The Northwest Face

It took me a second to realize what was happening when the alarm on my phone stirred me to life at four in the morning, and I fumbled with the device for a moment as my brain began to process the fact that I had awoken.  I sat in my sleeping bag for a moment or two, allowing the fog to clear from my mind, yawning hungrily.  I was tired.  Very tired.  I can’t decide if it was excitement or nervousness that kept me awake for what seemed like the entire night.  I think I slept, but those moments between lying awake and occasionally looking at my phone in anticipation are what really stick in my memory of that entire night.  It was rather warm out for early May, and I knew that Connor was awake as I could hear him groaning as he let out the first post-sleep stretch of the day, reaching as far above his head as he could without leaving the comfort of his own sleeping bag.  We didn’t talk much as we made coffee, followed closely by instant oatmeal.  It was a very serene morning, the silence broken only by the routine chirp and song of birds dancing about in last few hours of darkness before the day.  A full moon, which now sat near the western horizon, prevented all but the brightest stars from making their appearance, and the sky was beginning its slow transition to blue as the sun crept slowly toward the eastern horizon; which was primarily blocked from our view by the looming monster which lay no more than 100 meters directly in front of me.  This beast stood proud and silent against the paling sky, and every detail and feature of its face stood out like wrinkles on a grandmother’s face as the moon bled brightly on the her face.  We came with a mission this morning, for this same beast which stood as a sentinel above us was a dream about to come to fruition.  We came prepared to slay this improbable monster and gain the wisdom which countless before us have had the pleasure of attaining.  We lay here in preparation for the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that I began to believe in myself and my ability to climb the face of Half Dome, and would spend countless hours in the Valley below, peering longingly at the face, tracing the route from start to finish, over and over again.  I would sit at night, watching headlamps flash as climbers tackled the last few pitches, their beams quickly flashing and illuminating the rock.  I admired these headlamps, as I knew that each one was at one time down on the Valley floor, wondering what it is actually like up there, on the stark Northwest Face.  This curiosity and drive is what leads many people to do great things, and now, it was my turn.

The Royal Arches, North Dome, Washington Column, Mt Watkins, Ahwiyah Point, and of course, Half Dome.
The Royal Arches, North Dome, Washington Column, Mt Watkins, Ahwiyah Point, and of course, Half Dome.  I have spent countless hours at this same spot staring at Half Dome.

It was the day before my twenty-sixth birthday, May 1st, 2015, when Connor and I got off the bus at Mirror Lake Trailhead with our packs filled with gear, and began the trek East toward the start of the Death Slabs approach.  I called Patrick during the walk, and told him about the undertaking which Connor and I were about to embark.  We talked for a few moments, and he informed me that he flew a Cessna for the first time that morning, something I had always looked forward to hearing him say.  It seemed appropriate that we both would do something that day we would both be proud of.  I called my dad, as well.  He wished me good luck and I told him that I would call him on the summit, and I know that he was truly excited for me.  It felt unreal to be telling the both of them what I was about to do, and I really didn’t believe my own words when I told them that I was going to climb the face of Half Dome.

Connor gearing up for the climb. We kept the van in Curry Village and left from there. This was right before we began the approach.
Gearing up in the Curry Village parking lot the day we did the approach.

Half Dome is out of view for most of the early part of the approach, as Porcelain Wall stands in the way like a beautiful curtain.  At Mirror Lake, we paused for a moment to reflect and gather our thoughts before we marched toward the monolith.  Mirror Lake got its name for its beautiful reflective property, and I feel that it may also have the ability to reflect our souls.  Nothing stands in the way of Half Dome here, and jaw dropped pilgrims are left dumfounded by the immensity of the rock towering thousands of feet above their heads.  I stared for a moment at the Face of Half Dome from this perspective, until wonder grew to anxiety, and anxiety gave momentum to potential energy, and force was generated.  I have never seen Half Dome so big in my entire life.

