Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome:
Arthur Clarke climbs Half Dome on June 29, 1878

(From the book Through America by Walter Gore Marshall)

Through America; Or Nine Months in the United States, by W. G. Marshall, London, 1881, Chapter 19, pp. 379-383

...Opposite our hotel there was a house built round the stump of a tree. This tree was a red fir, or Douglas spruce; and the stump, which had large proportions, — but which we unfortunately forgot to measure, — formed a conspicuous though rather bulky ornament in the centre of the drawing- room. We found this to be Mr. Bernard's [Barnard's!] family dwelling-house, though sometimes, when his hotel over the way was overcrowded, he very considerately turned out and gave up to his guests the use of his mansion. Miss Bernard, his daughter, had acquired a reputation as a daring climber of mountains, for she had been to the top of the South Dome, and had safely come to the bottom again. This mountain, it seems, was first ascended in the year 1875. Of course (as we have seen) it is accessible from one side only, namely the side away from the valley, where the mountain is rounded like a ball, the upper portion of the rock facing the valley being a perfectly smooth, clear drop of 2000 vertical feet. To one George Anderson, a Scotchman from Montrose, is due the honour of being the first to "climb off" the mountain; and this he managed to do by drilling holes into the hard granite, into which he drove iron pins, till they stood about six inches out of the rock, and then he extended and fastened to the pins nearly 1000 feet of rope, and hand over hand pulled himself up, and then let himself down in the same sort of fashion.

It may, perhaps, be interesting to describe an ascent of this mountain, which my fellow-traveller accomplished, unaccompanied, on the third day of our stay in the valley, namely on June 29th [1878].

The day was drawing to a close, and a party of our hotel friends were sitting outside "Bernard's", at 8 p.m., listening to the distant murmur of the Yosemite Fall across the valley—which filled the air like, one might say, the rasping, gentle sound of sea-waves breaking continuously and evenly upon a pebbly beach. Little did I imagine where my friend had betaken himself since I parted with him in the morning. He had started away without telling any of us whither he was bent, with only a few biscuits in his pocket and a little sherry in his flask, trusting simply to the use of his legs and to a stick which he carried in his hand—all which looked very suspicious, so that we wondered where he could possibly be going to. It was getting late, so that I had begun to be anxious. Suddenly he burst in upon our party assembled outside the hotel. He looked wild and scared; his skin was peeled—it was evident he had not been idle since we had lost sight of him in the morning. He told us he had been up the South Dome. "What, up to the top?" we all exclaimed in one breath. "Yes", was the reply. — But no, we could none of us believe it, not even Miss Bernard herself, who, already the vanquisher of that bold, inaccessible-looking mountain, would never believe that it had been scaled in one day, and that, too, by an Englishman, and all by himself! Without more ado my friend produced indisputable evidence that he had actually accomplished the ascent, for he took out from his pocket a certain curious trophy which he had brought away with him from the summit, and this was nothing less than a piece of one of Miss Bernard's stockings, the young lady in question having left behind her, when she was last up the mountain, a sample of this portion of her wearing apparel, which she had fastened on to a low stunted pine that grew out of the hard rock at the very top of the precipice. So my friend had cut off part of the stocking—six square inches of which he found clinging to the tree—and brought it down to show the young lady herself, as the best proof he could give, that he was indeed no gay deceiver.

The following is the description my friend has written of his ascent of the South Dome:

"Leaving Bernard's on foot at 10 a.m., I reached Snow's at 12.10 p.m., had luncheon there, and remained till 1.30. Then, mounting to the top of the Nevada Fall, I struck off by a trail to the left, which led me over a shoulder of the great South Dome till I came to the foot of a conical-shaped rock, called the Little Dome, which I found I was obliged to climb. The latter required great care in the ascent, as it consisted of a 'ball', as it were, of smooth, polished, round precipice of about 800 feet in height. This successfully scaled, I had to descend again about as many feet as I had just come up, in climbing the Little Dome, this time into a real 'mickledore' or dip between the two Domes, the huge granite mass of the South Dome now looming majestically above me. The rope of the Scotchman now appeared to view, running down straight for 960 feet from the top of the curve, close to the vertical face of the mountain. After resting a while in the dip, I began the ascent in earnest. Great precaution had now to be used. First I made sure of the soundness of the rope by testing its lower portion with my full weight, as I afterwards did with each portion in succession. The sections of this rope are not all equal, some being not more than twenty feet in length, while one or two sections near the top of the curve are nearly 100 feet in length, and, being quite loose, thus oblige one to describe a considerable arc. Where the sections are short you go up like a monkey, hand over hand, close to the rock. The lower portion of the precipice was very steep, having an angle of 10 degrees from the vertical, and this part had to be ascended without any rest. From this point the grand curve of the Dome began, the granite lying here and there in immense overlapping, concentric slabs—like gigantic armour-plates, the 'plates' in this case being three to five feet thick, difficult to climb over, even with the aid of the rope. Over these I had to scramble as best I could; but there were a few cracks in the granite which enabled me to obtain an occasional foothold, and, leaning with my back against the almost vertical wall of rock, rest awhile and contemplate the view. Some people accustomed to mountain-climbing have attempted to scale this precipice, but have not succeeded in getting more than half-way before they have become dizzy and have had to come down again; and this it is easy to understand. In going up a sheer, even a vertical precipice by rope, you have something near at hand to fix your eyes upon; but in going up the South Dome you seem to be climbing over a vast ball of stone, and in one portion of the ascent you can neither see above nor below. You seem to be suspended in the air, and separated from earth altogether, as if you were in a huge balloon. Far away loom the snow-peaks of the Sierra, but many of the objects nearer at hand, such as those down in the valley, which is sunk sheer beneath, are absolutely indistinguishable.

The gymnastic performance now began to get easier as to the grade; but the fatigue caused by the rarity of the air, and the heat of a blazing Californian sun, glaring as it did directly in my face, caused me to inwardly rejoice when I reached the summit. That this is a much less difficult—though not the less dangerous—climb than it looks, is certain, and provided the soundness of the rope be guaranteed, a lady can without difficulty make the ascent. But her chief embarrassment would be the 'monkey' performance, if she went up in ordinary attire.

Having rested for a few moments on the top of a stony couch, — which during those few moments vied with the most luxurious feather-bed in pleasurable sensation and comfort, — the next thing to do was to quench thirst, which had become simply unendurable. To this end I made my way to a small snow-field lying about 200 yards off. Then I devoted an hour to the view, sitting down on the edge of the precipice and dangling my legs over, having first lit my pipe that I might enjoy the view the better. Beneath me, dwarfed and in miniature, lay this remarkable Yosemite. Its domes looked like bosses of stone, its mighty waterfalls appeared as threads of gleaming silver streaking the mountain sides; while almost directly under me was the Mirror Lake, now dwindled to the size of a veritable reflector. The platform of the boat-house was indistinguishable, while the house itself seemed a mere dog-kennel, and human beings and animals could not be discerned. Perhaps the finer view lay, at this height, rather in the splendid snow-peaks around than in the Yosemite Valley, though from this eminence one obtained a better idea of the formation of this extraordinary chasm than would be possible from any other. It appeared to me, clearly, to be a drop of 4000 feet in the general baseline of the Sierra, from which the peaks may be said to rise from 10,000 to 14,000 feet above the sea-level. From this vantage-ground one could realize, in a measure, the gigantic action and wondrous effects of the Great Ice Age, or Glacial Epoch. One can imagine an immense glacier-field, with its icy feelers, — say some thousands of feet thick, — covering the whole of this region, and denuding, eroding, moulding, scoring, polishing the domes and spires of granite; and then, under altered climatic conditions, gradually melting away and evacuating the mighty gorge or chasm which it had previously occupied.

The descent I found considerably easier than the ascent, for the rope had now been fully tested, and all that it was necessary to do was to cling firmly to it, and let myself down hand over hand. At Snow's I received an ovation. Mr. Snow offered me claret and cigars (both which I accepted), and Mrs. Snow wanted me to stop the evening and write an account of the ascent in her Book of Wonders; but this was out of the question. I was given a tallow candle, to light if it should get too dark during my descent into the valley. But it was not brought into requisition, for I reached Bernard's at 8.18 p.m., having been away from the hotel just ten hours and eighteen minutes".

Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome