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Half Dome: First Ascent of the Northwest Face

June 20, 2017
mountains

Half Dome. The iconic rock, with its sheer face and rounded back, overlooks the majesty of Yosemite Valley. Though today its face is climbed several times a day, it was at one point the zenith of big wall climbing.

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Royal Robbins – Day 1 of the first ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, 1957. Photo: Mike Sherrick

In June of 1957, Royal Robbins, alongside Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick, made the first grade VI climb in the United States: the sheer, Northwest Face of Half Dome. The five day climb set a new standard in American big wall climbing.

While George Anderson first reached the summit in 1875, he did so along the route now marked with the famous Half Dome cables (you can make the same trip – more info here).

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Royal’s four Half Dome First Ascent Routes: A – Regular Route (FA 1957) B – Arcturus (FA 1970) C – Direct Route (FA 1963) D – Tis-sa-ack (FA 1969)

The Birth of Big Wall Climbing: The First Ascent

The first ascent of Half Dome’s face was a major step forward in climbing, due to its length and its difficulty. It was the sheerest, highest wall ever climbed by an American. The techniques—aid climbing, hauling gear, bivouacking on the face—required to climb big walls were still in their infancy. Gallwas brought along homemade pitons he’d recently designed, modeled after John Salathé’s own hard-steel pitons.

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Some of the gear used by Robbins, Sherrick and Gallwas

“If we got stuck,” said Royal in the second volume of his autobiography, Fail Falling, “it would take days for rescuers to reach us…A rescue like that had never been attempted, for the very good reason that a wall like Half Dome had never been climbed.”

Royal Robbins wrote, “We feared the enormity of the wall…. We dreaded having to reach so deeply within ourselves and maybe find ourselves lacking.”

A Failed First Attempt

In 1955, Royal, alongside the legendary Warren Harding, Gallwas, and Don Wilson, attempted the same climb, but turned back after a mere 400 feet. Royal wrote:

“We crept away form there like whipped curs, with our tails between our legs. We had dared what no else had dared, and we were found wanting. I didn’t like the feeling, and vowed to return.”

Success at Last

From June 23 to June 27, the three-man team made climbing history. As they peeked their heads over the Visor of Half Dome, they were greeted by old friend Warren Harding, who had been unable to get to Yosemite in time to join them. Though competitive at all times, he was also a gracious friend – he’d brought food and wine!

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Royal on the Face. Photo: Mike Sherrick

June is Heritage Month at Royal Robbins. We are thrilled and grateful to have two incredible pioneers and leaders – Liz and Royal Robbins as founders and mentors. Liz Robbins currently serves as Senior Advisor to the brand.

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