I freed El Cap. But I also broke my computer, so this has been written quite hurriedly. Even so, it’s really detailed, so skimming could be advisable! I got a little carried away because it was the little details that made climbing this route such an amazing experience for me.
Freeing El Cap is something most climbers want to do when they get to a certain level. Everything about the wall, it’s beauty, history, height and the hard nature of the climbing make freeing el cap the ultimate goal for a good climber.
Lynn Hill’s groundbreaking first ascent of the nose seems to make freeing El Cap even more special for a women, or at least it did for me, since that feat not only broke female climbing history but climbing history in general.
I knew I wanted to come to Yosemite, and I knew I wanted to climb a free route on El Cap. For a long time I didn’t have a partner or a route in mind. I didn’t really want to try Freerider, the usual first route for most climbers wanting to free El Cap, I had seen pictures of Golden Gate and for some reason I was drawn to that route.
A friend of mine, Hansjorg was also keen to try Golden Gate and so it was in Rodellar that Hans and myself hatched a plan to climb Golden Gate together in October. But I had never climbed a big wall, never hauled, never slept on a portaledge, never known how much water you need for 4 days of climbing. So I knew that completing the route free, on my first attempt at big walling might be too much to ask.
Moreover, the more I learnt about the route, the more it sounded like an unfriendly route for a girl. The 12c down climb is described as very reachy and the ‘Move’ Pitch is a 12a pitch with a 5.13 span from an undercut to a side pull. Every time I told someone that I had Golden Gate in mind, I could see scepticism in their eyes. But with a little persuasion from Hans and some fellow brits, I decided that it would be best to just see for myself and if I failed to free climb the route, so what, I would learn so much in the process.
Hansjorg arrived and before he got the chance to climb anything at all, we had packed for the wall. We hauled to heart ledges on the first day. As I sat on the belay with the protraction turning it this way and that, trying to work out which way up it went, I became increasingly worried that I was too incompetent to be Han’s partner for a route like this. I managed to haul the pitch, but only just; it had taken everything for me to get the bag up one pitch. I looked up the wall, at all 38 pitches of steep granite above me and decided that it was silly to be worried about freeing the route, surely I should only be concentrating on getting to the top in one piece!
We set off on the Freeblast just as light was hitting the wall and we got to our haul bags in not much time at all. The first little bit of confidence was starting to creep in. We climbed and hauled to beneath the ear and put up the portaledge. The day was hot, long and hard, but we had done 19 pitches and although this was good to know, I knew that in the morning Hans and I would have to face what we most feared: the Monster Offwidth.
Hans had said he wanted to lead it, his reasoning being that he would fight harder on lead. Although it would have been nicer to lead, I didn’t really care, I knew I would be fighting either way. So Hans set off and he was doing really well, making a lot of progress, but clearly giving it his all. Then, a few metres from the top, he slipped out. Exhausted he got back on and went to the top. Next it was my turn and I was shocked at how nervous I was. I did the big move into the crack, which was something I was worried I couldn’t do. The first half went well, and I began to feel increasingly cocky about doing the pitch. Then for some reason it became harder and harder. Scraping my feet around to find a good heel toe and jamming my head against my hand in the crack, I found myself doing everything I could to stay in.
I got to the top to find Hans at the belay equally exhausted. I asked if he wanted to go again, and he shook his head. With barely any skin left on his ankles, knees and elbows I knew that he had given everything and didn’t have anything left to go again. But he took this with great acceptance, which looking back on is something I really admire, and with this acceptance we turned our attention to the next pitches.
That day we made it to the down climb, still hot in the evening sun. This pitch had a huge question mark over it in my mind. The word ‘reachy’ seemed to shine out on the page of our topo every time I looked at it. Hans went first and to my disappointment agreed that it was reachy. My first try was in the hot sun and just by looking at how far apart the holds were I decided that Han’s beta would not work for me. But later in the evening when things had cooled off, I tried the move again and surprised myself by how close I got to doing it. This could actually be possible for us and hope started to creep in. Whats more is that after all the ‘easier’ but burlier pitches below, working out these technical slab moves was such fun in comparison. There we were 20 plus pitches up attempting a wild foot hand match to a downwards mantel.
The morning arrived and in the cool shade we felt even more hopeful that we would do it. We both got it really quickly and weirdly enough we had done it almost exactly the same way. Although we cheered at our success, just as quickly my thoughts turned to the dreaded ‘Move’ pitch a couple of hundred feet up. Half of me was full of hope: if the down climb is possible for me, maybe the Move is too. But as we got closer, the inevitability of it dawned on me. Luca, our Slovenian friend was above us trying the move and shouting down that he was too short to do the move. He had freed everything so far and was clearly pissed off about having to jump to a certain two finger pocket instead of simply reaching. Being quite a lot shorter and most probably weaker than Luca, I scolded myself at being so naive as to think that I could do it.
Hans went up and impressively got it second try. But Hansjorg is pretty long, and strong so this did not console me in the slightest. I went up, did the lower 12a section and reached the undercut from which you do the ‘Move’. I looked up at the next hold and knew that the distance between them was longer than my body length. But in the flow of the climbing I saw an unchecked vague sloper in between the two holds. I could only hold it with my right and if I got my left foot really high. This combined with the fact that I could not match the sloper meant that my body was forced to do a huge cross over with my left hand to the side pull, taking it as a gaston instead. Knowing that the next hold was up and left and I was wrong handed, I fell off exasperated and disappointed. I played on the move for a while, trying all sorts of different things. Jumping didn’t work because the hold was side pull. I tried holding all the other features in the rock, willing myself to be able to hold them, but couldn’t.
