Monday 14 March 2016

A Guide to Freerider

Freerider is a contender for the most famous free-climb in the world, being El Capitan’s most well-known, achievable and popular free route. It links together large features, cracks, corners and chimneys that make for brilliant free-climbing, forging a path through swathes of immaculate granite. For a keen free-climber with a taste for multiday adventures this route should be high on the list.

Length: Around 1000m
Pitches: Around 33
Difficulty: Up to 7c+

The route is in-fact a variation on the super-classic Salathe Wall, which avoids the Salathe Headwall and the need to have exceptional crack climbing abilities to climb free. It’s one of the many amazing additions to El Capitan free climbing made by the Huber brothers and was first climbed in 1998. The brothers discovered a way of avoiding the Salathe Headwall via an unlikely looking traverse into another system of cracks. Since then Freerider has become a very popular free-route and has undoubtedly seen many fast ‘in-a-day’ ascents and Tommy Caldwell has even climbed this and then free climbed the Nose in less than 24 hours!

Climbing El Capitan via any route is a logistical challenge that requires careful planning and many choices have to be made in developing a strategy, such as what equipment to take, how far to climb each day and timing climbing for optimal conditions (e.g. I would advise against climbing the Monster during the hottest part of the day). The style of climbing and the pitch grading on Freerider doesn’t make life any easier either and it’s notoriously difficult to anticipate the difficulty of climbing each pitch. Some routes, such as the Nose, have many articles, blog posts and even a DVD giving tips, beta and useful info on how to climb the route. I haven’t seen anything like this for Freerider and there are many things I wish that I had known about! So, here is what I have learnt about the route that I think it would be useful to know in order to decide whether to, and to plan, for a big-wall adventure on Freerider.

Is it too hard?
Of course you don’t have to free every pitch to have an amazing adventure on the route, but for many this will be an objective. Freerider manages to combine almost all styles of rock climbing, crack climbing of course, but also hard stemming, bouldering, laybacking, slabs and wall climbing! The difficulties of the route are mainly concentrated in a few hard pitches, which all have names: the Boulder Problem, the Teflon Corner, the Monster Offwidth and the Endurance Corners. The remaining pitches are rarely ‘easy’ and typically involve physical and tiring climbing or technical slabs. The crux pitch is either the Boulder Problem (5.13a) or the Teflon Corner (5.12d) depending on which option you choose. The Boulder Problem is around v8 and is technical and crimpy, like a problem at the Climbing Works. The Teflon Corner is completely different, has no hand holds, and is a bit like a shorter version of the Quarryman groove. Therefore, if you’re a boulderer with strong fingers you’ll prefer the Boulder Problem, if you’re a contortionist who likes bridging then you’ll prefer the Teflon.

Of the other hard pitches, the Endurance Corners involve some tricky crack climbing that I would say is very roughly on a par with London Wall at Millstone. The Monster Offwidth is something else entirely, I don’t know of any routes I could compare it to! How difficult you find this pitch will depend on your offwidth skill, bloody mindedness and cardiovascular fitness. I know of some top climbers who have freed every pitch except for the Monster Offwidth, a supposed 11a! Knowing what to expect on this pitch, having a rough idea of how to climb it and having the right amount of gear will make it feel a lot easier.

In terms of big-wall skills, I don’t think Freerider requires a very high level of skill. The wall tends to be fairly steep, clean and the belays are well bolted making hauling quite easy. Having said that, the easier you find the gear management and hauling the more energy you will have spare for free-climbing. My first big-wall was Golden Gate (which climbs most of Freerider) with Calum Muskett in 2012, who had never climbed a big-wall either. Working it out as we went, we were terrible at jumaring, struggled to assemble our portaledge, dropped things, lots things, had forgotten some essential items, and ended up climbing the Monster offwidth in the baking Californian sun! Needless to say our experience could have been made a good deal easier if we had bothered to acquire a minimal amount of big-walling experience.

A Good Strategy
There are, of course, many different ways of approaching a route such as this. If you’re aiming to free all the pitches but haven’t been up this section of wall before I’d recommend packing for 5 days on the wall. This involves breaking the route into 4 climbing days with supplies for an extra day if a rest is needed or to allow for more time on a crux pitch. This utilises ledges on the wall, The Hollow Flake (pitch 14), El Cap Spire (pitch 20) and The Block (pitch 24), for bivis and therefore doesn’t require a portaledge.  

