Many people who have heard of Yosemite have heard of John Muir. A Scot by birth, Muir became the most famous voice of Yosemite and an early American proponent of conservation of public lands. However, there is another Scot who will forever be a part of Half Dome’s history.
A Mountain Obsession
George Gideon Anderson was born in 1839 in the port town of Montrose on Scotland’s eastern coast. He worked as a sailor, but by 1867 he had found his way to the Sierra Nevada foothills during the California Gold Rush.
By 1875, Anderson was in Yosemite Valley, having failed at gold mining. The previous attempts to scale Half Dome were well known to Valley locals. These failures stirred in Anderson an obsession to become the first person to stand on the summit.
Anderson was known in the Valley as a strong and hard worker. Years of physical labor had made him a burly and muscular man. His arms were covered in tattoos, likely reminders of his sailing past. He had a thick beard—a characteristic feature of the mountain men of that day.
Sometime in 1875, Anderson made his way to the saddle between Half Dome and Sub Dome. The Sub Dome was sometimes called the “Camel’s Back” and, in the days before a trail was cut into the rock, presented its own exposed rock challenges, but Anderson quickly surmounted this obstacle to reach the top of the Sub Dome. Above him sprawled the final 400 vertical feet of steep granite slab that so far had rejected all previous attempts.
Anderson’s first efforts were inventive. He first tried to claw his way up the slab wearing heavy, slick-soled boots. He immediately realized that his boots lacked the friction necessary to climb the slick granite slab. Sliding back down to the saddle, Anderson would have felt the precarious exposure of the situation. Either side of the saddle drops off over thousand-foot cliffs, and the 400-foot high slab of Half Dome’s shoulder angles toward one of those cliffs.
Anderson knew that he needed more friction for his feet. He took off his boots and attempted to climb up in his socks. This effort met the same failure. Next, he went barefoot. Many climbers, even today, know that the pads of our feet offer a lot of friction and allow us to grab onto small rock holds with our toes. However, for Anderson, the slab was too steep for this to work.
George Anderson was determined. For his next attempt, he tied rough sackcloth to his feet, but this did not offer the needed friction. Though the bare burlap did not work, Anderson had an idea.
The early rock climbers of Fontainebleau, a forest filled with towering sandstone boulders outside of Paris and near the palace of Versailles, often applied rosin to their mountaineering boots. Rosin is a sticky substance derived from pine pitch, and it helped the climbers stick to the rock. Anderson used a similar technique in his next attempt.
He descended to the pine forest that sits at the base of Sub Dome. There he harvested pitch from the pines and applied it to the sackcloth. Back at the shoulder, he wrapped the sackcloth around his feet once again, with the pitch-covered side facing out. Then he started to climb up the slab. He moved higher and higher on the slab. The pitch worked. It kept his feet from sliding down the granite.
Anderson’s sticky shoes did present a new problem. The pitch was so sticky that he had trouble freeing his feet to move higher. As any climber knows, a stuck foot can be fatal. It can cause a climber to lose his balance and fall over. The force required to free each foot could have thrown Anderson over his heels; this would have resulted in a fatal tumble down the slab. After several of these near misses, Anderson retreated once again.
For some, repeated failures can be dejecting. They may sulk away in depression, never to return to the task that defeated them. For others, failure after failure after failure only results in more determination. Anderson ascended into the latter category.
He returned to the Valley with a plan. He bought a drill, a hammer, eye-bolts similar to what the Conways used, wooden pegs, and lots of rope.
Yosemite Valley is a place prone to rumors; both in the past and in the present. Perhaps this is because it is like any small, isolated community. In the case of the first ascent of Half Dome, there was a rumor of a rumor. The talk around the Valley held that the person who first summited Half Dome would have first right to build a hotel either at the saddle or just below Sub Dome. With such incentives—the summit and a hotel—Anderson would have had competition.
After gathering his equipment, he disappeared from the Valley without notice. Of course, then and today, wandering into the mountains alone and without telling anyone is dangerous. After a few days, locals grew concerned with his unannounced absence, and they organized a search party.
Meanwhile, Anderson was busy drilling his way up Half Dome over the course of several days. Hand-drilling bolt holes into granite is a slow and tiring process. One must tap the top of the drill with the hammer while slowly rotating the drill. Anderson had to drill the holes about 3 inches deep. Then he drove in a wooden peg followed by an eye-bolt. The peg served as a wedge to keep the eye-bolt from falling out. He secured his rope to the bolt, pulled himself up, stood on the bolt, and repeated.
In a few spots, Anderson was able to climb along natural cracks or ledges for twenty feet or so before having to place another bolt.
