The Eleventh Hour of Half Dome by Jason Haas

Aug 15 • Locations • 1403 Views • No Comments on The Eleventh Hour of Half Dome by Jason Haas

Climbing with a pack on is the worst. It’s heavy, it’s awkward, and you don’t even use half its contents in the end anyway. I was stuck, by all accounts of the word. I couldn’t go up; I couldn’t go down; I couldn’t go sideways. I was stuck. And it was all because of this damn pack. I was going to die an embarrassing death. YOSAR was going to have to come do a body recovery of my emaciated, died-of-dehydration, stuck body. The only reason I wasn’t afraid of never living it down was because I’d be dead. Embarrassingly dead. Oh, why did that great-looking dihedral have to be wet? It looks way more fun to climb than this stupid squeeze chimney. But let’s be honest, it wasn’t the chimney that was the problem, it was the exit hole at the end of it. I had tried to worm through and almost made it. But not quite.

by Jason Haas (note: this piece is an excerpt from Volume 8)

Banner photo by Tristan Greszko

I thought about just leaving the pack behind. We hadn’t eaten anything yet, or drank much water for that matter, but we had all the extra clothes on all ready. The phone-slash-camera was already in my pocket so who cares about the pack? Do we really need the topo? Looks like we just sort of “go up” from here anyway. Ugh. Did I say I hate carrying the pack? I wish I were leading every pitch, even the scary ones, if only so that Dan would have to wrestle this beast instead of me.

We were halfway up the wall, and the sun had barely started to rise. We began way too early by my account, but there was nothing to be done about that. We arrived in Yosemite Valley the day before, climbed Astroman as a warm up, then set about packing for the Regular Route on Half Dome. We had two objectives while we were here—quite simple on paper: free Half Dome, free El Capitan. Six words, two rock climbs, one monumental dream, and a career’s worth of experience and training leading up to it. So we thought, why delay any longer—let’s just head up to the “easier” of the two objectives and get reacquainted with the stone, as it had been several years since either of us had been in the valley.

After lazily spending the day pruning the rack, prepping the food, and paring down clothes, we eventually made our way to the trail. We strolled along the beaten path only to bop up the Death Slabs at an even more leisurely pace. It was a quiet, beautiful day with no one around and spirits were high. But when we got to the base, the cacophony of clanking gear and the clambering of climbers jockeying for position was overwhelming and quickly shattered the peaceful beginnings to our adventure.

Five parties congregated at the base, collectively learning and discussing how to fix ropes, jug lines, and overall strategy. It was basically the worst-case scenario for us to come upon. Then there were the parties already on the wall—four or so below the halfway point. It was a good ol’-fashioned clusterfuck.

The climbers at the base were initially cordial, but the mood quickly tensed as we were met with an onslaught of rapid-fire questioning. “Have you guys done the route before? How hard do you climb? How many routes have you aid climbed? Ever a grade VI? How many hours do you plan to climb it in? Are you going to fix ropes? Free climb it?! Really?” They kept coming, but it didn’t matter; our answer was always the same: “We will work around you guys; just let us know what plan you’ve sorted out, and we’ll work ourselves in somehow.”

That wasn’t good enough for them. It’s the valley, bro—everyone sizes everyone else up. You gotta know the pecking order and where you fit in. “Are you pros? Well Chad here met Alex Honnold once, so we got that going for us.”

That sort of thing. Hours from the car, humans, and cell service, we had stumbled upon The Scene. Four of the parties were college-aged climbers who were here to do their first big wall and for, really, their first aid climb. The other party was a pair in their mid- to late forties who had done some bigger stuff back in the day but nothing recently. Our original plan? Get up with the sun (no alarm really) and just go. The new plan? Well the first pair was going to leave at midnight, the next party at 3:00 a.m., then 3:30, then 4:00, then so on until we were going to be behind an unsurpassable number of people.

Jason and buddy on Half Dome

Dan (left) and Jason. Photo: Jason Haas collection

Each group became preoccupied with their own preparations and futile attempts at sleeping, so Dan and I kept to ourselves and agreed, we’d leave at 2:00 a.m., roughly six ours earlier than planned but before the majority of teams set off. We were concerned about freeing the Higbee Hedral in the dark, but figured if nothing else, this could be a “beta burn” on the route. We ate dinner—a can of fruit and some cold pizza we got from Curry Village—then laid down for a power nap. As darkness overcame the wall, you could feel the tenseness swell up inside each of the other groups. Unsure whispers and the erratic movement of headlamps kept us up as the others checked and rechecked their packs and the topo. The clanging of gear higher on the wall and awkward yells of “Off belay!” “What?!” “What?!” “Are you off belay?” “Climb on!” “Are you off belay?!” and so on played on repeat like some dubbed YouTube music video sensation gone viral.

