Man what a route! As a child, I remember looking at photos of it in my Dad’s climbing books thinking, It must be like outer space to be on a wall so gigantic, so remote and featureless. But that sweep of granite stuck in my mind, and as I grew older, its beauty never diminished. After many years of climbing in the mountains, trees, on small blocks, brick walls, and crags, I was finally ready to make the trek to Yosemite. It was 1977. I had waited a long time because I wanted to be climbing at a good level when I first arrived. It would be thirteen more years before I felt my level was proper to give it a try all free. To me, to climb The Nose meant freeing it. My own personal philosophy was such—either you climbed every move free or you didn’t. If you aided one move, you hadn’t climbed it free, thus you hadn’t climbed the route—a pretty simple philosophy.
by Brooke Sandahl (Note this is included in Sandahl’s photo essay for Volume 8, The Old School Issue, now OUT OF PRINT. All photos by the author.)
Many people had worked at freeing the route and, bit by bit, individual pitches and sections were freed. Ray Jardine, inventor of The Friend, got quite high on the route but sadly lost his way and chipped the Jardine traverse, a free alternative to the thirteenth pitch. Stopped at the Great Roof, Ray’s efforts were shut down, and he never returned.
In 1990, I asked my friend and longtime climbing partner Scott Franklin if he would be interested in giving it a go. We packed two weeks’ worth or gear and winter clothing and borrowed Greg Child’s two-person portaledge and brought a drill for free climbing alternatives. I hoped to climb each pitch free and in order, from bottom to top—Scott was in full agreement. Each pitch would be lead and followed free! Scott was psyched, and we readied by climbing the lower pitches and getting some gear stashed up on Sickle. A huge storm came in—it was late October, perfect temps for free climbing—and hammered the wall, rain then snow and ice. Most parties rapped, but two parties were rescued high on the wall in dramatic fashion. As the storm cleared, it left the entire Captain devoid of people. Scott and I seized the moment and had the crag to ourselves. We made good progress freeing everything till we hit the Great Roof, which was soaking wet from the last front! Although much of the upper dihedrals were wet too, we had a good look around and had high hopes for a free ascent.
The following year, 1991, I went back with my friends Dave Schultz and Adam Grosowsky. We would come from the top down to save time and all that nasty hauling of the lower pitches. We set up a comfortable camp and started scoping the remaining four pitches that hadn’t been freed: Great Roof, pitch above Camp V, the Changing Corners, and the final one, the Harding Bolt Ladder. We found a circuitous path that wove from one side of Harding’s Bolt Ladder to the other; it was a stunning pitch and overhung all the other pitches on the route. I would win the toss and get to make its first free ascent on my first try. All things considered, history, location, climbing variety, and movement, made it one of the best pitches I’d ever done. We also rebolted many of the aging anchors (some z-mac star drives from Harding’s original ascent—scary) and added all the bolts for the free variations. The following year, Dave and I would return to explore farther down the big upper dihedral. The Changing Corners looked burly, so we shot down to the pitch above Camp V—without a warm-up, except for the rap in, we gave it a shot. Dave got the honors and came very close to sending his first try, just popping off one of the final pin scar finger locks. That got me really psyched! My turn was next, and I was able to fire it first go! Two down, two to go. With the Great Roof wet, again, we went up to try the Changing Corners pitch. The Changing Corners, like a few places on the route, was pin scarred, something I didn’t like, as you wouldn’t be doing it in its natural state. I spied an alternative way left of the Changing Corners and together, with Dave, bolted it. It went straight up off the belay and climbed a section of perfect natural edges till you got to a stance where you could stand no handed. (The Huber brothers would add a belay here.) Then it cut dead right onto a V12ish boulder problem; stomp the accelerator, full revs, drop the clutch and go! With temps too hot, we played on it a bit but really couldn’t hold the crux piano move due to the heat.
I saw Lynn at the trade show the following year, and she asked if I would be interested in giving it a go. Always psyched to huck a lap, I eagerly agreed. And deep down, I knew that Lynn would be one of the most qualified and capable of freeing the remaining pitches. I had climbed with her on many occasions, and she was the first woman to ever burn me off, something I would learn to live with repeatedly when climbing with her! She had recently freed the Great Roof with Simon Nadin—in a day! Only the Changing Corners remained. We rapped in from the top. She was too short to reach the holds on my alternative, so she was forced to follow the original corner. While we were there, again it was into the nineties—perfect weather for Lynn, but for me, I start sweating hard above fifty degrees. She worked the Changing Corners, and I remarked at her crazed sequence of cross stemming, arm barring, arête pinching, pin-scar jamming in a dynamic tango that I’d never seen the likes of before or since. It looked like she was bloody Houdini trying to escape from a straight jacket. Hence the name, The Houdini Pitch. In typical Lynn fashion, she dialed and sent.
We spent the next five days coming from the ground. I would finally get to try the Great Roof, dry, and after Lynn redpointed it, I would pull the rope and have a play—doing all the moves within the hour. Admitting that it would probably take me a couple of weeks to send wasn’t easy, but for Lynn’s sake, I suggested we should keep the ascent moving. One by one, the pitches fell, and we raced a threatening-looking storm brewing over Tuolumne, as we hit the final anchor before the Harding Bolt Ladder pitch. There were a couple of guys there quasi-epicing, midtangle, and I asked if we could climb through. If they did, I entertained, they would get to see the first free ascent of The Nose. Wide eyed, they agreed, and Lynn, who had the next lead, fired off for the summit. As you do, I asked the one longhaired cat where he was from. “Olympia, Washington,” was his reply.
“Cool,” I said, “that’s where I grew up too!”
I asked, “What’s your last name?”
I drew in a deep breath. “Seriously?” I answered. I filled in the next blank. “Your old man wouldn’t be John Wilfong, would he?”
“Yep,” was his reply.
I had to let out a roar and then let him know that I had had him for PE in eighth grade! As the rope came tight and I left the belay, I called down to him and said, “Tell the old man I’m staying fit.”
Brooke Sandahl is now in his fifth decade of adventuring. He is still searching for that perfect line, whether on a wave, or a big wall, or on some cross country mission to the middle of nowhere. He splits his time between Bend, Oregon and the deep south of New Zealand’s South Island.