Anderson continued this determined and laborious effort for hundreds of feet. Then, after overcoming several steep sections, including the bare slab that shut down the Conways, George Anderson rounded the shoulder and arrived on the sprawling summit plateau of Half Dome. It was 3 P.M. on October 12, 1875—a crisp fall day in Yosemite.
Before him, he found a flat summit of about 7 acres, seven clumps of pine trees, and various grasses and shrubs. He might have thought the summit to be an excellent place to camp, with its towering views of the Valley below. He would have hopped along the summit boulders to the high point, 8,839 feet above sea level. He walked over to the precipitous edge of the Northwest Face, the rocky ground just beyond his toes dropping 2,000 feet to the talus below. He was over 4,800 feet above the Valley floor, just a few hundred feet shy of one vertical mile. He walked over to the edge of the Visor, not far from the true summit. The Visor juts out incomprehensibly over the 2,000-foot void, with nothing but air below it. Anderson must have screamed words of victory while marveling at the sights below him from this lofty stance.
Around this time, Anderson’s would-be rescuers had started their search. They knew he was fixated on Half Dome, so they started there. They ascended the rough trail that went past Vernal and Nevada Falls. On today’s trail, Nevada Fall is about four and a half miles from the summit of Half Dome. And here they ran into Anderson. They asked where he had disappeared to. His response, “Gentlemen, I have been to the top of Half Dome.”
Little did Anderson know, his drilling up the shoulder of Half Dome was likely the first instance of true aid climbing in Yosemite. Aid climbing is a specialty within rock climbing where climbers use bolts, pitons, and other pieces of protection to pull themselves up the rock. This is in contrast to free climbing, where climbers only use their hands and feet to pull themselves up. Today, aid climbing is still an important aspect of climbing the big walls of Yosemite Valley, such as El Capitan. Climbers come to Yosemite from all over the world to practice and perfect this craft.
Summit Tourists and Dreams of Riches
Anderson left his ropes fixed to the bolts so that he could guide others to the summit. By the end of October, the first guided party, a group of British tourists, made their way to the summit with Anderson’s help. A few days later he guided Miss S.L. Dutcher to the summit, the first woman to stand there.
Not long after his ascent, Anderson set himself to prepping the route for future clients. He invested in a softer and stronger rope, tied knots in it for handholds, and fixed it to a strong bolt near the summit and the eye-bolts he placed on his first ascent.
Anderson was a dreamer. He knew that most people were incapable of climbing hand-over-hand up his fixed ropes. He wanted to create an easier way for people to attain the summit. Around 1876, he revealed his plan to build a stairway from the Sub Dome saddle to the summit that would replace the ropes. But his dream of ferrying tourists to the summit did not end with a staircase. Eventually, he hoped to install steam-powered tram cars on the side of Half Dome so that tourists could ascend to the top without effort.
Unfortunately for Anderson, he never made much progress on his stairway aside from amassing timber beams. He did, however, build a new trail from the Valley to Vernal Fall. The process of cutting the trail required extensive blasting into the cliffs and heavy rock work. The quality of Anderson’s trail work exceeded what anyone had expected at the time. Initially, the state of California commissioned this trail. Anderson hoped to extend the trail all the way to Half Dome, but California withdrew from its agreement with Anderson and withheld payment for already completed work. But here Anderson’s hardworking ethic persevered, and he continued building the trail with his own money. Parts of this trail are still in use today.
Anderson continued guiding tourists up Half Dome through the late 1870s and early 1880s. Many of these tourists stayed the night at the hotel of Emily and Albert Snow. They initially called their hotel the Alpine House, but later changed the name to Casa Nevada. Located below Nevada Fall, the hotel provided a convenient staging place for summit bids. The hotel was close enough to the waterfall that the spray from the falling water misted over the hotel’s porch. From 1870 until 1889, the Snows provided tourists with warm beds, hot meals, fresh pies, and plenty of liquor. Those who succeeded in summiting Half Dome got to put their name in the register along with their summit date. In many ways, Casa Nevada was similar to the backcountry huts that dot the landscape of Europe’s Alps and assist its many mountaineers. The Snows eventually abandoned the hotel, and then in 1900 it caught fire and burned to the ground, bringing to a close the romantic early days of Half Dome hiking.
Anderson never found fortune in his efforts to get more people to the summit. One day in the spring of 1884, Anderson needed money and found a job washing the side of a cabin in the Valley. A cold spring storm moved in while Anderson was cleaning the siding, and, despite pleadings from the owner, Anderson continued working through the storm. The cold took to him, and he came down with pneumonia. He died a short time later on May 8th and was buried in Yosemite’s Pioneer Cemetery where visitors can find his grave today.
