Yosemite Valley saw a true Kiwi invasion this spring season, swarming to the most famous big walls in the world. Our attention in this expedition was unequivocally focused on the greatest of them all, El Capitan. Over the course of the month, our group would go on to climb the Motherstone by six different routes, for a total of 15 El Cap ascents between them.
Yosemite was the second of the NZ Alpine Team’s official training trips, the first being Canadian Rockies. These two destinations are the most convenient for kiwi climbers looking to gain mileage & experience ice climbing and big wall climbing as a foundation for larger alpine objectives.
I (Alastair) teamed up with William Skea for the expedition, a talented Australian climber looking to join the next NZAT intake. We decided to spend a week warming up in Utah, home of incredible desert sandstone spires, the perfect place to hone our crack climbing skills before hitting the Valley.
INDIAN CREEK, MOAB, ZION
We let ourselves enjoy one delicious handcrack at Indian Creek, then condemned ourselves to only focus on our weaknesses: offwidths. We thrashed our skin and sanity on as many heinous wide cracks as we could find, mixed in with our other nemesis, thin hands & ringlocks. All the while, we knew that if we broke a sweat on these limb-swallowing grovel fests then they would surely cry on the Monster Offwidth - one of the infamous cruxes of our main Yosemite objective, Freerider.
Moab also became the perfect pre-Yosemite training ground: aiding The Tombstone, a 120 metre formation famous for Dean Potter mega whippers, night-time hammering pitons & beaks up a thin seam, setting up the portaledge mid-route, and even dropping into a deep hole in Canyonlands to rescue a Romanian couple’s crashed drone.
A 24-hour stopover in Zion yielded two of the park’s classic free routes, Smashmouth (5.11-, 120m) and Shunes Buttress (5.11+, 300m). We were psyched and ready for Yosemite. Warmed up and rested, we would go straight to the Mother Stone, we plotted a one-day ascent of El Capitan via Lurking Fear, 19 pitches of up to C2+ aid climbing and 5.9 free climbing.
As first light broke over our first morning in the Valley, we were already dwarfed by El Cap's Southwest face. To speed up the ascent we short fixed and used a Silent Partner (a rope soloing device) so the leader could continue climbing on self-belay while the seconder jumared below cleaning the previous pitch. It felt incredibly clean & efficient. No more belay clusters, the leader would already be 5 to 15 metres up the next pitch by the time the cleaner arrived to belay them upwards. It was thrilling to top out on El Cap in a glowing sunset, descending East Ledges by headlamp. First days in the Valley don’t come much better.
WEST FACE OF EL CAPITAN
Foolishly, I failed to rest the following days, giving into the temptation of some deceptively tough offwidths and finger cracks around the Valley. So when Rose suggested we climb the West Face of El Capitan, a 16 pitch 5.11c free route, I was blood blistered and battered, but I could not bear to disappoint Rose, especially since it was her final day. At first light we found ourselves staring up the steep slabs of the West Face, with crux 5.11c pitches off the deck. Rose navigated with a steady precision the heady, thin, delicate and slippery.
When I took over the lead at halfway, the challenges changed - route finding, run-outs and rain - afternoon storms finally released and forced out the pocket aiders to get up the last 5.10d steep crack. We topped out endless wet 5.3 grooves and slabs after sunset, and descended a very slippery and dark East Ledges to complete the 19 hour day. But whenever climbing with Rose, its hard not to finish every hard day with a laugh and smile.
The following day, Will spontaneously repeated the West Face with a new French partner in a scant 14 hours taking advantage of perfect weather.
But each of these climbs were merely preparation for our main ambition, free climbing (as much as possible) on a ground-up 5-day ascent of Freerider on the southwest face of El Cap.
This had been our goal for months; we shaped our training around the specific cruxes of the route - desperate slab, endurance offwidthing, crimpy bouldering, and steep finger and hand cracks. Will’s friend Audrey also joined us from San Francisco, and we formed a team of three. We realised big wall climbing as a three would be more complicated, with extra ropes and heavier haul bags, but it would definitely be more sociable and fun, and require more teamwork. Audrey was super psyched, Freerider would be her first multi-day big wall.
As much as we felt we should pursue the purest ethics, using the 200m of fixed ropes to Heart Ledges was too convenient to pass up. A few days in advance, Will and I hauled our 100kg of food, water, portaledge and sleeping gear to Heart Ledges (pitch 10), making our first day of slab climbing up FreeBlast far more efficient.
Will, our wide climbing specialist, squirmed up the notorious Hollow Flake offwidth, 5.9 squeeze climbing with a #6 cam left maxed out, twenty metres below. Its fearful reputation is well deserved, but in terms of sheer physical brutality it was no comparison to the 50 metre vertical pitch above; the Monster Offwidth. But Will’s preparation served him well as he patiently heel-toe cammed and arm-barred his way up the surprisingly featured crack, bumping #6 cams the entire way for a proud onsight.
Soon after, afternoon rainstorms drenched the rock, forcing us to set up our portaledge at an awkward hanging belay, and the three of us all crammed into the bowing ledge to wait out a wet night, frustrated by our slow progress. Fortunately, the granite dried quickly, and we progressed to the Alcove bivvy by the end of the third day, 18 pitches up. There we caught up with Daniel Joll and his Wanaka-based partner Jon Sedon who were also attempting Freerider.
