The Secret Passage, a free route on the far right of El Cap, put up in 2008 by crazy, flute playing, Belgian Rock Stars Nico Favresse and Sean Villaneauva O’Driscol. Their First Ascent was the first time a free route had been put up on El Cap ground up, and having now done the route, I can say this is a class achievement. Although they aided (some/all?? I’m not sure), top roped, then lead the pitches, in their words ‘[they went] fun style! No fixing, no rappelling, just finding the way from the ground to the top’. Again, having now been on the route and realising how runout, dangerous and adventurous (at least for The Valley) the route is, I can’t imagine it was very ‘fun’.
Aside from their great efforts of going in ground up style, they also placed only two extra bolts, one to back up a belay (which previously consisted of a wobbly peg and a rivet) and one to ‘protect’ some of the variation climbing around the original aid routes. Because of this, the original aid routes which Secret Passage follows (Eagles Way and Bad To The Bone) were kept in their original state, which results in some very spicy free climbing at times. One pitch is protected by a corner of old copper heads and a lot of other pitches have very runout sections around scary, friable, biscuit like features.
A typical piece of the belay…
Although we kept cursing the Belgians for their bolt drill breaking and the lack of protection, their ascent back in 2008 was an inspirational achievement and although me and my climbing partner Dan both managed to free the whole route our ascent doesn’t quite match up to Nico and Sean’s in terms of style:
- Where they went from the ground - we checked out the top 3 hard pitches from abseil
- Where they went incredibly bold on the lower crux pitch - we had the first piece pre-clipped
- Where they took flutes and mandolins - we took phones and sound systems, (we decided hauling up my musical instrument of choice, a piano, was a bit much)
That doesn’t mean to say I’m not pleased with our ascent, I am delighted with mine and Dan’s performance. Its more to demonstrate that Nico’s and Sean’s ascent was impressive and in a way, was maybe overlooked and cast aside a little when it was climbed in 2008. Nobody seemed to have heard of Secret Passage in Yosemite even though it is on the cover of The Supertopo guide.
I’m pleased with mine and Dans ascent for a few reasons:
- It’s only the second free ascent since the first ascent in 2008
- We did a team free ascent (so both individually managed to free every pitch on our successful attempt, the first time this had been done.)
- We stuck out the wall for 9 days with 7 days of supplies
- We stuck out a two day snow storm
- We climbed on the wettest part of the wall when a storm was predicted (the route starts and finishes up waterfalls)
- We topped out the route up a receding waterfall
- We climbed the upper crux pitch with the crux hold wet (the cover guide photo)
- We’d heard harrowing stories of failed repeat attempts, but decided to push on.
- Dan and I had never climbed a Big Wall together (and have only been cragging together a bunch of times).
For me the seed of trying the route was planted last year. I decided I was going to make my first trip to The Valley to try and climb El Cap. I had the Supertopo Big Walls guide and straight away there was Nico pulling the crux of the Secret Passage on the front cover. Although I did not get round to trying the route on my first visit, the image was always there in my mind. An unrepeated free route on El Cap, the cover shot, why had this not been repeated? I couldn’t help but try and get back there. I contacted Dan McManus, a Brit, Trad climbing beast, and who is gradually becoming an El Cap addict having now climbed it in some way shape or form 9 times.
Nico on the cover of the Supertopo guide
Our early attempts in early October, started on a ground up push. Straight off the deck the climbing kicks in with bold, frictionless, water-washed slabs and copper head corners. Our first attempt we managed to onsight up to the first crux pitch ‘The flight of the Seagull’ 5.13cR and both redpoint this pitch, which considering the searing heat of 35 degrees+ felt like a positive effort. However due to heat, dehydration, lack of water and a lot of route still to climb we bailed absolutely frazzled. We had both put in some spicy leads on this first push and even this low down felt like we had pushed the boat out on some pitches, going big and bold on the leads to get the rope above us.
