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The time had finally come. After two days, 1900 feet and 20 pitches of climbing we finally made it. Thank God ledge. It seemed like the focus of the all the climbing up to this point was not to get to the top, but here.
The ledge was given its name in 1957 by Royal Robbins and the rest of the first ascent party. After having been on the wall five days, they came upon this ledge, unseen from below, which allowed them a way around the summit overhangs above.
Since we awoke at sunrise on Big Sandy ledges, the tiered overhangs of Half Dome's rim have stared down upon us. Now hikers, peering down over the edge, watched our progress. "Look! There are climbers down there!" "Hey, you guys are crazy!" Here, at Thank God ledge, we are within spitting distance from the top.
The ledge, only fifty feet long, starts out wide enough so that you can walk straight ahead with your right shoulder against the wall. There is a crack that runs the length of the ledge where it meets the wall. Further ahead you can see that the crack narrows a bit. At that point, supposedly, there is a slight bulge in the wall which forces most climbers to drop down and either slither on their bellies or hand traverse along the ledge.
There had been some discussion before the climb about who would lead this section. I remember wanting to lead it, but was unsure what decision, if any, had actually been made. Standing there, staring across the ledge, I am secretly hoping that Mike will take the lead. In an act of courteous selflessness that would make Emily Post proud, I politely offer the lead to Mike. He quickly points out that I have all the gear on, and that he is already set up to belay. Damn! He's got reason on his side, and as much as it scares me to look out at this ledge I know I want to lead this pitch.
As I start out along the ledge, the words of advice from Inez are ringing in my ear. "Whatever you do, just walk across Thank God ledge like a man." Yeah, sure. I can do that. Ten feet out. So far, so good. I kneel down and put in a camming device in the crack for protection. No problem. I can do this. I'm a man. Walking is fine, but kneeling down forces me to rotate my shoulders slightly or be forced away from the wall. All the climbing gear hangs down in front, getting in the way a bit. But I can handle it. I'm a man.
Twenty feet out. The ledge is a bit more narrow, and I'm facing the wall, shuffling sideways. I bend down to put in another piece of pro. This time, even with my shoulders rotated, I feel a slight outward push from the wall. "Whatever you do, just walk across Thank God ledge like a man." Still down on my knees. I haven't even reached the part where the ledge really narrows. I make the mistake of looking down. My head spins. "Whatever you do..." A flood of rationalizations speed through my mind. No need to stand. Being on my hands and knees feels really good, secure. "...just walk across..." I'll never make it walking all the way. I won't be able to bend down again to place another piece without pushing myself off. "...like a man." Come on! You can do it. You're a man! All right. It's settled. I'll just walk across like a man ... a man on his hands and knees.
Never much one for bravado, I continue crawling across. Obviously, I tell myself, had I stood back up I would have only postponed the inevitable. As the ledge narrows slightly my manly crawling quickly turns into slithering on my belly. If crawling was humbling, slithering is downright humiliating. It's impossible to slither "like a man". Of course, it would have been much harder for me to slither "like a woman". A let out a whine that closely resembles a squeal of a small pig. Luckily, the crack against the wall is wide, and it's easy to cram part of my right knee and foot in it. This provides a sense of security now that the other leg is hanging free from the ledge.
With little remaining dignity, I continue down the ledge to it's most narrow point. Shortly beyond this the crack runs out. The ledge continues for another ten feet, but without the crack to hold onto slithering is out of the question. The ledge is too thin. If I were standing, it might be possible to shuffle down the remaining distance. However, it's now impossible to stand without being pushed back off the edge. Where the horizontal crack ends there is a three-inch gap in the ledge formed by a vertical split in the wall. It could be possible to descend this vertical crack to another small ledge twelve feet below. I put in one last camming device before lowering down to the new ledge.
Traversing this new ledge brings me to a big flake right below the end of Thank God ledge. The choice here would be to either layback the flake or chimney up behind the flake. Neither choice would allow me to put in any protection since I don't have any pieces large enough to place behind the flake. Even if I did the ropedrag would be horrendous. I opt for the relative security of the chimney. Unfortunately, I can't fully squeeze in behind the flake and am spit out before I can gain the ledge above. After another unsuccessful attempt I stop to rest and reassess the situation.
Supposedly, from here there is a way to traverse out left onto the face to reach a small crack which leads diagonally up to the next belay. As I survey this option, the thin face moves are obviously more dicey than the layback.
If I try to layback the flake and fall, I would take a big pendulum swing to the right. There is the good possibility that the rope might cut on the rough edge of Thank God ledge. Damn! I should have used a quickdraw to extend the rope beyond the lip of the ledge.
I pull back on the flake. Nice, solid. The surface of the wall, while flat, seems rough. Should be a standard layback, probably 5.8ish. But, if I slip.... What if the rope cuts? Then, its all over. I don't want to die here. Well, I guess I wouldn't have to worry about carrying the pack on the hike down. Real funny. Great! My life is on the line and I'm reduced to one-liners with no audience. This is serious.
My mind begins racing. What the hell am I doing here?! How did I get myself in this situation? So this is how it ends. Suddenly, climbing isn't fun anymore. It's certainly not worth dying. Why do I do this anyway? So, I can impress people with the fact that I'm a rock climber? To get outdoors, and challenge myself both physically and mentally? What crap! What does any of it matter if you're dead?
I'm frozen, paralyzed with fear. My whole body is tense, and my hands are trembling. As the minutes tick by, I'm sure Mike is wondering what's taking so long. Maybe I could get him to come out here and lead this section? No way. No place to set up a belay, and no way for me to climb back up to Thank God ledge. I know I have to make the moves, but I can't get myself to do it.What if...?
Get a grip, Pat. Just calm down. Breath. That's it. Relax. This is well within your ability. You know you can do this. Just block out everything else, and concentrate on what the moves would be. Hands on the flake, lean back, feet on the wall. Pull back with your arms, push with your legs and walk your hands and feet upward. If youre gonna die, at least die giving it your best shot. I chalk and re-chalk my hands, but they're instantly sweaty. Wrapping my hands around the edge of the flake, I place my right foot against the wall. My pulse accelerates off the dial.
Leaning and pulling hard I lift my left foot off the ledge and onto the rock face. The shoes grip solidly on the wall. Good. Now, just move your left hand up, then your right foot. Great. Keep moving. Only 6 more feet. SHIT! My feet are slipping! I pull so hard I'm sure the entire flake will rip off the wall. Feet HIGHER!!! That's it. Better. Careful! You're overgripping. Don't pump out. Little further. BREATH! Just get your feet onto the ledge, and pull in behind the flake. Couple more moves. Feet up, now, pull in and reach for the big jug hold. Got it!
A wave of relief washes over me, and the tension drains out. Still need to get some pro in before I can relax. I throw in a cam, and clip the rope. Made it. I catch my breath before negotiating the flaring, and slightly overhanging chimney above. This proves to be more strenuous than anticipated, and when I finally reach the belay, I am mentally, physically, and emotionally in tatters.
After belaying Mike across, I start to lead the next pitch, but have lost my nerve. Mike has to take over, and quickly finishes the remaining two pitches. Soon we are on top. All the day hikers are gone except one who heads for the cable ladder down. As the sun dips below the horizon, we pack, take a quick summit photo and begin the long hike back to the car. We make it down, just barely missing last call at the Mountain Room bar, and resign ourselves to dinner from the vending machines. Not exactly the hot meal I was hoping for, but somehow a sandwich never tasted so good.
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This page last modified 2 November 1998.