The Huber boulder pitch was next, a desperate V8 bouldering sequence with dynamic throws between small crimps. Will solved the moves after a few attempts, suffering from cold fingers, but he couldn’t link through the traverse, and pulled through to keep the team moving upwards. After navigating the seeping Sewer pitch, I took back the lead for some spicy loose flakes, and the famous Enduro Corner.
Back at the Block bivvy that night we savoured our position high on El Cap, our bodies and hands were feeling the toll from the days of effort. We charged to the top the following day, climbing spectacular hand cracks, finger cracks, offwidths, all sustained 5.11, all with nauseating exposure.
Finishing Freerider felt an order of magnitude more satisfying than any of our past ascents of El Cap. It was the hardest rock climb each of us had completed, and finally we grasped how much effort would be required to free-climb the entire route. Free climbing big walls in their fullness is no mean feat!
NOSE IN A DAY
After inching up Freerider with our hordes of gear for five days, we felt a renewed need for speed. After a few days of rest, Dan Joll and I teamed up to start our work on the Nose. A practice day on the first 15 pitches allowed us to re-learn those tricky pendulums and stash 5 litres of electrolyte for the one-day push. Being overtaken by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold simul-climbing was an eye opener into what real speed on the Nose looks like.
At 5.20AM a couple of days later, we started the stopwatch, and Dan started racing up the first 5.11d pitch. He pulled on almost every cam, because in this game, anything goes. “ROPE FIXED!” came the call, and I jumared like a man possessed. It was a huge rush. “34 MINUTES!” I yelled as Dan charged to the third anchor. With the gear beta memorised, Dan managed to stretch the rack to pitch 7 before I swung over to replenish him with gear.
The Stove Legs passed in a mad blur as I accidentally swallowed all of our caffeine tablets at once, I’ve never felt so wired. We were lucky to pass several parties in one hit at the Texas Flake as three parties were starting their second day. “So sorry, coming through, can I clip in there? Thanks, we’ll be out of your way shortly…” were the awkward exchanges as we tried to balance politeness with urgency. The other teams understood, and even helped flake our ropes in the inevitable tangles, I struggled to keep up with Dan’s flaming pace.
Dan finished his block at the base of the Great Roof, pitch 19, just over 4 hours in. Dan beamed – we were 20 minutes ahead of his previous best. From this point on, the wall steepened and the grades shot into 5.11 and 5.12 for the most part. I stepped into my pocket ladders and started aid climbing as fast as I could. The red and gold link cams were endlessly useful, I leap-frogged the two on the long sections of one and two inch cracks. With solid placements all the way, I didn’t have to worry about the large loop of slack rope hanging below to the anchor. Above the Changing Corners we passed a party that we had chatted with two days earlier on the Stove Legs, they graciously let us through as we pushed towards the summit bolt ladder.
Just before pulling over the final overhang, I paused for a moment to wipe the sweat from my eyes, trying to take in the sweeping expanse of granite below. My brain was still surging with adrenaline, the view was hard to absorb. Dan tagged the tree several minutes later before the clock rolled past 9 hours, we laughed and collapsed at the tree. We had hardly eaten anything all day. That soon changed when we met Doug at the Zodiac top-out. He had finished two days early, resulting in a serious problem – he had two days of extra food that needed to be eaten.
We had one last item on the agenda, a hard aid climb. We chose Magic Mushroom, a 30-pitch A3 aid route. Unfortunately, our last route was plagued by bad vibes. We pre-hauled our gear to the top of Mammoth Terraces, 10 pitches up, using the Heart Ledges fixed lines. The following day, nightfall caught us, off-route, two pitches below our gear, with only one head torch between us. It was well after midnight by the time we finally found asleep on our ledge.
We woke late to disturbing sounds below. Worrying yells and thuds that sounded like falling haul bags. We soon learned what had happened. Two expert climbers had fallen mysteriously while speed climbing the moderate terrain below Mammoth Terraces. We felt sick to the stomach, heads spinning. We continued on indecisively, questioning our motivations, but felt we had no choice but to continue. We only managed five pitches that day, running into trouble on a convoluted series of traversing pitches, baking in merciless afternoon sun.
That evening, Will fumbled with the portaledge spreader bar, and we watched it fall in slow motion to the ground… Finally we agreed this climb was not meant to be. We were totally exhausted in body and mind and though we were 15 pitches up, the hard climbing was only just getting started. We abseiled down the next morning; our decision felt right. We had learned a huge amount in our month in the Valley, and needed some time to process the bewildering events of our last climb.
We left the valley with heavy hearts thinking about the two climbers who had fallen while speed climbing on the Salathe. Soon after we learned that the record on the Nose was broken again that morning. This, combined with our own speed climbing experience on the Nose, gave us a lot to think about on our sunny drive back to San Francisco.
OTHER TEAM ASCENTS OF EL CAPITAN
- Daniel Joll and Jon Sedon climbed Freerider (5.12d, 2900ft) over 5 days
- Steven Fortune, Vivian and Sam climbed Dihedral Wall (5.8 A3 2400ft) over 5 days
- Daniel Joll, Jaz Morris, Steven Fortune and Audrey Ahlholm climbed Lurking Fear (5.7 C2F 2000ft) over 3 days. One day spent fixing the first 5 pitches, one day to Thanksgiving ledge, and a short day to the summit.
- Daniel Joll, Jaz Morris climbed Tangerine Trip (5.8 A3 1900ft) over 4 days
- Daniel Joll, Jaz Morris and Audrey Ahlholm climbed the Nose-in-a-day (5.8 C2 3000ft) in 22 hours 43 minutes