2014 Live Your Dream Grant Trip Report: Hanna Lucy & Alexa Siegel Climb Half Dome
Live Your Dream: Hanna Lucy and Alexa Siegel Climb Half Dome
Our trip began On May 6th, 2014, at the Las Vegas airport. After dropping my boyfriend off at the “departing flights” zone, I parked the car and made my way to arrivals. It wasn’t long before I spotted my tall, skinny, and very purple climbing partner making her way through the crowds. Alexa!!! After months of planning and several set backs, we were going to start our trip.
When Alexa and I applied for the Live Your Dream Grant, we were living together in a poorly heated, barely furnished, ski chalet at the base of Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. Huddled together in front of the wood stove, we schemed and dreamed of climbing something big. Someone said “Half Dome”, and the idea stuck. We looked at pictures of the beautiful face, of the topo that made it look “reasonable” and from the comfort of our blanketed snuggle, it seemed doable. We chose our objective: the Northwest Face of Half Dome, in a day.
When we heard that we had been awarded the Live your Dream Grant, we were on opposite coasts. Alexa was still New Hampshire guiding ice and ski patrolling. And I was on the road climbing in the Southwest. We were elated to hear about the grant, but Alexa had a reasonable reservation. “Can you walk yet?”
Unfortunately, the answer was “Uhhh… Not quite.” Three weeks before we got the grant, and six weeks before Alexa was scheduled to fly in the Vegas, I broke my heel on an ill-fated tower jump in Arizona. The fracture was stable, and the doctor told me I would be back to “normal activity” within eight weeks. Alexa bought her ticket a week after the incident, based solely on my word that I would be ready, off the couch, to try the biggest, most difficult climb either one of us had ever attempted.
By the time I picked Alexa up at the airport, my limp was barely noticeable. We stocked up on groceries and headed back to the campground, and started planning over bowls of cheesy pasta. Our plan was to climb in Red Rocks for two or three days before driving to Yosemite. We wanted to practice climbing long free routes, and figure out our systems as a team. We selected Inti Watana as our first climb. Although it was 5.10c and 12 pitches long, we reasoned that most of the climbing was 5.9 face climbing and it would go quickly. “I think it’s basically a sport climb.” I said.
And so began the epics. We didn’t get started until ten the next morning, grossly underestimated the approach, and forgot a watch. The climbing went well, but our rope got stuck on the rappel, and we didn’t reach the car until 11:30 pm. The next day we were worked. It was only day two, and we already needed a rest day. We spent the day organizing, doing errands, drinking water, and planning the climb for the following day. We wanted to climb Epinephrine, a classic 5.9 . This time, we would be better prepared. We would start early, plan well, and we would not epic.
The alarm went off at 5:00 am. We wolfed down breakfast and drove out to Black Velvet. We were at the base of the climb by 7:30, and dispatched with the first few pitches quickly. When we reached the chimneys, we ground to a halt. We did not expect this to be so hard. I have seen Alexa style her way up 5.12 sport climbs, and I have seen her float 5.11 cracks, but I had never seen her in a Chimney. Turns out, she had never done one. She got her helmet stuck, reduced to tears, her arms and legs flapping. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I didn’t do any better. We topped out in the dark, and decided not to risk the final ridge without light. We rearranged some rocks on our sloping ledge, flaked the rope out for a mattress, split our last PB&J, and settled in for our first open bivy.
The next day was a blur. We finished the 5.4 ridge as soon as the sun rose and descended in dehydrated silence. Without any time to rest, we packed up our campsite and started to drive. We made it to Bishop by eight o’clock that night, where we were finally able to crash at a kind friend’s house.
We continued towards Yosemite the next day, stopping for a good long soak in some hot springs. We had some reevaluating to do. Things were not going as smoothly as we had hoped. How long was Half Dome? 23 pitches? The longest climb we had done was 12 pitches, and we had to bivy at the top. Were there chimneys on Half Dome? There were? And they were Yosemite 5.9, not Red Rocks 5.9. Not to mention we knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about aid climbing. How were we ever going to pull this off?
When we arrived in the valley, the North West Face of Half Dome appeared even more intimidating. Everywhere we went on the valley floor, we could see it looming above us in the distance, looking so steep, so far away, and so big. We couldn’t get away from it, so we came up with a plan. We would set out for Half Dome on May 26th, which would give us two weeks to prepare. In the mean time, we had to learn how to climb chimneys, how to climb faster, how not to get lost on approaches, and how to aid climb. It seemed like a tall order.
We started by climbing long free routes to practice moving quickly. The Royal Arches was one of our first climbs, and we were done with the 14-pitch climb by 4:00. We climbed the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral (12 pitches, 5.10c) the next day. Two long climbs, and neither one of them was an epic! We were starting to feel a little more confident.
We spent days cragging when we weren’t climbing long routes, or resting when we couldn’t climb at all. We taught ourselves how to aid climb with a book and a tub-full of borrowed gear. We got advice from anyone and everyone, from good friends, to members of SAR, to strangers we met in the Camp Four parking lot. The turning point came when we climbed the North East Buttress of Higher Cathedral. At 5.9+ and stacked with chimneys, the climb was a battle. But we finished the twelfth and final pitch in daylight, and we were back at the base before the sun had set.
Finally, we were starting to feel ready. We made some final purchases, got a wilderness permit, and set out up the Death Slabs. We slogged up three thousand feet of elevation with heavy packs. We were up the next morning at 3:30 to start jugging by headlamp. Alexa took the lead on the fourth pitch, and took us all the wayto the Robbins Traverse, pitch 10. I took over at the Robbins Traverse and aided the bolt ladder, with Alexa doing her first lower-out. I led the next few pitches of chimneys and cracks, which took us to Big Sandy.
We ate and drank water on Big Sandy, and Alexa took off up the Zig Zags. By the time we finished the Thank God Ledge, three (ish) pitches from the top, it was dark. We only had one pitch of aid and two easy pitches to the top. We felt like we were there. Then the wheels fell off.
Neither Alexa nor I could figure out how to link the two discontinuous bolt ladders that rose above us. Alexa took a big fall when a hook popped, and lowered back down for a break. I went up the first bolt ladder, and saw some tat about ten feet up in the glow of the headlamp. If I could make it to that, I thought, I could pendulum over to the other bolt ladder. I top-stepped a hook with my left foot and got my right foot on a good smear. It looked like a couple of tricky moves to the tat, but it seemed doable.
Certain that I had unlocked the sequence, but too much of a chicken to go for it, I left the hook where it was set and lowered back down. I explained the beta to Alexa, and told her I was convinced she could do it. Like a total hero, she started back up the bolt ladder. I was enthusiastically shouting encouragement, but couldn’t see her at all. Ping! I heard the unmistakable noise of the hook popping again. Bracing for another big fall, I locked off the belay device. “Hanna! Don’t f***ing short rope me!!!” I was confused. The hook had popped but Alexa was still somehow standing on the slab? I quickly dished out rope and heard a “Whew! Holy sh**!” Alexa clipped the tat and did a pendulum over to the next bolt ladder. After 19 hours on the go, near midnight, Alexa had somehow pulled it off.
The top of Half Dome was a moonscape at one am. We descended without incident and got back to the base of the route at four am. We slept for a few hours, split a pack of shot-blocks, and went down the Death Slabs. Back to the Village Store, we filled a basket with every snack we could think of. We took our feast to the meadow, where sprawled out in the California sunshine. No longer hiding from Half Dome, we slurped down our ice cream and stared at its noble profile.
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