First Free Ascent of the Nose in a Day
AFTER having succeeded in
making the first free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan, many people asked me why I wanted to free climb it again in a day. Certainly the spectacular nature of the historic route, in addition to my own origins of climbing in Yosemite, made this ascent a particularly meaningful milestone in my life. But to free climb the nose in one day, as opposed to the four days it took the previous summer (see AAJ, 1994, pages 41 to 50), would offer a completely new challenge unlike anything I had ever done before. It not only represented a kind of “marathon linkage” of this monumental route but provided a new focus and evolution in my life.
The preparation for this ascent inspired a whole new sense of consciousness in my climbing. Throughout the several months of preparation, I made an effort to remain patient and relaxed no matter what the situation presented. I practiced maintaining an attitude of acceptance; of adapting myself in harmony with the features of the rock and developing an increasing sensitivity to the natural intelligence of my body. I wanted to go the furthest with the least amount of energy expended. When I made this shift, my whole approach changed.
Though I knew this ascent would require a monumental effort, I underestimated just how involved it would be. In addition to the eminent challenges of the climb itself, I took on the responsibility of organizing and co-producing a documentary film about the ascent. I had no idea how much effort would be required to deal with the numerous technical, interpersonal and logistical issues of the project.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that my first attempt was unsuccessful. It became painfully evident when Steve Sutton and I arrived under the Great Roof at 12:30 P.M. on September 6 that I’d made a few crucial errors. After 22 pitches of climbing, I had completely run out of chalk, was nearly out of water and the intense heat of the midday sun had all but drained my energy. Feeling tired and stressed from the whole affair, my hopes and dreams of free climbing the Nose in a day faded rapidly as I spent the next 5½ hours trying to free climb past the Great Roof. After my fifth attempt, I had spent nearly every bit of strength I had left. After six P.M., with only one climbing rope and my body trembling with fatigue, Steve and I were obliged to abandon the free ascent and to continue climbing to the summit. At that point, even free climbing between points of aid required a major effort and I began to question my chances of realizing this goal. But I knew that whether I would be successful or not, I had to pursue this vision.
After spending the next few days finishing the last scenes for the film, I prepared myself to try the route again. Without the responsibility of accomodating the needs of the film team, I could reclaim my freedom and simply engage in the process of climbing itself.
On September 19 at ten P.M., we started up the route again. This time, everything seemed to flow together smoothly. Throughout the peaceful hours of the night, illuminated by the radiance of the full moon, I climbed pitch after pitch. After arriving at Camp Four at around 8:30 A.M., I dozed off for what seemed like ten minutes. Suddenly, 1 woke up and noticed the sun was beginning to come around the corner. This was a call to resume climbing while it was still cool under the Great Roof. Though I felt strong and fluid on the lower section of this pitch, I knew I was at the limit of my capacity as soon as I began the crux series of moves. Immediately following this observation, I acknowledged my intent to persevere and I continued without further distraction. At 10:25 A.M., I was standing at the belay, feeling relieved and happy to have succeeded on this crucial section of the route.
But the difficulties of the climb were far from over. As it turned out, the “Glowering Spot” (5.12d) pitch was the scene of some of the most intense moments of the ascent. At twelve noon, during the peak heat of the day, I started up this pitch. When I arrived just below the crux section, I placed a crucial wire stopper in the crack. Just before I could set it in place, it fell out. Looking down at the ledge below, I knew that to continue climbing without this piece of protection would not be a reasonable choice. A fall there would result in a crash landing on the ledge. Nor did I want to climb down to the security of my last piece of protection and forfeit my effort to make a “no-falls” ascent. Miraculously, I found an appropriate spot to place one of my only two remaining pieces of gear and climbed to the belay.
At one P.M., I arrived at Camp Six, knowing that if I could make it past this pitch. I would almost certainly be able to realize my goal of free climbing the Nose in a day. Since this pitch involves climbing up a shallow dihedral with many tenuous friction moves, I decided to rest on the Camp Six ledge for the next 4½ hours until the wall went into the shade.
At 5:30 P.M., as soon as the sun turned the corner, I gave it a try. Being a bit anxious and impatient to get started, I resumed climbing before the rock had a chance to cool. Unfortunately, this error resulted in my first fall of the day. Due to another crucial error in the complicated sequence of moves, I fell again on my second attempt. While resting at the belay, I knew that my third attempt might be my last chance. As I began the difficult opening moves, my foot fell off its marginal purchase and I fell. Concerned that my free ascent might be foiled again, I made a conscious effort to give my whole heart and commitment on the fourth try. I needed to make one more insecure move while pinching the smooth arête and frictioning my feet on its edge. Having faith in my intent. I followed through on this precarious move and completed the pitch.
Though I was extemely happy to have free climbed past the most difficult sections, I still had four pitches to the summit. After cruising up the next two pitches of brilliant crack climbing, I found myself below the last two pitches at nightfall. Having made it past the first 5.12a pitch with greater ease than I had anticipated, I was confident that even under my current tired state. 1 could muster the necessary energy to climb the last strenuous pitch of 5.12c climbing.
As soon as I reached out to the flake on the edge of the first overhanging bulge and my feet cut loose off the face below, I had an alarming sense of fatigue in my arms. Without hesitation, I focused my attention on a tiny, two-finger-tip edge on the face above. After barely making this move and traversing across a delicate face, I got to the last major overhanging bulge. Too tired to stop and recover any of my rapidly waning strength, I quickly proceeded over the bulge.
With only one more passage to climb, the ascent would be complete. Knowing that I might not be able to repeat the last pitch again if I failed on this move, I reviewed my strategy by climbing up and down a few times. Since I no longer had the strength to do this move in a static, controlled fashion, I needed to commit to an insecure dynamic thrust in order to reach the last key hold. The drama and excitement before executing this final move was certainly a fitting way to conclude such a monumental climb.
When I arrived at the summit after 23 hours, it seemed as if I had achieved a surreal state of consciousness. I felt an inexplicable sense of peace and serenity that extended over the months that followed. Completing the film and doing the multi-media presentations in Germany, Sweden and the United States gave me the opportunity to contemplate and express the essential meaning of my ascent.
The essence of my message in making this “free” ascent had to do with the spirit of liberation. Ever since I was labeled a “tomboy'’ as a child, I recognized the value of following what felt natural to me, regardless of the expectations or judgments of others. As soon as it was said, “It can't be done,” I searched for possibilities to prove otherwise. Beyond such qualities as one’s sex, race, culture, religion, appearance or financial status, I discovered that integrity and human compassion are the most powerful qualities of all.
Ultimately, I realize that my own inspiration and achievements in climbing are simply an extension of the experiences, passion and vision of others. Every remarkable vision I’ve ever sought to achieve through climbing has been fueled by this force that begins with an inner passion and extends way beyond myself. No matter what the actual goal, whether it be bouldering with friends, a multi-pitch rock climb or partaking in a climbing competition, the sharing of experience with others is what brings the most harmony and meaning to my life.
Many people asked, “What’s next?” Following the cyclical movement and incessant transformation of life itself, I can only say that I hope my goals continue to evolve and serve as guides toward increasing consciousness, discovery and growth. I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to experience these qualities than by playing with the infinite forms, beauty and forces of nature.