|Golden Gate, El Capitan, Yosemite. Robbie belaying me as I worked the crux 5.12c downclimb. Photo: Dustin Moore.|
On my, and many other climbers, bucket list is the goal of free climbing El Capitan. Such an accessible sheer large wall begs to be climbed but the barrier to entry for the masses is the difficulty of the easiest route being Freerider, a techy 5.12d combined with roughly 33 pitches of logistics and rope work on a level not often practiced by many. This means the majority of parties aid climb. I always wanted to free climb El Capitan but I didn’t want to do Freerider. Its not just dealing with other parties on the popular line but I also didn’t want to have done the most predictable free route. I got psyched on Golden Gate (37 pitch, 5.13a) after watching a video of Emily Harrington climbing it and realized it was a little harder but still achievable and contained incredible looking exposed climbing. It climbs the first 20 pitches of Freerider and then breaks out right onto the golden headwall of El Capitan.
Robbie and I left Alan up in Tuolumne to focus on Golden Gate. We hauled 6 days worth of supplies up fixed ropes to a ledge 12 pitches into our climb but unfortunately it was exceptionally hot in the valley so we had to delay our attempt. While we waited we went cragging and climbed on rock that felt buttery in the hot humid temps. We still had some success with Robbie making quick work of a stemming corner called ‘Book of Hate 5.13d’ and myself climbing the classic finger crack ‘Cosmic Debris 5.13b’. Eventually the weather cooled off and we were able to start our way up El Capitan.
Climbing from dark we worked our way up the easier slabby first 10 pitches known as ‘The Freeblast’. None of the climbing is harder than 5.11 but it is still very technical and possible to slip off. Luckily we both cruised it until pitch 12 where Robbie slipped off a 5.11c pitch in which the crux is one hard move among 20m of 5.8 climbing. He lowered down frustrated that his onsight of the route had been blown. After repeating the pitch I followed clean having done the pitch before and already knowing what to do.
|Robbie following me up a pitch on 'The Freeblast'.|
We met up with our pre-hauled bags on the next ledge and things slowed down dramatically. I led the next pitch, which is renown for being scary and wide. It is called ‘The Hollow Flake’. I had done it clean before when I had aided up Freerider with Lawrence and Matt a few years ago but couldn’t remember it very well. It begins with a large down climb, which I misread and down climbed too far before committing to the face causing me to fall off. I had to pull all the way up and start again. Eventually I completed the down climb and climbed back up the flake for which the pitch gets its name. It is a flared offwidth, which you cannot protect. To be fair it is hard to fall out of but scary nonetheless. Robbie and I are not proficient with our hauling technique and learning on the go was slow. Especially when you are traversing and you need to lower out around 70kg of gear before hauling it up. By the time we had passed the Hollow Flake it was dark and we called it a day.
|The unprotected Hollow Flake.|
Pitch 14 was Robbies. I was stoked because I had led it previously with Matt and Lawrence and I knew how much of a sandbag it was. A 5.7 chimney, which is basically a solo unless you get right in the back and make it hard for yourself. Robbie did really well and didn’t panic too much which allowed me to cruise it on second. We continued on up some easy 5.10 pitches slowly refining our hauling technique. We had been using a 2 to 1 system, which was slow but easy, before Robbie decided a 1 to 1 system was better and faster. He weighs a lot more than me and could move the bags while I couldn’t make them budge that way. So Robbie became in charge of hauling J
|The sandbagged scary 5.7 chimney.|
|Robbie celebrating another successful haul.|
We always dreaded the wide climbing as it is something we don’t train for and have done the least of so it always feel uncomfortable and insecure. After I had done the hollow flake and Robbie had done the 5.7 chimney it worked out I would get the Ear, which is an overhanging squeeze chimney, and Robbie would have to do The Monster. The monster is probably the most notorious pitch on the entire route. It is a 50m long 5.11a offwidth in which people often struggle for hours. The only way to do it is full commitment. Robbie managed the onsight after an hour or so but it was getting dark and I had been frozen at the belay due to a cold wind that had picked up. I decided I would second it in the morning and jumared up to Robbie at the anchor. There was an awesome ledge called the alcove above us but it was packed with the masses. Two parties that had been getting in each others way all day and obviously weren’t happy. Robbie and I decided to stay below and set up the porta-ledge on a bolted anchor. With all the climbing I have done including a fair few nights on a wall I hadn’t actually ever slept in a portaledge so it was great to have this new experience. It was actually much nicer than sleeping on an exposed ledge as with the fly on it was like a little cocoon(/coffin) to retreat into.
