Salathe Baby! There were people everywhere! Coming up underneath us, rapping down on top of us, jugging fixed ropes and haul bags from every angle. Freerider is a 3 pitch variant of the famous Salathe Wall on the south-west face of El Capitan. It has become an incredibly popular route, and after climbing it you can see why! Freerider is the route Alex Honnold soloed in early June this year, and it is now a very popular goal for climbers from all around the world to climb the route ‘free’, making numerous attempts on the route and working many of the pitches over time. After the Huber brothers discovered the Freerider variation avoiding the difficult Salathe Headwall, it became the easiest way to free climb El Cap, just in reach of mere mortals.
After Alastair McDowell was sucked back into his full-time job in Sydney, he had to bail on this trip, and I swooped in his place to have attempt on the route with Daniel Joll. We met in San Francisco in late October and headed straight to the valley. Being a short 10 day trip, we made the most of our time packing the haul bags and pre-hauling them up to heart ledges on the first day so they were ready to go. We planned on spending five to six days on the route so Dan could work some of the free pitches in preparation for his free attempt next year. With 100 kilograms of gear including an abundance of chocolate, coffee, canned food and water we began hauling in the blistering afternoon heat. Five pitches of gruelling hard work brought us to the Heart ledges where we deposited our bags.
The following day we climbed the first 10 pitches of the route which is known as Freeblast (5.11b or C2), fun crack and slab climbing. We made sure we were the first on the route to avoid the crowds and heat. After finishing, we looked back down and saw another seven parties on the route! Descending back down the fixed ropes from Heart ledges, we decided to take a rest day before starting up the route.
Jugging up the fixed lines in the dark a day later, we made it to Heart ledges at around 6am, tip toeing around the sleeping climbers. Dan set off, leading up to the base of the hollow flake. Here we met two British climbers, squabbling about the correct way to jumar the rope. The other two Brits were above them. We would get to know these four friends very well over the next few days. Equipped with four giant haul bags, two portaledges, beer and pizza, they weren’t trying to set any speed records. This was no issue for us as we also had six days of supplies and their regular squabbles provided great entertainment.
The Hollow Flake is one of the Salathe Wall's iconic pitches, requiring a pendulum into the base of the crack and then an incredibly run-out 7 inch crack. Dan cruised up the pitch having climbed it on a previous trip. Climbing a few more pitches of moderate cracks we ended up at the base of The Ear, another famous pitch. A funky squeeze chimney with some wicked exposure requires some people to remove their helmets. I followed my way up, huffing and puffing, being one of my first experiences in a squeeze chimney. After a bit of traffic jam with the Brits and darkness upon us the Brits kindly offered to fix our rope on the next pitch to The Alcove. We rapped back down and set the portaledge at the top of pitch 16 and gave the Brits some space.
Jugging the fixed ropes in the morning took us directly to The Alcove. A plush bivvy directly under the famous El Cap Spire, the Alcove is equipped with good anchors, lots of space, shade and a ‘poo cave’ for those who require a bit of privacy. We set up the portaledge here and fixed two more pitches. The hauling and free climbing had taken a toll on our bodies and we decided to take the next day to rest. We hung out at the Alcove, eating, drinking coffee, listening to music and watching the beautiful Yosemite sunsets. One of the highlights of the rest day was meeting all the climbers either coming up or rapping down, to work some of the harder pitches, or to stash some food for their free attempts. Everyone had their own unique story, and different ways of climbing the route. Despite the amount of climbers, everyone remained extremely friendly and courteous.
We each had a top rope attempt on the notorious Monster Offwidth. Dan cruised it surprising himself, however I fell off after each move, taking me over an hour to complete the pitch, with the simple realisation that I need to climb more offwidths. We woke at the crack of dawn the next day, to get ahead of our friendly American friends who had stayed above us at the Spire. Passing them while they were sleeping I cracked into some aid climbing, passing the brutal looking Boulder problem (crux of the route, 5.13a, or the Teflon corner to the left 5.12d). Next, we climbed the Sewer named because it’s occasional seepage. We were lucky that it was dry, however not so lucky that Dan managed to pull his groin, leaving him in a lot of pain, and a limp for the remainder of the trip. The Sewer brings you up to the Block bivvy.
I got into the groove of aid climbing for the next two long pitches up to the top of the Enduro corner, where the route spilts for 3 pitches , to the left the 3 pitch free rider variation or to the right up the steep Salathe headwall where they meet up again to continue for the last two pitches. It was a highlight to reach the top of the Enduro corner and watch a modest Pete Whittaker (one of the Wide Boyz and the first person to rope solo El Cap in a day, all free) cruise up the 5.12d pitch making it look like a 5.9! Dan climbed behind him, getting to know the pitch for his next attempt.
