A New Look, and Tougher Route, for Yosemite’s Half Dome

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 Greg Stack/National Park Service

One of the most iconic climbing routes in Yosemite National Park was forever changed over the 4th of July weekend. Some 200 triangular flakes of granite peeled free from the Robbins traverse approximately 1,000 feet high up Half Dome during the night on July 5. Luckily, no climbers were on the wall at the time due to a heavy rainstorm that park officials believe contributed to the massive flake peeling free of the nearly vertical wall. 

Part of the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, this was the first big wall route ever climbed in the park, in 1957 by Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. When the trio stood at the top, it signaled the beginning of the Golden Age of Climbing in the valley.

This is the third section of the route that has come off since his successful climb. "Sometime in the past Psych Flake and Undercling Flake fell off, but that is to be expected," says Greg Stock, Park Geologist. "The whole rock is composed entirely of exfoliating sheets of granite that continually keep shedding. It's part of the reason we recommend climbers not camp below it." The other two changes occurred decades ago, so this is the first major change to the route in modern times.

 

Already, reverberations from the rock fall are echoing across the climbing community. "It was on the bucket list of all climbers," said Cedar Wright, a Yosemite regular. "Everyone wanted to follow in the footsteps of Robbins, plus it was one of the easier routes up Half Dome."

Now what was once a relaxing section is a sheer granite face. "You can see the bolts for pitch eleven hanging on the wall above where the ledge used to be, but there is absolutely nothing left to stand on — it is a sheer face for approximately 150 feet across to the rest of the climb," said Climbing Ranger Brandon Latham. "When we climbed up to it yesterday it is quite evident that the whole character of the climb has forever changed."

Once the wall settles and climbers feel comfortable heading back up, someone will be able to etch their name into this famous route when they pioneer the new section. "I am betting it will become a much harder climb," says Latham. "Someone is going to have to add in new bolts to protect themselves on the wall if they try to free-climb the granite slab, it looks very clean with nothing to stand on. They also might have to put in a bolt ladder (a series of bolts anchored into the wall close enough together to reach each from the preceding one) to make it across."

It probably won't be until fall till the new problem on the route is figured out. "Usually after one of these, there tends to be smaller rock falls while everything settles," says Wright. "But I probably will be changing my plans to head out there to see what happens."