Once it gets colder in Austria, when the summer is finished in the Alps and when conditions get better and better, that’s the time the Yosemite season starts.
As in 2015, our plans and motivation drew us to the valley. We already knew, that it takes time to try a free climb on El Cap, especially if you want to go for something harder. In that case it makes no sense to draw up big plans of doing a lot of different routes in Yosemite although this is often exactly what makes climbing enjoyable and fun.
Sometimes it is good to grow from experiences to become a better climber, to learn slowly how to improve on Alpine climbs and to gain a better state of mind control, something which you can’t really train for indoors. Experiences, where you really have to go out and try, take setbacks and keep on going. This is actually what I felt like doing this autumn.
Going for some classic, old school and maybe even a bit bold routes, and not projecting a single route for a longer time.
But to be honest I soon missed the feeling of getting dedicated to a big route, to a climb where you don’t know at the beginning whether you will ever be able to do it. It is the big question mark at the start that makes it so exciting. When you start with big respect and don’t really know how things will turn out. Where just one move on any pitch can stop you because it is simply too hard. Where you have this feeling of being engrossed in a way. And last but not least, where you follow some personal roles/ethics which are important for you as a person and together as a team.
In a nutshell, the goal for Jacopo and me on this trip was Zodiac. We didn’t want to beat the big drum for that, we just wanted to go and quietly try without any expectations. For me personally it is always hard to make big plans or to set up big goals for a year or longer. But then again, I often get surprisingly motivated for some things. Like routes I always had in mind or places that I wanted to visit once in my lifetime. And Zodiac was totally not on this special dream list.
It was spontaneously decided, also because of the fact that it is often really crowded on the left side of the famous “Nose” and we were more than lucky the year before on El Nino, having the route to ourselves and a really good time up there. Maybe that’s not exactly what we found on Zodiac, but the approach was similar. Only the chosen route being a much bigger objective. Both of us were excited about the idea, but for sure Jacopo was much more optimistic.
Accordingly, I already got the first hammering on the second pitch. For Jacopo it was just about checking it out once and then it was easy going. I searched for a solution for hours. I couldn’t stand on the big foothold for the reachy move and this foothold was even too far away to try to jump. I looked like a cat going for the Salami and after some miserable looking jumps, not making any inches, I started to search for little edges and razors all around to find a possible link for this – in my opinion – “hard boulder sequence.” This was how it started, quite frustrating when you already lose on the second pitch and you haven’t even seen what awaits you when the real business starts.
We fixed a rope at the last belay to jumar up the following day to start the next pitches from there. As soon as we reached the white circle it became clear that it would be really really difficult or perhaps a kamikaze mission to free climb the next pitches.
The route is originally an aid route or rather one of the most famous aid routes right after the Nose. So likely, you will find the route with lots of protection in place or the opposite – nearly bare. This is what it really distinguishes an aid route from a free climbing route. On some pitches, especially on the crux pitches the cracks are almost closed so you can’t place mobile gear. In view of that we aided up the 3 crux pitches of the white circle before we started to work on them.
Although the “real business” on Zodiac did not sound that bad according to the guidebook, we felt it to be really tough for the grades, especially on the crux pitches. All the dihedral climbing and blank granite faces which can often be really slippery make it hard and difficult to climb on El Cap. Sometimes you just need a bit of luck, or a lot of body tension to stay on the wall and not slip off. This was especially true on Zodiac. You can’t do the moves just by using pure force, it is more about body movement.
To shortly describe the pitches on the white circle: The climbing is complex. The” Open Book” and the “Nipple” pitch were the two hardest pitches of Zodiac and it was really hard for both of us to find solutions for them. The movements and the footholds were hard to keep in mind because there are nearly no real footholds. It took us a while to figure out how to link up the hard sequences. So in total we slept more often on the wall, than in Camp 4 to get us ready for a ground up push.
It was like: 2 single day trips, then, after 3 days in the wall 1 rest day, 5 days in the wall, 1 rest day, 3 again, 2 rest days , ground-up push 5 days.
Most of the time and also on our ground-up push we climbed the hard pitches during the night or in the early morning to avoid the heat. That meant we had lots of time left during the day to hang out on our portaledge, to enjoy the great view and to rest, doing really nothing except sleeping, eating and letting the aid climbers pass without being in their way too much. We are not really the early morning climbers, but after so much resting it felt easy to get ready at 5 am in the morning.
