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Half Dome Rockfall Update: RNWF Likely Now Climbable

Posted on: July 31, 2015


Photo taken on July 7, 2015—a few days after an immense rockfall on Pitches 11 and 12—by a NPS climbing patrol who climbed the first 10 pitches of the Regular Northwest Face to gather information on route conditions to pass on to the climbing community. [Photo] NPS Photo

Sometime between the night of July 2 and the early morning hours of July 3, an immense five-million-pound section of granite detached itself from the Regular Northwest Face (5.9 C1, 2,000', Robbins-Sherrick-Gallwas, 1957; FFA: 5.12a, Coyne-Jackson-Lorrimer, 1979) on Half Dome during a period of heavy rain. The rockfall erased part of Pitch 11 and all of Pitch 12, leaving a bald spot with hanging flakes roughly 200 feet high and 100 feet wide.

[We reported on this event in a NewsWire July 7. Read it here—Ed.]

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A few days after the incident, Yosemite Lead Climbing Ranger Brandon Latham, Climbing Ranger Kristin Anderson and Valley local Zack Milligan, went up to the face to assess the damage.

After discussing how to reestablish the route, Milligan and his frequent climbing partner, Yosemite Valley District Ranger Jack Hoeflich, made plans to climb the route the following week. The two had climbed the route several times in the past, once ascending it twice in the same day, and Milligan had soloed the route in approximately 2:30. Latham tells Alpinist, "Their intension, of course, was to...only use bolts where absolutely necessary with the utmost respect for the line."

Within a few hours of climbing, the pair reached the Robbins Traverse on Pitch 10 and hand-drilled two three-eighth-inch bolts for a belay anchor down left of the original Pitch 11 anchor, which now sits alone, unreachable because of the rockfall. "The lower pitches were not damaged from rockfall, but for some reason everything felt a bit loose," Milligan tells Alpinist.

After drilling a ladder of seven quarter-inch bolts—their entire stash before running out of time—they descended with the job incomplete, intent on returning later. "The wall is delaminated just right of our bolt ladder," Milligan says. "It could not be bolted free on lead, [it's] like a 5.14 slab. I saw a few pencil [-sized holds] that made me think I could stand on [them] for a second." Milligan continues: "Adding the bolt ladder was the only way. I wouldn't exclude the chance of someone freeing [the terrain around where we drilled] but it would be outrageously difficult."

Milligan explains that the plan was to later extract the quarter-inchers and replace them with longer three-eighths bolts, which are the modern standard bolt of choice in the area. This is common practice among many climbers on new terrain, especially when hand-drilling on lead. Hand-drilling a bolt ladder—that is holding and turning a bit and handle in one hand and pounding the drill with the other—while standing high in aiders with arms stretched overhead is very strenuous, even when placing quarter-inch bolts. Placing thicker bolts, like three-eighths, takes significantly longer.

On July 20, visiting climbers from Oceanside, California, Joshua Reinig and Howard Ballou carried 75-pound loads to the base of the wall and spent the next two days getting established on the wall. At their bivies, they experienced what Reinig called "super eerie phenomena" in a SuperTopo.com trip report, with a constant rain of gravel pelting them all night and, on the second night, feeling the wall vibrate.

The next day, their third on the route, they climbed Pitch 10, then Reinig saw "a rivet ladder, seven rivets deep, top-steppy...[that] trended up and right into nowhere land." Above the final bolt, he started drilling his first Valley bolt, a three-eighths. One bolt and an hour later Reinig was exhausted and the pair switched places. After drilling three more bolts, Ballou tried to pendulum right to the ledge below the 5.11 corner on Pitch 12 but kept missing the grab. He ascended back to his high point, drilled another bolt and was then able to complete the pendulum to the base of the 5.11 corner. Their trip report ends there.

"It would be important to know more," Latham says. "Because we don't know for certain that the route is climbable." He continues, "Maybe it wasn't a big deal for them because they didn't write about it, but it's still information that we don't have regarding the reestablishment of the route. There's a missing part to their trip report that would state that the route is good to go."

Alpinist reached out to Reinig and Ballou for more information but has not heard back from them yet.

In its current state, the new route line starts at a two-bolt anchor on a ledge below the old Pitch 11, then follows a ladder of seven quarter-inch button head bolts and five three-eighth-inch bolts to what Reinig calls a "rather ridiculous pendulum" to a ledge below the left-facing corner on Pitch 12.

Yosemite Park Geologist Greg Stock tells Alpinist in a recent phone interview: "The challenge is determining when active rockfall zones are no longer active. I can't tell you that it's safe or not. Giving those areas some time to stabilize is a good idea, but we can't say how much time."

Stock continues, "There's been more [rockfall] activity this summer over last summer. [But] we had fewer rockfalls this winter. We also had more rain in July than we had in January, and rain is instrumental in causing rockfall. Ranger Brandon Latham echoes this statement: "It's the rain after the heat that causes the bonds between rocks to weaken."

"The seam to the right of the rope is the edge of the exfoliating rock that we had to bolt around," reported the team that re-established most of the new variation to the RNWF. [Photo] Zack Milligan Collection

Around the same time as the Northwest Face rockfall, another fall occurred across the Valley on Washington Column. Then, on July 15 at 3:20 p.m., more rocks fell from Half Dome, this time from the center of the face near the route Tis-sa-ack. Here, according to Stock, "A bus-sized rock [fell]. The rock came...down the face but didn't hit the wall until a few pitches above the ground, where it exploded." Stock continues: "A lot of trees have been knocked over."

About sixty rockfalls occur in Yosemite Valley every year, Stock says.

"The Death Slabs were changed too.... The gully got washed out," Milligan says about the approach path many climbing parties take, which leads directly to the wall base from the Valley floor.

Latham says this is the wettest July he recalls since he moved to Yosemite in 2000.

Sources: Brandon Latham, Zack Milligan, Greg Stock, ClimbingYosemite.com, SuperTopo.com

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