American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, West Buttress, First Free Ascent; Free Zodiac, Second Free Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2004

El Capitan, West Buttress, first free ascent; Free Zodiac, second free ascent. I get more obsessed with Yosemite every year. No matter how many times I see El Cap, my palms sweat and my heartbeat quickens. I spend hours examining its cracks, contours, and faces. Someday my energy will focus elsewhere, but for now I thrive on El Cap.

In spring 2003 my wife Beth Rodden and I decided to try to free climb the West Buttress. Steve Schneider had attempted it as a free climb many years ago, and Matt Wilder had been working on it the previous spring. It is an obvious weakness and therefore a candidate for a free climb. In early May Beth and I headed up for a one-day recon. The climbing went smoothly until early afternoon. As I led out the 200-foot traverse of pitch 11, clouds came out of nowhere. Within 10 minutes we were in a downpour, and for several hours were pounded by sleet and rain. Just before hypothermia set in we managed to traverse to nearby Lurking Fear and rappel to the ground. We ended the day exhausted and humbled, wondering if we should ever go up on the big stone again.

As adventure climbers know, the pain soon faded, and within a few days we were starting up again. We projected the climb for six weeks. Beth redpointed the crux pitches, but it became clear that at this speed we would not be able to finish the climb within our allotted time. She traded her chalk bag for jumars and supported me to the top.

I later learned that Matt Wilder had done more than just attempt the route; he had nearly completed the first free ascent. He had established some improbable free variations and equipped and cleaned the route for free climbing. In short, he put a hell of a lot of work into it and deserves more credit for the first free ascent than I do. When I learned about Matt’s efforts I felt horrible. New free routes on El Cap are like gold, and I felt like I had stolen it from him. I contacted him, explained, and told him that I was sorry. He said that there were no hard feelings and he was glad we had a good time on the climb.

I had aid climbed Zodiac with my dad in early October. We passed the Huber brothers, who were working on the first free ascent. The free climbing in the middle of the route looked like some of the wildest climbing I had ever seen. I made plans to return over Thanksgiving with my friend Topher Donahue. With good weather I was able to free-climb the route over six days. Topher free-climbed all but three pitches. On both of my 2003 El Cap free-climbs, I climbed with partners who hoped to free-climb the routes. In both cases they abandoned their free-climbing goals to ensure that I was successful. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have such great friends.

Tommy Caldwell, AAC

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