Top roping out the first crux in the searing heat
We’d had an appetiser of the route and reevaluated the situation and decided to check out the top 3 hard pitches from an El Cap rap. The decision seemed sensible as we discovered the real ‘loose rock’ Nico had described about the route. ‘The Guillotine Parano’ pitch (the upper crux) held a flake the consistency of a digestive biscuit, 3 metres long, the sharpness of a guillotine, directly above the belay and completely unavoidable for climber to climb round and belayer to move if it was to fall off. We were outraged Nico had climbed past it and came to the conclusion he must have been high on flute music to even consider it…a very bold Belgian! Dan crumbled half of it off from above with minimum effort and half was left for us to teeter round when we finally got to this point on the push.
The weather had been extremes for us throughout the trip, from searing hot and electric storms to -16 and snow storms. Good conditions for free climbing it was not. The weather again seemed unsettled for the foreseeable future so we had no option to set off three days before a two day snow storm had been predicted. The lower pitches which we knew well by now past easily and we were soon into new terrain. We had picked what looked like the most sheltered part of the route to bivvy out the storm, which was under some small roofs 15m left of Horsetail Falls (the waterfall which makes up 70% of El Cap runoff) and 40m right of Devils Brow Runoff (the waterfall which makes up the remaining 30%). As temperartures were so cold after the storm the runoff occurred for the following 6 days so we found ourselves stuck between two waterfalls, with our way of retreat blocked by Horsetail and our way to the summit blocked by The Devil.
Horsetail Falls in action not far from our bivvy
Horsetail Falls still in action 3 days later…
The Devil’s Waterfall spray coming right over the top of us
Luckily there were some pitches in the middle which stayed dry and kept us occupied before reaching The Devil’s Waterfall. These pitches went well with the most harrowing moment for me leading past the ‘Guillotine Biscuit,’ finding the crux hold was wet, then falling off and ripping the in-situ peg. Motivation certainly decreased after this, as temperatures had dropped to bouldering temps rather then big wall temps the winds had picked up and one of the most crucial holds on the route was soaking. Somehow the next morning we both managed to pull the pitch out the bag and finally moved onto trying to fathom how to now top out the remaining waterfall which our route now finished up.
Leading past ‘The guillotine biscuit’
Dan finishing ‘The Wild Ride Traverse’ with a double dyno (c) Paolo Sartori
We had realised there was a pattern with the waterfall runoff, it went something like this:
Waterfall would run in the morning coolness
In the midday sun it would receded and some rock would dry out
waterfall would run in the evening coolness
waterfall would freeze in the nighttime
With this cycle we had around a three hour window midday where the remaining 3 pitches were dry.
Day 8 - our last day, we were ready for the final hard pitch ‘The Secret Passage’ 5.13a, we both topped it out, with Dan finishing the final easy moves of the pitch as the evening runoff covered his holds. 15 minutes later the whole pitch was yet again a waterfall. We were meant to top out today but the upper pitches had become un-passable and having taken 7 days of supplies we were stranded to try and top out on the 9th. Luckily water wasn’t an issue as we were able to harvest sweet ‘Mountain Dew’ from the waterfall next to us. Unfortunately it didn’t taste like the Lemon and Lime Mountain Dew from The Lodge, but instead like it had been filtered through bird shit (which was common route occurrence), however we still had gas in abundance so a nice bird shit brew was on the cards.
The Secret Passage (c) Paolo Sartori
Day 9 - we were up ready and waiting for our midday 3 hour window to push to the summit. Thank goodness the pitches turned out to be reasonable and after some wet rock rambling and loose rock scrambling we topped out in the early afternoon of day 9.
It turned out to be quite an adventure, and I’ve got to say thanks to Dan for putting in some fantastic, bold, hard leads and getting the rope up there on his pitches, staying relaxed and feeling at ease that we were trapped by two waterfalls. A privilege to spend the 9 days on the wall with him and also amazing (and against all weather odds) that we both got it free!