by Christopher Jain
It was the best of climbs; it was the worst of climbs. On Sunday, October 19, 1997, I climbed Snake Dike with some CHAOS (Cal Hiking and Outdoors Society) friends, Ky-Van Lee and Yoav Altman. This was one of the best climbs I have ever done and fully deserves its reputation for being one of the best climbs in Yosemite. It was also one of my most eventful climbs, making it in some ways one of the worst climbs I have ever done.
Snake Dike ascends the west face of Half Dome and is approached by hiking up the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls and then hiking cross-country to the base of the climb. Because it takes so long to get to the climb we decided to hike in Saturday evening and spend the night at the campground in Little Yosemite Valley. We started up the trail in dusk and were the only ones going up towards the falls while a constant stream of tourists and day-hikers hurried to get down to Happy Isles before darkness.
Before long it was completely dark and we had the trail to ourselves. However, as we hiked from the Vernal Falls overlook towards the base of Nevada Falls we heard some really distant shouting: a low-pitched, drawn-out "ahhh" which undoubtedly emanated from buffoons partying on the top of Nevada Falls. But then some minutes later we heard a similar shout much closer, coming from only a couple hundred feet away: "Heeeeeellllp!" but with none of the intonation or energy that YOU would use if you were calling for help! When we shouted back, someone answered, "Heeeellllp! I'm loooosst." A few seconds later a man dressed in a t-shirt and shorts came stumbling out of the darkness and asked us where the trail was. We told him that we were on it. He looked doubtful, confiding to us that he didn't notice any difference between the trail (which looked pretty obvious to me) and the surrounding wilderness. We convinced him that we really were on the trail and proceeded to question him. It turned out that he had hiked Half Dome and gotten caught in the dark without a flash-light. But he did have food, water, and warm clothes. As he was not in any real danger we determined that we wouldn't have to abort our trip to hike him all the way out and advised him to wait for the nearly full moon which would come up within an hour.
While the others waited, I left my pack and led him down the trail to the Vernal Falls overlook where the trail is much more obvious. He refused my offer of a large trash bag to bivouac in and ignored my advice to take shelter in the Vernal Falls bathrooms (smelly but warmer than sitting outside in the forest). When we reached the point where the Mist Trail descends as a staircase (complete with a banister) down from the falls overlook, he told me that he had actually reached this point earlier in the evening but had turned away because it did not look familiar.
I returned to Ky-Van and Yoav and we continued hiking up towards the campground. Soon after reaching the top of Nevada falls my headlamp stopped functioning. But by walking close to Ky-Van, I was able to see by the light of her headlamp.
On reaching the campground, we found it very crowded. Yoav had hiked a little ahead of Ky-Van and me and we couldn't find him. It was late and Ky-Van and I were exhausted; we just wanted to find a bear box to stash our food and then go to straight to sleep. The first bear boxes that we checked didn't have any room but we eventually found one that was some distance from other tents. Opening it, we found that while it held a couple of backpacks, there was enough room for our food. Just as I was making a remark about how rude it was to place entire backpacks in bear boxes, a woman came marching up and rudely demanded that we get out of HER bear box and stop intruding on HER site. I was completely taken aback, but I attempted to tell her that it was a communal box and that we weren't on her site. She wouldn't listen and she wouldn't shut up either. She had a tent about 100 feet from the box, which was further away from it then most tents in this campground were from each other. We found out that she was part of a guided group from U.C. Santa Barbara when she threatened to have the "Group Leader" speak to us. I told her that I would be GLAD to speak to the leader, who as it turned out was asleep. After obnoxiously berating me for several minutes, the Bear Box Lady (as I later named her) eventually went back to her tent after making a final threat.
After she left, I noticed that Ky-Van, who had been completely silent during this argument, had more productively used this time to lay out her sleeping bag and pad and in getting prepared to go to bed. Several minutes later, Yoav came by looking for us. We told him that he needed to know that we had a neighbor who thought that the bear box was hers. The Bear box Lady overheard this and started loudly berating us again, this time from her tent.
Silent no more, Ky-Van jumped up from bed and started yelling back at her at the top of her lungs. I doubt if there was a single person in the campground who did not hear her. Ky-Van read her the riot act, telling her about our rights to the bear box, telling her in no uncertain terms exactly what we thought of her, telling her where to go. Ky-Van marched right up to her tent and bent down shouting loudly directly into the side of the tent. Of course, Yoav and I followed and tried to help her out whenever we could get a word in, (not that she needed help).
