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

Publication Year: 2004.

Yosemite Valley, various activity. The big news in the Valley this year, once again, was the freeing of big wall routes, specifically on El Capitan. While this activity has become more popular, the usual suspects remain at the forefront. Yuji Hirayama continued his quest to be the first person to onsight one of the big free climbs. He’s onsighted 5.13 on Washington Column and Sentinel Rock, but never a complete route on El Cap. Hirayama tried to onsight the Salathé in 1998, but took three falls. This year he attempted El Niño (30 pitches, 5.13c or 5.14a, two falls, fifth free ascent, five days) and Golden Gate (41 pitches, 5.13b, three falls, third free ascent, two days). While he fell just short of the onsights, he did complete the free ascents of both routes. A route that eluded Hirayama’s free attempts was Lurking Fear, whose crux slab pitches have baffled all but Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden. Hirayama had to be satisfied with the speed record on Lurking Fear. Climbing with Nick Fowler, he led the entire route, and they topped out in 3h04m. Hirayama used short-fixing techniques, as on most aid speed climbs, but he’d free climb mid-5.12 cracks with 60 feet of slack, while Nick jugged. He didn’t self-belay, save for the short- fixed rope. Hirayama brought no piece larger than for hand-size cracks and led the notorious 100-foot fist crack without one piece of gear.

The Huber brothers were once again pushing the boundaries, with a visionary effort to free the Zodiac—the first radically steep route on El Cap to go free. It didn’t fall easily, though, as the Hubers worked on it all spring without success. Like Yuji, they consoled themselves with the speed record (2h31m20s—the fastest ascent of any grade VI on El Cap), continuing the trend of cutting-edge free climbing to annihilate previous marks that primarily used aid techniques. They pushed the boundaries further than Hirayama and Fowler by constant use of short-fixing. When the second arrived at the short-fixed anchor, the leader would immediately short-fix the rope again, no matter where he was, frequently using a single piece of protection as the short anchor, thus combining 5.13 climbing with radically dangerous aid techniques.

The Hubers returned in October to complete a continuous free ascent, utilizing a number of variations, including a start that doesn’t really join the route until the sixth pitch. This leads one to wonder what it means to free a route and where the true free crux of the Zodiac lies (hint: it’s within the first six pitches). Their route should be known as the Free Zodiac, like the free variations to the Nose and the Salathé.

Tommy Caldwell, still interested in freeing big walls, had two impressive ticks. Climbing with his wife Beth Rodden, he freed every pitch on the West Buttress of El Cap, though not in a single push. Matt Wilder had previously freed all but one pitch and had, according to Caldwell, already freed the hardest pitch, at 5.13c. Rodden was stopped just short of a free ascent by one of those pesky offwidths, this one 5.12c. Caldwell, climbing with Topher Donahue, also nabbed the second (or third, if we count Alex and Thomas separately) free ascent of the Zodiac shortly after the Hubers.

Jim Herson finally consummated his multiyear love affair, some would say obsession, with the Salathé Wall. After numerous attempts with various partners, Herson became the fifth person to free-climb the route. While he did have to break the headwall into three pitches, ala Piana-Skinner, he became the only person to lead the crux 5.13c 19th pitch in a single go.

All other free ascents either broke up this pitch or avoided it via the Bermuda Dunes’ offwidths.

Half Dome saw more free attention this year, and the original 5.11d rating for the ZigZags is apparently a sandbag. First, Micah Dash and David Bloom made possibly the first all-free (entire team) one-day ascent. Dash rated the last ZigZag pitch at 5.12b/c or “Boulder Canyon 5.13b.” Dash and Bloom climbed the Higbee Hedral (5.12a) to bypass the bolt ladder and pendulum of the Robbins Traverse.

El Niño, the Huber’s free variation to the North American Wall, drew attention besides Hirayama’s ascent, and saw a change in the rating. A broken hold on an upper pitch turned that pitch into the crux, and Iker Pou first free climbed it at 5.14a while sending the rest of the route free. Steve Schneider and Brian Cork, with support from Schneider’s wife Heather Baer, also freed the route, using a new four-pitch 5.13a variation to avoid the upper troublesome pitch.

Nick Martino continued his impressive speed climbing. With Renan Ozturk he joined the elite group of people to link the Nose and the Northwest Face of Half Dome in less than 24 hours. Ammon McNeely and Ben Vander Klooster broke the speed record on Wet Denim Daydream on the west face of the Leaning Tower. They did the A4 route in 5h6m40s, onsight, and car-to-car in eight hours.

New routes this year included Nick Fowler’s Hard Farm Labor (IV 5.12?), an eight-pitch route left of The Rostrum. The original line hasn’t gone free, but James Adamson freed a 5.1lc variation to the sixth pitch. Adamson called the route “a real gift.”

Eric Kohl was once again solo, once again on the Falls Wall (in autumn, when Yosemite Falls is dry), and, once again rated a route PDK (Pretty Damn Klaus). Does this guy need to learn a new tune? The most memorable pitch of the new route, called Witching Hour, involved 27 consecutive heads.

Higher Cathedral Rock saw lots of new route action. Rob Miller put up Gemini on the beautiful shield feature to the left of the Northeast Buttress. Jon Blair, Mark Garbarini, and Bryan “Coiler” Kay put up The Wild Apes’ Route (V 5.9 A3+), which starts left of Mary’s Tears and angles up right to the striking Banana Chute, just left of the Crucifix. It finishes out the Gravity Ceiling, which was partially free-climbed by Cedar Wright at 5.13a. The entire route has not gone free. On the north face of Higher Cathedral Rock, Kay teamed with Josh Thompson and Jamie Mundo to create The High Life (V 5.9 A3), an 11-pitch route.

On Washington Column, between the Great Slab Route and the Bad Wall, Kay and Thompson put up Tora Bora (V 5.9 A3+).

Finally in the new route arena, Ammon McNeely, with his brother Gabriel and his son Austin, linked Shortest Straw to Surgeon General to the Zodiac, including two new pitches. They named the route Jose Memorial Variation in honor of Jose Pereyra and Joe Crowe, who both perished in climbing accidents. Austin, at 13 years of age, becomes the youngest person involved in a first ascent on El Capitan.

Previously unreported is route activity in the Ribbon Falls area by Sean Jones and friends in recent years. The two outstanding routes are Gates of Delirium (19 pitches, V 5.12c) and Sky People linked to Persephone Butterfly (17 pitches, V 5.11d). Delirium is no harder than 5.11d after the crux entry pitch, and only two pitches are harder than 5.11b. The route is reportedly high-quality crack climbing, and fixed anchors up to the top of the tenth pitch allow for rappelling the route or continuing to the summit.

Bill Wright, AAC, Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club