There are almost always fixed lines leading from the ground to the Heart Ledges (pitch 11) that hang well away from the line of the route. These ropes are great for hauling the haul bags to Heart Ledges a day or two in advance, which can then be met on the first day after climbing the Freeblast (pitches 1-11). Some teams opt to climb the Freeblast in advance and then use the ropes to re-ascend to Heart Ledges after a rest day to continue the route. I’d prefer to avoid this strategy if possible as I find it more satisfying to climb the entire route in one continuous push.

What Gear do you need?
For a climbing rack, unsurprisingly it’s worth having a large number of friends. Triples up to friend 3 would be a good idea, one or two fours and I use a 5 and a 6 on the Monster, which I think makes it quite safe. Both the 5 and the 6 also come in handy on the Scotty-Burke offwidth higher up. For the vast majority of the route, the pitches are direct and well protected and it is preferable to climb on a single rope. A few pitches, however, are more complicated such as the down-climb onto Heart ledges. For this pitch you need another rope and I have used a 7mm tag line for this, which I use to pull up the thicker haul line on the other pitches.

The Route

Day 1: Freeblast, P1 – P14, Ground to Hollow Flake Ledge
I suggest linking pitches 1 & 2 and 3 & 4. Pitches 5 and 6 involve tricky slabs that might both weigh in at about E4 6b in the UK, they will feel hard if un-chalked. After a line of bolts on pitch 6 there is a difficult traverse left that can be done at a variety of different heights. My preferred method is to stay low, using the sidepull/undercut next to the peg from below rather than standing up into it. After the Half-Dollar Flake there is a good belay ledge with two pegs rather than two bolts, from there it’s easy to move together up to the far, far end of Mammoth Terraces. The next step is the long down-climb from Mammoth to Heart Ledges where the haul bags await. I have a rope, probably the tag-line, ready to go at Heart so that once the leader has done the down climb they can tie the tag to the lead line, giving them the extra length needed to give the second a top-rope on the down climb.

“That’s the hardest move on rock” said a friend in reference to pitch 12 between Heart Ledges and Lung Ledge. The hardest rock climbing move of all-time it might not be, but it is worth not underestimating this pitch. It involves a couple of very thin slab moves past a bolt and would also be about E4 6b in UK grades. There are two possible anchors after this pitch and I have usually hauled from the lower of the two, it’s better equipped and the angle of the ledge helps you put some weight behind the haul. The next belay after pitch 13 is on trad gear and is in-situ but needs backing up with some extra kit. It’s then an unpleasant haul to get the bags up to here.

The final pitch of the day is the Hollow Flake, one of the longest and most time consuming pitches on the route. It involves a tricky traverse out to some crimps and then another tricky move to drop into the long, long down-climb (about 40-50 meters). The move into the crack is safe for the leader but bold for the second, I’d recommend the leader places a cam in the crack just after doing the move on a very long sling. The leader is top-roping for the majority of the hollow flake itself, except for the upper chimney section which is very runout, but fortunately not difficult. A number six won’t protect it, only a ‘valley giant’ will work.

The hollow flake is one of the few pitches on the route that I’d describe as dangerous, I hope that you don’t get to the chimney on the Hollow Flake when a sudden hail storm hits. This is what happened to us on another outing I had with James, who was squirming up the start of the chimney section far from any gear, when hail started to pile up on this shoulders. He didn’t have a choice but to stay there, wedged, waiting for it to pass. I was in a t-shirt and as there wasn’t much I could do for him, so I left him to it to dive around the corner to retrieve a jacket (Sorry). Fortunately it didn’t last too long and he was able to reverse, escape and get back to the belay.

Day 2: The Monster, P15 – P20, Hollow Flake Ledge to El Cap Spire
This is a shorter day than the first, but tough because of needing to haul and because of the dread of having to climb the Monster hanging over you. It starts off with a pleasant chimney, but remember to face out – Tom Randall told me he faced in and turned this pitch into a terrifying sketch-fest. Good climbing leads to the Ear, take off your helmet, take big gear and lighten your rack. This is a wild chimney pitch, facing out again, that gives great views out over the valley. Now, The Monster, probably the most notorious pitch on the route which involves about 50 meters of hideous offwidth climbing. The difficulty of this pitch will depend partly on cardiovascular fitness, the strength of your ankles, having a high pain threshold and skill in climbing wide cracks. In UK grades, I estimate it would be about E6 4c. Left side in! The first time I climbed this pitch I had been told that it was crucial to climb it with a specific side in the crack, but I couldn’t remember which side. I guessed right side, I was wrong, but I did miraculously manage to chicken-wing my way up by the skin of my teeth. In doing so I removed the skin on my tricep which oozed for the next few days and made further offwidths very painful.