After the shouting had subsided and we had returned to our site, I was somewhat dismayed to notice that all the people who had previously been merrily talking and laughing around the communal camp fire had, for some mysterious reason, quietly retired to their tents. It was totally silent, but I'm sure that every person in the campground was wide awake. At this point, we probably could have used any bear box in the campground without opposition.
A few minutes later, a young man walked up and rather reluctantly asked us what was wrong. He was the Group Leader. The Bear Box Lady reemerged from her tent and we got to tediously go over everything that had happened. The leader was apologetic and assured us that nobody would stop us from using the bear box. I felt rather sorry for the leader, as I got the distinct impression that he was not looking forward to hiking out with this woman.
The next morning we hiked to the base of the climb. Luckily, Snake Dike is popular enough to have a well-marked use trail which saved us a lot of time. As I led the first pitch (with a variation from the beta that turned out to have the most difficult climbing all day--but at least I could protect it) a party of three arrived. This was followed by a party of four. The party of three consisted of three young German men who started up the first pitch while we were still on it. After we told them that there wasn't a whole lot of room at the belay stance they belayed from a ledge below up. They were very fast climbers and the two who followed would simu-climb (on top rope). On the second pitch they passed us, taking a 5.9 shortcut in the process.
The party of four followed closely behind the Germans. They were also speaking German, although they turned out to be Swiss. Without waiting their turn or asking if it was OK their leader clipped into the two-bolt anchor at the second belay stance (which happened to be a hanging belay) and proceeded to start belaying up the rest of his party. This kind of behavior is pretty rare in Yosemite and violates basic climbing etiquette, especially with a four person team. Of course his anchor system became all tangled up with our system. As the leader of the Swiss team belayed up the third member of the group, Yoav suggested that things would work better for everyone if he waited before bringing the rest of his party up to the already crowded belay station. The leader rather rudely rebutted him, I joined in supporting Yoav, and the conversation very quickly degenerated into a loud shouting match. Our position was that they were not only breaking the rules but were endangering everyone by tangling up the anchors. The leader's position was that they could climb any way they wished, that he had climbed in Yosemite for many years and there knew no etiquette about waiting turns and that he was in fact a certified mountain guide and knew what HE was doing (blaming the tangled anchors on us). (By the way, it turned out that he and the rest of his party were also attorneys, which did not surprise me in the least. :-)
It is really interesting to get in a fight at a hanging belay, hanging from the same bolts 200 feet above the ground. Neither you nor your opponents can walk away--you're stuck with being about two feet away from each other. The consequences of any potential physical conflict would be magnified, especially when both sides are busy belaying people. Fortunately, some dim awareness of these circumstances and their accompanying potential for disaster eventually influences combatants to self-moderate themselves. At least this happened in our case. The Swiss leader even went so far as to concede that it would have been polite to ask before coming up to our belay. However, he stopped short of assuring us that he would exercise this politeness in the future.
As insurance against future incidents, we rearranged our anchor system at the next belay so that there was no room on the bolt hangers for any additional carabiners and made sure that the Swiss leader knew this. But, this did not stop our intrepid Swiss guide from leading up the pitch and hanging onto the rock 10 feet below the anchor, waiting his turn. Of course he couldn't put any pro in as the only protection on the entire pitch was a single bolt half-way. If he slipped, he would have fallen about 150 feet, although this didn't seem to disturb him in the least! But it disturbed me, so I immediately told him to climb up to the anchor and clip into our system.
The leader of the Swiss team (and in addition to being the group leader, he indeed led every pitch) led on double lines and used an interesting device that allowed him to belay two followers at once. He was a very strong and fast climber, but knowing that he was a "certified mountain guide," we watched in disbelief as he seemingly attempted to violate every rule of safe climbing: chaining carabiners, not using any locking carabiners, using a single runner as the anchor system, using a single bolt as a belay anchor, etc. But the Swiss team became much faster and more efficient as they perfected their system and passed us on the last two pitches of the climb.
The climb itself was excellent. Easy climbing on solid rock. Two moderately difficult pitches lead to the Snake Dike itself. The Dike is a vein with a lot of protrusions running up the side of Half Dome. It offers a route up an otherwise blank wall, allowing us to a climb up a side of Half Dome which in its absence would be impossibly difficult (at least for a clumsy, no-account climber like me). After gaining the Dike, the lack of natural protection keeps the climb interesting. Some pitches are protected only by a single bolt. Because of the lack of natural protection, we placed the rack in a summit pack, allowing the leader to only carry a handful of quickdraws. This allowed me to enjoy the lead climbing even more, as I did not have to carry the awkward rack and waste time fiddling with gear. Ky-Van and I traded off leads. Yoav was so agitated by the situation with the Swiss group that he did not feel comfortable leading.