It's hard to ignore the majesty of Half Dome from Mirror Lake.
It’s hard to ignore the majesty of Half Dome from Mirror Lake.

The trail that begins the approach to the Death Slabs gets passed by countless people on a daily basis.  A faint trail, barely noticeable against the mess of fallen leaves, is distinguishable almost solely by an unimpressive pile of boulders a few meters from the Mirror Lake Loop Trail.  Something so easily missed, so unimpressive, brings to those curious enough to venture forth experiences that all those who pass can never understand.  Like a king waiting patiently for battle in some romantic medieval castle, Half Dome sits quietly, and waits.

What lay behind these boulders is adventure and challenge.
Like a gateway, these boulders mark the beginning of the quest for the summit.  .

I didn’t have any real expectations for the Death Slabs, other than that there would be fixed ropes and some easy, albeit steep, hiking.  We viewed the approach as an adventure in-and-of itself, and decided to dedicate an entire day to it.  The earliest part of the approach wanders slowly through the trees; one last bastion of comfort for most afternoons, as the rest of the approach includes exposed dashes between patches of shade.  The heat was counteracted, fondly, by a stream which we crisscrossed numerous times as we slowly progressed upward.  We would sit for a while with each rest, and make sure that we were good and safe before blasting off once again under the watchful eye of the sun.  A good amount of sweat, safety meetings and four fixed-ropes later, we found ourselves in a large talus field near the base of the wall, which acts as a rally point for every boulder and flake which decides to relieve itself of clinging to the wall and experience the sensation of flight.  All throughout the approach, I found myself closely watching the trail as I carefully placed each step to prevent a misstep and crippling ankle injury (if I’m not closely watching and intentionally placing each step during descents and approaches, I will roll my ankle at least once).  This offered a unique element to the whole experience for me, as each time I looked up, I was surprised at how close we were getting to the wall.  Getting bigger and bigger after each stretch of marching.  The base of the wall is rather featureless, and it’s difficult to properly judge how close you actually are to the wall, and the lack of contrasting shapes prevents any real kind of depth-perception.  Kind of like staring into a dark hole.

Connor charging through one of the many exposed sections. Half Dome looking ever ominous.
Connor charging through one of the many exposed sections. Half Dome looking ever ominous.
Looking down from the top of one of the four fixed lines. As you can see, the ropes tend to get pretty worked up there.
Looking down from the top of one of the four fixed lines. As you can see, the ropes tend to get pretty worked up there.

As we left the talus death field and began to traverse east, toward the start of the route and the greatly-anticipated bivy, movement caught my eye to my right.  As I snapped my head, I saw something large and brown moving across the base of the wall.  It was a marmot, chirping as he fled from us in fear.  It was then that I realized that I was no more than fifty yards from the base of the promised and beautiful wall.  I was so captivated at that moment, that I threw down my heavy pack and ran to the wall.  I raised my arms at the last second, and my palms landed with a satisfying clap as they contacted the granite.  For the first time in my life, my own two hands were in physical contact with the iconic monolith.  It was cold to the touch, as most of the day is spent in the shade due to its northern orientation.  I could feel the grains and crystals of the granite, and knew that in less than twenty-four hours, this same relationship between hand and rock would eventually bring the rest of my body to the summit, marked by the proud and distinct Vizor, which now lay 2,200 feet immediately above me.  It seemed so incredibly far away.

The Death Slabs offered some fantastic views the whole time, and we made sure that we enjoyed them as often as we could.
The Death Slabs offered some fantastic views the whole time, and we made sure that we enjoyed them as often as we could.
RIMG0367
Connor making that haul bag look great. As he did not have a proper backpack, he used my haulbag for the approach. Poor guy.

We skirted the base of the wall, occasionally finding ourselves battling manzanita bushes and regularly stopping to look at the wall and conduct safety meetings.  A cluster of trees and a small patch snow indicated the destination, and we were soon standing below the first pitch of the classic route; filling up our water bottles with the coldest and most beautiful water either of us have ever tasted.  We threw our bottle of bourbon in the snow and carried our packs to the cluster of pine trees a few dozen meters from the face, where the umbrella of canopies protect a small cluster of flat bivy sites with outstanding views of the Valley.  It was five when we finally settled down on our sleeping pads, sleeping bags strewn out, and our shoes off.  It was full-blown chill mode now.  My feet were surprisingly sore, which made sense because of the new approach shoes I had only bought the day before.  I would get up from time to time, throw my shoes on and walk around with them untied.  I went to the start of the route once or twice to stick my hands on the first move, and trace the route, up the first fifty feet, past a huge Bay Tree, a small ledge, a series of cracks in a chimney, and past a point where a bulge prevented me from seeing the rest of the obvious line.  Higher up, I could see the handcrack on pitch four, resembling a white lightning bolt against the dark granite as climber after climber since 1957 polished the ancient sunbaked rock.  I took a nip from the bourbon before going back to the bivy to grab my camera to snap some pictures of the sunset and meditate.  I was beginning to feel nervous.

Some succulent-type flower enjoying the sunlight. East Face of Washington Column in the background. The
Some succulent-type flower enjoying the sunlight. East Face of Washington Column in the background.

As anyone who has spent time in Yosemite knows, Half Dome offers one of the most unique and beautiful light shows on calm summer evenings, so long as haze does not soften the light passing through the central Valley.  On these special evenings, Half Dome glows brightly above and to the east of the Valley, standing as a promise of the vibrant, beautiful day that will soon arrive like an army behind its leader as it crests the Sierra Nevada.  As one last demonstration of strength, the sun effortlessly and smoothly climbs the rock, abruptly leaving behind the blanket of night, until it gives one last final kiss to the Vizor, until every point in the Valley succumbs to night.  From where I sat, slowly breathing and trying to feel the moment as much as see it, I watched as the shadows slowly overtook the Valley below.  Acting as a large and beautiful bathtub, every canyon and valley and gulley was soon filled with darkness, leaving the taller points shining as if emitting their own light.  It was bright where I sat, and I turned around to see the face of Half Dome, glowing tall and proud behind me.  I watched the sunset travel the same path that I myself had done that very same day.  I watched as it hit the wall and immediately began the ascent.  In front of me, the last messengers from the sun graced me with their presence, and I was now in darkness.  As I looked behind me, the sharp light of the sun was making incredible progress up the route, slowly and quietly moving, with no breaks, until the Vizor sat alone in the sun.  And then, dark.  I made my way to my sleeping bag, and got in.

The Sunset was a very bright gold color. Everything was silent.
A golden light flooded everything around us for the last few moments of that Friday, May 1st.  I still can clearly remember how silent everything was.
I can't tell if this picture was from the night before or the morning of. Connor's reading the topo.
I can’t tell if this picture was from the night before or the morning of. Connor is  reading the topo.

