Wide Boyz Blog

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Beards, Bagels and Big Walls

One of the odd things about big wall climbing is that standards seem to lag behind other parts of climbing - whilst P Robz is out there cranking out V14s on the boulders and Ondra on the 9b’s, the big wall free climbers are still getting stuck into 8a - 8b at the cutting edge. Tommy Caldwell and K Jorg being the exception of course…. It would seem that standards should be broadly in line across all styles, but even in the access friendly mecca of Yosemite, this does’t seem to be the case.

Likewise the onsight / flash standards have lagged on the big walls. The biggest surprise to many might be that El Capitan has still never had a pure onsight of any of it’s free routes, despite the grades rarely going over 8b on the hardest pitches. So why is this? Is it the cumulative effect of tiredness? The diversity of climbing styles? The skin condition issues of 5 days of continuous climbing?

Well, this week Pete and I set off to find out the truth. Could it really be that hard to climb 32 pitches of granite first go, on the mega classic line of Freerider? 

The Route

Freerider was first established by the Huber brothers in 1998 and essentially forms an “easy version” of Salathe on the left side of El Capitan. It’s characterised by a lower slab half which follows blank sections that join up major crack systems that are often quite wide - including the infamous hollow flake. Nothing in the bottom half of the route goes beyond tricky E4, although it’s well know for being hard to onsight every single pitch even for the easy part. Above the midway point the wall steepens up and heads towards the overhanging Salathe headwall via offwidths, corners and more hard face climbing up to E6 (or 7c). Pete and I planned to attempt the route from the ground over 3 days, having saved every pitch as unseen, but we’d begged every friend we knew to give us good beta for the route! Despite our previous mistakes on El Corazon, we adopted many of the same tactics in the vain hope that somehow second time round we might not have as many hiccups! 

Better preparation = better climbing?
Day 1
At 4 in the morning we set up the first section of the route, a ten pitch climb known as Freeblast and popular just to do by itself.

The first hurdle of this section comes at around pitch 5 where the cracks thin out and you reach some delicate face climbing. I think we were both quite nervous not to blow the onsight attempt this early on, and we both hesitated a little at the crux until finally gibbering our way across the mini traverse and rocking out onto better holds.

The next crux came not from the climbing, but from a bowel problem from Randall. We decided to link some pitches up and go Irish mega pitch style, halfway through the 80m pitch Tom had serious issues trying to get into the half dollar corner whilst not pooping himself. After an emergency restroom stop things eased in the climbing (and down below) and we found ourselves having done the Freeblast, the long down climb and on heart ledges before lunch time. What a great start.

A couple of parties had snuck ahead of us up the fixed lines and it seemed one party was having trouble with the notorious hollow flake. Two hours later we still hadn’t moved from Heart Ledges and realised we weren’t going to make it to our bivvy spot in the Alcove before dark. If we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of on sighting the route, we rationalised that climbing in the dark wouldn’t be that good, because although Freerider follows big ledge systems, anyone who knows me and Tom will know we are notorious at getting lost. We decided to descend from Heart Ledges and come back extra early the following morning to get ahead of the crowds and stick to our schedule.

Day 1 Again

It seems to have become a habit not quite getting off on the right foot on these routes, but nevertheless we started “Day 1 Version 2” from where we left off at Heart Ledges. The first hurdle on this part of the route comes at the Hollow Flake where you always hear rumours of huge run outs, death potential and hideous offwidths. What they don’t tell you about though, is the horrendous 30m down climb of a 5.11d that you have to do….. down climbing….. we didn’t sign up for this! Both Pete and I suffered a bit on this pitch. We’re not the biggest fans of layback down climbing. 

A few pitches above I had to tackle what was to become one of the hardest pitches on the route. The 5.7 chimney. Yes 5.7 is the UK equivalent to VS. To cut a long and painful story short, I made a total hash of this pitch and ended up stuck in the back of a squeeze chimney swearing my head off and thrashing a good part of my knee skin off for 45mins, whilst everyone on the ledge below laughed at me! It was a really good grounding experience and reminded me that despite all the crack climbing that I’ve done, I can still be brought to my knees by an innocuous pitch. 