|Comfortable in our ledge.|
We didn’t start early on day 3. It gave the crews above us time to move up a bit so they wouldn’t get in our way. I eventually lowered down and warmed up on the Monster learning from Robbies experience that it contained three offwidth sections separated by hands free stances. I just gunned it through each of the sections and rested well at the stances. We only moved the ledge up into the alcove (about 10 meters) and left it for the camp that night while we went up two easier pitches and fixed ropes to the crux 12c down climb pitch. This marked the spot where Golden Gate leaves the more popular Freerider/Salathe wall route so others wouldn’t trouble us anymore. The weather had turned nasty and we snuck in a shot each while snow flurries swirled around us. The pitch was incredibly insecure and we both struggled to do the moves while the face slowly got wet.
With the focus on sending the 12c down climb we awoke in the alcove and jumared straight up to the pitch. We wanted to get some shots in before the sun hit the face. I fell all over the pitch and doubted whether we would get through. I was leaving wet patches on the holds where I had just been holding on. Robbie had a shot and fell also. We traded attempts while I thought about continuing up Freerider to continue the free ascent if we couldn’t do it. Eventually Robbie sent. Now it was up to me. I hadn’t even done the first step out move onto the slab properly yet let alone the crux down mantle and the sun had just hit the face. I had a quick play on the first step out move figuring out a crucial body position and knew how to do it. Pressure was on but conditions must have improved. The sun on the face meant I wasn’t leaving wet patches on the holds anymore. I stepped out and before I knew it had miraculously done the down mantle without falling. I found a new level of crimp strength and skated my toes down and along feeling for rounded micro edges. I got to the anchor and couldn’t believe I had done it. We were stoked and abseiled back to camp to pack up and get ready to keep moving. The rest of the day consisted of easier 5.10 pitches but convoluted traversing with the haul bags, which consisted of a mixture of lowering out and hauling the bags. We made it to the start of ‘The Move’ pitch and set up the ledge in the dark.
|Tom Evans captures the action from the valley floor. Me on the crux 12c down climb.|
|Easier traversing pitches but a pain to get the bags across.|
‘The Move’ (5.13a) is about pitch 28 and feels very airy. Our camp was just the ledge and haul bags hanging off a couple of bolts in space. It is renown for being reachy and very hard for the short. If it wasn’t the down climb that would stop me it was this pitch. I was tired and needed to be smart in my approach. Robbie went first and cruised it onsight. He was able to reach from a good undercling to a high crimp sidepull/undercling meaning he didn’t have to do the shoulder boulder those that can’t reach have to do. The exit moves aren’t straight forward either but he executed those perfectly. I knew it would be a different beast for me and so went up on grigri and jumar first practicing moves while I self-belayed and Robbie rested on the ledge. I spent a fair bit of time working the subtleties of the difficult boulder. I had watched a video of Emily Harrington on the pitch so knew roughly what I had to do. It came down to pressing off a slopey crimp gaston into the crimp undercling gaston that Robbie could reach to. The crux came after I had these two holds and had to move my feet from one side to the other, which was very intense on my core.
|Breakfast of champions. Double bagged cereal mix with milk powder. Just add water.|
I returned to the ledge and had some breakfast. A cup of tea and I had a shot falling at ‘the move’. I refined my foot beta and returned again to the ledge. A quick rest and I blasted off for the third time scraping through ‘the move’. I was tired though and struggled on the exit moves, which consist of traversing through sequency two finger pockets to a slopey rail. I fell. I was wasted and returned to the ledge. I had an hours rest in which I questioned how much time I would be able to put into this pitch so that Robbies free ascent could continue. My fourth shot was great. I did ‘the move’ easily and was tired but wrestled with the ending refusing to let go. Eventually the two crux pitches were done and the possibility of success was apparent.