Dreams are a truly interesting thing.  They are pathways to our subconscious, often revealing a deeper meaning.  I remember one dream I had, when I had just begun climbing, say sixteen or seventeen.  At the time, I had no concept of a big wall, or even climbing for that matter.  I had no idea what it I was climbing in this dream, just a very tall, steep cliff.  As with most dreams, the early parts are vague and unreliable, I myself can usually only remember distinct bits and pieces.  But I do remember topping out, just as I was too tired to give anymore, I made one last reach to the top of something like a countertop, followed by a mantel.  In this dream, I found myself standing on the summit, the air thin and abundant, the sky blue and quiet.  And below me, was the infinite Northwest Face of Half Dome.  This dream has stuck with me since, and there has not been a day that has passed where the thought of that mantel has not crossed my mind.  It consumed me.  Some drive, some curious uncertainty called me to Half Dome as Richard Dreyfus gets called to Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The time was now to bring this dream to reality, and my mind festered with uncertainty.  What if I couldn’t do it?  What if we have to bail?  What if something happens?  What if I am not strong enough to conquer this feat?  Doubt kept creeping up inside of me, and each time I had to battle it back down to submission.  The time was now, I had been looking forward to this moment for years, and it was absolutely terrifying. My mind raced uncontrollably, until at last, we put on our climbing shoes, tied into both ends of Connor’s 70m rope, did one last double check of our harnesses and knots, and then Connor put me on belay.  As they had barely twelve hours earlier, my hands grasped the first holds of the route as an audible breath left my mouth.  I looked at the Vizor, taunting me powerfully from its perch, and then I closed my eyes.  My head dropped to neutral, as if staring sternly at the rock immediately in front of my face.  I then opened my eyes which were immediately fixated on some distant point in the rock, as if peering into the very soul of the mountain.  I thought of Royal Robins, who at one time, stood in this exact spot, felt the exact same emotions, and blasted off into the unknown.  He had no idea what lay ahead, yet still he pressed forth.  Five days later, Robins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Galwas stood proudly on the summit.  Being a climber lucky enough to live in a time and age where the internet and topos are readily and cheaply available, I had access to unlimited information on the route.  I had read the topo over and over again, and had memorized the route beta almost word-for-word.  Countless, sometimes lesser, climbers have stood in this same spot, with the same doubt, the same struggle, the same vision.  Without any warning, my mouth opened, and I heard myself say, “Alright Connor, climbing.”

The grand face, with Tis-Sa-Ack looking bright and gold.

It was 5:30 am  when I found myself climbing the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome.  I climbed the first pitch as efficiently as I could, and although I’m comfortable freeing 5.10c, I had no problem pulling on gear to ensure constant upward progression.  I felt every hand jam, and focused on my breath with every move.  I was focused, it was now happening.  At a rest, I took one last look at the ground as I stuffed my hand into the chalk bag located in the mess of gear on on my back, and knew it was the closest I would see it for some time.  It didn’t take too long before I looked up and saw the first set of bolts marking the end of the first pitch.  I crawled on top of the pillar, clipped a locker to a bolt, tied a clove hitch to the locker and yelled down to Conner, “Connor!  I’m off belay!” It was real now.  I had just finished the first pitch of twenty-three.  The historic battle had officially begun.

Connor taking off on one of the final chimney pitches. As you can see, The chimneys have plenty of cracks in the back to place gear. Very stellar climbing.
Connor taking off on one of the final chimney pitches. As you can see, The chimneys have plenty of cracks in the back to place gear. Very stellar climbing.

I was focused wholly on the route now.  My entire being and every decision and thought I had revolved completely around reaching the top.  There were no distractions, there were other worries than those most immediate to us.  Connor was on the lead, and I belayed him from a comfy seat low on the wall.  Then I heard something.  A strange noise, which almost sounded like an aircraft, but one that I’d never heard before.  It was getting closer, and louder.  I looked up.  What I saw will forever be burned in my brain.  I thought I was hallucinating at first, but to my surprise, an anthropomorph appeared in the sky, clothes roaring as they flapped through the still air as the body moved quickly toward the earth.  Then I saw the human move, and above him opened a white canopy with a loud pop.  I screamed and cheered as he gently maneuvered his way toward Mirror Lake, which now had the appearance of a small pond on a model train set.  I kept my eyes on him, then was made aware of a second BASE jumper, this one wearing a wing suit, passing quickly above me heading east, then turning left around Ahwiyah Point and out of sight.  A third wingsuiter then leapt from the Vizor, and I watched them as they flew west, almost toward the middle of the Valley; making a sharp right turn toward Mirror Lake and opening their parachute low to the ground.  I waited for another, but there were none.  We kept climbing.

