Freeing the Salathé, The Greatest Rock Climb in the World

Publication Year: 1996.

Freeing the Salathé

The greatest rock climb in the world

by Alex Huber

Loaded down with 250 meters of rope, bivouac equipment and food for five days, I hike alone to the top of E1 Cap to work on the Salathé Headwall. One week earlier, I had spent three days on the Salathé, checking out the climb. My goal is to redpoint every pitch in a minimal number of days. I found two variations I plan to follow: a long off-width that avoids the hard pitch above the Ear, which Todd Skinner graded 5.13b, and a 5.13a variation between E1 Cap Spire and the Block, which is necessary to avoid a wet crux.

Before I can get to my summit bivouac below a small roof, I am in the middle of a snowstorm. I find a cave, but this dungeon is already occupied by a mummy of a bird, which gives the place a morbid character. I have to spend two days freezing in this “hotel” before fair weather liberates me.

During the next two days, I work out the moves of the Headwall. The Headwall originally consisted of three pitches, two 5.13a’s and one 5.13b. I can’t accept the belay between the first two pitches, the one Skinner and Paul Piana established with two new bolts, so I’m going to connect these two pitches. I only accept a redpoint if all the pitches are connected with belays with no-hands rests. What, besides this rule, prevents dividing the Headwall into six or more pitches for an easy free ascent?

The first free ascent of the Salathé (AAJ 1989, pp. 94-103) made a big stir. But Skinner and Piana shared leading the pitches; each jümared half the pitches. Neither Skinner nor Piana can say he has freed all the pitches, so neither can say he has freed the Salathé.

While working on the moves of the Headwall’s first pitch, I mark all the positions that offer me easy places for protection. I plan to use 10 pieces for this 55-meter pitch. Of course, you have the risk of long runouts, but that’s the business.

Snow showers force me off the wall, and I have to descend to the valley immediately if I want to avoid another horrible bivouac. After more rainy days, I hike once more to the top of E1 Cap, and this time a tent guarantees comfort. Two days later, Mark Chapman belays my first leading attempt on the long Headwall pitch. Although I’m quite nervous, I climb fast. Three meters below the belay, I follow my plan to place the last protection. I get the Friend into position very quickly, but rope drag makes it impossible to clip. I move up anyway.

“Hey, guy, this runout was fucking crazy,” is Mark’s comment, after he cleans the pitch. Two hours later, we have a party with Budweisers and chips for the first redpoint ascent of one of the best pitches in the world.

The rains continue to be a factor. Heinz Zak and I begin my ground-up redpoint attempt, but we get stormed off near Heart Ledge and must descend. A few days later, we jug fixed ropes to our high point. By 6 p.m., we’ve freed the remaining pitches to El Cap Spire. Five pitches are still above us before the Block, our goal for the first day. At the last hurdle, the 5.13a pitch below the Block, I stumble. Fruitlessly, I try to remember the position for the final crossing move. I have to try the move three times before I finally solve the problem with a finger change on a tiny hold. It’s close to dark, and I have to start from the bottom of the pitch immediately. I succeed on my last chance, and we prepare our bivouac in the dark with the knowledge that we have taken a big step toward the summit.

Only 10 pitches are left to the exit, so we sleep late before I start the pitch to Sous le Toit in late morning. Although I’m pumped after this pitch, I feel fresh blood clearing my arms of yesterday’s trash. At the start of the Headwall, I’m really nervous, and I fall on the last move when a foothold breaks. I’m angry, but I’ve also lost my nervousness.

On the next try, I again have problems clipping the last piece, and again I go on climbing without protection. Drunk with adrenaline, I cry with delight, because now I’m sure of my effort. Although the next pitch is similarly hard, it offers little problem for a European so accustomed to face climbing. With my self-confidence high, I redpoint the last hurdle of the wall.

Heinz and I rest at the exit of the Salathé, 1,000 meters of granite under our feet. With stirring eyes, I look through the landscape. Again and again, I dream my film. I see pictures of my friends, of infinite long cracks and a lot of snow. It’s a fantastic film — a film I’ll never forget.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Yosemite Valley, California.

ASCENT: The Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b, 3300 feet, 36 pitches), on El Capitan, June 1995 (Alex Huber).

PERSONNEL: Alex Huber, Mark Chapman, Heinz Zak (photographer).