Freerider: How I First Climbed El Capitan

4 12 2009

El Cap trip 2 - 020

El Capitan! So big, so beautiful!

I’ve been dreaming about Yosemite for a many years. I can’t quite figure out when it started but I quickly became infatuated with this mythical climbing area.  I had never been to “The Valley” but read as many books about it as possible in college. Perhaps the tales of John Long introduced me to these gargantuan walls. My imagination was captured by the Stonemasters and I wanted to experience all that California rock climbing had to offer.  In the summer of 2005 I planned my first trip to Yosemite. I had aspirations of climbing the Nose but knew that I had to test my aid skills on a smaller route first. With the help of the internet and books like Freedom of the Hills I had taught myself to aid climb, solo, at an abandoned Quarry in Pennsylvania. My friend Hartley, a Cali native, was eager to show me to the valley and off we went.

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Geared up and ready to go!

Our first multi-day route, The Prow on Washington Column, took way too long – 3 days and 2 nights on the wall – and Hartley and I knew that we were moving too slow for El Capitan. We retreated to Idyllwild and threw ourselves at Valhalla, still clinging onto the idea of becoming Stonemasters.  The general feeling during my first trip to Yosemite was one of extreme scale. I was overwhelmed with the length and commitment of the routes and Hartley and I were at a loss of what to climb. Lizzy and I had a similar feeling in the summer of 2007 on my second trip to the Valley. We climbed many classic routes like Serenity and Sons, the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, Royal Arches and Snake Dike, but during the days between lounged in camp no idea what to climb. Despite all these classic sends we were quite intimidated by El Capitan. Lizzy and I decided to go for it anyways but bailed off of Sickle Ledge. We had been moving too slowly and our water supply was quickly decimated in the summer heat.

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Hauling up the fixed line, El Cap looms above.

Over the last few years I have gained much confidence and most importantly the willingness to fail. In most of my climbing I like starting off with a near 100% chance of success. I work a route until I am ready, onsight near but not at my limit and enjoy sending hard routes when they feel easy. Trying mulipitch routes where you may not send all the pitches first try really opens up the possibility of doing harder climbs.

To make El Capitan seem more doable, Stein and I climbed the Free Blast back in October.  On our second day we continued past Heart Ledges and made it right below the Ear. In a 12 hour day we had free climbed, with no falls for Stein, the first 18 pitches (according to supertopo) or 1000+ feet of El Capitan. I was pretty tired by the end of the day but we had done quite well, possibly a bit too well.

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Looking a bit fuzzy after a night on the Heart Ledges.

With this in mind Stein suggest we try to climb the entirety of Free Rider. Since this would not be our official send, we would jug up the fixed line from Heart and climb as quickly as possible to the new pitches above the Ear. The only pitch we had not climbed, the traverse to the Hollow Flake, could be saved for a later date or attempted if the fixed line to Hollow Flake ledge was gone.

I was thinking we would work on the hard pitches a bit first before trying the full route. However I was excited to climb El Capitan and even more psyched to have a have a partner with the same intentions. So we set plans in motion and as October quickly passed by we got ready to climb the Big Stone.

El Cap - Nov 09 028

Stein starts off on the slab traverse to the Hollow Flake

In an epic sort of way our first day started with Stein flying to San Fransisco from New York. I had driven up from San Diego the day before to pay Lizzy a quick visit before bailing to the Valley. IThe plan was to drive to the Valley, climb as high as we could, and sleep on the wall. Any progress made on Friday would be a bonus and, since we had climbed these pitches before, would hopefully go quickly. My estimation was that we would bivy on Hollow Flake Ledge, hopefully able to skip the Hollow Flake if the fixed rope we had seen previously was still there. Such quick progress was not in the cards.

Darkness came early and we were still hauling the pigs up the fixed lines. The hauling was hard work and our large supply of water, approximately one gallon per person per day for four days, was extraordinarily heavy and hard to pull up the slabby wall. A bit of jugging and hauling by headlamp put us at the Heart ledges where we settled in for the night, happy to chow down on Chipotle that we had picked up on the way. The days were short and we though it would help save time to stay on the wall instead of the standard approach of rapping back to solid ground.

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Morning light on the Monster Offwidth

The morning saw me warming up on the 5.11 slab to get to Lung Ledge. I had failed to free this pitch before, laden with a full pack, and was very happy to send. While crimping on two credit cards my right foot some how stuck to a tiny foothold, about the size of a grain of rice,  I was able to balance up and get to the easier part of the pitch. This put us in place to do the traverse into the Hollow Flake. The fixed rope, most likely used by a free climbing team, was gone. Stein made great work of the thin traverse, falling only once and some how making the crux final move into a crack. I followed cleanly until the final downclimb move to the crack across from the Hollow Flake. A failed attempt sent me flying 50 feet across the wall, a fall I had dreaded but ended up being not too bad.

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Luke leads up on of the many chimneys on the Salathe Wall

In no time I was laybacking up the Hollow Flake. As a follower I could stay outside of the crack and I laybacked at least 75% of it, spending much less time and energy than chimneying.  We switched back leads and I comfortably led the chimney in the photo above. I knew the right place to pull on to the face and made good time. At the 5.10 crux near the end of the end of the pitch I gauged my tiredness and felt better than when I had lead this pitch on our previous attempt (after doing the FreeBlast), a good sign! Stein lowered out our haul bags so they would avoid a big swing and motored up the pitch. Our bags however got stuck under a roof and after many attempts I had to rappel down to free them.  One more pitch lead by Stein put us below the Ear. For once we had an easy haul and I got ready for the next lead.

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Luke is having a blast on the way to the Ear.

From below I was worried, the Ear looked scary. First I had to get though some 10+ moves which required some trickery and a bit of grunting before the main course. In no time I was below the flaring chimney and looking up I couldn’t imagine how to climb such a feature. I looked all around trying to find a way around it but had no luck. I found traces of chalk and went right side into the chimney. Magically my hands found perfect edges as I shimmied deeper into the void. As the crack narrowed down I realized there would be gear and  I tagged up #4 and #5 Camalots. These pieces really helped my mental space as I squeezed up into the crack. My torso was jammed in tight but my legs were in a much larger section,  occasionally peddling in air. The holds I followed allowed for passage at a moderate grade but brought my head into a section so tight I couldn’t turn from side to side. Eventually I traversed to the edge, nothing but air below my feet, and wiggled around onto the top. The pitch was short, the grade irrelevant, and I was ecstatic. The climbing had been out of this world and I could not believe how holds showed up at the necessary moments.

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Stein is ready to push into the unknown.

Switching leads again Stein racked up for the Monster Offwidth. This would be the first crux and at the time we didn’t know how hard it would be. Stein aced the 11d downclimb to the wide crack on his first try and I was impressed. As he worked up I could tell it was hard. Ten feet up he encountered a very loose block, which I had assumed was a rest, tethered to the wall with a old piece of webbing. Intermingling laybacking with grunting, Stein made good progress. I should have guessed the difficulty when he asked me to keep talking to him. It was hard up there, at 7″ the crack is too big for a knee jam or leavittation.  After almost 100 feet of progress Stein was through. The sun was sinking in the sky and we still had another pitch to El Cap Spire.

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Stein exits the Ear. What a crazy pitch!

A bit of cam-jugging put us at the alcove which was camp for a team of Canadians, Will and Jason who were working on Golden Gate. We made small talk and they gave us beta for the next pitch as we hauled our bags. Since it was dark I assumed we would be sleeping here but Stein smartly suggested we keep going and I got back in the lead. With the Canadians’ beta I found the crack behind El Cap Spire and lead a very cool pitch by headlamp only making the mistake of clipping the haul line instead of the lead line… The final mantel onto the spire was phenomenal and the rising moon basked this incredible ledge in light. With the bag hauled, and Stein up shortly after, I started making a dinner of Tasty Bites. The Jetboil was great and I also enjoyed some mashed potatoes. While I didn’t know it at the time Stein was pretty wrecked and could barely eat.  Since I had jugged the Monster I had no idea how much effort it had taken to lead the pitch.

Bivy #2 on El Cap Spire.

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Starting up the Monster after cruising the traverse.

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Stein fights his way up the Monster Offwidth.

Wasting no time the next morning I racked up for the 5.11+ splitter off the Spire. It was super thin hands for a long ways and I really struggled as I plugged .75 camalots. After a night of sleep I was full of psych but lacking on power as my jams gave way and sent me for a morning whipper. Onsight blown, I went into aid climbing mode and cam-jugged up the crack. Tired from shaking my way up the first part of the pitch, I went slowly and cost us some time. The next part of the pitch, a 5.9 squeeze seemed doable as I scooted up. All of a sudden fear set in, as I was above a ledge with no gear in, and I couldn’t make the next move. I went up and down many times before wriggling into the back of the chimney and going up the much harder but more secure way. A number six camalot was useful here! The whole time Jason and Will had started working up their fixed lines and gave me kind words of encouragement as I struggled to commit to the wide crack.

El Cap trip 2 - 079

Another great morning on El Cap!

The final part of this monster 60 meter block (since I was linking two pitches) was up an amazing handcrack in a corner. I put a bunch of energy into it and came out on top, sending the second half of my block cleanly after aiding the first 5.11+ section.  The hauling on this pitch was horrible and I had to wait for Stein to move the bags. I didn’t want to waste any energy doing a 1:1 haul and didn’t have any gear for a complex system, a mistake for sure.  The next pitch was Stein’s lead and the 2nd crux of the route. The more popular Huber Pitch has broken changing the boulder problem from a tricky 5.12d into a 5.13b dyno. This made the more moderate option the Teflon Corner at 12d. It took us a bit of time to figure out where the Teflon Corner was and we had to relocate the belay to the far left side of the ledge at a pair of very convenient bolts. Unfortunately, the wasted time on the previous pitch, coupled with the route finding time, put the Teflon Corner in the sun. By the time Stein had climbed the easier half of the pitch the rock was quite warm.  After a few valiant efforts to overcome the “ninja stemming” Stein had to aid through the crux but managed to do a good job finishing up the pitch.

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Best Belay Ever?

Despite getting to the top of the pitch we had reached a turning point in the climb. This pitch was hard and it had taken a lot of time and effort to get to the top. Stein was worried about continuing up and I shared the same fear that we would not make it to the next ledge before nightfall. The original plan had us climbing two more pitches followed by two hard pitches that day. Since the Alcove the anchors had been very inconstant, either on gear or an array of fixed pins and tat, and  I did not want to bail and leave gear. I also knew that it would take us a lot of time to get back to the ground. I was especially concerned about having to reverse the pendulum from the hollow flake while rappelling with a haul bag.  I was confident that we could keep going since we had enough water to make it, possibly with a bit more aid than we hope. In fact, I was pretty sure it would be less effort, and more valiant, to continue to the top. The hauling was getting easier and the haulbag beat me to the next belay as I jugged up the Teflon Corner.

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Psyched that the Sewer is DRY!

Back in the lead again I was psyched for a 5.10 pitch. While the Sewer is supposed to be horrible I had quite the good time. There was a good deal of dirt but the cracks were dry and I made good work until the final roof on the pitch. Tired from previous days of effort I struggled across the roof towards the two bolt belay. Shocked to see two 1/4 bolts I continued on and stupidly placed a #2 camalot right around the roof. As I struggled to jam up the corner  after the roof my rope got completely wedged between the #2  and the crack. As I fumbled with what little gear left I could not pull the rope up to clip. 15 feet out I had to use my longest sling to clip the piece and sadly had to lower and remove the #2, blowing my onsight.  The send was most likely not in the cards as I had to pull on gear for the final two moves on to the block.

El Cap trip 2 - 116

Luke races the darkness to Sous Le Toit ledge

As Stein followed the pitch cleanly I struggled to haul the bags. The rope turned a sharp corner and created more friction than I could handle. Situations like these made me want a 2:1 setup yet again.  A bit of two person hauling later we had the bags on the big sloping ledge. Stein set off on the next pitch which was one of the most spectacular yet. The pitch started with easy climbing to a set of in obvious face moves and finished with awesome laybacking seen in the photo above. While I took my time to follow the pitch clean, Stein expertly hauled our bag to the next cramped ledge.

El Cap - Nov 09 051

Stein makes a morning phone call after a night on the block.

The following two pitches were mine and I wasted no time racking up and switching into full on aid climbing mode. 5.12+ at sunset was not for me and I slowly climbed bomber C1 as darkness fell. Headlight switched on, I was lost. The cruiser corner crack had podded out and I was confronted with unclimbable pin scars. I equalized a C3 with a tipped out alien and stepped on the connecting sling. My Easy Aiders could not get the necessary height to reach the next flaring placement. Two lobes of a red camalot went in and I reached high slotting a bomber nut. One more move and I was at the midway anchors, a nice bolt and a strange hanger that I had never seen on a rock climb. The hardware seemed like it would fit better in Home Depot than on El Capitan.

El Cap - Nov 09 044

Luke is keeping his energy level on HIGH!

The final section of climbing to the Salathe Roof was bizarre. The square pin scars continued but I had the advantage (maybe….) of fixed gear. Some poor soul had gotten to this point in the climb and decided the best thing to do was hammer in nuts the wide side facing out. I wish I had a photo to explain how the nuts and hexes had been fixed in the flaring square slots. I’ve never seen such a thing but I had to trust the gear and keep going. A string of these bashed in nuts lead to a nice finger crack and eventually a wide flare. With a single #3 camalot, I had to make a dubious aid move to bump the piece high enough to reach the anchors. There was one pitch remaining between us and Round Table Ledge and I was too intimidated and unsure to continue around the corner. I fixed the rope and rapped to Sous Le Toit. In a brilliant move we decided to fix another rope and retreat to the block. This would allow us a place to stand and walk around and would be fairly comfortable with our portaledge.

El Cap - Nov 09 048

Our portaledge bivy on the Block.

Unlike the previous night Stein was quite hungry and we both feasted on Backpackers Pantry. While dehydrated food is not the best on a wall, since you have to carry extra water, the hot food tasted great and was likely worth the effort. I took the exposed outside part of the portaledge, which was a bit scarier. I had dreams of falling off, but lucked out with the more level position.  The night was not too cold but I enjoyed having a pad on top of our ledge.

A bivy tour from the Block.

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Stein is back up to Sous Le Toit and excited to charge to the top!

The next morning Stein was full of psyche and his enthusiasm would carry us all the way to the top. We jugged our fixed lines and then I hauled the bags to the roof, allowing Stein time to prep for his lead of the roof traverse. As I dangled in space underneath the roof I really felt the exposure and extreme nature of our position. The next pitch wrapped around a corner to the left, traversing over almost two thousand feet of nothing. I was scared, maybe not for the first time, and was happy to have Stein in the lead.  The pitch was tricky at first with small foot holds and good crimps. Stein worked his way across, with a hang on some fixed gear before making a spectacular move and disappearing around the corner.  I kept feeding the rope out and would occasionally hear the clipping sound of a carabiner.  All of a sudden the rope pulled tight and Stein came swinging back around the corner. He had found the crux and taken a beautiful arcing fall into space. I saw a smile on his face and knew everything was all right. A few minutes later he was yelling off belay and I lowered the bags out into the void. The pitch was very short but it was crazy to see the haulbags hanging so far out from the wall.

El Cap trip 2 - 134

Unreal exposure!!

I started climbing the traverse, overgripping with fear and happily made it to the first fixed piece, a nut that barely seemed fixed at all….  After much hesitation I committed to to corner move and made the big reach left to a jug.  As I had seen Stein do many minutes before I relaxed and shifted my weight onto my left arm.  My body now dangled above more feet of air than I would like to think about. I made a small one arm pull and crossed over to swing around the arete. I was greeted with more fixed gear and a wild series of huecos. I rested a few more times on the rope and made my way to the crux. The holds blanked out and you had to get all of your weight around a final corner. I worked out a different sequence than Stein but did every move and eventually made it up to Round Table ledge.

El Cap trip 2 - 137

The knot of the century…

With an old rope and a huge fall Stein had welded his knot and it took us almost 30 mins to get it undone. This time was a good rest before Stein started up the next pitch. Things were looking up since we had no more pitches of 5.12 and only one more offwidth.  The next pitch was insanely steep and started with an amazing handcrack in a corner. Expertly Stein figured out that he could chimney the start of the pitch to keep from getting too pumped. This allowed him to bump along his cams since we only had a double set.  The crack widened to offwidth and when I followed had to use leavittation to get through. The finish of the pitch was equally amazing as you had to do a 180 degree rotation in a chimney to set up for the final layback to the anchor. I spent a ton of energy but managed to follow cleanly, which was very motivating!

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Stein hides from the sun in the hole belay.

There was supposed to be one more section, according to one of our topos, before the Scotty Burke OW so Stein set off again up the intimidating next pitch. While I had just climbed well, three roofs in 50 feet did not look too inviting. This bit of climbing, which was grey aliens, aka off fingers, was incredibly strenuous and both Stein and I had to aid through it.  In no time Stein was at the base of the SB Offwidth but there was no obvious belay. He tagged up a hand full of big cams: #4, #5, #6 and started up the crack. We had moved back in the sun and were in no shape for hard Offwidths on our 4th day. Cam jugging quickly commenced and I did the same when following.  Stein found a nice cave to escape the shade and allowed him to easily haul the bags. We were a bit below the suggested belay but it seemed to work out nicely.

