Walking up to the base of Freerider, I felt rested, light, but increasingly nervous.
Two years ago, I’d never climbed a single big wall. Seven months ago, I’d never rope soloed a single pitch of climbing. I’d still never soloed a big wall in any way, shape, or form: aid, free, French free. Yet here I was, stood at the bottom of El Cap about to attempt to climb the whole thing by myself, in under twenty-four hours, and free every single pitch along the way.
Fuck me, it looked huge!
by Pete Whittaker(this piece is printed in Volume 11, “Choss, Solos, and Reflection” Get your copy, or subscribe HERE) Banner photo of the author on Freerider: Dustin Moore
I made my first visit to Yosemite National Park just two years ago. Portaledges, jumaring, shitting in bags, and hauling were a whole new world of ropes, fabric, and poles. I was clueless. However, on that initial trip, I still went with a massive aim of wanting to free El Capitan via four different routes. Pretty optimistic, I’ll admit, but there is no point in aiming low.
As well as being unprepared with big walling knowledge, I was unprepared with big walling equipment. Only one jumar and no daisy chains or footloops. I ended up borrowing an extra jumar, tied knots in slings to make daisy chains, and used old cord to create some foot loops. It was a cobbled-together setup and all a bit Heath Robinson, but I thought, Ahhh, be all right, and set off on my first free route up El Cap.
We decided to go for a new linkup of two harder routes, Muir Wall and El Corazon. Many ridiculous mistakes were made on that wall, by both myself and my (as incompetent) climbing partner Tom Randall.
The eighty-metre campus jumar
The poo-bag drop
The fresh-water-bottle urination episode
The loose block
The “Oh shit…we didn’t pack any big gear” moment
The haul-bag-lower-out obliteration
We managed to scrape our bodies and The Pigs over the top of El Cap after five days of effort, both having freed everything. Exhilaration! However, I failed on my objective that year, and I finished my trip to Yosemite with three El Cap free routes under my harness, not four.
As if the first trip wasn’t painful enough, a year later, I was back for more. This time, one objective rather than four. The Secret Passage, an unrepeated Belgian sandbag over on the right side of El Cap, to make me sore.
Attempt 1: Sunstroke, not enough water, big falls, and flaky rock, retreat to the floor.
Attempt 2: Snowstorms, waterfalls, monster falls, trapped, no open door.
Attempt 2, Day 8: Two bars left, drinking waterfall water, wet granite, rock quality poor.
Attempt 2, Day 9: Empty stomachs, luck, dry rock galore! Top out, “Thank the Lord.”
I’d learnt a lot from these walls in the two visits I’d made to The Valley. I’d pushed hard, and I was so tired at times that I wondered if I was going to make it all free on some routes. But was I content? Had those four routes really taken everything from me, pushed me too my limit?
I’ll admit it was hard; I was battered at points. It was a huge learning curve, but I had way more to give. So, how could I make this big walling game harder for myself? How could I top out scraping and clawing at granite so I was utterly broken?
Well, you could try a route with more difficult climbing?
Nahhhhh, that’s the easy option; you’re only really challenging your climbing; I can do that on single-pitch routes.
Ok then…climb El Cap by yourself? It’s double the work, isn’t it?
In a day?
Now you’re talking. Has that even been done?
After the little internal conversation with myself, the challenge was set. Be the first person to solo-free (free climb alone) El Cap, in under twenty-four hours. A definite challenge, as I had no experience solo climbing on big walls.
I like a goal and a challenge off the beaten track, to think of something a little different from the norm. I also like to be “the first.” If there were a choice of making the second or third ascent of a 9b, or making the easier first ascent of a 9a, I’d take the 9a every day. Being the first in “something” holds much greater value to me.
Eight years ago, along with climbing partner Tom Randall, I set myself the goal of being the first to climb The Century Crack, an obscure, deserted project, deep in the American desert, which would only succumb to a bizarre climbing technique known as off-widthing.
At the time of undertaking such a project, I again had limited knowledge on the subject but delved deep into the underground subculture that was wide-crack climbing.
I was eighteen and studying at college when I decided to train for the route and devoted the following two years to training and study. Late nights out socialising with friends were replaced with late-night training sessions in my room, alone. Any interest in girls was replaced by the interest in getting stronger, fitter, and fixating over the completion of the project. Big sacrifices were made over those two years. But sacrifices have to be made, to be the first, to be a winner. If the process had been easy, the end product wouldn’t have been half as satisfying.
