Andrea Hah finds that shit gets real during her ascent of Freerider on El Cap in Yosemite Valley, USA
WORDS: Andrea Hah, IMAGES: Lee Cossey
The idea of free climbing a route on El Cap in Yosemite Valley has been on my mind since I climbed Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo in 2012. Doing a route on one of the most famous and historic big walls in the world was something I didn’t want to miss out on.
The route I chose was Freerider (12d/27*), a sinuous line up the southwest face of El Capitan that was put up by the Huber brothers in 1998. I also decided that I wanted to try Freerider ground-up, onsighting what I could, and redpointing what I couldn’t. Given it is 1000m-high, 30-pitches long and pretty hard, I planned to spend five days on the wall.
The usual way to free climb Freerider is pre-haul gear to the Heart Ledges, which are a third of the way up. This process involves jugging up five fixed ropes and hauling bags filled with climbing gear, sleeping comforts, toileting paraphernalia, snacks and three to five litres of water per person, per day.
Not surprisingly, Lee and I underestimated how long this would take and how hard it would be. Lee taught me how to set up a 3:1 haul at the base of El Cap and we commenced hauling at 3pm. We continued into the night, stashed our bags on the ledge, and rapped down in the dark without headtorches; baffled by how packing, walking the bags to the base and hauling could take eight hours.
Day One: Freeblast
The alarm resonated through the car at 4am and we set off to climb the first part of Freerider, the so-called Freeblast (5.11/23; 10 pitches), fixing our ropes to the Hollow Flake. The day went super smoothly and we managed to set up our portaledge on Lung Ledge as the sun set over the Sierra Nevada Range.
The forecast predicted rain that night, but we didn’t believe it and decided not to set up our fly. At 2am California’s drought came to an end. Lee and I scurried around in our harnesses with slings and straps flailing everywhere, desperately trying to set up the fly without getting ourselves and our sleeping bags wet. We failed miserably and huddled under what felt like a plastic bag caught in a drain and patiently waited for the sun to rise.
Day Two: Monster Day
As the sun rose, so did Lee, desperate for its warmth after spending the night shivering and lying in a puddle.
‘Let’s go down,’ I said, feeling horrifically guilty for inflicting such discomfort on someone just for a route.
‘No way,’ Lee responded. ‘We will dry everything out and get to The Alcove by sunset!’
Thankfully the sun came out, and we spent the next hour drinking hot coffee, frantically shaking out our belongings to dry them. Then I managed to onsight the next five pitches, taking us to the base of The Monster by 4.30pm, with two hours until sunset.
The Monster, as it is affectionately called, is an offwidth. The pitch commences with a powerful 5m traversing downclimb along a flake, which brings you to the meat of the pitch. A 30cm-wide, 40m-long continuous clean crack with slight variations in its composition that required subtly different techniques to ascend. ‘Get inside and grovel,’ was the strategy most people had recommended to me. And so I did. I set off with two number six cams and I jammed the left side of my body as deep into the crack as I could. I nestled, squirmed, pressed and udged with every articulating and non-articulating part of my body. I bumped my first number six cam as far above the one bolt on the pitch as I dared, then left it behind, shuffling my second cam in the crack as I climbed higher. Despite the struggle I felt oddly in control.
Though I was warned about how easy it can happen, I managed to over-cam the lobes of my second cam and it got stuck. My only two pieces of gear were within five metres of each other and I still had what felt like 20m of squirming to go. I’d heard a vague rumour there was one fixed piece higher up, but I still couldn’t build the courage to continue. My body was starting to fatigue and the only thing I could fathom doing was continuing to jiggle at the cam. Fear, exhaustion, frustration and desperation were overwhelming me.
‘You’re doing awesome!’ Lee shouted up.
‘Shut up!’ I yelled back.
After what felt like 15 minutes in the same position, I managed to release the cam and progress upwards. But then the orientation of the offwidth changed. I could hardly stay still let alone go upwards. With each ten-centimetre udge upwards, I would drop five centimetres. I started to scream and yell as I realised that everything was coming to an end 5m from the final exit ramp, and that I would not be summiting this pitch unscathed. I slumped out of the crack and onto the rope feeling utterly empty.
