One of the odd things about big wall climbing is that standards seem to lag behind other parts of climbing - whilst P Robz is out there cranking out V14s on the boulders and Ondra on the 9b’s, the big wall free climbers are still getting stuck into 8a - 8b at the cutting edge. Tommy Caldwell and K Jorg being the exception of course…. It would seem that standards should be broadly in line across all styles, but even in the access friendly mecca of Yosemite, this does’t seem to be the case.
Likewise the onsight / flash standards have lagged on the big walls. The biggest surprise to many might be that El Capitan has still never had a pure onsight of any of it’s free routes, despite the grades rarely going over 8b on the hardest pitches. So why is this? Is it the cumulative effect of tiredness? The diversity of climbing styles? The skin condition issues of 5 days of continuous climbing?
Well, this week Pete and I set off to find out the truth. Could it really be that hard to climb 32 pitches of granite first go, on the mega classic line of Freerider?
Freerider was first established by the Huber brothers in 1998 and essentially forms an “easy version” of Salathe on the left side of El Capitan. It’s characterised by a lower slab half which follows blank sections that join up major crack systems that are often quite wide - including the infamous hollow flake. Nothing in the bottom half of the route goes beyond tricky E4, although it’s well know for being hard to onsight every single pitch even for the easy part. Above the midway point the wall steepens up and heads towards the overhanging Salathe headwall via offwidths, corners and more hard face climbing up to E6 (or 7c). Pete and I planned to attempt the route from the ground over 3 days, having saved every pitch as unseen, but we’d begged every friend we knew to give us good beta for the route! Despite our previous mistakes on El Corazon, we adopted many of the same tactics in the vain hope that somehow second time round we might not have as many hiccups!
At 4 in the morning we set up the first section of the route, a ten pitch climb known as Freeblast and popular just to do by itself.
The first hurdle of this section comes at around pitch 5 where the cracks thin out and you reach some delicate face climbing. I think we were both quite nervous not to blow the onsight attempt this early on, and we both hesitated a little at the crux until finally gibbering our way across the mini traverse and rocking out onto better holds.
The next crux came not from the climbing, but from a bowel problem from Randall. We decided to link some pitches up and go Irish mega pitch style, halfway through the 80m pitch Tom had serious issues trying to get into the half dollar corner whilst not pooping himself. After an emergency restroom stop things eased in the climbing (and down below) and we found ourselves having done the Freeblast, the long down climb and on heart ledges before lunch time. What a great start.
A couple of parties had snuck ahead of us up the fixed lines and it seemed one party was having trouble with the notorious hollow flake. Two hours later we still hadn’t moved from Heart Ledges and realised we weren’t going to make it to our bivvy spot in the Alcove before dark. If we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of on sighting the route, we rationalised that climbing in the dark wouldn’t be that good, because although Freerider follows big ledge systems, anyone who knows me and Tom will know we are notorious at getting lost. We decided to descend from Heart Ledges and come back extra early the following morning to get ahead of the crowds and stick to our schedule.
Day 1 Again
It seems to have become a habit not quite getting off on the right foot on these routes, but nevertheless we started “Day 1 Version 2” from where we left off at Heart Ledges. The first hurdle on this part of the route comes at the Hollow Flake where you always hear rumours of huge run outs, death potential and hideous offwidths. What they don’t tell you about though, is the horrendous 30m down climb of a 5.11d that you have to do….. down climbing….. we didn’t sign up for this! Both Pete and I suffered a bit on this pitch. We’re not the biggest fans of layback down climbing.
A few pitches above I had to tackle what was to become one of the hardest pitches on the route. The 5.7 chimney. Yes 5.7 is the UK equivalent to VS. To cut a long and painful story short, I made a total hash of this pitch and ended up stuck in the back of a squeeze chimney swearing my head off and thrashing a good part of my knee skin off for 45mins, whilst everyone on the ledge below laughed at me! It was a really good grounding experience and reminded me that despite all the crack climbing that I’ve done, I can still be brought to my knees by an innocuous pitch.
The last pitch of the day to land us at our night spot was in stark contrast to a 5.7 chimney: the Monster Offwidth! More body grinding, big cams and suffering. Fortunately, this huge wide crack has a big reputation which kind of prepares you for the misery above. It was actually very interesting for Pete and I to do this pitch as we’ve done a lot of offwidths over the years and we were keen to know how the apparent “5.11a grade” would fit in with the world offwidths. Suffice to say we topped out the pitch impressed with its difficulty and thought that compared to many others around the globe it was a good solid E6 pitch. A good friend of ours, Andy Reeve (see pic below) had wrestled the monster a week before and made a herculean effort to try and remove his own arm. Anyone who climbs this pitch without a long wide crack apprenticeship gets serious respect from me. It’s very beefy.
We had planned to only climb 6 pitches on this day as 4 pitches above us was where the crux of the route was.
At this point the route has two variations, which is either ‘The Teflon Corner’ at 7c, or ‘The Huber Variation’ at 7c+. As we’d been given beta for The Huber Variation we decided to go for this one. I narrowly missed flashing the problem falling from the last move after not spotting a crucial hold. I was really annoyed as I felt as though i could have done it. I made a quick redpoint to make sure I still had a ‘safe tick’ of the route on the cards. The holds are quite thin on this pitch and as it got warmer Tom couldn’t quite claw his way up in the increasing heat.
