Forty metres below the summit, what seemed impossible at first has finally become reality. I would have never thought that I would be able to climb all those pitches free to reach the final testpiece.
It’s day nine on the wall and we are both tired from the previous days of climbing. But our motivation is stronger than ever. The sun is shining, we are hanging out in our portaledge and the weather is on our side. Although it is much too warm to try the next hard pitch in the sunshine we keep getting perfect conditions at night. Waiting for sunset feels like an eternity and our eyes keep wandering up the last big challenge of Magic Mushroom, the 5.14 a “Seven Seas” pitch shortly before the top.
Trying to memorise all the single movements I always seem to get to a point where I doubt that it will work out for me. My excitement is bigger than ever and never before had I felt such a desire to climb a route. Thoughts about failure and having to return next year seem absurd, yet likely. Having to start it all over again, with 900 meters of climbing, 13 pitches harder than 8a and hardly any fixed pro. In view of all this, the chance to climb it now feels like a gift. Jacopo was in high spirits, he had checked everything out and found a perfect solution for the crux shortly before the belay. But I was doubtful and anxious that pitch 27 could mean the end of my struggle.
When we arrived in Yosemite on the 10th of October we weren’t sure which route we would finally end up on. Main thing it was on El Cap though, because no matter which route you choose there, it will never disappoint you. My big dream was to climb the ”Nose”, while Jacopo had cast an eye on “Magic Mushroom” which leads up a steep wall a bit further to the left. Of course I was psyched to try that as well, but when I saw the topo for the first time my heart nearly stopped! So many hard pitches and most of them in the upper part of El Capitan – that sounded more like an interesting long-term project. I quickly realised that this would be a really hard task, maybe way beyond my climbing skills, but at the same time I was keen to give it a go and to see what happens. Looking up El Cap for the first time quickly made us dump our “Nose” plans. It was naive to think that it would not be overcrowded at the best time of the year.
We spent some days around El Cap, wandering around for hours to find “The book of hate” situated in the middle of dense shrubberies. The access definitely matches the name. Slightly pissed off we finally made it to the bottom of the route and were awarded with a massive, seemingly never ending dihedral. We quickly forgot about the meaning of “never again” and came back the next day. Three or four days later I found myself trembling and shaking up the last meters of the crux with pumped legs, but still making it to the belay. “What a fantastic route” I thought to myself, more than happy. Jacopos attempts were met with less success, slipping off repeatedly just before the top. He decided to return another day to save time for “Magic Mushroom”.
After a well-deserved rest day a pleasant little stroll (compared to the last days) of 15 minutes took us to the bottom of “Magic Mushroom”. The first pitch called “Moby Dick” already blew our socks off! Perfect splitters and beautiful varied climbing up perfect Yosemite Granite. This continued, better than we could have ever imagined, until we reached the first hard pitch, No.6. We immediately knew, that we would not be able to just “climb” that pitch, not even with the occasional rest. There was one rivet missing a hanger at the crux and getting there was the first big challenge. We tried our luck in turns and finally got up, although this had little in common with climbing. We then spent hours cleaning the crack after the crux before we were able to redpoint the pitch. The same applied for the next pitches, requiring hours and days of cleaning before we considered them to be in a climbable state. We decided to put up some fixed ropes to ease access.
Our chosen style of climbing was ground up, without checking out pitches from above. This took a lot of time as there is hardly any fixed protection in the route and in the hard pitches it is often impossible to place mobile gear. We were forced to aid some pitches to place a few beaks we could use as protection for the free ascent. In view of our missing aid climbing practice this was equally adventurous and thrilling and we had to fight hard for every pitch.
After another 8 days on the wall we finally made it to the top, our first milestone, but still far away from any serious bid to free climb the whole route.
After that we invested some more days working on the crux pitches (there are plenty of them…) and spent quite a lot of time on the last hard 5.14a pitch before the top, named Seven Seas, which turned out to be the most difficult for me. Not for Jacopo though, who found his personal crux on pitch 20. I was able to climb all the sequences of the Seven Seas pitch, but hooking it all up in one go seemed impossible. My feet kept slipping off the greasy rock in overstretched positions and I could not keep up my body tension. I kept trying, found three solutions and each one felt way too hard to be climbed coming from the bottom. My optimism quickly dwindled.
In addition to that, time was running out. We had already changed our flights, but we only had two weeks left meaning one single chance would be all we would get. We both decided to lead all pitches harder than 5.12+ which would take additional time, but as we had stashed food and water on our previous tries we would be able to stay on the wall for 12 days.