The last pitch of the day to land us at our night spot was in stark contrast to a 5.7 chimney: the Monster Offwidth! More body grinding, big cams and suffering. Fortunately, this huge wide crack has a big reputation which kind of prepares you for the misery above. It was actually very interesting for Pete and I to do this pitch as we’ve done a lot of offwidths over the years and we were keen to know how the apparent “5.11a grade” would fit in with the world offwidths. Suffice to say we topped out the pitch impressed with its difficulty and thought that compared to many others around the globe it was a good solid E6 pitch. A good friend of ours, Andy Reeve (see pic below) had wrestled the monster a week before and made a herculean effort to try and remove his own arm. Anyone who climbs this pitch without a long wide crack apprenticeship gets serious respect from me. It’s very beefy. 

Reeve still smiling despite having been through major surgery on The Monster. 

Day 2 
We had planned to only climb 6 pitches on this day as 4 pitches above us was where the crux of the route was.

At this point the route has two variations, which is either ‘The Teflon Corner’ at 7c, or ‘The Huber Variation’ at 7c+. As we’d been given beta for The Huber Variation we decided to go for this one. I narrowly missed flashing the problem falling from the last move after not spotting a crucial hold. I was really annoyed as I felt as though i could have done it. I made a quick redpoint to make sure I still had a ‘safe tick’ of the route on the cards. The holds are quite thin on this pitch and as it got warmer Tom couldn’t quite claw his way up in the increasing heat.

We decided to ab back down and have ago on the Teflon Corner. The corner is a much different proposition and instead of using finger tip skin it uses palm skin, instead of edges its smears. I really wanted to make up for my mistake on The Huber Variation and make sure I did this pitch first go. We didn’t have any beta for this pitch but I knew it was my style of climbing, so I just went for it with a really positive approach and before I knew it I’d smeared and palmed my way to the top of the pitch without falling! I couldn’t believe it, maybe a Flash ascent of El Capitan was still on! Tom put his best Flash effort, unfortunately narrowly missing out and slipping out the slippery bugger. it was starting to get late, so we decided to have a rest, bivvy it out and let Tom complete pitch early the next morning.

Day 3

Having fallen off the teflon corner more times that you’d think was feasibly possible, I went down the next morning with sore palms, but with a bit more confidence that the cooler morning temps would help on the insecure smearing. I think what marked this pitch out, wasn’t my multitude of falls, but the fact that Pete did this first go - I couldn’t believe his performance after I’d been on it for just 15 minutes. Such a good effort to not make a single mistake. Whilst the climbing isn’t strength dependent, the moves are so weird. It’s all body tension, insecurity and butt clenchingly desperate. Think The Quarryman groove, but shorter and made of granite! After an hour of effort that morning I somehow seemed to piece the climbing together and produced a couple of nice blisters on my palms.

Knowing that we had the hardest pitch of climbing behind us, I think the tension eased off for me, but for Pete I’m pretty sure it ramped up. He still had “the flash” in hand, but now there was 10+ pitches of up to E6 above that no silly mistakes could be made on. As I sat on the belay some time that morning, I really pondered Pete’s dilemma… it’s not that hard on paper, but how do you keep it together over so many different climbing styles and on back to back climbing days? 

The question to that one, has to be answered in what was the highlight of the day for me - watching Pete lead the second “Enduro Corner”, a reasonably graded 5.12b. We’d heard rumours that it was a proper sandbag and looking up at the line you could see few big holds and even fewer footholds. Essentially, it was a 15m power layback on rounded holds…. did I mention that we both hate laybacks?!  As Pete steadily made progress upwards he reached a point where I could see he’d got pretty pumped and his feet kept twitching nervously on the holds. 

Fuck. This can’t be….. there’s no way he can mess this up after everything below. Come on…. just grin and bear it….

