When the news that a giant flake had fallen off Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome broke on a SuperTopo forum, folks thought it was a troll. Though after pictures surfaced of a giant blank scar on the face, climbers across the world realized that one of the most famous climbs in the world — the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, 5.9 A.1 — would never be the same.
The Regular Northwest Face was a pioneering route, first climbed in 1957 by Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas and was Robbins’ win in a rivalry between Robbins and fellow Valley climber Warren Harding. Non-climbers may also know the route from National Geographic’s coverage of Alex Honnold’s 2012 solo.
The 2,500 ton flake comprised half of pitch 10, all of pitch 11, and the start of the chimneys on pitch 12, including a giant ledge that is sometimes used as a bivy in multi-day ascents. At first it’s amazing to think that nobody heard it crash to the base but given the frequency and intensity of the thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley was loud all night long. What’s truly amazing, though, is that no one was injured or killed: because of the storm, there were no climbers on the route and no climbers sleeping at the base, waiting to start the climb at dawn. There is be no question as to the survivability of 5 million pounds of rock falling almost 1000 feet.
Thousands of hikers ascend Half Dome every year via an 8+ mile hike from the valley floor to a conga line up the cables on the east side of the monolith. Fewer, yet still a great number, climb the technical routes to the summit the most famous of which is unquestionably the Regular Northwest Face.
The big question now is: what will become of the route? The pitch 11 anchors are visible but without the chimneys that were comprised by the flake, it would take some SCARY aid or hard unprotected free climbing to get there cleanly. As of now, the National Park Service is advising climbers to stay off the route until more information becomes available, despite the lack of additional rockfall. Nonetheless, the race is on to establish a new line on the famous route and whoever does it gets to put their name on the classic line.
Whoever does it, though, will likely be at the center of another climbing ethics debate. Establishment of the new line may completely change the character of the route — which can go free at 5.12a — by adding a “bolt ladder”, or a line of bolts in the rock wall to help climbers ascend an otherwise blank face. Moreover, climbers are not allowed to use power tools to place the bolts such that each one must be placed by hand, taking 20 to 45 minutes each. Robbins himself was one of the first proponents of “clean climbing”; that is, climbing with as little permanent damage to the rock as possible and a bolt ladder would throw those ethics back in his face on his most famous route. Not an ideal solution, if you ask me.
At the end of the day, the climb will likely be restored to climbable shape. It’s just a matter of who does and how. As Yosemite chief of staff Mike Gauthier told the Guardian, “Whatever climber does the workaround, they should be mindful that the climbing community will be watching closely.”