Sunday, 25 October 2015

Attempting the Secret Passage

Nico Favresse and Sean Villanueva climbed a new El Cap free route in 2006 on the far East side of El Capitan around the line of two existing aid routes, The Eagle’s Way and Bad To The Bone. A photo of Nico pulling the crux moves of the route made it onto the cover of the big walls guide, but in nearly ten years the route hasn't been repeated and has received very little attention as far as we know. This being another free route on El Cap, so it's likely to have some spectacular climbing, the fact that it's unrepeated and that it isn't prohibitively difficult meant it was something both me and Pete were keen to try. On getting back to the valley we were straight up there to have a look at the initial pitches.

The topo shows the first pitch being a 5.10R, not a bad warm up in our minds. Pete set off for a look, but it turned out to be a baffling slab and with poor gear above some ledges! I went up for a look and made a tricky rock over move by holding onto my foot and lifting it onto an edge. It was pretty scary and seemed an ominous sign for what the rest of the route might entail. Looking at the topo for the Prophet later on, which also climbs this pitch, the pitch is given 12b R! We also heard that another climber from the UK had been badly hurt falling off this pitch - bit of a sandbag at 5.10!

It's mellow after that for a few pitches, until we reached a groove line given 12R. Pete set off on this and on-sighted it, but it also looked really scary and run out. Seconding I thought that it was a brilliant effort on-sighting it, I would have been terrified. Most of the gear are in-situ copper heads. After this pitch we were starting to run out of time and to aid the next pitch, 13c R to free climb, was going to take longer that we had.

We had another two day hits after that first recce, one in which we aided the next pitch and another when we finally got the chance to try the 13c R pitch. It was really tricky to work out what was going on here, where the pitch went and whether Nico had linked two pitches together (we now assume he did). We decided not to link them since this seemed like more hassle than it was worth. We worked the first pitch out pretty quick, not bothering to look at the starting ramp line because it looked easy. It's a very wandery pitch, with a few cruxes, hard face climbing and a wild snatch for an edge. Time ran out again before we had the chance to work the next one, getting to our high point and descending in the light left very little time for making progress with the route... it was time to go big wall style.

We were back a few days later, ensconced on a brilliant portaledge bivi in the middle of the blank face. Temperatures had been gradually climbing through the week and by now it was in the mid thirties and our wall was baked by the sun almost the entire day. We were struggling to climb in the heat, even lying on the ledge felt unbearable at times. The conditions afforded about two hours of warm climbing in the mornings before we considered it impossible to do hard climbing. In this time we did manage to do the lower crux pitch, falling from the slap move a few times.

The initial ramp at the beginning of the pitch we hadn’t bothered to scope out before turned out to be very serious indeed! It's about 20 metres of climbing to the first bolt, also the first good bit of gear, and involved some insecure climbing and bad rock. To fall from high would be unthinkable, resulting in a big pendulum across the broken lower wall while the ropes would whip dangerously along the ramp line. We decided the only way we’d lead this, without investing a lot more time in working it, was to have the first bolt pre-clipped.

Most of our days were spent with t-shirts on our heads playing shithead and eating bagels. 
After just two days our water was disappearing at an alarming rate and our progress was slow. We had a look at the next pitch that evening and failing to stay motivated in the awful heat we admitted that the route wasn’t going to happen for us, in these conditions at least. We did a bit more work on the next pitch the following morning before stashing our water and abbing off... For the fourth time!! Despite blaming the temperatures for our retreat, we had the impression that this route was a lot more serious an undertaking than we had thought. Back in the valley we are both really keen to get back on and have another go, but we also need to rethink our strategy and wait for some cooler weather...

Jugging to high point
Copper head pitch
Copper head pitch
Great portaledge bivi
Working the crux pitch
Crux slap
Pete working the crux moves


  1. Hi Dan,
    hope to here soon that you send this one and looking forward to some beta. If Its still to hot, I would highly recomment Father Time on Middle Cathedral Rock for you. Its shady and you get it in 2 days with a portaledg. If you need beta let me know.

    1. Hey Tobias!
      After we tried the Secret Passage it was still hot and so we went to do Father time. I remember you telling us about it. It was a great idea, not much hassle taking the portaledge half way and camping for a few days. Unfortunately we got stuck in a storm for two and a half days! so we had one day to do the top of the route, the day we had planned to descend. I didn't free the layback pitch, but Pete got them all. A fun trip. Hope all is well with you!