Almost as if Pete had heard my thoughts, he got “the face” out that I rarely see. It’s the one where he looks like he’s going to chew his own chin off and his face wrinkles up in shear determination. I always love this moment (I bet Pete doesn’t!) as I know some seriously grim effort is about to be shown. With everything he had, he crimped it up, got the beefcake out and gunned it to the top of the pitch looking at a huge fall if he fell before the belay. 

YESSSS!!! Thank God for that. I can relax for 10 minutes now. Until the next pitch…..

As I lead off on the 5.12 traverse afterwards I kind of knew that he had the route in the bag now as no one had said anything too worrying about the pitches above. I mostly started to look forward to a night spent on a 2ft wide ledge trying to work out how to cook, sleep and not touch Pete’s toxic feet. 

Ledge Life

Top Out Day

After the previous day all the 5.12 and 5.11 pitches were done, so I was able to relax a little. However after climbing in Yosemite for a month now I’ve come to realise not to take any grade that seriously. I seem to have done 5.8s which have been harder then some 5.11c’s. I knew just to be relaxed and that the last few 5.10 pitches would be in my capability.

A few hours later both Tom and i had topped out. Tom had managed to free his second big wall on El Cap and somehow I’d managed to climb the whole of Freerider without taking a fall. Firstly I actually couldn’t believe we’d both managed to free another wall in such a short period of time and secondly I couldn’t believe I’d got up this thing in a push first try.

We had had it as a goal to try and flash Freerider before coming out to the States as we knew it may not have been done before. We saved the whole route so we were able to do this, which is why we did the Pre Muir - Corazon link at the start of the trip. Another great big walling experience, maybe not quite so much a Randall/Whittker shambles this time…..hmmmmm i’m not so sure, there were definitely some moments. massive thanks to Randall for climbing it with me.

Big Wall Flasher!
Big Wall Flashing

Pete’s effort on Freerider has to be one of my favourite climbing experiences because I got to see the culmination of 15 yrs of effort in learning a craft come to fruition. Everything he’s learnt on the gritstone edges, slate slabs, on offwidths with me and in cracks all over the world came to together in one 3000ft face. It’s not often you get to be there in the action observing a little bit of history and also not that often that when you’ve done it, you bump into Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen at the top to talk to them about it! 

Kevin wearing the beard "California Style"

For me the best flash efforts on a number of different routes (as far as I know) have to be:

Cedric Lachat’s Freerider attempt (very similar style to Pete)
Ueli Steck on Golden Gate (1 fall)
Leo and Patch on El Nino (2 or 3 falls?)
Yuji on Salathe (4 falls)

For anyone who’s wondering if big wall free climbing is possible for them, then I encourage you to give it a little try - you might just surprise yourself. We now have a generation of Brits from short 20m crags who are making amazing efforts and people like Dan McManus, James McHaffie, Hazel Findlay, Calum Muskett and Andy Reeve are a constant inspiration in rewards of hard work and determination. 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Pre Muir-El Corazon: The Heart of El Capitan

When we first thought of coming out on a trip to Yosemite to climb big walls, it seemed pretty simple. You get good at climbing (well, we can do the crack parts quite well…), book some plane tickets, fill a haul bag with food and water and then plod your way to the top in style. That’s what we thought anyway…

By day 2, we realised that neither of us really knew what was going on. Our rope ascending system was stolen from indoor route setting (it didn’t work) our pendulums were cribbed from Hans Florine’s videos (we misunderstood the concept) and it’s a flaming nightmare to manage three ropes at a belay station. Despite these obvious issues we decided to pitch in with our first big wall free effort on not necessarily the easiest pathway - failure is a little more respected if you sucked at doing something hard right…??! 

Beards always make everything better. No gnomes were hurt in this process.

With some slightly flawed logic we decided in the first week of our trip to Yosemite to try a link up of Pre-Muir into El Corazon (mainly as we wanted Freerider to remain unclimbed by either of us). The two routes actually go quite well together as they follow a vertical line, the difficulty is sustained throughout (5.13 pitches starting at pitch 6 and the last 5.13 being at pitch 29) and both routes we had some beta for. After preparing parts of the route from the bottom and also from the top, we climbed Pre Muir in a oner and came down fixed ropes for a rest and more preparation. 

