“Yonder stands the South Dome,” exclaimed John Muir from Tenaya
Canyon’s north rim, “said to be the grandest rock in the world.
Well it may be, since it is of such noble dimensions and
sculpture.” (My First Summer in the Sierra)
Early attempts to climb Half Dome, which of course had previously
been declared “inaccessible” by Professor Whitney, head of the
California Geological Survey, stirred considerable local interest.
“In September 1871, John Conway and his nine-year old son
attempted the ascent with rope and eyebolts.
The boy thought he might have attained the summit, but the father
thought it too hazardous and gave up.” (Francis P. Farquhar, AAJ
cheers for young Conway! The
story takes up again four years later.
“On October 12 of 1875 an exciting event took place.
George C. Anderson, a Scotsman and Valley trail-maker, risked his
life hammering in eyebolts on Half Dome’s sheer back.
By the aid of a rope fastened through 975 feet of bolts, he
became the first person to climb to the top of Half Dome.” (Shirley
Sargent, Galen Clark, Yosemite Guardian)
route up the 45° east slope, now adorned with cables, was still
the only way up the Half Dome until John Salathé
and Anton Nelson climbed the southwest face in 1964.
“Salathé’s pitons enabled them to nail up hitherto hopeless cracks and thus
avoid the need for bolts. The
resulting two-day climb was a breakthrough for the postwar group and for
Salathé and Nelson in particular.” (Chris Jones, Climbing in North
In ten more years Yosemite technique and confidence had advanced to the
stage that the aloof and mysterious 2000 foot northwest face of Half
Dome was the next challenge. Royal
Robbins, Jerry Gallwas, and Mike Sherrick started up in 1957.
The constant mental strain, the uncertainty of the outcome, and the
fear that they would have to go directly over the summit overhangs
tolled heavily on the three climbers.
They were psyched by the scale of the climb.
Robbins, who had borne the brunt of the leading, was mentally
exhausted on the fourth day and took a complete rest while Gallwas eked
out 300 feet of progress. Sherrick
was shattered and did no leading during the final two days.
After five tense days the three climbers reached the summit.
It was a hard-won victory, the most demanding big wall climb in
North America and the first Grade VI on the continent. (Jones)
Their ascent was a breakthrough.
It was not attempted again for three years.
Then, in 1960 I had the good fortune to make the second ascent
with Chuck Pratt and Joe Fitschen. We
were blessed with sunlight and spirited climbing high above the Valley
floor. We topped out in two
and one-quarter days after a bivouac on the disturbingly narrow Thank
God Ledge. The route is a