While it has not been on the cutting edge of free climbing difficulty for decades, Yosemite still ranks as the world’s premier big wall arena and lately that means hard free climbing and speed climbing. With new lines a rarity these days, the attention has been turned to free climbing the massive walls of El Capitan and other formations. Hans Florine and others continue to keep the speed climbing flame alive as well.
Tommy Caldwell returned to the Salathé Wall this year, perhaps to prove to himself that his lack of an index finger is no drawback to his climbing 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 (a further variation to the Free Salathé Lite that avoids the 5.13 headwall pitches) in a single day. At the time these two, along with Lynn Hill’s 1994 ascent of the Nose, were the only people to free climb a major El Cap route (not counting the West Face or the East Buttress routes) in a single day. That soon would change.
Dean Potter continues to redefine what’s possible to climb in a single day. Previously he, along with Timmy O’Neill have linked up Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Capitan in a single day. Now the speed demon has turned his attention to free climbing the big walls, but with his characteristic endurance twist. Not content to merely become a member of the elite “El Cap Free In A Day” crowd, Potter freed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (23 pitches, 5.12a), apparently via a new variation, and then followed it up with a free lead of Free Rider (34 pitches, 5.13a) – all in 23 hours and 23 minutes. He freed the crux pitch of Free Rider in the middle of the night, wearing five headlamps in order to see the holds. I spoke with him briefly after this ascent and he said his immediate goals were to “concentrate on becoming a better free climber.” Is a free solo of El Capitan in his future?
While Potter’s attention was diverted to 24-hour free climbing, Hans Florine has never wavered in his focus on speed climbing. He welcomed the competition from Potter and O’Neill, who climbed the 34-pitch route in a blistering 3h24m in October of 2001. Unable to immediately respond due to a climbing injury, the 38-year-old Florine plotted his strategy. In the past, all speed records have been set by leading the route in four or more blocks. This time Florine set off to do the route as a single continuous pitch. He also packed heat by partnering with Japanese speed-demon Yuji Hirayama.
Hirayama led the entire route as one pitch, pulling up extra gear as necessary on a 40-foot, 5mm cord. Of the 3000 feet of climbing, all put 400 feet were simul-climbed and the rest were short-fixed. The pair only re-grouped once, after the King Swing. Remarkably, the route was completely devoid of any other parties and the pair turned in the jaw-dropping time of 2h48m. Florine says this record might last another ten years, referring to his 4h22m record with Peter Croft set in 1993 that stood for nine years before broken by Potter and O’Neill.
Hirayama’s visit to Yosemite consolidated this writer’s belief that he is the best crack climber in the world. Prior to his Nose speed record, Yuji climbed the Free Salathé Lite in a remarkable 13 hours. Showing a complete mastery of the route and, apparently, no tendency to get pumped, Hirayama turned five pitches into two. He said his goal was to climb without hanging belays – from ledge to ledge – and considers it the purest style for big wall free ascents. First, he linked from Sous Le Toit ledge to the stance over the Salathé Roof. This is normally done as three pitches of 5.11b, 5.12b, and 5.12a. Hirayama then linked the entire 70-meter headwall, normally two 5.13b pitches and originally done as three pitches by Skinner and Piana.
The speed records on the Salathé and the Nose are now so fast that 5.13 free climbing skills are required to even get close. Both Jim Herson (the only person to redpoint every pitch on the Free Salathe and the holder of the Salathe and Half Dome speed records) and Hirayama can lead the Salathé and the Nose sans aiders. Since they can French-free the most difficult sections, they don’t need to bother with aiders at all – not even on Harding’s overhanging bolt ladder. This allows them to fly up the route at a free climbing pace.
Ammon McNeely solidified his position as one of the elite speed climbers of the Valley with three speed records, all with different partners. First, 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 6th ascent in just 22h22m. Next, with Flyin’” Brian McCray and McNeely blasted up New Jersey Turnpike (VI 5.8 A5) in just 14 hours. Finally, with Cedar Wright, he climbed the Tangerine Trip (VI 5.8 A2+) in 10h24m.
Nick Martino teamed with a variety of partners for a slew of speed ascents on El Capitan. With the likes of Evan Stevens, Micah Dash, and Matt Wilder, Martino dashed up the Triple Direct (13m42m), the Nose (13h32m), the Salathé Wall (15h46m), the Zodiac (13h10m) and Lurking Fear (7h7m). He capped his seaon with a speed record on the South Face of Washington Column with Matt Wilder. The climbed the 12-pitch route in a mere 1h19m!
