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Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome - Strategy


Original Post
Bob Johnson · · Philadelphia, PA · Joined May 2014 · Points: 98

I've been reading trip reports about various strategies used for RNWF of Half Dome. I know...just wait until you are prepared and do it in a day. I'm considering that, but also entertaining other thoughts - mainly the two/three day approach: 

Day 1: Hike to base, fix the first 3 pitches
Day 2: Climb to Big Sandy, bivy
Day 3: Top out

I've read about the "big backpack" strategy where the second just jugs every pitch wearing a ~30 lb pack. Seems ok, but that is a little less fun to be the second then. Instead, I was wondering if anyone has experience just hauling something like this: https://www.petzl.com/US/en/Sport/Packs-and-accessories/PORTAGE-30L

I would envision both leader and follower wearing small bullet packs with personal food/water and the haul pack would have the bivy gear. Seems like you could get that haul pack pretty light and wouldn't be too bad??? Thoughts about this approach?

Heavy on the J · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2017 · Points: 0

I did the "big backpack" approach several years ago except that our big backpack wasn't very big. Nothing but food, water, puffy jackets, and those emergency bivy bags. Leader carried a small pack, 2nd carried the bigger pack... climbing instead of jugging. We did not sleep very well on that cold hard ledge! If I did it again I would do it in a day, but I have no regrets about that strategy. We had a blast!

Nate Tastic · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 10

Not to hijack your post...that route description, though.

https://www.mountainproject.com/route/105912416/regular-northwest-face-of-half-dome


Chuck Parks · · Atlanta, GA · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 2,111

Just did this one last September. First big wall for both me and my partner. I'll try not to repeat what's already been covered in the great beta available via Google searching. But here are some "if I had to do it again" strategy points that might save you some misery.

DISCLAIMER: This is the ideal strategy for noobs. If you know what the hell you are doing, then just stop reading here.

I agree with a 2-3 day approach, with some revisions.

Bring: One 70m rope. 2 pairs of daisies and aiders (one pair for each person). ONE pair of ascenders. ONE 30-40L pack. We brought both a #4 and #5 C4, and I didn't regret it. One hook is helpful (we used a Talon). Some sort of 2-foot cheater stick will make life much easier for the long reach on pitch 22. You could either bring something specific, or just daisy chain some stoppers together or something. Just practice whatever your setup is and be able to span a single 8ft gap between bolts.

In warmer months you don't need to bring much in the way of shelter. An emergency bivy is ideal, an emergency blanket is probably sufficient. Garbage bags and duct tape are light and versatile as well. If it gets too cold to sleep in the early morning hours, just get up and start climbing. You'll warm right up!

Bring enough containers to carry whatever water you'll bring on the route (2-4L/person). But only bring 1L/person for the approach. Less weight, and you can fill up at the spring.

DON'T bring: sleeping bags, stoves, bear cannisters or really anything that isn't absolutely necessary. The plan is to leave NOTHING at the base of the climb. Whatever you bring you'll be wearing on your back for the entire climb.

Day 1: Aim to be at the death slabs trailhead between 10am and noon. You'll have time for a good breakfast before then, and still finish the approach before the sun starts baking it. Ignore any advice to start at Happy Isles. STAY ON THE DAMN BUS and go to Mirror Lake. The bus drops you off basically right by the start of the death slabs trail. On the wide trail on the east side of the road, look for a cairn marking a thinner trail that heads pretty much straight up toward Half Dome.

You'll have your harnesses on, and ideally daisies hooked up and ready to go. Aiders won't be needed on the approach. One guy has the pack with all your shit, other guy has the rope (lucky him). You can switch halfway up if pack guy is getting too beat up. When you get to a fixed rope, rope guy gets the rope ready while pack guy hooks up the ascenders. Pack guy ascends the fixed line while trailing your 70m rope. Meanwhile rope guy is tying into the bottom of the rope. When pack guy gets to the top, he can belay rope guy who just climbs up in his approach shoes. You'll probably only need to do this in two locations. It's also an ideal time to switch between pack guy and rope guy if you want to do that.

When you get to the top, find the route (look for the vertical hedge on the first pitch). At the very base where the wall meets the ground, track left about 20 yards or less and you should find the spring. It's a basketball sized depression full of the best water you'll ever taste.

Back from the wall a ways toward a stand of pines you'll find the bivy spot. Stake your claim on the bivy. Relax and unwind from the death slab slog. Later in the afternoon once you've recovered from the approach, climb the first pitch, fix your rope at the top, rap down and clean all the gear. Eat some dinner, and then try to sleep and fail miserably because you're way too psyched.

Day 2: Start early. Even if you plan to sleep on Big Sandy, I'd start no later than 4am. Better to finish early and have some chill time than to be stressed out chasing those last rays of sunshine. If you're going to do it in a day, somewhere from midnight to 2am is probably best.

Whoever is going to lead the first block jugs up with the rack. When he gets to the p1 belay, he ties the ascenders to the end of the rope and lowers them down for pack guy. LEAVE NOTHING AT THE BASE. You aren't coming back. Leader racks up and gets ready while pack guy is jugging.

There are only two spots where climbing with a big pack on will be particularly inconvenient. One is the second chimney pitch(14?). You can either trail the pack below you on a 4ft sling, or the leader can lower some rope and haul it up with some guidance from the second. The other spot is the end of the Thank God Ledge pitch. The second does the traverse while wearing the pack. When the second gets to the bolt, the leader can lower some rope on the OUTSIDE of the chimney and then haul the pack up before the second continues up. The chimney above Thank God Ledge narrows to squeeze, so trying to trail a pack through there would probably suck. Other than those two sections, anything that looks like a chimney is usually easily climbed facing straight in. So the pack isn't a big deal.

