Last year I freed Golden Gate with my friend Hansjorg Auer. This was the perfect big wall and the perfect difficulty. I found The ‘Move’ pitch especially hard with my short limbs, and although frustrating at the time, provided the perfect challenge. Yosemite, and more specifically El Cap holds a special place in my mind when I think of what inspires me and what I want to do in climbing, so although I’d freed El Cap – something I’d always wanted to do since seeing Masters of Stone 5, and hearing about Lynn Hill on the nose – of course I’d be back for more.
Last year my friend James Mchaffie was also in the valley, but suffered from an improbable bout of bad luck. In 8 days something unlucky happened on every one, included falling cams which impaired his partner Adam Hocking, falling rocks nearly killing him, falling friends at the crag breaking their legs and much lost gear including Leo Holding’s portaledge. At the time Caff was cursing the valley until the cows come home, swearing on his mother’s life that he would never come back. But British winters are long and childhood dreams of freeing El Cap hold fast.
To Quote: ‘I felt like a donkey with three legs last year in the valley, but I’m getting an itch looking at the headwall pitch’
It looked like there was a team in Britain psyched for the Salathe. I’m not sure when it changed to the Muir; progression of ideas are usually hard to track. Looking back it’s easy to see why I suggested we do the Muir instead of Salathe. Yes Salathe is cool, the headwall pitch looks like a must-do if you can climb the grade… but… the Salathe is one of the busiest areas of the wall. I just wasn’t that excited about dealing with aid parties, other free parties. But most of all, in my mind it didn’t seem like much of adventure. I know a lot of people who don’t come to Yosemite for adventure, they come to stash gear, climb hard and fast and throw masses of fixed lines up and down various projects. I think this style of climbing has it’s benefits and is cool in it’s own way, but when I’m sat at home in the fog, or sport climbing in Spain, it’s not what gets me excited to book my flights and come to the Valley. I already know what and where the pitches are on Salathe, I’ve spoken to numerous people who’ve been up there, and I’ve already done the first half of the route. I was psyched for something a bit more obscure… and I had also heard that the crux was a beautiful, flawless stem-corner, and I love stem corners.
Many months later, a few weeks before heading out to Yosemite, I found myself in Squamish. The day before I’d just done my 4-day project; a new route I called the Adder Crack, at a crag called the Long House. I gave the route 5.13c R (8a+ or E8) but wasn’t entirely sure it was that hard, even though I myself had found the moves really difficult. I was at a friend’s house, Chris Trull, who was kind enough to let us shower and use the internet. The night before we were celebrating Peter’s birthday and I had drunk a few more beers than usual since I had done my project. In a slightly hung over state I skyped Justen Sjong to collect beta about our up-and-coming adventure. Even though I don’t know Justen, I got his contact from a mutual friend Tim Kemple and was pleasantly surprised when he was keen to devote an hour of his time to chat beta.
Justen and his friend Rob Miller put the route up in 2007. They wanted to free Muir Wall but discovering that there was chossy ground, right above the busiest part of the wall (The Nose), they had a look around for other options. They discovered a perfect open book corner in the corner system just to the left of Tommy Calwell’s route ‘The Shaft’. They called the route the PreMuir because they thought that the corner systems above were the most appealing line, but would go by later parties at a harder grader of 5.14. They also thought the line was one of the best on El Cap (I agree).
Talking to Justen made me psyched, but to be honest, the over-riding feeling was one of doubt in my abilities to climb something this hard. In Squamish, it had taken me 4 days to climb 13c, on the wall I would have to climb a 13d and I’d have to do that after many hard pitches and hauling. The second to last pitch was 13c, which I’d have to climb, most probably after 5 days on. The other pitches are no joke either with only a handful of 5.10-5.11, 12 5.12s and 4 other 5.13s. Justen patiently went through each pitch; sentences like ‘you need pegs to protect here’, this is a really slippy pitch you can fall off at any point’, ‘the crux stem corner is much harder than Book of Hate’ etc were particularly fear-inducing.