After a surprisingly hard and technical down-climb/traverse to gain the right arête of the crack and then swinging inside, it’s left-side in and after a few meters you get a ledge to rest on and recompose yourself. The trick is this: left side in, left arm-bar straight in, right hand cupping the arête near your face, left foot cammed inside the crack and right foot camming with a heel inside the crack and toe outside. Wiggle your feet alternately and make extremely slow progress up the crack, after about 800 moves you’ll have done it! For gear I take one friend 6, a friend 5 and a couple of quickdraws for the pair of bolts at about a third height. The 6 can be moved ahead of you almost the entire length, except for one section about 2 thirds of the way where it narrows and the 5 can be placed and left behind. The difficulties increase slightly in the very last section as the crack changes in a subtle and appalling way, so it’s worth taking a good rest at the slight overlap about two-thirds of the way as it’s the final rest. I also tend to carry a bottle of water on my harness to have a bit to drink when I’m hanging out at the resting ledges.

After another short pitch you’re at the Alcove, a complex series of blocks and ledges that provides a few good bivi spots. If it’s been a long day or if it’s windy this is a good place to bivi, alternatively the El Cap spire bivi is possibly the best bivi in the world! The first time I got to the spire, I’d just done the Monster so had no skin on my arm, Calum was lying in a heap at the Alcove trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose, we’d lost a belay device and had forgotten a lighter (dinner had been a sachet of dried Bolognese with cold water). I think for a while we were seriously tempted to run-away. On the spire is a single rock, under which we found a Reverso, some Americans gave us a lighter and Calum finally stopped losing blood.

Day 3: Teflon/Boulder Problem, P21 – P24, El Cap Spire to The Block
This is the shortest day in terms of pitches but includes the crux pitch of either the Teflon corner or the Boulder Problem. When you get to the sloping ledge at the end of pitch 22, the Boulder Problem pitch is straight above you and the Teflon Corner out left and completely hidden from view. When we got here for the first time in 2012, everyone we had spoken to talked about the Boulder Problem pitch and so we assumed this was the better of the two options. But beware the topo! From the topo we assumed you climbed the corner above direct in order to access the Boulder Problem belay. After my partner had taken a couple of falls trying this desperate corner, out mate James appeared on some fixed lines and told us we were going the wrong way. At the point the corner gets hard you swing out right on undercuts and flakes to access a ramp system which leads easily to the belay.

The boulder problem itself is said to be about V8 and, after flashing it on that first day, I’ve come to learn that it is extremely conditions dependant and skin intensive! If you get there in cool conditions and like V8 crimping, this is the pitch for you. If you’re more of a Quarryman groove type, however, then you’ll prefer the Teflon Corner. I much prefer the Teflon since I find it easier that the Boulder Problem and it doesn’t trash your skin. This pitch also has an entry pitch to an awkward stance on the right before the corner gets really smooth.

There is one more long pitch leading to the large, but sloping, ledge called the Block. This pitch doesn’t get a big grade and it’s steady almost the whole way, until the very last move to reach to ledge! Beware the sting in the tail. Having done this pitch on several occasions now, I still haven’t found a good way of doing this move.

Day 4: The Enduro-Corners, P15 – P33, The Block to the Top
After hopefully getting a reasonable night’s sleep on the Block it’s a big day to the top. The first pitch of the day is very good but also quite tricky, a lot like an E4 5c you might find in the UK. It’s slightly run-out face climbing most of the way until a wild thin-crack finale leads to the Sous-Le-Toit ledge. This is where we caught up with team ‘butter-fingers’. This team had previously dropped their entire rack down the Hollow Flake, retreated to the valley, borrowed another rack and re-ascended to continue the route. They were good guys except when above you, and on this pitch alone we received several cams, a crack-pipe and were pissed on.

For me, the first Endurance corner, graded 5.11c, is the hardest pitch on the route. Most of the pitch is climbed on ‘killer-hands’ but at the end it turns into desperate finger-locks that I usually end up laybacking in bad style despite good intentions. I have always split the corners into two pitches using the intermediate bolt belay. I much prefer the second Eduro pitch, which starts with technical laybacking using a left knee-bar before turning into fantastic finger locking. I’ve seen Madalaine climb this pitch front-on using invisible jams, but it’s a mystery to me how you can do this. It’s a good idea to haul from Sous-le-Toit after this pitch (26) at the hanging stance below the big roofs. I’d give both these pitches 12b, or in UK terms at least E5 6b.

