In 2018 I was standing around on top of El Capitan with Jon Seddon a fellow Kiwi and my climbing partner for that particular trip. It was my second attempt on Free Rider with Jon. Earlier in the year my first attempt ended with a dislocated shoulder in the offwidth above El Cap Spire. We were sorting our haul bags and having a quick chat with Adam Ondra who was doing a photo shoot. We had just finished our attempt on Free Rider which had gone well but ultimately we had both fallen a couple of times. Adam asked me dead pan: "Why didn’t you just try again?" I laughed, we did! At some point you simply realise its time to head away and improve your skills a bit before trying again. The next day Adam tried to onsight the Salathe , he fell off on the crux pitch. I would have loved to ask him, so Adam……….. why didn’t you just hold on a bit longer and figure it out? Everyone has their projects.
A year later in November 2019 I was ready for another try. Ever since my friend Karl “Merry” Schimanski had sent Free Rider many years back I had been keen to give it a go. Merry’s ascent while only being the second by a Kiwi opened the door to that thought, perhaps a sub-elite climber like myself could also free climb Free Rider. He also assured me it wasn’t really that hard and anyone could do it. While that is a slight sand bag essentially he’s actually right. At first go a 5.12 climber is going to find redpointing all the pitches a big ask, with some effort and a bit of practice most of the pitches can be unlocked and climbed clean. From there its just a case of building the wall fitness and working on your weaknesses. Personally I had been up Salathe three times before I thought I should try and make a more serious effort to free some of the pitches. The idea grows slowly on you but once its sets in the thought of free climbing an El Cap route is hard to scratch from under your skin. The idea is infectious and the closer you get the more exciting it becomes.
Free Rider is one of the worlds great rock climbs. Many of the pitches of the route would hold their own as three stars at any crag in the world. Unfortunately, most climbers in the world also know this. Combine this with the Free Solo movie and the fact that free climbing in Yosemite is super popular and you're never really going to be alone on this route. You're also going to struggle to find a ledge that’s not soaked in piss or avoid getting peed on from above if you spend any number of days on the climb. If you're after a quiet experience, don’t go to El Capitan and definitely don’t bother doing Free Rider or Salathe. Still, in spite of that, free climbing an El Cap route though is one of the most engaging challenges you can do as a rock climber. Personally I feel that having an El Cap route as your free climbing project is the kind of challenge that anyone interested in long multipitch free climbing should do at least once in their life.
I think as a climber you have two options when it comes to getting ready to free climb an El Capitan route.
Firstly you could just be really good, i.e a 5.13+ climbing beast who happens to be good at all styles from slabs to roofs to offwidths. If that’s you then its probably only going to take you a short trip to the valley to tick one of the many free routes on El Cap. Just being strong won’t get you there though, you have to be fairly well rounded and figure our the logistics of preforming well far from the ground.
The more common path for most climbers is that you usually are going to have to put your time in climbing in Yosemite, climbing on granite and specifically climbing on El Capitan granite. If you're not planning to free it in a day, then you're also going to have to refine your big wall climbing skills, so you don’t burn all of your energy simply being on the wall, i.e hauling, living, managing your skin. This is more the road I took.
Prior to ticking Free Rider I had spent a lot of time on El Capitan climbing it roughly 20 times via various routes. On each of those previous ascents I learned skills that helped me to be more efficient and expend less energy. Ultimately this all helped to be able to climb Free Rider without having a super high level of rock climbing. Specifically on Free Rider I made three attempts, excluding many practice days where we simply climbed lower sections of the route to the Alcove or Free Blast.
How strong in terms of grades do you have to climb to tick Free Rider? The crux pitch (Teflon Corner or the Boulder Problem) is 5.12d or 7c (grade 27 in Kiwi terms), but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. I think it helps if your sport climbing somewhere in the 5.13 range and climbing granite trad in the 5.12 range. You will also want to be well versed in slabs and offwidths. If you don’t have your offwidth technique dialled, any one of the 6 or so offwidth pitches on Free Rider will physically and mentally destroy you. The key to a good send in my opinion is having the first 20 odd pitches so well dialled that you can cruise up them leaving plenty of energy to sink into the 4 crux pitches at the end of the route.
For me Free Rider was a long term project. This came with its own set of challenges. I knew I wouldn’t send it first try, I also knew exactly how much physical effort was going to be required for a successful redpoint as I had tried before. This was both good and bad but sometimes the knowledge of exactly how much work it takes to get in shape for El Cap is draining. Ultimately after my second unsuccessful try I decided my main weakness was redpointing technique.
Sounds odd , but basically I had spent to much of my climbing career onsighting, climbing in the mountains and not doing enough hard redpoints. As such I lacked some of the skills you need when it comes to redpointing a hard pitch. I spent the 12 months prior to my go in November working on this skill.
I also had a range of injuries to deal with. If I listed them all here for the three years that I tried Free Rider it would take a new story, but in short over a three year period I dealt with two disclocated shoulders, two torn finger pully’s, a fairly serious lower back problem, damaged wrist ligaments and some other minor sprains and strains. i.e I was usually out for about 4-6 months each year due to injury. Therefore my main goal prior to this years ascent was not to get injured. So don't let your injuries discourage you, just take a measured approach to managing them.
My plan was to spend the first half of the year recovering from finger pully sprain. From June to August, build up my rock climbing base again. For September, focus purely on moderate granite trad climbing. Nothing too hard to ensure I didn’t get injured, but enough onsights to make sure I had fitness. For October I swapped to pure sport climbing red pointing. Max 4-5 pitches per day and making sure every day was a red point day. I also stopped alpine climbing for the 3 months prior to going focusing simply on a bit of running and eating well and resting to make sure I was mentally fresh for giving Free Rider a good try in November.
From previous trips I knew well the importance of being mentally rested when I arrived in Yosemite. El Capitan days are often long, early starts, lots of climbing by head torch, dealing with crowds and the complex problems of moving haul bags around a massive bit of granite. Being mentally fresh and ready to push hard would be key to giving the climb a good go. I specifically wanted to be in a position where I could float up the Enduro Corner in the dark unafraid of falling off. This was a position mentally I had not really been able to put myself in on El Capitan before.
In the end the build up and mental rest worked really well and the ascent was fairly smooth. With my partner Caro North we took our time and made a lead / follow style ascent i.e if one person sent a pitch and the other one followed it we then moved on. For full disclosure Caro sent the Teflon Corner and I happily padded my way up after her. I sent the Enduro corners and 25 of the 35 pitches on lead, the others following. All up I was happy with our effort on the climb and can’t wait to get my fitness up for a free day ascent next year.
Some of my tips and tricks for the climb are in the attached PDF. Please note the gear beta depends on how much you like to run or not to run it out. Take it all with a degree of caution. Click Here for the PDF