I was also worried that I would be the weakest link in the team, possibly a dead weight. This past summer Caff climbed 9a slab and the previous summer he’d climbed 9a on limestone. I was proud of my 8b at Ceuse, but this is far from the level Caff climbs. A late addition to the team was Neil ‘Mythical Being’ Dyer, who is the definitive dark horse of British climbing, being known for climbing 8c with ease and drinking a whole can of King Cobra mid-problem on the famous valley V8 ‘King Cobra’. King Cobra is probably the height of my bouldering achievements and my ascent was definitely sans beer… Along with Justen’s exclamations at how hard the route was, my friend Alex Honnold was also shocked at our proposed attempt ‘why don’t you do Tommy’s variation, the corner is supposed to be heinous’. Filled with doubt I tried to remind my self that that last year I had had the same thoughts about Golden Gate.
I arrived a little later than expected in the valley. We pulled into the campsite at 3 in the morning and bumped into Caff and Neil who were leaving camp4 to climb the Muir Blast (the first 12 pitches of the route up to Heart Ledge). The plan was for them to do it, then haul, then do it again with me before setting off on the wall properly. Caff came down with a big grin on his face, he’d freed it all and Neil had come pretty close.
Before setting off on Muir Blast I did the Rostrum as a warm up, and the 11d off the ledge Blind Faith. I’d done both these routes before, but for some reason I felt terrible climbing them. I felt really shaky and not confident at all. In fact I had felt a bit weird about my climbing since doing the Adder Crack, and I wasn’t sure why. Either way, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to drag myself up Muir Blast, let alone the rest of the route.
But Muir Blast went really well, some of the best climbing I’ve ever done and I flashed all 12 pitches. Perhaps it was because the climbing was so amazing, but I felt really relaxed and (something which the sceptical Cumbrian Caff hates me saying) full of ‘flow’. I managed to flash the 5.13b pitch, which had some of the best technical, bad-feet, smeary climbing I’ve done. Doing Muir blast filled me with confidence again. I still felt like I was more likely to fail than succeed in our free bid, but at least I felt like I would be able to try my best, and if that wasn’t good enough, then so be it. I know that Caff felt the same as me, and Neil, being one of the nicest, most chilled guys around was happy to come on the wall, do some good climbing, have an adventure, and not worry too much about getting the pure free ascent.
After the flawless Muir Blast, we set off a few days later but had some difficulties with an Aid Party. Despite us doing the 12b and 12d in the dark we had to wait 3 hours for an aid team and found ourselves on a hard 13b corner in full sun. We tried our best, but completely baked we were far from our planned bivy and decided to come down. In hidsight this was a blessing in disguise, because a few days later it started to rain. After the bad weather passed, we jugged back up to our high point on Grey Ledges and went from there. In cooler temperatures we managed to do the corner straight off, both of us leading, but I got horribly flashed pumped which stayed with me for a few days.
I won’t go into masses of detail of all 30+ pitches.. or I’ll try not to…basically what happened was that Caff and I freed all pitches, and some of them by the skin of our teeth (especially me). Looking back there didn’t seem to be a ‘hardest part’ or even really a hardest pitch, the whole thing was very hard. Not a single day or even really a single pitch, passed with ease. The 2 5.10s were the only pitches that I didn’t have to try on, even the 11ds, in my tired state were a complete battle.
