North America, United States, California, Yosemite Valley, Various Activities

Publication Year: 2003.

Yosemite Valley, various activity. While it has not been on the free-climbing cutting edge for decades, Yosemite still ranks as the world’s premier big-wall arena. With new lines a rarity, this lately has meant hard free-climbing on the massive walls of El Capitan and other formations, while Hans Florine and others keep the speed-climbing flame alive as well.

Tommy Caldwell returned to the Salathé Wall this year, perhaps to prove to himself that his loss of an index finger is no drawback to his aspirations. Caldwell, who free-climbed the Free Salathé Lite* in 1999, returned to tick the first one-day free ascent. Climbing with wife Beth Rodden, Caldwell scaled the wall in only 19 hours. In 1998 Alexander Huber climbed Free Rider (another variation to the Free Salathé Lite, it avoids the 5.13 headwall pitches) in a day. These two ascents, and Lynn Hill’s 1994 ascent of the Nose, were the only one-day free-climbs of a major El Cap route. (The West Face and East Buttress routes don’t count as major.) That soon changed.

Dean Potter continues to redefine what’s possible in a day. He, with Timmy O’Neill, had linked Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Capitan in a day. The speed demon has now turned to free-climbing walls, but with his characteristic endurance twist. Not content to merely be one of the “El Cap Free In A Day” crowd, Potter freed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (23 pitches, 5.12a), apparently via a variation (whether a new variation, the Higbee Hedral variation, or the Huber Hedral variation is unclear) and followed it with a free lead of Free Rider (34 pitches, 5.13a), all in 23 hours, 23 minutes. He freed the crux pitch of Free Rider at night, wearing five headlamps in order to see the holds. After this ascent he said his immediate goal was to “concentrate on becoming a better free climber.”

While Potter was busy with 24-hour free-climbs, Hans Florine continued to focus on speed. He welcomed the competition from Potter and O’Neill, who climbed the 34-pitch Nose in a blistering 3:24 in October 2001. The 38-year-old Florine devised a new strategy. In the past, speed records had been set by leading the route in four or more blocks. Florine now set off to do the route as one continuous pitch, and he partnered with Japanese speed demon Yuji Hirayama. Hirayama led the route as one pitch, pulling up gear on a 40-foot, 5mm cord. Of the 3000' of climbing, all but 400' were simul-climbed, the 400' being short-fixed. The pair regrouped once, after the King Swing. Remarkably, the route was devoid of other parties, and the pair turned in the jaw-dropping time of 2:48. Florine says this record might last another ten years; his 4:22 record set with Peter Croft in 1993 stood for nine years before broken by Potter and O’Neill.

Hirayama’s visit to Yosemite enhanced his reputation as the best crack climber in the world. Prior to his Nose record, Yuji climbed the Free Salathé Lite in 13 hours. Showing a mastery of the route and no apparent tendency to get pumped, Hirayama turned five pitches into two. He said his goal was to climb from ledge to ledge, without hanging belays; he considers this the purest style for free ascents. First, he linked Sous le Toit ledge to the stance over the Salathé Roof, a section normally done as three pitches (5.1lb, 5.12b, and 5.12a). Hirayama then climbed in one pitch the 70m headwall, normally two 5.13b pitches and originally done as three by Skinner and Piana.

The Salathé and Nose records are now so fast that 5.13 free-climbing skills are required to even get close. Hirayama and Jim Herson, the only persons to redpoint every pitch on the Free Salathé (as opposed to the Free Salathé Lite) and the holder of the Salathé and Half Dome records, lead the Salathé and the Nose sans aiders, since they can French-free the most difficult sections, even Harding’s overhanging bolt ladder.

Ammon McNeely solidified his position as one of the Valley’s elite speed climbers with three records, each with different partners. With Chris Van Luevan and Eric Walden he did the first one-day ascent of Born Under a Bad Sign (VI 5.10 A5). They completed the sixth ascent in 22:22. With Flyin’ Brian McCray, McNeely blasted up New Jersey Turnpike (VI 5.8 A5) in 14 hours. Finally, with Cedar Wright he climbed the Tangerine Trip (VI 5.8 A2+) in 10:24.