Day 3: If you bivy and finish the next day, you won't have any problem finding the cables down. Just follow the conga line of hikers. Zip down the cables, keep heading straight across the top of sub dome until you find the steps leading down. At the bottom of those the Muir Trail takes you down 8 easy miles. You'll be out of water, but don't fret. After a few miles there's an obvious beach on the Merced River on your left. Drink up, then continue down your hero's parade through all the tourists at Nevada and Vernal Falls. Hop on the bus and go get some pizza and beers!

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430

I think the above post is a really good one. I've done RNWFHD twice, once in a standard 3 day ascent (for the time) and in 12hrs base to base of the route around 1982.

If you are gonna do the big pack option, consider taking ultra-lite sleeping bags and pads to the base. You can easily return to the base after the route to pick up your extra plush bivy gear, and then go down the slabs again (tanking up again at the spring as needed) rather than having to take everything up and over the top. 

This way you have a far better chance of a good night's sleep before blasting and the option of sleeping at the base again on the way down if you get off late etc.

Just something to consider. It really is easy to do it in a day if you are familiar with the route. First wall, you're gonna bivy. Having the bags with you gives you options if you aren't so sure once you get an idea of how cold its going to be after the night at the base etc and may give you a little more confidence with some warm rest. That's how we did it then ended up staying one more night at the base due to a base jumper going splat.


YGD™

Bob Johnson · · Philadelphia, PA · Joined May 2014 · Points: 98

Thanks guys! 

Thanks for the details Chuck! Did your second just jug every pitch? Or was the backpack light enough that he/she could free climb? Interesting idea with just a single rope. Can you bail with only a single rope, or would you have to leave gear behind?

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430

Bob Johnson wrote:

Thanks guys! 

Thanks for the details Chuck! Did your second just jug every pitch? Or was the backpack light enough that he/she could free climb? Interesting idea with just a single rope. Can you bail with only a single rope, or would you have to leave gear behind?

Your second ain't gonna free climb much with the big pack strat in all likelihood.

Chuck Parks · · Atlanta, GA · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 2,111

Bob Johnson wrote:

Thanks guys! 

Thanks for the details Chuck! Did your second just jug every pitch? Or was the backpack light enough that he/she could free climb? Interesting idea with just a single rope. Can you bail with only a single rope, or would you have to leave gear behind?

We tried to break up the blocks so one guy was the "aid guy" and one guy was the "free guy". The plan was aid guy leads 1-4, 10-rope throw, zig-zags, and second to last pitch. Free guy leads all the rest -- 6-9, chimneys up to Big Sandy, Thank God, and the last pitch. That way the leader isn't changing gears so much between aid and free. When the aid guy leads, the second jugs. When the free guy leads, the second climbs.

Our plan went out the window about halfway up, but I still think it was a good plan. The best plan is adapt and don't quit. Realistically the second could probably free climb pitches 2&3 with the pack on, but at that point you still have all your water and that bitch is heavy. So we ended up just jugging it. Once you run out of water the pack isn't so heavy. So you'll have that going for you!

You'd definitely leave stuff behind if you tried to bail with a single rope. I have no idea how you'd even bail once you start traversing right (pitch 9 I think?). Once you get to that point you're best off just committing. My partner and I were both really motivated, so bailing wasn't much of a likelihood.

Chuck Parks · · Atlanta, GA · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 2,111

Chuck Parks wrote:

We tried to break up the blocks so one guy was the "aid guy" and one guy was the "free guy". The plan was aid guy leads 1-4, 10-rope throw, zig-zags, and second to last pitch. Free guy leads all the rest -- 6-9, chimneys up to Big Sandy, Thank God, and the last pitch. That way the leader isn't changing gears so much between aid and free. When the aid guy leads, the second jugs. When the free guy leads, the second climbs.

Our plan went out the window about halfway up, but I still think it was a good plan. The best plan is adapt and don't quit. Realistically the second could probably free climb pitches 2&3 with the pack on, but at that point you still have all your water and that bitch is heavy. So we ended up just jugging it. Once you run out of water the pack isn't so heavy. So you'll have that going for you!

You'd definitely leave stuff behind if you tried to bail with a single rope. I have no idea how you'd even bail once you start traversing right (pitch 9 I think?). Once you get to that point you're best off just committing. My partner and I were both really motivated, so bailing wasn't much of a likelihood.

And in case it isn't obvious, in this context "free climb" means pull on every piece of gear you see. You just aren't using aiders or ascenders, and there'll be free moves you'll have to pull. But even on the 5.7 pitches we were yarding on stuff left and right. Whatever gets you there.

Bob Johnson · · Philadelphia, PA · Joined May 2014 · Points: 98

We are planning on doing this the first week of June. If you got water from the spring in September, I imagine the spring will be quite active in June, right? We did Snake Dike last year around June and there was still snow on the top of Half Dome. I imagine that it gets down to the low 30s or high 20s at night that time of year. Does that sound about right? I'm considering bringing a sleeping bag if that's the case.

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430

Bob Johnson wrote:

We are planning on doing this the first week of June. If you got water from the spring in September, I imagine the spring will be quite active in June, right? We did Snake Dike last year around June and there was still snow on the top of Half Dome. I imagine that it gets down to the low 30s or high 20s at night that time of year. Does that sound about right? I'm considering bringing a sleeping bag if that's the case.

Yes, you should have no problem...BUT...this year has been very dry. Last year was like 175% of normal, this year like 25% of normal precipitation. 

The spring runs in the driest of years (albeit slowly)...In June you won't likely see sub-freezing temps, but anything is possible including full snow storm...or 90 degrees on the Valley floor.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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