On Nov 30st the alarm clock rang at 4 am and off we went, climbing the first pitches still in darkness. Our objective for the first day was to get up 10 pitches to the so called “Mammoth Terraces”, the only place in the wall where you can sleep without a portaledge. The second pitch already revealed that this would be harder than expected as many of the lower pitches were wet. It was mainly luck, that kept us from slipping off the wet holds of the first 8a pitch but then it got better and we finally arrived at the terraces exhausted. After some quick binge-eating there was silence and we fell asleep under a clear sky.
The next morning I felt, as if I had been run over by a train. It took a lot of effort to get out of the sleeping bag and to put on my climbing shoes. We grabbed 2 pairs of new climbing shoes each, all the food, six gallons of water, sleeping bags and many things more, stuffed the lot into two additional haulbags and off we went. Hauling turned into an enormous feat costing us half an hour per pitch in average. We stopped for a long pause on the “Grey Ledges”. Feeling drained and tired I could hardly imagine to lead the next pitch.
My stomach was hurting, I felt sick, but my motivation to climb on was stronger. It was a battle, but I finally made it to our portaledge on pitch 20 at midnight. I felt really ill and after two spoons of rice and a cup of tea it got worse. It seemed like an eternity until sunrise and it was quickly clear that this would be a rest day. We spent the day sleeping, playing cards, drinking tea and eating which, at the time, was more agony than pleasure. In the evening I felt better, but again I spent most of the night sleepless. The next morning was again completely differently from what I had expected.
I was still weak, but as I climbed the first meters I realised that my head felt free. No matter how this day would end, I felt relieved to be climbing at all and this feeling took away all the pressure. This was the key to success for my go on pitch 20. I could hardly believe I made it, when I reached the belay. Unfortunately it did not go that well for Jacopo, he was nervous as this was his personal crux. Luck was not on his side that day. He kept slipping off the bad footholds, always really close to sending it, until he decided to stop trying that day. We still did the following 8b pitch in the evening with Jacopo climbing the hard layback crux totally unimpressed by his previous battle.
I needed a second go. I went to sleep very pleased and a storm woke us up next morning. It was snowing, temperatures had dropped and the wind was howling in the portaledge as if it was ready for take-off. At noon, the wind calmed down and the first sunbeams made their way through the clouds. Jacopo was ready long before the rock had dried off. He bouldered through the hard sequences once more and studied the moves while I was belaying from my sleeping bag. When he came back he was full of confidence, he had a good feeling and hardly managed to sit still while I was sanding the loose rubber off his climbing shoes. The next attempt ran like clockwork and a few minutes later I heard him scream for joy from the belay. The second big hurdle was behind us.
The next day the first 5.14a pitch waited for us. I felt recovered and fresh and my stomach disorder was also snow of days gone by. Everything went smoothly and on day 8 we arrived at pitch 26 without falling. After a challenging night, in which we moved our portaledge to the last bivy, we were looking forward to a long awaited rest. This time, unlike to our earlier undertakings, we had plenty of food and drink on day nine, also because of my forced diet earlier.
Day nine saw us fully engaged with the next pitch. We had been waiting for it in joyful anticipation, finally, a really easy pitch to savour, and found it in soaking wet condition. It kept us busy for hours. We brushed silly amounts of chalk onto dripping wet holds and removed big soggy patches of moss, not a typical rest day! The next morning it was still completely wet. We fought our way up the dihedral jamming wet hands and feet, slipping off the moist footholds, relieved to know it behind us. After that, the atmosphere changed to “slightly tense” as we approached my personal nightmare, the “Seven Seas” pitch. When we arrived it was still too hot to try this overhanging endurance monster, so we waited for the evening. Unusual for December, conditions became perfect at night. My first try immediately confirmed my concerns, I still was not able to maintain my body tension and kept slipping off. I kept trying and trying, hoping that it would start to feel easier at some point, but it didn’t.
Jacopo saved the evening and fought his way to the belay totally pumped. I felt very happy for him, but at the same time disappointed about my failure. It was hard to accept and giving in was not yet an option. Half an hour later, the same story, again. Like waking up to reality from a dream I could not manage to hold back my emotions and went off cursing and swearing for at least ten minutes before I regained my composure. I knew I was too tired for another attempt, but my head would not let me give in without looking for yet another possibility. And it was my head indeed, that finally became the key to climbing the crux! Pressing it against the left protruding side of the crack, under my elbow, enabled me to statically put my foot on the crucial smeary foothold.
After another rest day I managed to climb the “Seven seas” and our cries of joy echoed from El Capitan in the first light of the morning.
End of the line….and a big dream came true.
big thanks to:
..our friend Francois Lebeau for all the great pictures!!!
…to Louderthan11 for hanging out with us and making a film about our journey!
…to Blackdiamond for the best support we can wish for.
…to La Sportiva for our weapon on the climb–the “SKWAMA’s”
and to “Sterling rope” for all the ropes!!