Why so fast on the Column? The same reason the Nose and the Salathé records are so fast: free climbing! 23-year-old Matt Wilder had recently pulled off the first free ascent of the South Face of Washington Column. This very popular route is and frequently done as a climber’s first wall route. The route is moderate free climbing save for the three pitches off of Dinner Ledge. The crux of the route was Kor Roof and Wilder elected to rate it as a boulder problem. At V10/V11 this converts to the first 5.14 pitch on a Yosemite wall route, though the two crux pitches on the Nose could well be 5.14.
Wilder broke up the next, long, left-angling aid pitch into two, using a non-hands stance for the belay. These went at 5.12c and 5.12a. The “Stopper” pitch, known as such because it sucks up stoppers when aiding it, went at 5.12b. Because he waited for ideal temperatures at the Kor Roo, Wilder led this pitch in the dark with just a single Tikka headlamp. Wilder’s next project was to free the West Buttress of El Capitan. He has not yet pulled off the clean ascent, but believes the great traverse pitch will be 5.14a when free.
Washington Column was also the site of two new free routes. The most outstanding new route put up in 2002 was Rob Miller’s all free Quantum Mechanic. This traditionally-protected crack climb on Washington Column is just right of Astroman and perhaps a new-wave replacement for top-notch 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 the route.
Alexander Huber pulled himself away from creating free routes on El Capitan long enough to piece together Crosstown Traffic (5.13a), also on Washington Column. This route pieces together parts of the Prow, Electric Ladyland, Afroman and Astroman. After an earlier aid ascent, Huber redpointed every pitch on May 24th with Ben van der Klooster. With Scott Franklin, Huber also freed Half Dome via a new variation to the Regular Northwest Face that he calls the Huber Hedral. This is a one-pitch variation to the Ericson-Higbee free variation that supposedly provides cleaner climbing.
Speed climbing aficionado Cedar Wright (no relation) also directed his considerable talents at free climbing existing and new routes. First, 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. Next, also on Sentinel, Wright teamed with Jose Pereyra for the first ascent of the Uncertainly Principle (V, 5.13a). Lastly, Wright freed a new route on Higher Cathedral Rock’s north face. The thousand-foot route’s most striking feature is the 50-foot Gravity Ceiling (5.13a) – believed to be the biggest roof free climbed in Yosemite.
Jacqueline Florine is became the first woman to solo the Nose with her June 17-21st ascent. Bev Johnson was the first woman to solo El Capitan via the Dihedral Wall route in 1978. It is fitting that the Nose solo would fall to a Florine, for Jacqueline’s husband has climbed the Nose more than 45 times. Jacqueline is due to deliver her second child in May 2003.
On September 14th Hans Florine teamed up with Steve Gerberding to climb the Dihedral Wall, hammerless, in a record time of 14h6m. This was the 100th ascent of El Capitan by both of them and it was the first time the two had climbed together.
Finally, Jim Beyer put up a new aid route that is a candidate for the “hardest route on El Cap.” Dubbed Martyr's Brigade, the line was put up over 20+ days of stormy weather. The line is located near the North American Wall, between the Reticent Wall and Space. One of the radical aid moves involved using an ice axe taped to a long stickclip to blindly hook a block twenty 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.”
Also lacking in details is a new free route called Gates of Delirium. This 19-pitch, 5.12c route is 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 ten pitches are in one spectacular dihedral and the route is equipped to rappel from the top of this corner.
On Yosemite Falls Wall, Eric Kohl soloed called Reign in Blood over five days in late August. The route follows the direct fall line of the Falls and tops out directly in the Falls’ notch. It is only possible to climb when it is dry and no rain is expected. Continuing the annoying trend of meaningless ratings, Kohl rated the route PDK: Pretty Damn Klaus.
Finally, Jacek Czyz finished Quo Vadis (VI 5.9 A4/A4+) during the night of November 20th. The 22-pitch route has 16 new pitches and is located near the Muir Wall and the Dorn Direct (of which is shares a few pitches).
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 “Free climbing” the Salathé Wall is more complex that it first seems. Like many of the big walls on El Cap, significant variations are used to free climb the route and not every climber uses the same ones. So, how are they distinguished? See htttp://www.wwwright.com/climbing/?report=news/FreeingBigWalls.htm for more details.
 It is not clear if this is a third variation to the already established Higbee Hedral and the new Huber Hedral variations.
 Eric Kohl’s nickname is Klaus.