By the 1950s, only two of Half Dome’s four sides had been climbed: the Northeast Face where the cables had been placed over Anderson’s route and the Southwest Face via Salathé and Nelson’s 1946 modern rock climbing route. The two that remained were the imposing Northwest Face and the seemingly featureless South Face.
An Imposing Wall of Rock
The Northwest Face is Half Dome’s most defining feature. It is the “cleft” face—the “missing” half. Tis-sa-ack’s tears stain this sheer, 2,000-foot tall granite wall that towers over Mirror Lake and Yosemite Valley.
Climbers had yet to seriously consider—let alone attempt—the Northwest Face. The face is slightly less than vertical at 85 degrees, and the prospect of climbing into this unknown terrain was frightening. Keep in mind, this story takes place in the days before speedy helicopter rescues. In fact, no one had ever performed a rescue on the side of a Yosemite big wall before. Anyone venturing onto the face would do so at their own peril.
Around 1945, climbers started to study the face in an attempt to find a route. They peered at it with binoculars from the Valley floor and hiked to the summit to examine it from above. The steepness and size quickly discouraged them.
In 1954, three climbers, Dick Long, Jim Wilson, and George Mandatory, made the first exploration up the face. They retreated to the ground after only 175 feet of climbing. However, they had discovered the gateway into this expanse of exfoliation flakes.
During the climbing season of 1955, four other climbers were ready to give the face a go. These were Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Jerry Gallwas, and Don Wilson. Together, they were a team of talented and capable Yosemite climbers.
Royal Robbins was 19 years old. His dark hair was buzz cut, and he wore stylish wayfarer prescription eyeglasses. He was lean and tall, with a face chiseled like that of a Greek statue—in other words, he was quite handsome. Robbins was also a key proponent of the emerging climbing ethic that is still in use today. This ethic stated that routes should be climbed using as few bolts and pitons as necessary because these tools damaged the rock. Climbing should be as “clean” as possible—that is, using the existing features of the rock for upward progress and altering the rock as little as possible in the process.
Warren Harding was 31 at the time, and some of his more youthful peers in the Yosemite climbing scene considered him too old for this sport. Of course, he was a youth compared to John Salathé. Harding was a short man with a nest of thick, wild hair. He made a good wage as a surveyor, and his supervisor allowed him plenty of vacation time to pursue rock climbing. Harding also had a love of sports cars and cheap red wine. He was a stark contrast to Robbins and his ethic of clean climbing. Harding’s ethic, if it can be called that, was to climb for himself and have a good, often intoxicated, and laughter-filled time in the process. And when he found a line up a wall that he liked, he climbed it, regardless of how many bolts he had to drill into the virgin stone.
There could not have been a more opposite pairing of climbers than these two hard-headed men. Could they overcome their differences to succeed where few others had even tried?
When the team finally stood at the base of Half Dome, the sight above them would have overwhelmed their senses. From Mirror Lake, there are 3,000 vertical feet of steep slabs before one reaches the bottom of the Northwest Face. To stand at the base of the face, a climber sees 2,000 feet of near-vertical granite above, including the overhanging summit Visor, and 3,000 feet of Valley views below. This combination of immediate exposure below and foreboding wall above will weaken the resolve of the strongest of people. Though fear gripped their minds, the men were excited and determined to get on the wall.
Over three days, they ascended 500 feet of the face. The rock climbing through this section was not particularly difficult, but these experienced climbers moved far slower than their honed skills would have allowed. Doubt and fear tore their will apart. At 500 feet above the base, Robbins and Harding were determined to keep climbing. Harding said:
“Even if we can’t make the summit, let’s push the route as high as we can. We have plenty of food and water for another couple of days.”
Wilson, the leader of the group, did not share their enthusiasm. The team retreated to the ground. Of the attempt, Robbins said:
“We crept away from there like whipped curs, with our tails between our legs. We dared what no one else dared, and we were found wanting. I didn’t like the feeling, and vowed to return.”
The Birth of a Climbing Rivalry
Robbins wouldn’t return to the face for another two years. During this time, he and Gallwas planned and prepared. They refused to accept failure a second time, so their planning had to be meticulous. Gallwas forged new pitons for the ascent. He used Salathé’s pitons as models. Like Salathé, he forged his from chrome-molybdenum steel that resulted in a hard, reusable piton. In their planning, Robbins and Gallwas knew they would encounter cracks too wide for the largest pitons of the day. So Gallwas made new, bigger pitons that could fit inside a two and a half inch wide crack.
Robbins and Gallwas recruited a third partner who was new to Half Dome, Mike Sherrick.
But what about Warren Harding? Harding, too, had not forgotten about Half Dome. He had also recruited a team of talented climbers: Mark Powell and Bill “Dolt” Feurer.
Why did Robbins, Gallwas, Wilson, and Harding not join each other for the second attempt? Like all climbing partnerships that dissolve, personality differences are often the heart of the matter. Robbins and Harding were just too different for a good pairing, both in their climbing ethics and their approaches to life. Robbins was proper and disciplined. Harding was farcical and irreverent.