Fixing ropes at the top of the Enduro Corner we headed back down to the block after one of the longer days of climbing. Waking up on the fifth day, we decided to try to get to the top. After pulling his groin, Dan decided we should head up the Salathe headwall instead of the Free Rider variation, saving the run out Round table traverse for the next attempt. Climbing up the Salathe Headwall was surreal, the hardest aid climbing I had done so far, and with such wicked exposure I didn’t dare look down the whole time. I was relived to make it to Long Ledge, where I could finally sit down after six hours of hanging in a harness.
At Long Ledge we met two friendly American climbers who had also chosen to avoid the Round table traverse. The traverse had just had its yearly clean up which involved removing all the fixed gear making it a very run out pitch straight off the belay. The friendly Americans hadn’t planned on going up the Salathe Headwall either, making an impressive ascent of the three aid pitches with no aid gear - just using 120cm slings for etriers! They were climbing light and had no water, so we kindly offered them a few litres of water for which they were incredibly grateful. Three more pitches of moderate climbing took us to the top of El Capitan just on sunset.
We woke with sore bodies from hauling and climbing for five days. Hanging with our American friends we relaxed on top of El Capitan and soaked up the sun. It was nice to sleep harness free and not have to worry about every single item being attached to the wall! We slowly stumbled our way back down the East ledges back to the horizontal world. Looking back at the Salathe I knew I would be back up there again soon.
With amazing granite, beautiful sunsets and sunrises, warm nights and data to text your mates and update your Instagram you can see why El Capitan is the place to go big walling comfortably. Furthermore, Freerider/Salathe offer some of the most incredible bivvy spots, incredible features (El Capitan Spire, Salathe Headwall) with moderate aid climbing and for those stronger keen climbers the challenge to free climb. Although crowded with people, everyone we met was awesome and courteous and just out to have a good time. For the converted crack fiends like myself, Free Rider has it all - finger, hand, fist, off-width, run out slab climbing, chimneys and a bit of face climbing thrown in. It’s a truly awesome climb that I’m sure for most who go once, will be back for a second go.
Beta for Freerider/Salathe Wall
• There are generally a lot of fixed ropes on the route which can be helpful. From the base to the top of heart ledges there are normally around five fixed ropes, making it easy to pre-haul and set up for the climb.
• From the top of freeblast its an easy downclimb (for those who are trying to free) or a rap on some fixed ropes down to heart ledges. From here the descent is straight forward using the fixed ropes to get back down to the ground, but make sure you look down and avoid the people jugging up!
• It’s tempting to stay on “El Cap Spire” but not very practical. The anchors are marginal and it’s in full sun. The Alcove offers much more shade and security.
• Monster Offwidth Beta -The Monster, probably the most notorious pitch on the route which involves about 50 meters of hideous offwidth climbing. The difficulty of this pitch will depend partly on cardiovascular fitness, the strength of your ankles, having a high pain threshold and skill in climbing wide cracks. After a surprisingly hard and technical down-climb/traverse to gain the right arête of the crack and then swinging inside, it’s left-side in and after a few meters you get a ledge to rest on and recompose yourself. The trick is this: left side in, left arm-bar straight in, right hand cupping the arête near your face, left foot cammed inside the crack and right foot camming with a heel inside the crack and toe outside. Wiggle your feet alternately and make extremely slow progress up the crack, after about 800 moves you’ll have done it! For gear I take one friend 6, a friend 5 and a couple of quickdraws for the pair of bolts at about a third height. The 6 can be moved ahead of you almost the entire length, except for one section about 2 thirds of the way where it narrows and the 5 can be placed and left behind. The difficulties increase slightly in the very last section as the crack changes in a subtle and appalling way, so it’s worth taking a good rest at the slight overlap about two-thirds of the way as it’s the final rest. I also tend to carry a bottle of water on my harness to have a bit to drink when I’m hanging out at the resting ledges (Dans Blog, 2016) .
• Rack Beta – 2x Cams # 0.2-4, 1x#5, 2x#6 1x Offset cams, #0.2-0.75, 2 x Cam Hooks, 2x set nuts micro-regular.
• Strategy for free climbing the route- Rapping in from the top and working the crux pitches seems very popular and more energy efficient. Dropping water and food from the top for your free attempt, to save weight. Many people doing single day pushes from heart ledges to the top of the alcove and back down to free the first half of the route, and coming down from the top for attempts of the second half of the route.
• Multiple places at the top of El Capitan to bivvy
• Most comfortable bivvy spots- Heart Ledges, Hollow Flake ledge, The Alcove, El Cap Spire, Block Bivvy, Long Ledge.
• If anyone is after pitch by pitch beta for free climbing, contact Daniel Joll.