American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Muir Wall

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002

El Capitan, Muir Wall. “Oh my God, he’s actually going to step off this ledge!” This was my

thought as I watched my partner, Tommy Caldwell, step off a ledge and free-climb at the top of El Capitan. We had been on El Cap a year earlier, doing the Nose in a day, but free-climbing, rather then pulling on the gear at this height, was a new experience.

After Tommy introduced me to free climbing at the top of El Capitan, it occurred to me that I could be a good partner to free the Muir Wall with him. Tommy’s two previous attempts were ended by bad weather and a partner bailing. For me this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.

The real crux would be convincing my expecting wife Heather to let me cross the continent for the attempt. No problem. So it was that during the last week of April we started working on the upper pitches. We made sure the crux pitch, two from the top, would go. It did, at 5.13+. We would each free climb the entire route. If one of us fell, whether on lead or second, he would lower to the bottom of the pitch and reclimb it.

The first pitches, including a 5.9 chimney and two wet, sloppy 5.12 pitches, had us off to an exciting start. Having only four trad routes under my belt, and knowing that the first 5.13 pitch was next, I was beginning to think I was up there to belay Tommy on his free ascent. When I made this suggestion, Tommy calmly replied, “We could go down if you don’t think you can climb it.” The gauntlet was thrown.

After trying the 5.13 pitch, going down, and resting, I managed to get through it. We were ready to blast through the next five pitches, getting us to Mammoth Terraces. Prepped for the next 5.12 pitches, I had gotten into the swing of things, Tommy was gaining confidence in my chances, and we were moving faster. Just in time, too, as we were approaching the 5.13 pitches leading out of the corners and onto the steep face of El Capitan. The sweep of The Nose jutted out below us, as we traversed through the final hand holdless moves.

After rapping down in the twilight, we knew the time had arrived to commit to the route. After a day of hauling five days of supplies and resting, we started early, jumarring to our high point. The next few pitches were fun, warming us up for the 5.12 pitches necessary to complete the free variation.

It being a busy Saturday in Yosemite, the death-block pitch was especially nerve-wracking. Tommy or I (probably I) dislodging this car-sized block down the face would not have made for a successful adventure. Relieved to complete this pitch, we set up our first bivy. But not wanting to face a 5.12d dihedral, which loomed above us, first thing in the morning, Tommy climbed it before settling into his sleeping bag for the night.

Despite Tommy’s coaching, I had to start the day figuring out how to move up the dihedral, and it took a few attempts before it finally went. I arrived at the ledge, and once again my partner amazed me by stepping off the ledge and free climbing 2,400 feet above the ground. It was my turn, and I gingerly moved onto the overhanging 5.12a, feeling like I was leaping out of an airplane. This, followed by a runout 5.11, left me ready to call it a day. Not Tommy, though. He climbed to the final crux pitch and sent it before nightfall. I had another stimulating morning start to look forward to.

Knowing that the hard climbing was behind him, Tommy broke out the cell phone and called home to say he had almost sent the route—just one 5.10 pitch to go, and he had done it!

Laying on the ledge listening to Tommy’s excitement, I tried to find reasons why I could fire the 5.13c crux, despite having never climbed a crack that difficult, despite having spent two days on the wall, despite being so far up.

After I made three tries Tommy told me to come down and rest. I know that he was ready to stay there for me until I could do it. But how long would that be? He stood on the small ledge and said nothing. I thought of the liebacking of small pin scars and long lock-offs, while Tommy sent positive, relaxing energy by being content to wait. A few minutes later, after I’d done the lock-offs, I heard Tommy yelling; knowing that we now had it! The most continuously difficult free line up El Cap, The Muir.

Nick Sagar, Nova Scotia

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