Two Youth in Search of an Adventure
The winter of 1883-1884 was a heavy snow year in the Sierra. The shoulder of Half Dome where Anderson had attached his ropes to the rock is prone to avalanches. Snow and ice collect on the slick granite until their weight becomes too much to adhere to the rock any longer. When the snow slides off, it does so as massive, cohesive slabs that can destroy anything in their path. The avalanches of this long and snowy winter carried away most of the ropes Anderson had put in place.
After Anderson’s death, there was no one in the Valley willing to repeat his ascent and reestablish the ropes. Then, two young men showed up in the Valley looking for adventure. One was from Denver and the other from New York City. They arrived at Glacier Point where they met Galen Clark, the Park’s first Guardian. As the men marveled at Half Dome, Clark informed them that the ropes were no longer there and none but the most skilled European mountaineers would be able to replace them.
This statement of near impossibility drove the two men to action. They secretly decided they would climb Half Dome and put the ropes back in place. If they failed, no one would ever know, and they would lose no face. If they succeeded, then the glory was theirs.
With two hundred feet of rope, A. Phimister Proctor and Alden Sampson left their camp at Little Yosemite Valley and headed for Half Dome. They set up another camp near the base of the Dome and immediately set to work.
First, they gathered up Anderson’s old rope that now lay at the base. They would reuse it on the route. While many of Anderson’s iron eye-bolts were still anchored into the rock, the avalanches had ripped out more than a few. Some of these bolts lay on the ground and were attached to the old rope. The missing bolts would create difficulties.
Proctor chose to climb barefoot, which allowed him to wrap his toes over the eye-bolts. Sampson wore hobnailed mountaineering boots, the standard climbing footwear of the day.
To ascend the blank slab, the two men found a unique rhythm. First, Proctor tied a slipknot into the end of their new rope, creating a lasso. He then eyed the next eye-bolt above him and threw the rope toward the bolt, just as he had seen the California ranchers rope their cattle. Once the rope was lassoed around the bolt, one of the men ascended the rope. Then, they fixed Anderson’s old rope to the bolt they had just roped.
Proctor’s bare feet were best suited to standing on and gripping the eyebolts. It was a precarious stance. He had to balance with only one foot on the bolt. Then, he had to heave the rope with incredible accuracy to the next bolt, which sometimes was thirty feet away.
After several hours of this exposed and tedious process, they arrived at a 100 foot section where every bolt was gone. Proctor couldn’t make the 100 foot throw to the next bolt. Doubt swirled in their minds. How would they overcome this stretch?
Proctor’s bare feet, sweaty and sore, offered no friction for free climbing up the steep slab. However, Sampson’s hobnailed boots proved equal to the task. He was able to use natural cracks and small edges in the granite to climb up the slab. In a letter to Hutchings, Sampson recounted:
“The sensation was glorious. I did not stake my life upon it, for I was sure I could make it. If I had slipped in the least I should have had a nasty fall of several hundred feet.”
Sampson had tied the rope around his waist on the off-chance that it might arrest his fall if he slipped. But, deep down, he knew the force would break the rigid rope. Finally, he came to the most challenging section—a small roof with slick granite above and below. The granite was bare of holds. But within reach was a small shrub, some 8 inches tall. Sampson latched onto it and gently pulled himself over the roof. The bush held firm, and Sampson reached the next bolt. Even among today’s rock climbers, such a long and exposed span would cause the heart to flutter.
By the end of the day, they had fixed ropes halfway up the shoulder. They descended back to their camp as night fell. They were exhausted, proud of what they had accomplished so far, and filled with anticipation for the coming day.
The next day the two men ascended their newly fixed ropes and continued up. But soon they came to another section where the next bolt was 100 feet away. Unfortunately, the granite here was too slick to climb. Proctor threw the lasso over and over for two hours. When they were close to giving up, he made a remarkable throw and caught the bolt. They immediately shouted in joy for they knew they would make it to the summit that day.
After Proctor and Sampson’s ascent in 1884, Half Dome saw many attempts and successful ascents over the coming decades. Every so often, climbers had to replace sections of rope and drive new bolts into the rock. Over the decades, the ropes rotted and the bolts rusted. At least one party pulled out a bolt after lassoing it. It is a wonder that no one ever died on the route.
Bold, tenacious, bootstrap mountaineers had pioneered the route up Half Dome. But did they have any foresight of the numbers who would soon follow in their steps? The year 1919 would bring a dramatic change to this lonely and difficult summit.