The route is littered with some incredible relics. Some of these are still used as pieces of protection. Exciting stuff!
The route is littered with some incredible relics of the past.  Although I didn’t clip this one as protection, there were many, many like it that  I did.

It’s hard to say if the ground was getting any further away or not.  Already at the start of the route, we were thousands of feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, and the rocks and other features at the base that are useful in determining distance went out of view by the top of the second pitch.  That being said, the quality and power of the exposure the higher up we climbed was incredibly hard to ignore.  I really didn’t get a noticeable taste for it until just shy of halfway up the wall, after the Robins Traverse (a steep bolt ladder to a swing, known as a pendulum, penji for short).  Leaving a nice, secure ledge, one has to do an airy step around a bulge to a series of exciting knobs above a void.  A few awkward and somewhat powerful  moves brings one to yet another comfy ledge.

I remember the moves quite vividly, which doesn’t happen to me a lot.  My eyes spoke directly to my feet at first, and I slowly worked them up, starting with my right on some small flakey thing, and my left finding purchase by smearing on the smooth rock.  My left hand reached out then, and found a space for my fingers inside a small corner.  My left foot moved again, and soon found itself planted on a projection of rock, allowing both my legs to straighten to a stemming position.  I had to trust my fingers, and as I pulled to a lieback, I felt the immensity and might of where I was.  The wind always seems to blow at the exact moment you do moves above endless exposure, and my shirt flapped momentarily.  I felt incredibly powerful now, as if the wind breathed strength into me.  I breathed with each move, allowing the pure and clear air to carry my breath into the vacuum around me.  I felt more than saw at this point, my eyes having now transitioned to act as mere spectators to my limbs moving in ways to allow my body carry itself upward.  Then, as always, it was all over, and that line of dots labeled .10a or C2 on a topo was now a memory.  The moment was empowering.  I looked once again at the Vizor, slowly getting getting larger, and for the first time in my life felt certain of the summit of Half Dome.  This realization came accordingly, as we were now past the point of no return.

The view from the ledge before the chimneys. The view was beginning to get quite fantastic.
The view from the ledge before the chimneys. The High Country in Yosemite began to dominate the scenery.

The conditions were perfect for climbing that afternoon.  The sun shone brightly in a clear, infinite blue sky; the kind usually found in very fond memories of special and unique experiences in the mountains.  Of course, we would elect to pull our windbreakers out of our packs and hunker down to seek warmth during the belays; but it was a pleasant feeling huddling on a ledge, taking in the view and watching cliff swallows swoop and dive at incredible speeds near our heads.  This chill was a small price to pay for the show that I was lucky enough to be a part of.  Temperatures in direct sunlight were perfect enough for us to put the windbreakers away, and we both led most of our pitches in our short-sleeves.  We had plenty of water, and the use of camelbacks was a great piece of wisdom a good friend gave us before the climb.  We ate the lunches we brought with us at the top of pitch seventeen, Big Sandy Ledge.  We snacked throughout the day, and despite the fact that it was six o’clock by the time we hit Big Sandy, I never really felt hungry.

Connor high up on Half Dome, one pitch below Big Sandy. He enjoyed the Double Crack Pitch quite a bit.
Connor high up on Half Dome, one pitch below Big Sandy. He enjoyed the Double Crack Pitch quite a bit.

We sat at Big Sandy for half an hour.  There really wasn’t any sound coming from the Valley, which commonly happens at pretty much every other spot in Yosemite.  Even high on El Capitan, one can hear motorcycles and cars below, which can easily disrupt the experience.  But we were fortunate here, accompanied only by the wind and the song of the swallows as they danced about the air.  The Vizor was now enormous above us, and I occasionally saw someone’s head appear from above the landmark; their hair glowing around their skulls like a halo as the sun shone through from behind.  The shadows began to consume the Valley, once again, and soon the sun would begin its daily ascent of the cliff.  It took some incredible motivation to get going once again after relaxing on our perch, but I soon found myself leading the next three pitches, also known as the Zig-Zags.  I wanted that Vizor.

