In 1957, Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas made the first ascent of the 1,800-foot-high Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The ascent, taking five days, was a huge jump in American climbing standards, being the first Grade VI route to be climbed. Grade VI (called "Grade 6") routes are long, multi-day ascents up big walls that require a lot of both aid climbing and free climbing. The route is now graded VI 5.9 C1 or 5.12 if done all free.
First Big Wall Route
The ascent of Half Dome’s face was a giant leap into the unknown with its length and difficulty. Until then, no American climber had surmounted such a sheer big wall. The techniques—aid climbing, hauling gear, bivouacking on the face—required to climb big walls were still in their infancy. Royal Robbins wrote, “We feared the enormity of the wall…. We dreaded having to reach so deeply within ourselves and maybe find ourselves lacking.”
Half Dome Repulses Attempts
By 1957 all the major cliffs like Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley had been climbed, except El Capitan and Half Dome. Half Dome, a thousand feet shorter than 3,000-foot El Capitan, was the obvious next big problem for Yosemite climbers. In 1954, Dick Long, George Mandatory, and Jim Wilson made a first stab at Half Dome’s great wall, but only climbed a scant 175 feet before giving up. The following year a strong team of climbers—Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Jerry Galwas, and Don Wilson—attempted the face and climbed 500 feet in five days before beating retreat.
Five Exhausting Days of Climbing
In 1957, after humping a mountain of gear to the base of the face, the three climbers began their ascent on June 24. The first day they climbed 500 feet to the previous highpoint where they spent the night. The next day they worked up the wall, hand drilling seven bolts, doing the longest pendulum yet attempted in Yosemite, and had Royal Robbins lead the famed “Robbins’ Traverse” between crack systems. By the fourth day of climbing, the trio were exhausted and suffered in the mid-summer heat as they ran low on water. That day, Jerry Gallwas led the Zigzag pitches toward the beetling summit overhangs, which they dreaded. On the fifth and final day of climbing, however, Gallwas discovered “Thank God Ledge,” a horizontal foot-wide ledge that traversed left and allowed an easy escape past the overhangs, called The Visor. That afternoon, after 23 pitches, they reached Half Dome’s broad summit.
Harding Toasts the Summit Party
On the summit, Warren Harding, who had planned to attempt the route again that summer, met the climbers on top and toasted them with glasses of red wine. Harding, however, was extremely disappointed to miss out on the first ascent of this landmark climb. He wrote, “We’re here with all this gear, but everything else seems like a put-down compared to Half Dome. All but one that is….” A mere six days later, Harding and his team of climbers, Bill “Dolt” Fuerer and Mark Powell turned their attention to that “one”—the 3,000-foot-high Nose of El Capitan.