The team that planned to leave at midnight had come up to the base without down jackets or sleeping bags and were now getting restless from the cold, so at 10:00 p.m., they set off. As I lay in the dirt with one eye open, the pair, only fifteen feet from my head, clumsily tried to learn how to jug a fixed rope, in the dark, with a pack and gear, et cetera. I had spent four hours trying to sleep. When you concentrate really hard on falling asleep because you know how important it is for you to go to sleep right that instant, it never happens. Just after midnight, I came close to nodding off though. But that’s when two climbers came down the descent trail and nearly kicked Dan and me in the head as they stumbled back to their packs.

Enough. Dan sat up. “Let’s just go,” I whispered. We scarfed another can of fruit and the last cold slice of pizza and headed up around 1:00 a.m. It was surprisingly warm near the base, and the climbing was quite casual, even by headlamp. Dan and I had both done plenty of alpine climbing, big walls, and 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell competitions to feel comfortable with the night. And honestly, it felt good to be moving since sleep wasn’t going to happen.

Stillness returned to the night, and I was once again blanketed in peacefulness. We quickly dispatched pitch after pitch until catching the 10:00 p.m. party as the sun began to rise. They were kind enough to let us pass, and we scurried on by as quickly as possible. We linked some pitches to gain extra distance, but now we were losing that lead as I sat wedged in the top of the chimney, like a cork in a wine bottle. I prided myself on wide climbing skills too, I thought. Hmm, only all that much more embarrassing when YOSAR shows up, I supposed.

Photo of Half Dome by Tristan Greszko.

Photo of Half Dome by Tristan Greszko.

Dan and I had traded the pack just as we had swapped leads all through the night. The chimney pitch was Dan’s. Lucky bastard. I comfortably sat at the base of the chimney, all sprawled out atop a picnic-table-sized block wedged in the bottom of it. The route had surprised me—there were currently at least twenty people on this wall right now, and that was just today. How many ascents does this route see each year? Hundreds? Thousands? So why all the loose blocks? Microwaves precariously perched, waiting to go. The route had a very “mountaineering” feel to it, as if the blocks were simply waiting for the mountain to shudder from the cold and slough off all the loose debris. At least it had nice belay ledges. And lots of them! Nearly every belay was on a comfy ledge, and this chimney was no exception. A bit cool from the cavernous air, but comfy nonetheless. Man, what a giant chimney too! At the start, it’s wider than two outstretched arms. While it slowly pinches down to a squeeze chimney, there was a striking dihedral with a thin crack in it off to the left just before the real groveling began. Dan should be transitioning into the corner now—but why isn’t he? “Get out of that chimney—go for the 5.11 variation. It looks way better.”

“It’s wet.” Dang it. And I have the pack. When going through a chimney with a pack on, the best strategy is to put the pack on a long sling between your legs and let it swing around as an off-balancing and erratic metronome. But the start to this chimney traversed a bunch and had too many loose blocks in it for a pack to swing freely. It had to be tamed. So on the shoulders it went. Until the end, when I was forced to nearly heel-toe. I lowered the pack off my shoulder and clipped it to my harness. I could see the light through the small opening and wiggled up to it. The pack was stuck. Of course it was stuck. It always gets stuck. Thrutching, cursing, wriggling. Ugh. The pack is stuck, and now I’m stuck. I wouldn’t be stuck if I were leading. Stupid pack. I became the awkward kind of cold too, the kind you get ice climbing or from sitting on a chair lift after bombing a blue groomer. I was cold from the crisp morning air and yet sweating from exertion, trying to free the bane of my existence. I couldn’t win. Finally, I squirted out of the hole and stared down a thousand feet of air to the base of Half Dome. The route is ledgy and largely shielded from exposure on the lower half, which we had climbed in the dark, and so this was the first moment of full-blown, unadulterated, wind-beneath-my-wings kind of exposure.

Two thoughts came to my mind. First was, “Hey, glad we started at 1:00 a.m. as there are the four other parties, all crammed together only three pitches up.” And as I turned my attention to the pack, legs doing a full-leg press against the wall, back straining and forearms burning as I pulled outward from the wall with all my weight to free the pack, ass hanging three feet out from the wall, I thought, “If this pack comes rifling out of this hole, and I go sailing off this thing, does that blow my onsight?” It’s funny, I know, but I was seriously concerned about having to redo the pitch just because of this damn pack. I changed my stance, locked my leg into the chasm, and continued to pull. The stitches strained, some threads popped, and then the pack did the same. “Whoa-ho-ho!”