My brain strained trying to think of how I could do it… there must be a way. After trying everything I could think of, I knew that the closest I had got was on my first attempt; the crazy cross over. So all I had to do was work out how to get my right hand on the hold instead of my left. It sort of dawned on me that I would have to match this horrible gaston and make it a side pull, but with no feet out right I wondered whether I would be strong enough. After a few attempts I had got to the point where, with my left hand crossed over, I could kick my right foot up, just on smears in a back-contorting position that would eventually enable me to match the hold. Once I done the foot movements, it was easy to reach the pocket, but completely stretched in a totally off-balance position the foot movements felt crazy hard. As I swung around with a thousand feet of air beneath me I though to myself that if this were a boulder problem on the ground I would be really pleased to do it. But, I had done the move, so theoretically I could do the pitch. By this time the sun had arrived in full force and my skin was thinning by the second. I came down and asked Hansjorg if he wouldn’t mind waiting for the morning shade.
The next day I woke up, really nervous. I knew I could do it, but I felt tired and achey and my back was stiff from trying the move yesterday. I got to the bottom of the pitch and just before I set off, I heard a succession of congratulatory cheering from around the corner to the left; clearly some people were dispatching the crux pitch of free rider (which turned out to be some of our friends). After 4 cheers, I thought, come on Hazel, they are sending, now you have to too. I felt really shaky on the start with no warm up. I also felt the momentousness of the pitch. I realised that if I didn’t get it this morning, with only a certain amount of food and water, we would be forced to move on, leaving a free ascent impossible. I pulled into the move, crossed over and started the tenuous hopping of my right foot up the smears in to a position that would enable me to match. Trying my best to trust my right foot, I came in to the match and reached across. I was into the pocket! With a few more hard, pumpy moves to go I prayed that I could compose myself enough to do them. With Hans, Luca, Nastia and the french team cheering from above I reached the finishing jugs, really relieved.
I know I have described this ‘Move’, (or 4 moves in my case) in a lot of detail, but for me this was the crux of the route and I have never done a move like it, and probably never will again. In all those hundreds of feet of climb, this 10 foot piece of golden pocketed rock, had forced me do a move I would not of thought would be possible for me. Even though grade wise this pitch is way below what I have done before, that move combined with the fact that we were 3 hard days in to a big wall attempt, probably makes Golden Gate the hardest thing I ever climbed. I guess this goes to show, that grades really are arbitrary, with your experience of the climb the thing that really matters. For Hans this pitch was nothing, and the monster offwidth everything, Golden Gate for us, would be a very different route.
I suppose it also shows that having to do things differently to other people is not a bad thing, but instead something to appreciate. Admittedly, had I not done the move, I would have been angry that one move had prevented me from freeing El Cap. But given that I worked out how to do combined with the fact that it was still really hard for me, is kind of the perfect scenario: the ascent would have been boring if it had been easy.
On to the next pitch Han’s had to reface his nemisis: another offwidth named the Chicken Wing chimney, which he bravely lay backed. A few more pitches took us to the Tower of the People where Luca, Nastia and some french teams were resting in their ledges. Pleased to have done the the move pitch and to see some friendly faces, I enjoyed hanging out with them under their tarpaulin, sharing our experiences of the route so far.
We watched a few French guys try the next pitch the 5.13a Golden Desert and it looked amazing. A boulder problem led into a perfect thin lay back, traversing through some roofs at the top. Hans tried and with some initial difficulty working out the boulder problem he continued to cruz to the top. I managed to flash this pitch and as I lowered down I marvelled at how beautiful the climbing was; on the ground this pitch would be a 5 star classic.
We slept in our ledge that night and depending on whether we could do the A5 traverse, the last hard pitch, this would be our last night on the wall.
The next morning Hans impressively onsighted the 5.31a A5 traverse with no warm up. Although he proclaimed it easy I was feeling pretty doubtful, 4 days on the wall had caught up with me and a pumpy traverse on slopers with no feet was not my style. I gave it a bash and fell pretty early on. Panic was creeping in. I knew Hans wanted to finish the route today and I knew that I had only an hour or so before the sun came on to the wall. I had a hurried rest and tried again. The next time I gave it my all but my foot popped off a heel hook a metre from the belay. A little heartbroken I almost lost my composure. I had been so excited to do the Move pitch and now it seemed like a free ascent was slipping away. Hansjorg remained super chilled and this helped me to realise that this was just a short traverse, just rest and try it again.
On my last go, knowing the moves better I climbed quickly to make up for my fatigue and arrived at the belay very relieved. With only 4 more easier pitches to go, I knew I would free climb El Cap.
Some amazing, steep razor thin 5.11 flakes lead to the last pitch. These were the glory finishing pitches I was looking forward to. Unfortunately the very last pitch is a run-out, circuitous 5.11 that left me puzzled as to where to go. Exhausted both physically and mentally, with the most horrific rope drag, I ungracefully clawed my way up the final slabs in a style that was far from the glorious top out I had imagined. When Hans arrived at the top, we had a brief celebration, but the work was not over. After getting the haul bag stuck and ropes knotted, I realised that I would not really be celebrating until we reached camp 4.
We got to the hire car and at around 5pm, almost 5 days after we saw it last. I thought back to my mind frame on that morning; groggy, apprehensive but psyched, it seemed like such a long time ago. We chatted about how weird it was to be down and how nice it would be to have a shower. Hansjorg was a great partner for the wall and I really appreciatehim going up there with me, despite my lack of big walling experience. Freeing El Cap was once of my most enjoyable climbing experiences and also the most challenging. Although, for now I’m psyched to go bouldering and single pitch climbing I know I’ll be back on El Cap at some point.
And this is what Hansjorg has to say if you are interested – a little briefer and more to the point! http://hansjoerg-auer.at/golden-gate/