Nick Martino capped an excellent season of speed ascents with a new record on the South Face of Washington Column: he and Matt Wilder climbed the 12-pitch route in 1:19. This Column record, like the Nose and the Salathé records, can be attributed to free-climbing. Wilder had recently pulled off the first free ascent of the South Face, a popular route frequently done as a climber’s first wall. The route is moderate free-climbing, save for the three pitches above Dinner Ledge. Wilder’s crux was the Kor Roof, which he rated as a boulder problem. His rating of V10/V11 translates to the first pitch rated 5.14 on a Yosemite wall route, though the two crux pitches on the Nose could well be 5.14. Wilder broke the next, long, left-angling aid pitch into two, using a no-hands stance for the belay. These went at 5.12c and 5.12a.

The Stopper Pitch, which sucks up stoppers when being aided, went at 5.12b. Because he had waited at the Kor Roof for an ideal temperature, Wilder led the Stopper Pitch in the dark with a headlamp. His next project was to try to free the West Buttress of El Capitan. He has not yet pulled it off, but he believes the great traverse pitch will be 5.14a when free.

Washington Column was also the site of two new free routes. The outstanding new route put up in 2002 was Rob Miller’s all-free Quantum Mechanic. This traditionally protected crack climb is just right of Astroman and perhaps a new-wave alternative for top crack climbers. The crux pitch is 5.13a, but the route sports a handful of 5.12 pitches as well. In October Hirayama nabbed the second ascent, onsighting it.

Alexander Huber pieced together Crosstown Traffic (5.13a) on Washington Column. This route connects parts of the Prow, Electric Ladyland, Afroman, and Astroman. After an earlier aid ascent Huber, with Ben van der Klooster, redpointed every pitch on May 24. With Scott Franklin, Huber freed Half Dome, via a new variation to the Regular Northwest Face route that he calls the Huber Hedral. This a one-pitch variation to the Ericson-Higbee free variation is said to provide cleaner climbing.

Speed climbing aficionado Cedar Wright also directed his talents at free climbing new and existing routes. With Jake Whittaker, Wright freed the Psychedelic Wall on the north face of Sentinel Rock at 5.12c. The route sports three 5.12 pitches. Also on Sentinel, Wright teamed with Jose Pereyra for the first ascent of the Uncertainly Principle (V 5.13a). Wright also freed a new route on Higher Cathedral Rock’s north face. The 1,000' route’s most striking feature is the 50' Gravity Ceiling (5.13a), believed to be the biggest roof free climbed in Yosemite.

Jacqueline Florine, Hans’ wife, became the first woman to solo the Nose, with her June 17-21 ascent. Bev Johnson was the first woman to solo El Capitan, via the Dihedral Wall route, in 1978.

On September 14 Hans Florine teamed with Steve Gerberding to climb the Dihedral Wall, hammerless, in a record time of 14:06. This was the 100th ascent of El Capitan for each but the first time the two had climbed together.

Jim Beyer put up a new aid route that is a candidate for the “hardest route on El Cap.” Dubbed Martyr's Brigade (5.11 a5cR—his own twist on the rating system), the line was put up over 20+ days of stormy weather. The line is located near the North American Wall, between Reticent Wall and Space. One of the radical aid moves involved using an ice axe, taped to a long stick-clip, to blindly hook a block 20 feet away. In Alpinist magazine (Issue 1) Beyer wrote, “I drilled a lot of bolts, but chopped about an equal number on surrounding routes. Creating hard pitches, destroying pathetic bolt ladders (Early Morning Light)—it seemed to balance out in the end.”

We also lack details on a new free route called Gates of Delirium, a 19-pitch 5.12c route on the right side of Ribbon Falls. After the opening 5.12c pitch the route is mostly 5.10 and 5.11 cracks and is supposedly of Astroman quality. The first 10 pitches are in one spectacular dihedral, and the route is equipped so that it can be rappelled from the top of this corner.

On Yosemite Falls Wall, Eric Kohl soloed a new route, called Reign in Blood, over five days in late August. The route follows the Falls’ fall line and tops out in the Falls’ notch. Needless to say, the climb is only possible when the Falls are dry, preferably when no rain is expected. Continuing the trend of meaningless ratings, Kohl rated the route PDK: Pretty Damn Klaus (Kohl’s nickname is Klaus).

Finally Jacek Czyz finished Quo Vadis (VI 5.9 A4/A4+) during the night of November 20. The 22-pitch route, located near the Muir Wall and the Dorn Direct, has 16 new pitches.

Bill Wright, Satan's Minions Scrambling Club, AAC

*Please note: “Free climbing” the Salathé Wall is more complex that it first seems. As with many of the big-wall routes on El Cap, significant variations are used to free-climb the route, and not every climber takes the same path. The different variations are explained at

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