Connor enjoying the view from Big Sandy. Quite a beautiful rest stop.

I was nearing the top of the Zig-Zags when, once again, the exposure became a very real and powerful fact.  It was different then the first time I noticed it that day.  There was a peace associated with the open air, a stillness and quietness.  The Valley had once again filled like a tub as I looked down from my ladders, and all around me was glowing with a deep golden-red color.  From Big Sandy, Connor peered up at me, consumed as well by the glorious and powerful sunset.  Below him, the sun promised to catch up to our high point in short time.  I could almost watch the line of night move toward me, and before long, the wall was gray and the Vizor shone brightly above me.  I could almost feel warmth from the light, like a hot piece of metal emitting intense heat.  Then it was gone, and Connor and I were found in a pale blue world.  The Sierra drifted slowly into night.

The darkness has officially consumed us. It's hard to believe that below my feet is thousands of feet of fresh air.
The darkness has officially consumed us. It’s hard to believe that below my feet are thousands of feet of fresh air.

The darkness has a way of bringing out the deepest and darkest fears within the souls of us all.  On a wall, it has a very unique way of reminding us of how alone we truly are at the moment.  Your whole world shrinks to a small circle of light a few feet from your face, and your headlamp is never really off long enough for the eyes to adjust to the dark.  All sense of exposure is pretty much erased, but that fear is replaced by the sensation of solitude.  Climbing at night is always remembered as a dream, as we are constantly darting our gaze around the rock looking for every feature or crack that allows us to progress vertically.   It feels colder, and route-finding effort is greatly increased.  The immensity of the Thank God Ledge lost a great deal of its luster due to this reason; the Vizor, however, lit up like a ceiling over our heads each time we looked up at it.  We were getting ever closer, and the anticipation of the summit grew greater and greater.

Much of the higher climbing involved this exact view.
Much of the higher climbing involved this exact view.

The second to last pitch of the route is illustrated in the topo as a bolt ladder, to a left penji to a skyhook placement (literally a metal hook that you place on the rock like a grappling hook in Batman, or something), to another bolt ladder followed by another penji to the anchor.  I had very little angst for this pitch, and I was stoked to do it as it would my last pitch before topping out.  So as I cruised up the first bolt ladder, made the penji and placed the skyhook, I really didn’t have any worries in my mind.  I looked up at the next bolt ladder, which was a lot higher above me than I had predicted and devised a plan.  Since I had my camhook (it’s a climbing tool–I can’t think of how to describe it, so just go ahead and look it up) with me as well, I took it out, attached it to my other ladder, and placed it inverted into a slot in the crack just below and right of the next bolt ladder.  I moved slowly onto the camhook, stood on the top step, and reached as high as I could with a draw to reach the next bolt.  My left foot was smeared on the wall, and I put as much weight as friction would allow me onto it.  Then, my foot slipped, and I was falling.  I was still attached via a daisy chain to the inverted camhook, and I heard the distinct *TINK* as the hook separated from the wall.  I tried to relax as I fell, and grabbed my knot to ensure I would not become entangled in the rope.  The rope finally caught me, and I returned to my highpoint with a slightly different game plan.  I would place the camhook first, then the aforementioned skyhook, then the camhook again in order to be closer to the first bolt.  As I hung from the rope, I pulled my free ladder up and got read to place the camhook.  My heart immediately sank as I looked at the essential tool.  The camhook was snapped right in half, the entire scoop completely gone.  Now what?

After some creativity with the smallest nut I had and my sole hook, I finally found myself atop the second bolt ladder.  Then nothing.  The wall became blank, albeit a few small and worthless pin scars.  In my state of fatigue, I did not think to look to my left and perform an obvious penji to the anchors.  So I decided that my best course of action was to use my hook to get to a piton about ten feet above my head.  I delicately placed the hook as far into a crappy pin scar as I could, yanked down on the piece a few times, then gently moved my weight onto the ladder connected to the terrifying placement.  It was very bad, and I knew it.  Moving as slowly as I possibly could, I gently placed one of my feet into the next step of the ladder.  As I transferred my weight to this rung, there was a familiar *TINK*, and once again, I was falling.