|So happy to have done the infamous 'Move' pitch.|
|Robbie ecstatic at the ledge.|
|Tom Evans shot from the valley of me hanging around on 'The Move' pitch.|
The day wasn’t over yet though. I was so tired from giving The Move’ pitch everything so Robbie led the next pitch which has the inspiring name ‘Chickenwing Chimney’. An 11d face leads to a 10a flared chimney. The 11d face was easy but the 10a chimney was soul destroying. Robbie spent a very long time struggling his way up the feature before spending even more time building up the courage to do an unprotected traverse at the end of the pitch where a fall would have been nasty. I expected that on second without the mental challenge of leading it would be easy. I was wrong. I think I grunted more than Robbie and also took a very long time. I vowed several times in the chasm to never do a wide pitch again. I was getting exhausted from the build up of days trying hard. Luckily I didn’t fall as I wouldn’t have wanted to repeat the pitch. Instead of continuing on to a ledge we were so tired we just stopped at the anchor and set up the ledge.
Even though we had only planned for six days on the wall and we still had a lot of climbing left, including two 13a pitches, we didn’t feel too much pressure. We had plenty of water and food left as we weren’t using as much as we thought. We had also done what we had been told were the cruxes. A couple of pitches led us to a small ledge dubbed ‘Tower to the People’ above which the two 13a pitches were located. We decided to leave the haul bags and ledge there while we got stuck in to the last of the difficulties. We had been told these pitches weren’t actually that bad and the rumors were true. The first pitch called ‘The Golden Desert’ Robbie onsighted easily. On second I fell at the second move, which is on a technical traverse but figured it out and returned to the anchor before doing the rest of the pitch without much trouble. We both led the next pitch called ‘ The A5 traverse’ without falling. I don’t often flash 13a on the ground so to do it after 6 days on the go near the top of El Capitan possibly means that a few grades should be taken off.
The climbing was incredible on golden granite and we had done the difficulties. We did the next short 12a traverse pitch as well and still had the afternoon left. Instead of pushing on we were in a relaxed mood so returned to our ledge below and chilled for the afternoon. There were only three 5.11 pitches left
|Passed out on the 'Tower to the People' ledge.|
We thought we were in for an easy day. After packing up the ledge and hauling to our high point I started up the first of the three pitches. It turned into a monster pitch and I went the wrong way ending up on the not recommended exit called ‘The Razor Blade’. I was lay backing and jamming behind a wafer thin flake separate from the wall, which seemed like it would break at any instant. There was heinous drag on my lead line and I had an entire haul line hanging off me. After fifty meters I was relieved to find the safety of a bolted anchor. Robbie led the next section of flake having a breakdown while I was just relieved I was no longer on the sharp end.
It still wasn’t over with the final pitch beginning with a wide corner crack and leading to a difficult boulder problem. I was running on empty and couldn’t believe I was still on the wall as I scraped through each of these difficulties. A bit of route finding and I reached over the lip of the kilometer high wall grabbing a victory jug. I set up an anchor on a tree and brought Robbie up. We had done it and with light left that day to make it back down to the valley floor.
|Summit photo just before the hike down.|
The hike down the east ledges of El Capitan was rough. Robbie had the large haul bag and I had the smaller one with the rack ropes and portaledge balanced on top. The hike also included several rappels, which were tricky in the dying light. We made it down at dark.
I am super stoked to have free climbed a route on El Capitan. Something I wouldn’t have been able to do without a strong partner like Robbie. I think he found it reasonable easy and is charged up again for another free route while I am fatigued and ready for a break from Yosemite. Indian Creek and sandstone splitter cracks are calling. I’m really interested to see how it compares to Liming, China where I spent a lot of last year. There are so many 5.13 classics in The Creek and I want to do them all!