El Capitan, Lurking Fear, First Free Ascent. We’d come to free the Muir. My partner wigged at the possibility of being bombed by the crowds on The Shield, even after we had onsighted 11 pitches up to Mammoth Terraces. So he went home. Orphaned and alone, I tried to find partners in the Valley to free climb with, but that can be harder than the climbing. Beth Rodden had caught my eye a few weeks earlier and our relationship was just beginning. She randomly suggested that we try to free Lurking Fear, over by the West Buttress. Lurking’s slabbiness would better suit her. Adventure, romance—what was there to lose?
During this time (late May), San Francisco was experiencing record heat, topping the scales around 105°F. We figured that the only climbable time on the route would be the early morning, so each day we would sleep in the portaledge, climb in the morning for a few hours and then retreat to the Merced.
The two most gruesome pitches were two and seven, the only two that had never been freed. Pitch two was relentless, and would lacerate our finger tips after just one try. After about seven days of work, we finally conquered the monster. However, the difficulties did not end there. The next four pitches offered some of the best climbing in the Valley. A pitch of tricky face climbing followed by three leads of beautiful 5.12 thin cracks led to the next crux pitch. A blank, slabby, traversing pitch, protected by rivets, finally yielded after three mornings of work.
By this time, our relationship was progressing, but still in its infancy, and neither of us could bear some obstacles, such as using the poop tube in front of each other. So when nature’s call became a shout, one of us would quickly climb a pitch while the other answered the call.
Pitch 11 was a short 5.13a corner that led to one of the finest but strangest sections of climbing either of us had ever seen. Lurking Fear joins the West Buttress at this point and follows the long roof of the Grand Traverse. Having bumped into Steve Schneider in El Cap Meadows one day, we knew the peculiar beta for this pitch, thank heavens. If you first traverse beneath the roof and then follow a crack above the roof, a sit-down rest appears (note: the aid line goes directly beneath the roof). After catching your breath, you traverse a few feet above the lip, downclimb back under the roof for a few undercling moves, and finally finish the pitch with yet more great slab climbing.
After a case of heat exhaustion sent us to the ground one day, we quickly returned the next to fire the pitch. After clipping the anchors, Beth’s enthusiasm to finish the route reached its peak. She suggested that we blast for the top, doing the last eight pitches that day. A 5.12c thin corner and an overhanging 5.11d offwidth still lay ahead. Luckily we completed all the remaining pitches first try and summited with daylight to spare. Special thanks goes out to Steve Schneider, Alan Lester, and Jeff Schoen for their vision of seeing this as a free climb, and for the preparation of the free variations.
Tommy Caldwell, unaffiliated