The cliff is even darker and more mysterious the closer you get to it. Tis-Sa-Ack is very obvious as well.
The cliff is even darker and more mysterious the closer you get to it. Tis-Sa-Ack is very obvious as well.

It is a crazy thing when you fall while aid climbing.  It is very sudden, most of the time with absolutely no warning.  When free climbing, we know when we are getting just perfectly off-balance, or our feet are about to give out, or our forearms can’t even clip a carabiner, and we can prepare for the fall accordingly.  But while aiding, one second you are attached to the wall; the next, you are flying through the air.  It happens very, very fast, and is a terrifying experience each and every time.

I tried this tactic one more time, utilizing the next higher slot in the rock, with the same result as the first time.  No body enjoys whipping when they are tired and so close to the top of such an enormous cliff.  Fury grew in my gut, and my frustration began to boil over as I sat in my harness after my third fall of the pitch.  I screamed.  I screamed as loud as I could out and slammed my fists against my thighs.  I wanted off this cliff.  I was tired, I was pissed, and the top was only one pitch away.Why now?  Why here?  I closed my eyes for a moment, closed my mouth, and breathed quietly through my nostrils.  I opened my eyes to look at my options.  Then I saw a quick flash, and something caught the corner of my right eye.  I turned my head and looked down at the Valley.  I was soon made aware of the fact that we were not truly alone.

An overview of the route from the base as we descended. The Vizor looks incredibly small.
An overview of the route from the base as we descended. The Vizor looks incredibly small.

I sat in my harness at the end of my rope.  I couldn’t hear a sound.  I looked down at the Valley below, and watched a light come forth from the sanctity of our home.  From Curry Village, a beam of green light danced around from a single, fixed point; circling us and making random patterns on the wall.  As I looked down, I saw more lights flashing from the same point of origin as the laser beam, some different colors, others just flashes of headlamps of those special souls unique to Yosemite Valley.  It was obvious to me that it was a large group of people, and they were focusing their lights on us; two solitary headlamps high up the face of Half Dome.  I thought back to the summer of 2014, when first I saw headlamps at the same point I sat now.  I myself had shone my headlamp on friends of mine moving up the face when they, too, were making their own push for the summit; cheering them on and sending my energy toward them in hopes they would top out in great fashion.  I knew who those lights were, and they knew that I saw them.  We were not alone on the wall, all of our friends and those who believed in us went to Curry Meadow to give us a light show.  And as far as I was concerned, they were right there on the wall with us.  Climbing and getting just as tired and cold we were.  It was my turn to inspire them, and it was time to keep going.  Without saying a word, I returned to my high point to continue the climb.

I feel that it is common for anyone to hit a certain point on their first major big wall, when the safety of the ground and a cold beer is at the forefront of thought.  A point where the thought of climbing is overwhelming, but still having the understanding that it’s the only real way to get out of the discomfort of the moment.  No matter how badly you want to quit and retreat to your sleeping bag, it is not an option.  Like it or not, you are incredibly far from everything, and we must dig deep to get our bodies through this discomfort, to be soon rewarded by the comforts we know so well.  The drive for the summit is somewhere inside of us all, and in those hard times, we must dive deep into our souls to find it and dig it out.  It’s like swimming across a swimming pool entirely underwater for the first time; you shove off one side as hard as you can, and the further you swim across the body of water, the air stored in your lungs becomes more and more worthless.  About half way across the pool, you are torn between the optimism of the other side, and the dread that you still have as far to go as you have already swam.  You keep swimming, each stroke getting more and more committing to the goal.  Then, reaching out as far as you can, the last few inches challenge you to give up; they taunt you to pull your head out of the water, mouth agape, gulping as much air into the cavity of your lungs as the thirsty organs allow.  However, just as you think you are going to pass out, your fingertips come in contact with the concrete of the far side, and your head instantly rises from the water like a cruise missile launched from a submarine.  You can breathe, and you grab the side of the pool to relax.  You spin around panting , and look back at the other side of the pool that’s not quite as far as it once was.  Sometimes, you find yourself doing it yet again.