With arms reeling, Dan pulled in some slack, and I regained my balance. Okay, then. I shouldered the pack and climbed the last fifteen-foot finger crack up to the belay.

I set off on the next pitch in search of another perfectly comfortable belay ledge. Consistently feeling disappointed and as if I could be picky based on the ledges on the lower half of the route, I linked three pitches into one. Since I had long since been out of view, Dan drifted in and out of daydreams and boredom by watching the party below, who were now about to gain the picnic-table chockstone at the base of the chimney I had gotten stuck in. I had gone off belay and was starting to pull up rope as Dan started to follow when I heard a blood-curdling “aaaaaaaah!”

I pulled in a handful of slack and braced for Dan’s full weight. But the rope never came tight. I tugged on the rope, but it didn’t move. It didn’t go taught or slack. The rope didn’t move for a long time, but he hadn’t fallen. I just sat on my ledge in silence until the rope began to slowly move again. Dan inched his way up to me. When he popped over the final bulge he had the total you-are-not-going-to-believe-this! face Chunk from the Goonies had. “Dude, you know that block you belayed from at the base of the chimney?”

“Yeah?”

“So that guy in blue below us was beach whaled on top of it. He was on his knees and about to stand up, with his head down and butt up like downward dog in yoga, when the block literally dropped two feet deeper into the chimney! He totally surfed that thing down until it rewedged deeper in the chimney! It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen—that block is huge!”

“Whoa—crazy. Must have been from all that He-man-style leg pressing I was doing trying to get that pack out,” I wisecracked. And then we simply forgot about it as we turned our focus to the real obstacle of the route—the upper zigzag pitches. We caught another party that was on the wall from the day before, ate some lunch, and wrestled with the upper headwall. We topped out by midday, never to see the party below us again. It then rained for eight straight days in the valley, so we left after the first few to seek drier weather in the Needles before heading back home to Colorado.

I had made a deal with my wife that I would drive to Yosemite with Dan and climb while she and the kids would fly to Minnesota and get a head start on a family vacation with her parents. I would then drive back to Colorado with Dan, then on to Minnesota by myself. Dan knew I’d be bored on the drive to the Midwest, but he isn’t known as a prankster. That’s more my role in our relationship. So it surprised me when he sent a text message—“You remember that chimney on Half Dome? It fell down!”

What was he talking about? I knew I was out of it from the cross-country drive, half of it on my own, but what was he talking about? “For real. Check SuperTopo.” I lost service as I rolled into eastern Nebraska, home of the dreaded dead zone. Two hours of no service was more than enough to make my curiosity nearly kill me. I rolled into a gas station in Lincoln and trolled the website as I gassed up. Sure enough, there was a photo of the whole chimney cleaved clean off. It almost looked Photoshopped. I still didn’t believe it, so I read on, page after page of comments. Sure enough, the chimney had finally succumbed to gravity. The thing was huge too! It must have been as thick as a house and a full pitch tall. The Park Service’s geologist blamed it on a torrential downpour that happened over Fourth of July weekend and the loosening of soil and all that, but the crazy part is, when you stood at the base of it, you thought, wow, this is a big chimney that’s a part of this massive rock face.

It’s interesting to think about the event after it happened. It never really crossed my mind that the chimney could have fallen off while we were on it—it was too big, and I assumed that the block shifted, not that the chimney widened. That never happens, especially on the human timeline compared to a geological one. Plus, the route has been done thousands of times—it’s in the 50 Classic Climbs of North America book after all. Which is an interesting note—many of the routes in that book are kind of piles. They often aren’t even the best routes on the respective formation. But still, I never thought, jeez, this flake is hardly attached to the wall—I hope I don’t leg press it off as I chimney behind it. My mother would say, “Be more careful,” or something to that effect, while Layton Kor would have said, “Good thing you climbed it while you still could.”

Months later, I still don’t know how I really feel about being one of the last to do the route—on one hand, I love tick lists and was glad to check this one off. I feel lucky that after having two kids, I finally made this a priority and was able to sneak it in at the eleventh hour. Yet on the other hand, the fact that the chimney fell down only reinforces the notion that since my time is so limited with children, a business, life, et cetera, I need to stick to more contemporary classics such as those in 50 Favorite Climbs of North America—now there’s a book for you! Time will tell if the significance of it all will sink in, but after doing this for the better part of my adult life, I think ten years from, now I’ll cherish the same thing I do from all these kinds of trips—how much I enjoyed hanging out with my partner and how I wish I had shared more memories with him.

Jason Haas runs Fixed Pin Publishing and lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two children, Corbin and Adele. However, they are now thinking about moving since he has busted all the doorframes from leg pressing them just like he did that chimney.

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