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A Chilly Half Dome, 12/30/11

By Jim Herson

With not much in the way of self restraint when it comes to climbable Yosemite winter forecasts, I tossed the gear (all of it along with my wallet and ample food & clothing this time) into the car and Kara and I raced to the Valley for an early New Years Eve granite blowout.

Much of the drive was spent discussing route options. It's best when Kara picks the route although admittedly, having never seen the Yosemite guide, her entire knowledge of Valley climbs has been filtered through me. And I'm like the Fox News of climbing beta. What I lack in objectivity I more than make up for in partisan enthusiasm. Thus for a 12 year old, Kara's Valley wish list is oddly topped by Crack of Despair, Crack of Doom, and Lost Arrow Chimney. [Notorious, hair raising wide test pieces for you non Valley vets.]

In not my proudest parenting moment, but far from my most shameless, I casually tossed out the option of cleaning up Half Dome in a day knowing full well that Half Dome is like catnip for Kara. She pounced although with some unexpected trepidation:

"Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"It's genius."

"But mom said to make sure to pick a sunny climb this time."

"Half Dome gets sun."

"Like 15 minutes at the end of the day at this time of year!"

"But it's a gorgeous 15 minutes. Have you seen the Half Dome alpenglow?!"

"I don't think mom's going to be pleased. But she did leave new gloves with hand warmer pockets in my stocking. Guess she knew this was inevitable. So yeah! Let's climb Half Dome!

"Good idea. We're a bit tight on time to call right now. We'll just text mom our route plans from the base."

And so for the third time in six months, Kara and I headed up the Half Dome slabs. And for the second time in those three schleps, coincidentally with Kara taking over navigation, we found the start of the Half Dome slabs!

This significantly upped my lifetime hit rate for finding the elusive Half Dome hike. Having fired the crux of finding the start of the hike, the summit was now merely a formality.

We vacillated on the drive up between climbing Half Dome and skating on Tenya Lake! A rare treat thanks to this year's dry, cold conditions. The funky weather has made for some odd high country sights:

It was a tough decision but we needn't have fretted since thanks to some impressive ice on the approach we got to do both!

Although most of the approach was bone dry, Kara nervously pointed out that the icy sections had way more ice than on our attempt last month.

I comforted her by theorizing that all the extra water must have come from snow melting off the face which would make it climbable so we were good to go.

Unfortunately the last fixed rope was encrusted in thick ice rendering it useless.

Racing the fading daylight, I quickly replaced the frozen ropes with the rope from the 2nd to last fixed rope. So heads up to the next party up the slabs. The 2nd to last rope is missing although you can 4th class it. And some of the final ropes are trashed and need maintenance. I doubt I can get up there to fix the ropes any time soon so hopefully this will find its way to an industrious good Samaritan.

Made it to the base without breaking out the headlamps and then enjoyed a nice dinner before noting the impressive drop in temperature sans sun and dove into our sleeping bags. Up early, and started climbing by first, rather frosty light.

There was a notable lack of in-a-day parties with a 39 year partner age gap jockeying for position at the base. Go figure? But we enjoyed the solitude and of course the stellar climbing!

Other than two snow patches at P11 and Big Sandy the route was in prime condition. It's a shame about the devastated Sierra water shed because what a difference a month of dry weather makes for awesome winter Valley climbing!

The temperatures were fine. And although at first I was tweaked at myself for having over compensated for last month's arguably thin provisioning of warm clothing, Kara did end up wearing all the layers in the pack. Which made it all the more imperative that we get off before dark. She wasn't cold yet but with the thermo mass of a tweety bird she didn't have much heat reserves to deal with the ensuing plummeting temperatures once the sun dropped.

I felt bad about my time angst. Our first trip over two long, warm summer days allowed us plenty of time to goof off at belays and let Kara puzzle through challenging sections and even do some leading. This time it was all business. Belays were kept to a "frantic minimum." Kara was no longer bothering to rack the gear but just climbed like a mad girl arriving at the belays with the entire rack dangling at her tie in. We were loving it though, knocking off the pitches at a steady pace other than one unfortunate major, time sucking rope cluster which allowed Kara to do her first big wall untie!

Pointedly ignoring my enthusiastic cheering for a round off back handspring across Thank God Ledge, Kara noted the location of the sun low on the horizon and quickly scampered across the classic ledge.

We motored on through topping out to a magnificent sunset!

Well warmed up, we began the second half of our day. The harrowing half.

I had been in denial all day about how to descend. My delusional hope was to have a few hours of daylight left to negotiate the top of the slabs descent. And I didn't really have an attractive plan B.

There were no good options for a nighttime descent. After descending the first 400' on the fixed cables, one option is to cut left over the shoulder and down a climbers' trail to the base and then down the steep, affectionately named "death slabs." That's ~3-4hrs of heads up scrambling. The other option is to continue down the gentle, popular hiking trail which involves an interminable 8 miles of hiking. It's a gorgeous hike in daylight. Not so much at night while trashed.

Reversing the slabs was problematic. Although 95% clear, the small icy sections would be dicey in the dark. Mostly because Kara was still hiking in her decidedly non-sticky, blown out running shoes. Plus we had heard two wicked ice falls the previous night which sort of dampened our enthusiasm for reversing the slabs.

So after descending the cables which were down

we opted for the civilized hikers' trail which was problematic as our bivy gear was still around front at the base of the climb. The descent around the shoulder to the base can be treacherous this time of year as Derek and I once discovered in an early season hair raising descent down bullet hard icy snow over a 1000' precipice in the dark with, it goes without saying, one working headlamp.

I didn't want to chance the shoulder descent with Kara especially since she had just climbed 22 pitches and had an 8 mile hike ahead. Tacking on an extra 2hr round trip grind to the base wasn't appealing. And so I made the rather unconventional parenting decision to cache my 12 year old daughter...at 8000'...in winter...at night...in bear country!

[22 hours later grandma would make sure to plug in a night light for Kara. Because caching a kid in winter in bear country ain't nothing next to the willies a kid might get snoozing in grandma's warm, cozy LI bed!]

Although Kara insisted she was ok with being abandoned at the shoulder for a few hours, her sudden, multiple random inquires into bear hibernation habits throughout the day suggested otherwise. Fortunately she was whipped so that after entombing her under four layers, two warm puffies, hat, and gloves and sealing her in a bivy sack, she zonked out.

I headed off down the shoulder, which turned out to be clear, and was back in 1.5hrs relieved to find a sleeping, mostly warm but with icy toes, daughter. The nap refreshed her and she scampered ahead of me all the way down the endless Mist trail while I babied my meniscus challenged, wobbly old knees. Back at the car, a quick dinner, a short nap, and then the race was on to catch the plane to NY for grandpa's birthday. After 20hrs on the go I felt bad slamming on the brakes and waking her every time each of the six(!) suicidal deers bolted in front of the car. But the deers did solve the driver drowsiness problem. We pulled into the driveway at 6:30am, quickly repacked, and raced to the airport.

And then came the most harrowing part of our journey: Stepping off the plane and coming clean with my parents about what I had just done with their granddaughter! I could only plead no contest and meekly tried to suggest that a winter, jugless ascent of an iconic NW face for a 12 year old's first in-a-day wall was standard operating procedure.


Epilog: Having no self restraint is not without its benefits. Unable to resist, the following weekend Connor and I had a blast skating on Tuolumne's frozen rivers and indulging in some sublime January high country cragging!

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