Slowly the big puzzle started to come together. It was still hard to imagine for me to climb the whole thing in a single push but at least we could link the key sequences. I was happy to climb successfully through the “Open Book” and Jacopo did the same on the “Nipple” on our third day on these pitches. We were full of enthusiasm and stoked to get closer to our goal. Soon we felt really driven by Zodiac. For two weeks it was definitely the thing that was always present and dominating in our minds.
I was nervous about the “Open Book” and “Nipple” pitches!
How will they go? How many days will it take us? How hard would it be to come back a year after and still remembering the strange moves and investing all the work again….? But at the same time I couldn’t wait to start the big days on the wall.
We both really wanted to do it in a good style and lead every hard pitch, as we normally try to do on hard routes. So we decided, that both of us would lead all the 12+ pitches up to 15.13d.
We stored some water and food on the wall which we carried up the days before to be fast on our first day. We had 10 days left before our flight back home. The plan was to take enough food and water to stay on the wall for some extra days if needed, just in case.
An early morning 4 a.m. start took us to the wall. Leading up to the white circle and climbing the first hard pitch of the circle was the plan for the day. Luckily everything went smooth, exactly as planned.
We had a long rest until the next day’s evening before the serious part started. Jacopo led the “Flying Buttress” without any shaking, he made it look really easy. For me the start was quite the same but close to the belay I started to struggle. I couldn’t see the right foothold with my headtorch and didn’t really remember how the end went. I started to improvise and was lucky enough to reach the anchor with a really close call to failure.
The “Open Book” was the next pitch and we both worried because the chances of getting through it quickly are at a really low percentage. (except if you are a dihedral sensei like Tommy Caldwell). Jacopo decided to warm up again on this pitch to get back the feeling for the weird corner moves.
I really wanted to get it over with and fell 2 times directly on the crux ….and one more time! Again! I already had the good crimp in my hand, but it was the wrong hand. Stood as high as possible to save me from a fall, I directly fell off. I got pumped and messed up! I couldn’t believe that it was possible to fall there. The pressure started to increase. I fell again! Four tries in a row with just a 5 min break in between … for us it made more sense to not rest too long because it is really a feeling thing and you don’t get tired because the crux is not far from the start. Maybe because of that it was hard to come down, relax and get the focus again. So finally I took a long rest!
Jacopo started his first serious try right after….and fell off at the crux! On his second try he had a really hard fight….it was the first time it was exciting to watch him climb that day. He was a bit shaky, nervous and had a good fight to get the pitch done. I was super happy for him! How cool it was to see him sending this pitch! But at the same time I knew it was my turn again.
I couldn’t believe it when I clipped the next belay right after Jacopo. It was a perfect end of the second day and at the same time really surprising how well everything went. Maybe this was really the key moment of the whole thing even when it was still far away!
After that it went really smooth and both of us sent the crux pitch, the “Nipple”, on our first attempt after warming up. Jacopo in the evening of the third day, I did it early next morning. So on our fourth day we climbed 7 pitches up to the start of the offwidth pitch, just 3 pitches below the top. We were destroyed but just grateful and more than satisfied. We spent the last night on the wall in bright moonlight. We made a delicious 5 star menu because we still had food left for more than 5 days. It had never been such a pleasure on the portaledge before. And even better was topping out the day after. Just the last mantle, where you directly mantle up to stand on the summit!
1. Pitch: 5.10d
2. Pitch: 5.13a
3. Pitch: 5.9
4. Pitch: 5.10d
5. Pitch: 5.12a
6. Pitch: 5.11b
7. Pitch: 5.11c
8. and 9. Pitch: 5.7 and 5,13b connected these two
10. Pitch: 5.13a
11. Pitch: 5.13d
12. Pitch: 5.13d
13. Pitch: 5.12b
14 Pitch: 5.12d (according to Alex Honnold’s broken hold, supposed upgrade 5.13c)
15. Pitch: 5.13c
16. Pitch: 5.12a
17.-18. pitch: 5.12a and 5.10b connected these two
19. pitch: 5.10d
20. Pitch: 5.12a
21. Pitch: 5.10b.
We mostly used the fixed gear only which wasn’t always very good. For example, on the “Open Book” pitch we used the fixed copperheads. For the “Nipple” pitch and the “Flying Buttress” pitch we added a few beaks (where it was not possible to place any mobile gear because we found them almost clean).