It was 8:30 a.m. and I was totally destroyed physically and mentally. We had been climbing since 3 a.m. to beat the way-too-hot November sun and I had just finished pitch 28 of Free Rider, a 34 pitch free route up El Capitan’s southwest face. It was the last 5.12 pitch on the route, but that didn’t mean much. Up next was a steep 5.11, followed by an 11d finger crack which led into the notorious Scotty Burke off width, with another two 5.11- pitches and a gimme 5.6 to the top. Graded 10d, the Scotty Burke might be the biggest sandbag I have ever experienced. It took me four tries to figure out how to climb it on toprope, and when I got it, I was really fresh and rested. When I got to it on this day, it would be on my fourth day of climbing in a row, after sleeping on the wall for three nights. ‘Sleeping’ would be an overstatement. It was more like a few hours of napping over four days. Everything was taking its toll, and it all caught up right now.
Right now I was sitting on the Round Table Ledge, after completing a wild 5.12 traverse on the lip of the Salathe Headwall. To give you an idea of this position, imagine yourself doing a hand traverse on top of the empire state building… which is sitting on top of another empire state building. Ya, it’s that exposed. I was sleep deprived, bonking and exhausted. I screamed, battled and hung on with every last bit of juice I could muster up, as I had climbed every pitch without falling to this point, and I didn’t want to start failing now. Somehow I made it to the ledge, but that was pretty much the end of me. I managed to set up the belay, haul over our day pack, and get Jasmin to start following. She was sending the route to here as well, and I wasn’t about to give up on her yet.
What she found when she got to the belay was a shattered remnant of her husband and climbing partner. When you climb with your wife, there is no buffer or toughness on the surface that you might have with your friends, and before I knew it, I was crying. Granted, I cry more than most guys, I am a bit of a sensitive softie, but I had just sent the pitch, I was sending to here, yet I felt like I was about to fail. Years of dreaming about climbing this route, weeks of training and prep to get to this point in time and space, and I was crying, ready to throw in the towel. But that is what makes climbing so special; it’s a partner/team sport. When you can’t make it happen, sometimes your partner steps up. Jas took the reigns and shoved food and water down my throat, lots of food and water. A half hour later, while belaying her on an ‘easy’ 5.11 pitch, I started to come back to life. Calories, caffeine and H2O were going to my failing muscles, slowly rejuvenating them.
All I had to do was make it through the next two pitches, and the last three I could do no matter what. With no excess of power and strength, it all came down to technique and mental fortitude. That is what you should be doing anyway, but I guess there are lots of times when I climb ‘dumb’; pulling myself through moves and not climbing through them intelligently and efficiently. Well, there was no choice now.
Chimneying, jamming and finding stances, I somehow rested my way up the 150’ of crack climbing to get to the steep and exposed belay for the Scotty Burke OW. I grabbed the handful of cams I thought I would use, leaving behind all excess weight. I climbed smart and fast through the steep 11d crack to the no hands rest before the 10d off width. I took a long break and slowed things down. I tried to remember all the techniques I had learned climbing the world-feared/renowned Monster almost 1500’ below me. (The Monster is a 160’ 5.11 offwidth that repels/scares away a lot of climbers. I had onsighted it on the first day up the wall, after not really sleeping in anticipation of how hard it might be. Technique came through and somehow I waltzed it!). On top rope I had lay backed the hardest part of the Scotty Burke, but that was not going to happen today. I entered full grovel mode and dug in to the trench for 100 feet of full on warfare. Inch by inch I locked my heel-toe cams in, arm barred and crimped. No one could see me as you are around a roof, but everyone could hear me screaming away in the biggest battle of my climbing career. 100 feet to go to send El Cap… and on this day, technique and mental fortitude prevailed. I had never dug so deep in my life.
Getting up to the anchor with no more gear and slings, and sitting on the ledge in the sun, a wave of relaxation and contentment took over. Wow. Jasmin cruised the pitch behind me, and it was all but in the bag for both of us. Four years ago we had tried to do the route and failed. We had spent two weeks before launching up from the ground checking out all of the pitches on rappel and top rope and we were still not sure if we could do it. But there we were, three pitches from the top, and we were doing it. We each made it possible for each other, coming through when the other couldn’t, and now we were enjoying success together.
For 15 years I have been going to Yosemite, most of my climbing career. From my first hard multipitches (Astroman), my first multiday big wall (the nose, El Cap), my first one day big wall (the nose) to the crown jewel of my climbing dreams (Free Rider), it has been my proving grounds, and fuel for inspiration and memories, and this journey would be no different.
Just so the truth is out there: There were two pitches that both of us tried to lead and failed, the Teflon Corner and the 2nd Endurance Corner. We both tried multiple times, and could not send them on lead, but both managed to top rope them clean on our ascent. I know it’s not a perfect ascent, but I climb for myself, and I couldn’t be happier with what we managed to do with the time and energy we had at our disposal.
Free Rider, El Capitan, Grade VI, 5.12d, 34 pitches, 3,000’+. Climbed from November 1 to 6, 2012 with Jasmin Caton.