North America, Contiguous United States, California, El Capitan, Passage to Freedom

Publication Year: 2000.

El Capitan, Passage to Freedom. I wanted to find a way to free climb the Dawn Wall and decided to attempt a line built around the aid climb, New Dawn. Andrew McAllum fixed ropes to the fourth belay. I spent several days on these pitches, closely inspecting all the free lines on offer. After climbing pitch I of Mescalito and conducting a few wild pendulums, I found a way through the initial polished, blank slabs into the comer and crack systems of New Dawn. However, about 40 feet below the fourth belay, the crack became an unclimbable knifeblade seam. This enforced a desperate move out right, leading to a traverse across thin ledge systems to ten feet of completely blank rock, before the ledge systems picked up again and led easily to an old bolt belay. This pitch became known as the “Alfa Slab” (5.13b). I red-pointed the first three pitches: a bold 5.12b, a fun 5.10+ and a really pumpy, long 5.12c that finished at a natural belay placed from the only available hands-off rest.

More ropes were fixed and before long an umbilical cord trailed from “Lay Lady Ledge” 1,000 feet down to Mother Earth. We retreated to the Valley floor. José Pereyra had just arrived in the Valley and agreed to join me. We hauled gear for two days. José went up the pitch above the Alfa Slab, an easy-angled, grass-filled comer. With a good knowledge of climbing in the jungle, José awarded the pitch 5.10+/J2. The next pitch was hard 5.12d.

At this point the line split into two distinct routes. The right-hand comer looked climbable, but only if there was a way to cross the featureless rock between the two lines to get to it. The way was a huge sideways dyno between two hollow flakes. With only a week left in the Valley, I needed to decide whether I wanted to aim for the top, knowing I didn’t have time to free it all, or focus on getting to El Cap tower totally free. I decided the top could wait until next time. Above the dyno pitch, a super to uselessly thin crack in the back of an acute groove had to be overcome. I tried it onsight. Several large, gear-ripping falls later I’d reached the belay “French free” (known to me as cheating). This was a really long, really pumpy, super technical 5.13b. Forced to rest for a couple of days by a strained tendon, my mind became fixed upon the Alfa Slab. I was struck by an idea. To make the route totally free (if AO), we would bolt a four-inch Alfa Romeo badge in the middle of the blank section of rock on pitch 4. I borrowed a drill and bore a quarter-inch hole in the appropriate place and riveted the Alfa badge to El Cap forever. Having never placed a bolt before, I didn’t do a very good job, so when it came to climbing this section I would have to contend with a spinning hold! I also persuaded Kevin Thaw to come visit us on the ledge and place a bolt I’d omitted earlier on his way up.

I began my first redpoint on the groove at 7 a.m. After an epic day of failed efforts, I finally reached the belay, having got there from the tight chimney stance at the bottom of the pitch without falling off, at 8 p.m.

I then returned to the Alfa Slab. I took a belay at the hands-off rest by the bolt that Kevin had placed for me. An imaginative reverse mantle, then tiny holds led to a balancey reach for the Alfa badge. A fantastic double dyno off the badge to the start of the ledge systems and the hardest climbing of the route was over. The way I climbed it created a long 5.13b and a short 5.13c pitch. Now all that remained were the three comer pitches from Lay Lady Ledge onto El Cap Tower.

My plan had always been to climb as free as possible a route up the Dawn Wall to the top. I had failed. But in this failure I think I learned more about myself, people and climbing than in any success. The three 5.11s to El Cap Tower gave José and I a sweet and lasting reminder of what it is we climb for in the first place: the experience, not the achievement.

Leo Houlding, United Kingdom