A free freerider
by We didn't write this
The alarm went off at 3:30 am on Saturday.
The previous weekend, I had stashed a haul bag with 2 gallons of water, a bunch of food, and sleeping gear for 2 in the Alcove, a bivy 18 pitches up the route. The plan was simple. Climb to the bivy on the first day, sleep, and climb to the top the second day. This way, we could climb the route over 2 days without having to do any hauling.
The gumbies were out in full force. What big wall gumbies lack in skill, they defintly make up for in large cams and pure determination.
At the base of Freerider, a four day aid party had already began toiling on the first pitch. After convincing them to let us simul past, mike got within 20 feet of the leader, who promptly popped a piece and almost killed mike by falling on his head. Thankfully, they weren’t murderers today.
The first 10 pitches of Freerider are called the “Freeblast” and are technically a route in their own. These pitches are rated 5.11 at hardest and have some of the most heinous moves on the route, with blank featureless slabs that require ridiculous shenanigans. We managed to both send in 3.5 hours, with Mike taking one fall, probably caused by a loss of balance due to a swing of his chalkbag or something.
My first epic of the day happened on pitch 13, a 70 foot long 5.12 traverse. This was the one part of the route I had never tried before. On the last move of the traverse, I tried several times to do a long span to the jug, but couldn’t. I climbed back and forth, commited, and fell. The thought of failure was devastating, especially considering this was only the first day. What would it be like to sit in the alcove all night knowing I had already blew my send?
I swung back to the belay, untied, and let Mike lead the pitch. He sent, and it was my turn to try again. I knew I only had one more try. Failing on a pitch several times on a big wall is bad news. The cliff is already 3000 feet tall, and resources are scarce. If you start having to climb sections of the route 2 or 3 times, you are on a sure path to failure.
I got to the last move again and found myself with my left foot way out left, my hands crossed, my right foot on a terrible smear. I am not quite sure what happened in the next half second, but I was slipping, I was falling for a second, and then I was holding on to the jug. Just your typical ninja-kick-crosss-smear-sideways-dyno. Valley 101. Miracurously, the send was still going.
We quickly simuled to the monster
and were forced to bake in the hot sun 100 feet under our stash, our food and our water as a few of Europe’s finest big wall Amatuers with Freerider dreams tried their luck at the monster. Apparently, trying your luck is a lengthy time affair.
We celebrated a successful day with bland tuna, pasta, and a limited supply of water in the alcove. The alcove is a pretty plush bivy 18 pitches up the route. It a pretty big ledge enclosed on 3 sides by walls and almost (but not really) comfy enough to be unroped on.
Chilling in the alcove it was clear that we had our work cut out for the next day. What remained was 1200 feet of the steepest, hardest climbing on the route. To make matters worse, the Freerider was especially a shitshow this weekend. There were 4 parties above us, all going for 3-5 day climbs. They moved slow, dragged heavy loads, and were generally in the way. On a free ascent, being stuck behind a party like this can be disastorous. To put things into perspective, at this time of the year, the Freerider gets morning light at 6:30 am, and the crux corners at the top are in full sun by 11:30am. This meant we had only a window of 5 hours to climb all the top cruxes of Freerider. Losing an hour waiting for someone to finish a pitch is unacceptable.
To ensure success, we set our alarms for 4am, hoping to pass everyone before they were awake.
After a night of suprisingly good sleep, the alarm went off and it was time to finish buisness. Some people start their Sunday with brunch. I started mine 2 hours before sunrise, in a dark hole half way up the biggest granite monolith in America, pooping into a plastic bag while wearing tape gloves. I wouln’t have it any other way.
The first lead block was mine, 200 feet of awkward, 5,11 laybacking and chimneys.
I set off on with a rocky start. We left our only big cam, a #6, in the alcove which meant runouts of 20 to 30 feet were unavoidable on this lead. I soon found myself pumping out, completely in the dark, above a cam somewhere in the dark depths below. There was nothing to do but to go up, and up I went with Mike sumlclimbing below. Luckily, I managed not to fall and at 6:30 am exactly, we turned our headlamps off under the bolder problem, a short, bolted 13a that is the definitive crux of Freerider.
This pitch is basically 7 or 8 balancey moves to reach a big sloper, of which you must do a huge sideways dyno to reach the jug. I went for it first, passed the face moves noting the sharp pain in my fingertips, but could not execute on the dyno, too tired from all the climbing below. Mike went next, and also fell.
Once again, doubt set in. We could not waste time here, or else be doomed to hit the crux corners in the sun. I tied in again and went. The face moves were sent again, and I matched the sloper, this time feeling fresh. I focused, I wound up, and I put every fucking ounce of energy, determination and will in my body to lunge my body sideways. I stuck it, letting out a scream Adam ondra would be proud of. Mike stuck it also. GAME ON!
We cruised the next 2 5.10 pitches to the base of the crux corners. This was the moment of truth. The corners are 5.11+ and 5.12b if you are weaksauce and break them into 2 pitches. At this point, you are really up there, 2800 feet or so off the deck. The exposure is crazy, but you don’t notice. I volunteered to lead these cruxes, in return for Mike promising to lead the final offwidth at the top.
I set of strong on the first corner, a flaring hand to finger crack which was partially wet. Mike followed without falls. I rested for a minute and racked for the second, harder corner. This pitch has many, many fixed, manky nuts stuck inside it. Many chose to back these nuts up with their own pieces given the difficulty and high position of this pitch. I knew I had no energy to do so, and set off with basically only quickdraws on my harness. I laybacked, tried hard, and just barely, barley pulled it off. Mike cruised with ease. The next pitch, a 5.12 traverse felt easy and suddenly, we were 3 pitches from the top of Freerider, both still sending with all the cruxes below us.
Here, we encountered the last party above us, 2 hardworking chaps from Finland. “How many days have you been on the wall?” I asked. “Four…or 5… fuck, I don’t know” one replied.
We waited for one of them to finish a pitch and then climbed past them to the base of the final crux of freerider, a steep 5.10 offwidth.
The Fins seemed a bit intimidated by this final offwidth, and it did not help that Mike sailed off on his first attempt, taking a 20 foot fall, his water bottle ripping off his harness during and plunging for many, many, many seconds to the ground 3/4 of a mile below. Fortunatley, Mike got it together and sent the pitch. I followed clean and all that remained was the last 5.10 pitch of the Salathe. Soon, we were on top, exhausted and still trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we just somehow accomplished the ultimate, a free ascent of El Capitan.
Id like to thank Tara and Walker for helping me work the pitches and rappel the haul bag into the bivy, Mike for leading both the offwidths, and Maxim Ropes for giving us a fresh, new chord to execute our dream climb with. I think ill go sport climbing now….