This is where the Freerider variation breaks lefts from Salathe wall via an ingenious traverse left into the unknown. A very airy and intimidating pitch! The difficulties are condensed into a tricky boulder problem to leave a hands-off rest. It’s worth having good systems here because, even though it isn’t a long pitch, it’s very hard to communicate around the corner.

The next significant feature is the Scotty-Burke offwidth, which did give me a very hard time the first time I tried it. The climbing to get to the offwidth from the round table feels like burly E4 6b. It’s possible to belay at the very start of the offwidth using one bolt and the number 6 friend, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The difficulties are short-lived and concentrated around the initial wide section. I layback here a few moves through the steepness before pulling back into the crack and using the Monster technique for the remainder. I have heard, however, of people getting their ropes core-shot by falling from the layback and their ropes running down the sharp edge of the crack... something to be aware of! You’re now into the home stretch, just a few pitches to go and nothing too difficult. There is a wild heel hook move on pitch 32 to look out for, this is also like a boulder problem at the works! Finally, flop over the top onto the biggest area of flat ground you’ll have been on in 4-5 days.

Regardless of which pitches you’ve freed and which you haven’t, getting up this climb is a great achievement. This is a route to free as much as possible simply because the climbing is so incredibly good, each pitch on its own would be a classic single pitch route! The constant problem solving and excellent climbing partnership that are required to survive the ups and downs on the wall, and the unpredictability of the experience and outcome, make this one of the most adventurous types of climbing. This is what has drawn me back to Yosemite year after year.


  1. Why are all the people in the pictures using ropes?

    1. Think I’ll stick with the ropes… the thought of soloing this makes me feel ill…

  2. Yeah, isn't that out of style?

  3. Dan, thanks for this great guide: useful technical insights, relatable personal reflections and the practical details necessary to make the climb. I found your post while learning about Alex Honnold's recent achievements. Reading your post helped put his efforts into context. It also, for me at least, helps make the connection between: a) this and climbing a v8 boulder problem and b) what seemed unimaginable, but is perhaps quite practically possible. If (when) I one day follow in his footsteps and yours - slower, safer, but with a similar view and experience - it will because of your post. Thankyou.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your comment! It’s cool that Honnold’s ascent has gotten such wide coverage. I knew there was a good chance he’d do it, but I’m still amazed by it. While the route isn’t super hard ‘on paper’ some of the pitches don’t lend themselves to soloing in my opinion. Take the enduro-corners, only given around 12b, but are very exposed, slippery and insecure.
      I hope you have a trip to Yosemite at some point, if you haven’t already. There’s a lifetime of brilliant climbing from boulders to big walls. Get in touch if need any advice on climbing there. Cheers,

  4. Hey Dan, Epic blog.Thanks for writing.
    I am planning on climbing this next year, and would love to chat through the kit required, and the best training you would recommend.
    Thanks, James

    1. Thanks James. Dan McManus on FB, give me a shout if you've got any questions. Cheers.

  5. Saw the Free Solo film last night and was searching for the route and this blog came up. A great insight into the grades involved - so thanks for this. The film is amazing - and for him to have do ALL this in 4 hours in frankly mind boggling. The footage they got of him on the Boulder problem and the long corner (and frankly all of it) is jaw dropping.

    1. Hey Andy, yeah it’s a great film. I think it’d be a lot harder to solo than the grades imply, because the rock is SO slippy. Say the boulder problem is only v8, but you’re on thumb sprags and the feet are like glass..

  6. Hello Dan,

    thanks for this awesome blog post. I have no idea if I will have the chance to climb in Yosemite one day (I live in France and have already few lifetimes of climbing available here!) But your post made me travel in your adventure and this amazing route. Really interesting to read your insights and experience :)

    Could be wrong but I believe there's a small typo in the grade of The monster pitch. The post mentions E6 4c, isn't it E6 6c?

    Again thanks for writing this and sharing!

    All the best and wish you great climbs,

    1. Hey Paul,
      Hope you can check it out someday, but you’re right France is not short of great rock climbing!
      It was actually a bit of a joke to say E6 4c, because every move is very easy but only gets you a couple of centimetres up the 50m pitch. My first time up there after 30m of these easy moves I felt like I might pass out. All in all it feels about E6 in British trad grading. I don’t really know what technical grade it would get, maybe E6 4c is going a bit too far...


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