Sunday, 23 November 2014

Free In a Day

Three weeks, two trips up the Freerider and a load of great day routes into our time in Yosemite and I was still hankering for one more big challenge. Climbing big walls isn’t something I could do all the time, I find it both mentally and physically exhausting, and after 3 or 4 weeks I start to lose my drive. But at this point the weather was perfect and I had maybe just enough mojo to try one more wall. At the top of my wish list is the Pre-Muir, the free variant of the Muir Wall, which Caff, Hazel and Ding Dong climbed a couple of years ago. The last dirtbag, James Lucas, mentioned a friend of his who was planning to give it a go this autumn. I paid Madaleine a visit one evening to see about teaming up, but Mad already had plans and so this wasn’t to be.

The arrival of a storm forecast in a few days time changed things, Mad postponed her Muir plans and I got a text suggesting doing a climb during the next few days. I don’t know who suggested doing Freerider in a day, but El Cap free in a day was also pretty high on my wish list, especially since James Mchaffie and I had narrowly missed out on freeing Golden Gate in a day a few years ago.

I already had plans on some of the other days and we had hardly any time to get things ready, such as, making advanced stashes, prepping food, water and rack, planning our strategy or even climbing together! Mad managed to rap the route, leaving a few litres of water here and there and checked out the crux pitch. The day after, I jugged up fixed ropes to Heart for the third time in three weeks to leave food and water and a spare rope for the awkward down climb. Back at camp, Mad and I finally met up to talk about gear and planning with about 8 hours to go before we were to start climbing!

At 1am I set off climbing in the darkness up slabs I had gotten to know fairly well over the previous few weeks, using a Duck for the first time to protect me as we simul-climbed the first four pitches. I retrieved the rack, and the trusty Duck, and we stopped again six pitches later at the Heart ledges. It had taken us three hours to get to Heart ledges, half the time it had taken me previously, but this is still presumably quite slow if you’re Alex Honnold. Mad took the lead and on the next pitch climbed what I have heard called... “the hardest move on rock”, a sandbag 11b slab move. This slowed us down briefly but then we were moving again, simul-climbing past notorious features like the Hollow flake and up to the Ear. Having seventy meters of rope between you is not well suited to simul-climbing we now know. Both Mad and I had been dealing with painful rope drag most of the way, but on the final stretch through the Ear the drag reached epic proportions. Chimneying in the dark, run out, with a helmet, a harness load of gear and heinous drag to top it off, Mad was screaming in pain and frustration. We took a rest below the Monster and enjoyed the beautiful sunrise.

The Monster!
Sunset from the round table
I really dislike the Monster Offwidth, but despite this, it does seem to be becoming my party piece and that day I climbed it for the sixth time – surely nowhere near as many times as James? Fortunately, it does seem to get easier with repetition and we were relatively fresh at this point due to not having done any hauling. We had a brief rest at the Alcove, where I had previously made camp for the night and then continued upwards, pitching the rest of the way now. It wasn’t long before we hit the Teflon, the hardest pitch on the route. I had previously flashed this pitch and was hoping that this wasn’t a complete fluke. I was a bit concerned when, on my first attempt, I was suddenly and unexpectedly ejected from the corner when a foot slipped. I got back on and with much relief did it on the next attempt. Mad’s turn to follow coincided with the hottest part of the day and after a few frustrating attempt, she came up to the belay for a breather.

After what amounts to about 25 pitches of burly climbing, we were starting to tire and Mad had expended considerable energy on the corner already, I could see she was struggling to stay positive. I offered as much encouragement as I could and lowered her down for another attempt. The rest had done some good and Mad climbed to within a move of easier climbing, but made a mistake on this last move. This was tense as we knew that a free ascent was hanging in the balance. Mad told me to stop shouting so much useless beta at her and went down for a final shot at the corner. She got it and it was awesome, we were psyched, it was on!

Onwards and upwards, we climbed terrain familiar to me after two recent ascents and less familiar to Mad who had last climbed the route two years ago. At the enduro-corners, we’d been on the go for about 14 hours and were starting to get seriously tired. Mad led the first, an utter sandbag at 11c, and my follow of this pitch must have been a disgusting piece of climbing to witness. Whereas I had previously climbed this pitch on finger-locks with moderate finesse, this time I could only layback. I skidded and sketched my way to the belay and apologised to Mad for what she had to witness. The next section, a 12b, is fortunately much easier and I’d actually say felt ‘easy’ on my previous ascent. My confidence quickly disintegrated when I realised the state my arms were in. Somehow, with fingers uncurling, I got this pitch out of the way. Watching Mad follow I got to see what a skilled crack climbers looks like. Finding jamming where I’m certain there aren’t any, Mad casually made her way up this final corner. Only when she was near the top and she looked me in the eyes did I realise she was fighting just as much as I had!

A tricky 12a traverse later and we were at the Round Table, essentially having done all of the hard pitches. The last 17 hours, however, was taking its toll. Mad led off, but had to sit on the rope due to a lack of gear and utter exhaustion. I lowered her down and, taking gear from lower down to protect the upper section, finished the pitch. It was a sad moment, when Mad confessed she had used up her reserves and would need to jug from here on up. We had been sustaining an extremely high level of psych, had been climbing since 1am and it was now 8pm. We climbed the remaining pitches in this way and summited after 22 hours of continuous climbing. Mad congratulated me on a free ascent. I was very pleased to be at the top after such an epic and amazing day, but I didn’t feel the elation that I might have imaged after freeing El Cap in a day. I had hoped we would both free all the pitches and without being able to share it with Mad, it didn’t quite feel like a success. It actually feels more like unfinished business! I hope we can get back on the wall for another day ascent someday.

Skills on the second enduro-corner
Morning after the night, the day and the night before that
Photos from some other great routes

South By Southwest
The Lurch
Romulan Warbird

The Vortex

Bob cat vs squirrel
Deer taking a leak

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