Even eight years on, I’m still pleased with myself for the effort I put into those two years. It was worth it to be The First.
My idea to solo-free El Cap in under twenty-four hours presented itself as another obscure and difficult challenge. It also offered me the bait of being “The First.” I knew nobody else had even thought about doing this; it wasn’t on other climbers’ radars. The only person who had vaguely but highly superior goals was Honnold. If Alex free soloed (climbing alone with no ropes) El Cap, he would beat me to my obscure little challenge. For some urging reason, I felt like it wouldn’t be long before Alex did this. I started to act quicker than my knowledge in the subject should have let me.
Up to this point, I’d never climbed El Cap in a day (in any way, shape, or form), I’d never soloed El Cap (in any number of days), and I had no idea how the system of climbing these walls by yourself (rope soloing) even worked, let alone ever trying it. I had to act quick and learn quicker.
Rope soloing was my passage of freedom, to achieving my goal. However, my knowledge was floored. I knew nothing.
I read, asked questions, gained information. I learnt, visualised, mapped my route. I repeated the process, again. Eventually, I bought the appropriate equipment (the Silent Partner) and was able to put my theoretical learning into practical practice.
Rope soloing is a hugely labour-intensive way of climbing. First, you have to lead the pitch. Second, abseil the pitch to retrieve gear, and finally reclimb the pitch (usually via jumaring) to regain your high point. You are covering the ground three times. As if that’s not hard enough, whilst free climbing, you have to self-belay, which becomes tiresomely difficult when you’re snatching at granite razors or tottering on slick smears. Your hands become raw from stacking and coiling ropes, and your biceps burn from continuous repetitions of the jumaring movement. It’s hard work doing this style of climbing for one pitch but a grueling task doing it over the length of El Cap. Accelerate all this work into one twenty-four-hour period and you can internally start to feel the pain, before you’ve even started!
The day the Silent Partner arrived in the post was like Christmas. After a quick test with it hanging from the pull-up bar at home, it was straight to the crag to give it a real road test. Around that time, I’d been working on an unrepeated E8 on one of my local gritstone crags, and as I was by myself, I thought it would be a good combination day to give the project a toprope and to test the device on some easier ground to get a feel for how it worked.
After a couple of hours on the project (having had zero practice with the device), eagerness and curiosity had got the better of me, and I found myself desperately trying to place gear, rope clipped incorrectly, mid crux of the E8, with only the Silent Partner as a belayer.
The wind wasn’t helping either. Every time I tried to take a hand off to place the crucial wire, the wind would buffer me so hard I’d start to slowly (with ever-increasing speed) barn door out away from the rock, risking an inevitable clatter into the corner and boulder below.
It wasn’t even an awkward placement to seat, yet I couldn’t get the bugger in. In the end, all I could do was just stand there, keeping all four points of contact, perched on my little foot edge. There was no one else at the crag, and I had no belayer to help me.
I was going to try to free climb El Cap, by myself, in seven months’ time. If I was going to be successful, I had to learn quickly from that initial experience. I wasn’t going to learn much by practicing in the Peak District where I live. The fifteen-metre crags don’t quite match up to the kilometre-high El Cap. Squamish, Canada, was the closest option I could think of to easily access practice. No hesitation, no time to wait, Squamish was booked.
I needed something in Canada to gauge myself by, give me a motivating marker, so I could tell myself, “Yes, I’m ready for Yosemite now; I’m ready to do this.” The aim was to try to climb The Big Three on the main wall of The Chief in under twenty-four hours: The Shadow, Freeway, and Grand Wall. Three mega classics, which would hopefully equate to a similar standard and a similar mileage to climbing El Cap.
The crux of the challenge was going to be The Shadow pitch. A laser-cut, almost-featureless corner. A beauty. It was going to be a real test managing rope systems whilst being tenuously stemmed and smeared on nothing; it would certainly test my ability to climb hard free pitches whilst rope soloing.
Nearing the top of the pitch, I entered into the crux sequence of palming and smearing. I’d felt tense a little lower down and hadn’t been able to place the high wire that I wanted to but, out of haste, clipped a lower old, rusty bolt instead. It didn’t look all that great, but it was the best I could do in the greasy, stemmed-out position I was in.