When we finally set off, we’d tried to give ourselves as much advantage as possible, with only the middle chunk of the route from pitch 18 to 27 unseen. We rationalised that these contained just 1 x 5.13 & 4 x 5.12. What could go wrong?!


Ok well day 1 wasn’t actually day one. We realised we’d left our lead rope, rack, hauling device and haul line at the top of our fixed ropes. Oh crap. What an idiotic start. How did we manage to do that? Pete had to jumar up and sort everything out. 

“Real Day 1”

Our first pitches of climbing after the fixed ropes to the top of Pre Muir went relatively well. Pete climbed his 5.10 with style, I fell off my 5.11 pitch and we then preceded to get the haul bags stuck on nearly every pitch. But…. we made upward progress….. Which dumped us finally at the last bit of climbing on day 1 - The Beak Flake 5.13b. In 30 deg C temps Pete somehow clawed his way up the thin flake and still didn’t fall off the redpoint crux when a hold started to break. I shouted encouragement in a hoarse voice flinching at the thought of now having to second. Unfortunately I seemed to suffer some high gravity effects in the following hour and resigned myself to try to follow the pitch the next morning when it didn’t feel like crimping the inside edges of a warm Sunday roast tray. 

Pete cruising the world's easiest 5.13a

The next morning when temperatures were slightly lower then the previous evening, Tom set off on his ascent of Beak Flake. He managed to overcome the powerful bouldery start and cruised through the mid crux which he’d previously slipped on the evening before, a great start to the day and we’d both managed to free the first crux of the route, we’d overcome the first hurdle (of what was to become many). After some steady lay backing the route turns into a three pitch traverse. I was confident with the climbing on these pitches as they seemed to be British sea cliff style, a bit bold, loose and scary. What I wasn’t so confident with was that fact we somehow had to get our haul bags horizontally three pitches to the left. A week previous  we’d read a chapter in a big walling book about lower outs and asked some crazy locals the best techniques to go about it…Two pitches later, it was dark.

Pete in trouble. Again.


This day started a little bit like it ended: with some struggling, sweating and a lot of jibbering. The first pitch of the morning was “Bobby’s Bunny Slope” and I was truly happy that Pete had taken the hit and said he’d lead the pitch (I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it) as it had the reputation of being hard and bold. Possibly a bit disappointingly for me, most of the action on this pitch came when Pete was round the corner out of sight and within a few moves of the belay: I knew he was on hard ground.

“Watch me Tom…. oh God. Watch me”

I braced both hands on the rope, with my armpits pouring sweat.

“Ok….. nearly off. It’s nearly over…. I’m not sure…..”

With plenty of stylish grunting and cut loose moves on the slab (how do you do that again, Pete??!) he kind of fell through the crux and put the biggest and hardest pitch of the day to bed. Thank goodness. And thank goodness that my seconding was afforded a nice side rope / top rope for most of the moves as I crept over the small smears and ripples. 

We had now landed at the base of a massive corner system that lead up to the big 5.13 roof pitch above. We felt so relaxed knowing it was just some 5.10-5.12 corner climbing to round off the day. Rather amusingly, the first pitch after the bold hard one was a 5.10 offwidth and one that I quickly realised we had no wide gear for (left in the tent) and was a pitch full of massive loose flakes. Fridge to car sized flakes. I huffed and puffed my way round the pitch moaning about everything under the sun until eventually I found one semi-solid piece of protection. As I moved away from it though, I nudged a huge flake with my knee and it started to peel away from the wall.