After composing myself somewhat, I pulled back up, and battled out some kind of ‘sequence’ in the pitch black with no headtorch. At the top of the crack I was stranded on the final slick and slopey ramp, with no protection. The second and final cam was 10m below me and I couldn’t see anything. Embarking on this pitch at 4.30pm I’d judged that I wouldn’t get benighted. I should have known better.
Fortunately, a party behind us were wanting to sleep at the same bivvy that night and were aiding up a parallel pitch. So I stood semi-perched on the ramp in the dark for an hour and patiently waited for a rope to be thrown down from above so that I could gain access to the Alcove for the night. I couldn’t have been more grateful (or sheepishly embarrassed at the same time).
Day Three: The Boulder Pitch
I woke up in the Alcove, 500m above the valley floor looking straight up at 500m of looming granite wall and clear blue skies. I felt sticky and stiff from a restless night in a synthetic sleeping bag on a 1m-wide slanting rock ledge. I had been in my harness without a shower for 72 hours and I felt sure that a semi-trailer had reversed over me multiple times, while my hands had been pulled through the cogs of some heavy machinery. Tears welled in my eyes at the reality of where I was – the first thing I needed to do that morning was go back down to finish The Monster.
I decided to lower down and top rope The Monster. Logistically this felt more realistic as there were two other people who wanted to lead it that morning, it also seem justified given my onsight attempt the previous day. My ‘sequence’ worked and I managed to return to the bivvy by 9am for a second coffee, after which I onsighted the next four pitches to the crux of the route, the Boulder Pitch.
I spent about two hours working out the highly technical and intricate sequences of the (5.13a/28) bolted pitch and finally decided to call it a day and try it the next morning. My tips were thin, I was weary and I still needed to do the Sewer pitch to gain access to the next bivvy, the Block.
I started up the Sewer pitch after sunset and, as you can deduce, it was dirty, wet, awkward and dark. When trying to onsight a big wall ground-up, conserving time and energy are the difference between success and failure. This made me climb extremely cautiously, and every pitch seemed to take me hours because I did not want to fall off and have to repeat it. Each tricky section I approached with trepidation, feeling utter relief with its completion.
Day Four: Make or Break
At 7am I lowered back down to The Boulder pitch and tried to warm up. I tried to repeat the visualisation I had done all night, but the seamless locked-off sequence I had visualised was not evolving into reality. It was hot and humid, my skin was raw and I could hardly complete individual moves. Doubt overwhelmed me as I realised my dream of free climbing El Cap was disappearing. I looked at Lee helplessly, looking for alternative ideas.
‘What about the Teflon Corner?’ he said.
Remarkably, this 20m section of Freerider has two options that run parallel: the Boulder Pitch and the Teflon Corner. Both are graded 5.13a*, so the climber can choose. I lowered down and worked out the feet-smeary and hand-palming sequences and sent the Teflon Corner second shot. And, much to my astonishment, we were back on!
The final hardest pitches were yet to come. The Enduro Corners grade 5.11c (23) and 5.12b (25) are stacked on top of each other and have a reputation for shutting good climbers down. It was about 2pm and hot because the corner was in the direct sun, which is not my ideal situation for laybacking a pin-scarred granite corner crack. Feeling like I had no option but to try and progress towards the summit, I set off in hope of at least completing the first of the Enduro Corners before nightfall. I failed on my onsight attempt, but much to my surprise and relief I redpointed it second shot.
The next objective was to at least work out a sequence for the second corner. The start of the pitch is quite technical and I ended up essentially aiding my way to the anchor with the intention being to work out the sequence on the way down. However, on lowering I was too confused and disorientated to work out sequences in reverse and decided to just lower back to the belay. The sun was setting, and I was tired so I decided to leave the rope in and quickly work out the pitch. As I set off and unclipped my gear, I found myself not falling off. Much to my amazement, I continued to ‘work out the sequences’ as I fumbled with unclipping my rope from the gear, and re-clipping the belay end. Pumped and smothered in blood, I arrived at the anchor at the top of the Enduro Corners just as bewildered as Lee.
