Free climbing on El Capitan has for the longest time been one of my ultimate goals.
It was one of those abstract, far off goals that you make mostly to convince yourself that a life dedicated to climbing has some sort of purpose. A goal that on cold mornings or overwhelmingly hot afternoons makes you get out of the tent and try hard. Needless to say it was a dream I was not expecting to achieve anytime in the foreseeable future. However this past October I somehow found myself standing on top of El Cap having just made a ground up free ascent of Freerider (5.12d VI).
My good friend and climbing partner, Billy Brown, turned up in the Valley sometime around early September and right off the bat wanted to know when we were getting on El Cap. Billy is almost certainly one of the most dedicated climbers I know. He never stops. I think the only time he rests is when he can’t find a warm body to belay him. The month of September ended up being incredibly hot and not the most conducive to big wall free climbing. As a result, I ended up hanging around the Valley floor, stewing in the heat, waiting for my pager to go off while Billy quietly slipped off to the Eastside and made a quick solo car-to-car lap on the Evolution Traverse.
As the weeks rolled by and September faded into October, I found myself getting restless and unsure if I would get a chance to head up on Freerider before the season ended. One morning I woke up and checked out YOSAR’s high tech scheduling device, aka a chalkboard, and saw an open block of days I could X myself out on. I immediately texted Billy that all systems were go and that we should start racking. Of course when we checked the weather forecast it was showing a 30% chance of rain and high winds. Deciding to gamble on the whole notion that it doesn’t rain in California, we forged onwards, the only change of plans was to now bring a tent instead of an open bivy.
The plan was simple; we would pack our bags full of snacks and simply stay on the wall until we got it done. As a member of YOSAR, we have a thirty-minute response time to get to work when we are paged, and fortunately, the short approach and fixed Heart lines meant I could spend a day on call pre-hauling our kit all the way to Lung Ledge. As luck would have it, my pager went off right as I was tying off our bags on the last haul. I zipped down the Heart lines and bounded down the trail, but other team members graciously took the call, which meant I could go back to camp and start gorging myself on any and all food I had in preparation for the coming days.
The next morning Billy picked me up around 6 o’clock and we drove down to the bridge. Still too dark and too cold for light duty folks like ourselves, we stayed in the truck, sipping coffee and bumping early morning Gucci Mane until the psyche was high enough to venture out. We started up the Freeblast around 8am, where two French climbers graciously let us pass on the second pitch. With both Billy and I having previously climbed the Freeblast, it went without much incident, and in no time at all we met up with our bags on Lung Ledge and were ready to quest onward.
Billy led us off of Lung, making the somewhat tricky down-climb and subsequent climb up the other side on the extended version of the hollow flake without any trouble and I cleanly followed. From here to the Ear we chugged along nicely swapping leads and hauling duty. As we reached the Ear, our late start caught up with us and the sun was rapidly setting. The last pitch of the day and the pitch that guards the entrance to Alcove was the dreaded Monster Offwidth.
With cloudy skies above, the fear of getting rained on set in and we opted to send our line up with a party climbing the Salathe who were just leading off the Ear when we arrived. We jugged up to an incredibly crowded Alcove and had a rather unsettling night of sleep knowing the Monster was on the breakfast menu.
We woke up lost in the clouds. The Valley had disappeared and if I didn’t know better it looked like we were floating on an island in the sky. With more enthusiasm than I could muster, Billy offered to lead the Monster, which by predetermination meant that the Scotty Burke Offwidth was destined to be mine. Armed with one draw, one number five, and one number six, we rapped back to the Ear and pulled our rope. It was time to conquer the Monster. A sporty bit of 11d down-climbing to start the day is surely one of the worst ways to warm up. Perhaps the only thing worse would be to climb a 200-foot .11a odub immediately after. Oh wait … the Monster is everything people say and climbs exactly like you might imagine: left side in and heal toeing till the cows come home. Billy styled his way to the top and I thrutched up on behind, both sending clean.
Back in the Alcove we brewed up some more tea and took a nice long breather. From there we climbed up to the Spire where we set up shop and ditched the haul bags. We swung leads up to the crux pitch of Freerider. Still unsure if we wanted to try our hand on the Boulder Problem or the Teflon Corner, we debated and eventually settled on the Corner.
With a toss of the dice, the Corner was my lead. The Teflon Corner is a 5.12d 20ft stem box, virtually devoid of any real holds. Climbing it relies on crafty footwork and tremendous amounts of oppositional pressure. On my first go I thought I was sending; but as I felt briefly relaxed, not surprisingly, I slipped right off the thing. I went back to the belay, refocused my thoughts, preformed an adequate number of bad chi clearing stomach breaths and fired the pitch on second try. In typical fashion, Billy cruised his way up the corner on his first attempt. We were elated. It was day two and we had dispatched two of the potential deal breaking crux pitches. We fixed our lines and retreated back to Spire.
The morning of day three, Billy and I woke up with the intentions of taking it to the top. We decided going light was going to be the best tactic. We stuffed our pockets full of food and brought only a combined liter and a half of water clipped to our harnesses. After jugging back to our high point we ditched our one pair of jumars and set off.
In two short pitches we were standing on the Sous le Toit ledge looking up at the Enduro Corner. I found these two pitches incredibly difficult. Billy made a hero lead on the second half and I just barely managed to squeeze out a clean send. Again we were stoked but more than anything relieved we had sent one of the final pitches commonly thought of as a possible deal breaker.
Over the next few pitches, the wheels really started coming off. Both of us were starting to feel the compounding effects of the last two days. We each had some moments where we had to retry pitches after making silly mistakes. Lowering back to the belay and having to retry a so called “easy pitch” was wildly frustrating. We kept trucking, refusing to throw in the towel this far into the game. Somehow I didn’t realize I was starting up the Scotty Burke Offwidth and to my surprise pulled over a small roof and found myself staring up at a gaping squeeze. With no other real choice, I pulled into the slot and began inching up. I went up a ways clipped the one bolt, pushed my one big cam slightly higher and then the voices of a bunch of friends popped into my head:
Just lay it back!
So that’s exactly what I did. I pulled into a layback and started going up. After just a body length or two, I realized it was a terrible idea, dove back into the slot, and offwidthed my way to the top. Panting, a little bloody, and severely beaten down, I emerged from the Scotty B with all smiles, knowing we only had two short pitches left. At an unbelievably slow pace we slogged our way to the top, summiting shortly after dark.
In our state of exhaustion it had hardly set in that we had just successfully free climbed El Cap. After feasting on tea and tortillas given to us by some climbers who had just topped out the Salathe, we got ready to rap back to the Spire where our warm sleeping bags and piles of food awaited us. We got up the next day at a leisurely pace and finished rapping back to Earth. We high fived one last time, parted ways, and then I promptly went back to sleep.
I always thought that if and when I ever free climbed El Cap, I might be ready to transition into another part of my life with climbing perhaps being put on the back burner. But in the days since we got down, all I can think about is going back up there, having more adventures, and being more committed to the climbing life than ever.
We would like to thank the American Alpine Club for providing funds through the Live Your Dream Grant that made this climb possible.
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