I inched my way up. Little movements. Little movements. No overstretching. Last piece of gear gradually getting farther and farther away. I sensed the glory finishing hold over to my left and made an error of overstretching for it. My right heel lifted, less weight was put through my feet, and before I knew it, I was off. Falling down, passing the old, rusty bolt, and falling for a long enough duration to make me look down and check that I had actually attached the end of the rope to the anchor. Strange thoughts go through your mind when you have time to think in flight!
After completing the Squamish triple, I was ready for Yosemite. Preparation was key.
Food and water were measured out in minimalist portions. Rack was slimmed down to the lightest possible, with nothing extra thrown in for the “Oooo, I’m glad I’ve brought that” moment. Quickdraws and screw gates were relegated to single-snap gates, and my usual rack of double cams was quickly stripped back to singles.
As Yosemite still seemed to be stifling hot, I devised the tactic of climbing through the night. I would set off at 3:00 p.m. after the midday heat, climb into the evening, all through the night, and hopefully top out before the midday heat of the following day. Plan set—time to climb.
I made it to Heart Ledges on El Cap, alone, in the pitch black. The same ledges I had dropped my bagged poo onto two years previous (from the top pitches of El Corazon) and despite having covered the distance of El Cap up to this point (either free climbing, abseiling, or jumaring), I was only one-third of the way up.
“Bollocks, the rope is stuck. Huhhhh, the fucking rope is stuck.”
I wasn’t even into the meat of this challenge, and I was already having glitches. The knot in the end had managed to get caught in a crack forty metres below me.
“Right, that’s it; no more knots in the end of the rope.”
I had my hands on the belay ledge, the double-bolt belay winking me in the face; however, I was unable to pull up that crucial four feet of slack to clip the anchors.
I gave the rope a big tug, gradually increasing the effort until eventually I was pushing up with my legs on the footholds I was stood on and pulling down with both arms on the ledge I was hanging on, like doing an upward squat, in an attempt to free the rope, but the bastard wouldn’t budge. Unable to move upwards, I was completely stuck.
It’s important in times of hiccups not to rectify your mistakes in anger. Acting in anger and frustration is the killer. You think slowly and act quickly in these states, and on big walls by yourself, this can be dangerous, and mistakes can be made.
I stood swearing to myself at my beginner error before calming and acting on my incompetence. At the end of the day, I had to accept that I was still a novice in this game; the learning curve plateau was so far in the distance it was unseen, and I was going to do things incorrectly.
It was about one in the morning when I reached half height on El Cap, and I hit a real low. The midpoint of any challenge is always the hardest; you’ve come too far to let all the effort go to waste, yet the end still feels like a marathon away.
I had painful stomach cramps from trying to eat whilst constantly exerting energy, and I felt like curling up and falling asleep. It would have been so blissful to just drop off there and then, but I couldn’t—I had work to do, and a huge amount of it.
The next pitches felt awful; however, they landed me at the chance to overcome the first real crux, the Boulder Problem, a V7 crimpy wall. If I could manage this pitch without expending too much energy, it would put me in a good position for the remainder of the route.
I went through my usual routine at the belay:
Up to this point, I’d actually only ever climbed the whole route, in its entirety, twice, so I spent a short moment recapping the sequence ahead before setting off. This pitch was going to be tricky, so it was important not to make mistakes, which could be avoided. I gave one final check, mantled the first ledge, and before I knew it, I was involved, clawing at the thin crux sequence.
Reaching the belay of the Boulder Problem pitch on Freerider, I felt a new wave of energy. Five pitches lower down felt nightmarish, but now suddenly, it all seemed possible: two long, easy pitches; one final crux; then grind it out to the top.
Let’s do this!
The final crux approached, the Enduro Corner. Two shorter but sustained pitches of corner crack climbing. The first one was pumpy but went smoothly. The second turned out to be a real battle.
I scraped my way through the initial difficulties, which put me at some bomber hand jams and only the final layback to glory.
By this point, I was so pumped that I didn’t think I would be able to take one hand off for a long enough period of time to either place gear or sort any glitches in the solo device. To ensure I didn’t get the urge to try to place gear, I took the remainder of what I had off my harness and clipped it to the last piece of gear I’d placed. I looked up towards the belay, figured there was still about one-quarter of the pitch still to be climbed, and pulled an appropriate loop of slack through the solo device. I checked the belay again, checked the loop of rope, and then pulled out an extra couple of metres to be double sure I wouldn’t short rope myself.