Higher up on the route, the size and convex shape of Half Dome gave us the impression of being afloat on an enormous, sun-drenched sea of granite. This is when finally I began to understand why Snake Dike has a reputation for being one of Yosemite's greatest climbs. Half Dome towers over Yosemite Valley giving us not only an outstanding view of the Valley but also of the mountains surrounding it. A controlled burn slowly filled the Valley with smoke as we climbed, making the view even more dramatic.
Lower down on the route, the Swiss guide, who had many years of experience climbing in both Europe and North America, had told me that Snake Dike remained his all-time favorite climb. Although we had difficulty understanding each other and climbed according to different ethics and customs, I found myself in full agreement with him in his appreciation of the route. Our climbing styles might clash, but we were on the route for the same purpose and seeking the same experience. Much of the tension I felt towards him slipped away.
We reached the summit just a few minutes before sunset and started down the cable route just as it began to get dark. The cables were "down," meaning that all the wooden steps and cable supports had been removed, leaving only the cables running right along the rock. Because of this and because it was cold and windy and was getting dark, Ky-Van and Yoav decided that they would feel more comfortable rapping the rope. We lowered Ky-Van on a single line, allowing Yoav to rappel. Then I untied the rope, threw it down, and batmanned (climbed hand over hand, without using ascenders or a rappel device) down one of the cables, clipped into it with a runner for some additional safety. For the second pitch we decided to use a traditional two rope rappel but the ropes got hideously tangled with each other and the cables as Ky-Van attempted to rap them. I batmanned down the cable to her and we spent quite a while untangling the ropes while Yoav slowly froze up above us in the dark. For the third and last pitch Ky-Van and I were sick of rope-handling and lowered Yoav down on a single line and then pulled up the rope and coiled it before batmanning the cables.
We made it to the campground by midnight, ate all our remaining food and started hiking out. We needed to get back to the Bay Area as all of us had important appointments scheduled for Monday: Ky-Van needed to proctor an exam, Yoav had a midterm, and I had a court appearance. Because my headlamp was not working, I walked between the other two, relying on the light from their headlamps to supplement the moonlight.
As we hiked down the Muir trail after crossing over the top of Nevada falls I slipped on some rocks on the trail and was immediately rewarded by a snapping noise in my left ankle accompanied by a very sharp pain. As I lay writhing on the ground, Yoav who just happened to be an experienced EMT, took charge. They made me comfortable and Yoav proceeded to build an ingenious ankle splint out of a cut-up Ridgerest pad, duct tape, nylon webbing, and two nut tools. They moved all the heavy items out of my pack into theirs and found two walking sticks. With the splint and the walking sticks, I was able to slowly limp down to Happy Isles on an ankle that seems to be badly sprained but not broken. Near the end, Yoav went ahead and brought the car from Camp Curry to Happy Isles, cutting a mile off the distance I had to walk. By the time we all reached the car, it was close enough to dawn that most of the stars had already disappeared.
Ky-Van had driven up separately and immediately took off for Davis and the exam waiting to be proctored. Yoav and I, however, were supposed to be giving two other CHAOS friends, Matt and John, a ride back to the Bay Area. Matt and John had attempted Washington's Column, their first Big Wall. When we eventually found them at Camp 4, they were really glad to see us, as they had already given up on us and had talked Matt's Dad into driving to Yosemite from Berkeley after work that evening to pick them up. Because the aid climbing was so time-consuming they had been forced to bail near the top of the climb. Earlier Matt had taken a head-first 30 foot fall while leading an aid pitch in the dark.
Just before exiting the Valley, we entered a thick bank of smoke and drove right through a controlled burn--the same fire that had filled the Valley with smoke the previous afternoon. Through the thick smoke, we could see numerous small fires smouldering on both sides of the road. The sides of the road were demarcated by flashing yellow lights, each ephemerally creating a halo in the smoke. I found this to be a very surreal and fitting exit from the Valley.
Yoav didn't make his midterm. Luckily he had the foresight to take pictures of me and the splint for his alibi. But our arrival in Berkeley allowed me just enough time to shower, suit up, and stagger into the U. S. Bankruptcy Court in San Francisco for my appearance. Fortune smiled on me and my case was the first on the docket.
Berkeley, California October 23, 1997
Copyright 1997 Christopher T. Jain
I want to thank Ky-Van Lee and Yoav Altman for being great climbing partners and for being there when I needed them. If you ever get hurt somewhere out in the wilderness, you'd better sincerely hope that one of these two is there to help you. They were awesome and I cannot thank them enough.
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