knot at the new sharp end. After several failed attempts, I managed to wedge the knot into the perfectly sized crack, called to Gemma to lower me to below the knot, and jumared up to the belay, C1+.
Up into the chimneys, the Yosemite locals finally shot ahead, while we, offwidth amateurs, found ourselves struggling to choose between a barely protected 5.9 squeeze and unprotected 5.7 stem, both seeming equally desperate. At last we emerged into the sun and enjoyed stellar splitter cracks to Big Sandy, our comfortable accommodation for the night.
A long section of body-width plus ledge welcomed our weary bodies, satisfied by cold dehy, cushioned by Macpac pack foam inserts, and insulated by a new type of stretchy emergency foil blanket by SOL that doesn't rip. All in the name of avoiding Half Dome's hideous hauling and preserving the spine of the second.
I shouldered the pack early the next morning following Gemma's lead of the Zig-Zag cracks, one of the crux free pitches, we were now forced to aid climb our way up the final pitches, with "The Visor" always overhanging above. We can only imagine Royal Robbins relief to find the Thank God Ledge skirting hard under the summmit overhang, a narrow catwalk with a handy 2" crack for protection. Gemma took a deep breath and managed to tip-toe her way across without resorting to the ugly manoeuvres required of me to follow with the pack pulling me off the wall. The runout 5.8 chimney off the ledge stymied us at first, trip reports quoting a "squeeze that no man or woman should need to endure", and even the scene of an Alex Honnold freak out, but was eventually overcome with much grunting.
Gemma dug deep on the pitch 22 aid crux after ripping a 0.1 cam and caught by a talon hook, she perservered to find a devious skyhook placement, top stepping to the next bolt and a gripping tension traverse on tenuous smears. Tourists and cameras reared their heads from the summit as we finished the last pitch, joyous mantles and an explosion of gear, questions and congratulations from the dozens of hikers poured out. Spare food and water was tossed our way, it was just like we imagined and more, a bizarre summit experience that is usually the domain of a depleted climber's wildest fantasies.
We skidded down the polished tourist cables and skirted the base to our packs, stoked on the climb, already dreaming of pizza on the valley floor. I walked up to the spring to refill our bottles, when Gemma's scream sent shockwaves: reaching into her pack, she had somehow triggered the bear spray cannister, covering her face and hands with potent pepper spray. Visibly shaking, face clenched, I poured our last litres into her stinging eyes, trying to reassure her she would not go blind. I slowly guided her, blind, directing her steps up to the spring - without which would have made a seriously dire situation. Guidebook author Roger Putnam was doing geology work nearby and came to our aid, helping us down the slabs approach, both of our faces and bodies still blazing from the oily spray. An unexpectedly epic ending to what was otherwise a stellar climb of one of America's all-time classic rock routes. ◦