Stein ponders offwidths

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We are going to summit!!

Stein went off to lead one more pitch before turning the sharp end over to me. He did a great job despite getting a bit lost and having do downclimb an incorrect crack. We had rejoined the Salathe and the correct path was hard to see due to the offset of the crack.  A zig-zagging lead put Stein below a final chimney. Struggling to climb the many off fingers cracks on the next pitch I dug deep to follow another pitch clean. I was really psyched and happy to take the rack and charge for the top. The pitch started with 5.11 face climbing which quickly turned in to C1 to take less time. I squeezed in the chimney and quickly wiggled my way to the top.  As the chimney closed out I was too high and had to climb down to the exit, photo below. With no solid holds I couldn’t make my way out. In went a #4 and with a bit more french free I kept going up. The top was in sight as  I raced up the 5.6 slab to the final tree.

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Luke struggles up one final chimney.

I reached the tree and fixed the rope as the sun set. Stein followed as I struggled to haul the bags. The flat ground made a steep turn back onto the face and it was slow going as the bags inched up the wall. Following in darkness Stein made his way to the top, happy to have summited El Capitan! We had managed to pull it off and climbed five hard pitches with a minimal amount of aid.  In the face of failure we had conquered the fear in our selves and made it to the top!

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Summit!!!

A dark summit video.

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Dinner time on top!

Food and water were my number one priorities as I set up the stove and cooked up some mashed potatoes and Tasty Bites.  We feasted on fruit cocktail for dessert and passed out as the moon rose. It was so odd not to be wearing my harness and I woke up occasionally wondering why I wasn’t wearing one. My fingers were swollen and my shoulders hurt so much that I had to sleep on my back. The previous nights Stein and I had gone to sleep with a feeling of burning in our hands. Thoughts of flat ground and normal life floated through my dreams.

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Luke racks up for the East Ledges 😀

The next morning we divided up all the gear and humped the bags down the East Ledges descent. The cross country travel to the drainage went very quickly but the gully itself went on forever. After being fooled by a fake wall of dikes we eventually found the amazing black wall with white dikes. The rappels were not too bad, though I found out it is much easier to rap with the pig on hanging below you than on your back.  I thought having the pig on my back would be faster but it quickly turned into an ultimate ab workout that I could not handle.

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Psyched we haven’t gotten lost yet on the hike down.

The hike seemed to last forever before we found the Manure Pile parking lot. Some Canadian tourists took the photo below and gave Stein a ride back to our car. It was really warm and despite the many days of wear and tear I felt pretty good. Stein and I had both lost a bunch of weight and were tired from the foreign lifestyle of living in the vertical. I don’t really know how to sum up the experience but it was positive.  We had overcome a lot and kept good attitudes almost the whole way. Our partnership worked really well and we both were key in getting to the top. I hope to write again in the spring we we return to work on the harder pitches!

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Back at Manure Pile! We made it!!

Some thoughts after making it down to the Valley floor.

MugShot1

3000 feet of climbing, 8 gallons of water, 4 days on the wall and 2 happy climbers

MugShot2

Enjoy,

Luke

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6 responses

13 12 2009
Stein

What an adventure of a lifetime! It is so good to read your report and remember it.
I’m looking forward to getting back on Freerider in the spring… but also dreading it. 🙂

24 04 2010
Eric

What an incredible adventure, and a superb reporting job to boot! Looks to be a climb never to forget. Thanks for sharing this!

24 02 2011
zen pxn

you guys frickin ROCK! what an inspiration.

Thank you for the post.

-Zen

8 04 2011
Marcus

Guys, well done, a fantastic insight, hope to read more!

18 05 2011
Tom

Nice one guys! Awesome to do El Cap on a mostly free route first time, I reckon that gets you a load of extra big wall points! Well written article too, very descriptive and fun to read.

I’m going out to the valley later this year for the first time and I hope to have a good try at this route once we’re well warmed up on some slightly less mental stuff….

Good luck on your next project!

Tom

16 10 2011
Binu

You guys are having amazing focus and courage. Wish you good luck

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