Feeling much lighter with no rack and suitably prepared with a huge loop of slack coming from my solo device, looping down, then back to my last piece of protection, I blasted off up the final quarter of the pitch. Forearms were burning.
I’d decided to turn the crack into a layback, as it would be quicker, and I could race to the belay. Left foot was pasted against the wall, right foot torqued sideways into the crack, and both hands grasped the rounded edge. I started to fall up the remainder of the pitch. As one hand would move up, the other would be slipping off. I’d catch the next hold just in time before the previous hand peeled away.
Left hand, right hand.
God, that last piece of gear looks a long way down already. Just don’t look down at it then. Concentrate, concentrate on the climbing. Feeling the pump now. Lower back aching. Hands sweaty, unable to chalk. It gets less powerful soon; that’s good; just aim for that point. The end of the pitch still feels miles away though, sickening thought. Forearms rock solid. Surely my forearms can’t hold anymore lactate; I must be off soon. Fingers uncurling now—shit, my fingers are uncurling. Consciously grip tighter. “Come on.” Keep moving, keep stumbling upwards. Thank goodness the angle has eased slightly; use those feet; paste that left foot and dig that right foot into the crack. The better hold is in reach; don’t overstretch though; don’t let those heels lift. But it’s so tempting to just reach for it. Stay calm. Breath. Build feet. Grasp finishing hold. Yes! It’s not over; I still have the anchor to clip.
The chains were just out to my left-hand side. My daisy chain was already off my harness, dangling below my feet, ready for a quick clip into the belay. I grabbed it with my left, grasped the daisy with my teeth, and fumbled for the snap gate on the end of it. With the karabiner now in my hand, I felt which side the gate was and spanned out to the left. I didn’t have the time or energy to open the gate, so I just reached out and pushed the gate against the bolt. Completely boxed, I watched the gate slowly open as I pushed with my fingers against the back of the karabiner. Other thoughts were well diminished, and all I wanted was that karabiner to wrap itself around the bolt and snap shut.
After the final Enduro Corner pitch, the climbing gets easier, yet steeper. On every remaining pitch to the top, the body pump was in the “red zone.” Gear had to be skipped to compensate, and the risk of huge falls ever increased as the gear I did place got farther and farther apart.
When things get tough on challenges, the focus should always be on the next step. I was so tired and so aware of my fatigue that I got down to the point of focusing on incredibly small tasks: Get daisy chain off harness. Clip daisy chain to anchor. Lean back. Pull rope. Left. Right. Left. Right. The next task keeps your mind engaged, and an engaged mind forgets about pain. If you forget about the pain, pushing on becomes easier.
I topped out Freerider, after twenty hours and six minutes of arduous toil.
The route had given me exactly what I wanted, a challenge and a first.
I’d also wanted to top out alone. I wanted to experience the whole thing by myself. I’d started the challenge alone, learnt alone, and I wanted to execute it alone. If someone had been waiting at the top, it would have given me hope, a help, a motivator whilst on the route. I didn’t want that. I wanted to do it alone and solely alone.
Thankfully, the top out presented itself in a way I had hoped for. Not a single soul around. No partner to congratulate or congratulate me. No other climbing team to say well done. Nobody and nothing. Just me, on my own, to give myself a little pat on the back and then be on my way.
I stumbled down the East Ledges descent, had no one to pick me up from the car park at the base, and made the long slog back to Camp 4, where I collapsed into my tent.
Only seven months later, I’m glad I acted with such haste in my early days of learning. My initial feelings of having limited time to complete my goal were right. My first has now been massively surpassed by Alex’s first free solo of El Cap. A finely tuned, engineered feat of climbing mastery.
Hard free soloing is not my game; the risk I would put myself into, with my motivated mind, is too high. The pain and obscurity of the challenge is what motivates me, and the question I always ask myself after the completion of any goal is, do I have more to give?
Well, this was only my third trip to Yosemite and my first time soloing on a big wall. I’m barely even paddling let alone swimming and diving in at the deep end. There is a lot more opportunity out there, and I have a lot to learn.
I’ve got much more to give.
William Blake wrote, “The road of excess, leads to the palace of wisdom.” Pete Whittaker takes the never-ending vertical road to find his limit, an end. But do roads even have an end, or is there always another turning?
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.