American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

1994. El Capitan Nose Route Free in a Day

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  • Publication Year: 2002

1994. El Capitan Nose Route Free In A Day

Steve Schneider

In 1958, when Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore completed the first ascent of El Cap’s Nose after 45 days of climbing spread over 18 months, they unknowingly created what would become possibly the most sought-after rock climb on the planet. Seventeen years later, Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, and John Long used the Nose to set a landmark for big-wall speed by climbing the Nose not just in a day, but in a mere 10 hours. (The Nose remains a benchmark for speed climbing, with Tim O’Neill and Dean Potter’s 2001 time of 3:24 hours.)

But the coveted first free ascent of the Nose eluded all the big boys of free climbing. Two distinct pitches repeatedly bouted all comers: the Great Roof (pitch 23) and the Changing Corners (pitch 30). When Lynn Hill pulled through these pitches and continued to the top in 1993, all heads turned to mark the event. The crux of the Great Roof was underclinging a crack so thin that it would accept only the tips of a climber’s pinkies. Here, Hill’s diminutive size came to her advantage. Her fingers fit the crack, and although there were long reaches between locks for a 5-foot climber, nothing could stop this force of nature. She had originally freed the Great Roof the year before in her first bid to free climb the Nose, only to fail on the Changing Corners pitch. Undaunted, she partnered with Brooke Sandahl in 1993 for another try. On the Changing Corners pitch, Hill found her petite frame suited to the terrain as she squeezed herself into the tiny, smooth corner that marks the crux. Inventing a bewildering “Houdini move” that enabled her to do a 180 in the corner, her battle was as much mental as it was physical. After three days of practicing the moves, Hill felt ready for a full redpoint of the route. On their subsequent ascent, Hill fired off the Great Roof first try. Hill methodically climbed the Changing Corners pitch (which some claim is as hard as 5.14b) and the remaining five pitches to lay claim to what is undoubtedly the hardest free climb of its length on Earth.

The next year, in 1994, Hill began training for what would be her toughest test ever. Her vision was to climb the Nose free in a single day. She soon realized that she had underestimated what it would take to free climb the Nose in 24 hours. When she arrived at the Great Roof in midday, it was hideously hot, and she repeatedly fell near the end of the traverse. Partnered with Valley veteran Steve Sutton, it was all they could do just to aid up the rest of the route that day.

September 19 found Hill back on the Nose, again with Sutton. She realized she needed to hit the Great Roof in the early morning hours, before the sun turned it into a sweatbath. Extrapolating downward, she started her ascent at 10 p.m., climbing through the night by headlamp. The initial pitches involve difficult slab climbing up to 5.12, followed by the pumpy hand and fist crack climbing of the Stovelegs. When she reached the Great Roof around 9 a.m., she made it on her first try. Moving steadily along, Hill and Sutton rested for several hours waiting for the Changing Corners to go into the shade. When Hill finally attempted the pitch it was still warm and she took three falls, wasting precious mental and physical energy. Even though she’d been climbing all the last night, she still managed to pull together a redpoint of the pitch. The final crux was the last pitch where a 5.12c section leads over a bulge with a minimum of small edges. Donning her headlamp for one last battle, she fought off her exhaustion from 3,000 feet of hard free climbing and just pulled through the final moves, arriving on top about 23 hours after starting her pilgrimage.

How astounding was her ascent? The German Huber brothers’ day climb of Freerider is pretty notable; Tommy Caldwell’s Salathé (5.13b) free in a day this year is inspiring; and Yuji Huriyama’s recent day and a half near-onsight of the Salathé is completely outstanding. But until somebody else, male or female, repeats the Nose free in a day, Hill stands apart on a pinnacle of her own. Her effort on this one magnificent day marks the crowning achievement of her astounding career.

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