Next was The Roof (5.12 a/b or 24/25), which leads to the Round Table bivvy. Lee reassured me it was a ‘fun, slopey, campusey traverse’. So, third night in a row, I set off in the dark with my headtorch. I traversed across two moves then found myself moving downwards on flakes and edges and instantly pumped on a big fat, granular undercling flake on smeary feet with an abyss of darkness below. I screamed and plummeted, swinging sideways. Then did the same thing three more times, each time leaving me more dejected. I convinced myself there was a huge jug I just needed to thrutch to and, luckily, I found it on my fifth shot. Then I was stranded in the dark, 800m above the valley floor, gear five-unreversible-metres to my right and reluctant to commit to an awkward mantle that allowed access to the final bivvy.
After what felt like another half hour I managed to tentatively weasel my way onto the Round Table and yell ‘Lee–ee, I’m safe!’
Day Five: The Final Round
I had five pitches to the summit, a 5.11d (24) hand/finger crack, the notorious Scotty Burke offwidth, a 5.10d (21) flake, a 5.9 (18) chimney squeeze and a rolling slab to victory.
I was starting to get delirious and needed help. Lee gently taped up my bloody wounds, force fed me food and water and set me off on my way. All I had to do was climb, but I ended up stuck in the 5.9 (18) chimney, 20m from the summit.
I was manic. I couldn’t place any gear, yet the chimney was so narrow I couldn’t turn my head with my helmet on and my waist – with the cams, draws, trail rope, pulleys, Grigri and chalk bag – was jammed in the chimney.
‘I am so over this! I hate this. This is NOT FUN. I’ve had enough!’ I screamed.
‘Come down to the stance below you, offload some gear, take your helmet off and go again,’ Lee replied calmly.
‘Come down?! Are you f*#cking kidding me! You have no idea how hard it was to get here!’
And so I stubbornly persisted, managing to reach one hand out towards a handhold. But the hold was overhead and behind me. I had gone into the chimney with my back to the wrong side and found myself holding the exit jug – just three metres from easy ground and the top of El Cap – but with my hips and shoulders rotated 180-degrees in the wrong direction. I desperately tried to ease myself out of the chimney but unravelled like a wrung out towel and plummeted downwards.
Inconsolably defeated, I lowered back down to the belay.
Lee force fed me food and water again, and I looked up and laughed deliriously. The chimney was literally 5m in length, and I realised I’d overreacted. I tied back in and reached the anchor 10 minutes later, then we completed the final haul of the ‘pigs’ to the summit, collapsed and cried tears of ecstasy.
The descent – including five abseils – back down to the valley floor took three hours carrying 25kg+ bags in the dark. Not wanting our ‘poo bag’ odour to infiltrate all our belongings, Lee attached it to the top of my haul bag next to my head! Given he’d just belayed me for five days, I didn’t complain, but continued to abseil down the East Ledges. Three abseils into the five, I heard Lee bellowing from below.
‘You’ve dropped the poo bag! I’m covered in shit.’
I shone my headtorch on Lee. All I could see was the left side of his body and his haul bag – with the words ‘Life ain’t too bad’ written on it – sprayed in brown.
* In the topo it seems the Boulder Pitch gets 13a as a ‘variant’ and the Teflon Corner gets 12d but I’ve also heard they both get 13a. There doesn’t seem to be an across-the-board ‘one pitch is easier than the other’ statement for everyone. It seems very dependent on your preference of climbing style. Alex Honnold preferred to solo the Boulder Pitch. There doesn’t seem to be a good understanding of grades in Yosemite – I can’t remember when I last fell off a 5.9 (18).
Andrea is sponsored by Black Diamond, PrAna and Tenaya, and owns and runs www.moveclinic.com.au and Camp St Climbing in Katoomba.