Harding had been working in Alaska and returned to California in the summer of 1957. He immediately wrote to Powell and suggested that they attempt Half Dome soon. However, Robbins had already heard that Harding would be back in California and was hungry for Half Dome. He called Gallwas and told him that the time for Half Dome was now. Gallwas later recalled:
“The following week while I was studying for finals, the phone rang and quite to my surprise, it was Royal. His message was simple. Warren was returning from Alaska in a few weeks and intended to make an attempt on Half Dome with Mark. While we had not been planning a serious attempt at that time, it seemed clear that Warren and Mark were. We concluded that we had better plan and act swiftly.”
An Ascent for the History Books
Robbins’ team blasted up the Northwest Face on June 24, 1957. A couple of days later, Harding and his team arrived in the Valley ready to attempt the face. To their amazement, they saw that a team was already up there. Harding knew Robbins, and he knew that failure for Robbins was unlikely. His heart must have sunk in that moment. A historic ascent of Half Dome had been within his grasp, and then it was snatched away. Harding was not a man to ruminate long on his failures. Instead, his desire quickly moved to the grandest of Yosemite’s walls—a wall so grand that no one else had even entertained the idea.
Meanwhile, Robbins, Gallwas, and Sherrick had hauled five days of food and water up the face. By the end of the first day, they reached the high point from the previous attempt.
They slept on a narrow ledge, still wearing their makeshift harnesses. Tethers went from their harnesses to a few pitons hammered into the natural cracks; this was all that held them to the wall.
The easy climbing was now below them. What lay ahead would be far more difficult. There were featureless sections of rock, disconnected ledges and cracks, and the intimidating Visor that loomed overhead and blocked their way to the summit.
At one of the blank sections, rather than drill more bolts into the rock, and thus scar it for eternity, Robbins attached his rope to a lone piton. Sherrick, his belayer, lowered Robbins 50 feet down the wall. Then Robbins began to run back and forth across the wall. Robbins’ goal was to swing himself over to a natural rock chimney where they could continue their upward progress. There was nothing but nearly a thousand feet of air below him. Running across the wall was a nerve-wracking effort for Robbins and his companions. After several attempts, Robbins reached the chimney. They could continue! But the sun was quickly setting over El Capitan to the west. They set up camp on a nearby ledge and settled in for another night in this vertical wilderness. Their sleep that night must have been fitful at best for great uncertainty loomed overhead.
The following three days brought challenging, and often scary, pitches. The Northwest Face of Half Dome is known for the poor quality of its rock. Robbins’ team was experiencing this fact firsthand. The face of Half Dome was—and still is—literally falling off, one giant flake at a time. This is because of the geological process of exfoliation, as explained earlier. Robbins, Gallwas, and Sherrick weaved a route toward the summit that followed these loose flakes and exfoliation cracks. Why would they choose such a route? Because it was the easiest and most intuitive path.
Two of the rock features they climbed through have since fallen off of the face. The Robbins Traverse, where Royal swung like a pendulum into the chimney, broke free sometime in 2015. Higher up, Psych Flake fell from the wall a decade after Robbins’ team carefully climbed behind this towering knife blade of rock that moved when the climbers pressed on it.
Rock climbing routes are not static, unchanging vertical paths. The Northwest Face of Half Dome is evidence of this, and the three men took care as they moved up this vast sea of loose rocks with nothing but thin, fragile ropes holding them to the wall.
Though they were now in their third day on the wall, the climbers were not without their doubts. Robbins remembered:
“We feared the enormity of the wall … We dreaded having to reach so deeply within ourselves and maybe find ourselves lacking.”
Perhaps conscious of the danger that surrounded them at all times, Robbins said of a rescue, should it be required:
“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.”
Despite their uncertain destiny, they moved higher up the wall. Now over halfway, they had found a rhythm to the climbing. The team used two climbing techniques to ascend: free climbing and aid climbing. In free climbing, the leader only uses his hands and feet for upward progress, and pitons, while hammered into the cracks, are used solely for fall protection. In aid climbing, the natural holds are too small, so the leader beats pitons into cracks and seams, and then pulls himself up using the pitons.
The fourth day found them at the Zig-Zags: a series of thin, two hundred foot tall cracks and corners that Gallwas had to aid climb. Above them, the overhanging Visor both beckoned and intimidated. And just below the Visor, they could see another blank section of rock. They still had no clue as to how they would overcome this final obstacle guarding the summit.
When Gallwas reached the top of the strenuous Zig-Zags, he saw their salvation—a narrow ledge traversed underneath the blank headwall. They scooted along this ledge, dubbed Thank God Ledge, and then bivouacked for the night.
The next day was the 28th of June, 1957. The team had been on the face for five days. They climbed several more pitches, and near sunset climbed onto the summit of Half Dome. They called the route the Regular Northwest Face. It was the longest, steepest, and most technical rock climb ever accomplished by American climbers up to that date.
Who was there to congratulate them with sandwiches and wine? Warren Harding, Mark Powell, and Bill Feurer, the climbers who had barely missed being the first up this face. Harding was happy for his friends and fellow climbers in their accomplishment. However, he was not a person who accepted defeat readily. Harding would come back to Half Dome one day and in search of a new route, but it would not be without its trials. In the meantime, feeling robbed of Half Dome, he turned his attention to the only object worthy of his vision: El Capitan.
Robbins, Gallwas, and Sherrick’s ascent of Half Dome meant that climbers had scaled three of Half Dome’s four sides. All that remained was the almost featureless South Face that soars above Little Yosemite Valley.