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Our Heritage

Heritage Month: First Ascent of the Direct NW Face of Half Dome

June 14, 2017
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June is Royal Robbins® Heritage Month. Why? Well, it just so happens that Royal achieved two first ascents of routes on Half Dome in the month of June.

Over five days starting on June 11, 1963, Royal and Dick McCracken made the first ascent of the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome. Nearly six years to the day after Royal’s first ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, he and McCracken undertook the significantly more imposing Direct route up that iconic rock wall.

Aside from its difficulty, two things set this climb apart:

First, Royal and McCracken wore helmets, a first for them in Yosemite, to protect themselves from casual hikers throwing rocks from the summit.

Second, they made a statement that first ascents should not involved fixed lines by bypassing those of Galen Rowell and Ed Cooper, who were preparing to climb the route.

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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)

We’ll let Royal tell you in his own words, as published in the third volume of his autobiography, Royal Robbins: The Golden Age.

 

“Our line [the Direct Route] starts hundreds of feet to the right of the Regular Route, and goes up the middle of the face to meet the Regular Route 500 feet from the top…Dick and I started on June 11. We wore helmets, a rarity in Yosemite as the rock is so good. But hikers on top of the Dome, not expecting climbers to be on the fact below, might toss off debris.

“It was raining, but…we figured that sometime in the five days we expected to be on the wall, there would be a return to the normally sunny June weather. We began by climbing to and then following an easy chimney up a curving crack. Cooper and Rowell’s tempting fixed lines [left over from an early failed attempt] hung nearby, but we avoided them. We went onto the blank granite and…managed to get above this impasse and reach a ledge about 500 feet up for our first bivouac.

“Somewhere near the bottom [of the second day’s first pitch], I thought I heard Liz’s [Liz Robbins, Royal’s wife] voice calling from the summit. Soon after, lightning struck above us, but I told myself, “That wasn’t Liz you thought you heard. She wouldn’t be on top of Half Dome with clouds about.”

[As it turned out, Liz had in fact be on top of Half Dome and had called down to Royal. She hiked down used the cable system and only just reached the bottom when lightning hit. She was safe, but two other hikers were not so lucky.]

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Liz Robbins descending Half Dome just before lightning strikes. 1963.

“On the third day, we continued up the flake system, meeting the Regular Route coming in from the left at Sandy Ledge. This ledge is about 500 feet from the top, so we ultimately climbed 1,500 feet of virgin rock to reach the line that Jerry Gallows, Mike Sherrick, and I had taken in 1957 [on the historic first ascent of Half Dome’s NW Face]. We then followed the regular northwest face route to the summit.”

 

 

If you’re interested in reading further, you can find Royal’s autobiographies on Amazon.

 

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