With some mountains, stating who was the first to reach the summit can be a tricky and even contentious business. Throughout the Americas, there is archaeological evidence of indigenous ascents before the “First Ascents” recorded by European mountaineers. Indeed, some contemporary mountaineers prefer to use the phrase “First Recorded Ascent.”
In the Sierra Nevada, firm archaeological evidence of Native American ascents is thin. Clarence King and fellow mountaineers of Josiah Whitney’s California Geological Survey claimed to have found various artifacts on some of the summits they attained in the mid-1800s. An arrowhead was reported to have been found on the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.
Considering the above, it is reasonable to ask: Did Native Americans ever ascend to the summit of Tis-sa-ack?
The first European settlers of the Valley to reach the summit never reported finding any evidence of a Native American ascent. Given the technical nature of Half Dome before the installation of ropes and cables, this is not surprising. That said, the Anasazi of the desert Southwest were known to be superb climbers who carved their dwellings into the sides of cliffs. Would it be a far stretch to think that the Ahwahneechee, who lived in one of the world’s greatest rock climbing playgrounds, were also adept at scaling rock faces? We may never know; some things will remain a mystery forever.
A Perilous Route
For the aspiring Half Dome climbers of the late 1800s, the easiest route to the summit was obvious: the Northeast Shoulder. Hidden from viewers who are down in the Valley or standing atop Glacier Point, the Northeast Shoulder is the lowest angle route to the summit. However, being the least steep of Half Dome’s sides did not imply an easy ascent.
To get to the base of the Northeast Shoulder, potential climbers first had to hike or ride horses 4,000 vertical feet up and almost eight miles into the wilderness. They followed Native American trails and newly constructed hikers’ trails past Vernal and Nevada Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley, and then through the steep old-growth pine forest that flanks the southern and southeastern side of the Dome.
The beginning of the Northeast Shoulder rises steeply out of the forest floor. This first exposure of rock is the Sub Dome, and its steep face presented the first challenge to would-be climbers. To this day, many hikers cannot complete this climb. They are turned around by the daunting drop-offs next to the trail. We must remember that the earliest climbers did not have the benefit of this trail.
Once atop the Sub Dome, the granite narrows to a thin ridge which then drops down to a saddle. From this saddle rises the mass of Half Dome. It is 400 vertical feet from here to the summit. The granite slab that must be ascended reaches angles of almost 50º—rock that is steep enough to be considered technical rock climbing even by today’s standards. The modern Cables Route did not yet exist, nor had it even been conceived.
An Impossible Mountain
So, who was the first human to attempt this daring feat? The written record of first attempts to scale Half Dome begins in 1869.
James Hutchings was an entrepreneurial carpenter, gold miner, and journalist who first came to Yosemite in 1855 to see for himself the grand sight of a thousand-foot-tall waterfall that the Mariposa Battalion had reported during their removal of the Ahwahneechee. Over the following years, Hutchings made several trips to Yosemite. He wrote articles for magazines and newspapers describing the grandeur of the Valley. In 1864, he and his wife acquired a small, rustic hotel in the Valley and helped to usher the tourism boom that continues to this day. They called their hotel Hutchings House and transformed it into a comfortable inn over the following years.
We can imagine some of the conversations that took place at the Hutchings House with their guests. During dinners and aperitifs, the subject of Half Dome’s impossible summit was discussed time and again. Of course, any discussion about ascending Half Dome would have included speculation about the fame that would come to the person who made the first ascent.
Perhaps it was these conversations that propelled Hutchings towards his attempt at being the first to climb Half Dome in 1869. Hutchings and two others followed a precipitous route from the Valley floor to the saddle between Sub Dome and Half Dome. Here is Hutchings’ account:
“In the summer of 1869 three of us set out for the purpose of climbing [Half Dome], taking the “Indian escape trail” north of Grizzly Peak. There was absolutely no trail whatsoever, as we had to walk on narrow ledges, and hold on with our feet as well as hands, trusting our lives to bushes and jutting points of rock. In some places where the ledges of rock were high, their tops had to be reached by long broken branches of trees, which the Indians used to climb; and, after they were up, cut off the possibility of pursuit from enemies, by pulling up these primitive ladders after them. Not a drop of water could we find. A snow bank increased rather than diminished our terrible thirst. Finally, after many hair-breadth escapes, and not a little fatigue, we reached the top of the lower dome, or eastern shoulder, and were then within four hundred and sixty feet, vertically, of realizing our ambitious hopes. To our dismay, as well as disappointment, we found a great smooth mountain before us, standing at an angle of about 40°, its surface overlaid and overlapped, so to speak, with vast circular granite shingles, about eighteen inches in thickness. There was not a place to set a secure foot upon, or a point that we could clutch with our fingers. The very first sight put every hope to flight of reaching its exalted summit by the means at our command; and, deeming it a simple impossibility, “we surrendered at discretion,” and returned without the realization of our ambitious hopes.”
Hutchings was not the only prominent Yosemite chronicler to declare Half Dome an impossible ascent. Josiah Whitney, California’s chief geologist, said Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.”
Ropes, Bolts, and a Child
The next recorded attempt was in September of 1871 by John Conway and his son, Major. Conway made a career as one of Yosemite’s most famous trail builders. He cut the Yosemite Falls Trail, the Four Mile Trail, and the Clouds Rest Trail. He was a strong climber. His son, at the mere age of 9, also had a reputation as a climber. They carried a rope and eye-bolts. The father and son drove the bolts into cracks in the rock and secured the rope to the bolts.
At about 300 feet above the saddle between Sub Dome and Half Dome, Major couldn’t find any more outcrops to attach the rope to or any placements for the eye-bolts. Conway decided it was too dangerous to continue higher and called his son down. The daring son in the lead thought he could reach the summit, but his father’s exhortations prevailed, and they retreated.
John Muir sensationally recounted the Conways’ attempt to the San Francisco Bulletin:
“John Conway, a resident of the valley, has a flock of small boys who climb smooth rocks like lizards, and some two years ago he sent them up the dome with a rope, hoping they might be able to fasten it with spikes driven into fissures, and thus reach the top. They took the rope in tow and succeeded in making it fast two or three hundred feet above the point ordinarily reached, but finding the upper portion of the curve impracticable without laboriously drilling into the rock, he called down his lizards, thinking himself fortunate in effecting a safe retreat.”
If only Muir had lived a hundred more years, he would have seen the potential of such human lizards rock climbing on the Valley’s walls.
It took four years for another aspirant to come forth. For this man, “Half Dome fever” became all-consuming.