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HALF DOME, 1875
As Americans were manifesting their destiny and exploring the West's more remote regions, the Scottish trailbuilder George Anderson became the first to stand atop Yosemite's Half Dome, previously considered inaccessible. In 1875, Anderson spent a week methodically climbing the steep east slab of Half Dome using the same granite bolting technology he was using to secure trails through the Sierra Nevada wilderness. With hand drill and hammer, he created holes (16mm in diameter and up to 100mm deep), then filled the hole with a large eyebolt to which he could affix a rope.
After hours of effort on each hard-earned bolt, he would step onto it, balance himself, and drill again. In areas where the angle of the slab eased, he free climbed from stance to stance. Anderson lived in a cabin at the spring near the saddle of Half Dome, and each day tied a rope from his highest bolt so that he could descend to his cabin then re-ascend to his high point the next day--the first case of fixed ropes in Yosemite. The naturalist John Muir, an early Half Dome summiteer, described the event, "New routes have been done on South Dome (as it was then known), but the skill and courage of Anderson have not been surpassed”.
The route became popular over the following years. Anderson regularly upgraded the ropes and helped guide as many as 60 people each year to gain the summit, hand-over-handing the fixed ropes. Anderson dreamed of creating a wooden stairway to the summit.
In 1884 Anderson, aged 47, died of pneumonia and his fixed lines and some of the eye-bolts were “carried away by ice” over the previous winter. During the following decades the summit was less frequently climbed, as it had become a more hazardous adventure without regular maintenance of the ropes and bolts, sometimes involving lassoing bolts from below. In 1919 the route was fully re-established by a member of the Sierra Club who created a new double-cable “rock stairway,” which has been largely maintained to this day.
DEVIL’S TOWER, 1893
Farther east, Wild West ingenuity paved the way for the first ascent of Wyoming's spectacular Devil's Tower in June, 1893, when ranchers Willard Ripley and William Rogers spent six weeks engineering a wooden ladder on the southeast corner of the tower. The ladder consisted of sharpened wooden spikes about 75mm in diameter and about 750mm long, hammered into the continuously vertical crack, with boards connecting the spikes. The ranchers climbed it a second time during a Fourth of July celebration, proudly planting a U. S. flag on the summit during a widely advertised event. The volcanic monolith was not climbed by another route until 1937 by Fritz Wiessner, Lawrence Coveney and William House using pitons, ropes, and technical climbing ability.
Like deVille’s ascent of Mont Aiguille four hundred years earlier, these two climbs were isolated events using any means necessary for the ascent, and although American climbers pioneered rudimentary belay and safety techniques for the first ascent of the Grand Teton in the late 1800’s, the marriage of technology and climbing to create efficient systems for ascent really began in Europe, where specific climbing techniques and equipment were becoming more refined by the end of the 19th century.
Next: the birth of free climbing