Higher up on the cliff than where I climbed at the moment, Connor belayed me from some unknown location as his headlamp was off and I could not hear him all too well.  I knew I was somewhere on the last pitch now, but really had no idea where it finished; so I just kept climbing.  Mindlessly following the path of the rope, I stood on a large block at one point and looked up, where I saw the rope go over a ledge an arm’s reach over my head and into darkness.  I was incredibly tired at this point.  The climbing was taking way longer than expected, and my body was really beginning to feel the fatigue of a straight push.  I really wasn’t sure if I could make this move, as my mind was telling me that my body had nothing left.  Nonetheless, I reached up.  I grabbed the top of the block with both of my hands here, and I pulled, my body somehow easily making this one last move.  Letting out a powerful sigh, I did a pull up, got my body above the block, got a foot up, and performed a distinct and memorable mantel.  I soon realized what had just happened.  It was the countertop from my dream, for as I stood up, I realized that Connor was sitting directly in front of me; with the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face, and a gear anchor holding us to the cliff.  It took me at least a second to process the moment, and I stared at Connor without saying a word as my consciousness struggled to comprehend the moment.  But when it finally did, we both simultaneously screamed and embraced each other in the classic top out hug.  We turned to the Valley and screamed as loudly as we could, holding back the tears which I knew would most likely come.  We now stood at the top of Half Dome.

The view from the top of Half Dome at 2:30 in the morning. Yes, this picture was only possible due to the full moon, and my awesome Pentax WG-4!
The view from the top of Half Dome at 2:30 in the morning. Yes, this picture was only possible due to the full moon, and my awesome Pentax WG-4!

It was 2:20 in the morning by the time we topped out.  The near-full moon poured its cold light over the Earth, and the mountains came to life as the granite reflected the light perfectly.  There was a slight chill in the air, and the breeze only intensified it.  I was tired.  Very tired.  After twenty-one hours of climbing, we now stood where only my imagination had before that moment.  Yes, I have been to the top of Half Dome twice before via Snake Dike, but this time was different.  This time, I had defeated the face.  I sat for a while on the Vizor, dangling my feet in the brisk, clean air.  I looked down the face, and looked at the bivy site, which now was as far away as the Vizor was the morning before.  I reflected on the climb, or as much as my tired mind would allow.  I thought of the challenges along the way, and I thought of the uncertainty.  I thought of all the times that I questioned if we would bail.  I thought of the start move, and how nervous I was to get started.  It was all over now, the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome had been climbed.  Never again would I look at the monument with the same level of gnawing curiosity.  We had done it.  It was going to take some time for me to reflect on the entire experience, and we were soon packing our bags to head back down the cables.  I stopped at the summit one last time and quietly looked down at the Valley floor.  The lights in Curry Village were now gone.  I felt a tremendous smile come to my face.

We were somewhat quiet as we went down the cables and my mind raced from one thought to another.  I thought about how much suffering took place on the wall, and how brutal it actually was at times.  I thought of the high points, the low points, and all those points in between.  At some point during the descent, a crazy thought crept into my sleep-deprived brain; I wondered when I could do it again.

Since we didn't think to try and get a top out picture, we snapped one just before leaving the base of the wall. I can't begin to tell you how tired we were at this moment.
Since we didn’t think to try and get a top out picture, we snapped one just before leaving the base of the wall. I can’t begin to tell you how tired we were at this moment.
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