The crux pitch has to be one of the best pitches I’ve ever climbed. It starts up a perfect 90 degree corner, with no face holds and no foot holds. In the back there is a crack, but it only really takes small wires, mostly RPs. Luckily for us we knew the Frenchies Nico and Pollo were climbing before us, and we had asked them to leave in a few pins, which Justen had said to be essential. The pins were really useful, mainly for stopping the wires from lifting out. You’re bridging so far away from the crack that your own rope lifts them out, but putting the pegs on shorter slings can easily solve this problem. Caff aided the corner the evening before and tried some moves. The corner was climbed with pre placed gear on the first ascent and this is how we planned to climb it as well – to place the gear on lead would be near impossible. Clipping the gear is hard enough because you have to climb the corner as quickly as possible to prevent your calves and shoulders from getting hugely pumped. We all tried it in the morning, but soon enough sun stopped play. Thankfully we got to work out the upper section, the difficulty of which we weren’t prepared for. After the corner you get a thank-the-lord no hands rest, but then you have to finish with a 13a bouldery lay back, which I was so worried about dropping if I managed to get through the corner. We hung out for what seemed like an age, hanging in the portaledges, with sleeping bags hung up to shade ourselves from the sun. When evening came I was psyched to lead it and managed to get it first go. Caff wanted to chimney it at first but the angles don’t allow it, in the end we found that all you can do is bridge the whole thing! I was really psyched to climb that pitch because it is a full glory pitch, but I was also psyched to climb it so quickly – basically with one top rope burn. Neil also did amazing; getting through the corner, but not knowing the top, fell off the second crux. Psyched by our efforts, Caff also pulled it out of the bag.
There were celebrations on the ledge, but for me there was a bit more going on in my mind. Up until this point I hadn’t felt huge amounts of pressure because I hadn’t expected to do the crux so easily, if at all. But now that I had, the game was on, and I could feel the pressure of the pitches above weighing down on me.
The next day was one of the hardest, in full sun, climbing pitches that in my mind, just didn’t seem to let up. The 13a traverse above the corner started with a double handed dyno, ended with a super technical crimp traverse and required a bit of working out in the sun. The apparent 12b up next was impossible for me, with a huge move. Caff basically dynoed/campussed it and I was really worried that my free ascent would be hosed by one big move. Luckily for me, the El Cap gods, like they were on the move pitch, wanted to allow little people to go past free as well, and instead of going left I found some hidden crimps that led straight up to a ledge, which I then down-climbed to join the belay of the next pitch. After a cool 12d we reached a big ledge system, traversed around an arête left and found ourselves on an awesome bivy ledge (Chicken Head Ledge) on the west face of El Cap. Up until this point the west face with Salathe wasn’t in view, but now I could see the headwall and the A5 traverse. I could also Pete and Howard questing towards the headwall on their 3 day Salathe mission.
The last (5th) day was quite stressful because we were really tired, knew there weren’t much supplies left and we still had the final, second 13c crux pitch to go. It turned out to be my style, thin locks, lay backing and stemming, but my arms kept giving up. Neil impressively flashed it on second, but Caff, also very tired was having problems as well. It’s the sort of pitch you just have to climb, you can’t really work out the perfect sequence, and I don’t think I ever did the crux section the same way. This made it quite difficult to deal with because I never started up the pitch knowing what I had to do. The heat was also a problem and we had to wait until it was dark before trying it again. That evening was a very strange evening, the three of us perched on this tiny ledge below the pitch, head torch beams lighting a small circle of rock on such a big wall, each of us dealing with our own mental demons and lactic acid filled arms. We kept checking the time to see if we had rested enough but Caff kept trying without much rest at all. He amazingly pulled it out of the bag on something like his 7th attempt. I had given it 3 goes already and my arms were telling me to pack it in for the evening, but Caff’s send made me psyched to give it one last shot. I somehow managed to scrape my way up it and when I got to the top I had no idea how I’d done it, nor could I remember any of the moves. Not one to say words like ‘flow’ or ‘zone’ I was surprised to hear Caff mention that I looked ‘in the zone’. Back on the ledge we had a group hug (also a rarity for the Cumbrian and the Welsh man) knowing that with only a 5.10 to go the free ascent was in the bag.
Back on the ledge we realised that we only had 4 litres of water, and would need to top out the next day anyway, so it was a good job I had decided to have that last go!
I think that when I look back at our PreMuir mission, what I will remember most is being on that ledge at 9.30 at night almost too mentally and physically tired of trying hard to enjoy the moment. We could taste the relief that was to come, but still there was some small doubt that we wouldn’t be able to pull it out of the bag. But skill, or good luck, or effort or something else was on our side and the next day we found ourselves at the top, too tired to sing and dance, but happy nonetheless.
I can’t thank Caff and Neil enough for such an amazing adventure!