We decided to ab back down and have ago on the Teflon Corner. The corner is a much different proposition and instead of using finger tip skin it uses palm skin, instead of edges its smears. I really wanted to make up for my mistake on The Huber Variation and make sure I did this pitch first go. We didn’t have any beta for this pitch but I knew it was my style of climbing, so I just went for it with a really positive approach and before I knew it I’d smeared and palmed my way to the top of the pitch without falling! I couldn’t believe it, maybe a Flash ascent of El Capitan was still on! Tom put his best Flash effort, unfortunately narrowly missing out and slipping out the slippery bugger. it was starting to get late, so we decided to have a rest, bivvy it out and let Tom complete pitch early the next morning.
Having fallen off the teflon corner more times that you’d think was feasibly possible, I went down the next morning with sore palms, but with a bit more confidence that the cooler morning temps would help on the insecure smearing. I think what marked this pitch out, wasn’t my multitude of falls, but the fact that Pete did this first go - I couldn’t believe his performance after I’d been on it for just 15 minutes. Such a good effort to not make a single mistake. Whilst the climbing isn’t strength dependent, the moves are so weird. It’s all body tension, insecurity and butt clenchingly desperate. Think The Quarryman groove, but shorter and made of granite! After an hour of effort that morning I somehow seemed to piece the climbing together and produced a couple of nice blisters on my palms.
Knowing that we had the hardest pitch of climbing behind us, I think the tension eased off for me, but for Pete I’m pretty sure it ramped up. He still had “the flash” in hand, but now there was 10+ pitches of up to E6 above that no silly mistakes could be made on. As I sat on the belay some time that morning, I really pondered Pete’s dilemma… it’s not that hard on paper, but how do you keep it together over so many different climbing styles and on back to back climbing days?
The question to that one, has to be answered in what was the highlight of the day for me - watching Pete lead the second “Enduro Corner”, a reasonably graded 5.12b. We’d heard rumours that it was a proper sandbag and looking up at the line you could see few big holds and even fewer footholds. Essentially, it was a 15m power layback on rounded holds…. did I mention that we both hate laybacks?! As Pete steadily made progress upwards he reached a point where I could see he’d got pretty pumped and his feet kept twitching nervously on the holds.
Fuck. This can’t be….. there’s no way he can mess this up after everything below. Come on…. just grin and bear it….
Almost as if Pete had heard my thoughts, he got “the face” out that I rarely see. It’s the one where he looks like he’s going to chew his own chin off and his face wrinkles up in shear determination. I always love this moment (I bet Pete doesn’t!) as I know some seriously grim effort is about to be shown. With everything he had, he crimped it up, got the beefcake out and gunned it to the top of the pitch looking at a huge fall if he fell before the belay.
YESSSS!!! Thank God for that. I can relax for 10 minutes now. Until the next pitch…..
As I lead off on the 5.12 traverse afterwards I kind of knew that he had the route in the bag now as no one had said anything too worrying about the pitches above. I mostly started to look forward to a night spent on a 2ft wide ledge trying to work out how to cook, sleep and not touch Pete’s toxic feet.
Top Out Day
After the previous day all the 5.12 and 5.11 pitches were done, so I was able to relax a little. However after climbing in Yosemite for a month now I’ve come to realise not to take any grade that seriously. I seem to have done 5.8s which have been harder then some 5.11c’s. I knew just to be relaxed and that the last few 5.10 pitches would be in my capability.
A few hours later both Tom and i had topped out. Tom had managed to free his second big wall on El Cap and somehow I’d managed to climb the whole of Freerider without taking a fall. Firstly I actually couldn’t believe we’d both managed to free another wall in such a short period of time and secondly I couldn’t believe I’d got up this thing in a push first try.
We had had it as a goal to try and flash Freerider before coming out to the States as we knew it may not have been done before. We saved the whole route so we were able to do this, which is why we did the Pre Muir - Corazon link at the start of the trip. Another great big walling experience, maybe not quite so much a Randall/Whittker shambles this time…..hmmmmm i’m not so sure, there were definitely some moments. massive thanks to Randall for climbing it with me.
Big Wall Flasher!
Pete’s effort on Freerider has to be one of my favourite climbing experiences because I got to see the culmination of 15 yrs of effort in learning a craft come to fruition. Everything he’s learnt on the gritstone edges, slate slabs, on offwidths with me and in cracks all over the world came to together in one 3000ft face. It’s not often you get to be there in the action observing a little bit of history and also not that often that when you’ve done it, you bump into Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen at the top to talk to them about it!
For me the best flash efforts on a number of different routes (as far as I know) have to be:
Cedric Lachat’s Freerider attempt (very similar style to Pete)
Ueli Steck on Golden Gate (1 fall)
Leo and Patch on El Nino (2 or 3 falls?)
Yuji on Salathe (4 falls)
For anyone who’s wondering if big wall free climbing is possible for them, then I encourage you to give it a little try - you might just surprise yourself. We now have a generation of Brits from short 20m crags who are making amazing efforts and people like Dan McManus, James McHaffie, Hazel Findlay, Calum Muskett and Andy Reeve are a constant inspiration in rewards of hard work and determination.