Noooooo…. not now….. It stopped. It paused for a second as smaller rocks tumbled into place behind it. I glanced down at the parties 1000ft below us on ledges unaware of the danger above and at Pete on the belay below. At this point I pretty much lost all my remaining cool and climbed back to the belay to dejectedly hand the end of the rope to Pete. I’d broken mentally and I knew it. All rested now on Pete’s shoulders. Over the next hour, that boy basically rescued our attempt on the route - it was possibly doomed at that point - and equalised dodgy gear, did super-bold moves and shook his head a lot in annoyance at having to risk so much for a stupid 5.10. What a day! And somewhat of a relief to be unhurt or to have not hurt anyone else.  

we’d reached the real crux of the route now. With sore skin, inefficient hauling and tired muscles we knew this was where the route was going to really kick in. 4 consecutive 5.13 pitches are what lay ahead, all with different styles and techniques. As we were behind schedule we woke up early, totted up the water and food situation and came to the conclusion two of the four 5.13s needed to be freed today. Coffee Corner is the first. Some flared jamming followed by some bridging weirdness  is what the pitch entails. Somehow I managed to squirm, bridge, jam and twist my way up the thing on my first go, making a great start to the day. an hour later Tom had followed and we were onto the crux pitch of the route…The Roof Traverse.
We had spent an hour each working this pitch a few days prior to our attempt on El Corazon, so we had a vague sequence and idea what it was all about. In reality I think it suits mine and Tom’s climbing style quite well in that you get to use a foot in the roof like a hand. Kind of in a similar way to offwidthing. However, instead of using bomber stacks or jams, you have some horrendous slopers to grapple with.

Tom’s ascent of this pitch was very inspiring, I could see how sore his skin was looking and he seemed to be looking quite tired and murmured a number of times how he thought he wouldn’t be able to do this pitch today. I had confidence in him and after the incidents we’d overcome lower on the route, told him it wasn’t an option to be climbing out empty handed.
After fighting through the crux you arrive at a resting point right at the end of the traverse. The next section is easier but also easy to mess up. It seemed like Tom had over gripped a little at the start of this section and when the foot holds got bad and the hand holds got sweaty (as he entered the 25 degree sun) I could see his body sagging backwards and his biceps uncurling. I really thought he might be off and if that was the case the next few days of supplies could have been interesting, it really seemed like this was his one chance. However with grit, determination (and power screaming) that I have seen so much of over the years from Tom, he sucked it back in and managed not to fall (from the massive juggy undercut he was holding… ;) ) I was so pleased we’d both managed it, it made a great end to a tiring day. Now, we knew the route must be on.

Comfy nights and warm snuggling. 69 of course. 


Last days on big walls I always think are the best. You know the vertical desert is reaching its borders, you only have a limited time left and you get some of the very best featured rock on El Capitan. 

One of these features has to be the Razorblade Flake. It’s a 250ft pancake thin flake that slices through the headwall above the heart. Every hold is a jug, but almost every foothold is a smear. You layback to glory for what seems like miles and miles on a really thin piece of rock, but the risk is put to the back of your mind as the climbing and the position are sensational. For once, even I forgot about the exposure and the heights, it was just so much fun. 

By 6pm, we’d both pulled over the lip of El Cap feeling like we’d been on the wall for 2 weeks. So much had happened and we had had a month’s worth of climbing experiences all shoved into 3000ft of rock. Best of all though, I’d got to climb the route with another person who’d never freed El Cap and we shared the joint satisfaction of having realised a long held dream. 

Big Wall Beards. McBlackeye on the left, Neptune's Tool on the right. 

Big Wall Disaster Merchants: Does it work?

That is the question… and in a word, Yes.

Both Tom and I went up having never done any big wall free climbing. Me never having done more then 10 or so pitches in a day and having hauled once for 20ft on a gritstone edge back in Sheffield.You have to start somewhere though. 
It seemed to be on this multiday big wall that it wasn’t necessarily the climbing that was the hardest part, it was a cumulation of everything stacked on top of one another that made it difficult. whether that be, hauling, sorting out rope tangles, setting up portaledges, climbing hard pitches, being run out and scared, freeing haul bags, jumaring, etc etc, it all adds up and that’s the hard part. Can anybody do it? of course they can! mine and Tom’s local crags aren’t even the size of pitch one, but with a bit of motivation, determination and the will not to give up, even us as single pitch punters can climb (free) to the top.

And never, never again will I feel disgusted when my bum touches the rim of grim public porcelain after having a hanging poo in a bag, next to Randall, and have to carry it around with my super noodles for the next few days.

I feel privileged to have my feet back on the ground :)